Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What Not to Trade

As the Twins seek to improve their ballclub during this offseason, one thing that you will hear discussed extensively is the possibility of one or more trades. After all, Bill Smith showed no aversion to blockbuster swaps during his first winter at the helm, swinging deals that shook up the very core of the Twins' organization and sent key players like Johan Santana, Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett elsewhere in return for unproven talent.

Over the next few months, you'll see numerous names floated around in connection with the Twins -- be it through blogs, newspapers, or sites like MLBtraderumors.com. These names will most likely be those of reportedly available players who could potentially fill a position of need for the Twins. We'll see left-side infielders such as Adrian Beltre, Garrett Atkins and J.J. Hardy mentioned, and probably also a number of relief pitchers. Inevitably, these rumors will suggest that the Twins part with pitching in order to acquire a player of this ilk.

The Twins featured a stable of five young starting pitchers this year, and these pitchers will likely be attractive to teams like the Brewers and the Mariners who could use some reliable young arms in their rotations. But the commonly held mindset that the Twins have an abundant wealth of young, major-league pitching from which they can deal is an outdated one. To me, it seems that many fans and analysts are still viewing the Twins as they did a few years ago, when the organization boasted a collection of impressive arms that included Johan Santana, Carlos Silva, Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey, Boof Bonser, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Glen Perkins, among others. Yet, times have changed. Many of the pitchers mentioned in that group are gone, and much of the organization's high-level starting pitching depth no longer exists. The Twins have a group of five starting pitchers who performed well above expecations during this season (a group that shall henceforth be referred to as "The Fab 5"), but they don't have the depth behind these five that would make any member of the group expendable. In fact, the Twins' success next season may be dependent on their ability to keep this group intact.

Some people assume too easily that the Twins could simply replace the contributions of a Nick Blackburn or a Perkins by calling up a player from the minors or tabbing a short-term free agent. This simply isn't a good bet. We've already seen what happens when this club gambles on bargain free agent pitchers (which, realistically, is all they can afford) and relying on minor-league hurlers who lack any big-league experience is a flimsy plan. As an example, think about Garza and Slowey. Both were elite prospects who absolutely rolled through the minor leagues, but both struggled in their first taste of the big leagues. That's something that most young pitchers experience, as the transition from the minors to majors is a daunting one. This makes the success experienced this year by Blackburn and Perkins -- neither of whom had started a major-league game in the past -- all the more impressive. For both players to step in and perform at an above-average level for the majority of the season qualifies as a fantastic feat, but a rare one which cannot be counted on from lesser arms.

And lesser arms are what the Twins currently feature in Triple-A. In Philip Humber, Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing and Kevin Mulvey, the Twins have a group of prospects who may eventually turn into useful major-league pitchers, but who all have significant flaws and lack the top-prospect polish of Blackburn and Perkins, much less Garza and Slowey. To trade away a member of The Fab 5 and count on any of those four to fill the open spot would be a dangerous venture, especially considering that injuries and regression to any of the remaining rotation members could cause further complications and widdle away at the already weakened depth.

That last point is a crucially important one. It is incredibly rare for an entire rotation of make it through a full season without seeing at least one of its members miss significant time due to injury. The Twins were fortunate this year in that only minor injuries affected their starters and no one missed a large chunk of the season, but that can hardly be expected next season -- particularly considering the questions that still surround Liriano's arm and Perkins' history of shoulder problems. Even if they enter next season with The Fab 5 intact, the Twins will still likely have to delve into that Triple-A depth at some point due to injury or ineffectiveness at the top level, and by opening up a hole in the rotation the organization is forced to dig more and more into that uncertain group of minor-league maybes. This could spell disaster.

The Twins are in an enviable position with their rotation. They have five young pitchers who have all proven themselves capable of pitching at the major-league level and who are all under team control for at least another three years at relatively modest prices. The value of this situation is clear when you take a quick look around the league and see pitchers like Kyle Lohse and Carlos Silva inking $40 million contracts. It is important that the Twins maintain this advantage and hold together their reasonably priced stable of talented young arms. I wouldn't completely rule out the idea of trading a player like Blackburn or Perkins, but it would have to be for significant value. Giving up a member of this rotation for, say, one expensive season of Beltre just doesn't make sense from a fiscal or competitive standpoint.

14 comments:

Topper said...

Very good point. And even though Perkins and Blackburn were amazing stepping into the rotation as they did this year without ever having made a major league start, they AT LEAST both pitched at the majors out of the bullpen last year (and if I recall they experienced some initial struggles there, at least Blackburn did).

And as opposed as I'd be to shopping either of them for a Beltre rental, or even Atkins, I think a game-changer like JJ Hardy would be an exchange worth making -- he wouldn't be a short term rental but a solid cornerstone of the middle infield to build on and would be with the Twins and just as good in 2010, say, after Duensing or Swarzak comes up and struggles his first year and then pulls a slowey and shows what a good pitcher he is the following.

Nick N. said...

And as opposed as I'd be to shopping either of them for a Beltre rental, or even Atkins, I think a game-changer like JJ Hardy would be an exchange worth making -- he wouldn't be a short term rental but a solid cornerstone of the middle infield to build on and would be with the Twins and just as good in 2010, say, after Duensing or Swarzak comes up and struggles his first year and then pulls a slowey and shows what a good pitcher he is the following.

Hardy is a guy that I would consider breaking up The Fab 5 for because he presents a more dramatic upgrade than Beltre and, as you note, he would be a more long-term fit.

I should note that it is very, very unlikely that Duensing or Swarzak ends up being anywhere near as good as Slowey, though I think I see the point you were trying to make.

Topper said...

agreed about Duensing and Swarzak's comparison to Slowey. My forecast was slightly exaggerated, but I do think they could someday adequately fill a Blackburn/Perkins void.

But the frontline Liriano/Baker/Slowey triple threat is virtually untouchable in my mind. Even for Hardy I think (as much as I really want him on our team).

Anonymous said...

i would love hardy on the team. i would also love to see cuddyer traded.

Anonymous said...

Beltre is a one year rental the Twins can afford next year with payroll so low and they would receive 2 1st round draft picks in return when Beltre leaves as a free agent next year so a Perkins or Blackburn would be a small price to pay for Beltre.

Topper said...

ntWell, as Nick pointed out in this entry, Blackburn or Perkins for Beltre is definitely NOT a small price to pay for a year rental and two draft picks. What made us great was our young strong cheap staff which he points out we aren't in a position to just sub out right now without series downgrading our starters.

Boof or Humber is more along the lines of what we should part with for a year of Beltre, though I doubt the Mariners would bite at one of them right now. Maybe one of them and a young near-ready arm like Duensing or Swarzak. Let the Mariners deal with the rookie sweats of their first major league starts.

Anonymous said...

One thing to note is that the Twins HAVE to trade pitching. Right now the team has Baker, Liriano, Slowey, Perkins, Blackburn, Nathan, Neshek, Mijares, Breslow, Crain, Guerrier, Bonser, Humber, Guardado and Reyes. Even if you assume that Reyes and Guardado both walk, that still leaves 13 pitchers, which is at least one more than they can carry on the active roster next year. Most are out of options (and who would want to see Mijares optioned out anyway).

So someone (or some two) will have to be dealt. The only question is whether you make a big splash by trading a starter as part of a megadeal, or whether you kind of nibble at the edges by dealing Bonser of Humber.

My guess is that if the latter is the route the Twins go, nothing will happen until spring training.

Nick N. said...

I basically disagree strongly with this last statement but it's way too late for me to write anything of substance. But I will rebut tomorrow.

Nick N. said...

OK, to get back to the point mentioned above...

Why do the Twins HAVE to part with pitching? First of all, it's not a given that Guerrier will be tendered after the season he had (although I think they probably should). Second, you're far too eager in assuming that Mijares is a locked-in member of the bullpen in 2009. He had two good weeks at the end of the season, let's not blow it out of proportion and ignore his total lack of experience above Double-A. There really is no downside to starting Mijares in Rochester next year and calling him up if a guy like Guerrier or Crain proves incapable of handling the job.

The Twins do have a decision to make with Humber and Bonser, though, as both will be out of options. It will be interesting to see which route they go with those players.

Anonymous said...

In reply...
First, in all honesty, it hadn't occurred to me that they wouldn't bring Guerrier back (as opposed to trading him, which I could see). I'll bet most of us would be surprised if he weren't retained.

Second, yes Mijares just had the two good weeks, but they were crucial games in a stretch run, and it's clear that Gardy liked and trusted him more and more as time went on. Again, I'd be very surprised if he were optioned.

But people can differ, and in the end it all boils down to what else the Twins might do this offseason.

Topper said...

Ok, so as I see it, the Twins like to carry a 12 man pitching staff out of the gate (or at least they have the past couple of years for one reason or another).

If 5 of those are taken up by "The Fab 5" (or some substitute from the Duensing/Swarzak pool if we get Hardy (please!). That leaves 7 bullpen spots. Not 6.

Nathan, Neshek, Breslow, Crain and most likely Guerrier are locks in my mind. Plus we need a long relief which will be determined in this off season based on the fates of Humber/Bonser. So really, if the Twins go their normal route with a large bullpen to start the year, that last spot is most likely going to be Mijares, or I suppose Korecky, Delaney, Slama, or some yet-to-be determined signee a la Reyes and Bass were. Does this hold any water?

Nick N. said...

Nathan, Neshek, Breslow, Crain and most likely Guerrier are locks in my mind. Plus we need a long relief which will be determined in this off season based on the fates of Humber/Bonser.

I think they'd most likely go with both Humber and Bonser. It's possible they'll trade one of them (though neither has a lot of value right now), but considering this organization's historical desire to keep players who are out of options (Willie Eyre, Brian Bass, etc.), I think it's likely they carry both out of spring training, viewing Humber as a long reliever and Bonser as more of a middle-relief guy. We can call Bonser a long reliever all we want, but in point of fact, he simply wasn't used that way toward the end of the season. In only two of his last 13 appearances did he pitch more than 1 1/3 innings.

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