Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Importance of Foresight

The Twins have enjoyed an impressive run of sustained success over the past nine years. Only once during that span (2007) have they posted a losing record. And if there's one lesson to be taken from the '07 team, it relates to the pitfalls of complacency.

In 2006, the Twins boasted a rather impressive offense. Joe Mauer won his first batting title, Justin Morneau captured the AL MVP award, Michael Cuddyer enjoyed a career year, Luis Castillo excelled at the top of the lineup in his first season as a Twin, and Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto delivered strong offensive contributions after taking over the left side of the infield midway through the season. All told, the Twins led the American League in batting average and surpassed the 800-run threshold that team officials seem to consider the bar for a successful offensive season.

Content in his lineup's quality production, Terry Ryan remained relatively inactive on the offensive side during the following offseason. This proved highly detrimental, as the Twins' offense suffered a massive slide the next year. The team's OPS+ dropped from 103 to 93, pushing them from above average to solidly below, and their average run output dropped from 4.94 to 4.43.

One could hardly have expected Ryan to predict that the production of Morneau would drop so significantly, or that both Mauer and Cuddyer would battle injuries for much of the year, or even that Punto and Bartlett would regress so dramatically after seemingly putting together breakout campaigns in '06. Yet, with a little foresight, Ryan could have better prepared the team for these types of circumstances. Entering the season with a useless Rondell White as a starter and with the offensively challenged Lew Ford and Jason Tyner as the team's top backup options in the outfield was pretty clearly a recipe disaster, leaving little margin for error amongst the offense's core. Ryan certainly had the right idea in signing Jeff Cirillo as a backup option for Punto at third base, but the aging Cirillo proved incapable of filling in at third on a regular basis and Ron Gardenhire seemed unwilling to pull the struggling Punto out of the lineup for prolonged periods of time anyway.

The 2009 season bears some similarity to that '06 campaign. Several members of the lineup's core -- Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Denard Span and Jason Kubel -- enjoyed absolutely phenomenal offensive campaigns, and the team's impressive late run at a playoff spot was once again boosted by unexpected late contributions from infielders who took over new spots and rose to the occasion. Smith must now learn from the past and avoid the complacency that led to the 2007 club's demise, because if just one or two of the lineup's core players battle significant regression or injury problems next year, the holes that surround them in the lineup could be magnified significantly.

Fortunately, Smith doesn't have to deal with deciphering the illusions present on that 2006 team. Despite his strong finish, Punto's overall numbers were terrible, and one would have to be out of their mind to think that Tolbert looks like a legitimate full-time major-league third baseman. There's also a clear hole in the outfield and no obvious candidate to start at shortstop unless Orlando Cabrera is re-signed (which in itself is an unsafe bet considering his age and declining production).

Given that the Twins ranked fourth in the league in offense this past season while averaging over five runs per game and ranked fourth-to-last in team ERA, one could logically conclude that improving the pitching staff should be Smith's chief focus during this offseason. I'm not sure that's the case. With guys like Kevin Slowey, Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser returning from injury next year, and with the defense hopefully taking some steps forward, I think the team's run prevention is bound to improve even without significant outside reinforcements (particularly if Carl Pavano is brought back). Meanwhile, I see lots of room for regression on the offensive side of the ball, because it's tough to expect all five of the aforementioned "core" offensive players to repeat what they did during the 2009 season -- especially considering that three of those players have somewhat troubling injury histories.

Adding solid depth and filling lineup holes with adequate supporting players could go a long way toward protecting the Twins against the type of drop-off that struck that 2007 team. If the 2009 unit enters the season with a starting infield that consists of Tolbert, Cabrera and Punto, this lineup could be in serious trouble should Mauer's back act up or Kubel's knee give out.

***

Oh, and congrats (I guess) to the Yankees, who won the World Series in six games. Who could have seen that coming? :-)

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

My offseason:

If we could fill two holes, I would be perfectly comfortable going into next season.

First, because of that 4-last ERA, we need a solid veteran pitcher. My pitcher is Rich Harden, type B status. Although he will cost a sandwich pick in the draft, he will fill the ace role in the rotation and hopefully, along with a recovering Slowey and greater season from Baker, get the ERA back up.

Then, we trade Young, Perkins, Delaney, and Casilla to the Brewers for Hardy + A-ball prospect. This trade would work well for both teams, fixing holes in the Brewers lineup, and fixing a hole that the Twins have had since Guzman. Punto could stay at 2B - his defense and occasional offense permit this - and Harris/Tolbert (Valencia in the wings) hold down 3B (possibly bring back Crede).

Harden
Baker
Slowey
Duensing
Blackburn

Morneau, Punto, Hardy, Crede/Tolbert, Mauer - offensive production is there (M&M, Crede, Hardy) plus the Twins get very solid defense from all five.

Brett Werner said...

Good analysis, Nick, and I generally agree (and would probably support a plan like JM_MVP's), but I think you underestimate our injury potential:
Mauer: lower back/etc.
Kubel: knee/etc.
Cuddyer: injury prone generally (see 2008)
Morneau: back
Span: ear infection/dizziness/etc.

Span's the surest bet to stay mostly healthy. And all of them seem like they could stay healthy, having gotten over their problems, but I don't see how to single out 3 of the 5.

I think that the fact that these five together were probably better than the Yankees (or anyone else's) top five (match them up 1 vs 1 on down, or total their OPS) makes it even more paramount to add in a 6th or 7th that could be tough.

It seems difficult to project whether the return of Neshek, Slowey, and Boof will go as planned given Liriano's return (good 2nd half in '08, couldn't keep it together in '09). Maybe we should plan to start all three at AAA next spring (and maybe Liriano and Perkins, too, though I'd prefer that Perkins move on).

Anonymous said...

Slowey should not start in AAA, unless he is not ready in ST. I do believe that he will be healthy for ST (still 4 months or so away). Morneau's wrist, after his surgery, is feeling better, and from all reports, his back feels really good.

Cuddyer did manage to stay injury free this year, but I would rather have Cuddy than Demon!

Neshek's injury is more akin to Liriano's (TJ surgery). Neshek and Bonser, if any of our injured, will be the ones who will not return to form.

Adding Harden would solidify the rotation and provide veteran leadership, top to bottom - aside from Duensing - who may or may not repeat 09.

Nick N. said...

Span's the surest bet to stay mostly healthy. And all of them seem like they could stay healthy, having gotten over their problems, but I don't see how to single out 3 of the 5.

Span's brief bout with dizzy spells doesn't strike me as a long-term concern. Morneau's back injury seems like a one-time problem, and he's been an iron man outside of that over the past few years.

I worry more about the other three, who seem to have more chronic issues.

Nick N. said...

First, because of that 4-last ERA, we need a solid veteran pitcher. My pitcher is Rich Harden, type B status. Although he will cost a sandwich pick in the draft, he will fill the ace role in the rotation and hopefully, along with a recovering Slowey and greater season from Baker, get the ERA back up.

I'm all aboard for Harden if the price is reasonable. (It's worth noting that he wouldn't actually cost the Twins any draft picks -- teams only forfeit picks when signing Type A free agents.) I worry that he'll command a multi-year deal at around $10M a pop, which would be a tough gamble for the Twins considering their limited funds and his injury history.

Anonymous said...

I agree Nick. If the price is reasonable, although if Harden wanted a three year, 8M deal, I don't think I could deny him that. Has Harden had much of a history of injury?

TT said...

"with a little foresight"

The kind of "foresight" that is easy to have three years later?

In reality, the Twins offense was the least of their worries before the 2007 season. They had lost both Radke and Liriano from their rotation.

Apparently the priority should have been a replacement for their fifth outfielder, Jason Tyner, who had hit over .300 the two previous years.

They should have known the Rondell White, who had hit .313 two years earlier, was toast.

And despite that lack of foresight, the Twins were only 4.5 games out of first in mid_August and over .500 in early September. Ryan should have known a year earlier that September slum

If only Ryan had foresight, he would have traded Santana and Hunter before the 2007 season started. Because, it is pretty tough to come up with any reasonable moves that would have made up those 17 games in the standings.

So I guess the real lesson of 2007 for this off-season is that the Twins ought to trade Mauer and Morneau. They have no chance next year anyway.

"The 2009 season bears some similarity to that '06 campaign."

Actually it doesn't. The Twins are not losing two of their top three pitchers. In fact, they have four guys coming back off injuries, Slowey, Neshek, Perkins and Bonser.

What you seem to be proposing is the foresight shown before the 2008 season. Lets add some proven veterans like Mike Lamb, Craig Monroe and Adam Everett. A shortstop/second baseman who can hit in the form of Brendan Harris. And deal some "surplus" pitching for a raising superstar in the form of Delmon Young to provide that needed right-handed power in the outfield.

Now, that's foresight.

Nick N. said...

In reality, the Twins offense was the least of their worries before the 2007 season.

Which is the same thing many people are saying now. Which is basically the point of this post.

Apparently the priority should have been a replacement for their fifth outfielder, Jason Tyner, who had hit over .300 the two previous years.

Can a guy really be considered a "fifth outfielder" if he's playing in 114 games and accumulating 328 plate appearances? And as neat as his .300 batting averages were, a sub-700 OPS doesn't do much for me from a guy who's getting the majority of his at-bats at corner OF spots and DH.

They should have known the Rondell White, who had hit .313 two years earlier, was toast.

J.J. Hardy hit .283 with 24 homers two years ago and yet you seem to have written him off. And he's eight years younger than White was. It's pretty amusing how you'll bend your arguments for the convenience of making a point.

If only Ryan had foresight, he would have traded Santana and Hunter before the 2007 season started. Because, it is pretty tough to come up with any reasonable moves that would have made up those 17 games in the standings.

The lesson here isn't that the Twins would have made the playoffs with a few moves -- the Indians ran away with the division that year, which means absolutely squat when we're talking about next year. The point is that the Twins may not have had such a dreadful offense if they hadn't sat on their hands and allowed obvious holes to go unplugged. In '07, the Twins' 7-8-9 hitters batted .239, .231 and .230, respectively. That's going to lead to paltry offensive production if your core players aren't completely carrying the load, as they did in '06 and as they did in '09.

No one is asking the GM to anticipate specifically which players are going to regress, but planning around the possibility (or perhaps inevitability) that certain guys aren't going to repeat their career years or stay healthy for the entirety of the season is an important function of the GM.

What you seem to be proposing is the foresight shown before the 2008 season. Lets add some proven veterans like Mike Lamb, Craig Monroe and Adam Everett. A shortstop/second baseman who can hit in the form of Brendan Harris. And deal some "surplus" pitching for a raising superstar in the form of Delmon Young to provide that needed right-handed power in the outfield.

Now, that's foresight.


You're really making me question whether you actually know what the word "foresight" means. The moves you're referring to were not a display of foresight. They were made in response to a 2007 club that ranked near the bottom of the league in offense, and to the loss of Torii Hunter. Foresight would be reacting to a problem before it actually becomes a problem.

Nick N. said...

Has Harden had much of a history of injury?

He has never thrown 200 innings in a season and has thrown 150 only once. He's almost never healthy.

TT said...

"Which is the same thing many people are saying now."

I haven't heard that. In fact, as far as I can tell, almost all the talk is about the Twins offense. Or was Iawamura a trade target for his pitching and fielding prowess? If someone wants to make the case that the Twins should go after some veteran pitching, that would make sense. Because that IS the most obvious place where they could have problems next year.

"J.J. Hardy hit .283 with 24 homers two years ago and yet you seem to have written him off. "

Some of us learn from experience. Hardy may or may not come back. Casilla may or may not be a major league second baseman next year. Perkins may or may not be a quality starter. Young and Gomez may or may not be allstars. Neshek may or may not recover from his injury. There are plenty of unknowns, but I wouldn't have gambled a bunch of young players on Rondell White either.

"Can a guy really be considered a "fifth outfielder" if he's playing in 114 games and accumulating 328 plate appearances "

Yes, that's what happens when one of the outfield regulars only gets 119 at bats the way White did. Fifth outfielders are insurance and having a guy who can play all three outfield positions while hitting over .300 is pretty good insurance.

"The moves you're referring to were not a display of foresight."

Of course they were - just bad foresight.

"Foresight would be reacting to a problem before it actually becomes a problem."

Right, foresight is ignoring the need for any objective evidence.

Your point that the Twins cannot expect players to perform at their peak every year is accurate. But you ignore the guys who didn't. Mauer and Morneau were hurt, Punto didn't hit all that well again, Young and Gomez didn't live up to their potential. They had Casilla struggling at second a good part of the year, they didn't add Cabrera until August. There are a lot of areas where you can see the Twins improving on offense as well as having some players who will not do as well.

Nick N. said...

Your point that the Twins cannot expect players to perform at their peak every year is accurate. But you ignore the guys who didn't. Mauer and Morneau were hurt, Punto didn't hit all that well again, Young and Gomez didn't live up to their potential. They had Casilla struggling at second a good part of the year, they didn't add Cabrera until August. There are a lot of areas where you can see the Twins improving on offense as well as having some players who will not do as well.

That isn't true. Mauer missed a month but was essentially completely healthy from that point forward and still accumulated the second-most at-bats of his career. If you're expecting much more from him next year, you're not being very realistic. Morneau had a very typical season statistically despite missing 20 games, and his absence was nearly negated by the hot streaks of Cuddyer and Young late in the year. Punto, Young and Gomez had basically exactly the types of seasons that their career numbers suggest we could expect from them.

Relying on players like that to provide adequate production as regulars next year is a risky gamble. Sure, you can hope that Gomez or Young pulls it together, or that Punto has another one of his even-year jumps in production, but Smith's focus should be on finding more reliable options in at least a couple of those spots.

I don't see one position player on this roster who I can look at and confidently say that I fully expect him to produce far better next year. There are a number of guys on the pitching staff I can say that about, though.

Jewscott said...

"I don't see one position player on this roster who I can look at and confidently say that I fully expect him to produce far better next year. There are a number of guys on the pitching staff I can say that about, though."

The problem is there are also a number of guys on the pitching staff (Blackburn, Duensing) who could take a step back, too, and counteract any step forward from Slowey. This isn't the Johan Santana era where there's a pitcher you can guarantee will post an ERA in the low 3s. Baker could do it. But his ERA could be somewhere in the 4s as well. Slowey's control makes him a threat for a good season. But his lack of anything beyond that makes him a threat to be shelled as well. Blackburn has admirably given the team what Carlos Silva used to for a fraction of the price tag, but what happens if he has the bad Carlos Silva year in 2010? What if the team cuts its ties with Perkins in the offseason, only to watch Perkins pitch like Duensing for another team and Duensing pitch like Perkins?

Foresight is all well and good. But ignoring the central problem with the rotation seems to be counterintuitive to that.

Nick N. said...

Slowey's control makes him a threat for a good season. But his lack of anything beyond that makes him a threat to be shelled as well.

You know, for all your talk about Slowey's marginal stuff, the guy's career K-rate is nearly identical to Garza's. He's not just a run-of-the-mill control pitcher.

I'm comfortable with Blackburn. Guy has been nothing but solid over the past three years.

I've consistently been a proponent of bringing Pavano back; if they don't, then the Twins need to sign another starter. They can't afford to roll into season with two major question marks in the rotation. But I'm OK with counting on one of Duensing/Liriano/Bonser/Swarzak to fill that fifth spot.

Jewscott said...

"You know, for all your talk about Slowey's marginal stuff, the guy's career K-rate is nearly identical to Garza's. He's not just a run-of-the-mill control pitcher."

The purpose of a great K-rate though is to reduce the number of hits and the number of homeruns you allow. Garza has been very good at that throughout his career. Slowey, not so much. Like I asked you on BYTO, what does that mean? And how do you fix it? And can you really count on Slowey toward the top of the rotation if that trend continues?

TT said...

"I don't see one position player on this roster who I can look at and confidently say that I fully expect him to produce far better next year."

But who are the players you can confidently say you fully expect to produce worse next year?

And why can you confidently say you fully expect JJ Hardy to do better next year?

"accumulated the second-most at-bats of his career. If you're expecting much more from him next year, you're not being very realistic."

Is there some reason you think he will have fewer at bats next season?

"Relying on players like that to provide adequate production as regulars next year is a risky gamble."

Unlike JJ Hardy?

"Young and Gomez had basically exactly the types of seasons that their career numbers suggest we could expect from them. "

No, they didn't. They may have had the numbers you expect. But their having better years next year would be no more unexpected than Mauer's home run surge or Kubels development or Morneau's a few years ago or Cuddyer's.

Those were all natural progressions for young players with talent. It will be a surprise if Young and Gomez both turn out to be duds. It can certainly happen, but it isn't what most people would "expect".

If you look at what to expect, the problems are in the rotation with only two or three pitchers that can be counted on. The only saving grace is that, like the outfield with Gomez and Young, the Twins have more than one young player with some potential to fill a hole.

They probably can't count on filling more than one or two holes. So if Baker, Blackburn or Slowey get hurt or don't produce at championship levels, they will be doing auditions in the rotation again with players they don't really think are ready. That sounds like a huge gamble.

Anonymous said...

twins=timberwolves=lack of clutch forever

lookatthosetwins said...

How can you compare JJ Hardy and Rondell White?

JJ Hardy is a great defensive shortstop, who needs only to hit a little to be valuable. he would be the second best player on the Twins if he played like he did in '07 OR '08. He has no history of injury. Just an off year.

We don't know that anyone will produce next year. You just have to make your best judgement. Hardy is a young player who had a bad year, but was still better than any of our current options. He was demoted for 2 reasons: to keep him under team control for an extra year, and to give escobar some playing time.

Comparing him to Alexi Casilla is also a joke. You have a guy who's break out season was half a season, and wasn't even league average. You can't compare that to a guy who has been one of the best shortstops in the game 2 years in a row before having a down year.

I feel like I'm repeating myself, but I'll say it again. We don't KNOW that JJ Hardy will be a stud next year. But we also don't KNOW that Micheal Cuddyer will be a great hitter next year either. The truth is, Hardy has a better chance to be a productive player, since much of his value comes from great defense at a premium position. You can't just take one year and ignore all the rest. If you project Cuddyer for next year, you don't just ignore his '07 and '08, and the same goes for Hardy.

lookatthosetwins said...

Ok, so I have a few more things to say.

Yes, the rotation could use some help, but its all about spending your money at the most important place.

Casilla, Tolbert, and Harris are hardly replacement level players and have no business on a playoff caliber team. They have very little chance of producing above replacement level.

Duensing and Liriano have both produced at the major league level. Even Liriano's '09 would be less of a burden than someone like Tolbert starting every day. I think it would be silly to not expect at least a little improvement from someone with his stuff coming off an injury.

Either of these guys are a significant gamble, but at least there's a CHANCE that they'll be productive, and have a much smaller chance of being total flops. Also look for Swarzak and Manship to bounce back after getting pounded around a little. It happened to Blackburn, it happened (a couple times) to baker, it happened to Slowey.

The point is we have guys that could produce this year in the rotation. And if they don't, we have reasonable backups. neither of those things are true in the infield.

Signing a second basemen or trading for someone like Hardy would be the best use of limited resources. (I say limited, cause I'm assuming that Mauer will be extended this offseason). I think our priorities should be:

Infielder
Infielder
Starting Pitcher
Infielder

lookatthosetwins said...

Nick,

Can you explain why you don't give up picks for Type B free agents? Does the team losing the player get a draft pick but the team signing him doesn't give one up?

Anonymous said...

exactly lookatthosetwins! When judging a player, you do not just look at one year (especially a bad year), but you look at a whole career.

What if I told Twins fans that Radke was one of the worst pitchers in a Twins uniform? They would ask why and I would say, "well, he had a 5.03 ERA one year." This is no way to judge a player!

I would not mind Tolbert on the roster. If we trade for Hardy, but cannot get a second baseman, then Punto takes second base. Punto's defense makes up a little bit for his offense (or lack thereof). We re-sign Crede (Valencia stays at AAA for the first two-three months) and Tolbert backs up Crede.

Punto - defensive, occasional offense, 2B
Hardy - great defense, good offense, SS
Crede - great defense, good offense, 3B
Tolbert - good defense, occasional offense, backup 3B

Anonymous said...

Also, if it is indeed true that the payroll this offseason will be raised to $90 M, then I believe that it will be entirely possible that we sign either a second baseman or a starting pitcher, while at the same time having enough money for the Mauer extension.

2B: Felipe Lopez, Orlando Hudson
SP: Rich Harden, Ben Sheets

Ben Sheets would command a contract like Joe Crede, based on injuries. Sheets would be a low-risk, high-reward pitcher. Harden would command a higher contract, however he does have a history of injuries.

Who would you rather have? I do believe that if any pitcher should get injured that Swarzak, Manship, etc. will be ready to start for those three-four games. They have a lot of potential, and as said before, should not be judged on one season.

TT said...

"JJ Hardy is a great defensive shortstop"

He may have been at one time. The scouting reports on him last year when he was sent down were that his defense had fallen to average at best. You don't send a "great defensive shortstop" to the minor leagues to give playing time to a prospect or to manipulate his major league service time.

On offense, Hardy had one hot month last year and was at the Mendoza line for the rest of the season. He only hit .254 in the PCL. And that decline isn't entirely sudden. He had gone from striking out once every 9 at bats in 2007 to once in every 7 in 2008 to once in every 5 last year. He'll be 28 next year, so he is no longer that young. He looks like a guy who peaked early and is declining fast. He might turn it around, but he is at least as big a gamble as Casilla and he will cost a lot more.

Ryan said...

Well, the Twins now have JJ Hardy. Gomez for Hardy.

Nick N. said...

Can you explain why you don't give up picks for Type B free agents? Does the team losing the player get a draft pick but the team signing him doesn't give one up?

When a team loses a Type B free agent, they receive a supplemental pick that is added as a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds. It isn't taken away from any team.

He may have been at one time. The scouting reports on him last year when he was sent down were that his defense had fallen to average at best.

Where are these scouting reports? Could you produce them rather than vaguely referring to them? UZR had him pegged at 8.8 runs above average (better than 2008) and +/- rated him well also so the burden of proof is on you for that one.

You don't send a "great defensive shortstop" to the minor leagues to give playing time to a prospect or to manipulate his major league service time.

That's a ridiculous assertion. You do it if you want to get a prolonged look at your future player while also ramping up the value of Hardy -- for a trade they obviously were very anxious to make -- by adding another year to his service time.

Cris E said...

I was looking around for a place to ask this and I settled on this post:

Who is going to be the 4th OF in MIN next year? Pridie is the only CF in the org and he's not very good. At this point I think we have to go outside to find one, and I'm wondering where people think we might turn.

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