Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Twins Free Agents and Projected Payroll

After a season in which the Twins returned to respectability, winning 83 games and finishing over .500 for the first time since 2010, this coming off-season would seem to be very important. With a few more wins, the team might make it back to the postseason. The truth is the team's roster is basically set for next season, although some improvements would be ideal.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be taking a look at several key aspects of the Twins off-season, such as possible trade and free agent targets, next years potential rookies, etc.

Today, we'll take a look at what the team's projected payroll will be, based on their current commitments. This should allow us to make a reasonable guess at just how much money the team has to spend this off-season. We will also look at the team's upcoming free agents, and discuss who the team should look to bring back if possible.

Projected Payroll:

Cot's Baseball Contracts was used for the player salaries, while MLB Trade Rumors was used for the arbitration projections.

Some of the players listed will start the season in the minors, but this is a fairly accurate prediction of the team's commitments for 2016. The Twins payroll was just over $108 million this past season. With the projected commitments around $105 million, there likely isn't a lot of budget room. Even if ownership has green lit a payroll closer to $120 million (which to me is unlikely) that doesn't leave a lot of money to play with. If Torii Hunter decides to come back, that will stretch the budget even more.

Thankfully, the Twins roster is mostly set, so they don't need to spend big. The team needs a better catcher, as Suzuki is best suited for a backup/platoon role and Hermann is not a major league caliber player at this point. Matt Wieters is the biggest name catcher available, but he'll be out of the Twins price range in my opinion and it's rarely smart to spend money on a catcher over 30, which Wieters will be in May of the 2016 season. AJ Pierzynski has been a popular name of late, as he's coming off another solid offensive season and the Twins wanted him before they signed Suzuki two years ago. The Twins could likely find room to squeeze Pierzysnki in, and ownership would likely be more willing to exceed the budget to bring back another former player. Minnesota fans love their reunions. There aren't a lot of good catchers in baseball, so Pierzynski would be a worthwhile addition. Of course, he's way older than most catchers, so a return to his 2014 form (.251/.288/.337 in 102 games) is possible. Suzuki hit .240/.296/.314 this season, so even bad AJ is an upgrade. I think the team will sign Pierzysnki.

Trading Trevor Plouffe is a possibility, as he's been a solid third baseman but with Sano waiting in the wings now would be the time to trade Plouffe if he's not going to be around long-term. The Twins continue to say they don't want to make Sano just a DH, so Plouffe needs to be traded unless the team is willing to use Joe Mauer in a part time role, which is highly unlikely. Trading Plouffe for a solid, cost-controlled reliever and a prospect or two would be a solid deal, although I'm just speculating.

With most roster spots accounted for, let's take a look at the team's free agents.

Free Agents: SP Mike Pelfrey, MR Neal Cotts, MR Brian Duensing, MR Blaine Boyer, RF Torii Hunter

Mike Pelfrey struck out just 86 batters in just under 165 innings. For someone who throws mid 90's heat, he doesn't miss many bats. With better in house options available, there's no reason for the team to even look at bringing Pelfrey back. It would be a waste of payroll space.

Neal Cotts pitched decently for the Twins after they acquired him in August, but he was still below average compared to relievers league wide. He made $3M last year, so he'll likely command a salary close to that to stick around. While the team is in need of a quality left handed reliever other than Glen Perkins, Neal Cotts isn't the answer. I think the Twins will look to bring Cotts back, but there are left-handed relievers like Cotts available every off-season. No reason to overspend for Neal.

Brian Duensing was horrible all season, striking out just 24 batters in 48 innings while walking 21. There's no way he will or should be back.

Blaine Boyer's ERA was very good at 2.49 this past season. That's a bit misleading, as Boyer allowed several inherited runners (runners on base when he came into the game) to score and he got lucky on balls put in play. With just 33 strikeouts in 65 innings, Boyer is likely to have a major regression in his ERA next season. Here's to hoping the Twins aren't paying Boyer next season.

Torii Hunter doesn't really have a spot on the team, as he'll likely be overpaid as a 4th outfielder and he's simply not good enough to play more than that. Usually teams like to have very good defenders in the 4th outfield role, but Torii Hunter is no longer a good defender. He's a below average hitter for his position and a below average fielder, so it would be in everyone's best interests if the former star would simply retire. If he doesn't, ideally the Twins would let him go elsewhere. "Veteran leadership" isn't something the team should waste payroll space on if the player is below average, no matter how great his smile is.

If none of the team's free agents come back and ownership green lights a $115MM payroll, who would you target with the team's $10MM remaining? Bullpen help? Catching? Both? Something else? Discuss in the comments if you'd like.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Why Does the Public Pay for Pro Sports Stadiums?

There's nothing more ridiculous to me than a city or state spending millions upon millions of dollars on a new stadium for a sports team. The money that is spent is never returned to the taxpayers, because the owners of the team generally receive all the profits from the new stadium. As Americans, we've let our love for sports blind us to the obvious: taxpayer funded stadiums to let billionaire owners earn MORE money per season makes no sense.

The Minnesota Vikings stadium is nearly complete, thanks in large part to $500 million combined from the state and the city of Minneapolis. One way the state raised the money was to increase taxes on tobacco products, such as cigarettes, chewing tobacco and other goods. Oh, and the Vikings managed to use a loop hole to avoid a city-wide vote on the tax, because they knew there was no possible way it would actually pass if people got to share their viewpoints. The Twins did the same thing.

Back to the tobacco tax, though. Tobacco is terribly unhealthy, so I don't have a problem with their being a higher tax on the products than in the past. The more money tobacco costs, the less people that will do it, and the healthier we will be. What bothers me is that the state is essentially using one groups addiction (smokers) to pay for someone else's addicition (pro sports). I clearly love sports. I've written well over 100,000 words on sports, and there are not many people who are bigger Vikings fans than me. But this is completely and utterly unfair. Instead of using that $500M to keep a football team around for 8 Sunday's a year, the money could have been earmarked for future health care costs associated to emergency room visits or cancer treatments caused by smoking. Or maybe to improve a few of the poor school districts? Nah, we need our football.

Jesse Ventura deserves credit for telling the Vikings owners no over and over again when he was the Governor of Minnesota. When the team asked for $12M, Jesse asked the team how many tickets they planned to sell that season. They said around one million. Ventura's response? Something along the lines of: Raise your ticket prices by $12 per ticket. There's your money, paid for by fans of the team, and not a 70-year-old grandmother's smoking habit.

Some people will argue that the stadium will earn far more money than the $500M over the time it's here. It won't. By the time the city has recouped the $500M by taxing the athletes and team employees yearly earnings, the stadium will have been upgraded or renovated multiple times. That's more money from the taxpayers. Studies over the last decade have shown that the money put into a pro sports stadium is basically a sunk cost. It's what we pay to be able to root for a bunch of men throwing a ball around for a few hours EIGHT TIMES A YEAR.

While I'd love to go on and on about this, John Oliver of HBO's This Week Tonight had a wonderful segment showing the idiocy of publicly funded stadiums. He also looks at the effect stadiums have on businesses like bars and restaurants in the vicinity of the stadium; spoiler alert: it hurts the businesses. It's well worth the 20 minutes. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Is Teddy Bridgewater the Answer?

Three years ago to the day, I wrote an article claiming that Christian Ponder was not the Vikings answer at quarterback. He was doing well at the time (I know that's hard to believe) and some Vikings fans were mad. I think I got more mean-spirited tweets and emails for that one article than everything else I've written combined. I was surprised, mostly because Ponder didn't really look good, even when he'd have decent numbers thanks to Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson. But some people just really wanted the Vikings to have a franchise quarterback, and they let me know Ponder was the man. My point isn't that I'm a genius and others are fools. The point is with all of the available statistics today, it's less difficult than in the past to predict a quarterbacks future success if you know what stats to look for.

Today, I'm going to take a look at Teddy Bridgewater. Mean-spirited emails are welcomed, but I like the nice ones more.

Unfortunately, one of my favorite advanced quarterback stats, Average Yards per Pass Attempt (AYPA) isn't available this year because the website that has tracked that stat over the last few years (Advance Football Analytics) is merging with ESPN. I would've preferred to use the same stats to evaluate Teddy as I did with Ponder, but there's plenty of other statistics that can be used. I just was a big fan of AYPA.

In place of it, we will be looking at Pro Football Reference's Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANYA). Unlike AYPA, ANYA doesn't do a great job adjusting for screens and dump offs that become big plays. However, it factors in sacks, interceptions and touchdowns in the formula, and in general a better ANYA correlates with more wins better than almost any other QB stat. For reference, Aaron Rodgers led all of football last season with an ANYA of 8.65. During Ponder's first two seasons, his ANYA was an abysmal 4.71, which would have ranked 33rd last season.

As a rookie, Bridgewater finished 27th in this stat, at 5.46. Rookie seasons from quarterbacks really don't mean a whole lot, because almost every rookie struggles, so it's hard to fault Bridgewater for finishing near the bottom of the league. What's more important is if he's shown improvement early this season, or if he's taken a step back.

To this point, Bridgewater has regressed. His ANYA is down to 4.77 this season, ranking 31st in the league. The Vikings have only played 4 games, thanks to a bye this past weekend, so there's a chance the sample size is simply too small after only 1/4 of the season. There are bigger name quarterbacks below Bridgewater, such as Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck. Ryan Mallett is in 35th, dead last. Luck's struggles are almost certainly because of a more serious shoulder injury than the team led on. He's too good to be as bad as he's been when he's played. What's interesting to me is that Stafford, Kaepernick and Mallett have three of the strongest throwing arms in football, but their decision making and accuracy make them a liability more often than not. Bridgewater is considered the opposite; someone with a below average throwing arm but very good decision making and accuracy.

One factor hurting Bridgewater's ANYA rating is that the Vikings have been extremely conservative with Adrian Peterson back in the fold. Bridgewater has thrown just 115 passes in 4 games, the lowest in the league for anyone playing at least 4 games. Andrew Luck has thrown 116 passes in just 3 games, with a bum shoulder. Touchdowns are important, and Bridgewater has only thrown 2. I don't think anyone expects him to only throw 8 touchdowns over 16 games, so the touchdowns should increase.

Another factor is that Bridgewater's pocket presence seems overstated. Due to the fact that Christian Ponder never had any pocket presence, and the Gophers Mitch Leidner can barely be called a quarterback, people overstated Teddy's ability because he clearly looks so much better than those two in the pocket. He's been sacked at an alarmingly high rate for someone who's supposed to be more of a game manager, meaning he's taking one and three-step drops and making quick throws. Those plays are designed to avoid sacks. However, after posting an 8.8% sack percentage as a rookie, he's up to 10.2% this season. Ryan Fitzpatrick leads the league in sack percentage, being sacked on only 1.4% of his pass attempts this season. That's remarkable, and not really surprising since the Jets are playing conservatively as well, and Fitzpatrick is almost certainly the smartest quarterback in the league. The only quarterbacks worse than Bridgewater this season are Russell Wilson and Alex Smith, which suggests offensive lines play a larger role than the quarterbacks decision making does, which is a good sign for Bridgewater. That said, the Vikings aren't just going to suddenly find a ton of stud offensive lineman, so Teddy might have to make due with what he has and start making quicker decisions. Hopefully that will come with experience.

If Teddy's TD:INT ratio can go from 1:1 (where it currently sits) to something close to 2.5:1, and he can get his sack percentage down to about 7.5%, the Vikings will win a lot of football games, regardless of his arm strength. As fun as the years of Randy Moss and company were, a great defensive team like the Vikings are building generally wins bigger games and for longer periods of time. Bridgewater fits into the system, and if he can continue to improve, the Vikings are in good hands. And while progression seems natural, plenty of quarterbacks regress. RGIII, Ponder, etc. the list could go on and on. Which way will Bridgewater go? Feel free to discuss in the comments.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hypocrisy and "Student" Athletes

Paying college athletes has become a very popular issue over the last decade. With the NCAA's revenues shooting through the roof over this time, it's clearly unfair that the athletes who are providing the real entertainment don't get paid.

There are countless articles to read on either side of the argument, so I won't add to the pool. But one thing that does bother me is when people are arguing against players being paid, they almost always come back to the question of whether certain sports would receive more money, or if everyone would get the same amount. In the time of political correctness, of course the argument is that a less popular sport's athlete is just as much a student athlete as say a college football player. That is true, of course. College athletes at every level and in every sport put in a lot of time for their sport.

I think it's more fair to pay the sports athletes that make most of the money for the university, but certainly understand the other argument. What is bothersome is that people seem to forget that while a scholarship is "valuable", every school is technically offering a different amount of money. A full scholarship to Duke University for Tyus Jones, for example, is worth a helluva lot more than a full scholarship to the University of Minnesota. And I mean that literally; Duke's board and tuition for out-of-state students is just under $50,000 a year. The University of Minnesota's board and tuition for in-state students (since Mr. Jones is from Apple Valley) is just over $25,000 a year. So over 4 years Duke is able to offer $100,000 more than the Gophers, simply because of the value of their university.

If the value of a college education varies by school, why shouldn't the value of a college athlete vary by the money their sports are capable of raising? It's silly.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Twins Prospect To Watch: Jermaine Palacios

The Twins signed Jermaine Palacios in 2014, when he was just 17 years old. He's listed as a shortstop, although he's played every infield position and left field early in his career. The young Venezuelan is a lean 6'0" 145 pounds, so his build is very much that of a middle infielder.

Unfortunately, the team played Palacios at shortstop a lot this season, and he made 20 errors in 53 games. While errors are hardly a great way to judge a defender, let alone an 18-year-old, 20 is simply too high a number to expect him to remain at shortstop long-term. Without seeing him play it's hard to know if he'd be better suited for second base or an outfield position, but those seem like the most likely landing spots defensively.

Despite his error filled defensive performance this past season, Palacios is starting to show up on some people's radars because all he's done since signing with the Twins is hit. As a 17-year-old last season, Palacios hit .270/.404/.399 in 42 games, adding 14 steals in 17 attempts. He walked 35 times and struck out 37, showing the ability to control the strike zone.

This season, between two rookie level teams, Palacios hit .370/.398/.540. He walked just 12 times compared to 31 strike outs, which is a bit alarming, but his power has improved considerably. Generally with a power increase comes more strikeouts, and that's a worthwhile sacrifice for 120 points on his slugging percentage.

He's likely to receive a promotion to begin next season, and as a 19-year-old playing his first full season at a higher minor league level, he'll be watched closely. If he can continue to hit like he has the last two seasons over a longer season, Palacios could possibly be one of the Twins top prospects at this time next season.  If he fills out and his power continues to improve, he could become one of the best prospects in baseball. The 2016 season is going to be a big one for Palacios. We'll find out if he's the real deal.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The MLB Wild Card Game Does Not Need Changing

On Wednesday night, the 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates were eliminated from playoff contention after one game. They had the most wins of any team to not make the Divisional Series since the wild cards inception in 1994.

We live in a very reactionary culture today. Some college football player threw for 500 yards and 5 touchdowns in week 1? He's the next Johnny Manziel. Colin Kaepernick has one dominant playoff game, and suddenly Ron Jaworski is hyping him as the "greatest QB of all-time." Spend five minutes on Twitter and all you'll see are quick reactionary opinions. So in other words, don't spend five minutes on Twitter.

The newest issue seems to be that the MLB playoff structure needs to be tweaked again. A one-game series isn't fair! Right? Technically, it's not fair. But the playoffs in general are not fair. Teams play 162 games over six months, but then the champion is determined by a maximum of 20 games (max series lengths are 1-5-7-7) over three weeks in October. If people truly want the "fairest" result, the regular season's best record should be the champion, much like Soccer.

Most people would hate that idea, myself included. The playoffs have become a major part of our culture, and the considerably shorter playoff stretch fits into our reactionary culture much better than the 162-game regular season would. For entertainment purposes, the playoffs are a must. And let's be clear: despite pro sports being a multi billion dollar industy, the point of sports is for entertainment, no matter how many people forget that.

The current (and fairly new) set up was designed to give incentives to teams that win their divisions. The goal was to make winning your division more important than it had been since the introduction of the wild cards in the 1990's. Why? Because baseball loves it's traditions. And for 100 years before the introduction of the wild card, winning your division was a must to make the playoffs. So the current setup is a compromise between making the playoffs more fair (5 teams from each league now make it) and entertaining (4 of those 10 teams play in a 1-game playoff).

Ratings also play a major part in the decision to make the game an elimination game. The always great Wikipedia (your high school teachers are wrong) allows us to look at the television ratings for each world series game, dating back to 1984. The World Series will almost always draw more viewers than a Divisional Series game, but the premise is the same: fans tune in more when the series is about to end. Game 1 has great ratings, because we love beginnings, but game 7's have way better ratings. Elimination games in general get better ratings. Game 4 of the 2012 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers, with the Giants leading 3 games to 0, drew 3 million more viewers than any other game, and 5 million more viewers than game 3.

So Major League Baseball used game 1 as the elimination game. And it's worked great. This year's Yankees-Astros game on ESPN was the most viewed MLB game on their network in 12 years, and the most viewed wild card game in the new system. That's mostly because the Yankees always draw better ratings than other teams (even if some people just tune in to root against them), but at least some of it has to be the lure of a great season ending in one night. It's certainly unfair, but since we really just want entertainment, the current system fits the American public's preferences very well. Leave the damn thing alone.