Thursday, February 25, 2016

On The Twins Creativity, Or Lack Thereof

Taking cues from another Twitter conversation, seriously you're missing out if you aren't following along (find me at @tlschwerz), the creativity surrounding baseball moves has been a hot topic of late. When looking at how the Twins have handled player acquisition in recent years, there's something to be said about what has been done well, and well, what hasn't.

I first got to thinking about this after reading a very well thought out piece over on Twins Daily. In it, Bill Parker sparks the conversation in regards to what the Twins could have done differently during their years of losing. Payroll and debates about contracts have generally surrounded the mid-market Twins. It's been a point of contention for the fan base, and likely will continue to be. The biggest takeaway from the piece comes down to smart spending, and the lack thereof.

Parker discusses past free agent contracts, and what the Twins might have passed on during their seasons of 90 loss seasons. While Terry Ryan and the Twins took dart throws to the effect of a marginal amount of added victories, a big splash likely would not have saved those teams from themselves either. Unfortunately, it's that strategy that continues to be employed when it shouldn't be.

That brings us to Mike Bates' piece on Twins Daily. Bates discusses the Twins continuing to operate in a similar manner, despite the situation. While I can nitpick at pieces that I may or may not agree with throughout the article (we all know I think Sano can work in right field), there's a much larger point being hit on. Bates makes two points that should become a virtual backbone when discussing any roster configuration Minnesota employs.

He says, "The Twins have a profound lack of ambition in virtually everything they do." Furthering the point, he contends, "Instead of attempting to sign a single free agent starter with a higher upside at some point over the last three years (like a Jordan Zimmermann, a Jon Lester or a Johnny Cueto), and maybe a relative lottery ticket in Hughes, the Twins took small bites at the apple."

This leads us to the crux of this piece, and some examples of points in which the Twins seem to get it, and where they don't.

Over the past few years, the Twins have spent significant money on three starting pitchers.  Phil Hughes was given a three-year, $24 million deal in 2013 that was then extended another two seasons. Following that splash, Minnesota then inked Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million deal. Rounding out the group, the next offseason saw the Twins land Ervin Santana on a $55 million contract spanning four seasons.

Regardless of how the production has looked, only two of those moves ever made sense the day they were signed. With free agent contracts being earned off of past production, and some hope for an immediate return, pushing on upside is where a middle-of-the-road team like the Twins should be. Both Santana and Hughes had glints of upside.

Hughes owned an ERA in 2013 nearly three points lower on the road (3.88) than at Yankee Stadium (6.32). Getting out of the homer friendly park suggested he could be a significantly more effective pitcher in a different venue. That narrative immediately proved true in 2014, and despite 2015 regression, still had him post his third best ERA since 2011. For Santana, he was a guy that had a solid track record of an ERA somewhere in the middle-to-high three range. He was experienced in the AL, and posted one of his best seasons as a pro with the Royals just a year prior. Again, upside loomed large for the Twins.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Nolasco checked himself in. A career National League pitcher (spending eight year with the Marlins and briefly the Dodgers), a mediocre at best 4.37 ERA suggested who he was. His 3.76 FIP mark and 7.4 K/9 were more than likely only going to decrease in the less favorable, American League. Despite plenty of detractors, the Twins made him a $12 million man.

Similar misses have been made on much smaller scale minor league deals as well. It's more than fair to argue nearly any minor league deal has no downside for a major league club, the Twins don't always leave themselves much upside when looking to bring those types of veterans into the fold.

While all minor league transactions may be low risk, they are not created equal. Recently, I had a commenter suggest that dart throws are nothing more than a blind toss. It's unfair to assume however that a guy like Blaine Boyer (coming off a 2.93 FIP) wouldn't be a better use of a spring invite, than the walking corpse of Jason Kubel (who had been demoted to the minors hitting .216).

Ideally, a 25 man roster isn't going to be reliant upon a player looking to make the club following a minor league deal. Picking statistical inefficiencies to exploit no doubt helps to push contributions upward if you're going to take a flier however. There's belief behind Fernando Abad working, and Carlos Quentin is a worthy flier. If you had to bet on another Jason Kubel type though, you'd no doubt hope Ryan would aim higher.

Creativity is a very broad term, and employing it while 29 other terms are working towards the same goal is a tough ask. That said, looking for the Twins to target a more serious ceiling in free agency, rather than just checking a box is a safe place to start. Hoping for the dart throws to be aimed more towards the bullseye rather than just hitting the board is something else fair to ask for. No one expects Terry Ryan to reinvent the wheel, but having a more direct focus is something the Twins could afford to embrace.

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