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.



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