Thursday, January 28, 2010

Checking the Piggy Bank

I'm sure all of us can remember some stories from our childhoods in which we emptied our piggy banks with something special in mind. I remember being about ten years old, with my nine-year-old brother and a group of kids around our ages, playing backyard baseball every single summer day. We used tennis balls, and eventually, we realized we needed a lot more. Even though our parents certainly would have purchased more tennis balls for us if we asked, there was something refreshing to us about earning the money ourselves. We decided to sell lemonade in an attempt to make enough money to buy the balls we needed. After a pretty slow day, we probably had made about $10 total, there was a kid that couldn't have been older than eighteen who pulled up in a very nice, shiny BMW. He asked us to come to the window, and he gave all six or seven of us $10 each from a wad of bills. Was he a drug dealer? Probably. But we were 10-year-old kids with more money than we ever imagined. We spent most of the money on tennis balls, and saved the rest in case we needed money later. Needless to say, we didn't need tennis balls for a long, long time after that.

With the off-season winding down for the Twins, I figured now is a great time to check their piggy bank. It seems very clear that the Twins seem willing to go into the season with a payroll above $90MM, so this is more so to find out just how much money they have left to play with. I could take up your time, going through every salary obligation, or I could simply send you to Cot's Baseball Contracts to look for yourself. If you're too lazy to check, the Twins have just over $88MM committed to eighteen players, with the remaining seven players making the league minimum or close to it. That means, as of now, the Twins payroll is set at about $91MM if they don't make another move.

Considering prior to signing Jim Thome that they were willing to give Jarrod Washburn $5MM for one year, I think it's safe to say the team is fine if their payroll gets near $95MM. If the Twins can turn the money that Jarrod Washburn turned down into Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson, it would be a major upgrade. I would personally send Jarrod Washburn a thank you note if that's what ends up happening.

Regardless, the Twins appear willing to spend, and this may be their last chance to be any sort of players in the free agent market. With so many players due for raises, along with a long-term extension for Joe Mauer, the Twins may be realizing this is their best chance to find some bargains and win this season. Orlando Hudson at $4MM or $5MM would be an absolute steal, and would be an even bigger acquisition than Jim Thome was.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Twins Sign Thome

After a few days of rumors linking Jim Thome to the Twins, the deal was finally completed today with the Twins and Thome agreeing on a 1-year, $1.5MM contract. Thome certainly isn't the slugger he once was, and he definitely won't be spending any time playing defense, but I really like this signing for the Twins. After watching the team sign washed up veterans for deals well above market value, the Thome signing brings hope to a front office that hadn't done much right in the last few years. At the price the Twins are paying, this was a no-brainer for the Twins.

If the Twins are going to go with their best lineup from opening day, Thome should DH every game against right-handed pitching. That would move Jason Kubel to left field, and would send Delmon Young to the bench. Kubel is a poor defensive outfielder, for sure, but he isn't any worse than Delmon Young and it could even be argued if given a larger sample size Kubel's defense may actually rate higher than Young's over a full season. While the difference defensively between Young and Kubel is minimal at best, the difference between Thome and Young against right-handed pitching is pretty staggering.

Last season, Thome absolutely raked against right handed pitching. He posted a .262/.383/.498 line against righties, which was good for an .881 OPS. Like I mentioned yesterday, Morneau's OPS was .878, which means Thome last season hit righties about as well as Morneau hit everyone. Young, on the other hand, was almost the polar opposite of Thome. He hit just .271/.301/.383 against righties, good for an OPS under .700. However, Young hit very well against left-handed pitching, putting together a slash line of .310/.321/.512, good for an OPS of .833.

If the Twins use Thome correctly, the offense could be much improved next season. Rather than getting subpar production out of left field and good production from the DH, if Gardy plays the right guys against the right pitchers, the Twins could get great production from both the DH spot and left field. I understand people think Delmon will play better if given the job everyday, but the fact is he's been given plenty of extended opportunities to show he's capable of breaking out, and up to this point he's been a major disappointment. It's time for the team to give Delmon the best chance to succeed, which at this point in his career is to use him as nothing more than a platoon player. By adding Thome for pennies on the dollar, the Twins now have a great option to platoon Young with, simply by moving Kubel to left field against righties.

I expect Young to start opening day no matter what, and be given plenty of at bats during April, but once he begins struggling like he has each of the last two seasons, Gardy will give many of Delmon's at bats to Thome. I do expect by the end of the year the Twins to realize what is there best lineup against right-handed pitching, and while statistics would make it fairly obvious at this point that Thome is a better bet, the Twins unwillingness to use statistical research could ultimately cost them two or three games in April. As we've learned over the last two seasons, the season can easily come down to one game. I'd rather not have to watch another game 163, but that's just me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tejada, Lopez + Hudson

On Saturday, the Baltimore Orioles agreed to terms with 3B Miguel Tejada on a 1-year, $6MM contract. It had been rumored at times this off-season that the Twins were potentially interested in Tejada, and I have to admit seeing him sign with another team allowed me to let out a giant sigh of relief. I understand Tejada is a big name, coming off a solid season, but in all honesty a Tejada addition likely wouldn't have been an upgrade over just giving Danny Valencia the job right out of Spring Training. Add in the fact that he received $6MM, and the decision to pass on him is a no-brainer.

Tejada hit .313/.340/.455 last year with 14 home runs in 158 games. Certainly not bad numbers, although they're far from his MVP-caliber numbers in his prime. However, Tejada's apparent bounce-back season was aided heavily by the hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park. Tejada's splits are pretty severe, and his road numbers are more than enough to leave me very concerned about a repeat performance in 2010. Miggy hit .343/.367/.512 in Houston, good for an .879 OPS. For comparison's sake, an .879 OPS last year would have put Tejada second on the team behind Joe Mauer. Justin Morneau posted an .878 OPS.

That said, his road splits were awful. He hit just .283/.313/.395 away from Minute Maid Park last year, good for a very poor .708 OPS. Add in his below average defense, and his road numbers are offensively similar to Joe Crede, but his defense is significantly worse, making him a major downgrade from even an oft-injured Joe Crede.

I'm not sure how serious the Twins were about Tejada, but thanks to the Orioles giving him $6MM for what likely will be below average production at 3B, the Twins were saved from making yet another mistake on an aging veteran. Tejada's signing did narrow down the infield options, leaving ultimately Felipe Lopez, Orlando Hudson and Joe Crede as the last remaining free agent options for the Twins.

If I had to bet on who the Twins end up signing, I'd feel pretty confident putting money on Crede returning to the Twins for another year. That's the wrong choice, for several reasons, but mostly because both Hudson and Lopez are better players at this point.

I still think the Twins should sign Hudson, and since they were apparently willing to offer Jarrod Washburn $5MM, they should be able to give Hudson $6.5MM per year for two or three years to lock up second base. Felipe Lopez may be even cheaper, and while Nick Punto starting at third base isn't my first choice, it's not the end of the world. Adding Hudson or Lopez for two or three years would give the Twins some continuity in their infield, with Valencia simply replacing Punto next season. Whatever the Twins decide to do, they're quickly running out of options and need to make a move sooner rather than later.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dear the Vikings

Dear the Minnesota Vikings,

Last night, you broke my heart. Not only did you lose in the NFC Championship for the 5th straight time, you guys did it in the most painful way possible. Playing on the road, as underdogs, you dominated the game from start to finish. Five turnovers later, and the season suddenly came down to nothing more than a coin flip. It wasn't just that you guys lost, it was that you proved you were the better team, yet in true Vikings fashion you did JUST enough to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Today, I am sad. I believe last night showed that you guys were the best team in the league, and were finally poised to take home the franchise's first Super Bowl title, but mistake after mistake ultimately cost you the game. To the defense: you guys played sensational. This was the best game you've played all season. In spite of five turnovers and a few poor special teams coverage plays, you guys managed to hold the league's most prolific offense to less than 300 total yards. That is exceptional, and it is a shame that it wasn't enough to carry this team to the Super Bowl. The offense simply made too many mistakes.

There isn't anyone in particular that is to blame for the loss. Anyone blaming Adrian Peterson must not have been watching the same game. Yes, he put the ball on the ground far too many times, but the Vikings ultimately lost only one of those fumbles. (Which was charged to Favre anyways.) He had 3 of the Vikings 4 TDs, and accounted for 136 total yards. Favre made two big mistakes, both of which resulted in interceptions. The last INT was a very poor decision, but mistakes happen and had the Vikings taken care of business earlier in the game, the last drive would not have meant anything. Berrian played the best game of his season, but his fumble was very costly, as was Harvin's.

For you guys to manage to take the game into OT despite 5 turnovers was great, but to lose was simply unfair to your fans. I spent all week bracing myself for heartbreak, going through every possible scenario, and yet still couldn't have imagined a worse way to lose that game. I would have preferred a 51-3 blowout loss to that kind of loss, because now I believe you guys were the best team this season and you managed to choke again.

I can only imagine how the fans felt in '98, because as bad as this loss was, '98 was worse. Thinking about a more gut-wrenching loss than this one seems ridiculous, but for those a few years older than me and above, they've now gone through two of the most heartbreaking NFC Championship losses in NFL history. In fact, those two losses may be THE two most heartbreaking losses in Championship Round history.

My solution? Find any way possible to draft Tim Tebow. Yes, I've heard all of the scouts talk about how weak his arm is, how poorly he'll translate to the NFL, etc. but guess what? I don't care. Tebow has a certain aura about him, and while I can't believe I'm about to write this, Tebow could be the answer to lifting the Vikings curse. If the team can convince Favre to return for one more season, giving Tebow a year to learn the system and watch one of the all-time greats, I think Tebow could prove to be a very good NFL quarterback.

Regardless, I can't take this heartbreak much longer. I love you, Vikes, and I always will. But at some point it's simply easier to say goodbye and move on, then to sit through years and years of heartache for very little in return. Last night will linger in Vikings fans minds forever, and for some fans it's simply another bad memory in a lifetime that is simply lacking a good one. There's always next year, but unfortunately for Vikings fans, that's always the case. Until you guys move to Los Angeles.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Don't Break My Heart

True story: This past summer, a friend of mine and I were talking about a Minnesota team finally winning a World Championship. We were wondering just how much we'd be willing to give up to watch a Minnesota team finally win one. I said there wasn't a dollar amount I would put on it--I would be willing to be in debt for the next decade if it meant watching the Twins or Vikings win a World Championship. I'd enjoy a Timberwolves or Wild championship as well, but not to the level of a Twins or Vikings one.

At the time, I was in a serious relationship with a girl I'd been with since high school. We'd been together at this point for over four years, and my friend jokingly asked if I'd give up my relationship for a Twins or Vikings championship. I laughed and immediately answered 'absolutely!' although even I'll admit I was joking at the time. Of course, we spent the next ten minutes actually thinking about, weighing the pros and cons of my relationship compared to a world title.

Eventually, after way too much thought about what started as a joke, I told my friend that yes, in all honesty, if it guaranteed a Vikings or Twins championship, I could live with losing my relationship. That undoubtedly makes me look like a pig, and an asshole, but there were logical reasons that led me to arrive at my answer.

It needs to be noted that this wasn't just a random relationship that meant little to me. It's impossible to be with someone for close to five years without it becoming very serious, so for those of you guys thinking "Of course I'd break up with someone for a title!!" it wasn't that much of a no-brainer.

Anyways, there were two main reasons we came to the conclusion that a championship was worth more than a serious relationship:

- There are other opportunities to find a relationship. A championship in Minnesota has been far more elusive than finding another girl for most people. The Twins haven't won a World Title in almost twenty years, and the Vikings have never won one. As important as this relationship was to me, there's some Vikings fans that have been here since they arrived in 1961. That means they've gone almost fifty years without a championship. If you were to give me fifty years to find someone, I'm not certain I would find a relationship that meant as much to me as this one, but the chances are I would.

- No matter how serious a relationship is, it's never forever. Things happen, people change, and over time people can grow apart. Sure, at the point of this discussion we'd been together for close to five years, but that doesn't mean things won't change. A Super Bowl or World Series is forever. Sure, you're only the champion for that one year, but they will be that years champion for eternity. If a relationship ends on a sour note, there's a chance I'd look back on the memories with anger. No matter what happens with the Twins or Vikings for the next decade or longer, if they win a championship I will always look back on that season with great memories.

That conversation is of interest to me today because over the last month or so things changed in my relationship, and we are no longer together. With the Vikings two wins away from a Super Bowl Championship, I couldn't help but wonder if that conversation had more merit to it than simply a random, half joking, time-killing conversation in the middle of the summer. Obviously I would have preferred the championship first, since the Vikings almost certainly will break my heart, but I won't complain if I have to wait three weeks for a Super Bowl.

Following a sports team is a lot like dating someone. There's ups and downs, moments you wonder why the hell you put in the time for what seems like a lost cause, and moments where every thing finally seems worth it. I definitely had all of those in my relationship. Unfortunately, in my decade-long love affair with Minnesota sports teams, I've yet to have that moment where every thing finally seems worth it. The most exciting games in my lifetime, in my opinion, was Game 163 between the Twins and Tigers this past year, and the Wolves game 7 in which they beat the Sacramento Kings to get to the Western Conference Finals. Sadly, both of those wins ultimately meant nothing, as the Twins were swept out of the playoffs and the Wolves lost in six games to the Lakers. I've had ups and downs, and over the last decade I've had more than enough moments wondering why the hell I follow these teams so religiously.

I'm hoping to finally understand why following sports is worth it. The Vikings are two wins away from not only winning the Super Bowl and making every Vikings forget about the last fifty years, but if they can do it with Brett Favre leading them it will be worth all of the heartache that this franchise has put their fans through.

So yes, if the Vikings can win the Super Bowl, I will be a bit frightened that what seemed like a worthless conversation ultimately came to fruition. That doesn't mean I'll complain. All I hope is that the Vikings finally stop playing games with all of our minds, and for the first time since arriving in Minnesota, they don't break our hearts. Consider me cautiously optimistic.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Who's Headed to Miami?

What a great weekend it was last weekend. After hearing all week how the Vikings had no chance against a Dallas team that had been playing very well, the Vikings came out and dominated all 60 minutes of that game and left little doubt as to who was the better team. The Vikings defense was exceptional, and that 40-year-old QB played pretty well too.

I am more excited for this Sunday's game than I have been for any sporting event in my life to this point. I was just 9 years old in '98, which is probably a blessing, because if that game happened now I would spend the next few months doing nothing but being depressed and not moving. Honestly. In '01, when the Vikings were embarrassed by the Giants 41-0, I was a little older (12) but still didn't fully understand the importance of the game. I was at an out of town basketball tournament, and I remember as I dribbled down the court a few times getting an update on the score of the game.

To this day, I've never seen a single highlight or play from that game. It was all things I heard from other people, or the radio broadcast for most of the second half. Of course, at the time, I expected the Vikings to get the NFC Championship quite a bit. They had gone in '98, really the first year I was a sports fan, and again in '01. (Which was actually the '00 season) Going twice in three years undoubtedly gave me unrealistic hopes for the Vikings, but nine years later those unrealistic hopes are long gone. Watching my favorite team in the NFC Championship, after watching them fail twice, the Twins lose in the ALCS, the Wolves lose in the Western Conference Finals and the Wild lose in the same spot, has made me realize how difficult it is to win a championship. The only team to even make the World Championship in my lifetime is the '91 Twins, but I was two years old at the time and needless to say I don't remember it one bit.

I truly hope the Vikings can upset the Saints and get to their first Super Bowl in my life. Will it happen? Nobody knows, but here are my picks for this weekends Conference Championships:

Jets +7.5 over COLTS
This is a very tough game to pick. If I would have bet on any of the Jets games prior to this one, I would have lost a lot of money. I thought the Bengals would beat them fairly easily, but I really expected the Chargers to blow them out. Obviously, neither happened, and the Jets seem to have a legitimate chance to upset the Colts and play in the Super Bowl.

I don't expect that to happen. I do think it will be a close game, but the fact is the Colts haven't lost a game in which their starters played the whole game. Peyton Manning is the greatest QB in the history of the game, and I don't see anyway he doesn't lead this team to the Super Bowl. The Jets defense is great, and their running game is elite, but the fact remains they have a rookie QB who is finally going to need to make a play or two to get to the Super Bowl. Can Sanchez do it? Maybe, but if my life depended on it I would say no.

Final Score: Colts 23, Jets 17

SAINTS -3.5 over Vikings

This was even more difficult to choose. This game could honestly go in any direction. The Vikes could continue to struggle on the road, play a very poor game, and get blown out of the Super Dome very very early. They could also come into the game with more focus than any game all year, play their best game yet, eliminate the crowd noise very early en route to, well, a route.

Personally, I think it'll be a high scoring game that turns on a major play. The Saints have made big plays all season, and while I hope I am terribly wrong, I do think the Saints will be the last team standing after all the punches thrown. I expect a one score game with six or seven minutes to go, and the Vikings D will need to come up with a big stop to give their offense one more shot. I don't see Brees being stopped in a potential game ending drive, which is why I think the Saints will win.

Obviously, I hope I'm wrong. Skol Vikes.

Final Score: Saints 35, Vikings 27

The betting angle: If betting were legal, or if I lived in Las Vegas, I would suggest the 7-point teaser this week. I would take both the Colts and Vikings in that scenario. While the Saints could blow them out, it seems much more likely to me the game stays within 10 points either way. If you take the Vikes, you get 10.5 points, if you take the Saints, you're only getting 4 points. I really like the Jets +14.5, and there could be quite a bit of money to be made even on a 7-point teaser.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Kiffin Made the Right Move

Wednesday night Lane Kiffin took the USC job. He left Tennessee two weeks before signing day, after just one year on the job. Kiffin's hire came out of nowhere, but nobody seemed all that surprised after the fact. Kiffin was never linked to the USC job, and after five or six other coaches ultimately passed on going to USC, Kiffin was offered the job and he never looked back.

There's been a lot of debate over the last few days about what Kiffin did, and a lot of people feel he left Tennessee out to dry (he did), and that taking his third head coaching job in as many years is going to hurt his recruiting (it shouldn't). I certainly understand why people are upset about Kiffin leaving, but I have to say I don't agree with many writers who are claiming Kiffin's decision to go to USC shows his lack of character.

SI's Peter King has been tweeting about his opinions on it the last few days, and he thinks Kiffin deserves to be criticized. King argues that Kiffin was under contract, and he should have honored that contract. Certainly a valid point, but for the most part people get out of their contracts in every line of work if they receive a better offer. This is, in my opinion, Lane Kiffin's dream job. He's a 34-year-old head coach at arguably the best college football program in the country, and he's coached there before. If he passed on this offer because he was under contract with Tennessee, USC would have hired someone else and Kiffin's dream job would no longer be attainable.

King claims that if he had had a contract with Newsday when Sports Illustrated tried to sign him, he would have stayed with Newsday through his contract. I do believe Peter is telling the truth, but the situations are not entirely similar. First, it's doubtful that King's contract with Newsday would have been four or five years, and of course SI would be there to sign King in a few years. King also is already an accomplished writer, and his career path has been paved. It's easy to say you would have done things this way after so many things have worked out, but almost every American would leave their current job for their dream job if they could find a way to do it.

Kiffin deserves credit for being honest with the Tennessee AD. When Carroll left for Seattle, the AD asked Kiffin if USC called if he'd be interested in it, and Kiffin said flat out that he would be. After Kiffin decided to go to USC, the AD asked him if they could offer him a raise to keep him. Kiffin said it wasn't anything to do with money, it was simply the job offer. USC is his dream job, and he deserves credit for not simply using USC to squeeze more money out of Tennessee.

Kiffin is going to win. People may dislike the way he talks in the press, they may think he's an arrogant person, but the fact remains he understands the game and he's shown in just one year he and his staff can recruit with the best in the country. Add in the appeal of Southern California, and I do believe Kiffin will land consistent top-10 recruiting classes while he's there.

Tennessee fans have every right to be upset, as do the recruits that have already enrolled at Tennessee. Other than that, however, it's unfair to be upset at Lane Kiffin for doing what's best for him, something he's always wanted to do, and for upgrading his job. It's ultimately a promotion, and Kiffin isn't the first or last coach that will do this. Let's see if there's an uproar about Skip Holtz getting out of his contract at ECU to go to USF. I bet there isn't. If you want to criticize anyone or anything for the situation, criticize the NCAA for not having a better system. Coaches can leave whenever they want, but recruits who sign a LOI (Letter of Intent) are stuck there even after the coach leaves? It's unfair, and something needs to be done, but blaming Lane Kiffin won't fix the problem.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lay Off Big Mac

Monday afternoon, Mark McGwire shocked the sports world when he admitted he took steroids at times during his career, including during his record-breaking 1998 season. Yes, I'm being sarcastic. Mark McGwire admitting to taking steroids was like your seven-year-old admitting they ate all the candy before dinner while their face is covered in chocolate. It was obvious, and accepted, but it was good for McGwire to admit it so he could get back into baseball.

The hypocrisy of many baseball writers over the last few days has been frustrating to see. Many of the same writers that said McGwire needed to come clean were more than willing to rip him for finally admitting it. My advice to those writers: let it go. Mark McGwire's 1998 season has done more for your career than you will ever understand, and it's amazing to me how quickly people forget that. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball in 1998. While it wasn't quite as meaningless as hockey has become across the country today, the situations were similar prior to McGwire and Sosa's record chasing summer. If I can remember that, considering I was 9 years old at the time, you can understand why it's frustrating that 50 and 60 year old writers who have been covering baseball for decades don't remember that.

Baseball was still reeling from the strike shortened season in 1994-95. NBC paid $400MM total for World Series, LCS and All-Star game rights between 1996-2000. That's $80MM per year. That's certainly not chump change, especially considering baseball was coming back from a strike, but there was little evidence that interest in baseball was going to improve much over the next decade. The real baseball fans were going to continue to watch, but the problem was bringing in new fans and getting the bandwagon fans that were turned off by the strike back into baseball. After the contract was up, MLB signed a six-year, $2.5 billion contract with Fox. That's just under $500MM per season. Obviously McGwire and Sosa's '98 season wasn't solely responsible for a $400MM increase, but it inevitably helped baseball takeoff over the next decade.

Enter the home run chase. At the time, Roger Maris' 61 home runs in one season was considered one of the most prestigious records in all of sports, and probably the second greatest one season record in baseball history behind Joe Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak. Fans spent the summer of '98 watching not one but two men chase the record, and without it, it's very possible baseball would have seen it's ratings sharply decrease in 1999. In '98, there was only one real playoff race, which was the NL Wild Card. The Cubs won the wild card by 1 game over the Giants, and with Slammin Sammy Sosa in the middle of a home run chase, those games were can't miss games. However, the rest of the divisions and playoff races were pretty much decided by mid-September if not sooner, so baseball needed something to keep the fans interest and bring others in.

Mark McGwire did that. He hit 70 home runs, while Sosa finished with 66 in a summer nobody who watched it will ever forget. McGwire was the best hitter on the planet that season, and unlike Barry Bonds during the past decade, Mcgwire was gracious and lovable. He and Sosa, on rival teams, in the same division battling for the wild card, were exceptional role models for young kids across the country. I know that because I was a young kid at the time.**

**People can continue to criticize these players for being poor role models as far as steroids are concerned, but I think that's complete BS. We've all been in high school before. Sure, we make foolish mistakes and do things we wish we could take back, but even as 15 or 16 year old kids, we are smart enough to know when a decision could alter our lives forever. If a high school athlete chooses to take steroids, it's not because McGwire and Sosa did it, it's because the media has spent the last decade glorifying steroids and what they can do for athletes. The truth is, steroids make you stronger. I took a supplement in high school that has been used in steroid cycles, and I can tell you it made me much, much stronger. My lifts more than doubled, and that was with a legal supplement that is about 1/5 of a steroid cycle. However, being stronger doesn't correlate to being a better athlete. Sure, over 162 games adding 10-15 feet to your fly balls is going to turn a 50 home run hitter into a 70 home run hitter. As far as the records are concerned, that's major, but let's not forget Big Mac hit 49 home runs as a rookie when he almost certainly wasn't on steroids. Don't believe me? Just look at a rookie card of the guy.


McGwire and Sosa showed sportsmanship that we simply have a tough time seeing in professional athletes. McGwire welcomed the Maris family into the spotlight during his chase, because he knew that they were hated at the time of their father's record breaking season because of the love for Babe Ruth and to a lesser extent Mickey Mantle. McGwire calling the Maris family to apologize before admitting he used was gracious and certainly not something he needed to do. McGwire may have waited too long in the eyes of some to come out and admit steroid use, but now that he has it's clear those that have been criticizing him for years will continue to do so no matter what he does.

In my opinion, Mark McGwire is a Hall of Famer. Babe Ruth didn't have to play against black players. Roger Maris played in an era where pitchers threw 175 pitches per game. Steroids undoubtedly were an advantage, but when you consider how many players were taking them, the best players during the era would have been the best players in an entirely clean era as well. Bonds, Sosa, McGwire---they're all Hall of Famers in my book. Bonds was the more complete player and the sure fire Hall of Famer before it's believed he used steroids, but what McGwire and Sosa did in '98 along with their final career numbers should be enough to get the support of the people they helped keep employed for the last decade: the baseball writers.

Big Mac saved baseball. We all love baseball, so lay off our savior.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Washburn Apparently Saves Twins

It was reported by Scott Miller of CBS Sports last week that the Twins had made an offer to Jarrod Washburn. Lavelle Neal tracked down some more information, hearing it was a one-year, $5MM offer, which Scott Boras declined. For the casual fan, getting someone like Jarrod Washburn seems like a smart move, especially after the Twins had trouble finding five consistent starters last season. A closer look into his stats, however, tells a different story.

Before being traded to Detroit at the trade deadline this past July, Washburn was 8-6 with a sparkling 2.64 ERA in 133 IP. His strikeout rate during these 20 starts was consistent with his career numbers, averaging 5.3 K/9. His BB rate was down, however it wasn't a major improvement to explain the sudden dominance. After allowing an average of 2.7 BB/9 over his career, Washburn was now allowing 2.2 BB/9, which is one base runner basically every 3 starts considering Washburn averaged close to 6 innings per start.

So, with his strikeout and walk numbers remaining very similar to his career averages, why was his ERA so much lower? Part of it was undoubtedly related to luck. Washburn had allowed an average of 9 hits per 9, or 1 hit an inning over his career. During his first 20 starts this past season, he was allowing just 7.4 hits per 9. Factoring in his improved walk rate, Washburn was ultimately allowing 2 less base runners per 9 innings than he had over his career. That's an improvement, but if you think it still seems like that's not enough to turn a career 4.10 ERA into a 2.64 ERA overnight, you're right.

Washburn's biggest improvement during his time in Seattle was his ability to keep the ball in the park. Over his career, he's allowed an average of 1.2 HR/9, but during his 20 starts in Seattle last season the number was down to a ridiculous 0.7 HR/9. That's one less home run for every 2 starts, which could ultimately be a difference of two runs every 9 innings. That helps better explain why his ERA dropped nearly a run and a half. When you factor in an improved walk rate, an improved hit rate, and the ability to keep the ball in the park, it's not hard to understand why he was so successful in Seattle.

However, both the home run rate and the hit rate are likely to return to their career averages this coming season. In fact, after his dazzling performance with Seattle, Washburn's numbers with Detroit were all above his career averages. Why? Some will point to his knee injury being a main reason, but the truth is when you average certain numbers over a 13-year career, it's fairly easy to predict a pitcher's stats by the end of the season. His numbers simply returned to their averages.

Why was Washburn's hit rate so much better in Seattle? I believe that has a simple answer. Since 2004, Washburn has been a fly ball heavy pitcher. With Seattle in 2009, 57% of balls put in play against him were fly balls. When you factor in that Seattle had one of the best outfield defenses in baseball history last season, and Safeco is a very spacious park, it makes it a lot easier to understand why Washburn was allowing less hits per 9, as well as seeing his home runs allowed drop by almost 50%.

When Washburn arrived in Detroit, his fly ball ratio went way up. It went from 57% to 69%, and while Comerica Park is still spacious, it was actually a hitter's park last season. According to the MLB Park Factors, Comerica was the 13th highest scoring park in baseball, while Safeco field ranked 21st. Comerica gave up about 10% more home runs than Safeco, although the hits were almost identical. So why did Washburn's hits/9 sky rocket to 10.9 H/9 when he arrived in Detroit?

Undoubtedly, he was somewhat affected by his knee injury. He wasn't just average, he was terrible, posting a 7.33 ERA in 8 starts in Detroit before undergoing surgery. However, another factor is the outfield defense. Seattle's outfield for most of last season was Franklin Gutierrez in center, Ichiro in right, and a combination of Wladimir Balentien, Endy Chavez, Bill Hall and Michael Saunders in left. The best way to determine one's fielding value in my opinion is using Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), although the +/- system is also very good. If you're unfamiliar with UZR, here's an interview with Mitchel Lichtman, the man behind the stat. Anyways, Endy Chavez posted a UZR/150 of 23.4 in LF last season, an extraordinary number for an outfielder. Balentien, after being poor defensively for most of his young career, posted a 20.7 UZR/150 in LF, where he played almost exclusively before being shipped off to the Reds. Bill Hall's and Saunders numbers aren't important, because neither played an inning in the outfield while Jarrod Washburn was still a member of the Mariners. Between Chavez and Balentien, the Mariners LF position saved close to 22 runs over a full season, which is a very good number for an entire outfield, let alone one position.

As good as their left field defense was, Franklin Gutierrez was even better. He posted a UZR/150 of 27.1, but since he played more than 150 games, he actually finished the season with a UZR 0f 29.1. That is simply sensational. Factor in Ichiro's 11.3 UZR/150, and over the course of a full season, the Mariners outfield defense saved close to 63 runs. That is a ridiculously high number, and it shows why Washburn was so successful in Seattle before struggling in Detroit.

By comparison, Detroit's outfield for most of the season consisted of a combination of four players: Ryan Raburn, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez and Clete Thomas. Raburn and Thomas split the LF duties exclusively after Washburn's acquisition, with Raburn posting a respectable 11.1 UZR/150, very similar to Ichiro's numbers in RF for Seattle. However, since Clete Thomas split time with him, his less stellar 5.0 UZR/150 makes the Tigers LF defense about 8 runs above average over a full season. Not terrible, but definitely a downgrade from the Mariners 23 runs above average.

The biggest difference, however, came in CF. Curtis Granderson posted just a 1.6 UZR/150, more than 25 runs below Franklin Gutierrez's numbers. Magglio Ordonez, on the other hand, was a -5.4 UZR/150, making the Tigers' outfield defense ultimately barely above average, saving about 4 runs over the course of a full season. That's a major drop off from Seattle's exceptional defense, and it helps explain why Washburn was unable to see much success once he arrived in Detroit.

Now, what does any of this have to do with the Twins? Washburn is likely to finish this coming season with a fly ball rate around 60%, so park factors and outfield defense are going to be major factors for his success. With Target Field opening, it's impossible to know if it will play as a pitcher's park or a hitter's park, but the dimensions seem to suggest it will be closer to a hitter's park than a pitcher's park, and it's very doubtful it plays anything like Safeco field. However, without any information to back up those claims, park factors won't be in the discussion quite yet.

The Twins outfield defense, though, is another story. With the trade of Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee, the Twins traded arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball, and are now going to be starting Delmon Young in left field exclusively, where he's been arguably the worst defensive outfielder in baseball. Last season, Young posted a UZR/150 of -25.6 in LF. That is FIFTY runs worse than the Seattle left fielders last year, and terrible no matter how you look at it.

Michael Cuddyer will man the other corner spot for the Twins, and his defense has been almost as poor. Last season, Cuddyer posted a UZR/150 of -22.1 in RF. That means the Twins are giving up nearly 50 runs per season by starting Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer at the corners together, before either picks up a bat. The hope, of course, is that Span will be a very good defensive center fielder and help mask the deficiencies of the other two.

Unfortunately, Span has also been below average over his career in center field. Last season in 84 games, Span posted a -7.4 UZR/150. Now, unlike Young and Cuddyer, Span has been a great defensive corner outfielder, and his sample size in center is very small, so it's not unrealistic to expect him to become an above average center fielder. However, a best case scenario would appear to be Span being a UZR/150 of around 12, based on his 16.7 UZR/150 in left and 12.3 in his best season in right. Even if Span becomes that good of a defensive center fielder, the Twins would be giving up 36 runs in outfield defense over an average team, and compared to the Mariners exceptional defense last season they'd be conceding over 100 runs.

Washburn could be a solid one year gamble for a team with a spacious park and some very good defensive outfielders, but that simply isn't the Twins. Washburn has stated several times he wants to play closer to his home in Wisconsin, and the best team for him to sign with other than Seattle may in fact be the Brewers, with Gomez in center field. I admittedly didn't look at their corner outfield situation, but with Gomez alone and a more spacious park than Target Field will be, Washburn makes more sense in Milwaukee. Just please, keep him away from the Twins, Bill Smith.

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010

2010 is here, and the Holidays have been hectic, but I promise in the next few days I will be back for good with some interesting takes on Tim Tebow, the NFL Playoffs, the incredibly slow moving MLB Hot Stove, and the great news that the Twins may in fact be interested in Orlando Hudson.

Again, sorry for the short layoff, but I'll be back better than ever. Keep checking back!