Friday, January 19, 2018

Jim Kaat and the end of the four-man rotation

The Twins announced Thursday that Jim Kaat is the latest "special assistant" in the organization.

As I said last week about Justin Morneau, the role of special assistant is generally vague and undefined. Kaat's addition appears to raise to 10 the number of former Twins with that title. Some are doubtless involved in scouting and coaching, and others are more, let us say, ceremonial. Kaat is 80, and he pulled back on his broadcasting career sharply some years ago (although he still does occasional games on MLB Network). I'll assume that his role is ceremonial, although from a public relations perspective his nostalgic appeal is probably limited to the oldest of Twins fans. (He last pitched for the Twins in 1973.)

He remains, however, vocal and articulate about pitching, and I've no doubt that that appeals to Derek Falvey in particular.

Did you know ... Jim Kaat was Pete Rose's first pitching coach in Rose's short-lived managerial career? The two were teammates in Philadelphia in the early 80s and apparently agreed that if and when Rose got to manage, Kaat would be his pitching coach. Rose got the Cincinnati job in 1984 and immediately installed Kaat, who left the post after 1985 and went into broadcasting.

I have it in my head that the 1985 Reds were the last team to use a four-man rotation for a significant portion of the season. I expected to find a citation for that assertion within minutes this morning, but it wasn't where I expected to find it.

But the Reds pitching stats sure look like Rose and Kaat were trying to go four-man. Tom Browning (38 starts), Mario Soto (36) and Jay Tibbs (34) all got more starts than they would in a strict five-man rotation. Another 40 starts were split up fairly evenly among Andy McGaffigan, John Stuper and Ron Robinson. The later two split the season between starting and relief, but McGaffigan was strictly a starter, and more than half his starts came on three days rest, all of them in the second half of the season.

Digging into it a bit more, I see Stuper was strictly a starter until June, at which point he had an ERA of 5.65 and was shifted to the bullpen. He never got another start in his career. Robinson was in the pen until July, when he got six starts, then returned to relieving, then got six more starts in September. For all these guys, there are a lot of three-days-rest starts.

So yeah, Rose and Kaat were trying to go four-man, but they couldn't really settle on a fourth. And then Kaat left, and Soto -- who had been a very good starter for six years -- collapsed in '86 and was never really effective again. The '86 Reds' starts numbers look more like a five-man rotation (with a heavy lean on Browning). And if anybody has tried to go with a four-man rotation since 1985 for more than a month or so, I missed it.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Examining the broken free agent market

Spring training opens in less than a month, and almost all of the most significant free agents remain unsigned.

Jeff Passan offered on Tuesday this detailed analysis of why that is. He makes some good points about the implications of the broken market, which he traces to three legitimate factors:


  • A players union that has suddenly become ineffective on financial issues.
  • The acceptance by fans of the notion that being competitive is optional.
  • The rise of analytics in front offices.


It's the last that most fascinates me. Passan summarized the new generation of young, highly educated general managers' collective view of free agency:

The inefficiency of the operation and the expectation that they must spend money there offends their sensibilities. And they’re not wrong. Players’ best years come in their 20s. Most free agents, then, are asking teams to guarantee them large sums of money for multiple years based on the performance of years they’re statistically unlikely to repeat. It’s not impossible, sometimes not even improbable, for them to do so. It’s just a risk, and as teams weigh the risk against that of seeking the same production from low-cost players they have developed, it’s one they’re less and less willing to take.

Baseball's salary system has been built like this for a few decades: Player comes to the majors, plays three to four seasons for essentially the minimum (which, granted, is multiples of any salary I've ever had), then is further cost-controlled through three arbitration years in which the salary escalates. Now he's eligible for free agency adn the big bucks.

And now, also, he's around 30. He's free to hit the open market -- at the age in which decline should be expected.

I no longer remember who Bill James was writing about specifically all those years ago in one of his Abstracts (Jack Clark?), but he compared the player's career to a watermelon. One team, he said, ate the sweet part; another paid for the rind. The analogy, if not the specifics, stuck with me; the odd thing is that it has taken 30-some years for management to grasp that reality.

Passan theorizes that baseball's labor peace is in jeopardy. As matters stand, young players can't get paid because they have no leverage, and old players won't get paid because the odds are that they;re going to decline. Meanwhile the teams are swimming in money.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Notes, quotes and comment

The Twins announced Monday the signing of Addison Reed and the related designation for assignment of Buddy Boshers.

I think there's a pretty good chance that Boshers will pass though waivers and remain in the Twins system. He is, in my estimation, a good example of a replacement-level lefty reliever. Whether he stays or goes does not materially affect my estimation of the 2018 Twins.

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Boshers strikes me, however, as the last "easy" deletion from the 40-man roster. Let's say the Twins sign Yu Darvish, or any other free agent. Who do they drop to make room?

There are just 14 position players on the 40, and 26 pitchers; that's a ratio that suggests a pitcher. I doubt that they would ax Rule 5 pick Tyler Kinley before spring training, and there are good reasons to keep everybody else. (Although adding a hurler the caliber of Darvish is worth losing an unproven arm such as Aaron Slegers or Dietrich Enns.)

I suspect, however, that they would be able to offload Kyle Gibson and his arbitration contract fairly easily. Darvish -- or Lance Lynn, or Alex Cobb, or Jake Arrieta -- would probably make Gibson redundant, and there are certainly teams that would have room in their rotations for him. Gibson's a safer bet than some options the Twins have, but they have alternatives with higher ceilings as well.

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The Twins winter caravan hit Mankato Monday, with a handful of non-Minnesotan players getting a rough introduction to ice fishing on Madison Lake on a frigid day. Alan Buzenitz is a Georgia native, Robbie Grossman is from Houston, Jorge Polanco from the Dominican and Eduardo Escobar from Venezuela.

From the Free Press story

Busenitz and teammates Eduardo Escobar, Jorge Polanco and Robbie Grossman didn't know enough to dress warm. 
“It was pretty hilarious to watch those guys walking around in tennis shoes and no gloves,” said Scott Wojcik, a Miracle League board member, adding gratitude that they came out to support youth baseball.

Busenitz said he didn't realize ice fishing was on the day's itinerary and stuffed hand warmers into his tennis shoes to keep his toes from freezing off.
I find it hard to believe they were kept in the dark about the fishing expedition.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Adding Addison Reed

I didn't think much of the reported agreement Saturday between the Twins and veteran reliever Addison Reed. That goes to show the power of first impressions.

Reed got going in the majors seven years ago with the Chicago White Sox, so we Twins fans got to see quite a bit of him. The Sox made him their closer pretty quickly, so he piled up some big saves numbers early, but he really wasn't that effective, and they moved him on to Arizona after his 40-save 2013 (ERA 3.79).

Somewhere along the line he (a) ceased being the prime ninth-inning option for his teams and (b) became a genuinely effective reliever. He split last year between the Mets -- where he did close for part of the year -- and the Red Sox, where he was a bit home-run prone.

And suddenly, wow, the Twins have a pretty darn deep bullpen, and it's not a case where they're getting that depth by planning on the emergence of one of the prospects. They're not asking Fernando Rodney or Reed or Zach Duke to do anything other than what their track records are.

Projected bullpen:

Closer: Rodney
Setup 1: Trevor Hildenberger
Setup 2: Reed
LOOGY 1: Taylor Rogers
LOOGY 2: Duke
MR1: Ryan Pressly
MR2:  Tyler Duffey

You can shuffle those roles around however you wish. I prefer Hildenberger to Reed, and Rogers over ro Duke, but your mileage may vary, and Paul Molitor may defer to the veterans, and that's defensible.

All this, of course, hinges on Reed passing the physical, which I assume he will. 


Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Sunday Funnies

Zeke Bonura was a stereotype: A first baseman in the 1930s, a slugger who was less than adept in the field, slow afoot and supposedly slow of wit as well.

He was a college man -- Loyola University in his home city of New Orleans -- so I doubt he was truly as dumb as the stories have it, but that's the basis of a number of these tales.

He broke in with the Chicago White Sox under Jimmy Dykes and spent most of his career playing for Dykes, who despaired of ever getting Bonura to learn the signs.

Now, today we recognize the limitations of the sacrifice bunt, and particularly with a hitter as productive as Bonura, but managers of Dykes' era didn't have access to the analytics of today. Everybody was expected to bunt, even in that high-scoring era, and that included Bonura. The problem was getting him to realize that he was supposed to bunt.

One day an exhasperated Dykes simply yelled from the dugout at Bonura: "Bunt, you big meathead. Bunt! B-U-N-T, bunt!"

Bonura, perhaps figuring that Dykes couldn't seriously be giving such a command so openly, swung away.



Saturday, January 13, 2018

Notes, quotes and comment

A warm thought on a frigid weekend: FSN will telecast 11 spring training games this year.


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No kidding.

Gibson is the only arbitration-eligible Twin who didn't reach a contract agreement before Friday's deadline to exchange figures, and there is an sense that he'll be the first Twin to go to an actual hearing since Kyle Lohse more than a decade ago. He's not a great starter, but his track record says he can be expected to give you 30 starts and a bit below league average ERA, and there is legitimate value in that. 

As the roster now stands, he'd be the No. 3 starter -- Ervin Santana, Jose Berrios, Gibson, probably Aldaberto Mejia as the fourth starter and, realistically, a rotating grab bag of prospects and rehab guys for the fifth slot.

But the slow pace of offseason moves not withstanding, I don't expect that to be the rotation by the time pitchers and catchers report in a bit more than a month. And this may be my tendency to be fascinated by the new shiny things, but there are unproven guys (including Mejia) who I'd rather see in the rotation.

But I've observed before, regarding the bullpen, that the Twins are minimizing their risk. Gibson isn't going to be great, but he's not likely to be a complete disaster either. High floor, low ceiling isn't a bad approach for the fifth starter, should the Twins be fortunate enough to land two guys to slot ahead of him.

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As one who aims to make at least one visit to the Midwest League (specifically Cedar Rapids) each summer, this was interesting news:



Clinton is on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, not far from Cedar Rapids. The LumberKings are affiliated with the Seattle Mariners.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Contemplating Eduardo Escobar

The Twins announced Thursday an agreement with infielder Eduardo Escobar that avoids salary arbitration: One year, $4.85 million for "Eddie the Stick."

They also announced that Miguel Sano would skip TwinsFest this year because of the sexual misconduct allegation and MLB investigation.

How the Sano situation will play out is uncertain, but I will be quite surprised if the slugger avoids a suspension. Beyond that, the status of his shin, which had a rod implant this offseason, isn't clear either.

Between those two factors, Escobar may be more than a prime bench piece for the Twins again this year.

Escobar turned out to be a different player than expected, although that may have been more about expectations and stereotypes than anything else. The idea when he came to the Twins from the White Sox when the Twins traded Francisco Liriano away in 2012 was that he was a light-hitting, good fielding utility man.

The utility man part has been accurate so far. But he's been more noteworthy for his power than his glove. Last season he hit 21 homers in a little less than 500 plate appearances, which is far more pop than was anticipated five and a half years ago. But his defense is a tick below average at best, and worse than that when pressed into outfield duties.

His on-base percentages aren't good, and the total package is not going to get him on any All-Star teams. But as a Plan B, he's pretty darn useful -- and every team needs a Plan B.