Thursday, December 30, 2010

Harmon Killebrew has esophageal cancer

Harmon Killebrew: 573 home runs, countless fans.

I have nothing useful to say. Good luck, Harmon; the baby boomer generation of Twins fans, who grew up cheering you, is rooting for you still, and suddenly feeling a lot older ourselves.

Details here.

A reminder: The Dome still has baseball use

Noooo baseball in the Metrodome this spring.
It's easy to overlook, because the professional teams tend to suck all the oxygen out of the media room, but just because the Twins are no longer playing their games in the Metrodome doesn't mean the place was without baseball.

It was announced Wednesday that the roof tears in the fabric roof won't be repaired until sometime this spring. Which not only forces the Twins to find a new home for Twins Fest in January, but wipes out a slate of more than 300 college and high school games.

Those games don't draw like a Twins game, or even Twins Fest (which brought more than 30,000 fans to the Dome last winter). But they're vital to maintaining college baseball, with its February-June schedule, in the chilly Upper Midwest.

Jim Rueda, our sports editor, will be doing a story in the next few days about how the loss of the Dome will affect the local college teams.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Nick Punto and the quest for infield stablity

Monday's post traced the instability of the Twins infield over the past five seasons. Of the 20 spots -- four per season -- exactly eight regulars made it from opening day to seasons end still the regular at that position.

That's a lot of in-season turnover. And that kind of turmoil is behind the move to younger, unproven players. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Alexi Casilla and Danny Valencia all offer the possibility of being four- and five year solutions to their positions.

Being unproven -- Casilla has the most MLB experience, and the fewest credentials -- they also offer the possibility that they will turn their position into a problem.

Alexi Casilla: Can he
establish himself
as a major league regular?
Which, as I noted Monday, is why manager Ron Gardenhire doubtless wants Nick Punto back. Punto has plugged infield holes in the past for him.

Here is the argument for the front office to deny Gardy that security blanket: Juan Castro.

Flash back to 2005. Cristian Guzman has left as a free agent. The Twins have a minor leaguer, Jason Bartlett, apparently ready to step in; they also have Punto. And then they signed Castro, a veteran good glove, no-hit infielder.

With Castro at his disposal, Gardenhire refused to commit to Bartlett, even demoting Bartlett at the end of spring training 2006 even though he had clearly outperformed Castro. (Gardy's stated reason -- that the young Bartlett was deferring to the veteran infielders, Luis Castillo and Tony Bautista -- seemed ludicrous then and now.)

It wasn't until then-general manager Terry Ryan dumped Castro on the Cincinnati Reds (and cut Bautista loose) that Gardenhire played Bartlett. He had to; there was no other option.

Similarly, it may well be that if Punto is re-signed with the intent of having him serve as a backup, that Gardenhire will edge away from the plan of putting the load on Casilla.

If Casilla fails, there's Matt Tolbert and Trevor Plouffe and the possibility of a midseason deal. But if Casilla plays part time and Punto plays part time, the goal of stabilizing the infield is missed.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ron Gardenhire's evolving infields

A running theme in this corner of the Internet is Pitching Plan B. Nobody gets through a full season with five starters, much less four -- nine men started at least once for the 2010 Twins. Teams have to have Plan Bs available to plug into the rotation.

Nick Punto has plugged infield
holes at three positions in midseason.
But an intriguing aspect to the Twins is how often they have to turn to an infield Plan B. And considering that Plan A for 2010 involves one middle infielder who has never played a major league game (Tsuyoshi Nishioka) and another who has twice before been handed a starting job and twice handed it back (Alexi Casilla) -- and that Plan A is vague on which of those two will play shortstop and which second base -- the organization's ability to handle such infield turmoil is significant.

Ron Gardenhire inherited the "League of Nations infield" when he assumed the managerial job for the 2002 season: Doug Mientkiewicz at first base, Luis Rivas at second, Corey Koskie at third, Cristian Guzman at short. No real stars in that group, but no oozing sores either.

That foursome began to break up after a couple of division titles. Rivas faded out of the lineup; Mientkiewicz gave way to Justin Morneau, griped about it and was traded in midseason; Koskie and Guzman left as free agents for bigger offers.

The Twins have since gone with Morneau and a series of stopgaps, with frequent midseason changes because of injury or ineptitude. Let's chart this over the past five seasons:

April infield: Morneau, 1B; Orlando Hudson, 2B; Nick Punto, 3B; J.J. Hardy, SS
September infield: Michael Cuddyer, 1B; Hudson, 2B; Danny Valencia, 3B; Hardy, SS

April: Morneau, 1B; Alexi Casilla, 2B; Joe Crede, 3B; Punto, SS
September: Cuddyer, 1B; Punto, 2B; Matt Tolbert, 3B; Orlando Cabrera, SS

Joe Crede opened 2009 at
third base but couldn't make
it through the season.
April: Morneau, 1B; Brendan Harris, 2B; Mike Lamb, 3B; Adam Everett, SS
September: Morneau, 1B; Casilla, 2B; Brian Buscher/Harris platoon, 3B; Punto, SS

April: Morneau, 1B; Luis Castillo, 2B; Punto, 3B; Jason Bartlett, SS
September: Morneau, 1B; Casilla, 2B; Punto, 3B; Bartlett, SS

April: Morneau, 1B; Castillo, 2B; Tony Bautista, 3B; Juan Castro, SS
September: Morneau, 1B; Castillo, 2B; Punto, 3B; Bartlett, SS

There are two constants in that string of seasons: Morneau is always Plan A at first base, and Nick Punto is alway plugging a hole created by somebody else's failure. (Punto's best seasons have come when he wasn't Plan A.)

It should be no surprise that Ron Gardenhire wants Punto back as his security blanket.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The year of Target Field

Most of my wife's relatives live in a fairly tight radius in Minnesota-Wisconsin north of the metro area, and my typical route when going to and from there has been to get on I-35 early and ride that freeway through Minneapolis.

Target Field, Opening Day;
It can take your breath away
I changed the route north on Christmas Eve just to get another glimpse of Target Field — 169 to 394 to 94 to 35W — and for a few moments, before the turn to the right and the plunge into the Lowry Hill Tunnel, we were headed straight for that Twins logo towering above the video board.

A good moment on that snow-ridden day. Spring will come, and baseball will return.

And I will be headed again straight for that Twins logo.

The Star Tribune's annual "Sportsperson of the Year" for 2010 was Earl Santee, the architect of Target Field, and certainly his attention to detail on that ballyard will reverberate with Minnesotans for decades to come. (The visibility of that logo to people coming into Minneapolis on that freeway is no coincidence;  it was planned.)

Conventional wisdom holds that a new ballpark attracts fans on its own for a couple of years, then the novelty aspect wears off and the locale becomes an attendance/marketing nonfactor. To which I have two words: Wrigley Field.

The Cubs sold "beautiful Wrigley Field" to their audience for generations, and they have drawn no matter how crummy the team on that ivy-covered burial ground (Steve Goodman's song lyrics). Indeed, there is a line of thought that holds that the financial disconnect between winning and ticket sales has subtly encouraged mediocrity.

I don't know that I buy that argument. I do suspect that the Twins view the way the Cubs have long promoted Wrigley Field as a model for their own marketing efforts. It will be interesting to see if their 2011 TV ads are as focused on selling Target Field as their ads of the past couple of years were.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Waiting for Godot: Pavano and Thome

Christmas is past and
Carl Pavano hasn't been
wrapped up yet.
The Twins have, still, two open spots on their 40-man roster. Presumably those are being held for Carl Pavano and Jim Thome.

Pavano and Thome play very different roles, but they have these things in common:

  • They are older players whose very age makes them question marks;
  • They performed better than 2010 than they can be expected to perform in 2011;
  • They went into free agency expecting multi-year offers and, judging from the fact that they remain unsigned, aren't getting that kind of interest; and
  • the Twins want them back, but aren't willing to bid against themselves.

Seth Stohs last week asked the question: Did the Twins lose out on other moves because they were waiting for Pavano?

My guess is not. As I see it, the Twins went into this offseason with two priorities:

  1. Make the middle infield younger, faster and cheaper;
  2. Revamp the free agent-laden bullpen.

They have certainly accomplished the first part, and they have a multitude of pieces from which to construct a new relief corps.

Now, if they retain Pavano, that will open some additional possibilities. Perhaps they'll trade one of their right-handed starters; perhaps they'll return Brian Duensing to the bullpen. But they've dealt with their chief concerns without a Pavano decision.

It appears that neither Jesse Crain nor Matt Guerrier — the two long-term Twins relievers who have signed elsewhere this month — found any sense that the Twins wanted to retain them. Nor has there been any sense that the Twins are particularly interested in keeping Brian Fuentes or Jon Rauch.

That lack of interest suggests to me that the Twins made a baseball decision as well as a financial one: That beyond the cost of re-signing even one of these veterans, it was time to move on to younger pitchers, fresher arms, in those roles.

True, they haven't added established major leaguers, but they are looking for four- and five-year solutions to both the middle infield and middle relief, not the short-term Band-Aids that the likes of Orlando Hudson and Rauch represent.

That means trusting your talent evaluators and going young. The Twins talent evaluators have, by and large, earned our faith.


Poll stuff: A slow week on the blog and a less-than-compelling question result in a mere 37 votes in this week's poll question:  Who should hit second for the Twins in 2011?

Tsuyoshi Nishioka won easily, getting 28 votes (75 percent) to Alexi Casilla's nine votes (25 percent).

New poll up.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

In my household, and perhaps in yours, this is a time of year when any sense of routine is summarily shot and buried in a shallow grave of snow.

Which is why I didn't post yesterday and why this is likely to be the only post today and tomorrow. It's not that I have nothing useful to say (that's never stopped me before), it's that I haven't the time to say it.

So ... Merry Christmas, and I'll probably be back next week.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My form of free agent shopping

Last January I ponied up $40 to sponsor three player pages on Baseball Reference — Michael Cuddyer, Terry Steinbach and Gene Larkin.

Last weekend the curators of that invaluable website sent me an e-mail noting that the sponsorships are about to expire and setting the new prices.  Which total $75 for the same trio: $45 for Cuddyer, $20 for Steinbach, $10 for Larkin.

Michael Cuddyer's page on
Baseball Reference is about
to lose its sponsor — me.
This isn't quite as absurd as paying Matt Guerrier $12 million over the next three years to pitch seventh innings, but it blows my budget out of the water.

So I've started looking for a new set to endow. Now, the budget is not set in stone; I'll go over $40 for the right page. But the Brad Radkes and Frank Violas are taken already, and let's not even talk about Bob Feller or Harmon Killebrew. And Tsuyoshi Nishioka's page isn't yet up for sale.

Last night I had the notion of checking my birthday and seeing if there was a player born on March 26 worth sponsoring. The first name on the list: Eric Hacker, a pitcher the Twins signed early this offseason out of the Giants organization and gave a spot on the 40-man roster. (I could have included him in my bullpen rough draft post earlier this month but didn't.)

His price: $55.

Really. It dents my faith in the rationality of B-R's pricing system, that Cuddyer is priced at $45 and Hacker is $55.

I will have a 2011 presence on Baseball Reference, but it probably won't involve Michael Cuddyer and definitely won't involve Eric Hacker.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Crain Train to the South Side

Jesse Crain's contract with the Chicago White Sox was finalized Monday — three years, $13 million.

That was too long and too much for the Twins, as was Matt Guerrier's deal (three years, $12 million) with the Dodgers. (For all the talk about the Twins becoming a big-budget team — and their payroll did mushroom with Target Field — they were still outspent by both the Sox and Detroit last season, and the Sox at least appear certain to have a bigger payroll in 2011 as well.)

Jesse Crain with the Twins:
Seven seasons, 376 games, 33-21,
3.42,  72 holds, three saves.
The Sox, like the Twins, are reconstructing their bullpen. Gone are closer Bobby Jenks and right-handed set-up men J.J. Putz and Scott Linebrink. Chris Sale, the lefty rookie who supplanted Jenks in the ninth-inning job down the stretch, might remain in the 'pen, or might be called on to fill out the starting rotation; just as the Twins cannot be certain about Joe Nathan's return, the Sox don't know what Jake Peavy's capable of providing.

Right now, Ozzie Guillen's late inning options feature Matt Thornton, Crain, maybe Sale. Then comes Sergio Santos, the former Twins minor league shortstop who did well last season in his first real season of pitching. (Santos converted to pitching during the 2009 season, in which he worked 28-plus innings on four minor league levels with an ERA above 8.) They have Tony Pena in a long-relief/swingman role.  That's four or five pieces of the puzzle, with two or three to be determined.

Crain's history with the Twins, as we well know, is marked with drastic swings in performance. For example:

In 2009, he got demoted to the minors in mid June; his ERA at the time was 8.15, and he had allowed a run or more in four of his previous six outings. He returned about a month later, spluttered for much of July and August, then got it going in the final month (1.13 ERA in 13 innings).

In 2010, his ERA stood at 7.31 after the game of May 18. After that, he had just two games until September in which he allowed any scores. Then he gave up seven runs in September/October's regular season (almost a fourth of the runs he allowed for the year) and got lit up in his playoff appearance against the Yankees. At one point, his ERA was under 2.50; he finished at 3.04.

The Crain the White Sox are familiar with is the Crain who owns Paul Konerko; they don't know the Crain who got the derisive nickname "Crain Wreck." If the White Sox are serious about using him to close games — and it's not easy for me to imagine Guillen opting for a bullpen by committee approach all season — those lows are going to string.

Crain's 2010 resurgence has been linked to a greater reliance on his slider, which he threw as much as 50 percent of the time. There have been relief pitchers who thrived with that kind of approach, or even greater reliance on the slider — Sparky Lyle, Mike Jackson, Larry Andersen — and maybe Crain can sustain it. Or maybe his late-season fade had something to do with the league realizing that he was "pitching backwards."

The Chicago Tribune piece linked in the first sentence takes the attitude that the departures of Crain and Guerrier are major blows to the Twins. If so, they are blows the Twins expected, even intended, to accept this offseason.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Zach Greinke to the Brewers

Sunday's big trade — 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zach Greinke, shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and cash to the Milwaukee Brewers for four young players — looks to me to be an excellent deal for the Kansas City Royals.

Zach Greinke's career record against
the Twins is an unimpressive
 3-8, 4.90.
The Royals got, in Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress, a pair of right-handed pitchers who Baseball America's forthcoming Prospect Handbook will rank as Milwaukee's  No. 1 and No. 3 prospects. In Alcides Escobar, K.C. landed the young shortstop who pushed J.J. Hardy out of Milwaukee, and Lorenzo Cain is a promising center fielder.

I am very much an admirer of Zach Greinke, but that's a lot of talent Milwaukee surrendered for two years of him. Joe Posnanski doesn't like the deal for Kansas City, but I think the Royals might have gotten more out of this forced trade than anybody else has gotten in recent similar deals (Santana, Sabathia, Lee twice, Halladay).

The word was that Kansas City wasn't going to consider trading Greinke within the AL Central. That would have ruled the Twins out anyway. But I doubt that the Twins had the pieces to match this deal.

Kyle Gibson is more advanced than Odorizzi, and either Ben Revere or Aaron Hicks would have fit well as a Cain replacement. Jeffress is a power arm, the type the Twins have lacked — and he is one more positive test for a recreational drug from a lifetime suspension, which makes him at least somewhat dicey an acquisition. He figures to step directly into the Kansas City bullpen.

But the shortstop — that piece of the puzzle just isn't available in the Twins system. Escobar's stock fell some with his rookie season, in which he hit just .235/.288/.326, but he just turned 24, has excellent defensive tools and a lot of "upside."

A roughly comparable package from the Twins would have been Gibson, Hicks, Carlos Gutierrez and Alexi Casilla or Trevor Plouffe. Even if the Twins would have been willing to surrender that much, and even leaving the division rival aspect out of the equation, I think the Milwaukee package is superior anyway.


Two more points about this deal:

(1) Betancourt's inclusion in the deal is interesting because he has been regarded in the sabermetric community as, if not the worst regular player in the majors, one of the "strongest" candidates for that status. That the Royals wanted a young shortstop in a Greinke deal was no secret.

Did the Royals insist that the Brewers take Betancourt as part of the trade, or did the Brewers insist on getting a body to fill the hole being vacated by Escobar? I suspect it was both, and that the cash involved in the trade is a year of Betancourt's salary.

(2) Prince Fielder is part of why the Brewers were willing to give up so much. He's eligible for free agency after 2011; his agent is Scott Boras, and that implies that he's unlikely to re-sign wth the Brewers;  the trade market for Fielder has been slim to nonexistent.

So the Brewers are going for it now. They earlier traded another prospect, Brett Lawrie, for Shaun Marcum, a good if sometimes injured starter. This gives them a projected rotation headed by Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Marcum and Randy Wolf. That foursome may not match the big fours in Philadelphia or San Francisco for hype or past achievement, but it's pretty darn good.


Poll stuff: Forty-one people participated in last week's poll, which asked which of four bullpen candidates would pitch in the most games for the Twins in 2011.

Scott Diamond had the most votes, 13 (32 percent); Pat Neshek, who led most of the week, had 12 (29 percent); Jim Hoey had eight (20 percent); Anthony Slama had six (15 percent) and two (4 percent) said they'll be tied at zero.

New poll up.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reasonable expectations for Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the Twins' new middle infielder, adds a touch of the exotic to the team.

What he adds to the lineup remains to be seen.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka
We know that he hit .346 last season for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan's Pacific League, that he was the first player in that league to top 200 hits since Ichiro, that he has won their Gold Glove at both second base and shortstop.

We also know that 2010 was far, far better his previous seasons. Maybe it was luck, maybe it was a lack of nagging injuries, maybe it was legitimate improvement — most likely it was a combination of factors.

Bill Smith, the Twins general manager, took pains on Saturday to note that the Marines didn't have to post Nishioka and didn't have to accept the Twins bid. He thanked Chiba Lotte for doing so. It's quite possible that Chiba Lotte figured it was selling high on Nishioka.

We ought not expect an infielding Ichiro to step into the Twins lineup next spring. The Twins clearly do not; it took, in 2000, a bid of more than $13 million for the Mariners to win the rights to Ichiro. The winning bid for Nishioka was a comparatively paltry $5.3 million. The contract the 26-year-old signed last week — $9.25 million over three years with a club option for a fourth season — is considerably lower than that signed by Kaz Matsui when he came stateside.

Matsui is perhaps an informing comp for Nishioka. As Aaron Gleeman has pointed out repeatedly, Nishioka's career season is a bit less that what Matsui averaged in Japan. And Matsui is generally regarded as having been a bust in MLB. (Matsui came over for his age 28 season; Nishioka turns 27 in July.)

Matsui — who has signed with a Japanese team for 2011 — hit .267/.321/.380 in seven U.S. seasons. That is essentially what Orlando Hudson hit for the Twins in 2010 (.268/.338/.372).

Hudson, who is about six years older than Nishioka, signed with San Diego on Friday — two years at more than $5 million. Even if you include the posting fee, Nishioka figures to be cheaper than Hudson per year, and with the Twins for a longer period.

Replacing Hudson with Nishioka makes sense on the margins. It doesn't figure to be a major upgrade. Don't expect a star.


At least three teams in the past decade advanced to the World Series with a Japanese regular at second base: the  2005 Chicago White Sox, with Tadahito Iguchi; the 2007 Colorado Rockies, with Matsui; and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, with Akinori Iwamura. Each was a short-timer.

That doesn't mean a lot, but at least winning with a Japanese infielder isn't unprecedented.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Nishioka presser

Tsuyoshi Nishioka: No. 7 for the Marines, No. 1 for the Twins.
My bad: FSN didn't carry the Tsuyoshi Nishioka introductory press conference on TV. They did have it on their website. My apologies to anybody frustrated by my lack of understanding.  A snippet of it can be seen here.

Highlights from my viewing:

  • He'll wear the number 1. (He wore 7 in Japan, both for Chiba Lotte and the Japanese national team, but that's now the permanent property of Joe Mauer in Minnesota.)
  • He said that as a rookie, he has no say in whether he plays second base or shortstop here. If the manager wants me to be the ball boy, I'll do that.
  • He has not talked to other Japanese players who've made the transition to U.S. ball: Everybody's different, and I want to experience it on my own.
  • Ron Gardenhire mentioned Minnesota-Duluth winning the national Division II football championship: It's a great day for Minnesota. We got a national championship, and we got one heck of an infielder.
  • Nishioka had a couple of English sentences memorized that he wanted to say to introduce himself, and I expect that will be the big soundbite on the newscasts.

No questions from the Japanese media in attendance, and no comments on the weather. I know they have winter in Japan, but he walked into a mess in the Twin Cities this week.

Danny Valencia was there, which was a minor surprise to me. I don't know if he's wintering in the Twin Cities or if he flew up to meet his new teammate.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka officially a Twin

The contract was finalized on Friday, and the Twins and Japanese batting champ are to hold a press conference today at 4 p.m.; Fox Sports North said last night it would carry the presser live.

Which should be interesting, as neither Nishioka nor his wife are said to speak any English. La Velle Neal last night linked to this video of Nishioka and Twins officials (including GM Bill Smith and president Dave St. Peter) trying to get the equipment details. Between the need for translation and the difference between metric measures and English measures, they were't getting very far.

Twins guy: What weight?
Translator: His weight? (points to Nishioka)
Twins guy: The weight of the bat.
(Translator and Nishioka exchange words)
Translator: 910 grams.
Twins guy: Yeah, that's what I thought.

There were supposedly 15 Japanese media folk along, so the presser is going to be ... multilingual. And the Twins' first real taste of the unique dynamic of having a Japanese star on the roster.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The lesson of Matt Guerrier

Matt Guerrier has a contract with the Los Angles Dodgers. Jesse Crain has a deal in place with the Chicago White Sox. (Crain has a physical to pass before the contract is finalized.)

Matt Guerrier had 93
holds with the Twins,
including an AL-best
33 in 2009.
Guerrier appeared in 74 games last year with a 3.17 ERA. Crain pitched in 71 games with a 3.04 ERA. They provided a lot of games and a lot of big outs for the 2010 Twins -- and the 2009 Twins, the 2008 Twins ... they've been at the core of the Minnesota bullpen, and now they're cashing in with a pair of $12 million contracts.

Which is fine by me. I'll be writing something in future days specifically about Crain and the White Sox, but right now I want to focus on Guerrier and an important principle of constructing a roster that he represents: Relief pitchers are readily created.

Good organizations are confident in their ability to identify unproven pitchers who can fill a bullpen role. Lesser operations throw three-year contracts at $4 million a season at "proven arms" and get burned.

The Twins picked up Guerrier on waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 2003 season. Mull that over a bit; the Pirates -- not a good team -- decided this guy wasn't worth a spot on the 40-man roster. The Twins -- a playoff team, two-times defending division champion --scooped him up and got six full seasons of mostly solid bullpen work. (The second half of 2008, when Ron Gardenhire burned him out, being the exception.)

Guerrier was never the prototypical short reliever. Most bullpen guys have one big pitch. Guerrier has a starter's repertoire -- in 2001 he went 18-4 for the White Sox' Double-A and Triple-A affiliates -- but his velocity was deemed too low to be an effective starter in the majors. He gained velocity as a relief pitcher (which is normal; it's a sprint, not a distance race) and used his command and variety of pitches to get outs.

I call it the Greg McMichael Rule, but it could be renamed for Guerrier: If you get outs, they'll find a role for you. It took a couple years for Guerrier to push his way out of the long relief job -- two years and some failure by people ahead of him in the pecking order, like Juan Rincon and Crain -- but for the past four years Guerrier has been one of Gardenhire's primary seventh and eighth inning options.

Now he's moving on, and the Twins will move on too. The Dodgers will overpay in Guerrier's 30s for what he accomplished in his 20s, and the Twins will seek to replicate with some other unproven hurler what they did with Guerrier.

I like their chances of success more than I like the Dodgers' chances.

Parsing the Jose Morales trade

On the same day that Tsuyoshi Nishioka arrived in the Twin Cities to take a physical and, presumably, finalize his contract with the Twins, Minnesota traded one of its two reserve catchers, Jose Morales, to the Colorado Rockies for Paul Bargas.

Jose Morales is likely
to be the No. 2 catcher
for the Colorado Rockies
in 2011.
Bargas is a left-handed pitcher, drafted in 2009, who put up some interesting numbers in low A ball last season. Since he was a 13th-round pick, I'm guessing he's not a particularly hard thrower, but that's only a guess; he hasn't been sufficiently highly regarded to get mentioned by the prospect gurus I pay attention to.  Whether or not Bargas is a soft tosser, it will be interesting to see if his strikeout rate holds as he moves up the ladder.

This trade probably wasn't so much about adding Bargas as it was clearing Morales off the 40-man roster. He's out of options, and presumably the Twins prefer Drew Butera's defensive chops to Morales' batting average. The Twins chose to move Morales now rather than wait to see if either Butera or Joe Mauer gets hurt during spring training.

At this moment, the Twins have 37 men on the 40-man roster. Nishioka will make it 38. If, as I increasingly believe will happen, the Twins re-sign Carl Pavano, that will be 39.

Which would still leave a slot open. I therefore suspect that there is a signing somewhere in the Twins near future beyond Nishioka and Pavano. Therein would lie the advantage in moving Morales in December rather than waiting until closer to the season.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bob Feller, 1918-2010

They don't make windups like Bob Feller's
On Sunday, Sept. 13, 1936, a rookie pitcher for the Cleveland Indians made his fifth start in the first game of a doubleheader. He threw a two-hitter against the Philadelphia Athletics, one of the weaker teams in the American League — and, more impressively, set an American League record for strikeouts in a game with 17. (He also walked nine — the pitch count must have been tremendous.)

And a few weeks later, when the 1936 season was over, Bob Feller returned to his family home in Van Meter, Iowa — and started his senior year of high school.

His high school graduation ceremony the next spring was broadcast nationally by NBC (radio, but still ...  as famous as some of today's teen stars, from LeBron James to Taylor Swift, are, none of them get that kind of attention).

If we did not have the statistical record of Bob Feller that we do, if we instead had to rely (as we do with the likes of Satchel Paige) on stories and anecdotes and legend to try to grasp his greatness, we would still know him for what he was as a pitcher — one of the greats.

He once matched his fastball against a speeding motorcycle going 100 mph by its speedometer — and his pitch beat the rider to the plate. You know the Field of Dreams bit about carving a ballpark out of a corn field? That was Feller's childhood — his father actually did that so that his son had a place to pitch.

He won 266 games in his career — a career interrupted at its very peak by World War II. He enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor — he didn't have to serve; he could have legitimately claimed a farm deferment and sat the war out — and spent most of the war on a battleship in the South Pacific. He is credited with seeing more combat duty than any other major leaguer.

The three seasons before the war (1939-41), he won 24, 27 and 25 games. He missed 1942, 43, 44 and most of 1945 (he returned to the Indians to make nine starts and was greeted by the front-page banner headline "This is what we've been waiting for"), and in 1946 won 26 games.

We can, if we want, imagine an alternate world in which the historical forces that caused WWII didn't happen, and pretend that Feller pitched as well in the missing seasons as he did in the seasons surrounding the war. Say an average of 25 wins for the first three years, another 20 in '45 (when he actually won five). That's another 95 wins — and suddenly his 266 lifetime wins balloon to almost 360.

But we live in the world we have. Feller made it through almost four years of war without a scratch, but there is no guarantee that had he spent those years pitching that everything would have hung together.

But we don't need those wins to know this about Feller:  He was a great pitcher. And the fact that those wins are missing tells us even more about him — he was a great American.

Rest in peace, Rapid Robert.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The sky is falling (or just the roof)

The Metrodome was built about 30 years ago; the roof was
projected to be functional for 20 years. Guess what?
Say, didja hear that the Metrodome's roof caved in Sunday morning? Yeah, I thought you might have heard about that.

Looking at the images of the giant tears reminded me of two of the Dome's baseball lowlights, for both of which I happened to be in attendance:

  • Friday, May 4, 1984, when Dave Kingman hit a pop-up that disappeared into a drainage hole and got caught between the roof's layers of fiberglass fabric; and
  • Saturday, April 26, 1986, when a giant windstorm arose during the bottom of the eighth inning and ripped a hole in the Teflon.

Read the play by play of the second link. It's a marvelous deadpan sentence unmatched in Retrosheet's voluminous files:

TWINS 8TH: BRYDEN REPLACED FORSTER (PITCHING); Lombardozzi walked; On a bunt Gagne singled to second [Lombardozzi to second]; Puckett flied out to right [Lombardozzi to third]; Hatcher hit a sacrifice fly to right [Lombardozzi scored]; 15 minute delay because of roof collapse; Hrbek flied out to right; 1 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Angels 1, Twins 6.

Beauty. The play-by-play of the Kingman roof-rule double doesn't attempt to describe the delicious weirdness of the left side of the Twins infield congregating near the pitchers mound only to cower when the ball vanished from view. It just says: Kingman doubled.

The connection between the 1986 incident and the current problem  is obvious. The Kingman one? Well, so far as I know, that ball was never recovered. Now, it seems to me entirely possible that it's lying on the Dome turf under the snow.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Off the Cliff

So while everybody was watching the Yankees and Rangers duke it out over Cliff Lee, the  lefty decided he didn't want to get hitched to either. He and the Phillies have reportedly agreed on a five year deal.

Cliff Lee: 102-61, 3.85
for his career.
Certainly the Yankees aren't happy; they based their plans on the notion that they would land Lee because It's All About the Money. (The Rangers, whether they are or not, should be pleased that they didn't land Lee. A six-year big-money contract for a pitcher is risky business. Texas would be better off making Neftali Feliz a starter again.)

For that matter, this deal isn't done yet, and perhaps won't be until the Phillies clear some payroll. They are said to be shopping starters Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick — Blanton makes a lot of money for a fifth starter — and outfielder Raul Ibanez. 

None of those three hold much appeal to the Twins, who have plenty of pitch-to-contact starters and corner outfielders. Minny would be in the market for relief help.

But the Lee fallout might reach the Twins in a couple of ways. First, Carl Pavano. He is the best remaining free agent starter on the market, and there's no way the Yankees view him as a fallback position from Lee. If the Twins do re-sign him (and I hope they don't), they'll have six starters in the fold.

The Yankees are short of starters. They have CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes. They're stuck with A.J. Burnett; Job One for the new pitching coach is fixing him. Andy Pettitte is doing his annual Favrian retirement sulk in Texas; I rather expect the Yankees to pony up more than they planned to get him back. And that's four -- counting Burnett.

I wonder if the Yankees would consider trading Joba Chamberlain  for Nick Blackburn.

A rough draft of the 2011 bullpen

In today's game, calling somebody a "relief pitcher" is akin to calling somebody an infielder. A shortstop is not a first baseman is not a second baseman is not a third baseman, and a lefty specialist (or LOOGY)  is not a closer is not a long man.

So ... let's examine 10 of the various candidates on hand for the Twins bullpen, identify their established roles and ask ourselves what role they can reasonably be expected to fill in 2011. The Bill James Handbook lists seven roles -- closer, set-up, lefty specialist, middle reliever, long man and utility reliever (generally an inexperienced guy who pitches as needed while trying to work into a better role) plus emergency relievers (starting pitchers or position players pressed into relief duty). I'll use the book's determinations.

Joe Nathan: 246 saves with the Twins.
Joe Nathan (injured; closer): The significant questions begin at the very foundation of the bullpen. Nobody knows in the dead of winter what form Nathan's return from ligament replacement surgery will take. Anything is possible, from a Billy Wagner-style complete and immediate return to excellence to a Darren Dreifort-style immediate reinjury.

But Nathan will be paid $12 million next season, and he wants to earn it and the Twins want him to earn it. I expect him to open the season with a significant role; he may pitch his way out of it, but he'll get a clear shot at retaining the ninth inning job. It may well be that he won't be used on consecutive days.

The Outsider's verdict: Co-closer to open the season.

Matt Capps (closer): He had 42 saves last season (split between Washington and Minnesota). In the Twins perfect 2011, he's the top set-up man; things seldom work perfectly.

The Outsider's verdict: Co-closer/primary set-up.

Jose Mijares (LOOGY): When the rotund Venezuelan debuted late in 2008, he was awesome. In the past two seasons he has twice reported to camp out of shape, been optioned to the minors, spent time on the disabled list, moved at least one teammate to the verge of violence and convinced Ron Gardenhire that he can't be trusted against right-handed hitters.

The tools are there to be better. The makeup may not be.

The Outsider's verdict: LOOGY, but if he's matured he could move into a set-up role.

Jim Hoey (minors): Big fastball, questionable control. If he throws strikes, he'll climb the ladder in the 'pen rapidly.

The Outsider's verdict: Utility; he's the best bet for the Greg McMichael Rule to come into play (if you get outs, they'll find a job for you).

Pat Neshek's Twins ERAs:
2.19, 2.94, 4.73. 5.00
Alex Burnett: (utility): Miscast last season in multi-inning stints because that's where the team had its need. His minor league success has come in shorter stints.

The Outsider's verdict: Middle relief.

Pat Neshek (utility): The key is his velocity. If he's in the low 90s, as before his TJ surgery, he's a set-up candidate; if he's in the low-to-mid 80s as he was last year, he cannot pitch in the majors.

The Outsider's verdict: Utility and pitches his way up or out.

Glen Perkins (LOOGY): He's been primarily a starter, but the Twins are now looking at him as a relief pitcher. His track record against lefty hitters is not good. He needs a good breaking ball to do the job, and the idea seems to be that his slider will do the trick. We'll see.

The Outsider's verdict: Utility/secondary LOOGY-- if he makes the team.

Scott Diamond (minors): The Rule 5 pick either sticks or returns to the Atlanta Braves. He's been a starter, but some prospect gurus see him as an effective lefty specialist. Probably competing with Perkins for a job, but there's room for both on the roster if Mijares moves up the ladder.

The Outsider's verdict: Utility/secondary LOOGY-- if he makes the team.

Anthony Slama (utility): Good minor league numbers, but his command is uncertain and his stuff doesn't impress scouts. The Twins have not been eager to give him a shot.

The Outsider's verdict: Utility reliever if he makes the team.

Jeff Manship (utility): I don't know why he's not listed as a long man, but he's not. He's probably Plan B for the rotation as of now, meaning he's the guy who'd get the first shot if /when one of the starting rotation guys goes down; that status is likely to fall to Kyle Gibson later in the year. Pitched better with the Twins last season than in Rochester.

The Outsider's verdict: Long man if he makes the team.

That's 10. There are other possibilities, like Carlos Gutierrez and Rob Delaney, but these are the 10 most likely guys right now for the (probably) seven bullpen jobs. There are a lot of open jobs, and just as many questions here. Good organizations can find answers to those questions. And that's the challenge -- maybe the challenge for 2011 --  for the Twins.

How I see it as of today:

Nathan (closer)
Capps (set-up/second closer)
Mijares (LOOGY)
Burnett (middle)
Hoey (utility)
Diamond (utility)
Neshek (utility)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Poll stuff

I took a snow day Sunday, and while I have a couple of posts in mind, I will probably focus on other things on this frigid day off. Christmas shopping, doncha know?

But while wondering if this is really the right week for Tsuyoshi Nishioka's first impression of  the Twin Cities (supposedly he's going to fly in for his physical and contract signing), let's clean up last week's poll.

The question: Which free agent signing poses the greater threat to the Twins? It drew 51 votes. Thirty-four (68 percent) said Adam Dunn (White Sox); 12 (23 percent) said Victor Martinez (Tigers); and five (9 percent) said neither will make that much difference.

New poll up

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Can the Twins teach power arms to throw strikes?

 La Velle Neal's blog post on the J.J. Hardy trade quotes Twins general manager Bill Smith on Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson, the two pitchers the Twins acquired:

``They are both in the mid- to high 90's. Both throw 95 and above. They have challenges with command and control and whatever but they bring velocity. Coming into our organization and our environment with all of the pitching coaches and adding them into our system, we will try and let our guys work their magic with them.''

It's true that the Twins are pretty good at teaching control. But part of that is who they're working with. They put their scouting and drafting emphasis on control; nobody in baseball was surprised when they used their first round pick on Alex Wimmers, widely regarded as having the best command in the draft pool. They draft pitchers with good control, then they sharpen it.

But they had no more success than the Colorado Rockies did getting Juan Morillo to throw strikes with his 98-mph fastball; they eventually gave up and sold him to a Japanese team. Shooter Hunt has wonderful stuff, but in 2010 he walked 84 men in 67.1 innings (and hit 11 batters, and threw 19 wild pitches).

Citing Hunt is probably unfair; I don't think anybody's figured out how to cure a pitcher who's contracted Steve Blass disease. 

Hoey says his emphasis in the past two seasons had been regaining his velocity after shoulder surgery, suggesting that his command will improve. The Twins are counting on it. They might be able to teach command of the fastball, but nobody can teach a 97 mph heater. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Rule 5 Diamond?

Most guys taken in the annual Rule 5 draft don't amount to much. Those that do -- and the Twins have benefited from more than their share of them, including Shane Mack in the 1990s and Johan Santana a decade later -- are generally selected early in the draft.

The Twins picked 27th in Thursday's draft. Logically, the best of the Rule 5 possibilities were off the board by then.

Still, I hold out hope that Scott Diamond will be of use as the Twins build a new bullpen for 2011.

Rule 5 guys, by definition, are flawed; they are players their organizations didn't deem worthy of 40-man roster spots. Diamond's flaw is that his fastball -- upper 80s velocity, usually -- doesn't wow scouts. He wasn't drafted as an amateur; Atlanta signed him as a free agent. But he has passed what prospect guru John Sickels calls the Double-A Finesse Pitcher Acid Test -- that is, he's pitched as effectively in the upper minors as he did in the lower levels despite his mediocre velocity.

Diamond is durable; he has, according to Baseball America, an above-average curve; he throws strikes; he allowed just six homers in more than 150 innings in Double-A/Triple A, which suggests that he doesn't allow a lot of fly balls.

Here's how Sickles describes the Diamond pick in his analysis of Thursday's draft:

Scott Diamond, LHP, from Braves: 24 years old, 3.46 ERA with a 123/54 K/BB in 159 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Gets some sink on his average fastball (1.77 GO/AO), has good breaking stuff, and throws strikes. That sounds like the perfect profile for the Twins.

The BA crew sees him as a fifth-starter type; I suspect that the Twins might be more interested in him as a second lefty in the bullpen, to work some long relief stints and help Jose Mijares with LOOGY chores. The above-average curve works in that second role; Ron Gardenhire clearly loves lefty relievers who can, as he says, "spin it." Meaning throw an effective breaking ball -- curve or slider -- to lefties.

That's the key to being a lefty specialist. Randy Flores quickly fell out of favor with Gardenhire last September by giving up base hits to lefties off his fast ball.

As a Rule 5 pick, Diamond has to stay on the 25-man roster or be offered back to the Atlanta Braves, and it appears pretty clear that the Braves want him back.

At this point, I would think his chief competition for a bullpen opening -- I count at least four available jobs with the Twins -- would be Glen Perkins. Perkins has the better fastball, but he has been unwilling or unable to "spin it" effectively against lefties.

At the very least, Diamond offers a low-cost, low-risk alternative. I like this pick.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

J.J., we Hardy knew ye

J.J. Hardy did not display
the home run power
with the Twins that
he did in Milwaukee.
One year, 101 games, two disabled list stints and gone. The Twins got less out of James Jerry Hardy (,263/.320/.394 in 375 plate appearances) than they did out of Brendan Harris (.251/.309/.360 in 1,063 plate appearances), and now both infielders have been shipped to Baltimore with cash for a pair of pitchers who spent last season in the minors.

Jim Hoey was essentially rehabbing an injured shoulder; he's a hard-thrower with 34-plus major league innings on his resume in 2006 and '07; he missed 2008 with shoulder surgery; he has been in Double- and Triple-A throwing 100 innings and striking out 117. Brett Jacobson is another hard-thrower, age 24, who hasn't gotten out of high A ball yet; he's a project.

Couple this trade with the Rule 5 selection of left-handed pitcher Scott Diamond from the Braves system and the Twins are coming home from the Winter Meetings with

  • Two candidates in Hoey and Diamond to restock their 2011 bullpen;
  • An apparently nearly complete deal with Japansese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka;
  • A commitment to a faster middle infield in Alexi Casilla and Nishioka;
  • A slimmer payroll (by roughly $7 million or so)

We don't know what the Twins will do with their savings. If, as LeVelle Neal suggests, it's re-signing Carl Pavano, I'll be rather dissatisfied with this activity. Pavano is a declining stock.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cry me a river, Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter said Tuesday during the press conference to announce his new contract that the sometimes contentious process of negotiating that contract angered him.

Derek Jeter's notion of his playing future is probably
far more optimistic than the reality.
Never mind that the dispute was dragged into the public light by Jeter's agent, who called the Yankees' view of his client's worth "baffling." A couple of days later Yankee general manager Brian Cashman told reporters that if Jeter didn't like the team's offer, he should test the market — and that retort is what displeased Jeter.

Hey, if he wanted private negotiations (a la the Twins and Joe Mauer) he could have/should have told his agent to zip his lips.

In the end, the Yankees relented $6 million worth — considerably less than Jeter had to relent on his supposed initial demand — and they have themselves a three-year, $51 million agreement.

Which is probably some $33 million more than Jeter would have gotten on the open market. Miguel Tejada got a one-year, $6.5 million contract from the Giants. Tejada's slash stats in 2010: .269/.312/.381. Jeter's: .270/.340/.370.

If there's anybody willing to overpay me by that much, they won't hear any complaint whatsoever.

It probably should not be surprising that Jeter doesn't accept the conventional wisdom that he's in decline. Part of what makes him Derek Jeter is that he believes he can create his own reality. In the low minors, he committed more than 50 errors in a season, mostly throwing errors; today his throwing is probably the best element of his defense.

Jeter is said to believe that he can play, presumably at shortstop, well into his 40s.  I'll have to see it to believe it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Nishioka first, then Hardy

The Twins typically lie in the background at the annual winter meetings. That may not be the case this year. Or it might be.

The priority is getting Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka signed. If and when that happens, then they can get serious about using an infielder -- not to name names, but J.J. Hardy -- as a trade chit. The Twins front office is not given to dashing into minefields, and they're not likely to move their starting shortstop before locking in Nishioka.

LaVelle Neal reports that the Twins and  Nishioka's agent met repeatedly Monday and exchanged contract offers. They don't have to sign Nishioka this week, but the sooner the better.

Neal also names six teams as having shown interest in Hardy. I'm privately pleased to note that all six were among the ones I listed as possible trade partners here, although there are some on that list who probably should be hunting for a longer-term shortstop -- meaning one younger and cheaper than Hardy. What the point would be for the Pirates or Orioles to import Hardy is unknown to me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Around the division: Detroit Tigers

The Tigers have had a busy offseason thus far:

  • They re-signed Jhonny Peralta and, having re-signed Brandon Inge during October, committed to keeping him at shortstop.
  • They inked Joaquin Benoit to a three-year, $16.4 million deal that figures to set the bar for middle relievers this winter.
  • They landed Victor Martinez with a four-year, $50 million deal that takes him through is age 36 season.

Peralta hasn't become the player I expected when he broke in with the Indians as a slugging shortstop (his slugging percentage as a rookie was .520; his career SLG has settled in 100 points below that, and he hasn't slugged .400 since 2008). He's generally regarded as a bit too slow to be a good shortstop, and not strong enough with the bat to be a top-flight third baseman.

Victor Martinez for his career has
been pretty even versus lefties
and righties, but in 2010 was much
better against LHP.
The hard-throwing Benoit has had a very up-and-down career;  he certainly cashed in on a brilliant 2010 season (1.34 ERA in 60-plus innings, with just 30 hits and 11 walks allowed). He's 33, and anybody who thinks they know what to expect from him during that contract is deluding himself. He certainly fits the Tigers preference for power arms.

The Martinez signing is perhaps the most intriguing. He turns 32 later this month, a switch-hitter with a career batting average of .300 — and he is, at least theoretically, a catcher.

His ability behind the plate has been questioned in the past. The Red Sox last season had him catch 904 innings; in those innings, there were 126 stolen base attempts, and he threw out 17 of them. That wasn't the worst rate among regular catchers, and at least some of the blame belongs to the Red Sox pitchers, but ... he's not a strong defensive catcher.

And the apparent idea in Detroit seems to be that he'll be mainly a designated hitter. Alex Avila, who shoved Gerald Laird aside last season, is supposed to be the primary catcher, with Martinez behind the plate once a week or so.

I'm a bit skeptical of that plan:

  • Avila hit well in 2009, less so in 2010.
  • Martinez' bat is a greater plus as a catcher than as a DH.
  • In an era of 12-man pitching staffs, it's tough to carry three catchers, and few managers are comfortable without a catcher on the bench.

Jim Leyland may not be as obsessed as Ron Gardenhire sometimes seems about having a true catcher in reserve, but catchers do get hurt, and the Cuddyer Principle doesn't apply to catching: An out-of-position catcher is really obvious out there. Of course, Inge is an experienced catcher, and maybe the Tigers figure they throw him back there if need be.

I suspect Martinez is going to catch more often than the Tigers say he will.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

He shouldn't have printed that

It's generally amusing, and seldom informative, to see what pearls of "wisdom" the metro papers' sports gossip columnists, Sid Hartman and Charley Walters, come up with to fill their allotted space.

Here's a Walters marvel I encountered Sunday (under the heading "Don't Print That") while reading the Pioneer Press during breakfast in a Wisconsin hotel:

Maybe the Twins could include shortstop J.J. Hardy in a deal for Kansas City Royals starter Zack Greinke.
Yeah, and maybe the Kansas City front office is brain dead.

As I noted here last week, if the Royals move Greinke, it  won't be for established major leaguers. Hardy might be eligible for free agency before Greinke is. 

If Walters (or his editors) had a sense of reality, they would have done with that sentence what the header advised.

Poll stuff: We had 55 votes on the Twins double-play combo.

Thirty-four respondents (61 percent) think the Twins will have Hardy and Tsuyoshi Nishioka in their middle infield this coming season; 18 (32 percent) think it will be Alexi Casilla and Nishioka; one thinks it will be Hardy and Casilla; two think it will be an unnamed combo; and nobody was cynical enough to pick the "Punto will be involved" option.

New poll up.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Interpreting the Neshek and Repko contracts

Generally, when arbitration-eligible players sign contracts just before the tender deadline, it indicates that

  • They were candidates to be dropped by their team; and
  • They weren't sure they would land 40-man roster spots elsewhere.

Things aren't necessarily
looking up for Pat Neshek
Thus the Twins' Pat Neshek and Jason Repko, who each inked one-year deals for less than $700,000 on Thursday.

Repko is a first-rate defensive outfielder, but he's a reserve outfielder because he has shown little evidence that he can hit. And, remember, he only got to the active roster last season because Justin Morneau's concussion moved Michael Cuddyer from the outfield to first base and left the Twins without a fourth outfielder.

Assume that Morneau is indeed sound next season and that the Twins sign a part-time DH (whether it be Jim Thome or, as Seth Stohs suggested on Friday, Matt Diaz, non-tendered by Atlanta). Further assume that the Twins carry their usual 12-man pitching staff.  The four-man bench may not have room for Repko, as it didn't last spring:

  • Extra hitter (Thome/Jason Kubel/Cuddyer/Delmon Young)
  • Backup catcher (Drew Butera)
  • Utililty infielder (Alexi Casilla/Matt Tolbert)
  • ??

If the Twins figure, as they did last spring, that Cuddyer is an acceptable fill-in in center, that fourth slot might go to another infielder. If they sign Tsuyoshi Nishioka and keep J.J. Hardy, they may well keep both Casilla and Tolbert, who is out of options.

There is, on the other hand, an obvious opportunity for Neshek. The Twins middle relief corps must be rebuilt; there is no way they will retain all four of their prominent relief free agents (Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes).

But Neshek did not pitch well in his first season back from ligament-replacement surgery, not in the majors and not in Triple-A. His velocity was not at its accustomed level when I saw him pitch in September.

This contract suggests to me that the Twins aren't confident he's going to help them this year either -- but neither are they ready to cut bait.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ron Santo and the Hall of Fame

Ron Santo (10) made a habit in 1969  of clicking his heels
after a Cubs victory. Then came their famous September
fade; they finished second to the Miracle Mets.
Ron Santo — third baseman, broadcaster, diabetes patient/example — died Thursday night.

The subhed on the Chicago Tribune story linked above — Chicago Cubs icon failed to reach Hall of Fame — is both accurate and a reminder that for some players, not making the Hall of Fame is a bigger deal than being inducted.

Ron Santo led the NL
twice in on-base percentage
in an era when almost
nobody knew what it was.
Enos Slaughter, for example. A very good outfielder in the 1940s and '50s, his supporters finally got him inducted. But it was the exclusion that kept him remembered. Once he was in, nobody had much reason to talk or write about him.

Santo is, and has been, deserving of induction. About a decade ago Bill James ranked Santo as the sixth greatest third baseman of all time — ahead of Brooks Robinson, Paul Molitor, far ahead of Pie Traynor.

Santo's numbers are not so easily interpreted. Yes, his career was centered in the mid '60s-early '70s, a period in which conditions deeply favored power pitchers and worked against hitters. He also had the benefit of an outstanding hitters park for most of his career.

It wasn't all that long a career (15 seasons), and his walks — he led the National League four times in the category — weren't valued then as they would be today.

That's part of why he's not in. Also a factor, I suspect, is this: His Cubs teams also featured Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins at the top of their games and the fading Ernie Banks; all three are in Cooperstown. They had a Hall of Fame manager in Leo Durocher. They had top-flight regulars in Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert and Randy Hundley in the lineup, strong starting pitchers in Bill Hands, Ken Holtzman and Milt Pappas, good relief pitchers in Phil Regan and Ted Abernathy.

They never won the World Series, never reached the World Series, never so much as won a division title.

Durocher, in his self-serving but entertaining autobiography, puts a big part of the blame on Santo:

When I took over the club I looked upon Santo as one of my great assets ... But right from the first, other baseball men whom I respected began to tell me that I was never going to win a pennant with him. ... Five runs ahead and he'd knock in all the runs I could ask for. One run behind and he was going to kill me. They were right.

There's a limit to how much I trust Durocher, and his critique of Santo is very much like the current rap on Alex Rodriguez. Still, I have to wonder: If Santo's a Hall of Famer (and I'm inclined to believe he should be) that's three prime-of-career HoFers on that team. Where are the trophies?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The philosophy of trading within your division

Supposedly the Kansas City Royals have indicated that they won't trade Zach Greinke within the AL Central.

Zach Greinke may be
more valuable to a future K.C.
contender as trade bait now.
This is a fairly common line of thought, that you don't trade within your division because you don't want to strengthen your rivals.

One can argue against that, of course: If you're trading well, you're also strengthening yourself. But risk management is part of running a team. And it probably would be easier on the fan base if Greinke weren't pitching three or five times a season against the Royals.

But here's the deal for Kansas City: They ain't contending in 2011. They have a very highly esteemed farm system, brimming with blue-chip prospects -- but the likes of Eric Hosmer, Mike Montgomery, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Wil Myers are expected to begin settling in to the majors in 2012.

And that's Greinke's problem. That's the last year of his contract. So he's looking at, at a minimum, a couple more years of pitching in front of a lineup that can't help him.

The Royals are, as a result, shopping the 2009 Cy Young winner around. It should be obvious that they're NOT going to trade him for established major leaguers like Delmon Young or Kevin Slowey. They want to add to that burst of talent scheduled for 2012-14.

And in that sense, it is silly, even stupid, to mark 14 percent of the teams as automatically out of bounds in such a trade. The Twins or Tigers may not make the best offer for the ace (it makes no sense for Cleveland to bid, and the White Sox have largely stripped their farm system), but if the Royals are serious about contending in the middle part of this decade, they owe it to themselves to find out.

The market for J.J. Hardy

What are we bid for
this 28-year-old shortstop?
On Wednesday I described the shortstop market as "trade-friendly." After publishing that opinion,  I started having second thoughts. Is it really going to be easy to trade Hardy? The free agent pickings aren't great, but who's out there looking for a shortstop?

So let's go team by team and see what their shortstop status is. I won't worry about what the Twins might get in a Hardy trade as much as what teams might be looking to upgrade.


Yankees: Only if the Derek Jeter thing gets so bad that the Yanks decide he's more trouble than he's worth. I don't see that happening. But if it does, this is not an operation that's going to plug a rookie into the spot.

Red Sox: Signed Marco Scutaro last year, now are said to be trying to trade him to free the position for Jed Lowrie. No trade here.

Rays: Ex-Twin Jason Bartlett, getting pricey, is trade bait; Tampa Bay has Reid Brignac lined up for the job. No trade here.

Blue Jays: Acquired Yunel Escobar in mid season. No trade here.

Orioles: Had Cesar Izturis last season. Shopping for a shortstop. Possible.

AL CENTRAL (in division)

White Sox: They probably like Alexei Ramirez more than they'd like Hardy. No trade here.

Tigers: Dave Dombrowski has a wonderful track record as a GM, but his moves this winter baffle me. One of them is committing to Jhonny Peralta at short. No trade here.

Indians: I like the idea of Asdrubal Cabrera more than the reality, but Cleveland is not in a position in which trading for established veterans makes sense. No trade here.

Royals: Yuniesky Betancourt may not be the worst regular in the majors, but if he isn't he's close. Still, K.C. is at least a year away from being in hole-patching mode. No trade here.

Elvis Andrus, according to
Baseball Info Systems'
baserunning analysis, was the
best baserunner among
major league shortstops in

Rangers:  They have Elvis Andrus, who is good and going to be great. No trade here.

Angels:  They may not like Erick Aybar as much as I do — he didn't have a great 2010 -- but I don't see them making a change.

Athletics: Cliff Pennington is better than I think he is, but that's not saying much, and Billy Beane is never afraid to make moves. Possibility.

Mariners: Jack Wilson, if he's healthy. Good glove, no stick. Hardy would be an upgrade. Possibility.


Giants: Complex. Jose Uribe and Edgar Renteria split time, and they won the World Series, and now Uribe's gone and Renteria's a free aent. They signed Miguel Tejada, who might play short or might play third if they decide Pablo Sandoval's not serious enough to be in shape. They might be a possibility, they might not.

Dodgers: They have Rafael Furcal and Uribe. Not in the shortstop market.

Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki is (a) the best shortstop going and (b) signed an extension that takes him close to Social Security age. (Not really, but it feels that way.) Not a possibility.

Diamondbacks: Stephen Drew isn't the star they expected him to become and starting to get expensive. I wouldn't be surprised if they traded him, but it wouldn't be to replace him with someone with Hardy's salary. Not a possibility.

Padres: Last year's surprise contender got nothing from Everth Cabrera and traded late for Tejada so they'd at least get some hits from the position. Tejada's gone, and now what? This is probably too low-budget an operation to go for Hardy, but there's a big hole there.


Starlin Castro hit .300
for the Cubs — at age 20.
Reds: Orlando Cabrera with help from Paul Janish. The O-Cab is probably on the move again. Janish is a glove. Possibility.

Cubs: Starlin Castro is their present and their future. No possibility.

Cardinals: Brendan Ryan looks good in the metrics, but didn't hit and had some run-ins with pitchers about his defense. They've added Ryan Theriot, who could play short or second. The Cards are like the Twins in this sense: They have an above-average payroll, but a few big stars are sucking up most of the money. I doubt they can go for a $6 million shortstop.

Pirates: If Betancourt isn't the worst regular, Rony Cedeno might be.  But adding a Hardy makes little sense for a team in their position.

Astros: Someone named Tommy Manzella had 82 games at short for Houston. He hit .224/.266/.262, so I'm guessing he's not the answer. I'm not sure they should be looking for a Hardy, but they might.

Brewers: They traded Hardy to make room for Alcides Escobar, and even if they think it was a mistake, they're not going to admit it so obviously as to trade to get Hardy back.


Phillies: Jimmy Rollins is aging, he had injuries, he's pricey. He's also very much part of their core. No possibility.

Jimmy Rollins was limited
to 350 at-bats in 2010.
Braves: Alex Gonzalez has the job and a year to go on his contract. I think Hardy's better, but they'd need to move Gonzalez. Not likely.

Mets: Jose Reyes is supposedly being dangled as trade bait. I don't think he'd getting traded, and if not they're not in need of a shortstop.

Marlins: Hanley Ramirez is their cornerstone player, for good and ill. Not a possibility.

Nationals: Too soon to pull the plug on Ian Desmond. Not a possibility.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The negative as a positive

The Twins got exactly what they bargained for/expected from the players' free-agent arbitration deadline: Nothing. Three noes. All negative, which is a good thing.

It remains possible for the Twins to sign any of the three players who declined arbitration Tuesday (Jesse Crain, Orlando Hudson and Carl Pavano) -- or, for that matter, their other seven free agents to whom the organization did not offer arbitration. Possible but unlikely: the Twins are not believed to have interest in bringing Hudson back, even on a one-year deal, and Pavano and Crain have no shortage of suitors.

The 'stache may not be
trash, but the
Twins should allow
Carl Pavano to sign
Me, I don't expect (or want) Pavano back, certainly not on a three-year deal. I'd rather give the scouting department the extra draft picks to play with. Crain is looking for a chance to close and a chance to cash in; I can see him and the Twins reuniting later this winter if things don't fall the way he hopes, but really -- middle relievers are highly replaceable, and good organizations shouldn't be paying three relief pitchers upwards of $6 million each.

Bottom line: If the Twins keep any of those three, it will be on terms the Twins are willing to live with, and if they don't, they get extra draft picks.

Thursday is a deadline with perhaps more intrigue. That's tender day, the day when teams must offer contracts to their non-free agent players. For those players who aren't arbitration eligible, that's a simple matter; they get basically the minimum. It can be a tougher call on the likes of J.J. Hardy and Glen Perkins, but the Twins aren't likely to cut any of their arbitration-eligibles loose.

Hardy in particular. Even if the Twins aren't as enamored with him as the statheads are. the shortstop market is ... let's call it trade friendly. Miguel Tejada signed Tuesday with San Francisco for one year, $6.5 million; that's roughly what Hardy is projected to receive through arbitration, and Tejada isn't as good right now as Hardy. If only as a sign-and-trade, Hardy figures to still have value for the Twins.