Fire Gardy

Mismanaging games since 2002

You can thank Mauer for Sano/Jean

We have an update on one of the Twins’ bright new prospects, Miguel Angel Sano/Jean, in the form of some sour grapes from Pittsburgh. Dejan Kovacevic, the talented Pirates beat writer, says the early indications “sure sound liek a match for all those long-stared, lofty expectations,” and the article is filled with thinly veiled criticism of the Pittsburgh front office for falling short in its efforts to sign Sano/Jean.

Miguel Angel Sano/Jean

On Thursday, before the Pirates and Twins played a Grapefruit League game at adjacent Hammond Stadium, Sano stood out in stature and talent in his group of rookie-level minor leaguers: He looked smooth and natural in all facets, and he homered deep to left in his batting practice.

That’s exactly what I had hoped to hear. Often, these hot shot Dominican prospects are considered “raw,” and their futures are all based on their “projectable” bodies; unlike Carlos Gomez, it’s possible that Sano/Jean may not have as long a road to “learning the game.” And that’d be a big bonus.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the article is the quotes from Sano/Jean himself.

Earlier in the week, Sano told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he chose the Twins because of star players Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.

“I want to be able to play with them,” Sano said through an interpreter.

If you needed another reason for the Twins to do whatever they can to sign Mauer, you’ve got it. Sure, the big stars in the middle of the lineup are key to winning games, and marketing the franchise, and drawing fans to the stadium. But they also are instrumental in attracting high upside talent to the organization.

Regarding his bonus, the highest ever for a Latin American position player: “Right now, I really don’t look at money. I let my mom worry about that. In two or three years, when I get to Major League Baseball, I’ll start thinking about it.”

That’s right. The money was less important to him than the chance to be on the field with Mauer and Morneau.

If Mauer signs a long term contract, I think we can expect to see some more prospects like Sano/Jean to find their way, moth-like, to the bright lights put off by these stars.

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Span’s Baserunning

If you feel like I’ve been posting about Denard Span a lot, you’re right! That’s what you get for having a CF-playing leadoff hitter who keeps doing interesting things like running his own Twitter account and signing team-friendly extensions and such. So deal with it.

This time around, it’s Span’s speed and baserunning ability that step to the foreground. Buster Olney passes along some quick bits from Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information (insider only):

“Span stole only 23 bases last season (tied for 32nd in MLB), but that statistic really doesn’t give a complete picture of his baserunning ability. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Span accumulated 29 Bases Taken (includes bases advanced on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks and defensive indifference), the second-highest total in the majors last season. Here’s the list of the highest from last season:

David Wright – 31
Denard Span – 29
Troy Tulowitzki – 27
Dexter Fowler – 27

Here’s another impressive stat for the speedy Span: He had a .667 batting average on bunts (10 hits, 15 at-bats), which is nearly double the major league average of .376.

As I understand it, Fangraphs’ WAR does not include baserunning, which means these Bases Taken increases Span’s actual value significantly, and I didn’t take it into account when determining whether his contract was a good one.

The aggressive base-taking skills combined with the excellent speed that it takes to go 10/15 on bunts should mean that Span has the ability to steal considerably more than 23 bases in a season; of course, base stealing is a skill that Denard may not have developed yet, but I’d be curious to see what he can do once he does.

While it’s generally considered a bad idea to try to steal bases with your best hitters at the plate (because you don’t want to take the bat out of their hands), it seems to me that the fact that Orlando Hudson and Joe Mauer both ground into a ton of double plays should encourage the Twins to work with Span-the-speedy-onbase-machine to take the next step in becoming the ultimate leadoff hitter, and start stealing second base to take the GIDP off the list of possibilities for Hudson’s and Mauer’s plate appearances.

So what do you think? Should Span be trying to steal more? How many bases do you think he’s capable of stealing in a season? 30? 40? Let me know in the comments.

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Heath Bell?

According to the always excellent Craig Calcaterra (via Bob Nightengale), the Twins are scouting Padres closer Heath Bell.  I don’t think Joe Nathan can avoid TJ surgery, so kicking the tires on some proven closers won’t hurt.  As I recall the price for Bell was pretty steep last year, so I can’t imagine it going down after his strong 2009 campaign. 

However, if the price is reasonable, the Twins should pull the trigger.  Bell isn’t making much this year ($4 million according to the article) and would fit nicely in the back of the bullpen.  The two major red flags on Bell are he is coming from an extreme pitchers park in the NL, so who knows how that will translate to Target Field.  Like I said, it can’t hurt to kick the tires on some proven guys to replace Nathan, but I don’t see any fire behind this smoke.

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Rooting for Brock Peterson

Buster Olney relates this interesting story about Twins prospect Brock Peterson (insider only):

Twins infielder Brock Peterson had this story of justice from last year. He was at the plate and smoked a foul ball into the stands and hit a woman square in the forehead, the blood pouring off the wound. Peterson was shaken by this, stepped out of the batter’s box to try to compose himself, and the home plate umpire humanely encouraged him to get settled. “He gave me something like three minutes,” Peterson recalled.

As medical personnel rushed to help the woman — who would turn out to be OK — Peterson remained out of the box. The opposing pitcher started yelling for him to get going, to get the game restarted. The pitcher’s demeanor, in the face of what was going on in the stands, apparently bothered the umpire, because when Peterson took a 3-2 pitch right down the middle, the umpire called it ball four.

Frankly, I’d rather the umpires stick to the strike zone rather than trying to judge the pitcher’s morals.

But I think this story brings into focus the fact that a baseball game isn’t the safest place to be, and that when a fan gets hurt the players themselves can be just as shaken as the injured party.

I know Brock Peterson will probably never play for the Twins — he’s stuck behind these guys called “Justin Morneau” and “Jason Kubel” — but as of now I’m rooting for him to succeed in this league. I hope he makes it somewhere.

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An improved defense may mean more than you think

I’ve thought for a while that a pitcher can help out his defense by working quickly and throwing strikes. When I was young and still played, I found that being in the field was a whole lot more fun when the pitcher was putting the ball over the plate (and, in turn, the batters were putting the ball in play). If you can reasonably expect a ball to be hit at you at any time, you’re engaged the entire time — and if you’re not, the manager notices your crappy defense and attitude sticking out from the rest of the team who are engaged.

On the other hand, when the pitcher couldn’t find the zone, was stalling between pitches, and was walking guys, I wasn’t alone among the fielders in getting bored. And when you’re bored, you’re less ready to leap into action on the off-chance the ball actually does come into play.

So one area in which I think defensive metrics have plenty of room to improve is in figuring out just how much this interplay between a pitcher and his fielders exists and (more importantly) how much it matters to run prevention. Does the efficacy of the defense change depending on anything the pitcher does? When Scott Baker or Mark Buehrle work quickly, does their defense play better than when another pitcher wastes as much time as he can out there? Does Kevin Slowey’s propensity to pound the strike zone encourage his defenders to stay more alert than, say, Clayton Kershaw or AJ Burnett?

I don’t know. Nobody has any numbers for that yet.

But there’s also the possibility that this interplay works in the opposite direction. From an interview with CJ Wilson:

The moral of the story is that a guy like me or Feldman or whatever, who was a reliever, that wants to be a starter for Texas, that should be just an overall positive thing that the organization has come a long way (from years ago) when we had such a stigma attached to being a pitcher in Texas. Now, it’s like people are really excited to play here, to pitch with Elvis Andrus at shortstop, and Mike Young at third base, and Kinsler at second and Chris Davis at first. For me, that’s a big thing for us, is that our defense is so much better that people are excited to be pitchers now for us.

And that’s definitely interesting. For the longest time, pitchers didn’t want to pitch in Arlington, and free agents wouldn’t sign with the Rangers for that very reason. At the time, everyone blamed that on the “bandbox” nature of the stadium; after all, pitchers don’t want to pitch in an environment virtually guaranteed to induce more home runs.

But maybe, just maybe, it was never the stadium after all? If pitchers don’t like giving up home runs, maybe the reason is that they just don’t like giving up runs in the first place. And there’s no doubt that for many years, the Rangers were an offensively-oriented team, with sluggers and run producers throughout the lineup but nary a defensive whiz to be found.

And that’s changing now; they have a strong defensive infield and a small outfield that minimizes the impact of their outfielders’ range. And suddenly the pitchers are a lot happier.

David Pinto writes: “Better defense means less frustration for the pitcher and less work as he doesn’t need to get four outs in an inning.”

One of the reasons Twins fans are excited about 2010 is the drastically improved middle infield — JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson figure to combine for some good-to-excellent defense, and third base is Punto’s best position (ie, the one at which he plays the best defense).

I don’t think it’s possible to guess how many runs the Twins’ new infield will save over 2009; but we can take a look at some UZR numbers and compare them.

2009 Twins infield

Actual 2009 UZR/150, sorted by playing time (decreasing)

  • 2B: Nick Punto: 9.4 UZR/150, Alexi Casilla: -20.9 UZR/150, Matt Tolbert: -12.7 UZR/150
  • 3B: Joe Crede: 23.4 UZR/150, Brendan Harris: -26.3 UZR/150, Brian Buscher: -12.2 UZR/150, Matt Tolbert: 10.6 UZR/150
  • SS: Orlando Cabrera: -14.8 UZR/150, Nick Punto: 4.7 UZR/150, Brendan Harris: -14.8 UZR/150

2010 Twins infield

Career UZR/150

  • 2B: Orlando Hudson: 2.6 UZR/150
  • 3B: Nick Punto: 19.9 UZR/150
  • SS: JJ Hardy: 11.2 UZR/150

Hudson is getting older and his defense probably won’t be as good as everyone thinks it is — but there’s little chance he’s as bad at it as Casilla and Tolbert were in 2009. Meanwhile, 3B stays close to constant with Punto manning it most of the time, and SS takes a huge jump up.

Now, I don’t think these numbers can tell us how much the Twins’ run prevention will improve in 2010.* But I think it’s fair to say that the improved infield defense will help with preventing runs — though less than it might given the staff’s propensity for giving up fly balls.

* But if you believe UZR is an accurate statistic, we’re talking in the range of 3-5 wins. As in, the Twins got 5 wins better simply by improving the infield defense, without taking into account the offensive production of either Hardy or Hudson. Like I said, maybe UZR can’t be trusted. Either way, this sounds like a whole lot of improvement. More than I would have guessed … and it sure paints the projections of the Twins struggling to reach 85 wins in a different light.

So this summer, when all the Twins’ pitchers seem happier than usual, will it be because of their lower ERAs? Or will both the happiness and the lower ERAs be because of the improved defense?

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Twins take a lead in exploiting a new trend in baseball economics

Jack Moore over at FanGraphs took a look at Span’s contract this morning, and came to a similar conclusion that I did: it makes some sense for Span to take the security of the long term deal, but the Twins are getting themselves a real bargain.

He notes that the Twins are paying for a 2.5 win player and Span seems to be better than that; he notes that Span has skills that could pay him well in arbitration (high batting average and stolen bases); he notes that Span’s switch to CF could drive his value further; he notes that Span is only 26 and could still see his performance improve.

But his take on the timing of the deal with regards to the economy is what I find perhaps most interesting, and is something I feel I didn’t articulate well enough in my own post:

What particularly makes this deal great from a team perspective for me is the timing of the deal. Many economists say that we are starting to move out of the recession, and that suggests that the marginal value of a win will likely start climbing in 2012 if not before that. By the time 2014 rolls around, $6.5 million may only buy one win instead nearly two. Even more than that, the likely inflation of the win market could make the non-guaranteed 2015 team option look fantastic if Span is still a productive player at the time.

Precisely. These contracts for Blackburn and (especially) Span may be most valuable in that they’re effectively locking in not only the players’ apparently undervalued status, but also the deflated cost of a win on the market. That $9M option for a 2.5-3.3 WAR player in 2015 would be an absolute no-brainer if the market rebounds and a win costs $5M or more by then.

Moore predicts we’ll see teams follow the Twins’ lead and lock in the currently deflated market rates for their pre-arbitration players. I think he’s right, and I think it’s mighty interesting that the Twins seem to be on the forefront of exploiting a new trend in baseball economics.

And as you may have guessed, I remain extremely interested in how this trend effects Mauer’s contract; ie, whether the Twins can lock in a mega-deal at today’s deeply discounted rates.

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Let’s take a look at Span’s new contract!

This weekend, the Twins signed Denard Span to a five year extension for $16.5M guaranteed — it covers two pre-arbitration years and all three of his arbitration years, plus an extension for his first year of free agency in 2015.

The terms of his deal are as follows:

  1. $0.75M (second pre-arbitration year, age 26)
  2. $1M (final pre-arbitration year, age 27)
  3. 3M (first arbitration year, age 28)
  4. $4.75M (second arbitration year, age 29)
  5. $6.5M (third arbitration year, age 30)
  6. $9M (team option for first free agent year, age 31)

I’ve always read on Fangraphs that the arbitration years are typically set at 40%/60%/80% of a player’s market value; but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. If the option is his full market value, this contract gives him 33%/52%/72% … but if the option represents a 10% discount (which would not be unusual at all), his arbitration years are paying him just 30%/47%/65%. At first blush, this contract seems like a highly team-friendly deal even before considering how Span is being valued.

But that raises the interesting question: How is Span being valued? We’re all familiar with his story by now: a minor league track record that looked a lot like a first-round bust, a fourth-outfielder; shows up in the majors and has a breakout rookie campaign, compiling 2.6 WAR in a partial season; establishes himself as a star-caliber player with 3.9 WAR in his first full season. It’s possible that 2009 was a career year, and he can’t keep up that pace … but he was 25 years old and it’s also possible that he hasn’t even reaching his peak yet.

CHONE projects him at 3.3 WAR, which would peg the market value of a win in this contract at $3M/win. If CHONE is being optimistic and he’s actually, say, a 3 WAR player, the Twins are paying $3.3M/win. If CHONE is being way too conservative and Span’s true talent level is actually 4 WAR, then the Twins are paying just $2.5M/win (which is way too low, I think, implying that Span is being paid as a 3.3 WAR player at most).

I’ve seen mixed reactions to this contract since it first hit Twitter yesterday. Many people are thrilled that the Twins have “locked up” Span for the next 5 years, ignoring that he was already under team control for all five of those years. I saw one opinion, from Thrylos98, claiming that the Twins are paying him too much (I can’t understand how he could back that claim up, though). And I’ve seen others who seem to think this deal is pointless except for the option year covering his first free agent year, giving the Twins none extra year of control over Span’s career.

But let’s take a look at it from the perspective of risk — risk is the reason players sign extensions like these, and it’s also what teams have to worry about when offering them. Span could have simply declined to sign this extension and go year-to-year through his arbitration years, trying to maximize the amount he gets paid,* though by doing so he’d risk a career-ending injury or a collapse of his skills. So he gives up some money in return for the security of the long-term contract — but typically not that much.

* And given the low percentages of his value he’s being paid, it’s a good assumption that he’d make quite a bit more year-to-year even if you don’t think that either he’s going to continue producing star-level 4 WAR seasons OR the economy will recover even a little bit over the next five years.

From the team’s perspective, there are more risks involved. If they didn’t offer the extension and were going to go year-to-year, they’d still have Span on the team for the next five years, but would be risking the following:

  • 2009 was not Span’s peak, and he continues to improve in his age 26 and 27 years
  • The economic environment in baseball improves, driving up the cost of wins so they’d have to pay him more even if he stops playing as well
  • He successfully adapts to CF, driving up his value (a CF is a lot more valuable than a corner OF)

On the other hand, by offering this contract they open themselves up to these risks:

  • 2009 was Span’s peak, and his 4+ WAR upside is an illusion
  • He gets injured and can’t play (or can’t play at his normal level)
  • He can’t handle CF and has to move back to a corner, causing personnel problems or at least reducing his actual value

Obviously the downside here is bad — you don’t want to be stuck paying a guy millions of dollars not to produce. But I think it’s fair to say that the Twins determined that the upside outweighs the downside. The Twins get cost certainty, they ensure that Span will be affordable for the next six years, through his age 31 season. If they want to cut payroll in the future, it’s very likely that this contract will be extremely tradeable — teams would love to snap up a CF in-or-near his prime on a team-friendly contract.

Instead of looking at this as the Twins having locked Span up, it’s better to see it as having him locked in. But how much money did they just save, over what would have happened if they’d gone year to year?

Assuming Span is a 3.3 WAR player and standard 40%/60%/80% arbitration and $3.5M/win, his arbitration years and first year of free agency would have looked like this:

  • $4.6M
  • $6.9M
  • $9.2M
  • $11.5M

Or, if he keeps putting up 4 WAR seasons:

  • $5.6M
  • $8.4M
  • $11.2M
  • $14M

So the Twins saved themselves somewhere between $9M and $16M over 2012-2015, not taking economic recovery or salary inflation into account. Whether you think that amount of money is worth taking on the risk of the longterm contract is a judgement call, and obviously the Twins’ front office thought it was worth it.

Me? I think this is an even better deal than the Blackburn contract, and I’m glad to see the Twins locking in their players at affordable salaries for years to come. This is yet another sign that the team expects to contend for the foreseeable future; they’re using their assurance of steadier revenue for good rather than simply lining their pockets; they’re taking advantage of the economic climate to get good deals and lock in a lower cost per win than normal.

But perhaps most of all, Denard Span will be a Twin for at least 5 more years. I think it’s time to make my “Span Fan” t-shirts that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

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Metrodome is better……

Just kidding.  For those who don’t know, I went on a tour/open house of target field last night.  To say the least, it was awesome.  Everything appeared to be complete, and that joint is pretty fancy.  Here are some pictures I took. I don’t remember where each one was taken, but I’ll try to “narrate”.

View from behind the plate. I could get used to watching games from here.

Pretty sweet scoreboard

Clubhouse

Inside of a suite. Not too shabby

One of the club rooms

People camping out for tickets

Kirby!

View from the pressbox

Inside the pressbox

The Harmon Killebrew club

This is where the bat Killebrew used to hit #573 will go. When they find it.

Minneapolis skyline

One of the many bars in Taget Field. Ballpark tavern I believe.

View from the party deck. PARTY!

Back to the Future? No. Fire pit on the party deck

Party deck. Backwards

Not a bad way to watch a ballgame.  Not a whole lot of narration, so just drink it in folks.  Outdoor baseball in a month.

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Overreacting to the Nathan injury, sending Gutierrez to the bullpen

The Twins are obviously scrambling for ideas in the wake of Nathan’s injury, desperate to find a guy they can call their “closer” in 2010. One of those ideas, apparently, is to move Carlos Gutierrez back from the rotation to the bullpen.

“This might change our thinking,” said Jim Rantz, the Twins director of minor leagues. “For now, he’s a starter. We might have to revisit that.”

Gutierrez was drafted in the first round, and was a closer in college; however, the main reason he was a closer in college was because he had had Tommy John surgery and they were limiting his innings. I think it’s likely that the Twins wouldn’t have drafted him so high if they thought he was just a reliever.

So it made perfect sense to make him a starter and see if he could stick; he has a worm-killing sinker, but needs to develop a secondary pitch (or two) to really have a legitimate shot. He shouldn’t have been on the Major League radar for this season; 2011 at the earliest.

But now, the Twins are letting their trepidations about 2010 interfere with their plans for the future. That’s a serious problem.

It was more than possible that Gutierrez eventually returned to the bullpen — in fact, it was likely. One possible reason they have him starting in the first place is just to let him face more batters. But it’s important to let a player’s performance dictate whether his role changes, especially at this stage in his development.

The Mets make mistakes like rushing their prospects — and it wrecked Gomez and Guerra before we ever got our hands on them. The Twins should avoid those same mistakes. I mean, if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the Twins should not try to emulate the Mets.

I’m probably overreacting to this news. But I think about trends a lot — I’ve been encouraged by the trend that the Twins seem to be targeting high-upside talent more than they had in the past — and this seems like something we should keep an eye on.

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Target Field Open House

So I somehow managed to finagle passes to the “Champions Club Open House” at Target Field tonight, which is pretty badass.  So I will be attending with my trusty iPhone camera taking pictures of all the cool things I see, and putting a post together later this weekend.  I’m not sure what parts of the stadium I will have access to, I’m assuming the clubhouse and field will be off limits, which is lame.  If anyone would like to see specific things/parts of the stadium, please let me know in the comments section sometime today. I will post some updates via twitter throughout the evening, but will most likely save all pictures for post tomorrow. 

Although, if there is free beer I rescind all promises because I may get drunk.

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