The Rundown: Minnesota Aims for the Middle

The pitching staff for the 2013 Minnesota Twins was positively abysmal a year ago. As a collective, the Twinkies ranked dead last in strikeout rate while simultaneously allowing their opponent’s to rack up more hits than any other staff in the league.

Things were so ugly a year ago that 10 different pitchers made at least 8 starts for Minnesota and just 2 of those 10 finished the season with a sub-4.00 ERA. Twins GM Terry Ryan knows that’s not a recipe for success, which is why he spent most of last week spending upwards of $70 million to shore up his rotation, adding veteran righties Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. The real question is, does that $73 million get the Twins any closer to an AL Central title?

I’m guessing the answer is no. Nolasco will do a solid job providing some strikeouts to a staff in desperate need of them and he does a nice job of keeping the ball in the park, but otherwise it’s difficult to find the positives when the Twins are paying him to be their ace. That being said, Nolasco is a huge improvement over everyone Ron Gardenhire sent to the mound a year ago. He’s the only pitcher on the team with legitimate strikeout stuff and he should eat up plenty of innings on a staff that badly needs a pitcher to do so.

The same goes for new #2 starter Phil Hughes, who should be rejoicing over the fact that he’s leaving the homer-happy Bronx for the spacious confines of Target Field. Hughes has allowed 1 homer per every 5.3 innings pitched in Yankee Stadium since his Major League debut, compared to 1 homer every 10.4 innings in every other park. Target Field, a notoriously deep park, should suit the fly ball happy Hughes nicely.

But a new ball park still doesn’t make Hughes a good pitcher. He still has the same plain, old vanilla fastball and his secondary stuff is mostly underdeveloped. Hughes, even at his best, is still just a league average pitcher.

His ERA+ since becoming a starter full-time is 9 points below the league average and if not for the Yankee offense propping him up for the past half-decade, Hughes would probably be a reliever by now. The righty is just 11-46 if his team scores fewer than 6 runs, which is something Minnesota was quite adept at a year ago. Unless Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano suddenly turn up next season, expect the losses to continue to pile up for Hughes and the Twins.

Washington pickpockets Fister from Detroit

A puzzling offseason in Detroit continued Monday when the Tigers shipped starter Doug Fister to the Nationals in exchange for Steve Lombardozzi and a couple of young arms. That move was followed by the the prohibitive signing of Joe Nathan, who will fill the closer roll in Detroit. It was the second surprise trade in a matter of weeks from general manager Dave Dombrowski, who appears hellbent on remaking these Tigers into a more flexible outfit.

But outside of flexibility, it’s difficult to see how these deals make the Tigers, a bona fide World Series contender, any better in 2014. Most of Lombardozzi’s value is tied up in his ability to play 2nd base, where Ian Kinsler figures to spend a majority of the time. His bat doesn’t really play in the outfield or at 3rd base, and even if you believe that Lombardozzi and Dirks could make a solid platoon in left field, it in no way justifies trading away one of the 10 to 20 best pitchers in baseball.

Don’t believe me? Take a look:

ERA ERA+ K/BB WAR FIP
3.30 124 3.75 13.3 3.21
MLB Rank: 20th 14th 19th 9th 14th

No matter which way you slice it, that’s a hell of a lot to give up for the quintessential replacement player (Lombardozzi), a 2nd year reliever in Ian Krol, and Double-A pitching prospect Robbie Ray. Maybe Dombrowski is hoping that Ray, the owner of a 3.36 ERA in 142 minor league innings a year ago, turns into another solid rotation piece, but even that line of thinking is odd. Detroit, as currently constructed, is built to win right now so why trade away a good pitcher in the hopes of getting one further down the road?

As for Washington’s perspective on the deal, one has to wonder how quickly GM Mike Rizzo said yes. Three seconds? Five seconds? Seriously, if he put any more thought into it I’d be disappointed. With one quick maneuver, Rizzo was able to improve his 2014 roster significantly without damaging Washington’s extended outlook. The Nats now have the deepest rotation in baseball to go along with a group of young and improving position players. With this much talent on hand, anything short of a deep October run will be viewed as a disappointment.

The price of pitch framing

Yesterday the Tampa Bay Rays announced that they finalized a 2 year/$4.5 million dollar deal with 38-year-old catcher Jose Molina and it may very well be the most interesting $4.5 million handed out this offseason. You may be asking yourself  why would any team want to pay an over the hill backstop with bad knees and nothing left in his bat? Well the answers simple. It all comes down to inches, as in the ones Molina routinely adds to a pitcher’s strike zone each time he’s behind the dish.

According to baseballanalytics.org, since 2008, 13.4% of all pitches thrown to Molina that landed outside the strike zone have been called as strikes, which stands as the best mark in baseball over the time frame. That ability to stay quiet behind the plate shows up in the run column as well. According to Baseball Prospectus, Molina saved about 25 runs a year ago solely through his ability to gain an extra inch or two around the corner of the plate.

With Ryan Hanigan joining Molina behind the plate after yesterday’s trade, the Rays now have two of the top 10 framers in baseball behind the dish. Make no mistake, this is a downright brutal offensive pairing. There’s a very good chance they won’t combine for an OPS above .600, but the Rays don’t really seem to care. It’s a clear statement from the organization that they value the ability to get an extra inch or two around the plate over all others when they scour the free agent market for catchers.

Quick hits: Rockies addition

– GM Dan O’Dowd has a little bit of explaining to do following the slightly confusing Dexter Fowler trade. The soon to be 28-year-old is due $7.35 million next season, he’s still arbitration eligible, and he’s been as consistent as they come in Colorado. Fowler’s usually good for 120-140 games, an OPS of .780 or so as well as some solid centerfield defense. In exchange for 2 or 3 wins worth of value the Rockies will receive back-of-the-rotation fodder Jordan Lyles and defensive specialist Brandon Barnes.

-Lyles made at least 15 starts in each of the past 3 seasons for the Astros and he failed to post an ERA lower than 5 each year and the thought of him making 15-20 starts a year in Coors is downright scary. Barnes, for his part, is an excellent defensive outfielder but he’s downright abysmal everywhere else. He struck out in a quarter of his 450 or so plate appearances, while managing a meager 21 walks. It makes you wonder why O’Dowd didn’t hold out for a better package of players in exchange for Fowler.

– One quick though on the Astros: the new regime, led by Jeff Luhnow, has been absolutely nailing these smaller trades. Fowler is just the latest in a long line of minor victories for the Houston front office.

– The Rockies followed that move up by closing in on a deal with 1st baseman Justin Morneau. It looks like they’re going to pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million for the next 2 seasons, which could very well look like a steal when this wacky offseason concludes. Morneau should provide a solid glove and some good pop against right-handers when he’s in the lineup. Manager Walt Weiss may want to keep him out of the lineup against lefties however. Morneau has hit just .205 with 5 homers in the past 3 years.

Big thanks to Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs for the statistical support!

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brp
brp
6 years ago

Am I the only one who doesn’t think the Rockies got fleeced? Are we ready to write off a 23 year old pitcher in favor of an outfielder who can’t hit for average, has minimal power, and doesn’t leverage his speed in terms of defense or stolen bases? Isn’t Barnes’ pitiful bat somewhat mitigated by playing in Coors? He’ll be fine as a 4th/5th OF and defensive replacement. Fowler has played 5 full seasons and just isn’t a superstar. He might have a few more solid seasons but I’d rather roll the dice on a young pitcher and see if… Read more »

RJ
RJ
6 years ago

“The righty is just 11-46 if his team scores fewer than 6 runs.” That’s a phenomenal stat David. That’s worse than Clayton Kershaw’s record when the Dodgers score 0-2 runs (13-35).

Still don’t understand what Dombrowski was thinking with the Fister trade.

Mike L
Mike L
6 years ago

I wonder if we aren’t at some sort of inflection point for a secular change in the value of players, where the cost/talent/availability ratios are shifting. Nolasco/Hughes is an overpay, unless you don’t have any credible alternatives. Someone has to pitch innings. I don’t like the Ellsbury signing for the Yankees, but given the price tags placed on the merchandise, would I rather have $250M of Cano, or $250M of McCann+Ellsbury. Put a different way, since the dollars are the same, wouldn’t I have pulled the trigger-for the Yankees-if I had been offered that in the Reserve System era. The… Read more »

Doug
Doug
6 years ago

Brp @1

Fowler may not be a superstar and may have only a handful of serviceable seasons left. But, that’s precisely the profile of players who make up the lion’s share of most rosters. Maybe Colorado tried to lock him up early and Fowler wouldn’t bite. If so, the trade makes some sense. Otherwise, seems like a steep price to take a flyer on a prospect.
.

Doug
Doug
6 years ago

Nice piece, David. Insightful and informative commentary.

Re: Morneau, don’t know what his .205 against LHers looks like in terms of type of outs, but Coors is an elixir for almost any batting ailments so, if nothing else, Morneau should see some improvement.

Doug
Doug
6 years ago

Those 10 Twins pitchers with 8 starts trail only the 1966 Athletics with 11. And that followed a 2012 season when Minnesota had 9 such pitchers.

Voomo Zanzibar
Voomo Zanzibar
6 years ago

Just a summary of the HOF ballot here…
Last year they voted in NOBODY.
I’m guessing they reverse the trend.

Three 300 game winners, plus Moose and Morris.
Two 3000 hit guys.
Five 500 homer guys, plus Freddy Mc.
The best offensive catcher ever.

Plus Bagwell, Walker, Trammell, Raines, and the guy with the sock.
___

And the Veterans pick from the three most successful managers of the last 40 years, plus Billy Martin and King George.

I hope ten people get voted in and the ceremony takes two days.

Hartvig
Hartvig
6 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

If you went by the standard “Is he at least as good as the average Hall of Famer at his position?” there are more than a dozen players on the ballot who meet that criteria and if you add in the veterans ballot and include the managers and executives you could make a really compelling case for about 2 dozen people.

no statistician but
no statistician but
6 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

For players it’s a logjam, and removing the one irresistible new log, Maddux, isn’t going to un-jam it, but that’s my prediction.

Your irrational enthusiasm goes against recent history and the nature of the voting system, not to mention the vagaries of the members of the electorate.

I’d like to be wrong, but I doubt I will be , or not by much.

birtelcom
Editor
6 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

12 Circle of Greats inductees on the HOF ballot:
Great+PEDs: Bonds, Clemens
Braves Staff: Maddux, Glavine
PED Suspicions: Bagwell, Piazza
Stud Starters: Schilling, Mussina
Stud Hitters: Thomas, Walker
Multi-Talents: Raines, Trammell

Or you might put Walker in with Raines and Trammell under multi-talents.