Monday, May 23, 2016

The Twins Never Learn

Complaining about the Twins is a little too easy these days, as with each passing day they manage to look worse and worse. That's often the case when you possess the league's worst record after 43 games, and even more so when the team was expected to at least be close to .500.

Terry Ryan has proved for almost two decades now that he doesn't learn from his mistakes, so it should be no surprise that the team continues to make the same silly mistakes year after year.

Remember when the Twins sent one of their top prospects, a major league ready catcher (Wilson Ramos), for Matt bleeping Capps? While the team still had Joe Mauer catching at that point, it was hardly a sure thing he'd remain a catcher for the long term. The fact that he had to switch positions the very next off-season was a worst-case scenario, but hardly surprising. Regardless, to trade someone who projected as a future starting catcher for an overpaid reliever made no sense. As frustrating as it was, I always hoped it would serve as a cautionary tale for Terry Ryan and the front office: Don't give up a promising prospect for an expensive reliever. Bill Smith was technically the GM when the trade was made, but Ryan was a part of the front office and still had say. Both deserve blame.

Shockingly (or not), the Twins decided to trade two pitching prospects last July for... drum roll please... an expensive reliever. That reliever was 30-year-old Kevin Jepsen. The Twins knew he'd cost somewhere between $6 and $8 million for 2016 as well, so they kept pushing the angle that they were getting a year and a half of Jepsen. He was more than a rental.

Unfortunately, paying a good but hardly elite reliever that kind of money is hardly a bargain. While a one-year deal for that kind of money isn't a major risk, giving up two pitching prospects for the ability to overpay a reliever is silly.

Even sillier was that one of the prospects was then 21-year-old Chih-Wei Hu. Hu doesn't possess elite stuff, but he's consistently pitched well at every level, and he's always been young for the level he's playing at. Hu is now a 22-year-old who has pitched in both AA and AAA for the Rays this season, posting a 1.60 ERA in 45 innings across 8 starts. He's struck out 46 batters and walked just 11. He's going to be a solid starting pitcher in the big leagues in the near future, and he could even see some big league time as early as this year.

While Jepsen has been a bit unlucky through this point of the season, even if he had been lights out all year the Twins would still be terrible. For a team that is notoriously cheap and struggles to bring in big money free agents, losing Hu's six years of cost-controlled pitching for a year and a half of overpaying Jepsen is frustrating. To do it just a few seasons after trading six years of Wilson Ramos' cost-controlled catching for the right to overpay Matt Capps for a year and a half makes it idiotic.

Chih-Wei Hu might end up having a better season this year alone than Jepsen if he gets called up, but even if he doesn't debut this year, Hu is almost certainly going to be a valuable starting pitcher on a minimal contract for years. When you look at the Twins starting pitching and how badly they need some youngsters to emerge for the team to improve, it's just ridiculous. Poor decisions compounded by worse decisions, and Terry Ryan still can't learn his lesson. What an embarrassment this organization is.

Monday, May 16, 2016

If the Wolves Win the Lottery

The NBA draft lottery is tomorrow evening (May 17), where our Minnesota Timberwolves will hopefully cash in on their 8% chance to get the #1 pick. The team could pick anywhere between 1 and 8, except for 4th. If the Wolves are lucky enough to win the lottery for a second consecutive year, who should they take?

Ben Simmons, the much heralded freshman out of LSU, is considered the top prospect. However, Duke's Brandon Ingram has closed the gap considerably since midway through the collegiate season, and some teams might actually prefer Ingram over Simmons at this point.

Ingram's tenacity on both ends and his shooting ability make him look like a good fit for the Wolves current roster. While some have suggested Ingram could be a stretch 4 at times, I don't see that as a real possibility. He's extremely thin, and while it's true he's young, his body type is likely to remain the way it is even as he gains weight. His body is very similar to that of Kevin Durant's.

For me, Simmons should be pick if they get #1. He actually could play the stretch 4 role a bit better than Ingram, as he's more versatile and much stronger. Ingram is a way better shooter, but Simmons is going to be a great all around player. The main argument for the Wolves to maybe pass on Simmons is that they already have Ricky Rubio, who does a lot of the same things Simmons does in a half court offense. While I don't disagree with that sentiment, I think it undersells Rubio's value defensively, and Simmons ability offensively. Rubio ranked as the best or second best defensive point guard by most advanced metrics, and his shooting percentages improved considerably in the second half. If he can continue to knock down open shots, he could play with Simmons just fine.

Simmons best use offensively seems to be as a point forward, but he's immensely skilled and should realistically fit into any system. His biggest problem at LSU wasn't that he didn't assert himself enough (as the pundits keep suggesting) but rather he was playing with a few upperclassmen who thought they were much better than they actually were (looking at you, Tim Quarterman) and hogged the ball. A Simmons/KAT front court is almost a perfect fit against most teams. The Wolves could also choose to go really big at times, using a lineup of Rubio/Wiggins/Simmons/Dieng/Towns. The shooting would suffer, but the defensive potential would be spectacular. With most teams going small, the Wolves would be able to counter with a pounding offense that could score inside or get to the foul line at will. That kind of a lineup would be best used in short spurts, though, because stretching the floor would be a challenge.

If the Wolves are lucky enough to win the lottery and decide for whatever reason that Branon Ingram is the better fit, ideally they'd manage to trade down to #2 and pick up an extra asset or two. That would require the team picking at #2 to value Simmons much higher than Ingram, which isn't a guarantee but certainly a possibility.

I also think the odds the Timberwolves trade Ricky Rubio are much lower now that there's a new GM and President of Basketball Operations. For the Wolves defense to take a major step forward as many expect under Tom Thibodeau, they'll need Rubio around. Even if they don't win the lottery and Kris Dunn falls to them, I still think Rubio's going to be a better player. I'd prefer the Wolves trade the pick in that situation.

With so many possibilities it may have made more sense to wait to see what pick the Wolves get tomorrow, but to me Simmons is the clear cut #1 prospect. He's taken a bit of a hit because there's no real comparison for him; he's a point-forward with point guard skills who's best position might eventually be a power forward. Ingram looks like Kevin Durant and has a good shot, although he's not even close to Durant as a prospect coming out of college.

After 20 years of terrible lottery luck, the Wolves got lucky last season by holding onto the top pick. Maybe it will continue to average out, and the Wolves will again pick #1. Regardless, it'll be nice in a few years to care more about a playoff basketball game at this point than the NBA draft lottery. 

My top 8:

  1. Ben Simmons, LSU
  2. Brandon Ingram, Duke
  3. Jamal Murray, Kentucky
  4. Dragan Bender, International
  5. Kris Dunn, Providence
  6. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
  7. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
  8. Henry Ellenson, Marquette
I'm not a big fan of Ellenson at all, but the draft really falls off quickly. Valentine should be a late lottery pick or even later, so the Wolves could likely trade down and get him. He's a solid all around player that at worst should be a decent role player. He has the potential to be a starting shooting guard with size and versatility though, and his college numbers are even better than Hield's. Bender is a long-term project but he's a huge power forward with shooting touch, so I'd be fine waiting for him to develop next to KAT. Murray to me is going to be a great player, and he might fit best next to Rubio in the backcourt.

The team will have plenty of options, and Thibs will have a big decision to make in his first off-season. Here's to hoping it works out better than most Timberwolves decisions of the past.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Odds and Ends

Lots of quick thoughts that I've been unable to cram into any articles lately.


  • Complaining about the length of challenges/reviewing plays is becoming more common in all sports, and I hate it. Are we so impatient as a nation that we can't wait for a call to be reviewed correctly? The latest complaints are about baseball's reviews taking just under 2 minutes on average. It's taking longer than previous years!! Even a 5 minute review, which happened at Wrigley recently and Stark is complaining about, is still nothing in the grand scheme of things. Patience is a virtue, people. Baseball games are 3 hours. NFL football games are 3 hours. The last two minutes of an NBA basketball game is close to 3 hours. If you can't wait two god damn minutes for a review, you're the problem. The system is fine. 
  • Todd McShay's way-too-early 2017 NFL Mock Draft (subscription req) for ESPN had Gophers designated thrower into the ground (or quarterback, as other teams call it) Mitch Leidner going in the first round. That's not a typo. Anyone who has watched the Gophers and Leidner knows how insane that is. I laughed for five minutes straight. In McShay's defense, he hates doing mock drafts, he's admitted they're useless, and for this one, he admitted he hasn't watched any tape yet. Leidner is big and has good speed for a QB, but he's got terrible throwing mechanics and his accuracy is terrible. I don't even think he'll end up being drafted, and once McShay studies his film he'll almost certainly agree.
  • Richard Pitino spent $175,000 more than he was supposed to on the recruiting trail over the last 3 years. I can't even imagine how bad the team would have been the last few years without that extra money. Coaches go over their travel and recruiting budgets all the time, but Pitino hasn't been very successful and the article paints Pitino as a bit of a spoiled douche. You can see that when he whines on the sidelines though, so I'm not surprised at all.
  • Scott Boras is the greatest agent of all-time. In my next life as a baseball superstar, I'm hiring him. There's no link to share or specific reason I mention this; it's just worth mentioning. He's helped players more than just about anyone.
  • I am convinced the mute button was invented to allow Twins fans to watch baseball games in peace. Dick Bremer seems like a nice guy, but for someone who has watched upwards of 150 games of baseball a year for a long, long time, he doesn't seem to know a whole lot. Jack Morris might be the worst announcer of all-time. Roy Smalley is okay, and Bert Blyleven is funny at times if nothing else. But it'd be nice to have an announcing duo that related more to the knowledgeable, dedicated fans than the average viewer on any given night.
  • Tom Thibodeau is going to be a great coach for the Wolves. Hopefully he's more Stan Van Gundy than Doc Rivers, though, when it comes to player personnel control. Loul Deng is a big fan of Thibs and a free agent, and he would fit the Wolves current roster very well. I expect him to be their top (realistic) target.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Twins, Terry Ryan and Mediocrity

As the Twins continue to struggle mightily, fans are naturally looking for someone to point the finger at. With Joe Mauer off to a spectacular start, fans don't have their usual punching bag to blame (wrongly, of course, Mauer's been a great player almost every year) so who is at actually fault?

A combination of poor player acquisitions, poor lineup construction and, well, just being poor as an organization are to blame. The Twins payroll is lower than most of the league yet again this year, but the team still is able to spend anywhere between $100 and $115 million per year on payroll. For a team with as much young talent as the Twins have (which means those players are making the league minimum) payroll shouldn't be a major concern. Teams have built better teams with even lower payrolls.

The poor lineup construction is due in part to a log-jam of 1B/DH types, as Mauer, Miguel Sano and Byung Ho Park are all best suited to play 1B or DH but the team needs to find a way to get all 3 bats in the lineup at the same time. Because of that desire, the team is misguidedly playing Sano in right field, where he's looked awful. Late in games, the team has put in a defensive replacement for Sano, losing their cleanup hitter because the team is foolishly playing him at a position he's terrible at.

Sano is capable of playing close to average defense at 3B, at least at this point in his career, but he's likely only going to be able to play there for a few seasons at most. As he continues to get bigger and bigger, he's going to need to be a 1B in my opinion. With Mauer's contract running out after the 2018 season, playing Sano at 3B for 3 seasons while Mauer finishes his contract would be wise.

Unfortunately, the Twins chose to hold onto Trevor Plouffe this off-season, so there was no opening at 3B for Sano. Even when Plouffe got hurt, the team only used Sano at third base for a few games. Whether that order came from Terry Ryan and the front office or Paul Molitor made the decision on his own, it was a terrible decision. As soon as Plouffe got hurt Sano should have moved to third base as long as possible until Plouffe was healthy.

It's impossible to know what kind of interest the Twins received in Trevor Plouffe, and the poor return the Reds for got Todd Frazier undoubtedly hurt the Twins in negotiations. However, Plouffe is now in the final year of his contract, and while he's been a solid player the last two seasons, he's going to be paid too much money for the Twins to keep with Sano waiting in the wings. The Twins should have simply accepted the best offer they received for Plouffe, realizing that last year's surprise "contention" was mostly a fluke aided by an unsustainable 20-7 record in May. But the Twins have never been good at understanding predictive stats, and for that reason we've seen the front office continue to make mistake after mistake.

Even when the team makes a good move, they find a way to do something wrong in the process. In 2001, when Terry Ryan and company drafted Joe Mauer first overall ahead of college phenom Mark Prior, they clearly made the right choice. Mauer has had a far better career than Prior did, as injuries destroyed Prior early in his career. However, everyone knows the Twins drafted Mauer because he was easier to sign. I don't doubt they had Mauer rated very very highly, but Prior was the best pitching prospect in decades. Prior reportedly asked for $10 million from the Twins prior to the draft, and Mauer eventually signed for $6.5 million. The team ultimately made the right choice, which is all that really matters, but there's no doubt they valued Mauer higher because he was cheaper to sign.

This off-season, the team signed Byung Ho Park out of Korea, paying his former team just under $13 million and then signing him to a 4-year, $12 million contract with a 5th year option for $6.5 million. That means the team paid $31.5 million over 5 seasons to get Park, Korea's best player the last few years. Just over $6 million sounds like a lot of money per season, but in today's world, that's peanuts for a starting 1B/DH. Unfortunately, by all accounts, the Twins basically low-balled Park in negotiations because he had no leverage and they knew he wanted to come to the US. Had another team won the bidding and the right to negotiate with him, he would've gotten considerably more money. Why is that an issue? Shouldn't the Twins try to save as much money as possible?

In general, yes. It's almost always a good idea to squeeze as much value out of every possible situation as possible. However, if the team is hoping to gain Park's trust, low-balling him to save $2 million a year when that money makes no significant difference to the bottom line makes no sense. The money they saved isn't going to bring in any kind of major league talent, and it's not like they'll shift that money to the draft or the international amateur market, as they rarely outspend anyone in those aspects. No, they low-balled Park so their billionaire owners could pocket an extra $2 million. It's like when the Timberwolves kept selling draft picks--there's no logical reason for it.

Park has been a good signing and he's producing thus far, so all in all it was a good move. It's just frustrating to watch the team give mediocre national league pitchers like Ricky Nolasco big money deals while low-balling someone with actual talent. The Twins "scouting over everything" attitude is killing the team when it comes to acquiring players that have major league experience.

Scouting is necessary for amateurs and certain prospects, and it has a lot of value if done correctly. But when a scout tells you that John Ryan Murphy "looks the part" and his bat is coming around, a simple look at his statistics would show otherwise. Murphy never had a good offensive year in the minors, and at 24 years old he'd never shown anything in the big leagues either. I have no issue with the team trading Aaron Hicks, as he was a bit overrated, but to target John Ryan Murphy was a poor decision at the time and looks even worse with him being demoted to AAA already. (Wilson Ramos continues to club NL pitching, by the way. Another poor deal at the time that only looks worse as time goes on.)

I would love to see the Twins clear out the front office and bring in an ivy-league educated general manager, who's preferably under 40. The team needs to start being more progressive in acquiring undervalued players, rather than trusting their scouts. The "eye-test" is stupid regardless if it's a fan or a seasoned scout. All humans are biased, and in my experience the ones who are so sure they aren't biased are actually the most biased. There's a reason the most successful GM's in today's game generally have an Ivy-League education---it's because those people understand that finding a small advantage in 10 different aspects of the game can be as good or more beneficial than acquiring one major upgrade.

Sadly, Terry Ryan's job looks to be safe. Despite a losing record as the team's GM, and a terrible 4 year run since taking over in 2011, Ryan continues to have more job security than just about anyone in the world. As a Twins fan, it's frustrating that he isn't held accountable for his poor decisions. Making it more frustrating is the fact that almost every move that has backfired on the Twins was seen as a poor trade or signing at the time as well. Ramos for Capps. Garza AND Barlett for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris. Extending Kurt Suzuki after a fluke-filled first half despite him sucking for five years prior. Extending Phil Hughes (and giving him a raise) despite having him under contract for two full seasons, after he had one good season. Signing aging starting pitchers to 4-year-deals, at a time when the Twins were still multiple years away from competing. Dumping JJ Hardy to two pitchers that the Twins released almost immediately.

There are other moves as well, but I'm getting frustrated just recalling those few screw ups. A simple look at the players statistics and circumstances made all of those moves look bad immediately and even worse in hindsight.

The way the team reacted to their terrible start this season, by waiving veterans to call up worse veterans and demoting Buxton to play Rosario or Danny Santana in center field is even more troubling. It proves the front-office doesn't understand small sample sizes, as one bad month doesn't mean much in baseball. I understand Buxton was struggling terribly, but the team had already tried the "Yo-Yo" experiment with Aaron Hicks, giving him a month or two in the bigs before sending him back down, then back to the bigs, then again to AAA. Buxton is going to need at least a full season as the team's center fielder so the team can gauge improvement and determine if he is indeed as good as his prospect status indicated. Him going to AAA and doing well does very little, despite what the Twins and Dick Bremer will continue to tell you. Replacing Tommy Milone and Tommy Fien with replacement level AAA players is just silly, especially since they agreed to pay those two over $7 million just a few months ago. (Fien has since been lost to the Dodgers on waivers)

The only reason a team should shuffle up their roster as much as the Twins did is if they have a lot of young talented prospects waiting in the wings. Waiting until May to call up those prospects makes them a free agent a year later, so that would make sense. Cutting a few decent major league veterans who have at least been average in the past to promote players like Juan Centeno and Darin Mostrianni makes no sense. It just shows that the Twins front-office continues to blame the players they bring in, despite those players A) not being very good and B) often being used in a role or at a position they aren't comfortable with.

But once you consider that Terry Ryan has proven for almost two decades now that he's a below average general manager and ownership continues to treat him like this generation's Branch Rickey, it's easy to see that the team seems to love to overvalue mediocrity. That's really the "Twins Way." Being mediocre, year after year. Instead of shuffling a poorly constructed roster, the more prudent move would be shuffling the front office and bringing in someone who's simply put, much better than Terry Ryan. To be frank, that shouldn't be too hard.

Is it football season yet?