Thursday, February 14, 2013

Terry Ryan, Ron Gardenhire and Rebuilding

After addressing the Timberwolves, Gophers basketball, and the Vikings in the three previous days, today we'll be addressing* the Minnesota Twins, who after a great decade run from 2001-2010 have really struggled lately.

*It's purely a coincidence that this became sort of a "State of Minnesota sports" the same week the "State of the Union" address occurred, but then again maybe it's just my subconscious.

The Twins followed up their 63-99 season in 2011 with an almost equally as bad 66-96 record this past season. Despite the team's struggles the past two seasons, the team's future appears to be bright thanks to a highly regarded farm system that Terry Ryan has helped rebuild in a very short period of time.

This off-season saw the Twins finally target high upside, hard throwing starting pitching prospects for the first time in a long while. The Twins wisely traded from a position of strength when trading both Denard Span and Ben Revere. Aaron Hicks seems unlikely to make the team out of Spring Training, mainly because the Twins should wisely delay his service time to ensure an extra season of control by promoting him in late May or possibly early June.

Trading Ben Revere was something I was entirely on board with, mainly because Revere seems like a poor man's Juan Pierre, which is obviously nothing to be proud of. Revere had a good season last year, but with no power and little patience, as well as the league's worst throwing arm among outfielders, he's simply not a consistent starter in this league. His base stealing was good last year, and he added value with it undoubtedly. However, the Twins were wise to move Revere now, as his production is likely to decrease rather than increase.

Revere hit .294/.333/.342 last season in 124 games, and stole 40 bases in 49 attempts. For a 24-year-old outfielder it was a good season. However, Revere's batting average on balls in play last season was .325, compared to just .289 between 2010 and 2011. Of course, it's possible that Revere is improving, and will sustain that high BABip. The league average BABip in 2012 was .297, although Revere's speed, contact rate and bunting should make his BABip higher than the league average in his prime in my opinion. Of course, even if Revere drops to .310 on balls in play, he'll still be above league average but should expect a decline in his .294/.333/.342 line because he won't be getting as lucky as he did last season. The power will never come, and drawing walks seems unlikely for someone an opposing pitcher will never need to be afraid of.

In other words, the Twins woud have done well to get just Vance Worley for Revere, but Terry Ryan was also able to acquire Trevor May in the deal with Philadelphia.

Over the last two seasons, Worley has made 44 starts and thrown 264 innings. He's posted a 3.60 ERA and  a record of 17-12. While Worley's not overpowering, he has managed a respectable 7.7 K/9 in his big league career. Last season his K/9 dropped while his H/9 increased, which could suggest his stuff has gotten worse. However, since Worley is just 25 years old and hasn't dealt with any major injuries recently, that seems unlikely. The changes are likely attributable to, simply, bad luck. And while that may seem like an excuse, it's not. Opposing hitters managed to hit .351 on balls in play against Worley last season, which means more bloopers were falling in and more ground balls were finding seams. It's likely not a coincidence that the Phillies defense was below average as well. Worley won't be a number one starter, but he should be a solid #3 or #4 starter who the Twins control for three more seasons, at least. He's a good pitcher and a good acquisition. He should outproduce Ben Revere by himself.

Trevor May was a highly regarded prospect heading into the 2012 season, but he struggled a bit in AA, posting a 4.87 ERA in 150 innings. May has had control issues at every level, but his strikeout numbers have been very impressive so the control issues weren't a huge concern. His strikeout rate dropped to 9.1 in 2012, down from well over 11, although that's expected as he faces more experienced players. May was 22 years old in 2012, while the average hitter was 24.5 and the average pitcher was almost 25. May's ERA was almost a run over the league average, his BB rate was about a walk higher per 9 innings than league average, but he also averaged almost 2 K/9 more than league average. May allowed 22 home runs after allowing just 31 over his first three minor league seasons. Again, it's hard to know if that's simply bad luck or if May's going to continue to get knocked around as he gets to higher levels. However, as someone who was well under the league average age, and who had a track record of success at every other minor league stop, May's home runs and ERA are just as likely flukes as they are proof he's a bust. His stuff is clearly outstanding to rack up the strikeouts he has, but he'll need to learn to harness it more effectively to improve both his BB/9 and HR/9 rate. 

Terry Ryan deserves a ton of credit for the Ben Revere trade, even before any of the players play another game. What about the Denard Span trade?

The differing values placed on Denard Span and Ben Revere shows the financial aspect of trade value. Span's contract is certainly team friendly, as he makes $4.75MM in 2013, $6MM in 2014 and a team option in 2015 for $9MM. Revere, though, has just over 1 year of service time. He will make the league minimum, or very close to it, for both 2013 and 2014. The Phillies then control Revere for his three arbitration years, which will likely cost about $9MM or $10MM total barring some unforeseen breakout performance. That means the Phillies get 5 years of Ben Revere at a total cost of about $11MM, while the Nationals are getting 3 years out of Denard Span for $19.75MM. Span is clearly a better player at this point, but the years of control and salaries meant the Twins were able to actually get more in return for an inferior player. Don't let anyone tell you it's not about the money. It's always about the money.

The Twins received starting pitching prospect Alex Meyer from the Nationals for Span. Meyer was the former 23rd overall pick selected out of Kentucky, and he's been great in his short pro career. He's torn up the lower minors, as expected, but unlike Trevor May, Meyer has been about the same age as his competition, if not older, which makes his stats less noteworthy. Him excelling is better than him struggling, of course. His stuff is reportedly great, including a mid to high 90's fastball, so the high strikeout rates aren't necessarily going to disappear as Meyer moves up the minor league ladder. The Twins seem likely to start Meyer out in AA, and if all goes well I'd expect a possible mid-season promotion to AAA to try and get him ready for opening day 2014. A more realistic target date might be June of 2014, but we'll see how this year goes first. 

While I think the Twins could've gotten more for Span, it's clear the team's scouts think very highly of Meyer. I would imagine they project him as a number 1 starter in the future, at which point trading Span makes perfect sense. Ryan deserves praise as well for targeting hard throwing pitching prospects as opposed to the soft throwing pitchers of Twins' past.

I expect the Twins to bad in 2013, but not as bad as they have been. A 71 or 72 win season seems like a low guess, assuming everyone stays healthy, but that's a big assumption so I'll say the Twins win 71 games. 

Will that be enough to get Ron Gardenhire fired? I'm not sure. Despite Gardy's inability to grasp late inning concepts, I think he's a decent manager. He has the players respect, he's not terrible with the media, and well that's about it. I don't think very highly of baseball managers outside of a select few. Gardy is about middle of the pack in my opinion, so if the team wants to fire him after another terrible season, that's just fine. If they want to extend him because prior to three horrible seasons he led a great stretch for almost a decade, that's just fine too. I'm pretty indifferent when it comes to Ron Gardenhire.

Thanks to the trades this off-season and solid draft picks and international signings over the last few seasons, the team's rebuilding effort might result in an even better core than the successful teams of the early 2000's. The organization has elite offensive upside coupled with a handful of high upside starting pitchers and another top 5 pick this coming June. While the 90's (or the Royals) showed us that rebuilding can be a pain in the ass for years, the Twins seem to be on the right track thanks in large part to Terry Ryan moving back into the GM role. So, as always, blame Bill Smith.

Cot's Baseball Contracts was used for all salary data, all the credit to them.


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