Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Tampa Bay managerial search

Raul Ibanez might go from active player to dugout boss.
For no real reason, I'm intrigued by the Tampa Bay Rays managerial search. They were, most likely, not expecting to be looking for a manager, and then Joe Maddon jumped ship shortly after their general manager left for a (presumably) more lucrative job in with the Dodgers.

Their search started well after the Twins search. Maddon left after the Twins had essentially narrowed their field down to Paul Molitor and Doug Mientkiewicz, and Terry Ryan said during the Molitor presser that he had talked to Maddon until learning that Maddon was going to accept the Cubs job.

The Rays had released a list of eight preliminary candidates, none of whom were among the people the Twins interviewed or pursued. I thought at the time that there was one obvious favorite, Maddon bench coach Dave Martinez.

On Friday it was reported that the Rays had narrowed the field to three -- and Martinez was not among the three. All three were in the AL Central last season.

The Rays finalists: Kevin Cash, bullpen coach for Cleveland; Don Wakamatsu, bench coach for Kansas City; and -- surprise! -- Raul Ibanez, who played for Anaheim and Kansas City and hit just .167 as a part-time player.

The way things have been going of late, with teams tending to hire completely novice managers, I wouldn't bet against Ibanez landing the job. It's even possible he would be a player-manager, although I think that era ended with Pete Rose almost 20 years ago. Certainly there's no reason to think he's got much juice left as a hitter.

Meanwhile, I am stunned that Martinez not only didn't get the job, he wasn't one of the finalists. It's hard to imagine him staying with the Royals. Maybe he'll follow Maddon to the Cubs. I had expected the Twins to at least pursue an interview with him for the managerial job, and apparently they didn't, bu if he's interested in a lateral transfer, Ryan and Molitor ought to consider him for the bench coach job.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Filling the 40 (for a while)

Thursday was the deadline for teams to protect eligible players from the Rule 5 draft.

The Twins entered the day with four open spaces on the 40 and filled them all.

Three were obvious selections: Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer and Eddie Rosario. The fourth wasn't so obvious: left-handed pitcher Jason Wheeler.

I saw Wheeler pitch once, in 2012 in Beloit. He was, I am told, a different pitcher then. He's a big guy, but his fastball velocity was not impressive (upper 80s). The next year, in Fort Myers, he added a few mph, and now he reportedly works in the low 90s, occasionally touching 94.

He opened 2014 back at Fort Myers, got promoted to Double A after 13 starts, then moved up to Triple A for one end-of-the-year start. He led the minor leaguers in innings pitched. The 2.67 cumulative ERA is impressive; the 6.5 K/9 rate is not. The increased velocity has not translated into more strikeouts. He does throw strikes.

The Twins chose to protect Wheeler over Sean Gilmartin, another 24-year-old left-handed starter who split 2014 between Double A and Triple A. Gilmartin, a former first-round pick acquired from Atlanta for Ryan Doumit last winter, had a higher ERA and walk rate than Wheeler but a higher strikeout rate. I put more weight on the strikeout rate than on the ERA.

Also exposed to next month's Rule 5 draft: Jason Adam, a right-handed pitcher acquired from Kansas City in the Josh Willingham trade. Adam pitched in the just-completed Arizona Fall League and I think it's safe to say that the Twins weren't impressed enough to open a roster spot for him.

Levi Michael and Niko Goodrum, a pair of middle infielders taken with high draft picks (Michael in the first round, Goodrum in the second) were also left unprotected. I don't think either is likely to be lost.

The Twins don't often lose players in Rule 5. I won't be surprised, however, if Gilmartin gets picked and sticks.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Progress on the coaching staff

Eddie Guardado was a fan favorite as a Twins reliever
from 1993-2003 and again in 2008.
The lengthy pause after announcing that Gene Glynn and Rudy Hernandez would join holdover Tom Brunansky on Paul Molitor's debut coaching staff suggested that the remaining four slots would be filled by outsiders, people the Twins would have to pry away from current teams.

But then word leaked Wednesday night that Eddie Guardado will be the bullpen coach. "Everyday Eddie" has been on hand early in spring training the past few years, but hasn't had a fulltime job with any organization.

Bobby Cuellar, the bullpen coach the past two years, told Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press that he was informed two weeks ago he would not be retained. Frank Viola, "Sweet Music" on the 1987 champs and 1988 Cy Young winner and now a pitching coach in the Mets system, said he was interviewed for the pitching coach job but has been told he's not one of the final two candidates.

Carl Willis, dubbed "The Big Train" as the top setup man on the 1991 champs, apparently is one of the finalists. (The other, according to the star Tribune's LaVelle Neal, is Neil Allen, currently the Triple A pitching coach for the Tampa Bay Rays.) Willis has a fairly lengthy coaching resume, largely on the staffs of Eric Wedge, who managed the Cleveland Indians 2003-2009 and Seattle 2011-13. He's currently working in the Indians system.

Willis has also coached three Cy Young seasons (C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez).

Which led me to wonder about Rick Anderson. He coached two Cy Youngs (both Johan Santana.) His charges have also had 12 All-Game nods from six pitchers: Joe Nathan four times, Santana three times, Glen Perkins and Guardado twice, Francisco Lirano once. That list is heavy on bullpen guys, which figures. The bullpen was generally a strength of the Gardenhire era.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Giancarlo Stanton, Russell Martin, Jason Hayward and Billy Butler

A few significant moves the past couple of days, and even through they don't directly affect the Twins, there are still points to be made.

Giancarlo Stanton agrees to a long-term deal with Miami. Exactly how long term is difficult to say. It's Stanton's choice, basically; it's either 13 years for $325 million or six years for $107 million. He has an opt-out clause after the 2020 season.

This is a heavily backloaded contract, so much so that I can't see how the Marlins avoid getting badly scalded at the end. (Remember, I'm the guy who wrote last March that the Twins should offer a pair of 20-year, $200 million contracts to Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano; I'm hardly opposed to really long-term deals for really talented young players).

Stanton is just 24 now; his best years figure to be ahead of him. They figure to be behind him when the opt-out comes. I don't know how likely he is to decide that the market will support $31 million for him in his middle 30s. If he does opt-out, the Marlins dodge the bullet they just fired into their future.

In total, however, this is probably not a terrible contract for the Marlins. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs did an illuminating analysis of comparable players to Stanton -- this level of production ages 22 to 24 -- and found 18 others since 1950. Most of them, he concludes, were productive enough to justify the complete 13 years of this deal.

Jason Hayward traded to St. Louis. Stanton is a star because he has one very important tool: He has top-level power. Hayward's power isn't as impressive, but he does everything else better. As a result, he's been a better player than Stanton, but few recognize that. (The two are about the same age, Hayward being about three months older.)

With Hayward a year from free agency, the Atlanta Braves chose not to pay him. They traded him to St. Louis for two young pitchers, notably Shelby Miller, on whom the Cardinals seemed to sour a bit last year.

Jose Posnanski goes into detail on the Hayward-Stanton comparison here. It is intriguing, the different approaches the Braves and Marlins took on these two outfielders.

Russell Martin strikes a five-year deal with Toronto.  OK, I can defend the Stanton contract. I can defend trading one year of Hayward for almost 10 years of pitchers. .

I can't see the logic in committing $82 million over five years to a 31-year-old catcher. It almost doesn't matter that Martin has had just one good year at the plate in the past six seasons. If it were five good years at the plate, the problem would still be there: He's a catcher entering the collapse years for hard-used catchers.

The Blue Jays are putting a lot of faith in his defense and his clubhouse intangibles, more than I think is wise.

Billy Butler agrees to a three-year deal with Oakland. Huh?

Another signing I don't get. Butler has no defensive value, he grounds into about two dozen double plays a year, his power has been in steady decline. I can't see why Billy Beane is sinking $30 million into this guy.

I don't imagine the Royals are sorry to see "Country Breakfast" go. His departure certainly opens a hole in the middle of the Kansas City lineup for a right-handed hitter, and the Royals are said to be pursing Torii Hunter hard.

K.C. makes more sense for Hunter than Minnesota does. He's looking for a ring, and the Twins are not ready to contend, while the Royals just went to the seventh game of the World Series. I think Hunter will sign with the Royals.

Which, as a Twins fan, is fine by me. I don't want Hunter with the Twins.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pursuing pitching is the wrong priority

Here's the conventional wisdom about the Twins: The pitching's the problem.

And a cursory look at the stats supports that claim. The Twins had a team ERA in 2014 of 4.57, which was last in the American League and almost three-quarters of a run per game worse than the AL average. The Twins were, on the other hand, fifth in runs scored.

It's the pitching, stupid. And so there is speculation of signing free-agent starters (a la last winter's $73 million spree, which brought the Twins one very good season and two injury-plagued/awful seasons).

Here's a unconventional view: That's the wrong priority.

Fix the defense, and the pitchers already in place will look a whole lot better.

One of my foundation beliefs about the game: The easiest way to improve a pitching staff is to get better defensive outfielders.

And it really shouldn't be that difficult to improve the Twins outfield defense. They spent much of 2014 with Josh Willingham or Jason Kubel in left field, Oswaldo Arcia or Chris Colabello in right and a shortstop (Danny Santana) in center.

By Baseball Info System's DRS metric -- DRS meaning "defensive runs saved" -- the Twins were next to last in all of baseball. Only Cleveland's fielders gave more runs to the opposition.

The Twins team DRS was -67, meaning they were 67 runs worse than MLB average. Most of that is traced to the corner outfielders. Left field was -25, right field was -23. (The pitchers and catchers were also notable problems; the pitchers were -13, the catchers -10. Those four positions account for -71 runs, so the other five combined scored a bit better than average.)

TheTwins gave up 777 runs last season, Give them league average defense, at least by DRS, and that drops to 710 -- still worse than average, but fewer than they scored themselves.

It's only mid November, but the Twins outfield plan for 2015 is pretty vague.

We know Arcia will be the right fielder. That probably means subpar defense in that corner again.

Center field and left field are wide open. Aaron Hicks, Jordan Schafer and Chris Parmelee are on hand from last season, but I have to doubt the Twins intend to base their outfield on those guys. Santana ... new manager Paul Molitor sounds like he wants to focus Santana there. It doesn't make sense to me -- Santana has always been a dicey defensive shortstop in the minors, and with Eduardo Escobar coming off a strong season, the Twins would be "fixing" a problem that doesn't really exist.

Which is very much, again, like plunging back into the free agent market to sign a raft of veteran starters. Better to jettison one or two of the incumbent starters and give Alex Meyer or Trevor May rotation berths, not add more big salary guys to block their ascent.

And better to focus on getting outfielders who can run and throw, be they Santana, Eddie Rosario or somebody from the outside.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Rosario Scenario

Last Saturday, while most sports fans were watching college football, I had an eye on the Arizona Fall League championship game.

After Eddie Rosario, playing left field and hitting third for the Salt River Rafters, opened the game with a strong throw and a home run, I issued a tweet that almost certainly set a personal record for responses:

Call it the Rosario Scenario.

That tweet drew both agreement and disapproval. Brandon Warne gives a rational reason to oppose the Rosario Scenario:

In truth, Rosario vs. Hunter is a false choice. Hunter isn't likely to return to the Twins; he wants a team closer to contention. The Twins are typically conservative with prospects, and they will probably agree with Warne that Rosario's big AFL season doesn't outweigh his lousy regular season. 

Which doesn't make that caution the right choice.

The AFL is a pretty good league, made up largely of Triple A- and Double-A players. Rosario, whose "hit tool" -- the ability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball -- has never been in question, hit consistently there. 

He's got a quality arm. He runs well enough to have been a center fielder before the attempt to convert him to the infield. I'm willing to chalk up his Double A struggles to the drug suspension that wiped out his spring training and first two months of the year.

I'm certain of this: Eddie Rosario right now is a better defensive outfielder than Torii Hunter. Yes, Hunter is the most decorated outfielder of the past 15 years. He's 39 now. He ain't the Gold Glove wizard he once was. I'd rather go with the guy with a future than the guy with the past.

Set the Hunter fantasy aside. Rosario may not be better in the field than Aaron Hicks or Jordan Schafer, but he's not likely to be much worse, either. And I'm certain he'll outhit either.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Sunday Funnies

Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell, as many of his contemporaries did after washing out of the majors, continued to pitch in the minors. He was pitching for the Minneapolis Millers, a high level minor league team, and the Millers were about to play a crucial series against Toledo.

Manager Joe Cantillon told Waddell: "You've gotta lay off the liquor for the next four days. You'll be going against Earl Yingling (Toledo's ace) at least once and maybe twice, and I want you at your best."

But when the series began on Monday afternoon, neither Waddell nor Yingling showed at the Minneapolis ballpark. Nor did they appear on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

On Friday, after Toledo had left town, Waddell walked in with a stringer of fish, which he presented to Cantillon with the explanation that he had tkaen care of Yingling by having the Toledo ace accompany him on a four-day fishing excursion on Lake Minnetonka.

A week later, Cantillon received a bill from a local market -- a bill for the fish Waddell had purchased on the previous Friday.