Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shallow Waters

In 2010, the nine members of the Twins' Opening Day lineup missed a total of 319 games. The reasons differed -- injury, performance, routine days off -- but that's an awfully large number of games missed by players that the Twins expected to be regular contributors at the outset of the season.

We can point to a variety of reasons for the Twins' success in a 94-win season, but one that stands out above all others is excellent depth across the board.

You could see it in the lineup. When Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy were nicked up, Alexi Casilla was there to step in with solid interim performance. When Nick Punto and Brendan Harris couldn't hack it at third, Danny Valencia took over with a tremendous rookie campaign. When Justin Morneau went down, Jim Thome became a lineup staple and picked up the slack.

You could see it in the pitching staff, too. When Nick Blackburn earned himself a demotion to Triple-A, Brian Duensing helped keep the rotation afloat with strong outing after strong outing. When Joe Nathan went down in spring training, Jon Rauch (and subsequently Matt Capps) filled his shoes, and the bullpen's overall depth enabled the team to sustain the loss of its closer with virtually no ill effect.

If there's one thing that troubles me in taking a preliminary glance at the 2011 roster, it's a disturbing lack of depth.

Should Casilla or Tsuyoshi Nishioka struggle or get hurt, the top backups right now are Matt Tolbert and Trevor Plouffe. Should Mauer miss extended time, the Twins will be regularly trotting out one of the worst hitters in the major leagues in Drew Butera. Should Morneau be unable to go, we're looking at another summer of Michael Cuddyer at first and Jason Kubel in right. Should a starting pitcher struggle or go down, the Twins would almost have to look to 23-year-old prospect Kyle Gibson, ready or not. Don't even get me started on the bullpen, where there isn't one player you can confidently call a major-league pitcher past Capps, Jose Mijares and a recovering Nathan.

I believe that the starting nine currently slated to take the field in 2011 can absolutely be playoff-caliber -- yes, even without Hardy. What I worry about is what happens if those projected starters miss another 300 games. Or even 200. While not impossible, it's a stretch to believe that someone like Tolbert or Plouffe or Jason Repko is going to be able to step in as a competent regular over a lengthy period of time should a starting player go down or slump badly. Similar things can be said about the rotation and bullpen.

Of course, the good news is that we're in mid-December and there's still plenty of time to address these depth concerns. What's not clear is how much funding is available to do so. Trading Hardy and Harris cleared about $7.5 million from the payroll, but that money will only go so far. For instance, it would only cover a portion of Carl Pavano's salary, and while that signing would shore up rotation depth it would leave a host of issues remaining to be addressed in the bullpen and around the field.

As of now, the Twins have right around $100 million committed to the 2010 payroll. That's about where they were this year, so it will be interesting to see how much higher they're willing to go in the quest to build depth.

At first base, will the Twins invest in a righty-swinging backup who can provide legitimate Morneau insurance while also protecting Kubel from southpaws at DH? (Paging Derrek Lee...)

What about the rest of the infield? With question marks all around the diamond, the Twins will likely yearn for a strong defensive backup who can cover any position. In other words, there's a high probability that Punto is re-signed. (Sorry gang.)

What about the bullpen? Bill Smith can play coy and act like he's comfortable with what he's got, but let's think about that for a minute. Last year he was so uncomfortable with a bullpen that included Rauch, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier (now all free agents) that he felt the need to trade away a top prospect and spend millions in adding both Capps and Brian Fuentes. Now he's pretending to be comfortable with Pat Neshek as a potential setup man? Right. My guess is that the Twins re-sign one of Crain and Guerrier and then wait until January or February to see what kind of bargains they can get on leftovers from a deep relief market. Not a bad strategy, all things considered.

In the rotation, it sounds as though the Twins have their sights set on Pavano, but one has to wonder whether they can afford to spend close to $10 million on him alone with so many other needs to address. Maybe they can backload his contract, or maybe they'll have to look elsewhere. It's hard to imagine they'd be comfortable going forward with only five proven starters, particularly with the performance issues of Blackburn and the injury issues of Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey.

Finally, what of Thome? Everyone would love to have him back, but if he wants $3-4 million, can the Twins afford to spend it on a guy who can't field a position and is somewhat redundant with players they already have? He's the definition of a luxury, which is a lot more palatable at $1.5 million than twice that much.

These are questions to keep in mind as the offseason progresses.


Anonymous said...

I'm not saying that the Twins should be giving up on the next season, but with the firepower that the Red Sox and Phillies have, I would be looking to trade for solid, young guys that are locked up for a couple years.

cy1time said...

Is 319 a lot? Do you have a sense of how that ranks compared to other teams? Or past Twins teams? How many games did opening day starters miss when the opening day lineup had Bautista and Castro in it? Things change during the season. 162 games x 9 players is 1458 "player games", I'm not sure 319 is horrible. I think our depth made sitting banged up players more palatable and inflated that number.

I'm not arguing against your point. I agree that our depth was pretty good last year and doesn't looks thin next year. I'm just not sure that measuring games missed by opening day starters is a good way to measure it.

cy1time said...

I agree that our depth was pretty good last year and doesn't looks thin next year.

I guess I should proofread before I post it.

I agree that our depth was pretty good last and looks thing next year.

cy1time said...

thing/thin. My typing accuracy is about as good as Butera's OPS.

Ed Bast said...

At this point I don't know what the club can do to salvage this horrendous offseason. My hope going in was that they would focus on starting pitching and a RH bat. So far they've subtracted a RH bat and gotten worse defensively. Since the front office has backed themselves into a payroll corner IN YEAR 2 AS A BIG-MARKET TEAM, I'm thinking they shouldn't resign Pavano and instead sign one of the reclamation projects out there, Webb in particular. Then dump one of their identically mediocre starters, spend the remaining cash on Derrek Lee and 1 or 2 proven relievers, and fill in the bullpen with Neshek, Slama, et al.

I'm not sure why I hold out any optimism that they'll do any of this, of course. They'll resign Pavano to a deal that will basically end the spending this offseason and neatly take the place of Cuddy's bad contract next year.

I could state the obvious and say that there is no way this team is better equipped to win a postseason game. But I doubt this team is even going to win the Central.

I'll withhold final judgement until the offseason is over, but I'm beginning to suspect that the loud noise I heard after Game 3 in October was the window of opportunity for this club slamming shut.

rghrbek said...

Ed, great comments and I agree completely.

I don't think we should sign Pavano to a 3 year 33 million dollar deal. he was very good last year, but the last thing we want is him to be comfortable with his contract....

Although I feel starting pitching and right handed DH are, or should be huge priorities for the Twins, they will be perfectly content to add Pavano, for too much money, add Thome for too much money and then we will be left handed heavy again, and also thinking adding a unproven Japanese kid solves all our speed problems.

The Defense only needed to be addressed in the outfield, and although Repko is an excellent fielder, he is a career .229 hitter, and is not a person who should be on our MLB roster.

Matt said...

Matty G. is the newest Dodger.

Don't worry, Ed, they'll find a way to win the central and get swept again...

Just kidding on the winning the central part.

Anonymous said...

I think the twins were better off in the metrodome with a small budget. When they had no money to spend it handicapped their incompetents managements ability to make moves. No money for anything but replacement level middle infielders, but 20 mil to closers, 11 mil long contract to a 35 year old pitch with a sub 5 k rate. I miss sidney ponson.

Bryz said...

@ cy1time: 319 games is roughly 1/5 of all possible games for a starting 9 to play. I'd call that significant.

@ rghrbek: Repko is certainly deserving to be a 4th or 5th outfielder, so he should be on a MLB roster.

@ Anonymous: I miss sidney ponson.

No you don't, don't kid yourself.

Matt said...

I miss sidney ponson.
Me too. He reminds me of a Latino Kenny Powers: "Arm like a damn rocket, mind of a scientist."

cy1time said...

@ Bryz - I agree that 1/5 sounds like a lot, but without a comparison, I'm not sure that it is. I don't have a good way to easily research it, but if it was 14th in AL or most in Twins history it would be more convincing.

Dave said...

I'm sure we will be competative in the division this year. While the FO did a real botch job we still have a better lineup then ChiSox or Detroit. Our # 1 starter is better then both of those teams, and I have faith Duensing will continue to be solid and one other guy will come through.

What I am really worried about is the depth and quality of our farm system. We are on the verge of another big callup fest in a year or two and then we are tapped. We need to let Pavano go for the picks. I am glad we get picks from Matty G and soon Crain. We will get a pick from Hudson. If we resign Pavano and Crain those are valuable picks we just lost allong with lots of money.

cy1time said...

@ Bryz: The 2006 Twins (96-66) opening day lineup and games missed:

Stewart - 118
Castillo - 20
Mauer - 22
White - 63
Hunter - 15
Morneau - 5
Batista - 112
Kubel - 89
Castro - 112

TOTAL - 556

I'm still not saying that 319 isn't a big number, it just needs more context.

Nick N. said...

I'm sure we will be competative in the division this year. While the FO did a real botch job we still have a better lineup then ChiSox or Detroit. Our # 1 starter is better then both of those teams, and I have faith Duensing will continue to be solid and one other guy will come through.

This is about the most reasoned optimism I've seen, and I hope you're right.

I am glad we get picks from Matty G and soon Crain.

No picks for Guerrier. He wasn't offered arbitration.

I agree that 1/5 sounds like a lot, but without a comparison, I'm not sure that it is.

Whether or not it's a lot, in relative terms, doesn't matter all that much. It's still 319 games that need to be played by guys other than those starting nine.

Laches said...

Well, I would have guessed that we'd re-sign Crain or Guerrier also, but we were both wrong. Smith better have something up his sleeve here. You can't underestimate the value of bullpen depth. It's a big part of how the Twins have remained consistently competitive With starters on strict pitch counts, there are a ton of games won and lost on the strength of middle relief. Right now, it's a huge question mark for the Twins.

Anonymous said...

What will the bullpen look like? Not only did Guerrier just agree to a contract with the Dodgers, but Crain is about to sign with the WHITE SOX!