Friday, September 14, 2007

A Brief History of the Terry Ryan Era

There have been two times in my life when something has caught me so far off guard that I was unable to formulate a proper emotional response. The first time, I walked around in a daze for 48 hours after finding out that people found a way to collapse a skyscraper by flying jumbo jets into the sides of it. The second time occurred today when I was thoroughly shocked by the jarring news that Terry Ryan had stepped down as the Twins General Manager. I do not mean to equate the importance of Ryan’s departure with one of the deadliest American events of my generation, except that each occurrence was deeply stupefying and completely unexpected. Moreover, with so many lingering questions- Was he fired? Was he fed up with tightfisted ownership? Is he trying to avoid a forthcoming implosion? Will he leave for the next attractive job elsewhere? How active will he be as an advisor?- closure can only come in the form of a Bill Smith breakthrough. Now, for the first time in twelve years, the Twins face the task of developing a new identity and making difficult personnel decisions without the greatest sub-.500 executive in the history of the franchise.

The practice of deifying and demonizing general managers is as well established as the hero worship and vitriol thrown at the players themselves. Nonetheless, an even-handed evaluation of Ryan has to recognize that his track record for following his convictions to successful results has outweighed his weaknesses through his tenure in Minnesota. Despite the unevenness of his last two seasons, Ryan has earned the undying admiration of Twins fans who saw him right a sinking ship with an uncertain future. Looking back at his history gives us an idea of what we can expect from the Twins in the future.

When Ryan took the reins of the team for the 1996 season, the Twins were at something of a crossroads. The ’95 team featured several holdovers from the 1991 World Series Champions, including Kirby Puckett, Chuck Knoblauch, Kevin Tapani, and Scott Erickson. Nostalgia aside, this core was not getting the job done for the Twins, as they narrowly missed the playoffs in ’92, and experienced a steady decline into three straight losing campaigns thereafter. Ryan’s job was to rebuild the franchise from the ground up, refashioning the Twins into a legitimate contender instead of letting the sink to the status of long-term laughingstock. Using his scouting chops and a penchant for player development, Ryan set out to build a sustainable contender, not a flash in the pan surprise that overspent for post-peak free agents who would eventually cripple the team’s flexibility. To the credit of the ownership, Ryan was allowed to make some unpopular decisions that would hurt the team in the short run.

From the beginning, Ryan knew that two steps forward would require an immediate step back. As soon as he took over the team, Ryan initiated his practice of signing retread free agents to see if any of them could provide value on the field and, eventually, a healthy return on the trade market. Therefore, Dave Hollins, Greg Myers, and Roberto Kelly found regular playing time for the Twins in 1996. Ryan also started stocking his minor league cabinet from his first days in office. He made the most of the amateur draft, snagging future major leaguers Travis Lee, Jacque Jones, Mike Lamb, and Josh Bard. Unfortunately, the Twins managed to sign only Jones, although his contributions alone made that year’s draft a success. Ryan also made the most of other modes of player acquisition, pumping up the value of Dave Hollins before trading him to the Mariners for a minor league first baseman named David Ortiz. Before the season was finished, Ryan also snagged Venezuelan pitcher Juan Rincon as an amateur free agent. Although all of these players were far from contributing, Ryan had laid the foundation for a strong franchise within his first year.

Over the next five years, Ryan continued to use these same mechanisms to build up the farm system, creating a source of cheap talent for a cash-strapped major league team. He drafted relatively well, snagging Justin Morneau, Mike Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and J.C. Romero, among others. He signed a handful of scrapheap free agents every year to see if any of them could make good enough to return value in a trade, occasionally digging up a bargain and improving the team’s future at the cost of its present. More often than not, the return on these retreads was someone like Steve Hacker or John Barnes. He did make out better a couple of times, though, acquiring Joe Mays for Roberto Kelly and Lew Ford for Hector Carrasco. Getting this sort of eventual Major League talent on the cheap makes it possible for mid-market teams to stay in races with teams who can spend more money, but give up draft picks and prospects while doing it. Finally, Ryan made two large trades as part of the rebuilding process where he surrendered well regarded players for packages of prospects. In one, he gave up Rick Aguilera for Kyle Lohse and Jason Ryan. The more well-known trade, of course, saw him send Chuck Knoblauch to the Yankees for Christian Guzman, Brian Buchanan, Eric Milton, Danny Mota, and cash. Trading players who still have much to offer is different than trading free agents that nobody wanted a few months before, but each situation requires the general manager to properly evaluate the opposition’s farm system, and Ryan has proven himself extremely adept at that skill.

Slowly but surely, Ryan had been turning over his roster, trading the retread free agents for prospects and letting the home grown talent take over at the Major League Level. By 1999, 37 year old Terry Steinbach was the only import in the everyday lineup, and the only regular over 27 years old. The pitching rotation was even younger, with 26 year old Brad Radke and Latroy Hawkins as its most veteran members. As the core of young talent including Radke, Milton, Guzman, Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Corey Koskie developed together, the Twins started becoming slightly more hopeful. By 2001, that hope had turned into more solid results, as the team had its first winning season in 10, going 85-77 before fading from the playoff chase down the stretch.

By the time Ryan had positioned the Twins to become contenders, some things had changed and others had stayed the same. Ryan now had surplus talent at some positions, so he started trading some of his own players to build organizational depth rather than trading his beloved scrapheap free agents. In 2000, he traded Todd Walker for Todd Sears, a trade meant to give the Twins another power bat that the big league roster was lacking. In 2001, Matt Lawton and Mark Redman were jettisoned during the Twins’ pennant race for Rick Reed and Todd Jones, respectively. Ryan also continued dealing from depth to acquire prospects, giving up Brian Buchanan to the Padres for minor league shortstop Jason Bartlett. While Ryan’s resources had changed a bit, his tendencies stayed remarkably similar. He continued signing free agents that nobody else wanted, like the re-acquired Hector Carrasco, Quinton McCracken, Mike Jackson, and Mike Fetters. The difference was that he had built up enough organizational depth that he could use these players if they were effective, or throw them away immediately if they were not. For his last big move before the Twins made the playoffs, Ryan drafted Joe Mauer over Mark Prior, a watershed moment because of Mauer’s impact, but also because it was the last time Ryan ever drafted a position player who would become a regular during his tenure as GM.

Once the Twins finally scaled the mountain in 2002, conditions started to change for Ryan. Building a minor league system was becoming increasingly difficult, as the better records meant worse draft position, and the influx of homegrown talent translated into less opportunities to pump up the value of cheap imports before trading them for prospects. Instead, Ryan was forced to trade potentially useful young players like Javier Valentin and Matt Kinney to bolster weaknesses in the farm system. After a second division title, service time also became a pressing concern for Ryan. As his Minnesota-bred roster reached arbitration and free agency, it became much more costly to maintain, and he had to start making difficult choices about who to keep and who to let go. Remarkably, Ryan has almost always let the right players walk at the right time, getting the most out of them before they become expensive, then saying goodbye when their decline phase sets in. Still, giving up so much depth for nothing more than the occasional compensatory draft pick eventually starts to show up for a team, and it is not surprising that the Twins depth of the early 2000s is severely compromised today.

The cash-induced exodus started with Eddie Guardado and Latroy Hawkins at the end of the 2003 season. In reality, though, the attrition started a year before that, when Ryan was concerned enough about his middle infield situation that he made room on the 40-man roster for Rule 5 pick Jose Morban by releasing the injury-prone but established David Ortiz. It seemed as if the Twins were in dire straights after the 2003 season, as letting Guardado and Hawkins walk did not fully alleviate their financial situation. To further cut payroll, Ryan decided to go with young players in the starting rotation and at catcher. In doing so, he traded one year of Eric Milton for Carlos Silva and Nick Punto, and one year of A.J. Pierzynski for Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, and Joe Nathan. As well as Ryan has scouted other teams’ farm systems throughout his career, the Pierzynski trade is the high water mark. Along with the nearly free acquisition of Johan Santana, it demonstrates Ryan’s strengths in the same way that releasing Ortiz displays his weaknesses. If those three moves define his tenure as GM, it remains clear that Ryan is a star who did tremendous good for Minnesota.

Due to Ryan’s ability to trade his expensive, established players for Major League-ready replacements, as well as a sudden influx of top-level star talent in the form of Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, and Justin Morneau, the Twins saw little decline after the attrition of 2003. All the while, homegrown talent continued leaving, and without the high draft picks to replace them, it was back to the scrapheap for Ryan. Dustan Mohr, Doug Mientkiewicz, Christian Guzman, Corey Koskie, Jacque Jones, and J.C. Romero all left Minnesota between 2003-2005, each requiring a replacement that the Twins could not afford. Instead, Ryan turned to players like Tony Batista, Juan Castro, Jason Tyner, and Eric Munson in the free talent pool, moves which nearly uniformly failed, and have been the focal point for Ryan detractors. Ryan never stopped signing unwanted free agents to build depth, but as his homegrown depth left for more money elsewhere, these players were pressed into regular service. In the past, their failures could be masked by replacing them with the prospects acquired by trading the last round of retreads. Since no playing time existed for those retreads from 2002-2004, the prospects were never acquired, and the best replacement for Tony Batista was Nick Punto.

Despite the difficulties associated with mid-market attrition, the Twins were able to make a stunning run to the division title in 2006 on the backs of their top-end stars. The players that carried them were all in Minnesota because of Ryan’s deft management- it was Ryan who made the close call in taking Mauer over Prior, Ryan was the GM who drafted Morneau in the third round and brought him patiently (maybe too patiently) through the system, Ryan stole Johan Santana, and Ryan made the memorable trade that brought Liriano and Nathan to Minnesota. At the same time, the scrubs part of the Twins new stars-and-scrubs arrangement were quite disappointing. It was clear that Ryan had to find a better DH solution than Rondell White and a better third baseman than Nick Punto if the Twins were going to compete in 2007. But bad luck intervened, as injuries forced Brad Radke into early retirement and Francisco Liriano into Tommy John surgery. Instead of entrusting the rotation to Johan Santana and some combination of young players- Carlos Silva, Boof Bonser, Scott Baker, Matt Garza, Glenn Perkins, Kevin Slowey-, Ryan chose to spend his limited free agent budget on Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson, both of whom flamed out terrifically. Simultaneously, Ryan resisted dealing from this tremendous starting pitching depth to fill either of his two major offensive holes. That under-aggressiveness was a major factor in the team’s inability to restock its farm system, as well as its inability to fill holes at the Major League level. Obviously, it would not have been as simple as wishing an above-average third baseman onto the roster for $3 million, but Ryan definitely made a mistake by standing pat in the face of his two biggest weaknesses.

Immediately before his departure, Ryan was struggling with juggling the extensions of his five biggest stars not under long term contracts- Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau, Mike Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan. It is unreasonable to think that the Twins could retain more than three of the five, and there is nobody I would trust more with the decision of who to keep than Terry Ryan. With any luck, his advisory role will help him guide the Twins through the period of transition between now and the opening of the new park in 2010. All indications point to the franchise’s reorganization being about free agency and contract negotiation, which means that the successful player development track and scouting department will stay intact. These successes should be Ryan’s legacy rather than a couple of free agent mistakes in the face of a tight budget and a flawed roster. Losing Terry Ryan as the Twins’ GM is indeed a sad day, but it need not be a disastrous day. If the Twins respect his successes and try to replicate them, they can remain a competitive team outside of a major market. If they make the right decisions for the next two years, they may even build on his legacy to something greater.

Monday, September 03, 2007

TWIT: No smoke, no mirrors

Weekly Roundup

What happens when the luck that brings about consecutive winning weeks despite sub-par performances abruptly runs out? How does an ugly sweep in Cleveland and a series split with Kansas City at home sound? The sadly funny part of the miserable week is that the Twins actually managed to score a few runs- not a lot, but about 4 per game instead of their customary 2- and still dropped five out of seven. If you want to put some perspective on how bad the week really was, consider the optimism that ran rampant coming into the week as the Twins looked to be closing in on the Indians and threatening to make the division competitive, regardless of how poorly the Tigers chose to play. Instead, the Twins have sunk back to 9.5 games out of the divisional lead, and having no real chance of playing another meaningful game this season.

The secret about “the secret”, for those of you who entertain yourselves with clichéd contemporary metaphysical quackery, is that positive thinking can operate as a zero sum game. For instance, if you really believe you’re going to get a parking space close to the front door of your office, then you also believe that everyone else is going to be walking. In this week’s Cleveland series, it didn’t matter how much Twins fans believed the team was starting to come around, because Cleveland has had even better vibes emanating from the city all year. Instead of God or luck, these games were to be decided by skill, an ungrateful fate for the Twins. The Indians proceeded to demonstrate three different ways to win games: chipping away at Carlos Silva steadily on game one, putting a close game out of reach against an inferior reliever (Carmen “the great” Cali) in game two, and building up an early lead against Johan Santana in game three before holding off a late charge by the Twins. It would be nice if the Twins were able to duplicate some of those game types, but they all require timely hitting, sometimes including extra base hits, and that’s just not what this team does.

On the other hand, the week did feature one luminous bright spot, Scott Baker’s very good game. No, he wasn’t perfect, and Baker’s nerves were clearly frayed by the time he issued a five pitch walk to start the ninth. Nonetheless, Baker’s game is the type of event that generates interest and enthusiasm for a team that has faded from the pennant race. In his autobiography, fan pleasing former owner Bill Veeck writes about the importance of giving the fans something to root for, no matter what the team’s position in the standings. Sometimes that means promoting a rivalry, sometimes it means playing the spoiler, and sometimes it means publicizing milestones and personal achievements. With the best pitcher alive on the roster, the Twins could certainly try to get their PR machine behind Johan Santana’s final month push for the Cy Young, although the Twins bats would also have to get behind him, and that’s a far more precarious proposition.

Biggest Success

Some notes on Baker’s 24 up, 24 down start:

-With five ground balls and 13 fly balls, Baker actually set himself up well for a low-hit game. Even though grounders are typically preferable to fly balls because of their non-proclivity to turning into homeruns, there is a much higher likelihood of groundballs turning into hits (almost always singles). By keeping the ball in the air, Baker is walking a tightrope of low-BABIP, but a larger risk of giving up round-trippers. It’s not the worst tightrope to walk, as Johan Santana has walked the same one two a pair of Cy Youngs. With the organizational focus on throwing changeups, don’t be surprised to see more fly ball pitchers coming through the Twins system in the future.

-Remember how Johan Santana’s terrific game score of 93 came up just short of Eric Bedard’s stellar 15 stirkeout start earlier in the year? Scott Baker took a different route to the total score of 93, but arrived at the same destination. By completing the extra inning and finishing the game, he made up for his deficit in strikeouts to Santana, and the two base runners issued by each pitcher equaled out to a game score than can only be considered second-best.

-Even though the Royals have improved their offense over some of the more anemic lineups of recent years, they were still a prime candidate to get snubbed. The 5-0 loss dealt to them by Baker was the 8th game of the month of August in which the Royals totaled 1 or 0 runs. Binary- useful for programming, but pretty hopeless for run production.

Biggest Disappointment

I’m none too happy about the fact that Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva have melted down over the last several weeks, but I’m even more annoyed that the offense is so hopeless that every bad start is an automatic loss no matter who they are playing.

To my mind, the real underbelly of the Twins lineup is the fact that they have pressed a bunch of guys who are no better than 25th men into semi regular service, at least in a platoon role. Nick Punto could be useful as a secondary utility guy who seldom sees the plate. Alexi Casilla could be a very good major leaguer in a couple of years but has convinced me that he is not yet ready. Garrett Jones, Rondell White, and Lew Ford are all getting playing time because Terry Ryan seemingly forgot that the team has to play three outfielders and a DH. Why else would he enter the season with Hunter, Cuddyer, an unreliable Jason Kubel and nothing else?

Since the All-Star Break, this quintet has accumulated 394 plate appearances, about 2/3 of a season’s worth, meaning that in a single month of the season, they have amounted to approximately two full-time players. In those at-bats, they have combined for 67 hits, 49 of them for singles, and only 24 walks. That batting line works out to .188/.230/.264. The starting pitcher with the best OPS-against in all of baseball is Chris Young at 535. Since these five guys have been managing only a 494, it’s equivalent to having two league average players in the lineup everyday who have to bat against 1999 Pedro Martinez every time they come to the plate. Terry Ryan has fielded two everyday players who are as bad as Pedro Martinez is good.

The Big Picture

There has been some talk lately that the Twins might be interested in acquiring some position players in the off-season (hello!), and Colorado’s Garrett Atkins has crept onto the list by virtue of top prospect Ian Stewart’s gently nudging him out of the mountains. But what effect would leaving this mountains have on Atkins? That’s the relevant question to ask of any departing former Rockie, considering the collapses of once elite players like Ellis Burks and Vinny Castilla.

The normal home-away caveat about Rockies players does apply to Atkins, as his 2005 road averages were only .238/.301/.347, a 253 point OPS nosedive. In 2006, his career year, his OPS only lost 66 points, and he managed to slug .531 away from Coors Field. This year, he’s back down to .247/.319/.427 and a 146 point OPS deficit. Interestingly, his 2005 and 2007 numbers are submarined by losing at least 50 points of BABIP away from home, indicating that his approach stays the same through thick and thin air, but the results are different on the road. I take this to be a positive sign, that he can find some sort of middle ground, without the highest highs of Coors, but also eliminating that atrocious road performance. His .281/.348/.466 line this year looks sustainable to me, and having Cal Ripken and Tony Perez as two of the top three PECOTA comparables hints at good things to come. He may not be an All-Star caliber player, but he would fill a gaping hole for the Twins at third base and in the right-handed power department. If he could be had for Boof Bonser, I would make that trade in a heartbeat.

On the Horizon

I’m sure many fans and analysts circled this week on the calendar at the start of the season, as Cleveland comes to town followed by a road trip to the Cell to visit the suddenly cellar-dwelling White Sox. Santana will get two starts this week, which means two opportunities to pump up that wins column for a Cy Young surge. We might as well get used to cheering for non-pennant related activities, because this year is starting to look suspiciously like 2005. Still, for the true baseball fans, Sabathia and Santana facing off in an oddly timed Monday day game will be a great game. I suggest that everyone watches and tries to attribute the lack of scoring to Sabathia’s brilliance.

Monday, August 27, 2007

TWIT: This indecision’s buggin’ me

Weekly Roundup

A week after one of the least inspiring 4-2 sets in recent memory, the Twins managed an equally mixed-bag 5-2 campaign, dropping two of three at home to the Mariners before rolling the pointless Orioles in a four game set. The week got off in an inauspicious start as Matt Garza and Scott Baker got shelled to the tune of 23 hits and 10 earned runs in two starts. The result was a pair of uneven losses, 9-4 and 7-2 against sub-par opposition on the mound. If there was a silver lining to the start of the season, it may have been the reawakening of Justin Morneau’s dormant bat, which offered six total bases in the two losses, including a two double game on Monday. Any remaining hope for the Twins depends, at very least, on Morneau coming back to life offensively after a disastrous month. Things got better on Wednesday afternoon, as Mike Cuddyer’s first inning grand slam hinted at his own resurgence while simultaneously giving Carlos Silva a seven-run lead to lead off the game. Silva cruised to another quality start, keeping the brooms in Seattle’s closet.

Coming off an uneven six games in the last six days, the Twins left for the east coast with a woeful 8.5 game deficit in the division that made the postseason seem less likely than ever. After convincingly taking advantage of Baltimore’s miserable bullpen, though, the Twins are on a five-game winning streak, all of the sudden, with a three game series against the Indians providing some faint vestiges of hope for the postseason diehards who have yet to give up hope. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Twins recent warm streak has been the five consecutive games with at least five runs scored. After hitting like rookie league shortstops for the better part of two months, the lineup’s recent run of support must make the pitching staff feel like rats in the dumpster of Old Country Buffet.

Biggest Success

As I mentioned in the introduction, Justin Morneau flipped the switch back into the “on” position over the last week to the tune of .346/.419/.615, going from miserable by any standards to very good by his own standards overnight. Torii Hunter continued to affirm the classification as the Twins most consistent offensive player of 2007, hitting two more home runs, scoring eight times, and hitting .367.

Neither of these two stalwarts jumps off the page like Jason Bartlett, though, who has asserted himself royally in the last six weeks after a miserable start to the season. Since the All-Star Break, Bartlett has hit .321 with an uncharacteristic .496 slugging average (buoyed by an unbelievable 6 triples in only 34 games after only 3 in his first 259 games). This week, Bartlett bopped nine hits in 18 at-bats, including three triples and a double. His contributions netted four runs scored and five runs batted in across only five games. After the recent up tick in his output, Bartlett’s .277/.340/.380 line is beginning to approach last season’s pleasantly surprising .309/.367/.393. With plus defense, that batting line is perfectly acceptable relative to the league average of .271/.323/.394 for shortstops, making Bartlett an asset rather than a liability moving forward. For a team that can’t find a left-fielder or a DH who can hit at replacement level, I shudder to think of what they could dredge up to throw at shortstop if one was not on hand.

Biggest Disappointment

Through a wider lens, Matt Garza’s two start lull over the course of a very solid season does not seem terribly disturbing, even though he gave up 18 base runners, 4 homers, and 8 earned runs in only 7.1 innings over two starts. Since Garza’s getting the free pass this week, that means another one of my long-term favorites, Alexi Casilla, falls under the harsh light of scrutiny. With Luis Castillo succumbing to his typical lower-appendage fragility in Queens, Casilla was going to be on the hot seat either way. As things have worked out, he has been severely disappointing as a starter for the last month, leaving quite a gap where the Twins were once getting acceptable offensive output. In the last week, Casilla came to the plate 26 times, managing only four hits and a single walk. His numbers before and after his recall have been almost exactly identical, and none of his rate stats even crack .300 over that timeframe. He’s a slap hitter with a little bit of patience, but that profile does not carry much weight when the player is continuing to hit in the .225 neighborhood. Casilla needs to leverage his speed and bat control into a batting average above .275 at very least in order to be a contributor. He has a better bat in his future, but at the moment, he is helping Nick Punto slaughter the offense.

The Big Picture

The Twins are underdogs going forward, to be certain. The BPro playoff odds report pegs them for about a 5% chance at winning the division, and a barely non-zero chance of catching up to the Wild Card. Of course, Twins fans know that a non-zero possibility is eminently reachable if the former half of the stars-and-scrubs equation gets hot at the right time. In terms of run differential, the Twins get a little bit of good news, as both the Tigers and Indians are 2-3 games ahead of their Pythagorean projections, meaning the teams may cool even more down the stretch.

Another big-picture development that certainly interests Twins fans is the annual Johan Santana Cy Young campaign. Typically, this is the time of year when Twins fans have to start moaning about how win totals are not as important as peripheral stats, and how Santana has actually been better than pitcher X by a wider margin than conventional stats indicate. This year, Santana is actually a sliver behind some of his competition, such as Eric Bedard and Dan Haren, who have both been excellent all year. Santana has been consistent, but his lack of run support has given him 9 losses, and double digits in the L column will definitely cost him votes with the traditional set. If Santana can go nuts for a month, the award may be his to take, but he has not been at that level so far this year.

On the Horizon

When I say that the Twins need their stars to turn it on at the right time, I mean that they need to turn it on right now. With three straight weeks of divisional games, the Twins will get 9 cracks at Cleveland and Detroit combined, leaving at least a sliver of their destiny in their own hands. As I told a friend of mine last week, sweeping Baltimore and Cleveland successively would legitimately reenter them in the playoff discussion. Even winning two of three in Cleveland can only put them within 4.5 games of first with a month to play. To be a real competitor, they need to be firing on all cylinders. The Indians line up their experienced crew, throwing Paul Byrd, Jake Westbrook, and C.C. Sabathia against Carlos Silva, Boof (recently off the schneid) Bonser, and Johan Santana, so there will be no surprises here. Byrd has had a great deal of success against the Twins, so Silva will have to extend his respectability for one more start. After the Indians, the Twins get a chance to pile up some wins against the (playin’ for fourth!) Royals, including a double header on Friday. A series split there would doom the Twins even worse than losing the Cleveland series, so the pressure is high all around. Either way, it is better to win the games now, as the Twins dishearteningly must wrap up the season with a seven game roadie in Detroit and Boston. Look forward to that!

Monday, August 20, 2007

TWIT: Same format, but now with more Johan Santana!

Any week where the Twins win two series by going 4-2 has to be considered a pretty good week, although this week made me consider what it would take to create an exception to that rule. For instance, the Twins took two out of three from Seattle, a solid team and a playoff contender, on the road for what should have been an impressive series win. On the other hand, the one loss was an eminently winnable game in which Johan Santana gave a quality start. The steady Matt Guerrier lost it on a walkoff blast by the once-but-no-longer functional Richie Sexson, a game-winner that came two innings after Joe Mauer made the third out of the inning trying to stretch a double into a triple while the team’s one hot hitter- Torii Hunter- waited in the on-deck circle. To give credit where it is due, the team rebounded very nice over the next two games, getting more production out of Torii Hunter, finally giving Matt Garza (he of the 2.02 ERA) his second win of the season, and managing a win despite Scott Baker’s 6.2 IP, 1 R no decision.

So all must be well and good, right? Three consecutive quality starts by the team’s three best pitchers, combined with an offense that managed 20 runs in a series, a feat that looked completely beyond their means in the recent past- that was the formula for this team to contend. Heading home, Texas looked ripe for a sweep. The team is openly auditioning for 2008 jobs, starting two catchers every day to see which one will be the better offensive weapon on the next contending Rangers squad- if that ever comes to pass. Plus, with a starting rotation as weak as the one in Texas (no pitcher on the staff has been consistently better than replacement level all year, and big ticket items Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla have been noticeably worse), even part of the offensive firepower exhibited in cavernous Safeco Field would be enough. Of course, once they played the three game set, the Twins managed exactly three runs, one of the unearned variety. Joe Mauer was oh for the series, Justin Morneau did not manage an extra base hit, and the team’s only salvation was a vintage start by Carlos Silva and one of the best starts in franchise history by Johan Santana. So 4-2 is a good thing, the Twins are still out of shouting range of the playoffs, and the Twins reminded me of just how ugly “winning ugly” can be.

Biggest Success

While preparing some of the topics for TWIT last night, I kept coming back to the fact that Johan Santana probably belongs in every category by himself, save for the biggest disappointment section. I don’t need to report the fact that he set a team and personal best by striking out 17 Rangers on Sunday, nor that he was throwing his best heat and his best changeup all the way through his 113 pitch outing. Everyone already knew that. Here are a few notes on the game as I saw it:

-With the team out of contention, the Twins owed it to their fans to leave Santana in the game for the ninth inning. Pitch counts are useful, especially in protecting young pitchers, but the Twins have always used Santana conservatively, and his mechanics remained perfect all the way through his classic outing. If he was reaching back for something extra, it would be time to take him out. But as long as he was within reach of the single game strikeout record, he deserves a chance to etch his name into the history books. Make no mistake, Santana was the draw at the gate in this game, and there was no good reason to take him out when he said he felt great, his mechanics showed no hints of over-exertion, and his results in the game were so good as to give him a shot at the all time record.

-As good as Santana’s start was, it does not have the highest single game score for a starting pitcher this year. That distinction belongs to Eric Bedard, who threw a complete game two-hitter while striking out fifteen on only 109 pitches on July 7th. Santana’s game score of 95 falls three points behind Bedard and ties Justin Verlander’s June 12th no hitter against the Brewers. It is also one point better than Mark Buehrle’s no hitter on April 18th. Phil Hughes had a memorable start where he left a no hitter on the table in the seventh, leaving a truly dominant start with a sore arm. Santana’s strikeout-fest, Bedard’s dominant start, Buehrle’s no-no, and Hughes’s coming out party all share one common thread: the inept Texas Rangers.

-An interesting stat: Sammy Sosa, who recorded the only two hits off of Santana on Sunday, is 3-4 against Johan this year with a homerun, two walks, and one strikeout, a line of .750/.866/1.050. The rest of the Rangers are 3-47, no homers, no walks, and 29 strikeouts. Let’s hope Terry Ryan does not interpret this disparity to mean that Sosa has something left in the tank for the 2008 Twins.

-Sunday’s start slashed Santana’s WHIP to 1.01, only .03 points away from league-leader Chris Young and only .02 away from Santana’s fourth straight sub-1.00 WHIP season. That’s the type of dominance that makes him the best pitcher in baseball today, atop a list that has to include Brandon Webb, Roy Halladay, and Jake Peavy very near the top, and possibly the newly Mazzone’d Eric Bedard. Nonetheless, Santana’s recent stretch of a 2.79 ERA and .98 WHIP over a five year period as a starter pales in comparison to the primes of Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez in an even tougher pitching era. Maddux from ’92-’98 posted a 2.15 ERA and .97 WHIP, while Pedro dominated to the tune of 2.20 ERA, .94 WHIP from ’97-’03. (The Maddux and Martinez data appeared at Baseball Think Factory earlier this week as posted by Larry Mahnken)

Also, before jumping off of the positive thoughts train, notice that Tommy Watkins went 6-12 this week with three walks. Sure, all the hits were singles, but Nick Punto didn’t even get those. Good on ya, Tommy.

Biggest Disappointment

I’m going to point out that Rondell White is hitting .145 in 62 at-bats this year. Maybe after one more season like this, Terry Ryan (and especially Sid Hartman) will stop thinking of August 2006 as his true ability and see it for the fluke that it was.

What’s more troubling is the recent swoon of Joe Mauer. Whenever it seems like he is fining a groove and lining balls into the gaps, he has an 0-12 slump, or forgets how to hit for any power at all. Remember when he was supposed to start developing power? Remember when it looked like he was actually starting to do that last year? If Mauer is ever going to move off of catcher, he is going to have to either continue hitting .320, or learn to hit 20-25 homers a year to stay at the all-star level we expect out of him. Right now, he is really dragging. He managed five total bases all of last week in regular action. For the last month, his .372 slugging average would fit Nick Punto better than him. He has lost .086 points off of his slugging average for last year, and it is not all due to the drop in batting average. Last year, he got an extra base hit in 10.1% of his at-bats. This year, that number has shrunk to 8.7%. Perhaps he has fallen in love with the opposite field a little too much. In 2006, he hit 8 extra base hits to right or right-center field in the Metrodome, and he only has three all of this year.

The Big Picture

The biggest news impacting the Twins this week from the outside was the below-market extension for Carlos Zambrano. Big Z got about $18 million per year from the Cubbies to stay on the north side for another five years. As if on cue, Johan Santana responded by demonstrating that he is worth a good deal more than Zambrano. Even though the Twins have a pretty good track record of keeping their top talent, that is no reason to get complacent about Santana. He is going to require more than $20 million per year to stay in Minnesota, albeit some of it may get deferred into the future. Trading Santana is unrealistic and no return would be equitable; the Twins best chance to win in 2008 is with a below-market Santana at the front of the rotation, and Terry Ryan knows this. If Hunter and Nathan are allowed to walk over the next two off-seasons, the Twins could theoretically have Santana (~$22m), Morneau (~$15m), Mauer ($10m), and Cuddyer ($8m) combing for $55m of their payroll heading into the new stadium in 2010. The rest of the team is going to cost at least $25-30m, so the only way Santana is going to get paid is if Carl decides that the new stadium is going to bump revenue enough to make his heart grow three sizes. Don’t forget that a rotation of Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Matt Garza, and two of Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Carlos Silva, and Boof Bonser could be a pretty good combination. I’m not trying to tempt fate, just calming myself down.

On the Horizon

Lightning round: Seattle comes to town for three before the Twins make their annual pilgrimage to the beautiful Camden Yards. The M’s will send Horacio Ramirez, Jarrod Washburn, and Miguel Batista, while the O’s will counter with Steve Traschel, Jeremy Guthrie, Daniel Cabrera, and Eric Bedard. My most anticipated matchups are Wednesday’s getaway day featuring Batista and Silva, a game that could be over before 3 p.m. considering how fast those guys work and how little patience both lineups exhibit. Sunday’s game will likely match Bedard against Scott Baker in a game between two very hot pitchers, albeit one with considerably more talent and the league lead in strikeouts.

Monday, August 13, 2007

TWIT: Dead Again

Weekly Roundup

You’ve made your bed, Terry Ryan, now sleep in it. The Twins GM knew at the trade deadline that his moribund offense was going to struggle to keep up with the rest of the division, even as Cleveland and Detroit started sliding slowly backwards. He knew that ripping off a hot stretch on the field could get the team back in the race, at least enough to make the latter part of August and most of September more marketable to fans. He knew that none of these benefits were accessible without more support for a lineup that has nearly stopped scoring runs altogether- as evidenced by the inquiries about Mike Piazza and Jermaine Dye. Instead, the Twins swapped out a weak hitting 2B for another one down on the farm, saving some money and picking up a third string catcher of the future for their troubles. Then, they dumped the half-million dollars remaining on Jeff Cirillo’s contract on the eager Diamondbacks, creating opportunities for people named Watkins and Buschner. But hey, Rondell White was about to come back, and it seemed Jason Tyner was flourishing at the top of the lineup, maybe there would be enough offense to go around.

For one day, there was. Wednesday, August 8, 2007- remember that date, because it may be the last time the Twins score more than five runs in the season. An 11 run outburst, fueled by Cuddyer and Hunter homeruns, is the only time since July 20 that the Twins have scored more than five runs. In fact, since the trade deadline passed bye without adding any offensive help, it is the only time the team has scored more than three runs in a game. While going 1-6 over the past week, the Twins averaged 7 runs in their 6 losses, a paltry 1.167 runs per game. Two of those losses this week were of the one-run variety, including a 1-0 flop against the less-than-stellar Kyle Davies, a game in which Matt Garza struck out 6 in 6.2 innings, allowing only five total bases against him. On Saturday, the Twins built a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth, about as much as one could expect from this lineup right now, only to see the worn down Pat Neshek let four out of five batters faced reach base, all eventually scoring. Looking at the games individually, one could say that the breaks simply didn’t go Minnesota’s way. Looking at them collectively, though, shows the total offensive impotence, and just how difficult it is to win without support for a solid pitching staff.

Biggest Success

Doing his best Scott Baker impersonation, Big Chief Carlos Silva allowed only 9 base-runners in 14 IP over his two starts for the week. An 8:1 K:BB ratio bolstered an already strong set of peripherals (including only 1 HR allowed), giving him an outstanding 1.29 ERA. The way the offense has been playing lately, it wouldn’t be surprising if Silva only got one win out of those two excellent starts. It would be surprising, however, if Silva didn’t win a game for the week, which is the case. Only recording one loss is hardly a consolation for a pitcher going through his best stretch of the season, especially in a contract year.

Speaking of Silva’s contract, I may differ from some in my belief that the Twins would be wise to extend Silva for a couple of more years, especially considering that he is willing to take a discount to stay with the team that has been so patient with him. First, let’s acknowledge what he is not: a top of the rotation starter who can be expected to post an ERA in the 3.00s. He is a solid back end guy who can eat up a lot of innings, occasionally work very deep into games, and typically keep his ERA around or below 5.00. That type of pitcher can command $7-8 million on the open market (Jason Marquis, anyone?), and while the Twins can develop cheaper talent than that, they can also keep Silva for less money. I have heard the figure of 2 years at $5 million per season- only a $1 million/year raise from his 2007 figure-, and I would even try to go for 3 years at somewhere between $4.5-5 million per year. He will almost certainly provide more than market value over the life of such a deal now that he has learned to pitch in line with his abilities (no more silly sinkers that turn into gopher balls), and if the deal implodes, it will be easy to find some team to take his contract on the hope that they can fix him. After all, he is an average starting pitcher, and those are worth quite a bit these days. The resulting pitching depth could also facilitate a trade down the road if Terry Ryan decides he is into that sort of thing.

Biggest Disappointment

I gave Justin Morneau a pass last week as a sort of reward for a season well done, but after another miserable week, going .179/.179/.321, it is time to acknowledge that Morneau has found his way into a pretty bleak slump. He has stopped driving in runs this month, letting the league leaders pull way out in front of him. Even more troubling is the fact that he is hitting only .140 for the month of August, and has failed to draw even a single walk. The power is still there, sort of, with five doubles out of his six total hits, but for a player who was supposed to have become a sure thing, a full month with a .278 OBP is the kind of discouraging sign that any fan wants to see reversed as soon as possible.

On the Horizon

Sad as it may sound, it may be time for the Twins to play spoiler. Their west coast swing concludes with three games in Seattle to start the week, highlighted by a Johan Santana-Felix Hernandez matchup in the late game on Monday. Matt Garza will try to get his second win of the season (incongruently paired with a 1.70 ERA) against Horacio Ramirez on Tuesday, but with his recent track record of run support against god-awful opposing starters, I would not get my hopes up. The business person’s special on getaway day features Scott Baker against Jarrod Washburn. A series with Santana-Garza-Baker is starting to look pretty tough if the offense can get any support at all. But beware the resourceful Mariners, who have outperformed their run differential all season, recently ripping off 10 of 14 wins while still getting very little out of supposed offensive stalwarts Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, and Raul Ibanez.

Over the weekend, the Rangers travel to the dome, playing out the string with less star power than ever before. Go check out a game if you are particularly intrigued by Jared Saltalamacchia, because the pitching matchups are not going to bowl you over. If Kason Gabbard’s stiff forearm allows him to make his Friday start, he will kick off the series, followed by Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, who have been two of the worst regular starters in the American League.

The Big Picture

If you have yet to notice, the Twins indeed slipped below .500 with their butchering of the weekend series against the Angels. It may not make a difference for the postseason this year, but if the team is trying to calm the nerves of its stars who do not feel that the team is serious about winning, the first losing season since 2000 is not the best elixir. The difference between an 82-80 season and an 80-82 one could be bigger for this team than it would be for any other team, excepting a team like Pittsburgh who has endured 14 straight losing seasons. To get back over the hump, the Twins will have to take advantage of a soft portion in the schedule, running into Texas, Baltimore, and Kansas City before the month is over. To win those games, at least two of Mauer, Morneau, and Cuddyer have to start hitting again, and Gardy has to keep the back end of his bullpen rested enough to get another month and a half out of the beaten-down corps. Although making the playoffs may be a lost cause, this team is perfectly capable of rebounding for a winning season, and that improvement can start right away.

Monday, August 06, 2007

TWIT: Inoffensive

Weekly Roundup

Taking all things into consideration, the Twins had an extremely eventful week. On the field, they went 4-2 without a single game being decided by more than two runs. They picked up enough ground on the division by taking a series from Cleveland that they superficially look like playoff contenders once again, but still face extremely long odds. Off of the field, they traded their starting second baseman for nothing, and may have ended up with a good deal in not having to pay his salary. They also gave away half of a DH/3B platoon to save a half million dollars, which will likely also turn out to have virtually no effect on the standings.

And then there is that matter of the bridge, the 35W bridge just outside of downtown inexplicably collapsing, causing a scene that could be described as anything from terrifying to disastrous. Anyone who has been to Minneapolis has probably driven across the Mississippi river on 35W; it is not some arterial road without traffic. The fact that roadwork had diverted some of the cars may have been a contributing factor to compromising its integrity. If not, it turned out to be a fortunate circumstance that kept more people out of harm’s way. There are so many interesting angles from which to approach this story- the economic impact, the physical causes of the collapse, the stories of the survivors in the school bus, the government’s intervention, the long process of reconstruction-, but this is a baseball site, and there is definitely an impact on the baseball team. The Twins did the right thing in postponing the Thursday game after the bridge collapse, both to let people capture the gravity of the situation and to decongest the insane city traffic. A friend who lives near the site of the bridge told me that he has given up on driving altogether for the time being, a circumstance which the Twins and Metrodome officials have to understand. Attendance could very possibly be down, not because people are mourning the crash, but because they simply cannot get to that part of town. Marketing the new light rail may help some, as well as encouraging other forms of public transportation. Anything to reduce traffic in downtown Minneapolis for the time being will help the city as well as the team.

Biggest Success

Even in a week where the team won four games, taking both of their series from divisional opponents, it would be almost impossible to find an offensive player to reward for anything. Joe Mauer broke out of his mini-slump, putting up the sort of .333/.417/.429 line we have come to expect from him. Jason Kubel also went 4-11, appearing in only four games. Alexi Casilla showed some promise in his first week back after a rough patch in his first big league stint, this time scrapping together five hits in 16 plate appearances, but with only one extra base hit, no steals, and no walks. His youth gives him an excuse, and the experience will only help him.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so for the team to win four games with an average of less than three runs per contest, something must have been going extremely well on the pitching ledger. Indeed, five quality starts in six games fits the bill, even if Johan Santana’s non-vintage second half continued with a 6 IP, 5 R, 3 ER losing effort. The shining star in this arbitrary time period was Scott Baker, and it is not close. Baker allowed six hits and two walks, an impressive stat if he made only one start, but Baker made two starts and went 8 innings in each of them. That works out to a 0.50 WHIP if you are scoring at home. He also struck out 11 and gave up no homeruns, using superb location and much improved pitch selection to keep hitters altogether off balance. Baker has grown into a very appealing style of pitching, but even if he worked like Steve Traschel, I would not complain about a pitcher who goes 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA for the week, nor one who has a 2.55 ERA for the last month.

Biggest Disappointment

I titled the column inoffensive because it fits the most literal sense of the word, as well as the one obvious to the Twins condition. Even though the offense cannot seem to cobble together enough runs to support a pitching staff that has become very solid, they do just enough to stay on the fringe of the pennant race, to maintain the interest of casual fans, and to convince everyone they are serious about winning (everyone, except Johan Santana). Maybe they are not exciting right now, but at least they are inoffensive, and Minnesotans can ask for nothing more. If a team in a more aggressive city, like Philadelphia or Boston, were to compete at the level the Twins have competed in recent years (division titles, playoff appearances, but no serious runs at the World Series), the city would be calling for the GM’s head on a pole. How do I know this? Because it happens in Philadelphia. Many people hate the Eagles because they are judicious with their cap space and try to balance between winning now and remaining competitive in the future. Sound familiar? The Eagles have been the best team in the NFC over the course of the decade, but many fans hate Andy Reid for not taking more chances, making a splash like he did the year they landed Terrell Owens, and really going for broke for one season. Minnesotans do not have that mentality. Garrison Keillor was unavailable for a fold psychology consultation, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with Lutheranism, Scandanavia, or cold weather.

What I’m getting at here is that Terry Ryan deserves a great deal of the blame for the team’s offensive struggles. A simple mistake in player acquisition or playing time allotments can happen, but when the same mistakes occur year after year, they become habits or negative traits. We know that Ryan and Gardenhire, for all of their virtues, privilege good gloves and experience a bit too heavily. This quality manifests itself in Nick Punto going 0-8 yet again, bringing his season average to .208. This man is a backup. Replacements were available. For instance, the San Diego Padres (with more wins and a lower waiver priority) got Morgan Ensberg for beans. Over the course of a season, Ensberg, at his worst, is 3-4 wins better than Punto. That’s not worth trying? Ryan’s conservatism has kept the future intact, but when it becomes a paralyzing habit, it becomes a major disappointment for the team.

On the Horizon

Which brings us to the most pressing issue of the near future: Johan Santana. Although Johan has been missing his lights-out second half by a thin margin in every start, it is clear that he is still the best pitcher in baseball. When he comes out and says that he thinks the team does not care enough about winning and envisions himself leaving, you should probably start listening. The Luis Castillo trade was nothing; Casilla can step in right away at a similar level, the two prospects might be backups in the major leagues 2-3 years from now, and they are off the hook for the last $2 mil+ on Castillo’s deal, giving up only the possibility of a sandwich compensatory pick for their troubles. However, if the ramifications include angering Johan Santana, the trade becomes the mirror image of the Pierzynski trade, one that could utterly cripple the franchise. Now I am not terrified of a rotation that includes Liriano, Baker, Garza, Bonser, Silva with Slowey or Perkins possibly mixed in. On the other hand, keeping Santana and leveraging some of the back end talent for more offense is the sort of power play that championship teams make, but the Twins never do. Trading Silva for Michael Bourn now would have helped both teams in the near term, and the Twins would have been able to seamlessly plug the Torii Hunter hole with an above average player while retaining seven starting pitchers, with more behind them in the minors. Once again, these are the moves that champions make, but the Twins never do. Signing Santana because he is outstanding and helps the team win instead of signing him because there is a gaping hole at SP would be an assertive move that puts the team in a position to win, even if it is expensive and requires them to defer some of the payments into the 2020s.

As for the schedule itself, the Twins finish up their four-gamer with the Tribe today, then hit up Kansas City for Bryant’s famous BBQ and a three game set with the second-division Royals, and wind up the week with a trip to the OC to try to do the Mariners a favor in making bringing the Angels back to the pack. A four win week would be nice with that soft patch in the middle. A five win week with some offensive fireworks might make me soften my stance on their playoff chances, as well.

The Big Picture

My diatribe about the front office tells the story here, so I will be brief. The Twins playoff odds are up to 11% today after a second solid week in a row. The reason they are not higher, even though they are within 4 games of the wild card and 4.5 of the division, is that they have multiple teams to pass at every angle. To win the division, they have to get past both Detroit and Cleveland, which is vaguely conceivable looking at the way both teams have played and the fact that their combined deadline swag amounted to a geriatric Kenny Lofton. Still, passing two teams that have outplayed them all year seems unlikely. The Wild Card is even more of an uphill battle. They still get half of that division difficulty, but they also have to get around the Mariners and the newly invincible Yankees. I said a few weeks ago that the Yankees were the real threat in the WC race, even though they were several games back. Now they are within ½ game, and they look like serious contenders, possibly for the AL East. To overcome those odds would take more bats than the Twins have.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

What went wrong, Jon?

The diminishing fortunes of the Texas Rangers

When Jon Daniels traded Kenny Lofton, Eric Gagne, and Mark Teixeira before the trading deadline last week, he received credit for getting a good prospect return and giving his franchise a future in lieu of its failed present. No matter how well his newly acquired prospects turn out, long-term rebuilding was not the idea when Daniels took over for John Hart at the end of the 2005 season. Under Hart, the Rangers went from 73 wins in 2001 to 89 wins in 2004, featuring a solid nucleus of Teixeira, Hank Blalock, Michael Young, Alfonso Soriano, and Kevin Mench, as well as solid young players like Laynce Nix, Gerald Laird, Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Young, and Kameron Loe.

It looked as if Daniels was poised to take over a contender in need of a couple of pieces in the pitching staff, but otherwise set to challenge the A’s and Angels for dominance in the AL West. Instead, the Rangers have fallen below .500 for the last 2 years, failed to get out of the AL West’s second division, and recently decided to give up that core of young talent in exchange for the next wave. How did such a rosy horizon turn sour so quickly? Did Daniels make mistakes that doomed the franchise, or have the Rangers suffered through some terrible luck? By looking at the problems with the 2007 roster, we can get a better idea of the franchise-wide failures.

At 48-62, the Rangers are the second worst team in the American League, and their 595 runs allowed explain exactly why that is the case. Only Tampa Bay, with a ghastly 671 runs allowed, ranks below the Rangers, who are actually sixth in the league in runs scored. Daniels knew when he took the job that he would have to cope with a home field that favors runs scoring to a high degree. This year, however, the newly re-christened Rangers Ballpark has a 1.004 park factor for runs, which means two things. First, it means that a league average offense would score four more runs than average in that park. Second, it means that this particular Rangers pitching staff is really as bad as advertised.

The 2007 rotation consists of six pitchers, the aforementioned Loe and five starters acquired by Daniels, indicating that he has perpetuated some consistent mistake in acquiring starting pitchers. In a stadium that has historically favored homerun hitting, it stands to reason that Daniels would want pitchers who avoid throwing gopher balls right over the center of the plate. I don’t blame him for looking for pitchers with live stuff, but he has tipped off of the balance point, walking way too many batters to remain effective. The Rangers are dead last in the AL in K/BB ratio at 1.45, way below the league average of 2.00, and even well below the next-to-last Yankees, at 1.66. Additionally, the rotation’s BB/9 rate is 4.3, about a full base runner worse than the AL average of 3.32. Giving away a full out every game is going to have adverse effects on any pitching staff. Teams can get by with one starter with control problems, but when every starter is worse than league average (Kameron Loe is the best at 3.48 BB/9), the pitching staff is in a great deal of trouble.

The pitching acquisitions seem to have some common threads, mostly that Daniels has bought high on a lot of his pitchers. Kevin Millwood, for instance, is a solid pitcher, slightly better than league average. In 11 seasons, he has posted an ERA+ between 90-104 7 times, has gone above that threshold 3 times, and this year is setting a career low at 77. The problem is that Millwood was coming off of his second best year when the Rangers signed him to their ace at 5 years, $60 million. He’s a decent pitcher who is starting to age, and Daniels paid him to be a star in his prime, not a number 2-3 starter.

Similarly, he traded David Dellucci- a valuable chip- for Robinson Tejada. Tejada had 13 good starts for the Phillies in 2005, posting a 127 ERA+, but with a 4.56 BB rate that would make that ERA unsustainable. Tejada has always been a number five starter at best, a fact too common in the Rangers rotation. He also traded for Vicente Padilla after he posted a 4.53 BB rate and a lower-than-commensurate ERA with the Phillies, then signed him to a 3 year, $34 million deal in the worst buyer’s market for starting pitching in recent memory. Most recently, he traded for Brandon McCarthy in the same market, giving up the arguably more talented John Danks in the deal. The starting pitchers’ VORPs for this year show just how bad they have been: Wright- 4.6, McCarthy- 3.4, Loe- -4.9, Millwood- -6.5, Tejada- -13.5, Padilla- -14.8. Part of the problem is the team’s defense, ranking 25th in defensive efficiency, and part of the problem is a convergence of everyone having a bad season at the same time. Nonetheless, you would have to squint to see any number one or two starters in this rotation, and Daniels bought every one of them at his highest point.

Daniels has even made the same mistake in his trades. He dumped Alfonso Soriano after his worst year since he was a rookie (including a .309 OBP). Brad Wilkerson, the crown jewel of the return, had 32 homers in 2004, then had one of the best offensive seasons of any of the Nationals in their first year in RFK. He traded Chris Young after he struggled through the second half of 2005, posting a 3.34 ERA in April-June and a 5.52 ERA thereafter. He also gave up Adrian Gonzalez in the trade, and got Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka in return. Otsuka has been solid, Eaton did nothing for the Rangers, and Young and Gonzalez have rebounded to become stars for the Padres. He did well in trading Laynce Nix and Kevin Mench for anything, but he also gave up Francisco Cordero in the midst of his first ERA+ season below 125 in the last seven. Getting back Nelson Cruz could turn out to be a nice addition, but the centerpiece of the trade was Carlos Lee, predictably having the best OPS+ season of his career.

In his most recent round of trades, he sold Mark Teixeira when he had some leverage, but did not have to trade him. The return looks good for now, but be wary of prospects that John Schuerzholz decided to cut loose. In the Gagne trade, he pulled a classic Daniels move by getting Kason Gabbard, a guy who is barely a number five starter, but has strung together a few good starts in a row that make him look like a number three. Altogether, Daniels has systematically bled his roster dry by trading his best players while struggling, and acquiring players coming off of unrepeatable performances. His most recent trades look like they provide a good foundation for the future, but unless Daniels learns how to put performance into perspective, the team is doomed to perpetual rebuilding, and failure to get out of the second division.