Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Next Fantasy Baseball Champion!

I haven't played "real" fantasy baseball since high school, but I was persuaded to join a league with some fellow Twins' bloggers (or "Twoggers"). We concluded our draft last Sunday night, and I was fortunate enough to snag the second-overall pick and ended up with Albert Pujols. I was relieved when Erin Moore took Joe Mauer first overall, since I assumed Pujols would be the #1 and I didn't know whether to take Mauer, Hanley Ramirez, A-Roid, or Mark Teixeira.

Still, my team will likely be pounded this season. I loaded up with offense early and then ended up having to supplement my roster with some youth. Either way, here is my roster for opening day:
  • Catchers: Russell Martin
  • Infielders: Pujols, Ian Kinsler, Mark Reynolds, Alexei Ramirez, Yunel Escobar, Mark DeRosa, Kevin Kouzmanoff
  • Outfielders: Matt Holliday, Bobby Abreu, Andrew McCutchen, Raul Ibanez, Nolan Reimold, Hideki Matsui, Matt LaPorta
  • Pitchers: Cliff Lee, Matt Cain, Heath Bell, Jose Valverde, Rick Porcello, Joe Blanton, Brandon Lyon, Hiroki Kuroda, Bronson Arroyo, Derek Lowe

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

As Expected, Nathan Done for 2010

As expected, Twins' closer Joe Nathan will have Tommy John surgery to repair his right elbow and will miss the 2010 season. He hopes to be ready by opening day 2011.

Nathan discovered the right elbow damage a few weeks ago and rested in the hopes that it would heal enough to give it a go. He played catch Sunday morning with pitching coach Rick Anderson, and the pain was too intense.

The Twins' all-time saves leader, Nathan has saved 246 games for the Twins since joining the team via a trade with the San Francisco Giants prior to the 2004 season. He saved a team-record 47 games in 2009. Nathan is midway through a four-year, $47M deal he signed prior to the 2008 season.

As written previously, the Twins will audition closer candidates throughout spring training, including Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, and Jon Rauch. Rumors are flying about the team checking out San Diego's Heath Bell, but for now, the Twins appear to be looking internally.

One was always holding out hope for a miracle concerning Nathan, but Twins' fans feared surgery was going to be the case. In the end, it's better he got this problem taken care of now instead of trying to pitch through pain in some early-season games which could mean the difference in a division which has been decided by a tie-breaker game two seasons in a row.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mauer Signs

The Twins signed Joe Mauer on Sunday to an eight-year, $184M contract extension, keeping him in Minnesota through the 2018 season.

After Mauer makes $12.5M for the 2010 season, he'll rake in $23M annually from 2011 through 2018, and will also have a full no-trade clause for the life of the deal.

The Twins made the move to keep the three-time AL batting champion in Minnesota for the long term and this was a solid PR move by the organization. Some in Twins Territory were sweating it out a bit as the negotiations dragged out, but one had to believe a deal was going to eventually be struck. Mauer's agent, Ron Shapiro, is notorious for advising clients who wish to stay in one city throughout their careers, namely with Cal Ripken, Jr. and Kirby Puckett.

From a baseball perspective, this is a no-brainer. From an organizational perspective, this is a hamstringer for the Twins. They have esentially committed 25% of their payroll to one player for the forseeable future. Twenty-three million annually is a lot of money and the Pohlad family certainly has the means to dole it out., However, the Twins operate under a business model consistent with middle market teams. Despite glistening new Target Field opening up some new revenue streams for the team, money is not all of the sudden going to be printed. The Twins are realistically not going to have a payroll much over $100M (and it makes sense to keep it under that mark) and now are committing 1/4 of that to Mauer. Not that Mauer isn't worth it, but the prospects of signing Justin Morneau after his deal expires after 2013 is less than it was 24 hours ago. Jason Kubel will hit the market after the 2011 season, and there won't be a lot of money left to sign the team's third-best hitter. You get the point.

The full no-trade clause is also problematic for a team like the Twins. Say that the Twins hit the tank in 2014 and are still committed to Mauer for another four seasons. The team has no leverage in moving the catcher should they need to do a quick re-build. The team was in a similar predicament in the 1990s when Puckett accounted for a huge chunk of the payroll. The couldn't move him (bad PR move dealing the only star on the team) and the team experienced losing seasons from 1993 through 2000. Not that the Twins will have the same thing happen to them during this deal, but I'm just saying.....

If I were the GM, I don't think I would have gone beyond six years for Mauer. The money was within the range I expected, but I don't think I would have gone beyond six years and $125M for Mauer. Catcher is a short-term position and committing to one for eight years is just not feasable. He has a bit of an injury history and will likely have to change positions some time within the term of the deal.

It's a risky deal for the team, given the length of the contract, the money, and the full no-trade. However, the Twins had to do this deal. The public would have revolted against the team had they allowed Mauer to walk away. However, this blogger would have been just fine with the Twins saying that they offered Joe Mauer $20-$22M annually for six seasons and he said no. That's a PR move I would have been able to forgive.

For now, let's celebrate keeping the best player in the American League in Minnesota for a long time.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Twins Extend Span

The Twins locked up outfielder Denard Span on Saturday with a five-year, $16.5M contract extension, keeping the young outfielder in Minnesota through at least 2014 with a $9M club option for 2015. Joe C of the StarTribune has a breakdown of how the back-end-loaded contract is paid out over its term.

The Twins' first round pick in the 2002 MLB Draft, Span played five full seasons in the minors from 2003 through 2007 before his recall in early 2008. In 2,388 minor league plate appearances, Span hit .287/.357/.358 with 68 doubles, 26 triples, 10 HR, and 192 RBI. Since his recall, Span has established himself as one of the American League's best leadoff hitters, batting .305/.400/.467 in just under 1,100 plate appearances with 32 doubles, 17 triples, 14 HR, and 167 RBI. His MLB numbers are far superior to his minor league figures and he seems to be getting better with each plate appearance.

Handed the starting CF job this season after the trade of Carlos Gomez, Span is a career (13.8) UZR/150 in center field, but has posted career +5.8 and +16.7 UZR/150 marks in right field and left field, respectively. 

The extension is the team's second such deal in a week, following Nick Blackburn's. It is another example of the Twins signing a core player to an affordable contract early on while the player gives up some free agency time. The Twins will pay Span $750k this season, and the team will be well over the $95M mark as a team by opening day. With some bigger contracts on the horizon and the extension for Joe Mauer hopefully looming on the horizon, the Twins will likely see their payroll continue to rise as their young core matures, but the Span deal offers nothing outrageous throughout its term.

Great move by the Twins, as fans can be assured that the team's core players of Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel (assuming the Twins pick up his 2011 option), Scott Baker, and Nick Blackburn are all under contract for next season. Add Span to that list. The big question is where Mauer fits into this list, and that will take care of itself one way or another in the next few weeks. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nathan's Elbow Injury Leaves Twins With Questions

The results of Joe Nathan's CAT scan and MRI came back on Tuesday and they arrived with devastating news. The elite closer has a "significant" tear in the UCL of his right (pitching) elbow and he will likely need surgery to repair the team. In terms all can understand, unless a modern medical miracle occurs between now and two weeks, Nathan will need Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2010 season.

As LEN3's article linked above details, Nathan is one of baseball's most reliable closers, recording an MLB-high 246 saves since becoming the Twins' closer in 2004. He is 30 of 30 in save opportunities against the Detroit Tigers and has recorded an ERA of 0.85 against the Kansas City Royals over his career. Last season, Nathan recorded a Twins-record 47 saves in 52 save opportunities. He allowed just 42 hits in 68.2 innings. Although his five blown saves represent two months worth for many closers, they were the second-highest total for Nathan's career. The importance of Nathan's injury cannot be overstated.

Nathan will rest his arm for two weeks to allow the swelling to subside and then decide if surgery is an option. The Twins have been down this road before over the past few seasons with Pat Neshek and Francisco Liriano, who each attempted to rest the arm before delaying the inevitable surgery. However, with a significant tear in Nathan's case, it looks to a non-medical professional that surgery is the only option.

The loss of an elite closer puts a temporary damper on the sky-high expectations of this Twins team heading into 2010. The team will need to find someone to step into Nathan's shoes and close games in 2010. Internal candidates may include:
  • Matt Guerrier - The righty is a solid set-up man who has recorded one save in each of the past four seasons. He had a fantastic year in 2009, but seems to thrive in the role he currently occupies. Plus, he's a bit prone to the home run ball.
  • Jesse Crain - Crain has closer experience in the minors, but has only two career saves since joining the Twins in 2004. He pitched extremely well after his mid-season demotion to AAA, but he just doesn't seem to have the makeup for a closer at this level. He's just fine where he is.
  • Jon Rauch - My pick for the closer at the start of the season. The 6-11 Rauch saved 24 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals in 2008, so he has prior closer experience at the MLB level. He'll be an intimidating force on the mound in the 9th inning and pitched very well for the Twins after his acquisition from Arizona.
  • Jose Mijares - He's young and cocky, but he isn't a closer. Ask Delmon Young about his late-inning maturity level from last season.
  • Pat Neshek - He's coming back from his own arm surgery, so the Twins won't ask him to close even though he was a very successful minor league closer.
  • Francisco Liriano - This is perhaps the most interesting option for the Twins. Since his incredible 2006 debut and his subsequent arm injury, Liriano has struggled to come back as a starter. He seems to wear down in the middle innings, suggesting that he could be a closer-type who could throw as hard as he wants for one inning, mixing in sliders along the way, and then rest. The issue will be if he can pitch three days in a row, which is something the Twins simply cannot answer right now. He's in the battle for the final starter's position, but may shift to the 'pen.
  • Anthony Slama/Rob Delaney - Both have been solid minor league closers, but each has yet to pitch in a major league game. It's simply not the Twins way to ask someone to debut in the bigs in a pressure-packed environment.
With the Twins' payroll already at $95M, there is little chance of the team looking outside the organization for help. Whispers of Heath Bell abound, but it doesn't seem likely at this point. The Twins will circle the wagons and stay within the organization to replace Nathan in the near-term. If things fall apart early, look for GM Billy Smith to make a move. For now, however, the smart money is staying in-house to replace Nathan.

Don't think that Nathan's loss is going to bump the Twins from the pre-season division favorite perch. The Twins still have the best lineup they have fielded in several seasons. However, this is a temporarily devastating blow for the team right now.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Blackburn Signs; Nathan Has MRI

Sunday provided some good news and some concern in Twins Territory as the Twins announced the signing of starting pitcher Nick Blackburn to a four-year, $15.25M deal. The contract also contains a club option for a fifth season, keeping the pitcher under Twins' control through the 2014 season.

Blackburn has recorded 11-11 seasons in each of his two years in the Twins' rotation. In 2009, the righty made 33 starts, pitched 205.2 innings, allowed 240 hits, walked 41, and struck out 98. He pitched to the tune of a 4.03 ERA and an xFIP of 4.56.

In his two seasons, Blackburn has earned a reputation as a reliable innings-eater for a Twins' staff which puts a priority of getting the ball over the plate and making hitters earn their way on base. Blackburn doesn't walk many and doesn't miss many bats, but he battles and eats innings. On a staff where the bullpen is a strong suit, a starter like Blackburn who can keep the game close before handing it to the bullpen is very valuable.

Like last year when the Twins signed Scott Baker to an identical contract, the Twins identified a solid young pitcher and offered him a very affordable contract to keep him under team control for a few years. Blackburn just turned 28 last month and is a very solid pitcher on what should be a very solid starting staff in 2010. The Twins made great moves in locking in two of their most experienced youngsters to very affordable and responsible contracts.

On the negative side, closer Joe Nathan left Saturday's game with right elbow pain and headed back to the Twin Cities for an MRI and a CAT scan. No word on the results yet, but my feeling is that the team should shut Nathan down right now and let him rest. They are ok in the bullpen for a while, so there's no sense in blowing the guy out in the early season in the cold weather. Stay tuned.