Friday, October 30, 2009

Solving the Outfield Log Jam

After acquiring Carlos Gomez as the Center Fielder of the Future in the Johan Santana trade, because Denard Span looked like a bust, and trading Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for their Left Fielder of the Future in Delmon Young, the team seemed set. Two years later, Denard Span has become the only consistently productive outfielder of the three. With Michael Cuddyer coming off the most productive season of his career, the Twins need to decide if Young or Gomez is going to be that consistent 3rd outfielder.

For his career, Gomez has been a terrible hitter, oftentimes looking lost both at the plate and on the bases. He has outstanding speed, but this season seemed to get away from bunting. He's not a great bunter by any means, but his speed allows him to cover up less than stellar bunts and turn them into base hits. He's a career .246/.292/.346 hitter, which is admittedly terrible. However, Gomez's value comes from his elite defense. He's been one of the league's elite defensive center fielders over the last two years, and if he was able to even improve his offense next season by 10% he'd be a valuable member of the lineup. Of course, with what he's shown up to this point in his career, it seems more than generous to expect Gomez to improve at all as he's looked lost for long stretches of time.

Young, on the other hand, was acquired as the next great young hitter in baseball. Some writers foolishly called him the next Frank Robinson, and the Twins misguidedly had Delmon film a local TV commercial with some of the greatest Twins hitters in franchise history. With all the elevated expectations, it likely would have been nearly impossible for Young to meet them, but he's been incredibly awful in his first two seasons in Minnesota. Young is a career .290/.322/.416 hitter, which makes his career numbers about 15% higher than Gomez's over their young careers. According to several different defensive statistics, however, Young is among the league's worst defensive players (not just left fielders) and he was the American League's worst left fielder on the offensive side of the ball for anyone with over 360 at bats as well.

Those in favor of giving Gomez the Center Field job and moving Span to Left Field will point to Gomez's defense as their main reason, and the fact that Delmon Young is hardly a starting caliber player only helps their argument.

Those in favor of giving Young the Left Field job and keeping Span in Center will point to how lost Gomez has looked at the plate and his mental mistakes. Also, they would argue it isn't fair to compare Gomez to other Center Fielders and Young to other Left Fielders because the decision comes down to Gomez or Young in the outfield, so it's more than fair to compare their production against one another.

Personally, I want to see the Twins either trade Delmon Young if they can get something that helps the team next season, or just use him off the bench and occasionally at DH against lefties. I think the defense Gomez provides, improving both left field and center field by moving Span to left, is far more valuable than the slightly better offense Young will provide. Young has had flashes where he appears to be breaking out, but every time he has eventually regressed back to the Young we've seen for the better part of two seasons.

If the Brewers want Delmon Young and Glen Perkins for JJ Hardy, I'd do it in a heartbeat. I don't think that's enough for Hardy, and honestly don't have any idea what Young's trade value would be after back-to-back subpar seasons, but if he has any value left the Twins need to maximize that this off-season.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What To Do: Joe Nathan Edition

Prior to the ALDS starting, I planned to write that the Twins may in fact seriously consider trading Joe Nathan this off-season. I expected that viewpoint to be surprising to many, but by choosing to wait until the season was over to start my off-season discussions, I noticed many other writers felt the same way. Opinions vary on what the team should indeed do with Nathan, although lately people seem more willing to trade him because of what happened in Game 2.

The decision is a tough one. The Twins expected payroll next year, without a 3B or SS, is about $75 million as of now. Admittedly, I don't know what the Twins budget is for next season, but I think the highest it would increase to is $82 million, and that seems a bit generous even with Target Field opening. Regardless, the team needs to find a SS and 3B, and should find an upgrade at 2B, with only about $5-$7 million to work with. I'll get into the creative ways to fill those holes another day, but in my opinion it would benefit the Twins more to trade Joe Nathan this off-season.

His value should be extremely high, as he's been one of the best two closers in baseball over the past 5 years, and he was his usual dominating self again this season. From a financial standpoint, a team like the Twins can't afford to use 1/7 of their payroll on someone who is only going to pitch about 70 innings. Nathan is among the best in the business at what he does, but it is not a sound financial decision to pay Nathan the kind of money he's owed.

Nathan will turn 35 in November, and he's owed $11.25 million in 2010, and the same amount in 2011. The Twins then have a $12.5 million club option with a $2 million buyout for the 2012 season. Yes, I understand the market for closers is about what Nathan is making, so he's not overpaid compared to the position. However, teams have proven several times over the years they can turn set up men into closers without much of a problem. The Padres traded for Heath Bell, and inserted him into their closer role and he excelled. Heck, even Joe Nathan was acquired as a little-known reliever before becoming a dominating closer. While teams certainly make mistakes when they try to find bargain bin closers as well, small and mid-market teams need to consistently find them. The Twins can't afford to pay Joe Nathan the kind of money he's owed if they want to fill other, more glaring needs.

Let's try to compile a list of teams that need a closer and could potentially contend next season, leaving out the AL Central for obvious reasons:

Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays
Seattle Mariners
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Philadelphia Phillies
Chicago Cubs

The Angels were a bit of stretch at first glance, but with Fuentes struggling quite a bit this year and no clear in-house replacement, I thought they might be interested. They've shown in the past they are willing to bench high paid players for upgrades (Gary Matthews Jr) so it didn't seem like a big stretch after thinking about it. That said, I doubt they would give up the kind of package other teams might.

The Rays seem extremely unlikely with their payroll issues, and they likely can't afford to give up enough young talent to make the deal work anyways. That leaves Toronto, Seattle, Philly and the Cubs as potential suitors.

I don't see Toronto considering themselves contenders in a loaded AL East next season, so I'm going to consider them out as well. The Twins may prefer to keep Nathan out of the AL altogether, but Seattle may be able to put together an enticing package so they need to be considered.

My first assumption was that if Nathan was available, he'd end up in Philly. They are the most World Series ready team, and their biggest weakness all season long was at closer. I think the Twins would almost certainly have to take Brad Lidge back in any trade, as he likely wouldn't be very happy being moved to a set up role and his struggles this season in Philly seem to suggest he needs a change of scenery. Unfortunately, Lidge is owed more money over the next 3 years than Nathan, so that's not a trade that would make sense for Minnesota. If the Phillies were willing to pay Lidge that money to be a set up guy, or if they found a high payroll team willing to acquire him, than Nathan to Philly makes the most sense.

The Cubs and Mariners financial situations are also a bit confusing, so it's tough to find any absolute suitors for Nathan if the team makes him available. Of course, if we are to assume the Phillies, Cubs and Mariners can all afford him, that's more than enough interested parties to create a small bidding war for his services. If Bill Smith doesn't overplay his hand, ala the Santana trade, the Twins could end up with a few very good young prospects and possibly a major league ready reliever. No, I don't think the Twins could get Ryan Madson or Carlos Marmol in a deal with the Phillies or Cubs, and personally I wouldn't want Brandon Morrow in a deal with Seattle. I would hope the Twins scouts could find a talented reliever ready to break out, like they did with Nathan in 2003.

If they do decide to trade Nathan, and there's no indications they are even thinking about it, it will be a tricky situation for sure. However, Smith needs to do everything he can to maximize Nathan's value before he breaks down, and this off-season seems like his best chance to do that. Of course, I'd suggest getting Mauer to ink a contract extension before trading Nathan. Even if it's the right decision for the team, I doubt Mauer will agree with trading the league's best closer for prospects. Unfortunately, as the GM of the team, Smith needs to make the tough decisions, even if they aren't popular with the players. Hopefully, he can make the right decisions for the first time in three years.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Easy Decisions

With the Twins season over, that means their off-season is officially underway. They have a few weeks before they need to make decisions on player options, offer arbitration to free agents and arbitration eligible players, and to decide to tender contracts to certain young players. Luckily, today, Bill Smith can sit back, and hopefully find several easy decisions that can be made rather soon. In my opinion, here are the no-brainer, easy decisions for Smith going into this off-season:

- Let Mike Redmond leave via free agency
- Pick up Jon Rauch's $2.9 million club option
- Non-tender Bobby Keppel

Those seemed to me to be the only obvious easy decisions for Bill Smith. Of course, I doubt they non-tender Keppel and let him become a free agent. Keppel had a poor season, and finding a long relief guy is not difficult. There will be several relievers passing through waivers, plenty of capable relievers available in the Rule V Draft, and the team has plenty of young starters that could use the experience pitching in mop up situations. The team could even decide to use Liriano in that role until he's capable of pitching in more important situations. All of these reasons should be crystal clear to Bill Smith, and even if Gardy wants to keep Keppel, Smith needs to explain to him how easy it would be to find similar production, and even more likely that the team can find an upgrade for the same price.

Mike Redmond had a great run here as a backup catcher behind Mauer, but it's pretty clear his career is coming to an end. If he wants to continue playing, the Twins can't offer him a contract. Morales is the better catcher at this point in their careers, and Redmond is likely going to get twice the money Morales will. I think the Twins should offer Redmond a coaching position, or a clubhouse job, if he wants to retire to keep him around the team. I think he is a great clubhouse guy, but keeping him around as a player makes little sense when he's clearly not one of the team's best 25 players.

Rauch's option should be exercised any day now. The Twins gave up Kevin Mulvey, a decent prospect and someone who may have had a chance to compete for a back of the rotation spot this coming spring had the Twins not traded him. I can't see anyway that the Twins don't pick up the option, especially since Rauch pitched very well for the Twins since they acquired him. With Rauch returning and the expected recoveries of both Boof Bonser and Pat Neshek, it's very possible the team's biggest weakness going into this past season could be a position of strength for the 2010 season.

With only a few easy decisions, it is clear that this off-season is going to be another difficult one for Bill Smith. The team should have a bit of money to spend, assuming the payroll moves up to around $80 million with Target Field opening, but with raises due to several players the money will still be tight unless the Twins can get creative. Are there any other easy decisions? Feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments section, and check back tomorrow.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The End

Surprisingly, I wasn’t all that disappointed when the Yankees made the final out tonight, bringing an end to the Twins season. I was at the game, and for the most part enjoyed myself. The mistakes were painful, no doubt, but tonight doesn’t seem like the time to reflect on those. The Yankees were clearly the superior team. The Twins would have needed to be perfect to beat them in a five game series, and obviously they were far from that. Regardless, this was a season to remember. Sure, the Twins were mediocre for most of the season, waiting until the last possible second to get hot and steal the division from the Tigers. That said, I will always remember Game 163 as the first truly great Twins game I watched. There’s been other great games, and while the ’91 World Series games were exceptional, I wasn’t even three years old so I don’t remember those games.

The emotions that ran through my body during Game 163 have only happened two times to me while watching sports. The first time was when the Timberwolves were in the Western Conference Semi-Finals, playing the Sacramento Kings, in game 7 at the Target Center. That game was exceptional, and really the only game I honestly remember Kevin Garnett putting the team on his back and saying “Boys, I got this.” That is a game I’ll never forget, and if I ever see it on ESPN Classic or NBA TV I will automatically drop whatever I am doing to watch it. It was that great. Since I’m a far bigger baseball fan than basketball fan, Game 163 to me was the greatest sporting event I’ve ever watched. Yes, I understand it’s not, on a grander scale. The fact that the Twins lost their next 3 games and the season ended made that game slightly less epic, as the end result for the Twins and Tigers was ultimately the same, with the Twins having the joy of an extra home playoff game.

Joe Mauer had the greatest all-around season by a catcher, is going to win his first AL MVP trophy and won his third batting title in four seasons. He also let it be known that he wasn’t concerned with being the highest paid player in the game, and that winning was what was most important. Joe Nathan, despite the struggles against New York, was his usual dominating self at closer, Michael Cuddyer enjoyed a huge comeback season, and Jason Kubel continued to improve with the bat. Even the bullpen, a weakness for most of the season, should be a strength next season with Rauch, Mijares, Crain and hopefully the returns of Boof Bonser and Pat Neshek. The Twins undoubtedly are going to need to make improvements if they want to be seen as true contenders, but the good news is the core of the team appears to be more than set.

Over the next week, I’m going to take an in-depth look at some of the key decisions that face Bill Smith and Co. this off-season, and will suggest what I think the best path would be. The Twins season ended tonight, which means the quest for 2010 begins tomorrow. The Twins will hold their heads tonight, but they don’t need to. They had a season to remember, and hopefully in 2010 they can add a post-season to remember to that.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Twins Remain Winless @ Yankee Stadium

Unfortunately, the Twins remained winless at the new Yankee Stadium, losing tonight to the Yankees 7-2. Since I'm sure anyone who cares enough to read this blog watched the game, I don't see much of a reason to get into the game much. The content will be limited throughout the playoffs unless I feel the need to go off on a rant about terrible announcing, a poor managing decision, or an exceptional performance. Assuming I do none of those, the content will be a paragraph or two until the season ends, at which point I'll hopefully have my off-season preview and what I would do if I was GM done.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

That was kind of fun...

Wow. Wow. Wow. I tried to wait a few hours so I could calm down and write something interesting, but I've spent the last 10 minutes sitting here and all that keeps coming into my head is wow. The Twins are huge underdogs tomorrow at Yankee Stadium, as they should be, but even if this team gets swept out of the playoffs, the game we all witnessed tonight was the greatest game I've ever seen, and undoubtedly the greatest Twins game since game 7 of the '91 World Series.

Absolutely, positively crazy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The End?

Barring a miracle, the Twins will finish on the wrong end of a Central division pennant race for the 2nd straight year.


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