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:
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 moving close to a deal with 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.
St. Louis Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright has always been one of the best big game pitchers in baseball. Even dating back to his days as a rookie out of the bullpen, Wainwright has never let a big moment get to him. Facing Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded, 2 outs, and a trip to the World Series on the line? That’s no big deal for Wainwright, just unleash the nastiest curveball you can possible throw. How about taking on a red-hot Giants lineup with your team staring down the possibility of a 3-1 hole? No big deal, just throw 7 dominant innings.
Wainwright’s always been a big game pitcher, which made his struggles in the NLDS against the Washington Nationals a season ago all the more puzzling. In 2 separate starts the Nationals were able to chase Wainwright from the game in the early going as they piled up 13 hits, 3 homers, and 7 total runs in just 8 innings against the Cards’ ace.
Well, on Tuesday evening Adam Wainwright went out and got his revenge. The right-hander thoroughly dominated the Nationals’ lineup, throwing 8.1 breezy innings, allowing 5 hits and 1 walk to go along with 9 strikeouts. He blew through the Nationals lineup with ease, using his fastball to get ahead of hitters before finishing them off with his trademark biting curveball.
Wow! Is there any better way to kick off a season than with 12 exciting, competitive games? I don’t think so. From Bryce Harper’s pair of homers, to Kershaw putting the Dodgers on his back, Opening Day was full of big performances as well. These are my starting nine from Opening Day 2013:
1) Josh Reddick’s beard
It’s majestic. I mean just look at the thing. Can his eyes even make their way through that hairy forest to see the pitches opposing hurlers throw? Is he going for the Johnny Damon circa-2004 look? I’m not really sure but I know I like it.
2) Clayton Kershaw as a dual threat
In the best game of the day the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw dualed the Giants’ Matt Cain to a draw through 8 innings. Neither offense could muster much more than a bloop single or two as the starters combined to strikeout 15 batters. By the start of the 8th inning the game was handed over to the Giants’ bullpen and George Kontos with Clayton Kershaw scheduled to lead-off. In a bold move Dodgers’ manager Don Mattingly decided to leave Kershaw in the game, eschewing a pinch hitter, and boy did it pay off. Kershaw hit an absolute blast to centerfield some 400-odd feet away for his 1st career homer, sending Dodgers’ fans into a frenzy. Los Angeles added 3 more insurance runs in the inning but Clayton Kershaw didn’t need them as he pitched a perfect 9th to grab the 4-0 victory.
As we prepare to embark on yet another wild and enthralling MLB season it’s time for everyone’s favorite exercise in futility: Predictions! After 2012’s thrilling season ended with the Giants raising the World Series trophy the offseason that followed was full of surprises. Annually overlooked ball clubs like Cleveland, Toronto, and Kansas City all made big win-now moves while traditional powers like the Yankees and Phillies opted for minor moves and the ensuing result could turn baseball as we know it on its head. So without further adu, I present to you my thoughts and ideas about what’s in store in 2013. No matter what happens, 2013 should be a thrilling year so sit back, grab a beer, and get settled in for some great baseball.
In the first 9 seasons of Ron Gardenhire’s reign as manager of the Minnesota Twins the franchise won 6 division titles and finished with a winning record in every season but 2007. Gardenhire’s teams have never made much noise in the playoffs but that has as much to do with the vagaries of the playoffs system as it does with the success of the organization. Six division titles and five 90-win seasons is in nine years is a remarkable stretch of success for a team that has never ranked near the top of the league in payroll, and it stands in stark contrast to the failures of the past 2 seasons. Many of those division title-winning teams were led by a solid offenses that worked like crazy to get on base and pitching staffs heavy on guys with great control and light on players with big strikeout ability. That organizational philosophy blew up in Minnesota’s face during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, as the Twins ranked 2nd to last in run prevention both seasons. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see the organization attack its weakest point by acquiring a trio of young pitchers to rehabilitate a wounded staff.
The last couple of days have brought some interesting news on the centerfield front, with NL East rivals Atlanta and Washington both making significant upgrades to their rosters. The Braves inked BJ Upton to a 5 year/$75 million dollar deal yesterday as the continue their ongoing quest to add some pop to their lineup. Today the Nationals responded by swapping pitching prospect Alex Meyer for former Twins’ centerfielder Denard Span. These two franchises each won over 90 games a year ago, and their aggressive attitude (or Nattitude) early in free agency should pay dividends in 2013. Let’s take a look at the move each franchise made, as well as what it means for the rest of the National League East.
After yesterday’s late-game heroics in Washington and New York, the first round of the 2012 playoffs has been deemed a rousing success. Thanks to Jason Werth, Manny Machado, and JJ Hardy we were guaranteed to have all four Divisional Series end with game 5’s. The first two game 5’s were full of excitement as well. In the National League, the Giants completed their comeback from 2-0 down thanks to some nifty bullpen work and a Buster Posey moonshot grand slam, while over in the AL, Justin Verlander struck out 11 A’s en route to a 6-0 win. Tonight we have another pair of fantastic looking pitching match-ups on our hands. In New York, the Orioles nominal ace Jason Hammel takes the mound against former Cy Young winner CC Sabathia in a series that’s featured surprisingly little offense thus far. In the nation’s capital, Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez looks to give Washington its first playoff series since the 1924 World Series. He faces Adam Wainwright, who was one of the top-3 pitchers in the National League in 2009 and 2010 before having Tommy John surgery a year-and-a-half ago. San Francisco and Detroit await in the League Championship Series. Let’s take a look at which aces are best suited to punch their team’s ticket to the next round.