Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Twins Off-Season Looks Like a Failure

This off-season has not been all that pleasant for Twins fans. After getting swept, again, by the New York Yankees, the front office promised even more spending. The payroll had jumped from about $70MM to close to $100MM thanks to the opening of Target Field, and the money seemed well spent as the team won  94 games in the regular season and seemed to at least have a chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

The front office absolutely deserves credit for spending more money, although of course the budget needed to be approved by ownership. Signing Jim Thome for $1.5MM last year was the signing of the year, and managing to get him back for just $3MM this year is another steal. However, the rest of the off-season has been a let down.

It was exciting to see the Twins win the bidding rights to Japanese middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, but a look at his prior seasons in Japan suggested he wasn't as good as his 2010 season seemed to suggest. (He hit .346 and won the equivalent of a gold glove in Japan) Nishioka isn't without value, and he would have been a solid player to start next to JJ Hardy because he brings speed to a team that lacked it greatly last year. I think speed is probably the most overrated skill there is in baseball, but Ron Gardenhire said he wanted more speed in the lineup and replacing Orlando Hudson with Yoshi certainly would have given the team a lot more speed. Unfortunately the team decided to trade JJ Hardy too, so we can again expect below average production from the Twins middle infield with Alexi Casilla and Yoshi.

The team has done very little outside of the Hardy trade, though. They watched Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes all sign elsewhere. The team did avoid arbitration with Matt Capps, although they are paying him a hefty $7.1MM for 2011. The team could have easily added two good relievers for that price; for example, Rauch and Guerrier will make $7.5MM combined in 2011. Now, I would actually prefer Capps to Rauch and Guerrier, but there were several solid relievers available that the team would have been better off signing with that money. Chad Qualls, who's 6+ ERA was a lot more bad luck than bad pitching last year, signed for just $2MM. It's certainly possible, and in my opinion it's actually likely that Qualls will have a better year than Capps this season.

The assumption would be that the Twins considered other relievers before deciding to keep Capps, but I'm not sure that's the case. Bill Smith told ESPN 1500 that they chose to keep Capps over signing two different relievers because they 'wanted a closer.' Obviously he means they want insurance incase Joe Nathan can't make a full recovery from Tommy John surgery, and on paper that would seem to make sense. However, most closers were once set up men, and Matt Capps is no exception. I continue to be amazed that such intelligent minds can be so naive about what makes a good reliever. Contrary to popular belief, there isn't a 'mindset' that goes with being a closer. More often than not someone who pitches very well in the 7th or 8th inning will be basically just as good pitching the 9th inning.

Most people remember Boston's closer-by-committee approach years back, and because it failed miserably for the first two months everyone just began to buy-in to the "He doesn't have the mindset to be a closer" argument. Some even argued that because the pitchers didn't have specific roles they struggled because they didn't know when they would be pitching. I find that hard to believe. I think the Red Sox had a good idea that was executed poorly, mainly because the manager had no idea how to use his relievers.

The Twins bullpen is still likely to be at least above average, assuming Joe Nathan returns to full strength, because a Capps/Mijares/Nathan late-inning combination is as good as anyone in baseball besides maybe the Yankees. The Twins have a quality lefty, though, which the Yankees lack, so it's at least an argument that can be made.

However, the point isn't that the Twins are suddenly going to suck, but rather that the front office continues to allocate parts of their budget incorrectly. The goal in any business is to get the most bang for your buck, and despite a national reputation for doing just that, the Twins really struggle in this category more often than not. Michael Cuddyer, Matt Capps, Nick Blackburn and Delmon Young are all overpaid for their production; although if Young continues to improve like he did last season he may one day be worth the money he's going to be paid over the next few years. Blackburn's extension was silly at the time and looks even worse now.

I'm not trying to pick on the Twins, because every team in baseball has contracts that look bad now. The Twins are actually in solid shape, because Capps will almost certainly fetch a draft pick next year when he's a free agent, although offering him arbitration again next season might be tricky because if he accepts the team would be on the hook for a one-year contract worth about $8MM. Cuddyer's contract is also up, so the team can simply cut ties with his $11MM salary and below average defense, but he's been an integral part of the Twins roster for so many years I'm sure Gardy and Smith will do everything they can to bring him back. Hopefully it's on a much more team friendly deal, or at least at the market value.

As mentioned above, the only sure things in the Twins bullpen for next season are Capps, Nathan and Mijares, and of course Nathan isn't a sure thing because he's 37-years-old coming off Tommy John surgery. That would leave four spots open. Assuming the Twins and Carl Pavano finally reach an agreement in the near future, the team will have six starters for five spots. Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Brian Duensing. Unless the team decides to trade one of their extra starters, which I think will only happen once the team sees Kyle Gibson in Spring Training, there will only be three bullpen spots available.

Jim Hoey, who was acquired with Brett Jacobsen from Baltimore for JJ Hardy, will likely be given every chance to win a bullpen spot. Unless he completely implodes during the spring, I think he will be one reliever on the roster. That would leave Glen Perkins, Anthony Slama, Anthony Swarzak, Pat Neshek, Alex Burnett, Eric Hacker and Rule V draft pick Scott Diamond to battle for two positions. Carlos Gutierrez, the former first round pick out of Miami, is a long shot to make the team because he's not yet on the 40-man roster, but if his sinker is as impressive as scouts suggest I hope he gets a legitimate shot to win a job this spring. Even if it means the team has to remove someone from the 40-man roster.

The team has plenty of options, and ultimately keeping Matt Capps over two relievers is something the team obviously felt they could do because of the depth they currently possess. However, the team could have gotten two relievers who are likely to be as effective as Capps for the same price; for example Fuentes and Qualls would have cost about $7.3MM for this season, while Capps and even a minimum reliever are now going to cost the team $7.5MM.

It's hard to be down on a team that won 94 games last year, especially considering Morneau was an MVP favorite before getting hurt and missing the final 80 or so games. The team hasn't done much to improve, but many teams have proven over the years that it's not all that difficult to rebuild a bullpen on the fly. While it's been hard to watch the White Sox and Tigers bring in big name stars, it's worth remembering that these teams HAD TO do something to catch the Twins.

Most people will likely pick the Twins to finish second or third in the division, which obviously means nothing. As a Twins fan it's certainly frustrating to see the team make even small mistakes, especially when anyone who looks at a certain move logically can determine it's unlikely to be the right move. Bill Smith is far smarter than I will ever hope to be, and the things he needs to do on a daily basis as the GM of the Twins goes well beyond simply signing players and trying to make trades. Sometimes it's difficult to remember that it's not like a video game, and there's no doubt Bill Smith and company are doing what they feel is best for the team. I just hope they're right, because there's nothing better than October baseball at the beautiful Target Field.


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