Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Monumental Shift

For the past several years, the Twins' organization has been saddled with a major problem: too much pitching, too little hitting. It was a problem that prevented the 2005 and 2007 teams from making the playoffs, and also a deep-rooted issue that reached all the way into the lowest levels of the minor leagues. Any listing of the organization's top prospects was certain too include far more arms than bats. Fans continually bemoaned Terry Ryan's inability to deal from his pitching surplus and acquire legitimate hitters.

Now, here in the wake of Bill Smith's big offseason shakeup, I find myself looking up and down the organizational ladder and noticing a major reversal. Suddenly, it appears quite possible that pitching will be the problem needing to be addressed in coming years, while the offense could be in far better shape.

Don't get me wrong. Throughout the minor leagues, the Twins are still far deeper in quality pitchers than hitters. There are very few impact bats on the horizon, which remains troubling. Yet, looking at the Twins' major league roster, you find enough young, controllable, talented hitters to inspire confidence that this offense could be fairly strong for the next several years; to wit: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, Alexi Casilla, Mike Lamb and Jason Pridie. Granted, some of those players have chance of fizzling out (Gomez, Casilla, Pridie) and some aren't exactly young (Lamb), but all of the hitters listed have a decent shot at being productive hitters and all are locked up for at least the next three seasons. Several of the players listed -- most notably Mauer, Morneau and Young -- could very well rank among the league's elite hitters.

The pitching situation is less encouraging, if not in the long term than almost certainly in the short term. As I mentioned before, the Twins are not lacking in quality pitchers throughout their organization. In Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Glen Perkins, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Kevin Mulvey, Philip Humber and Brian Duensing, the Twins have a collection of major-league ready starters that most teams in the league would envy. The problem is that almost none of these pitchers have legitimate ace potential, and it would be a stretch to project almost any one of these guys as even a strong No. 2. This problem persists throughout the organization's advanced minor league affiliates. There are good prospects there: Anthony Swarzak, Ryan Mullins, Jeff Manship, Oswaldo Sosa, Yohan Pino and Jay Rainville to name a few. Each of those pitchers has a fairly good chance of developing into a big-leaguer at some point, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one with the makeup of a front-line major-league starter.

Dipping into the lower levels of the minor leagues, you find a few guys like Tyler Robertson and Deolis Guerra who have the upside of a top-of-the-rotation starter, but it's awfully difficult to put a ton of stock into pitching prospects who are still in their teens. Losing Johan Santana and Matt Garza has left this team with a lack of power arms outside of Francisco Liriano, so if Liriano struggles in his return from Tommy John surgery, we are potentially looking at a team that is very middle-heavy in terms of starting pitching over the next several years and without much in the way of star power. A rotation filled with solid but unspectacular starters would inevitably rank right in the middle of the league, and that would put a lot of pressure on the offense to make this team a playoff contender.

Over the next several seasons, we could see this team relying on offense to win games a lot more than we ever have in recent Twins history. That method will only work if some of the team's hitters live up to their star potential. Here's wishing good health to Liriano, and hoping guys like Baker and Bonser can step up to provide this staff with the type of above-average performance it will need. There might not be as much help on the horizon as we'd like to think in that department.

22 comments:

ubelmann said...

Aha! This was my reservation back with the Delmon trade. Sure, the Twins have pitching, but they don't have Matt Garzas just lying around.

I'm not sure how much I buy the scouts' concerns about Slowey. I'm worried about the fly balls, but I don't think that projecting Slowey as a strong #2 would be that much of a stretch. His minor league numbers really were quite good, and PECOTA gives him the 12th highest UPSIDE score amongst all pitchers 24 or younger. (Garza is 15th on that list, Liriano 7th, and Philip Hughes 9th.)

If I was in charge, I would have been really tempted to keep Garza and Bartlett, and trade Santana for Hughes/Cabrera. That'd give the Twins arguably 4 of the top 20 young pitchers in the game. And if you'll excuse a bit of rosterbation, I would probably have still grabbed Adam Everett, and moved Bartlett to second base, while picking up Mike Cameron on a one-year deal. Then flip one or two of the more mediocre pitching prospects for some mediocre talent at 3B/LF, be it for this year or next. That team wouldn't score a ton of runs, but it would give us a mighty tasty defense and some good pitching, hopefully with Scott "Opening Day Starter" Baker as the 5th starter by mid-season. Even with what BS has done, the success of the offense is going to hinge on Morneau/Mauer/Cuddyer doing better than they did last year.

I would've been okay going with the organization's strength and trying to win low-scoring games rather than trying to win high-scoring games. In the short-term, I think people will be happy to see more offense, but eventually they'll realize we aren't really going to win many more games this way.

TT said...

rotation filled with solid but unspectacular starters would inevitably rank right in the middle of the league,

I don't think that is true. Isn't it is depth that makes the difference? The quality of a rotation depends more on the fourth and fifth pitchers than it does the quality of the best pitcher.

After all, an "ace" only pitches once every five games. Outside of his 35 starts, the quality of a team's ace has no impact on the other 127 games. Of course, the playoffs are a different story.

Nick N. said...

Ubes, I actually agree with you on Slowey. You can't argue with those minor-league results, and he looked great in his second stint with the Twins last year. Still, the general consensus seems to be that he has No. 3 starter type upside, so I didn't really feel like I was in a position to say he had a great chance of being more than that just because I might think he does.

Isn't it is depth that makes the difference? The quality of a rotation depends more on the fourth and fifth pitchers than it does the quality of the best pitcher

Top five MLB teams in ERA, 2007 (with No. 1 and 2 starters listed):
1. Padres - Peavy, Young
2. Red Sox - Beckett, Schilling
3. Blue Jays - Halladay, Burnett
4. Cubs - Zambrano, Lilly
5. Indians - Sabathia, Carmona

You find almost without exception that the best rotations in the league are very strong at the top. It's nice to have depth, but if all you have is a bunch of mediocre starters, who is carrying that rotation to the next level? I certainly don't mean to say that none of the guys that will be vying for time in the Twins' rotation next year have chance to be above-average, but none of them are the as good a bet as Santana or Garza, or even perhaps Silva.

Anonymous said...

For two of the past three years, most where begging for Silva to be out of the rotation, which is interesting now b/c he is seen as one of the big "3" that left with shoes to fill.

Aside from that, I think if Liriano does become the ace, we should be ok. I see some of these younger guys with definite Radke potential, and Radke always kept us in games, so I don't have much of a problem putting just a little more expectations for the offense to put some more runs across.

I think hitting and defense will be something that not replaces but atleast augments pitching and defense not just with the Twins but almost league wide.
Of the five teams you listed only the Indians and Red Sox made it past the first round, and Schill has another year of wear on his arm, Burnett or Holliday and usually injury prone, it will be hard for Carmona to repeat what he did last year combined with C.C.'s year. In other words outside or the DBacks in the NL and perhaps the M's if they ever do get Bedard, I don't see many staffs that impress me all that much or at least stand out head and shoulders above others. If the Twins are near the middle of the pack this year in terms of starting staff, that may not be such a bad thing as long as they are fielding the ball and bringing people around the bases.

Either way, i don't think anyone expects the pitching staff to lead the league this year anyway.

TT said...

I'm not sure that using ERA to evaluate a team's pitching isn't begging the question.

But here are the top ten pitchers for ERA in 2007:

Peavy-SDP 2.54
Lackey-LAA 3.01
Webb-ARI 3.01
Penny-LAD 3.03
Carmona-CLE 3.06
Haren-OAK 3.07
Smoltz-ATL 3.11
Young-SDP 3.12
Bedard-BAL 3.16
Oswalt-HOU 3.18

Only two of the top teams you listed are represented on that list, the Padres and the Indians. And I think you would find all five teams had pretty solid pitchers throughout their rotation. The Twins had pretty solid pitching when Radke was their "ace" even though he was rarely among the league leaders.

Nick N. said...

The Twins had pretty solid pitching when Radke was their "ace" even though he was rarely among the league leaders.

Did they?

Let's take a look at the years where Radke was the Twins' "ace," with team ERA listed followed by the team's rank out of 14 AL teams:

2003: 4.41, seventh.
2002: 4.12, sixth.
2001: 4.73, seventh.
2000: 5.43, eleventh.
1999: 5.25, ninth.
1998: 5.05, eighth.
1997: 5.31, thirteenth.
1996: 5.56, twelfth.
1995: 4.88, tenth.

I would consider that to be the span during which Radke could have been considered the team's ace, as he led the team in ERA every year during that time except 2001 and 2002, when that honor was held by Joe Mays and Rick Reed, respectively. You can call those pitching staffs "solid" if you want; I'd say they ranged from mediocre to terrible. Now let's look at the team ERA and rankings once Santana established himself as ace:

2004: 4.03, first.
2005: 4.09, fifth.
2006: 4.22, second.
2007: 4.48, third.

Having a studly pitcher with the ability to dominate at the front of your rotation makes a big difference. That is evident. Naturally, it's important to have depth and to have quality at the back end of the rotation -- the Twins clearly have those aspects taken care. The problem is that they may lack the firepower at the front end to keep themselves among the league's better staffs. And unless the offense can step up and take care of business, this could be problematic.

SoCalTwinsfan said...

Interesting look at pre and post Santana breakout. Of course, the Twins won back-to-back division titles with Radke as an ace with a deep rotation behind him. And I don't think the offense for those teams will be better than the one the Twins have constructed should be. And don't forget, it was a Radke-led team that actually won a playoff series. Look at the White Sox a couple years ago. They won it all without a "true ace." Some called them the team with four aces, but I think it was a team well constructed for the regular season that got hot at the right time.

I also think back to the Indians teams that dominated in the 90s. Great offense, dominant bullpen, good defense (especially up the middle) and starters that won't keep you out of games.

And I think we get caught up in labels on pitchers. When we talk about an ace, I mean, how many aces are out there? Six? Seven? Even if you said 15, that would mean half the teams in baseball don't have an ace. So, suddenly a "No. 2" pitcher is looking really good and No. 3 is better than average, even a lot better.

And I'll say that if I knew the Twins had a rotation full of Radkes, I'd be doing a dance in the middle of the street, because I would be thinking 100+ wins.

sploorp said...

I think you're being a bit pessimistic about the quality of the Twins young starters. They are much better then you are giving them credit for.

Santana became a total stud, no doubt, but there is nothing in his prospect years to indicate he would become what he became. He was picked up in the rule 5 draft for crying out loud.

Ditto with Beckett. He is coming off the best season of his career and, I believe, the only season he ever finished with an ERA below 4.00. His ERA in 2006 was 5.01. I don't recall ever seeing anything that made me think stud in his past.

Minnesota also has one of the best bullpens in all the majors. Santana came out of the bullpen, who's to say out next ace won't also arrive via that route.

BTW - I'm also a bit stumped as to why the press keeps harping on Silva jumping to the Mariners. It's got to be one of the dumbest free agent pick ups I've ever seen. Good riddance!

Nick N. said...

I think you're being a bit pessimistic about the quality of the Twins young starters. They are much better then you are giving them credit for.

My problem with the Twins' rotation is that no one has proven that they can throw 200 innings with at least a league-average ERA. Due to injury, youth or ineffectiveness, all of these guys have been derailed in one way or another. That's troubling if you're looking for a good solid staff. A little history would be comforting.

Ditto with Beckett. He is coming off the best season of his career and, I believe, the only season he ever finished with an ERA below 4.00. His ERA in 2006 was 5.01. I don't recall ever seeing anything that made me think stud in his past.

Should have taken a look at the stats first. Beckett posted a 3.04 ERA in 2003, a 3.79 ERA in 2004, and a 3.38 ERA in 2005. Plus, he almost always showed an ability to miss bats, which is a very good sign in a young pitcher. Did I mention that he was the '03 World Series MVP?

Nick N. said...

Of course, the Twins won back-to-back division titles with Radke as an ace with a deep rotation behind him. And I don't think the offense for those teams will be better than the one the Twins have constructed should be.

Those were some pretty bad divisions.

TT said...

My problem with the Twins' rotation is that no one has proven that they can throw 200 innings with at least a league-average ERA.

I'm with you on that. The Twins don't have a rotation of five proven mid-range starters. They will have a rotation of five unproven starters. Unless they are very lucky, they are going to spend the season experimenting by shuffling pitchers in and out of the rotation before they figure out which of their young starters are major league ready.

That is evident.

Well, no. The difference from 2003 to 2004 is instructive. Yes, Santana's ERA went from 3.07 to 2.61 and he went from 158 IP to 228. But that hardly accounts for the improvement in the Twins ERA. You also had Radke, whose ERA declined from 4.49 to 3.48. You had Silva at 4.21 instead of Rogers at 4.57. Lohse was really the only starter whose ERA was worse.

It is self-evident that having pitchers with lower ERA's lowers the team's ERA. But it is also self-evident that it doesn't matter whether that improvement is from the fourth starter or the Ace.

If your argument is that adding a dependable ace is a more reliable way to improve a team's ERA than finding five dependable mid-range starters I would agree with you. As you point out, if you consider the guy with the best ERA the teams "ace", then Mays and Reed were the Twins ace for one year.

SoCalTwinsfan said...

"I'm with you on that. The Twins don't have a rotation of five proven mid-range starters. They will have a rotation of five unproven starters. Unless they are very lucky, they are going to spend the season experimenting by shuffling pitchers in and out of the rotation before they figure out which of their young starters are major league ready."


Isn't that the point, to figure out now who is ready and who is not instead of waiting to do that when the Twins are expecting to contend? Most of these guys have zero to prove in the minors. They are ready now.

TT said...

Isn't that the point, to figure out now who is ready and who is not instead of waiting to do that when the Twins are expecting to contend?

Its not really a question of doing it now or later. Whether the Twins ever can expect to contend will depend, in large part, on what happens with all those young pitchers.

They are ready now.

Unfortunately, that remains to be seen.

Nick N. said...

The difference from 2003 to 2004 is instructive. Yes, Santana's ERA went from 3.07 to 2.61 and he went from 158 IP to 228. But that hardly accounts for the improvement in the Twins ERA. You also had Radke, whose ERA declined from 4.49 to 3.48. You had Silva at 4.21 instead of Rogers at 4.57. Lohse was really the only starter whose ERA was worse.

Right, the point that I'm making is that the Twins' current collection of pitchers is a lot more likely to transform into a group of Radke and Rogers v. 2003 than Santana and Silva v. 2004.

It is self-evident that having pitchers with lower ERA's lowers the team's ERA. But it is also self-evident that it doesn't matter whether that improvement is from the fourth starter or the Ace.

Indeed, but in order to have an above-average rotation, you have to have at least one pitcher (logically, the "ace") giving you a bunch of innings at an above-average level of performance. Given that you'll probably have a couple of below-average guys at the back of the rotation (unless you get lucky), you'd need a pretty nice pitcher or two at the top to give you a strong rotation. I'm not saying that a duo of Liriano and Baker/Bonser/Slowey can't give you that, I'm just saying that it's very much in doubt. I'm much less confident toward that end than I am that the middle of the lineup will be pretty damn good. Which is essentially the point of this post.

Silv0154 said...

My definition of pitchers:

#1 pitcher is an ace,
#2 is Radke-esque,
#3 is Silva v. 2007,
#4 is current day Tom Glavine,
#5 is Kyle Loshe/replacement player

Our young pitchers *potential* (my opinion)
Scott baker - #2, good stuff but not consistently dominant

Boof Bonser - #3, his control will never be good enough to be any better than this

Francisco Liriano - #1, we all know what I'm talking about

Kevin Slowey - #2, cue the Radke comparisions

Nick Blackburn - #4?, I'm still unsure about him. Sounds like he developed his best pitch just last year.

Glen Perkins - #5, I believe he'll wind up best in the bullpen, but I'd enjoy being surprised

Phil Humber - #1, scouts agree he showed ace material before being hurt. I doubt he'll ever get to more than a #3 though.

Brian Duensing - #4, he intrigues me but I would need to see him succeed in the majors before I was convinced he could be more.

Kevin Mulvey - #3?, I really don't know much about him actually.

Nick N. said...

silv: Those sound about right. You might be underrating Bonser a little bit. If he can get his walk rate between where it was in 2006 and 2007, he's in John Lackey territory. Not too bad.

It's a sad fact that both of the Twins' pitchers with ace potential are Tommy John survivors who may never return to the level they were at beforehand.

halfchest said...

The biggest thing I see the Twins have for them is the LARGE group of #3ish guys. I've been saying this to a lot of people that with that large a group of good but not great guys you gotta feel one of them can really step up and be a #1 or close to it.

Another thought is that playing with a lead seems to help pitchers. You would hope there will be a lot more games the Twins play now where they score 2 or 3 runs in the first 2 or 3 innings to get their pitcher a little cushion.

Their are so many "what ifs" with the Twins but that's any team that is this young. That's why I'm so excited for this season. Even though I don't expect the Twins to compete too strongly it will be fun to see what happens with these pitchers. Will Boof make a comeback after calling Jenny Craig? Will Liriano and or Humber return to pre Tommy John form? Will Delmon be the stud people think he will? Gomez or Pridie(or Span, HAH)? OH man April can't come too soon.

sploorp said...

Nick says "Should have taken a look at the stats first. Beckett posted a 3.04 ERA in 2003, a 3.79 ERA in 2004, and a 3.38 ERA in 2005. Plus, he almost always showed an ability to miss bats, which is a very good sign in a young pitcher. Did I mention that he was the '03 World Series MVP?"

You're right I should have checked the stats first, but the essence of the point I was trying to make is still valid: Beckett is still coming of the best season of his career. Series MVP be damned, last year was also the first in which he could really be considered an ace.

Also, all those other sub 4.00 ERAs were in the National League.

sploorp said...

I don't think we can really compare this years team to any other. While I agree that it would be nice to have more known quantities going into the season, what we actually have is something much more unique - and very exciting I might add.

We have a young pitching staff on the verge of blossoming into something very special. Not just one or two, but very nearly the entire staff, or at least the four or so most likely to make the team.

Management has been bringing these kids along nice and slow. We've watched all these guys come up and go through their growing pains. While there is no doubt more pains to come, they've all also showed signs of turning things around. The worst may be over.

I'm trying hard not be the optimistic fan thinking only in best case scenarios, but I'm very excited by this team.

Nick seems to think that the starting pitching is suspect and even though the offense is better, it will be forced to outhit the opposition and may not be up for it. I'm not seeing it that way at all.

I think Anderson said it best when he said, "just get me into the sixth inning with a lead, the bullpen can take care of the rest."

I think the offense and the starting pitching will be good enough to do just that more often then not.

The word that keeps coming up in my mind when I look at this team is POTENTIAL. I see it everywhere.

CF is a great example of what I mean. We lost Hunter, but in Gomez, we have gained a potential five tool guy who could develop into a bonafide lead off hitter. He's got solid defense and some scouts say he might be the fasted player in professional baseball. Naysayers will point to his batting average and strikeouts, but is there really one person out there that truly believes he will never hit better then the .233 he hit last year? He was hitting .299 the month before he hurt his hand and also hit .269 in winter ball this year.

That's what I mean when I say potential.

Nick N. said...

There's no doubting that the potential is there in a lot of these guys. Will they reach it? I hope so.

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