Your place for Minnesota Twins and New Britain Rock Cats coverage, analysis and opinion.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Did Joe Mauer -- and Twins Fans -- Need His 2011 Season to Happen?

It's often said that balance is necessary in order to understand the universe. How can you define "hot" without understanding "cold," contemplate "good" without a concept of "evil," or truly appreciate a nice Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon without having a few boxes of Franzia wine in your past?

Joe Mauer has spoiled the Twins and their fans for much of his professional career. He exceeded most reasonable expectations, and he met even most unreasonable expectations. He mostly stayed out of the spotlight for the first several years of his career, despite being an All-Star. Sure, Gatorade, Head & Shoulders and MLB the Show came calling, but until 2011, no one really cared. And he kept clear of negative press -- have you ever heard Mauer say a negative word about anyone, or read a story about him showing up drunk at a club in the offseason?

If you believe that the Fangraphs "value" indicator is of any merit, Joe Mauer has provided $145.8 million in value to the Twins during his career, while being paid significantly less -- $57 million in total through 2011. Unfortunately, 40 percent of Mauer's career salary came in 2011, undoubtedly his worst season as a professional baseball player. Of that $23 million paid out in salary, the Twins received only $7.9 million in value. It should come as no surprise that an All-Star catcher isn't worth very much money if he isn't catching, if he isn't at Target Field in the lineup, or if he isn't even traveling with the team, all of which were the case at various points in 2011.

If nothing else, Mauer's 2011 underscored just how valuable he is to the Twins when healthy, and how much of a game-changer he is, when healthy. I don't care so much about the home runs. In fact, Fangraphs suggests that Mauer was worth $22.4 million in 2010 to the Twins, when he only hit 9 home runs, drove in 75 runners, and had a .327/.402/.469 slash line -- remarkably similar to his career line of .323/.403/.471. Clearly, much of his value is tied up in defense at the all-important position of catcher. The fact that he has a career .874 OPS is icing on the cake.

I'm not suggesting that Mauer's contributions to the Twins were a complete surprise, or were simply a "lucky break" for fans: he was the first overall draft pick in 2001 and was expected to be a star; us fans pay him very, very well to be one of the best players in the game; and he finagled a huge contract out of the Twins' ownership. I am, however, suggesting that I'm going into 2012 with a newfound appreciation for just how great Joe Mauer has been for the first half of his career.

In my experience, there's a better appreciation for a new job or pay raise if you have ever been laid off, demoted, underemployed, or have taken a pay cut; there's a better appreciation for making a sports team and receiving that coveted jersey if you have ever scanned the final roster of names, only to find that yours isn't on the list; and there's a better appreciation for the feeling of being accepted to a college if you have ever received a thin rejection envelope in the mail. Sure, it would be nice if life didn't work that way, but that's not reality. Similarly, with respect to Mauer, perhaps his 2011 puts the rest of his career in better perspective.

If you're curious, Thrylos98 at the Tenth Inning Stretch has been doing some fantastic lists and rankings of all-time great Twins. For instance, he attempts to rank the all-time Twins most valuable player here, chronicles the season and career Twins OPS leaders here, and rates the franchise season and career slugging percentage leaders here. If you haven't, you should read these posts. But, even if you don't read this great work, I can cut to the chase for you: Mauer fares very, very well on all lists. In other words, halfway into his career, Mauer is already one of the best Twins -- ever.

Joe Mauer still has a lot of work to do in order to re-build his reputation as one of the game's best. He has to stay healthy, he has to catch regularly, and he has to bat over .300 in order to provide great "value" to the Twins -- whatever you definition of that word. But if there's one thing I can take from everything that was awful about Mauer's 2011, it's that it made me appreciate how great 2004-2010 were.

Twins fans -- and Mauer himself -- perhaps needed his 2011 season to happen. Without struggle, failure, and the realization that he is indeed aging as an athlete, fans might never have the opportunity to look at -- and appreciate -- 2004-2010 in a new light. And Mauer might not be coming into the second half of his career with a chip on his shoulder. Most overpaid veterans don't believe that they have something to prove going into Spring Training, but everything I have read the past several weeks suggests that Mauer is ready, perhaps for the first time, to shut critics up. Sure, I wish that Mauer's 2011 had been just as great as his 2004-2010, but that's not life. And because of that 2011, I think that fans are going to see a Joe Mauer in 2012 who, although familiar and friendly, will come ready to rebuild his reputation and lead the Twins into (hopefully) the next generation of competitiveness.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Breaking Minor League News: New Britain Rock Cats Have Been Sold

There is breaking Twins-related minor league news this afternoon in Central Connecticut, where it has been announced that the New Britain Rock Cats, which had done very well in the community and in terms of attendance, under owners Bill Dowling (former attorney for George Steinbrenner) and Coleman Levy (local attorney), is being sold to an investment group.

DSF Group, the purchaser, is a real estate and sports investment firm, and also owns the New Hampshire Fisher Cats (same division as the Rock Cats and AA affiliate of the Blue Jays), and the Bowling Green Hot Rods (Class A affiliate of Tampa Bay Rays). Interestingly, John Willi, who left the helm as the Rock Cats' general manager in 2010 to take a position at DSF, will be returning to that post.

I have a feeling that this is going to be an interesting story, especially as rumors have been floating around that the Rock Cats may change affiliation. I will be keeping track of this story and any further developments. But as a fan, as long as the ticket prices remain affordable, and the quality of baseball is good, I'll be happy to continue to support the Rock Cats.

Here's the article from the Hartford Courant detailing the sale.

Thursday, February 23, 2012 -- Early Review

I have to admit that I was quite surprised this past week to read that Seth Stohs, Parker Hagerman, John Bonnes and Nick Nelson -- the premier Twins bloggers that provide great Twinscentric content for the Star Tribune, among other publications -- had decided to give up their individual blogs and join forces. As I write that sentence, it almost sounds like something out of a comic book written for Twins geeks! They are now providing the great content, but for one individual website, Most of you who read this blog probably are already aware of the change, but for those few that weren't aware, well, now you are.

I recently started posting at Twinsdaily, and am very impressed with the content thus far. As expected, Seth, Parker, John and Nick are all doing their same things, but now other bloggers, such as myself, can post their articles so that we might attract new and different visitors, when compared to the same people that we know visit our personal blog every day. Already I've encountered some great Twins fans thanks to Twinsdaily. Moreover, Twins fans that don't have blogs -- and don't want one -- can still create and post content, and can also comment on other articles.

The possibilities of Twinsdaily are pretty exciting to think about. First, the Star Tribune now has a paywall, so without a subscription, you can't really actively read the articles and comment on the baseball boards anymore. The Pioneer Press, whose coverage isn't great anyway, seems to have their comment board linked with Facebook. I'm not on Facebook, and never will be, and I suspect that there are at least a few others like me. In the end, Twinsdaily should allow more people to have a voice and to express an opinion on the Twins.

I plan on attending both the New Britain Rock Cats opening night, and also two games of the Twins' opening series in Baltimore. I can post game recaps and pictures to Twinsdaily, and I can imagine that other fans will be doing the same thing throughout the professional season. Sure, I can do the same at my blog, and I certainly will, but it will be a good opportunity, I think, to reach out to other fans. In short, those of us with blogs can provide the same material, but to a larger platform, and there is an opportunity for those without Star Tribune subscriptions or Facebook accounts to have meaningful Twins-related conversations online.

I'll be taking a break from blogging for the next few days, most likely. It's time for the annual winter trip to Minnesota, and hopefully a stop at the Twins Pro Shop in Roseville to check out the new gear for 2012. Maybe I can get a discount on that Jason Repko jersey I have been coveting.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Brian Dozier, Player Development and the Future

Brian Dozier, Twins' shortstop of the future?

I have advocated in the past my belief that the best place for Tsuyoshi Nishioka to start 2012 would be AA New Britain or AAA Rochester. Unlike the front office, I'm not willing to give him a complete mulligan for 2011. I recognize that the broken leg derailed his season, but even prior to that injury -- and also when he came back supposedly healthy -- he was clearly overmatched. It's great that he worked on strength and conditioning in the offseason, but I'm not sure that those things, alone, make him better for the Twins in 2012.

From what I have read, the Twins will use Jamey Carroll as the everyday, starting shortstop (until he is eligible to begin collecting Social Security next season), and all signs point to Alexi Casilla getting the nod at second. The Twins have two more years left on Nishioka's contract, and roughly $6 million; that contract is untradeable right now. On the other hand, Twins shortstop prospect Brian Dozier had a great season at AA in 2011, and also performed very well in the Arizona Fall League. So we have one middle infield prospect, seemingly on the way up, and one major league middle infield player that, in my mind, needs to occupy a spot on some roster, somewhere, for the next two years before he is out of this organization.

Like the Twins' front office, I'm thinking toward the future. I'm not at all confident that we're looking at a playoff team here, so I think it's important to make moves that, although not fantastic or sexy in the short-term, don't handcuff the team in the long-term. By 2014 or 2015, there could be a good new wave of players, including Miguel Sano and Kyle Gibson, and the starting 9 probably will look very, very different.

With that being said, perhaps the best (or least worst) thing to do in 2012 is to have Nishioka be a bench player for the Twins, and give Dozier the starting SS job at Rochester for a full season -- or at least until he demonstrates that he's seen enough of AAA to be promoted. Having both Nishioka and Dozier on the same Rochester team simply doesn't make sense, especially if Dozier is the shortstop of the future for the Twins. I suppose the other option is to send Nishioka to New Britain, but based on Terry Ryan's comments that the team "wouldn't want to see it play out that way," with respect to sending Nishioka to Rochester, I have a feeling that such a New Britain assignment might not even be on the table. At the very least, it's definitely something to think about. I think the Twins' #1 priority with respect to this issue is setting themselves up to have a legitimate shortstop of the future, something they haven't had for a long time.

I'd be happy to hear your comments and ideas -- I'm not at all an expert on the Twins' minor league system, and I know that some of you will have more insight.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

One 2012 Postseason Award the Twins Can Win

The way it seems right now, even with the optimism that accompanies Spring Training, it's tough to imagine the Twins hoisting the 2012 World Series trophy. In fact, I can't reasonably imagine the Twins having the AL Cy Young award winner on their pitching staff, or the AL MVP in their batting order. But there is one award that this team was built for: The Comeback Player of the Year.

According to the criteria, the award is given to a player judged to have "re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season." It's worth noting, for no other reason than that it's sort of funny, that the award is sponsored by Viagra. Historically, Comeback Player award winners, not surprisingly, were sidelined much of the previous season before returning to glory. For example, Lance Berkman won the award for the NL in 2011, after having a fantastic season. But in 2010, he batted only .248 and needed a knee surgery. Jacoby Ellsbury -- for many a favorite for the 2011 MVP award -- locked up the AL Comeback Player award in 2011. If you recall, he only played 18 games in 2010, primarily the result of an early season collision that fractured several ribs. So to say that he came back bigtime in 2011 is an understatement. Our own Francisco Liriano won the award in 2010, and was likely cited for his "full" recovery from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him in 2007, and that took a few years from which to rebound.

Doesn't this award just scream Twins in 2012? Here are a few odds-on favorites for the 2012 AL Comeback Player award.

Joel Zumaya: He hasn't thrown a pitch in a major league game since June 28, 2010, when he suffered a non-displaced fracture to his elbow. Prior to that, Zumaya had a solid career, winning the setup man of the year award in 2006. He had a 2.58 ERA in 2010 prior to his injury, and, for his career, Zumaya has a 3.05 ERA. If he's somehow healthy this season, I don't have much doubt he could instantly come to the top of the list of Twins relievers. It would be a good comeback story, especially considering the painful way that Zumaya last exited a game.

Joe Mauer: Since this award cites players for "re-emerg[ing] on the baseball field," it could rightfully be awarded to a player who, for several reasons, simply wasn't on the baseball field much in 2011. Whether it was the bilateral leg weakness that kept him out most of the first half of 2011, or the pneumonia that eventually sidelined him for good, Joe Mauer simply wasn't around much of last season. Reportedly, he spent a lot of time on the trainer's table, and even went to the Mayo Clinic for diagnosis and treatment. Sure, Mauer's story doesn't have the same appeal as, perhaps, Zumaya's, but it is worth mentioning. If Mauer can stay on the field, and remain healthy and productive this season, he could be a worthy candidate.

Justin Morneau: Here's a guy I would love to see win the award. Sidelined the final month of the 2009 season with a stress fracture in his lower back, the second half of 2010 after suffering a concussion, and off-and-on in 2011 as a result of approximately 30 different injuries, this could actually be more of a "lifetime achievement comeback" award for Morneau. A win for Morneau would mean that he stayed healthy (which in turn would mean that he remained symptom-free from his concussions), and that he played good baseball. In fact, Morneau probably doesn't have to hit 30 home runs and drive in 120 RBIs to win this award. A decent season might be enough for him.

Francisco Liriano: I'm pretty sure that simply being awful the previous season, in and of itself, doesn't qualify you for the award, but Liriano did have some time on the disabled list in 2011 -- in May, and again in August, if I recall. If, somehow, Liriano were to return to 2010 form, he might get some votes.

In the end, it looks like it takes a special story, such as overcoming a serious injury, coupled with good on-the-field play the next season, to win this award. The Twins, though, do have some promising candidates. Perhaps all the maladies suffered in 2011 could mean hardware in 2012? I'm not sure what the award itself looks like, but the fact that it is sponsored by Viagra does raise a red flag.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Jim Souhan: Hack Job

This is one of the times when it's really nice to have your own voice in the blogging community, completely independent of affiliated media, such as the Star Tribune or Pioneer Press, or the actual organization that I blog about, the Minnesota Twins. Within reason, and hopefully with some degree of accuracy, I can say exactly what I think, and know that, in reality, only a couple hundred people will read it anyway.

Yesterday, I read Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan's article, "Clueless Joe not Cutting it Anymore." If, by chance, you haven't read it, I would recommend doing so before you continue reading this post: I don't want my personal opinion to unnecessarily color your perception of Souhan's column.

OK, did you read it? Great. I'll continue, then.

It's no secret that Souhan hasn't exactly been in Joe's corner for some time now. Especially as Mauer combated physical injuries last season, as well as a blow to his public perception -- mostly a result of the confusing diagnosis of "bilateral leg weakness -- Souhan was pretty quick to take Mauer to task. And some of that criticism was very warranted. Mauer now admits that he should have been more up front last season with the media and the fans. I think it was foolish of Mauer to isolate himself from his teammates, and to isolate himself from the media. That's why rumors started that Joe had Lyme's Disease. Joe is a smart enough guy: I'm pretty confident that he has learned from his mistakes, and we've already seen more media accessibility this offseason from Mauer, assuring fans that he is 100% healthy and ready to go. Will Joe ever be the clubhouse leader that Michael Cuddyer or Torii Hunter was? Maybe not. But can he, in his own way, assume a powerful veteran leadership presence? Absolutely. And as fans, we don't know that he hasn't, or that his leadership style is unsuccessful.

Here are a couple snippets from Souhan's article: "Whether Mauer had anything to do with their mindsets or not is difficult to ascertain, but Joe Nathan and Michael Cuddyer, two long-term Twins who had spoken of wanting to end their careers in Minnesota, left in free agency . . . ." Yes, Jim, Joe Mauer shared responsibility for Cuddyer taking a considerably better offer than what the Twins made, and was also culpable for the fact that Joe Nathan wanted to pitch for a team that has been in back-to-back World Series (not to mention the fact that there's no guarantee that the Nathan of 2012 will be nearly as good as the Nathan of 2004-2009), as opposed for a team that just lost 99 games and filled their closer role for under $5 million -- considerably less than what Nathan agreed to with the Rangers.

"In the past six months, I've spoken with dozens of key people working at all levels of the Twins organization about Mauer. Most expressed disgust or dismay over the way he conducted himself last season." Ah yes, anonymous sources. I get that people in organizations that say scintillating things to journalists concerning their employer need to be protected, but I find it hard to believe that there are literally "dozens" of dissenters in the Twins organization that were literally champing at the bit waiting to talk to Jim Souhan about a private employment matter. Like any journalist, I'm sure that Souhan has his trusted and reliable sources, but this, Jim, sounds like a witch hunt.

Here's what I know: Joe Mauer has been the Twins' best player nearly every season he has suited up for them. No matter how you measure it -- Wins Above Replacement, Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, Batting Titles, Gold Gloves -- he's already approaching some all-time lists for the Twins. Mauer and his handlers made a pretty big error last season in the way that they skirted the media and the public in the face of his mysterious injuries. Most of the content in Souhan's piece has already been hashed and rehashed again, by Souhan and almost every other baseball writer, professional and blogger, in Minnesota (including myself, I'm sure). Mauer's 2011 was a big mistake, and I'm willing to bet that it won't happen again. For whatever reason, Souhan really has it out for Mauer. Perhaps things happened behind the scenes that soured Souhan? I know that Jim Souhan gets paid to write opinion pieces, and sometimes I enjoy his columns -- and I also think that Souhan is right when he essentially says that Mauer needs to step it up this year. But, as we hit Spring Training, and as we have been told and retold that Mauer is 100 % healthy, I find that it's tough not to be at least a little optimistic (or simply excited to see live baseball again), Souhan comes off as a Scrooge. Jim Scroogehan.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Odds of the Twins Being Competitive in 2012 & Friday Links

I'm not a mathematician or a statistician. In fact, I tried to avoid taking math in college. I do remember a few things, though. One of them is this: if you want to calculate the odds of two or more independent events occurring, you simply multiply the odds of each individual event together. As a practical example, you know that there is a 50% chance of a random flip of a coin ending up "heads." So what are the odds of getting 2 heads in a row? .5 x .5, or .25 -- which is 1 in 4. Three heads in a row would be .125, or 1 in 8.

Most every blogger, and even local and national baseball writers, are pointing to three separate things that, we all believe, will be very determinative of the success or failure of the Twins in 2012. In no particular order, those things are: Joe Mauer having a healthy and productive 2012; Justin Morneau demonstrating that he is fully recovered from his concussions and other issues and returning to the power threat that he once was; and Francisco Liriano re-establishing his dominance. There are other very important issues facing the Twins, like Denard Span's health, or whether Danny Valencia will be more like he was in 2010 than he was in 2011, but many people have isolated these three particular players because of their relative importance to the team.

I believe that, if these 3 things do, in fact, occur, the Twins could be a good team. They might not really compete with Detroit for the AL Central, but then again, Detroit is only a Justin Verlander or Prince Fielder injury away from being a significantly less dominant team than once thought (I'm not wishing injury on either of these players; my point is only that, as Twins fans, we certainly know how one or two injuries to star players can derail a team). But I do think that, with all the other Twins' weaknesses, these 3 things all need to coincide in the same year in order for this team to make it past the trade deadline in contention for the playoffs. So what are the odds of this taking place in 2012? Let's figure it out.

Without any insider knowledge, I'm just going to rely hunches and (hopefully) common sense to arrive at percentages for each player. For Mauer, I believe that there is an 80% chance he returns to his form in 2010, when he was very good. There is little or no chance of seeing a repeat of 2009, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime season, anyway. All fans, of course, would prefer a repeat of 2010 over 2011. I think Joe is going into the season completely healthy, and I believe there's a great chance that he has a solid year, putting together a .330 average and reaching base above a .400 clip.

Justin Morneau, on the other hand, has me understandably more skeptical. I think there's a 30% chance that he returns to his "old" form -- as in his form the first half of the season in 2010 when he was arguably on pace for another MVP award. This percentage is definitely just conjecture: he hasn't even participated in drills or games, so we have no idea whether he'll even be ready to start the season. In fact, 30% might be quite generous.

Francisco Liriano is so frustrating. Last season, we were hoping he could match, or improve upon, his 2010 stats, and he ended up being one of the worst pitchers in baseball; but he also threw a no-hitter and occasionally showed flashes of brilliance. I think there is a 40% chance that Liriano goes back to his 2010 form: he pitched in winter ball (though he did not do well), so it seems likely that he will come to camp in better shape than he did in 2011; additionally, he's only a season away from free agency, so he's pitching for a contract, whether it's with the Twins or another team.

So those are my guesses: 80% for Mauer; 30% for Morneau; 40% for Liriano. Multiplying those percentages together, you end up with 9.6%. Otherwise stated, based on my guesses, there is roughly a 10% chance of these three players reverting to 2010 form -- or post-concussion form in the case of Morneau. Not very good odds. Again, these are only three players out of the 25 that will be with the Twins this season, and, as always, there will be surprises, both good and bad, from other guys, some of whom we may not even know much about now. But I don't think it's an understatement to suggest that, especially in 2012, the Twins need good seasons from these three players in order to have any shot at having a year where they are not out of contention at the trade deadline.

Out of curiosity, I wonder how far off my figure of 9.6% will be from the preseason odds of the Twins winning the AL Central.

Now, onto a few links that I enjoyed reading this past week:

Seth Stohs at had an excellent post discussing present and potential future aces in baseball.

If I didn't know better, I would think that JC over at Knuckleballsblog wasn't a big fan of Bud Selig. I can't tell you how furious I would be to not be able to watch basically any regional baseball teams based on licensing and broadcast blackouts, so I definitely have sympathy for JC. Although the native Minnesotan in me thinks that might just be another reason not to live in Iowa. Just sayin' . . . .

The Twins released their promotional schedule for 2012, and there are no bobblehead days. I've never been a bobblehead collector, but I do think they are kind of cool. I did get a Danny Valencia AA Rock Cats bobblehead this past season, though, so maybe I'm coming around. NoDak Twins Fan eulogized the demise of the bobblehead promotion in a creative and well-written post.

Topper Anton at Curve for a Strike contemplated Love and Baseball in a Valentine's Day post. Very well done!

Happy weekend, everyone!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tinkering with Target Field

I've only been to Target Field twice -- once in 2010 and once last season. Long story short, I loved just about everything about the stadium. As one who grew up watching games in the Metrodome when players like Marty Cordova and Pat Mears played to crowds of 8,000, an outdoor, baseball-only stadium was a long time coming.

It's exciting to think that the Twins could host the 2014 All-Star Game. The last time the mid-summer classic was in Minnesota was way back in 1985. Dave Parker won the Home Run Derby, hitting 6. Total. Our own Tom Brunansky tied for second with 4. The derby was structured a little different back then -- each batter played 2 "innings," and each inning was comprised of 5 outs. So that's part of the reason why the HR totals were lower. In any event, it's exciting to think about Minnesota hosting this great event. Target Field exudes class, and we, as Twins fans and (some of us) Minnesotans should be proud to be on the short list for hosting this event.

If the Twins are selected to host the All-Star Game, Target Field will be all over ESPN and Fox the week of the event. As it's a relatively new stadium, I'm sure ESPN will have their crews behind the scenes talking about the limestone, the fire pit in the left field upper deck, and the Metropolitan Club outdoor deck, which is actually a pretty fun place to catch part of a game. The field will look great, with the red, white and blue banners and American flags, and hopefully plenty of visible TC logos. There is one minor change, though, that I'd like to propose:

99 percent of my Twins viewing occurs at home, usually on my computer. I subscribe to, and can watch the Minnesota feed of almost every home and away game. In the 100 or so games at Target Field that I have watched on my computer, the only -- and I mean only -- aesthetically unappealing aspect of watching the television coverage is the apparel worn by the vendors. Here's a picture.

As you can see, it's fluorescent green, or neon green. Whatever you want to call it, I don't like it. I notice it less when I'm at the stadium, but in my opinion it sticks out like a sore thumb when watching a game on TV. I understand there are at least two reasons for the bright shirts: first, it allows supervisors to easily see what employees are doing, where they are working, and whether certain areas of the stadium need more or less coverage; second, it helps fans easily find vendors. Those are both legitimate business reasons, and are tough to argue with. But is there perhaps any other color that isn't so repugnant, but would still allow for management and fans to easily locate vendors?

The vendors seem to spend most of their time working the stairways between sections of the stadium. As a fan attending a game, I have never, ever had a problem trying to identify a vendor from, say, a fan: the vendors are the people that have the gigantic cartons of food or drinks, and the good ones creatively announce their presence and bark their product. And when there is a vendor present, I have rarely had a problem ordering a beer or hot dog. Somehow, even in the days before the neon outfits, this was never really a problem for me.

Target Field is pretty close to perfect. There is little to be done if the Twins are selected to host the All-Star Game. In my mind, though, when I think about Joe Mauer taking the field for the AL in 2014, or Prince Fielder participating in the Home Run Derby before a television audience of millions, the last thing I want to see on my television screen are several dozen neon green shirts in the background of arguably the classiest stadium in baseball.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How Are "True Aces" Acquired?

Seth Stohs over at had a great column yesterday discussing "ace" pitchers and the Twins' perceived lack thereof. As always, the analysis was great, and the reader comments were interesting. In that piece, Seth listed 12 pitchers that he believed arguably qualified as "true aces," and here's that list: Justin Verlander; Clayton Kershaw; Tim Lincecum; CC Sabathia; Felix Hernandez; Cliff Lee; Roy Halladay; Jered Weaver; Dan Haren; Yovani Gallardo; Matt Cain; Chris Carpenter. Regardless of whether you agree with the assessment of these particular pitchers as aces, I think most would agree that this constitutes a solid list of most of the dominant pitchers in baseball right now. I'd personally be happy with any of them popping up in the Twins' starting rotation.

I'm going to piggyback off of Seth's post because it was interesting to me to think specifically about how these true aces were acquired by their present team, and where they were drafted. So I want to take a quick look individually at these pitchers to see if there are any trends, and to see what acquiring teams have given up in order to get a true ace. I didn't include the contract values -- Seth has them over in his piece (but here's a spoiler alert -- ace pitchers are pretty expensive!!).

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers: 2nd overall pick of 2004 amateur draft; was drafted by the Tigers and is under contract with Tigers through 2015.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers: 7th overall pick of 2006 amateur draft; was drafted by the Dodgers, and will become a free agent in 2015.

Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants: 10th overall pick of 2006 amateur draft; was drafted by the Giants, and will become a free agent in 2014.

CC Sabathia, New York Yankees: 20th overall pick of 1998 amateur draft; was drafted by the Cleveland Indians and played with them until July, 2008, when he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers (along with Michael Brantley) for Rob Bryson (has yet to play in the major leagues), Zach Jackson and Matt LaPorta. For the record, LaPorta was the 7th pick overall in the 2007 draft; Jackson was the 32nd overall pick in the 2004 draft; Brantley was the 205th overall pick in the 2005 draft; Bryson was the 932nd pick (31st round) in the 2006 draft. Sabathia became a free agent after the 2008 season, and is signed through 2016 with the Yankees with a vesting option for 2017.

Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners: Signed as an amateur free agent in 2002 by the Mariners, and is set to become a free agent in 2015.

Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies: 105th overall pick (4th round) of the 2000 amateur draft by the Montreal Expos. Lee has bounced around over his career. In his most recent trade before reaching free agency, Lee was traded by the Seattle Mariners to the Texas Rangers for Matthew Lawson (has yet to play in the major leagues), Blake Beaven, Josh Lueke and Justin Smoak. Lawson was a 14th round pick in 2007; Beaven was the 17th overall pick in 2007; Lueke was a 16th round pick in 2007; and Smoak was the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft. The Mariners also sent Mark Lowe, a 5th round pick in 2004, and some cash, to the Rangers to complete the deal.

Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies: 17th overall pick of 1995 amateur draft. In December, 2009, Halladay was traded with cash to the Phillies for Travis d'Arnaud (has yet to play in majors), Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor. Drabek was the 18th overall pick in the 2006 draft; Taylor was the 173rd pick (5th round) of the 2007 draft; d'Arnaud was the 37th overall pick (1st round) in the 2007 draft.

Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: 12th overall pick of the 2004 amateur draft; under contract with the Angels through 2016.

Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: 72nd overall pick (2nd round) of 2001 amateur draft. In July, 2010, Haren was traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Angels for a player to be named later, Patrick Corbin (has yet to play in majors), Rafael Rodriguez and Joe Saunders. Corbin was a 2nd round pick in 2009; Rodriguez signed as an amateur free agent in 2001; Saunders was the 12th overall pick of the 2002 amateur draft. The Angels sent Tyler Skaggs (has yet to play in majors), the 40th overall pick of the 2009 amateur draft, to the Diamondbacks, to complete the deal.

Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers: 46th overall pick (2nd round) of 2004 amateur draft; under contract with Brewers through 2014 with a team option for 2015.

Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants: 25th overall pick of 2002 amateur draft; under contract with the Giants through 2012.

Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals: 15th overall pick of 1993 amateur draft by the Toronto Blue Jays; released by the Blue Jays in October, 2002, and signed as a free agent by the Cardinals later that year. Under contract with Cardinals through 2013.

Just looking at this list, one thing becomes clear immediately: most of this talent was recognized by scouts, as 8 of the 11 players on this list that participated in the amateur draft were drafted in the first round; only Gallardo, Haren and Lee went after the first round; and King Felix was signed as an amateur free agent.

What about the players that teams have given up in order to acquire an ace? Not surprisingly, teams are giving up first round picks -- in some cases multiple first round picks -- to get an ace. Look at the Rangers' deal to get Cliff Lee: they gave up the 17th and 11th overall picks in the 2007 and 2008 draft to get Lee for half a season. Sure, Smoak hasn't exactly panned out yet, but many thought he would be a star.

One other pitcher that projects as a future ace -- or at least the Yankees think so -- is Michael Pineda. This 23 year-old, hard throwing righty was just traded from the Mariners to the Yankees, and the key piece of the exchange was Jesus Montero, undoubtedly the Yankees' top prospect. Pineda looked great the first half of 2011, but struggled in the second half. He ended up 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA in 171 innings. Though he projects as a future star, nothing is guaranteed. Montero looked good in a September call-up, posting a .328/.406/.590 line in 69 plate appearances. He projects to be a great hitter, and the Yankees gave him up (along with pitcher Hector Noesi), in exchange for Pineda and minor leaguer Jose Campos. Though Pineda doesn't yet belong on the list of ace pitchers, this move further demonstrates the hot commodity that is an ace -- or a potential ace.

So, Twins fans, would you give up one or more of Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia, to get a "true ace?" How about our last couple 1st round picks, Levi Michael and Alex Wimmers? Would you give them up -- and everything that they might pan out to be -- for a "true ace" that could anchor the rotation for several years, but that would also command a $20 million salary? Because that, in the absence of good drafting, seems to be the going rate.

As always, I'm curious for your thoughts.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Starting Pitching & Friday Links

I haven't had a lot to say this week. There's been no major Twins news, so I'm realizing that, with the exception of a few minor things here or there, the current roster is what we're taking to Spring Training, and what we'll open the season with. I'm comfortable -- or about as comfortable as you can be, given last year -- with the offense. Sure, it probably won't be as good as it was in 2010, but it could have a lot more speed. I'm uncomfortable -- or about as uncomfortable as you can be, given last year -- with the starting pitching.

By all accounts, Roy Oswalt is still available. I don't know what it would take to get him in a Twins uniform this year, but I sure hope that Terry Ryan is at the very least working the phones. last reported that there was little progress in an Oswalt-Red Sox deal, but that the Cardinals and Rangers were also in the mix. Sounds like Oswalt wants to play for a contender. Oswalt alone won't make the Twins the AL Central champs in 2012, but, if healthy, he probably will add a few more wins over what we can expect from Jason Marquis or Nick Blackburn. I know he's not the same pitcher he was back in the mid-2000s, but I'd take a chance on him, and whatever he wants to be paid, in order to make this team better immediately. Starting pitching -- an obvious weakness in 2011 that fans hoped would be addressed -- simply has not improved. In fact, it may have gotten worse with Marquis, but only time will tell. Out of all the players that are available, and that would make a big difference for the Twins in 20120, Roy Oswalt is worth Terry Ryan making the "3 block walk" for financial approval.

Now, onto a few links. As I mentioned, this was a quiet week for me. Luckily, other great writers had much to say on the Twins and baseball in general. Here are a few of my favorites:

NoDak Twins Fan compares the timelines of Justin Morneau's and Sidney Crosby's concussions.

The Tenth Inning Stretch has done a great job tracking Roy Oswalt's job prospects.

Wally Fish, over at Seedlings to Stars, published his 2012 Twins Prospect List. It's a great list with excellent analysis!

If you haven't yet, make your season predictions for such things as Twins hitter and pitcher of the year, rookie of the year, and breakout/surprise offensive player of the year over at Seth Speaks.

I would love to see a Twins fan win the MLB Fan Cave contest for the 2012 season, and our own Lindsay Guentzel would do a great job. Here are more details from the Knuckleballs crew on Lindsay's Fan Cave entry, and here's the link to vote for her.

Happy Friday, and Happy Weekend!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Joe Mauer's 2012: What's a Good Outcome from the Fan's Standpoint?

Much like the ominous sky pictured here at Target Field, what the future holds for Joe Mauer in 2012 is also unclear.

According to fangraphs, in 2009, when the Twins paid Joe Mauer $12.5 million, he provided $35.4 million in value. In 2011, when the Twins paid Mauer $23 million, he provided $7.9 million in value. Clearly, both the Twins, and I'm sure Mauer, want to see stats more similar to the 2009 numbers than the 2011 numbers. I think now, though, we mostly have come to terms with the likelihood that Mauer will never again replicate his historic 2009 season.

It's tough to imagine Mauer hitting almost 30 home runs while playing half his games at Target Field. Though I think he could very well bat in the .340s, or even.350 again, .365/.444/.587 seems like a stretch. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that Mauer's best days are behind him and that he's a washed-up athlete--but I do think that 2009 will stand out for decades as the best season ever for a catcher.

So what should fans be happy with in 2012? A select few wouldn't even be content if Mauer batted .400, or broke the home run record, or did both in the same season. They would cite his $23 million salary and its effect on a team with a $100 million payroll, and rest on that alone. While it's clear that Mauer's contract has long-lasting financial implications for the Twins, citing the contract alone and expecting 8 MVP seasons from Mauer is an untenable viewpoint that ignores the concept of paying a player a "market rate" contract, so I'm just going to disregard it. Even if Mauer's contract goes down as a bust, I'd take one bad market rate contract over what had been the Twins' historical trend -- losing every single Twins player to free agency.

I think we can isolate a few things that should give Mauer a lot of value this year. The first, of course, is health. If he can catch over 100 games, and DH/1B/RF for another 35-40, that's a good sign. In fact, if he plays 140 games, there's a pretty good chance he stayed healthy (enough) the entire year. And when Mauer's healthy, he rarely has major batting slumps. The second, as I just alluded to, is that Mauer is catching. I'm not one who believes that all of his value is tied up in catching: I think fans need to realize that Mauer catching 100 games and being half-injured all season isn't really a great "value" to the Twins, and probably on paper doesn't provides less benefit than if they just threw him in right field for the whole season, and let him be simply average there and hit for little power. But still, his best position is catcher, and that's his bread and butter for now--at least from the standpoint of racking up value and Wins Above Replacement. The third thing is also related to defense. I'd love to see Mauer throw out a higher percentage of base-stealers. In 2005, he threw out 43%; in 2007, 53%. The last three seasons, however, have been 26%, 26% and 30%. Imagine, over the course of a season, the impact that an increase in Mauer's caught-stealing percentage could have on team defense as a whole. His fielding percentage at catcher last year, .987, was also the lowest of his career. Knowing what we know now, it's obvious that he was rarely healthy at any point in 2011. So I'm going to give him a pass on his defense for last year, but hope that he returns to form this season.

Funny enough, if Mauer is healthy enough to stay at catcher all season, I am completely confident that his batting will be fine. Sure, the home run total probably won't be high, but that doesn't mean the guy can't hit a bunch of doubles. He hit 43 doubles in 2010, along with 9 HR. I wouldn't be surprised to see Mauer hit 50 doubles in 2012 if he can stay in the lineup.

Here's my ideal projection for Joe Mauer in 2012 -- how I think he could "earn" his salary, if you will, while still recognizing that, for whatever reason, he's never going to be the home run hitter he was in 2009: Play a minimum of 140 total games, at least 115 at catcher; throw out at least 35% of base stealers; bat .335 with 50 doubles, and hit over 10 HR; reach base at a clip of over .400. I expect that the RBIs, really a team statistic, will come, as well, if Ben Revere in the 9-hole, Denard Span, and Jamey Carroll, can be good on-base guys.

Sure, those likely aren't MVP numbers, but it's a pretty good formula for success. And last time I checked, there's a short list of catchers that can bat over .300. Projections always are humorous if you look at them after the season has taken place, so we'll see what actually happens in 2012. But if the Twins want to have any chance of even playing above .500, this is where it all starts. What do you think? What does Mauer have to do to earn his salary on the field this season?