Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Draft Lottery

I hate the NBA Draft Lottery. Yes, I hate the lottery because my favorite team, the Minnesota Timberwolves are officially 0-7-6 in 13 years of the lottery. That means they've moved down seven times and kept their spot six times... never picking higher than third. The entire franchise has been changed several times because of an unlucky bounce or two with the ping-pong balls. For example, had the Wolves not had terrible lottery luck, Shaquille O'Neal or Alonzo Mourning would have been the franchise cornerstones for a team that, to that point, had not had one. Instead, the Wolves fell to number three, and the not-so-franchise-esque Christian Laettner was the pick.

This season was too much though. After watching arguably the worst wing play in the history of the NBA, the Wolves were in need of a potential franchise guard to give us Wolves fans hope again. With the second worst record, aka the second best chances at the number one pick, and the top two players in the draft being franchise-caliber guards, Wolves fans were optimistic going into the Lottery. Of course, these were the Wolves, so as Tuesday dragged on, even the most optimistic of Wolves fans were assuming the worst. Personally, I expected to see the Wolves in the number five spot. They ended up at #4. Of course, it isn't the end of the world, but still demoralizing nonetheless.

The Wolves have plenty of options. The Sixers ended up with the #2 pick, and while they also lack a franchise-caliber player, it's very possible they value DeMarcus Cousins or Derrick Favors higher than Turner. With Andre Igudala at shooting guard in Philly, they have at least a good, quality starter at the position Turner plays. With Elton Brand being a colossal disappointment since arriving in Philly, it seems logical that they would be looking to improve their front court. Jrue Holliday is their point guard of the future, and a Holliday/AI2/Thad Young/Brand/Cousins lineup isn't too shabby. That may allow the Wolves to move up to #2, by giving #4 and #16 for the rights to Turner. The Nets will almost certainly take Favors at #3, so it would be a trade down for Cousins. I think this is the most logical scenario and would be fairly surprised if the Wolves don't end up with Turner at #2. However, there are other possibilities.

The difference between the #4 and #5 pick is much larger than most people seem to realize. While Wes Johnson is a solid prospect, he doesn't appear to be a future franchise player. I think his ceiling is a solid #2 option, and if his defense is as good as advertised, he's going to be an All-star caliber player in this league. However, I don't see Johnson being able to lead this Wolves team to the playoffs without a better option, and that would likely require finally getting lucky in the lottery over the next few seasons. Rubio could potentially be the #1 player, but he isn't a great shooter at this point in his career so it's a bit risky to hope he becomes the dominant number one player this team needs.

I really don't understand why people are so down on Cousins. He was the most productive player in all of College Basketball last season, and his Freshman Year at Kentucky is very very comparable to the production Blake Griffin had as a Sophomore at Oklahoma. Yes, I understand some people are worried Cousins is a head-case, and from what I've seen I don't doubt that. It's always risky to take someone who could go crazy at any point, or someone who might get lazy, but the production speaks for itself. Add in that Cousins is a legitimate Center prospect, not a Power Forward prospect, makes him much more enticing to this team.

Al Jefferson needs to be traded. Explaining why is a post for another day, but ultimately, he shoots too much, isn't efficient enough, plays terrible defense and is a worse passer than my dead great grandmother. His 20 points and 10 rebound averages over the last three years undoubtedly has led some people to think he's a guy to build around. He isn't. Unfortunately, most teams know this, so his value isn't nearly as high as it would have been even a season ago. His knee injury hasn't helped matters, but if the Wolves want to better balance their team and don't find a way to get Evan Turner, Jefferson needs to go for a quality wing. For example, say the Sixers draft Turner, a Jefferson for AI2 and a semi-protected first round pick seems like a possibility. The Wolves would take Cousins at #4, and the best available wing at #16. A Flynn/AI2/Brewer/Love/Cousins starting lineup would almost certainly be a team picking in the top 10 again next season, but the potential would be there. Brewer is not a starting caliber player, so hopefully at #16 they can get someone like Xavier Henry or Paul George.

I believe Rubio will come over in 2011, and play for the Wolves. A Rubio/AI2/George/Love/Cousins team with Flynn, Ellington, Brewer and Pekovic coming off the bench would have a lot of exciting moments and could potentially contend very soon. The youth would show at times but they would be a fun team to watch and if Rubio/Cousins are as good as their production suggests they could potentially be the best guard/big man combo in basketball in three years.

*Quick tangent: Don't look up Rubio's Euroleague stats and tell me he sucks. First, and foremost, he led his team as a 19-year-old PG in the second best basketball league in the world to a Championship. Secondly, his numbers are comparable to Brandon Jennings numbers in Europe. Let's not forget Rubio worked Jennings in their matchups last year, playing one of the games with a broken hand which made him extremely easy to guard... but he still outplayed Jennings. Third, Euroleague stats are different than NBA stats. It's extremely rare for a player to get an assist for making a pass to an open jump shooter and watching him hit the shot. Usually assists are only credited for creating an opportunity for a teammate. Rubio led the league in assists. He's going to be special. Whether he ever plays for the T'Wolves is another matter altogether, but my opinion is that it's not nearly as unlikely as the casual fan seems to think.*

Sadly, I have little faith in this Wolves team to make the right moves. Kahn has made a lot of moves and continues to speak well to the media and fans, but I'm worried. Flynn was terrible last season, although playing with terrible wings as a rookie can't make life easy. I think Flynn will be a great 6th man in the future and him getting a ton of playing time now will only benefit him and the team in the future. However, drafting him over Curry was foolish on draft night, and looked even more foolish as the season went on.

I hope Kahn can swing a trade for a solid veteran a team is trying to unload, using our cap space to get a talented player without giving up much of anything. Adding Turner and a solid, veteran small forward would be a solid off-season and would put this team much closer to contention. We'll see what Kahn does, of course.

*Quick Tangent 2: "How can you not mention Cole Aldrich?" Look, I love Cole. I've known him for a long time and he would love to play for the Wolves, seeing as he's from here and all that stuff. However, since he's my friend, I refuse to wish for him to play for this cursed franchise. I hope he can go somewhere where he will be given playing time (he would get plenty in Minnesota) but also where he has a legitimate chance to win. Utah or Sacramento would seem to be the best fits for him, so I hope he ends up in one of those two places.*

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

R.I.P. Ernie Harwell

Ernie Harwell passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Harwell was a long-time Detroit Tigers announcer, who also is the voice on the greatest video in my childhood. The 1991 Twins World Series video. Harwell was fantastic, and Joe Posnanski has done a far better job explaining this man than I ever could.

I leave you with, what else, but the '91 Twins video.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Delmon Young

Over the last three years, Twins fans have for the most part continued to be patient with Delmon Young, seemingly convinced he's on the verge of breaking out into the star many predicted he would become. As a former number one overall pick, it's not difficult to understand why most fans think Young has a lot of potential still. While he has fantastic raw power, he hasn't shown it on a consistent basis during a game since he was promoted to AAA in 2005.

While the fans continue to be patient with Delmon, they basically took the opposite approach with Carlos Gomez. The Twins often talked about how out of control and undisciplined Gomez was, and while that was certainly true, Delmon Young has hardly been the picture of patience over the same period.

Gardenhire's refusal to play Gomez more than sparingly last season undoubtedly made Gomez available this past off-season, and it led to the J.J. Hardy for Carlos Gomez swap. With Young getting significant playing time now, and Gomez playing almost every day in Milwaukee, I was curious to see if Delmon Young has shown any improvements over the first month.

It's worth noting, of course, that the Twins most likely could not have traded Delmon Young for Hardy, because the Brewers were looking for a young center fielder, and honestly as surprising as it may be to most casual fans, Gomez had a lot more value around the league than Delmon.

To this point in the season, Young is hitting .261/.329/.449, with 3 home runs. He has shown quite a bit of improvement with his K:BB ratio, though, as he's struck out 9 times but has also walked 8 times. Last year, for example, Young took just 12 walks while striking out 92 times, so basically a 1:1 ratio is certainly something Twins fans should be ecstatic about.

However, despite his improved plate discipline, he's still been below average for a major league left fielder offensively. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic about Young's rest of the season, though. After hitting .338 each of the last three seasons on balls in play (my beloved BABIP), he's down to .254 this year. That's an awful lot of bad luck, as I've explained with J.J. Hardy as well, and over the course of the season it should gradually climb back closer to the .338 mark. If Young can continue to post an improved K:BB ratio, it's almost a virtual certainty that his offensive numbers will be greatly improved compared to the last two seasons.

However, offense is only half of the equation, and as I've noted here several dozen times, Delmon Young may be the worst defensive outfielder in the history of baseball. Sometimes I wonder if Helen Keller could take better routes to the ball than Delmon does. However, Young has improved defensively this year as well. Now, it's important to remember that 20 games is an extremely small sample size for defensive metrics, and it's very likely by the end of the season Young will be equally as poor as he was last year. He's currently on pace to post a -4.4 UZR/150 out in Left Field, which is a drastic improvement from his -23 UZR last year.

Young has shown improvement in both his plate discipline and his defense through the first month, and while I still am very very skeptical about Young ever becoming even a solid starter, the improvements are a great sign for his future. If this isn't just one of his 'good' months, and he gets a little less unlucky, the Twins may actually make me eat my words when I said Young would never be a starting caliber player on a good team. We'll see if he can continue his improved play.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hardy's First Month

When the Twins and Brewers agreed in late November to trade Carlos Gomez and J.J. Hardy, Twins fans were for the most part very happy. A lot of fans disliked Gomez because of his poor batting average and inability to take a walk, and his poor offensive showing over basically two seasons was enough for most fans to determine he was not a good player. J.J. Hardy on the other hand was coming off an injury riddled season, but he had hit 24 and 27 home runs in back-to-back seasons before that, which many fans assumed meant he had been a great offensive player. Both of these viewpoints were mostly wrong.

When I reviewed the trade back in November, I said I was worried because of Bill Smith's track record up to that point. Of course, on paper, the deal seemed like a solid move because Gardy was never going to give Gomez the playing time he deserved, so ultimately Smith traded a 4th outfielder for a starting shortstop. With the first month of the season over, it seemed like a good time to see how Hardy has done since arriving in Minnesota.

When I took a look in February at Hardy's statistical trends and likelihood to bounce back, I thought it seemed more likely than not his power would return and he'd be a good, starting caliber shortstop for the Twins. I predicted a .275/.330/.470 season, which is of course still possible with so much time left, but after the first month of the season Hardy is hitting just .230/.287/.368 with 3 home runs in 87 at bats. So, what's the cause of Hardy's brutal first month offensively? Is it more bad luck, or is he simply not a good hitter anymore?

Again, in my opinion, he's having a lot of bad luck. His walk rate is down from last year, but his strikeout rate and strikeouts per at bat are both better than last season. And while his power hasn't returned quite to where it was in 2007 and 2008, it's improved considerably from last season. After hitting a home run in 2.4% of his at bats last year, Hardy's currently hitting a home run in 3.2% of his at bats. In 2007, when Hardy hit 27 home runs, he hit a home run in 4.1% of at bats. If he can increase that number to 3.7% or so, Hardy should be looking at a 25 home run season even with his slow start.

He continues to have a lot of bad luck in my opinion though because, much like last year, his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is a putrid .246 thus far. His career average is .276, and was .279 before this season, so I feel fairly confident saying it won't remain this low all season. For comparison's sake, Nick Punto, who hit .228 last year, had a .276 BABIP. If Hardy is hitting .230 with a .246 BABIP, he should hit around .260 if he can return to his career average.

There are several encouraging signs about Hardy's offensive progression from a season ago, like the aforementioned increased home run rate and improved strike out rate, and while his walk rate is down and his BABIP continues to make me at least a little worried, the return of the power is the most important over the course of a full season. After one month my .275/.330/.470 prediction seems a bit optimistic, but I still believe a .260/.320/.450 season is more than possible.

Ultimately, Hardy is striking out less than he did last year, with more power. He's getting even more unlucky than he did last season, though, and his walk rate has declined from 9% to just over 7%. It's only been one month so we'll see if Hardy can continue to improve as the weather gets warmer, but for now Twins fans there's no real reason to think Hardy won't continue to improve his numbers over the course of the season.


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