Friday, January 18, 2008

Friday Notes

Happy Friday! It's back to school for me next week as I embark upon what will potentially be my last semester at the University of Minnesota, but for now here are a few notes on various Twins-related topics.

* ESPN.com's Buster Olney opined in the Wednesday edition of his daily blog that the best option for Bill Smith and the Twins would be to hang onto Johan Santana, even if extending him is not a possibility. Says Olney:
If I was in Smith's shoes, I'd keep Santana. Because to trade him would be to forgo the opportunity to contend in 2008, when the Twins have a chance to be a good team, with Francisco Liriano returning, with Joe Nathan closing, with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young hitting in the middle of their lineup.
This is a good and -- I think -- often overlooked point. The Twins could potentially have one of the strongest groups of hitters in the middle of their lineup of any team in the American League this year. Olney doesn't even mention Jason Kubel, who in my mind could be the best hitter among the aforementioned group in 2008. Many people look at the big acquisitions by Detroit this winter and a Cleveland team that is mostly intact from its playoff run in 2007, and write off the Twins as a third-place team at best. While that may be where I'd pick the Twins to finish if I were ranking the AL Central teams right now, I think the Twins are are a lot closer to competing for a playoff spot than many people think as long as Santana is leading their rotation.

* Twins minor-league guru Dianna of the blog Rookie Whites noted yesterday that Twins' prospect Jose Mijares was in a traffic accident early Sunday in which he suffered a fracture in his left elbow that required surgery. Dianna relays that while "the operation was deemed a success," it will be two or three months before Mijares is able to throw again. Later in the day, Joe Christensen confirmed the report with Bill Smith, who stated that Mijares could be out of action four to six months.

Being that Mijares is a left-handed pitcher, it's disturbing to hear that he damaged his left elbow in the accident. Mijares is a highly intriguing prospect in that, while he has struggled mightily with control over the course of his career, he has electric stuff that has been compared to Francisco Liriano and many feel that if he can conquer his command issues he can develop into a dominant major-league reliever. He had been showing marked improvement in his control while playing in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he held a 1.86 ERA over 37 appearances. Mijares is only 23, but this incident could cause a considerable lag in his development, which is unfortunate given that the Twins need him to put things together as quickly as possible. There is a good possibility that Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon and Dennys Reyes will all be gone after the 2008 season, leaving a need for some young players to step in and restock the bullpen. Here's hoping Mijares experiences a speedy recovery.

* File this headline under "Obvious."

* Earlier this week, Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus put together a list of nine young players who are "breakout candidates" in 2008. Fifth on the list is Kubel, about whom Sheehan has this to say:
  • Jason Kubel: While playing in the Arizona Fall League in 2004, Kubel, then 22 and considered one of the best hitting prospects in the game, suffered a devastating knee injury that cost him the entire 2005 season. Although he came back and played in ’06, he wasn’t remotely the same hitter. Most notably, Kubel’s post-injury strikeout rate has been much higher—147 in 835 PA, versus 193 in 1770 PA prior to the injury. That’s not just a result of playing at higher levels: that’s evidence of damage to the engine.

    What we saw in ’07 was Kubel finally get back to the hitter he was before the injury. In the season’s first two months, Kubel struck out 33 times and walked 11 in 165 PA. In the next two months, those numbers were 21/10 in 148 PA: a big drop in strikeout rate and K/BB. Over the last two months: 25/18 in 153 PA. Kubel, a disciplined hitter coming through the minors, regained that discipline in ’07. His batting average and power followed. He’s 26 this season, and may actually be the Twins’ best hitter during it; better than Morneau, better than Mauer.

These are the same trends I've noted with Kubel, which is a major reason I'm expecting big things from him in the upcoming season (as you may have gathered). Another fact that isn't mentioned here about Kubel is that despite some of his struggles last season, he consistently drove the ball hard. Kubel finished the season with a line-drive percentage of 22.1; that is considerably better than the rest of the team's hard hitters, such as Mauer (17.9%), Morneau (15.9%), Cuddyer (18.7%) and Torii Hunter (14%). In fact, if Kubel had enough at-bats to qualify, he would have tied Jorge Posada for sixth in the AL in LD% last year.

What's depressing? The only 2007 Twin that actually ranked in the Top 25 in the AL in LD% was the now-departed Jason Bartlett, who ranked 19th at 20.1 percent. What makes that less depressing? Brendan Harris and Delmon Young ranked 10th and 11th, respectively.

* Sticking with Sheehan's article, as interesting as it was to see Kubel's name halfway down the list of breakout candidates, I was perhaps even more intrigued by the player listed below him:
  • Melky Cabrera. Cabrera went backwards in ’07, but not by enough for concern. Remember that he is just 23 years old and has more than 1100 plate appearances in the majors, with average to average-plus defense (good physical tools, but very raw, takes bad routes) and a very good 129/96 K/BB. He is a mature player offensively, patient at the plate and fair on the bases (25-for-35 stealing in his career). One interesting quirk is his G/F ratio, which is 1.63 for his career and was a whopping 1.81 last season. Cabrera is listed at 5’11” and 200 pounds. He’s not Willy Taveras, but rather a player who should be developing power and learning how to drive the ball, rather than hitting the ball on the ground 60 percent of the time.

    I’m reminded of Alex Rios, who doesn’t look a thing like Cabrera. Rios was largely disappointing in 2004 and 2005, hitting just 11 homers in more than 900 at-bats, with an isolated power of 117. The problem: Rios was hitting the ball on the ground too much, a 1.82 G/F in those two seasons. Starting in ’06, Rios put the ball in the air more than half the time, and became a star. When you look at Cabrera’s body, his established control of the strike zone, and his ability to hold his own at a young age, you recognize that all it’s going to take is for him to start elevating the ball. Cabrera may not get there in 2008, but he’s going to pop 80 extra-base hits and slug .500 in a season very, very soon.

Cabrera, who has been mentioned frequently in Santana trade rumors, gets bashed by a lot of fans for reasons I cannot surmise. He reached the major leagues as a 20-year-old in 2005, and has held his own in the big leagues over 1,024 at-bats with a .275/.340/.388 line. Many Twins fans seem to be sour on him because he posted an unimpressive .718 OPS last year, but it is essential to note that he was only 22 years old for most of the season and playing in a fairly high-pressure environment in New York.

I'm a fan of Cabrera, and while he doesn't profile as a superstar, I certainly think he can be an above-average outfielder in the major leagues for many years. That's a big part of the reason that, in my mind, the reported Yankees' offer of Phil Hughes+Cabrera+prospect is by far the best one on the table for Santana at this point.

15 comments:

Matt P. said...

great article nick. i couldn't agree with you more on most of the points you made there. people are overlooking the fact that santana is still the best pitcher in baseball even if we don't trade him. the santana liriano 1-2 was pretty devastating in 06, plus it would sure be nice to have him with all the young pitching on the staff left to develop. things on the offensive side of things are looking much better too, delmon young is arguably one of the sickest 22 year olds out there. plus we now have a legitimate third baseman and with punto and harris possibly platooning second the infield definitely has its strengths. with kubel, cuddyer, young and monroe (please don't suck) in the outfield things are on the up. great kubel and cabrera analysis, couldnt agree more with kubel, his second half was on par with who i expect him to be. have a great weekend, tuesdays gonna suck.

MVB said...

Here's to a true assessment of Kubel. I always remember when he got called up at the end of the '04 season and even made the playoff roster. Although Mariano Rivera made him look like a fool in his pinch hit at bat there was soooo much excitement about him going into '05. The stupid injury b/c the second baseman in the AZ fall league and it's taken years off of his development.

Now that I'm done complaining, I like your analysis of his numbers turning around and I hope this does happen.

I agree with Olney too, I've said all along if we don't get what we want for Santana just play it out until July and see what happens. Use the money from Hunter's departure to sign a stopgap in CF. We'll see?

TT said...

I agree Kubel has a shot at breaking out - but "better than Morneau"? The guy is on drugs.

His snalysis of Kubel's strikeouts ignores the fundamental reason for his overall improvement in thaqt category from 2006 to 2007, he batted less against left handers. If I remember correctly, that probably explains his "improvement" over the course of the season as well.

In 2006, Kubel struck out 23%(9-36) of the time against lefties. In 2007, that increased to 27%(23-84). By contrast he struck out 18%(36-196) of the time against in right handers in 2006 and that dropped to 15%(56-382) in 2007. Those changes are probably not statistically significant.

TT said...

Sorry, I need to start previewing posts. In addition to the obvious typos, that (9-36) should be (9-39).

Nick N. said...

I agree Kubel has a shot at breaking out - but "better than Morneau"? The guy is on drugs.

Is it really that far-fetched? Let's face the facts... outside of 2006, Morneau really hasn't been a great hitter in the major leagues.

Anonymous said...

Olney's engaged in wishful thinking. If the Twins weren't willing to contend with a Gold Glove CFer, MVP, Cy Young winner, and arguably best closer, why would anyone think they'd try to compete without some of those pieces?

Nick N. said...

Olney's engaged in wishful thinking. If the Twins weren't willing to contend with a Gold Glove CFer, MVP, Cy Young winner, and arguably best closer, why would anyone think they'd try to compete without some of those pieces?

Well, since Olney suggests that the Twins keep Santana and Nathan, the only member of the group you mention that they'd be without is the "Gold Glove CFer," who in my mind was a Gold Glover by name only for the past few seasons. Losing Hunter hurts, but the idea is that adding Delmon Young will offset that loss, while Mike Lamb and Brendan Harris make up for some of the offense that was lacking at second and third base last year. Mostly though, the hope is that players like Morneau and Mauer move back toward their '06 performances while Kubel has a breakout year. Certainly none of these things are a given, but I wouldn't call it "wishful thinking." They're all relatively realistic scenarios.

TT said...

Is it really that far-fetched?

Yes. I think so. Morneau is only a year older than Kubel and he hit 31 home runs last year and drove in 111 runs. The year before, at the same age as Kubel last year, Morneau hit .321 with 34 home runs and 130 RBI's.

Projecting Kubel to put up those kinds of numbers is wishful thinking. If you think Morneau is going to go steeply downhill, then you can project a lot of hitters to be better than him. Delmon Young is a more likely candidate than Kubel.

Nick N. said...

I don't think Morneau is going to go steeply downhill, but if he continues to hit around his career line of .276/.340/.498, do I believe Kubel can be a better hitter? Yes, absolutely. I don't think Kubel's going to hit more home runs, but I don't think it's far-fetched to believe he could be a better hitter overall. When he finally started getting comfortable at the plate last year, Kubel raked -- meanwhile Morneau was dropping off the face of the earth. I'm not saying it's entirely likely that Kubel will out-hit Morneau, but I don't think it's an absurd statement by any means.

Josh's Thoughts said...

I agree, Nick. Kubel could be a fantastic all around hitter whereas I see Morneau's 2007 numbers likely being duplicated throughout his career.

I don't think it's at all far-fetched to see Kubel be a .310/.380/.480 hitter in the big leagues if he can finally produce like we've always thought he would. He has a good bat and when he was batting in front of Mauer, he raked.

Weber said...

I've always contended that we should hang onto Johan. I also read something about moving Cuddyer to CF, Kubel to LF, and young to RF. I think it would be a great move, then we sign someone like Kenny Lofton to bat leadoff and DH. I think we have a legit shot to contend if we keep Santana

Nick N. said...

Cuddyer in CF would be disastrous. If the Twins signed Lofton it would make much more sense to put him in center and stick with Kubel at DH.

TT said...

Last year, Kubel had less than half the plate appearances against lefties that you would expect. Keeping his splits in mind, he would have batted around .250-.260 with a more normal ratio of 2-1 between right handers and left handers. And facing fewer lefties also explains the overall improvement in Kubel's strikeouts that Sheehan is so impressed by.

Kubel might put up the numbers you are talking about if he is left in a platoon role, but that won't make him a better hitter than Morneau, or Mauer for that matter.

Morneau was 5th in the American League in home runs last year and 9th in RBI's. The Twins should have more players with disappointing seasons like that.

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