Friday, February 25, 2011

Rebuilding Wolves Closer Than Most Think

It's extremely hard for me to gauge the state's opinion of the Timberwolves. Everyone of course agrees they are terrible this year, but I've heard extremely varying opinions on the Wolves future. I've realized over the last two years alone I've gone from extremely optimistic (Rubio for Foye and Mike Miller? Kahn was a God) to fairly pessimistic (Flynn over Curry and Wes over DMC... Kahn was a moron) to most recently very pessimistic (Rubio's been terrible in Europe! Beasley's playing out of position. No guards whatsoever). So I decided to take a look at just how far away I think the Wolves are, mostly so I can determine once and for all how I feel about the Wolves future.

There's no denying the team is very young, and they have a lot of high draft picks on the roster. Trading Corey Brewer for Anthony Randolph was a steal, and in my opinion will be arguably a better trade in two years than even the Michael Beasley trade. But there's also no denying Wolves GM David Kahn has now whiffed horribly in consecutive drafts. Drafting Ricky Rubio at #5 was awesome at the time, and even if we had to wait two years, it really didn't matter. But when the team drafted Jonny Flynn at #6 over Steph Curry, there really was no explanation that made sense. There were rumors that Curry's people told Kahn he wasn't going to workout in Minnesota because he didn't want to play here. If these rumors were true, which I suspect they were, the team hasn't publicly used that as an excuse. But that's because they know that it's ridiculous when you have an entire college basketball season (or in Curry's case three years worth) of tape to make a draft pick based on a workout in your building with or without other players.

However, Kahn's mistakes are for another time. I could rant about all the simple moves Kahn has screwed up, and I could rave about all the complicated, three-team, asset-acquiring trades Kahn seems to get the Wolves involved in to steal some talent for nothing.

As of now, here's the current Wolves roster:
PG: Flynn, Luke Ridnour, Sebastian Telfair 
SG: Martell Webster, Wayne Ellington
SF: Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Lazar Heyward
PF: Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph, Anthony Tolliver
C: Darko Milicic, Nikola Pekovic, Eddy Curry
Telfair and Curry are expiring contracts that will not be with the team next year. However, it's clear the team will need to start packaging some of their assets to acquire a key player in the near future. With possibly three first round picks again this coming season, the team simply won't have enough roster spots for everyone. Of course, the team could draft a few European players and stash them in Europe while holding their rights for the next few years.

Basketball stats are tricky, and certainly not nearly as detailed as baseball stats. There are some solid stats, such as John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rater (PER) but even a stat-lover like myself understands there are definitely flaws in the system.

But because of the lack of truly available AND easy to understand basketball stats, Hollinger's PER is going to be my guideline to try to determine how far the Wolves are from competing.

A quick look at Hollinger's top 10 PER players seems to show just how bad the talent around Kevin Love is. He ranks as the fifth most efficient player in the league, one spot ahead of Kobe Bryant. Hollinger also calcuates an EWA for each player, which is Estimated Wins Averaged. A lot of people consider this the "VORP*" of basketball stats, but again there are simply too many minor flaws for me to cite it as often as I would cite VORP in a baseball post.

*VORP, or Value over Replacement Player, is an extremely accurate and effective statistic for baseball. If you are reading this and don't know VORP, a simple Google search will give you all the answers you need.

If we're using EWA, Love again comes in fifth, tied with Kevin Durant at 13.6 EWA. Of course, the Timberwolves have just 13 wins all season. As far as I understand Hollinger's EWA, it's not what he thinks Love is worth over a full season but rather how Love has performed to this point. The number goes up the more you play, which helps eliminate the low-minute, high-efficiency players that don't make a huge difference.

Based on Hollinger's EWA, Love's teammates than would have been worth -.6 EWA to this point, but that's not the case either. I realize the stat is much more complex than I'm making it out to be, but that's simply an example of one major flaw in the system.

However, PER is more reliable than most. A look at the five best teams in the league to this point:
San Antonio 47-10
Boston 41-14

Miami 42-16
Dallas 41-16

Chicago 39-17
According to Hollinger's PER, here's a look at the players on each team inside the top 50:
San Antonio : Manu Ginobli (20), Tim Duncan (21), Tony Parker (28)
Boston: Kevin Garnett (23), Paul Pierce (35), Rajon Rondo (48)
Miami: LeBron James (1), Dwyane Wade (3), Chris Bosh (32)
Dallas: Dirk Nowitzki (9), Tyson Chandler (47)
Chicago: Derrick Rose (13), Carlos Boozer (26), Joakim Noah (36)
Other than the Mavericks, every other top 5 team has at least 3 of the 50 most productive players in the league. So, more than likely the Timberwolves will need to have three extremely productive players to become an elite team.

Kevin Love is clearly elite. The Wolves need to either develop or acquire two more top-50 efficient players, though, before they'll even be considered contenders. Michael Beasley has been solid this season, and extremely entertaining, and the talent is certainly there for him to emerge as an efficient third option on a top team. The question of course is if Beasley can develop into a top 30-efficient player. Let's take a look at how much Beasley would have to improve to get to that level:

Steph Curry ranks 30th this season in PER, at 19.99. So Beasley will likely need to become a 20-PER player to be top-30 efficient. Currently he's at 16.32. For all the compliments about how well Beasley has played, he's been about as efficient as last season. It certainly doesn't help that he's playing out of position at the 3, but the fact is Beasley still has a long ways to go to become a top-30 player. Luckily, because Love is so good, Beasley could be barely inside the top 50 and still be a huge part of the future.

Brook Lopez ranks 50th this season, at 18.31. That's still quite a bit more productive than Beasley has been, but as a 22-year-old tweener Beasley was expected to have some growing pains as he learned to play defense. Hollinger projected an 18.75 PER out of Beasley prior to this season, so if he can reach that potential he's definitely a fine choice for a third option.

The reason the Timberwolves have the league's second worst record though is because Beasley has been nowhere close to even a third best option this year, and he's being used as the team's main option. Maybe that will help Beasley develop quicker, which is fine, since this season is a lost one anyways.

But the team undoubtedly needs to find a #2 option. Most people consider Love to be that, with the team in need of a true number one type player. I agree the team needs to find a dynamic scorer, but as far as efficiency goes even a volume scorer like Monta Ellis might be able to fill the role. The Wolves are banking on Ricky Rubio coming over and becoming another elite option, and that's definitely still possible. But if the team could have somehow found a way to land Monta Ellis at the deadline, a Rubio arrival would now be considered a bonus.

Even if the team would have had to give up Beasley to get Ellis, it would have been a solid move because the team would be upgrading their third option while holding out hope Rubio will either become the second option or be used to acquire that second option. With another lottery pick this coming season, and the possible arrival of Rubio, the team has the chance to contend for at least a playoff spot very soon.

The Wolves will likely have a shot at Harrison Barnes or Perry Jones, and those two would be perfect fits to play the 3 for this Wolves team. That would allow the Wolves to shop Beasley to find a high scoring 2-guard (like Ellis) and if Rubio came over the team would suddenly look a lot better.
PG: Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, Jonny Flynn
SG: Monta Ellis, Martell Webster
SF: Harrison Barnes, Wes Johnson, Lazar Heyward
PF: Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph, Anthony Tolliver
C: Darko Milicic, Nikola Pekovic
The team could also potentially add two more first round picks to that roster as well, although those picks are unlikely to be very strong in a weak draft so it may be better if the protections the picks carry kick in and allow the Wolves to get the pick next season instead, when they'll be without their own.

If Randolph develops, the team is long enough in other positions to go with a starting lineup of Rubio/Ellis/Barnes/Randolph/Love that could simply run teams out of the gym.

I think it's time to start to get cautiously optimistic about our Wolves, a few simple fixes to this roster and we could be a potential playoff team in a suddenly much weaker Western Conference. And if the rebuilding doesn't work and they need to start over, well, at least we've had so many losing seasons over the last two decades that it won't come as a surprise or even a disappointment. Sadly, it's what's expected.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

NBA Jam is a Slam Dunk

Just trust me. Even if you don't like basketball or the NBA, you'll love NBA Jam. Just buy it now, and thank me later.

Monday, February 21, 2011

10 Years From Now

I'm sure most of you, at some point in your life, have been asked the question "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" or, at least a variation of that question, maybe 5 years or even less. But the point remains the same. What are you working toward?

The first time I was asked this question, or remember being asked this question, I was a freshman in high school. We (all students) had to meet with our counselors for some reason; probably picking classes. One of the first things my counselor asked me was "Where do you see yourself in four years?" Obviously she was referring to what I wanted to do after high school. At that point I really had no idea, just that I wanted to go to college*. Which is vaguely what I remember telling her, something about going to college. I had no idea what kind of career I wanted. She then helped me get into my necessary classes, I signed something, and I think that was the last time I talked to her in high school.

*I of course wanted to play division I baseball, but when my body decided to stop moving vertically around the end of my freshman year, that became much more difficult.

Most of the time, this question isn't taken seriously. I certainly didn't think deeply about what I wanted to do with my life the first time that counselor asked me, and I think most people feel that way. When meeting with a financial advisor, or anything along those lines, they usually ask you this kind of question. They want to know what your goals are, so they can help you get there quicker. Or something like that. You've often gone through a list of questions before they get to that one, so you don't think about it deeply at all. You want a house. Married. Kids. Stuff like that.

But lately when my mind has wandered it's wandered to this specific question. Where do I want my life to be in 10 years?* I want to be writing, I know that much. Everything else is jumbled and blurry and I have no idea what else I want to be doing. I don't even know where I want to be writing or even what I want to be writing. But I certainly hope in 10 years I can look back on this, laugh at my horrible writing skills and know I lived the last 10 years of my life the way I wanted to day by day.

*It's worth noting I think that it's seemingly meaningless to wonder about this. Regardless of where I want my life to be, no matter what I do or how hard I try to make my life turn out that way, I know things change and things are uncontrollable. But my mind wanders anyways.

But after about 30 seconds of thinking about myself personally, my mind wanders even deeper and I start to think about how the world is going to be different in 10 years. This is much more interesting, and has many more possibilities, so you could imagine how long one could think about this.

In 10 years, we will be watching an NFL without Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, but we'll be watching some 22-year-old hot shot* carrying a whole city's hopes and dreams on his shoulders. That 22-year-old hot shot is a 12-year-old kid somewhere right now, eating fruit-by-the-foot, playing video games, and dominating the backyard football games he plays with his friends. That's crazy to me.

*It always cracks me up when announcers and reporters say things like "He always knew he was going to be an NFL QB," because, every kid knows they're going to be an NFL QB. Or the Yankees shortstop. Anyone with any talent growing up thinks they're going to be playing professionally when they grow up. And even the kids without talent think it. It's the wonderful innocence and hope of a child before reality comes crashing down.

In 10 years, will we have found a cure for cancer? Any kind. AIDS? Will we have different abortion laws? Has there been another terrorist attack? It's crazy to wonder. Nobody knows what will happen in 10 years. Every decision you make on a daily basis is going to somehow play into the next 10 years of your life. Most will be incredibly small, unimportant decisions that alter very little. And then you'll have that one moment where you know you can look back and it changed your life. Maybe you meet someone, maybe you achieve something, whatever that moment is, it makes one wonder when that moment is coming.

In 10 years, what will be the new Blu Ray? Were 3-D TVs successful? How did Egypt fare as a democracy? It's hard to believe how much things will change.

I can remember 2000. Y2K. I'm 100% sure 10 years ago I wouldn't have said "In 10 years I'll be majoring in journalism at Winona State University." Obviously nobody expects an 11 or 12-year-old kid to correctly predict their future university 10 years in advance.

It's something that we can think about and think about, and sometimes our imaginations will run wild. What if we hit it big somehow? What if in 10 years I'm retired? But, the fact is, this question is as meaningless when your 22 or 32 or 42 as it is when you're 12. Life is going to happen whether you want it to or not. Trying to plan out your future has its benefits, but only if you understand at the outset it's more than likely not going to turn out the way you planned.

So, what do you want in 10 years? Where do you see yourself? Makes ya wonder.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't Extend Delmon Young

On Wednesday the Twins and outfielder Delmon Young agreed on a 1-year contract worth $5.375MM to avoid arbitration. Many fans have been clamoring for the team to lock Young up long-term, and I think that reason is because these fans are blindly clinging to the hope that Young is on his way to becoming a superstar.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: He's not going to be a superstar. He's unlikely to ever be an all-star. But he is going to be expensive to lock up at this point, because he hit 21 home runs and had 112 RBI last year. Obviously those stats are outdated and seemingly useless as far as evaluating production, but some fans are unwilling to accept the new stats and still look at home runs and RBI.

I have been admittedly hard on Delmon Young on this blog. It's not because I don't like him or I want him to fail, but rather because both the Twins organization and fans of the team seem certain Young is a good player now on his way to becoming a great player.

Young will only be 25 when the season begins, so improvement isn't out of the question. He improved significantly last year at the plate and in the field. He was still a below average defensive left fielder and his offensive output was only slightly above average, as he hit .298/.333/.493 good for an OPS of .826. Left fielders as a whole hit .270/.337/.432, good for an OPS of .770. (I realize .337 + .432 is .769, but the decimals round it to .770) Young was about 8% better offensively than the average left fielder last season.

However, Young has hit .292/.328/.443 in three seasons with the Twins, which is good for an OPS of .771. That means offensively he's been average, while defensively he's gone from the league's worst outfielder to slightly below average.

Extending Young now would be a colossal mistake, because right now Young's price tag is fairly high. Making over $5MM this year is a direct result of his contract when he was drafted, because his production to this point certainly does not suggest deserving a $5MM contract. But because he made more than the minimum his first three years, and he received a raise every year of arbitration, he's making over $5MM in his final arbitration year.

There's of course a chance that Young continues to improve, posts something like a .310/.350/.500 line and becomes slightly more valuable but probably a lot more expensive. If I were to guess right now I'd say Young and his agent are looking at something like a three or four-year deal worth $9-$10MM a season. That's simply too much to pay.

A great comparison to Delmon Young is Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer's best season came in his sixth year, which for Young will be this coming season. Over his first five seasons, Cuddyer hit .260/.330/.428, which is a .758 OPS. Then in his sixth season he broke out, hitting .284/.362/.504. (.867 OPS) The Twins then signed Cuddyer to his current deal, which is paying him $11.5MM in the final year. Most fans agree Cuddyer is overpaid, which is true. Since signing the extension, Cuddyer has hit .271/.343/.446 posting a .789 OPS, which is very similar to the league average for right fielders over the same time period. (Right fielders have averaged a .276/.351/.437 line, or .788 OPS over the last four years) And that's not even factoring in the majority of time he spent at first base the last year and a half, which is an even more offense-heavy position.

Over Young's first five seasons, he has hit .292/.325/.435, good for an OPS of .760. That's basically the exact production Cuddyer provided in his first five seasons. If history repeats itself, the team will see Young breakout in a big way in 2011, receive a large extension and then regress slightly. Young is almost certainly going to be more productive over the next six years than he was in his first five, but the problem is he's likely going to be paid much more than he's worth.

For Young to be in the upper echelon of left fielders, he's either going to need to miraculously become a good defensive left fielder or post an OPS north of .875 consistently. Neither seems like a safe bet to me, which is why I would let Young play out his final season in Minnesota this year and then let him walk and cripple a different teams payroll over the next half-decade.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Chuck Knoblauch

I happened to come across Chuck Knoblauch's career stats the other day, and I was shocked at how good he was at his peak. To an older, lifelong Twins fan, that may seem ridiculous, but I would guess even those fans have forgotten just how good 'Knobby' was, particularly in 1996.

Most people remember Brady Anderson's 50 home run season, mostly because it was such an outlier compared to the rest of his career it's kind of the punch line for the Steroid Era. That was 1996, but as great of a year as Brady Anderson had, four everyday players in the American League had better years. According to Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is literally what it sounds like*, Anderson ranked fifth. The top two are no surprise: Ken Griffey Jr (9.7) and Alex Rodriguez (9.4). Chuck Knoblauch, though, came in third with an 8.8 WAR. Jim Thome was 4th at 7.1, and the previously mentioned Brady Anderson put up a 6.6.

*Still confused about WAR? Basically if you replaced Griffey's 1996 season with a league average player both offensively and defensively, the Mariners would have lost close to 10 more games. The Twins finished 78-84, but had they replaced Knoblauch with an exactly league average player they likely would have won just 69 or 70 games.

Knoblauch hit .341/.448/.517 and stole 45 bases. To put that line into perspective, it's important to note that Kirby Puckett's best season fell 63 points short of Knoblauch's '96 season, at least as far as OPS is concerned. Yes, the offensive eras were much different during Puckett's career, but even using OPS+, which adjusts for stadiums and eras, Knoblauch's '96 season is only eclipsed by Puckett's '88 season. In '96, Knoblauch finished just 16th in the MVP voting, though, because the Twins finished in 4th place in their division and likely because Knoblauch hit just 13 home runs.

Knoblauch's career is one of the more interesting careers in a lot of ways. As a rookie, he was on top of the world. He hit just .281/.351/.350, but he stole 25 bases and the Twins won their division so Knoblauch was voted Rookie of the Year. Then the Twins won the World Series, capping off Knoblauch's rookie year as well as he could have planned. In his 2nd year, the team won 90 games but finished second in their division and failed to make the playoffs. That would be the final winning season Knoblauch had as a member of the Twins.

In Knoblauch's 7 years in Minnesota, he hit .304/.391/.416 and stole 276 bases at a 78% success rate. The Twins then traded him to the New York Yankees, getting Eric Milton, Cristian Guzman, Brian Buchanan and Danny Mota. The team then used Milton to acquire Carlos Silva and Nick Punto a few years later, and traded Buchanan for Jason Bartlett, who was packaged with Matt Garza for Delmon Young. That Knoblauch trade helped the Twins contend over the last decade, and if Delmon Young can continue to improve, it has a chance to help the team contend for yet another decade.

When Knoblauch demanded to be traded following the '96 season, Twins fans were outraged. Kirby Puckett had been forced into early retirement, and now Knoblauch wanted out too? The fans had every right to be upset, but the fact was the team hadn't even been competitive since 1992, and there were no real signs that the team would contend in the near future. Demanding a trade to a contender when you've been one of the best players in baseball over your first seven years is hardly shocking.

When Knoblauch returned to Minnesota, many fans threw batteries and other objects at him while he was playing left field. This forced Twins manager Tom Kelly to ask the fans to stop or the team would have to forfeit the game. Looking back, it's unfortunate it happened, and the real anger should have been directed towards the Twins front-office. At that point in time the team had failed miserably at trying to rebuild, which is why the team was so terrible from 1993-2000.

Knoblauch's career in Minnesota ended on a sour note, but he won three straight world championships in New York while the Twins acquired players that would help the team return to prominence and no longer be a national punch-line. I think it's time 'Knobby' gets remembered for the great play he provided us with on the field, rather than the unfortunate trade requests most fans remember him for. He was a great player.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Trading Liriano? Idiotic.

For years, our beloved Minnesota Twins have been praised for contending year after year with a payroll that rarely ranked in the top half of the league. At first glance, the Twins organization certainly would appear to deserve praise. Since 2001, the Twins have had pretty much nothing but winning seasons. Here's the team's record, payroll, and payroll ranking of each season, and the averages over the last 10 years:

Any way you look at it, the Twins have been one of the most cost-efficient teams in baseball over the last decade. 6 division titles in 10 years is a huge accomplishment, and it's a feat that's certainly not lost on me. However, as is often the case, these stats only show part of the picture.

First, it needs to be explained that the Twins have been one of the most successful regular season teams over the last decade without using statistical analysis really, well, ever. Most organizations have a 'stats department' of some sort, which crunches numbers on players and helps give the organization another look at a player that often varies from the scouting reports. The Twins are not one of these teams. Two years ago the team admitted as much, saying they didn't have anyone in their front office who was using the newer stats. Last year the team finally hired someone to look into stats, although I'm guessing his influence wasn't all that high in his first year.

The Twins have averaged 89 wins over a 10-year span by strictly using scouting and ignoring the statistics, so it seems silly to criticize them for that. Especially when teams like Pittsburgh and Kansas City haven't been good really ever in my lifetime. Trust me, I appreciate the fact that my favorite team is consistently in the mix for a playoff spot. But it's frustrating to see that same team continue to make mistake after mistake. Statistics aren't the be-all end-all, but they do a very good job of allowing one to predict future years. The Twins as an organization seem to disagree with this premise.

Reports emerged yesterday that the Twins were willing to deal their ace, Francisco Liriano, "for the right offer." Follow-up reports listed the Yankees and Rangers as Liriano's most likely suitors, which angered me even more. If the Twins trade Liriano it will be a huge mistake; if they trade him to an American League team who they may see in the playoffs, it will be an even bigger one.

Luckily for Bill Smith and company, if they do trade Liriano, they won't need to worry about playing the Yankees or Rangers in the playoffs because chances are they won't be a factor at all this season. Smith has made 12 trades since taking over in 2008. Some were very minor, some appeared to be minor and became important deals, and others were big at the time. Here are the 9 important trades the team has made under Smith:

Minnesota sends Jason Bartlett, Eduardo Morlan and Matt Garza to Tampa Bay for Brendan Harris, Delmon Young and Jason Pridie.
Minnesota sends Johan Santana to the New York Mets for Deolis Guerra, Carlos Gomez, Kevin Mulvey and Philip Humber.
Minnesota sends Tyler Ladendorf to Oakland for Orlando Cabrera.
Minnesota sends Yohan Pino to Cleveland for Carl Pavano.
Minnesota sends Kevin Mulvey to Arizona for Jon Rauch.
Minnesota sends Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee for JJ Hardy.
Minnesota sends Joe Testa and Wilson Ramos to Washington for Matt Capps.
Minnesota sends Loek Van Mil to the Los Angeles Angels for Brian Fuentes.
Minnesota sends JJ Hardy and Brendan Harris to Baltimore for Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobsen.
The Twins clearly won the Pavano and Rauch deals. They clearly lost the Johan and Garza deals.  The rest are up for debate. I think they won the first Hardy trade, when they acquired him, and then lost when they traded him this off-season. The Capps trade is still TBD, because it depends how good Wilson Ramos becomes.

However, it's clear that when Smith has decided to make a blockbuster type trade, he's swung and missed twice already. Is he really the guy you want negotiating a trade of the team's best starter? Me either.

Liriano's ERA last year was a very good 3.62, but because of bad luck and some poor defense, his ERA should have actually been even better. His 9.4 K/9 when paired with his 2.7 BB/9 show just how dominant he was, as he nearly posted a K:BB ratio of 3.5:1. Liriano was among the best pitchers in all of baseball last year, and he's making just $4.3MM this coming season. There's really no reason to trade him.

Well, except that he's been fairly injury prone over his career, and the team doesn't feel safe offering him a high-paying extension. Liriano reportedly proposed a 3-year, $39MM extension to the Twins brass at some point this off-season, and at that point the Twins realized just how far off the two sides were. That's why Liriano's available, but he shouldn't be. Even if the team doesn't want to give Liriano his 3-year extension, he's still under team control for one more season after this one. That means the Twins have Liriano for 2 more years if they so choose, at below-market values. Unless the team is getting back an absolute boat-load of talent, trading the only potential ace on the roster makes little sense.

This seems to be another organizational belief, that if the team can't keep a star player they're better off trading him then simply taking the draft picks when he leaves. In most cases, trading for prospects that have been in the minor leagues at all is a better option than hoping to draft a future star, but considering the Twins don't use statistical analysis and rely heavily on their scouts, it really doesn't matter.

Now, back to the Twins getting a ton of praise over the years. The team in 2001 was mostly homegrown talent, drafted by the Twins organization or acquired in trades while the players were still in the minors. That core was the reason the team won 3 straight division titles from 2002-2004, but it's worth noting the American League Central was probably the worst division in baseball during those three years. The Twins were the best team in their division, no doubt, but could they compete with the elite teams in the league? Their playoff results would seem to suggest otherwise, although coming to a certain conclusion based on small sample sizes is always risky.

Since 2005, though, the team has been more lucky than good in my opinion. Yes, the team deserves credit for finding Johan Santana in the Rule V draft, but even the Twins couldn't have expected him to become the best starter in the American League for years. It's actually rather clear the Twins didn't even know if Santana could start, because they used him out of the bullpen for a year and a half when it was clear to everyone that he was one of the team's best starters.

Joe Mauer arrived in '04. The Twins drafted him #1 overall in 2001 out of high school, over Mark Prior. For those who don't remember much about Prior's prep career, he was basically Stephen Strasburg before Stephen Strasburg. He was the consensus #1 overall pick, but there were rumblings pre-draft that Prior wouldn't sign with the Twins. The Twins took Mauer, watched Prior excel for three years in Chicago, and then Prior got hurt and Mauer became the best catcher in baseball.

Terry Ryan and other Twins executives swear they had Mauer as the best player in the draft that year, and they're the only people who really know the truth. But the logical assumption is that the Twins actually had Prior higher, like every other team, but were worried he wouldn't sign. Now that Mauer has become the player he has while Prior's career fizzled it's much easier for the organization to say they had Mauer number 1 overall on their board, and honestly it'd be bad business to say anything else. But I do think if Prior had stayed healthy and won multiple Cy Young awards, and Mauer had been injured or less effective than he's been, that the team would have admitted they didn't draft Prior because of signing concerns. After Travis Lee screwed them, signing concerns were rightfully a big issue in the Twins front office.

There's nothing wrong with being lucky. In sports, you have to be lucky numerous times. In professional sports, it's incredibly difficult to build a contending team without getting lucky. Look at the Green Bay Packers, for example. There two best players, Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, were each drafted in the late first round. Scouts deserve credit for finding them, but the Packers could not have imagined in their wildest dreams they'd be drafting a QB who may be better than Packer legend Brett Favre, or an impact linebacker who may be the best defensive player in football. If they had known that, they would have traded up.

The only reason I mention that the Twins have been lucky is because they get praised all the time for doing things the right way, developing talent from within and always competing. I hate to keep using the Packers as an example, but in my opinion Ted Thompson doesn't deserve praise for drafting Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, he deserves credit for finding talent later in the draft, which gave the Packers enough depth this year to overcome a ton of injuries and still win the Super Bowl.

The Twins consistently contend in their division because they have the star players to do so. However, for years, they've gotten below average production from far too many positions for me to sit here and say the Twins are a great organization. Since 2005, the Twins have been above-average at only five positions: Catcher, First Base, Center Field, Starting Pitcher and Closer. The team's bullpen has been both great and mediocre over that time, but bullpen turnover isn't uncommon and consistently finding the right mix of relievers is a difficult task for any organization.

The issue, though, is that this 'great organization' has been unable to find a second baseman, shortstop, third baseman or corner outfielder to consistently provide above-average seasons. Jason Bartlett and JJ Hardy were above average shortstops, and the team traded them both for very little. Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer have had breakout years, and they've also been below average, but neither has been good enough to be deemed above average overall when factoring in both offense and defense.

There's hope that all of those needs have been filled. Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka up the middle, Danny Valencia at third and Delmon Young in left all would appear to give hope to a franchise that needs more above average players. Unfortunately, that likely won't be the case.

Casilla's struggles have been well documented on here, and I've mentioned several times I'm not too optimistic about Nishioka's offensive upside. Valencia comes into the 2011 season with a lot of high hopes because of how well he hit during the second half last year, but the fact remains he was barely above average offensively in the minors and he's likely to be a .270/.340/.420 guy at his absolute best in a full-time role. If he plays average defense, that's an average third baseman. Young continues to improve offensively, but his poor defense returned over the final few months last season and his offensive numbers are still well below the kind of numbers some people expected from the former #1 overall pick. Last year, Young was above average, but just barely, and the year prior to that Young was among the worst players in baseball. If he regresses offensively at all, without improving his defense, the team will be paying him close to $5MM for league average production.

The team has won because they've done a great job at building a core of star players, and in a watered down AL Central those stars were capable of leading the team to the playoffs. But the organization has failed miserably at putting solid, above-average players around the stars, which is why the playoff success has been non-existent.

The team has had a very poor off-season, and trading Liriano would be the biggest mistake this team has made in quite some time. Based on Bill Smith's track record, I don't even need to wait to see what the team gets, because I know it will be a poor trade for our beloved Twins. Say it ain't so Bill.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hate Him or Love Him, LeBron is Best

Never before in the history of sports has one athlete gone from so beloved to so hated on such a grand stage faster than LeBron James. Seven little words and LeBron's fan-friendly image went down faster than Miley Cyrus' pants. "I'm taking my talents to South Beach." Tool.

But by God the man has many talents. Some people like to view the NBA simply "through their eyes" which is perfectly fine; I would say most people view sports this way. Most people aren't into the 'stats' part of the game, and that's probably normal. But the thing about LeBron James is that in both cases, he's clearly the best basketball player on the planet. It's not even close.

The man is averaging 26.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 7.0 APG. The only player in the league scoring more than James is Kevin Durant, who's averaging 29 PPG and 7.2 RPG but just over 2 APG, which makes it pretty clear that James is helping his team more than Durant. (Combining points and assists, LeBron is over 40 PAPG, and Durant is slightly over 38 PAPG) And that's before we factor in defense.

If anyone needs to be reminded how valuable LeBron James is, look at his former club. Yes, Big Z followed LeBron out of Cleveland. Anderson Varejo has been hurt. Mo Williams has missed some time. But the Cavs went from being the best team in the regular season the last two years to the league's worst record, which includes a record 26 game losing streak that is still in progress, mainly because LeBron James left.

Kobe Bryant spent most of the 2004-2005 season playing as the only star player on his team, with a bunch of 'misfits' and young players that simply weren't improving. That Lakers team went 34-48.

LeBron James spent his entire career playing as the only star player on his team. Mo Williams went from overpaid cast-off in Milwaukee to All-Star Point Guard, and there's little doubt that the difference was simply playing with James. Since James left, Williams has tried to become the go-to scorer again. He's shooting more than he did last season, yet he's scoring nearly 2 less points per game because of poor shooting. He doesn't have LeBron to get him nearly as many open looks. He played with Shaq, but old and no-longer-a-factor Shaq rather than MVP Shaq that Kobe played with.

The point isn't to degrade Kobe or his legacy, because he's one of the best players in the history of the game. The point is simply that as good as Kobe was, even at his absolute best he couldn't carry a team of average players to the playoffs. James didn't just take his cast-offs to the playoffs, he did it with the best record in the league in back-to-back seasons.

LeBron should win the MVP Award by a wide margin, but it'll be much closer than it should be. James will be penalized for playing with Wade and Bosh, and for ultimately accepting that he's hated by most fans. Dirk Nowitzki, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant will all be the in discussion, among others.

Paul is the closest to James in terms of production this year, but the fact remains James has been more productive and after a 6-6 start the Heat have been on absolute fire, going 32-8. James has taken over as the go-to-guy and Wade has rightfully learned to become Robin to LeBron's Batman. The Heat have to be the favorites right now to win the title this season, and whether you want to admit or not, LeBron James is the reason, because he's the best player in the league.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Career of Billy Chapel

I watched "For Love of the Game" before I went to bed the other night, and it's become one of my favorite movies of all time. I couldn't help but notice though that throughout Chapel's perfect game, announcer Vin Scully seems to talk of Chapel's 19th season as if it was a let down. The only reason that bothered me was because they happen to show Chapel's stats on the screen when the game is starting; and as a 40-year-old pitcher in his 19th season, his ERA was actually pretty impressive.

Keep in mind this was 1999, which was right in the middle of the Steroid Era. Here were the numbers shown on the screen:

Now, unfortunately, Chapel's ERA would actually have had to be either 3.54 or 3.58 based on these stats. If Chapel allowed 83 earned runs in the 211 innings he pitched, he would have posted an ERA of 3.54, and 84 earned runs would have placed him at 3.58. But, since graphics routinely have typos in them when we watch live games, we'll just assume someone for Fox made a typo and meant to put his ERA at 3.54. With 98 walks to just 111 strikeouts, Chapel's ERA should have been much higher, though.

First, let's look at the league averages for offensive players in 1999. The average hitter that year hit .271/.345/.434. The average runs per team was 823, and the OPS+ was 96. Since 1900, the only season that had more offense was the 2000 season. So, basically, as a 40-year-old has been, Chapel posted a 3.54 ERA in a very offense-heavy environment despite striking out nearly as many hitters as he walked. This would suggest Chapel was probably an extreme ground ball pitcher, and he had great defenders behind him, and quite frankly he was probably pretty lucky in 1999. He didn't miss enough bats to be pitching so well without a lot of help.

The pitching averages for 1999 make Chapel's 3.54 ERA that much more impressive: 4.71 ERA, 3.7 BB/9 and 6.5 K/9. Based on Chapel's 1999 stats, he somehow managed to post an ERA that was 25% better than the league average, despite posting a 4.2 BB/9 and just a 4.7 K/9 during that season.

Once you factor in Chapel's perfect game, in which he has 9 strikeouts and 0 walks, his final 1999 season looks like this:

3.40 ERA, 98 BB, 120 K, 220 IP, 4.0 BB/9 and 4.9 K/9

Basically, Chapel got by on smoke and mirrors in his final season, which would seem to suggest he hung it up at the right time. But throughout the movie I couldn't help but wonder what Chapel's career numbers would have looked like, considering everyone talked about him like he was the best pitcher in baseball for several years.

Based on a 19-year career, Chapel's rookie season would have come in 1981. I tend to assume Chapel won the Rookie of the Year award, because at one point during the movie the Tigers' trainer tells Chapel to retire because he's "won every award there is to win." It's impossible to know how Chapel's Tigers teams fared during his career, and just plugging in the real life Tigers records for his career seems to take away from the movie somewhat. But again, because the trainer says Chapel has won every award there is to win, I would take that to mean he was Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, MVP at least once, and of course a World Series MVP. 

Now, for the sake of saving you all from reading what kind of math I used to get these numbers, I'm just going to post the numbers I came up with (and spent way too much time on) for his career. But keep in mind that Chapel's career went through a pitching era and an offensive era so his numbers will change accordingly. Vin Scully mentions that Chapel has thrown "over 4100 innings" so his career numbers will reflect that. Also, the strike-shortened '81 and '94 seasons in real-life weren't actually strike-shortened in this fictional universe, at least for compiling stats. Lastly, Chapel's hand injury came following the '95 season, in the off-season, which is reflected in both his '96 and '97 season's innings pitched as he tried to come back from a career-threatening injury.

Here's what I came up with:

Chapel went to 9 all-star games, won 5 Cy Young Awards, one MVP, and one World Series MVP. He won 318 games, and had he retired after his accident, he still would have won 283 games, which in an injury-shortened career would have made him a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer like he's portrayed in the movie. 

Needless to say, Billy Chapel had one helluva career, and it's fitting that he finished it with a perfect game. It is, literally, a Hollywood ending.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Twins Likely 25-Man Roster

With the Super Bowl taking place last night* and putting an end to the NFL season, most sports fans will turn their attention to baseball in the next few weeks. Pitchers and catchers report in 11 days, which for anyone outside of Wisconsin is great news because the NFL season could not have ended sooner.

*For those of you who think I'm not capable of congratulating the Packers and their fans, you're right. Screw the Packers.

The Twins off-season wasn't a great one, but the roster did have considerable turnover. That should make Spring Training at least a little bit more interesting than usual, although there really won't be many battles for roster spots. It will be interesting to see how Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka fares, and if he'll play shortstop or second base, but it's clear he's going to be starting up the middle. As of now, here are the players that are guaranteed to make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training barring injury:

C: Joe Mauer, Drew Butera
1B: Justin Morneau
2B: Alexi Casilla
SS: Tsuyoshi Nishioka
3B: Danny Valencia
OF: Delmon Young, Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Jason Repko
DH: Jim Thome
SP: Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing
MR: Matt Capps, Jose Mijares
CL: Joe Nathan

By my count, 21 of the 25 roster spots are already taken care of. The remaining four spots are likely going to be taken by a utility infielder and three relievers, so even those 'battles' aren't going to be all that interesting.

Trevor Plouffe and Matt Tolbert are going to be battling for the utility role, and because both Casilla and Yoshi can play shortstop, Luke Hughes is a darkhorse candidate to win the job. Hughes has been described as a liability defensively, though, so it's much more likely that Plouffe or Tolbert wins the job. My money is on Tolbert, although both are pretty poor options.

In three seasons in AAA, Tolbert is a career .289/.342/.418 hitter, which really isn't a bad line for a potential utility infielder in the bigs. Offensive numbers tend to decline between 10 and 15% when someone goes from AAA to MLB, so a .260/.318/.376 line would seem to be an optimistic line as that would represent a 10% decrease from his AAA numbers. Tolbert is a career .246/.306/.347 hitter in the big leagues over three seasons, though, so it appears to be closer to 15%. Basically, I think Tolbert's floor (the absolute worst he could do) would be about a .235/.295/.330 line, while his ceiling is the aforementioned .260/.318/.376 line.

Plouffe on the other hand is a career .253/.303/.419 hitter in 3 AAA seasons, which is clearly inferior to Tolbert's AAA numbers. That would put an optimistic view of Plouffe's 2011 MLB projections at about .230/.270/.375 which sadly isn't much better than Tolbert's floor, and Plouffe's floor is probably close to .215/.255/.350 which is obviously absolutely atrocious.

Tolbert has more major league experience, seems more comfortable playing multiple positions, and is a better offensive option than Plouffe, so it seems likely he'll be the utility guy to start the season. Basically, as Twins fans we really need to hope that the infield stays healthy for the majority of the season, or that Ron Gardenhire moves Michael Cuddyer back to second base.

That leaves three roster spots available, although all three will likely go to relievers because the Twins feel a need to carry 12 pitchers at all times.

Those three spots will be up for grabs in the spring among the following pitchers:

Jim Hoey, Anthony Slama, Pat Neshek, Glen Perkins, Scott Diamond, Dusty Hughes and Alex Burnett.

Kyle Gibson is likely a better pitcher than all of those players listed, but the Twins will undoubtedly want him to be making a start every fifth day so he has zero chance of winning a bullpen spot. Carlos Gutierrez is another intriguing pitcher, but since he's not even on the 40-man roster yet he seems unlikely to win a spot. Jeff Manship and Anthony Swarzak are longshots, and likely will be starting the year in AAA Rochester's starting rotation.

Hoey was acquired from the Orioles this off-season in the JJ Hardy trade, Scott Diamond was acquired in the Rule V draft from the Braves organization, the team just recently claimed Dusty Hughes and waived Rob Delaney to do so. Slama, Neshek, Perkins and Burnett were all already in the Twins organization.

Neshek would appear to offer the most upside, as he's now another year removed from Tommy John surgery and prior to getting hurt in 2008 he was among the elite relievers in baseball. Neshek has a career 3.05 ERA, striking out over 10 batters per 9 innings and has allowed just 6 hits per 9 innings. If Neshek returns to even 80% of what he was, he should be a very good and reliable reliever out of the pen in 2011.

For no reason other than a feeling, I think the three spots will eventually go to Neshek, Hoey and Hughes. Gardenhire has always liked having at least two left-handed relievers available out of the bullpen, and with Mijares likely to be used in high-leverage, late-inning situations, I think it's safe to say one of Hughes or Perkins will make the team. I don't think the Twins would have gotten rid of Delaney to claim Hughes unless they planned on giving him a spot in the bullpen, although if Brian Duensing doesn't win a starting spot he would be another lefty in the bullpen, so we'll see what happens.

Hoey is a hard-throwing righty who has been dominant at times in AAA, and if Rick Anderson can work his strike-throwing magic without Hoey losing too much of his plus stuff, he could be a great find. However, his control is a major issue, as he walked over 7 batters per 9 innings in AAA last year. The good news is if Hoey is unable to find the strike zone, the team will have plenty of options to replace him with in AAA.

That would give the Twins the following opening day roster:

C: Joe Mauer, Drew Butera
1B: Justin Morneau
2B: Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert
SS: Tsuyoshi Nishioka
3B: Danny Valencia
OF: Delmon Young, Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Jason Repko
DH: Jim Thome
SP: Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing
MR: Matt Capps, Jose Mijares, Pat Neshek, Dusty Hughes, Jim Hoey
CL: Joe Nathan
We'll check back on this guess in about two months and see how close I was. Either way, it's great news that pitchers and catchers report in just 11 days.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Scott Baker: Underrated

I've heard a lot of Twins fans lately expecting the team to struggle this season. I certainly think the team could have done a lot more this off-season to ensure another division title, but the team should still be in contention for it even with a poor off-season. Most fans cite weaknesses in the starting rotation; and while I don't think Nick Blackburn or Brian Duensing is anything special, I was surprised to hear fans complaining about Scott Baker. It made me realize that Baker is, for whatever reason, extremely underrated as a starting pitcher.

Scott Baker has been one of the most underrated starting pitchers in baseball over the last four years. During that time, Baker has averaged over 171 innings a season, while posting a 4.14 ERA and a K:BB ratio of over 3:1.

For comparison's sake, Matt Garza is widely considered a very good #2 starter, thanks in large part to his performance in the ALCS two years ago. The Cubs traded some highly regarded prospects to get Garza, and there's no doubting Garza is a good starting pitcher. During Garza's three full seasons in Tampa Bay, he averaged 187 innings per season, while posting a 3.86 ERA and a K:BB ratio of just over 2:1. Garza is widely considered a 'strikeout pitcher' because of his plus stuff, but he walks many more batters than Baker and the pitchers have been fairly comparable over the last few years.

Baker posted a 4.49 ERA last season, but chances are he's going to improve upon that this coming season. Over his career, Baker has allowed opposing batters to hit .304 on balls in play. Last season, we saw this number jump to .323, after allowing hitters to hit .285 and .277 in the two prior seasons. It's worth noting that Baker's a fly-ball pitcher, and the fact that the Twins outfield defense last season was among the league's worst undoubtedly hurt Baker's BABIP. That does explain at least some of the 40 point increase, but even if the Twins outfield defense is equally bad this coming season, Baker's likely to see his opponent's BABIP fall to a number closer to his career .304 mark. That would likely improve Baker's ERA from 4.49 to something around 4.25, and if Baker pitches better than he did last season (certainly possible) he could easily post a sub 4 ERA and give the Twins one of the best 1-2-3 combinations in baseball.

It seems silly that someone who has been as effective and consistent as Baker would be underrated, but for whatever reason Baker is. Most fans think of Baker in the same tier as Blackburn, Duensing and even Slowey, and that's simply a mistake. Baker is much more likely to outperform Carl Pavano this coming season than any of the other starters are likely to outperform Baker. If the team can get solid innings from Duensing, Blackburn, Slowey and/or Kyle Gibson for the last two rotation spots, the Twins may again finish with close to 100 wins. The team's pitching should be much better than people expect, and we'll look at the entire rotation in the near future.


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