2014 Preview: Minnesota Twins

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Did the Twins improve their starting rotation enough?

Prior to this offseason the most money the Twins had ever spent on an outside free agent was $21 million, so dropping $49 million on Ricky Nolasco and another $24 million on Phil Hughes represented a massive shift in organizational philosophy and showed just how focused they were on improving an awful rotation. Of course, in the grand scheme of baseball those are hardly huge contracts and the Twins’ rotation has been so bad that it could improve substantially while still being terrible.

Not only did Twins starters rank dead last in baseball with a 5.26 ERA last season, no other team’s starters had an ERA worse than 4.85. And in 2012 the Twins’ rotation had a 5.40 ERA, which ranked second-worst in baseball ahead of only the Coors Field-inflated Rockies. Which brings us to the Twins’ problem, which is that their rotation’s ERA could improve by, say, a half-run–which is a huge improvement–and still be among the 2-3 worst in baseball. Or, put another way, here are the Twins starters’ projected ERAs according to Fan Graphs:

Ricky Nolasco: 4.20

Phil Hughes: 4.64

Mike Pelfrey: 5.00

Kevin Correia: 5.07

Kyle Gibson: 5.27

Obviously the Twins think all of those guys will fare better than those projections and there are relatively plausible reasons for why that might be true in each case, but it’s hard to come up with a scenario in which that isn’t still a bad rotation. It’s very short on upside and very long on veteran mediocrity, and last season those five starters had ERAs of 3.70, 4.18, 5.19, 5.19, and 6.53.

There’s some high-upside help on the way in the form of 6-foot-9 right-hander Alex Meyer, although if Gibson pitches well enough to stick in the rotation the Twins would have to trade one of their mediocre veterans just to make room for Meyer’s arrival. Minnesota devoted the offseason to making the rotation less terrible, but in doing so the Twins also locked themselves mediocrity. If their rotation is much better but still the worst in the league, was the offseason a success?

What else is going on?

  • All the talk about starting pitching has obscured the fact that the Twins’ offense was awful last season too, ranking 13th in the AL with 614 runs scored. Essentially zero additions were made during the offseason and the expected midseason arrival of stud prospect Miguel Sano has been ruined by Tommy John elbow surgery, leaving the Twins counting on Josh Willingham getting healthy, Joe Mauer being Joe Mauer, Oswaldo Arcia making The Leap, and Aaron Hicks bouncing back from a disastrous rookie season.
  • Hicks has the world’s best prospect, Byron Buxton, breathing down his neck on the center field depth chart, so his window to establish himself in the Twins’ plans is smaller than usual for a 24-year-old. Hicks was about as bad as a player can be as a rookie, hitting .192 with a .597 OPS and 84 strikeouts in 81 games, but he did have a decent power/speed combo and the Twins are hoping that the on-base skills he displayed in the minors will translate to the big leagues eventually. Presumed backup center fielder Alex Presley was lost on waivers to the Astros, so the Twins are going to let Hicks sink or swim.
  • Glen Perkins is really, really good. In his first full season as a closer Perkins saved 36 games with a 2.30 ERA and since moving into the bullpen full time in 2011 he has a 2.45 ERA and 220 strikeouts in 195 innings. During that three-year span his strikeout rate has climbed from 9.5 to 10.0 to 11.1 per nine innings and his K/BB ratio has jumped from 3.1 to 4.9 to 5.1. He’s a strike-throwing, bat-missing, tweet-sending machine.
  • Phil Hughes became sort of a punching bag for Yankees fans while struggling in recent years, but the Twins targeted him early in the offseason believing the one-time top prospect still has significant upside and as guys like Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett have shown recently struggling in New York doesn’t preclude a pitcher from thriving elsewhere. As a fly-ball pitcher Hughes was particularly ill-suited to call Yankee Stadium home, but his road ERA was 4.10 from 2011-2013 and his raw stuff simply isn’t what it once was. Hughes will be an interesting test of the Twins’ brain trust.

Prediction: Improved but still very bad starting pitching, improved but still very bad hitting, and a slightly less unwatchable overall product. Fourth place, AL Central.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.