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October 13, 2009

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Minnesota Twins

by Baseball Prospectus

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Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 76-86, fourth place
Actual record: 87-76, first place

They do have arguably the best all-around player in baseball, and one of the best managers. Hey, and Carl Pavano. All this is good, no?

Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take

What went wrong: The Twins scrapped and scraped and won their last five regular-season games to take the AL Central-and then they ran into real power. The Yankees outhomered Minnesota in the first round 6-0, and generated far more strikeouts with their pitching, 34-22. In the Twins' final season in the Metrodome, general manager Bill Smith was aggressive in making moves for help in the last 10 weeks. He traded for Orlando Cabrera, Carl Pavano, and Jon Rauch and picked up released free agent Ron Mahay, something that your father's Twins never did; Minnesota was able to overcome injuries to Justin Morneau and Kevin Slowey partially as a result.

Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: The Twins' pitchers will always throw strikes-they allowed the fewest walks in the majors, again-but Minnesota is lacking in starting pitchers with plus stuff, and of course, it's not in the Twins' DNA to go out and make deals for established, big-money pitchers. And this winter, the Twins will likely begin negotiations in earnest with Joe Mauer, who will be eligible for free agency after next season. Keep in mind, he's represented by Ron Shapiro, the agent who served a couple of superstars who played their whole careers with one team-Cal Ripken and Kirby Puckett.

The Baseball Prospectus Take

So, yes, Joe Mauer is very, very good at baseball. We all know about the probable AL MVP's historic season, leading the league in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and finally displaying the sort of power that fills out his batting toolbox. However, Mauer was only one part of a truly frightening middle of the order that helped the Twins score 811 runs (fourth in the league) and was the main reason Minnesota won nine more games than we projected. Former MVP Morneau provided typical production before his September injury, Jason Kubel approached his 90th-percentile PECOTA projection, and Michael Cuddyer chipped in as well, giving the Twins a quartet of home-grown sluggers good enough to compete with any lineup in the AL. That power kept Minnesota afloat-within three games of the break-even mark-throughout a tepid spring and summer while the Twins' young starting rotation struggled more than expected. With the rest of the AL Central similarly treading water, the Twins were able to leverage a few small mid-season moves (trades for Pavano and Cabrera, the addition of Brian Duensing to the rotation) into a September surge that propelled them into an ALDS showdown with the Yankees.-Ken Funck, Baseball Prospectus

Key stat: -9.2

There are holes, there are abysses, and then there are bottomless voids from which even light and heat cannot escape. The Twins' 2009 infield (minus first basemen) qualifies as the last, having posted a combined -9.2 VORP and .229 EqA for the season. "Led" by second baseman Alexi Casilla (-10.8 VORP, .196 EqA in over 250 plate appearances), infielders Nick Punto (-3.1 VORP), Matt Tolbert (-5.3), Brian Buscher (-0.4), and Brendan Harris (0.2) all checked in at or below replacement-level production, while key off-season addition Joe Crede (0.2) was ineffective when he wasn't injured. Shortstop Cabrera managed a .253 EqA and 10.0 VORP after his deadline acquisition; absent his comparatively Ruthian contributions, Twins middle infielders and third sackers combined for a ghastly .226 EqA and -19.2 VORP in over 1,900 plate appearances. Minnesota's inability to plug in even replacement-level players at the bottom of the order forced the Twins to go to Game 163 to punch their playoff ticket, and helped seal their early exit.-Ken Funck, Baseball Prospectus

ESPN.com Rumor Central

Trades: The Twins will be getting a pair of arms back (Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser) in what will be an increasingly crowded bullpen, so it might be time to trade from a position of strength. That's right, move Joe Nathan and the $11.25 million owed to him next year for what could be a good everyday player and a couple of prospects. People at the local level think it could (and should) happen-and considering that Trevor Hoffman just got $8 million and Jose Valverde and Fernando Rodney could very well get far more, Nathan's price tag might not seem so high.

Free agency: Need a big bat? How about a former MVP in Justin Morneau? Need a solid everyday starter to fill out the rotation? How about a guy that was 10-2 last year before an injury, your very own Kevin Slowey? Expect the Twins to wait on the market, not just because they need to serve Mauer first, but because they're aiming to fill two of their biggest needs by turning off the whirlpool. That said, once Mauer is in the fold, flexibility may finally arrive as revenues go up with the opening of Target Field.

Who 2 Watch 4: Danny Valencia, 3B

The Twins' system is currently in one of those gap periods, where all of their top prospects are still in the lower levels, while the upper-level squads have little to offer. Still, they'll need a third baseman next year, and Valencia will get a long look next spring. Seen as little more than an organizational player when Minnesota selected him in the 19th round of the 2006 draft, Valencia has simply hit at every level, including a .285/.337/.466 line this year split between Double- and Triple-A. He has a quick, quiet swing, but scouts wonder if his aggressive approach at the plate and average-at-best power make him anything more than a placeholder until something better comes along.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

Draft recap
Signed: 22 of 51
Spent: Just under $5 million
Hits: Kyle Gibson, RHP (22nd overall), LHP Matt Bashore (46th) and RHP Benn Tootle (101st): The Twins continued their philosophy of high-probability arms that are most likely to help them in the big leagues, saving them from dipping into the free-agent market.
Miss: Of the arms the Twins selected, none of the starting pitchers possess plus stuff, possibly leaving Minnesota with a slew of back-end starters and nobody to back lefty Francisco Liriano.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com

The Bottom Line

There's no truth to the rumor that Target Field, the Twins' new home in 2010, will feature "Joe Mauer Retention Fund" credit-card readers built into each seat back. Using their upcoming stadium revenue bump to shop for a few complementary parts would not only keep them on top in an underwhelming AL Central, but might help convince Mauer of the Twins' long-term commitment to build a championship team around him. There are gaping holes to fill at second, short, third and in the unsettled starting rotation. Management may hope Liriano and Delmon Young will finally fulfill their immense promise, but hope is not a plan.-Ken Funck, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

34 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

lonechicken

Is Boof unsalvageable as a starter? He seems to be the only other "starter type" that would have plus stuff if he rights his ship.

Oct 13, 2009 10:29 AM
rating: 0
 
Evan
(47)

I'm confident I've seen Ken say "hope is not a plan" before, and I love it.

Oct 13, 2009 10:49 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

I think Alfred von Schlieffen said it first, but look what it got him.

Oct 14, 2009 09:57 AM
 
dcarroll

I have mixed feelings about the end of the Dome era in Minnesota. I have been to a couple of dozen games at the Metrodome over the years. Although it is hardly the best environment to watch baseball, I have genuinely fond memories of these games. This is partly because of the friends and family members I was with, but primarily because the game of baseball has the power to transcend the limitations of its surroundings.

I look forward to catching a game in Target Field next April, but I will bring a winter coat.

Oct 13, 2009 10:57 AM
rating: 1
 
Jake V

"nobody to back lefty Francisco Liriano."

Is this saying that Liriano's the #1 starter? He couldn't even hold down a rotation spot this year?!

Oct 13, 2009 11:01 AM
rating: 3
 
NoHRTyner

The Twins only signed 22 out of 51 draftees? What is the reason for such a low number?

Oct 13, 2009 11:38 AM
rating: 1
 
Lou Doench

Considering the Key Stat, don't the Twinkies have a chance to make a step forward next year because their holes are so deep if the just get league average from 2b and 3b next year they make bigger strides than similar teams?

Oct 13, 2009 12:18 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

I would think so. I would expect some regression to the mean for Mauer (from otherworldly to merely outstanding) and Kubel to overcome -- but the bottom of the Twins lineup was so bad that even replacement level production would be a small improvement. Average production would be a huge gain.

Oct 13, 2009 13:50 PM
 
awayish

half of their lineup plain sucked, and improvements weren't made at even very low marginal cost. that's about it.

Oct 13, 2009 13:41 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Maybe I'm a bit bitter and belligerent because the Rockies lost, but is Joe Mauer arguably the best all-around player in baseball? Mauer had a career year this year and still didn't outperform Pujols while also playing in less games than Pujols. Mauer has a great bat, but even if he was moved out from behind the plate, he wouldn't perform at Pujols's level.

Mauer may be one of the best in the AL, but I can't come up with a good argument to say he's the best all-around player in baseball until he puts up a few more seasons at this level of performance.

Oct 13, 2009 14:39 PM
rating: -2
 
Patrick

But he does play behind the plate. The fact that he can play the most demanding defensive position - and play it very well - while hitting as well as he does, puts him at least in the discussion.

Oct 13, 2009 14:44 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I'm not sure I agree with that rationale. Is the difference between Pujols's career performance and Mauer's career performance made up for solely because of position scarcity? Maybe if Mauer had not been injured as much through his career, or maybe if the discussion was limited to "the best all around player this year", I can see an argument... but, even if you factor in position scarcity, the difference in competition between the leagues, etc. we're still talking abou a career OPS of 891 for Mauer vs a career OPS of 1045 for Pujols.. and Pujols ain't a bad defender either and plays more often.

Oct 13, 2009 14:57 PM
rating: 0
 
David Coonce

Any and all first baseman will play more often than a catcher. It's literally the difference between the hardest position on the field to play and the easiest. That's worth a lot of points of OPS - especially when you take into account that Mauer plays in the more difficult league. And is many years younger.

And can you be sure that Mauer, as a first baseman, doesn't out-perform Pujols? That's an easy argument, since Mauer hasn't played first, but here's a scenario that makes the argument less easy: move Pujols behind the plate for 2010, and then compare the two. Offensively and defensively. And move Pujols to the American League, while you're at it. Still think Pujols is better? Or do you believe that all offensive statistics exist in a vacuum?

Oct 13, 2009 18:44 PM
rating: -1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Yes, I believe Pujols outperforms Mauer as a hitter even if Mauer was moved out from behind the plate.

Pujols is one of the best hitters in the history of the game. He has done that in a park that, at best, has been neutral. He's also played 3B for about 100 games and LF for 260 games, so if we're giving Mauer credit for positional scarcity, then Pujols should get a bit of a bonus for his non-1B positions.

Mauer has had a career year, maybe one other great year 2996), and the rest have been good. This year, Mauer's career year had an OPS of 1.031. Pujols has surpassed that mark in 6 out of 9 seasons.

Mauer's career OPS+ is 138, compared to Pujols OPS+ of 172. Courtesy of baseball-reference, there are 12 active players with a career OPS+ of 138 or greater (Minimum 3000 plate appearance), placing him in Travis Hafner territory. If you just look at OPS+ difference, which is crude, Pujols's 34 point gap over Mauer is the same as Mauer's 34 point gap over players like Brian Roberts, Michael Young and Adrian Beltre. No active player compares offensively OPS+wise to Pujols. Meanwhile, Hanley Ramirez has a similar career OPS+ edge on Mauer (139 to 138) and also plays a difficult defensive position. Alex Rodriguez's career OPS+ is 147 and even in a down year like this one, where he had an OPS+ of 143, it was still better than Mauer's career OPS+.

Also note that Mauer has spent about 1/8th of his career (81/688) as a DH. (The other 11 games were as a pinch hitter). So he loses some of his positional scarcity value from that time spent as a DH.

I don't think offensive statistics exist in a vacuum which is why I can see Mauer adding _some_ value from those 600 games of catching. But, based on one career year, those 600 games as a catcher in the AL in no way offset the 150+ career OPS gap between him and Pujols, even if Pujols was a poor fielder.

Then, throw in factors like his chronic injuries, the belief that he won't be a catcher for the rest of his career, he is in a hitter's park in the weakest AL division and that this is the _first_ season that he has slugged more than .507 and that most of his career SLG and OBP is tied into his exceptional batting average... no, a player's whose offensive numbers are a prime result of his exceptional batting average does not automatically make him the best all-around player.

So, no, I'm not evaluating Mauer in a vaccuum. He is a heck of a good player, but I am not going to anoint, nor even discuss him as "arguably the best all-around player in baseball" based on one career year. I can't even say with confidence that he is the best all-around player in the American League. Let Mauer rack up a few more seasons at that level like Piazza did and then I'll consider it, but one career year is way too premature.

About all I can say is he is arguably the best catcher in baseball and arguably the best hitter for batting average and perhaps, just perhaps, he arguably had one of the best all-around seasons in baseball this year... but he needs to do that for more than one year. If I evaluated based on one year, I would've gotten burned by Milton Bradley, Carlos Quentin, and Josh Hamilton this year based on their 2008 numbers and I'd be high on Ben Zobrist and Aaron Lind for 2010.

P.S. Mauer's only 3 years younger than Pujols.. which stretches your usage of the term "many years younger".

Oct 13, 2009 23:22 PM
rating: 1
 
David Coonce

In baseball years, three years is pretty significant.

I wouldn't argue Mauer over Pujols at this point; I was saying that if he maintained this level of production for a few more years, he's in the discussion, exactly because a catcher who hits like Mauer is so unbelievably rare in the history of baseball, while there have been more than a handful of first basemen who have hit like Pujols.

Pujols will go down in history, when all is said and done, as one of the best players who ever played the game. But Mauer could, conceivably, be the very best catcher that ever played. That's a big deal. That's all I was saying. If Mauer moves off the catching position, which he may, then his offense is less interesting, I'd agree. But you could say that abot a million players. If Dwight Evans had been a shortstop he'd be a first-ballot hall-of-famer.

And P.P.S. Using Pujols' left-field play as a point in his favor sort of ignores the whole concept of "defensive spectrum," don't you think?

Oct 14, 2009 03:24 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I agree that if Mauer does this a few more years, he's in the discussion. I just can't base his future performace solely on this one year. Maybe it's just me, but Mauer reminds me in some aspects of Jason Kendall, a high average catcher with a bit of speed and, 10-15 HR a year, but with a worse history of chronic injuries. Mauer can conceivably be the very best catcher that ever played but I need more data.

LF is more difficult on the defensive spectrum (though still not extremely difficult) than 1B. If Mauer gets a lot of points for being a catcher, Pujols should get a little credit for his early career flexibility. Also, there have been studies showing that a prime defensive first basemen can improve overall team defense, going back to Olerud on the Mets and the recent fetish among playoff contenders for defense (Teixera, Youkilis, etc.) Either way, it's not like Pujols's defense is valueless.

Oct 14, 2009 09:29 AM
rating: 0
 
brokeslowly

It's just you.

Oct 14, 2009 11:51 AM
rating: -2
 
Patrick

PECOTA had Kendall's 2000 season as the third best comp for Mauer going into this year, so it's not a bad comparison. But the similarity score was only 25, so it's not a great one either.

I think you'd have to look at pre-injury Kendall to see the similarities, but he never had a season anywhere near Mauer's 2009. Kendall's highest WARP3? 6.7, and Mauer's topped that three times already.

Oct 14, 2009 12:38 PM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Thanks for the comp. I do think Mauer is better than a preinjury Kendall, but they do profile in a similar fashion. High average catchers with doubles power and a dose of speed. Mauer hits a bit better but draws fewer walks than Kendall, and in the absence of other comparables, I just see problems if that lack of power remains. The upside? Perhaps a slower, Biggio type with a better batting average and similar OBP but thats only if Mauer retains the stroke that led to this year's power output. And, on that note, Bill James did think Biggio was the best player in baseball.

Oct 14, 2009 16:16 PM
rating: 0
 
Patrick

The argument is not whether Mauer is better than Pujols, but that Mauer should be considered in the discussion for best player in the game. Hypothetically, if you're building a team from scratch and can choose any player, Mauer would be one of the top three, right?

Instead of putting Mauer at first and comparing his stats, put Pujols behind the plate. Even if Albert's numbers stay better than Mauer's, he'd likely lose a ton of value by being a terrible defensive catcher.

Oct 14, 2009 06:16 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Nope, Mauer's not in my top three unless he has at least another year like this year. Keep in mind also that we're doing this whole discussion without even talking about pitchers. Either way, Mauer hits for a great average, but hasn't reliably hit for power yet, his CS% has dropped in recent years, he has an injury history for such a young age, and he most likely won't remain behind the plate, so he wouldn't be my #1 choice for building a team from scratch.

And I hate the "move Pujols behind the plate" argument because you also imply that if Mauer played 1B regularly, he'd magically develop a power stroke. Besides Funck's Inge argument during the Idol competition, I don't see much of a rationale for Mauer making up the 150 point OPS gap. Has Mauer, even as a prospect, ever profiled as a power hitter?

Oct 14, 2009 09:23 AM
rating: -1
 
Patrick

I'm not implying that Mauer would hit better at 1B or that he'd be a better fielder there than Pujols. I'm just trying to articulate why his being a good defensive catcher puts him in the discussion. There is no comparing their bats, but Mauer's ability to play a position that Pujols likely could not play even at a low minor-league level makes it an interesting question.

Mauer didn't hit many HR in the minors, but it seemed like everybody assumed he eventually would, given his size and age. He was definitely a power hitter in high school, but you can probably say that about most ML players. I wouldn't take him first overall, either, but when you're discussing possible "best all-around player," it's not going out on a limb to include him in the discussion.

Oct 14, 2009 10:00 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

I guess that's why the teaser says "arguably".

Oct 13, 2009 15:25 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

I just didn't think there was much of an argument, unless it was phrased something like "best all-around player this season". And as I said, I'm a bit grouchy today :P

Oct 13, 2009 17:11 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Hard for me to picture you as grouchy, Richard. But trust me, I'm familiar with the sight of Pujols singlehandedly dismantling your favorite team.

I've written that Mauer is the most valuable asset in the AL -- and I think that's true. All of MLB, though? I'm not sure. If I was certain that Mauer had been immersed, Achilles-like, in the River Fisk -- and would thus be able to stay behind the plate and stay productive throughout a long career -- I might go with Mauer. But even though Pujols is three years older, he may be a better bet to keep his value longer.

But if Hanley were a plus defender, I think he'd be more valuable than either of them.

Oct 13, 2009 18:49 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Oh we just had a class start at the college I work at and everything went haywire, so since my screaming at the wind a few months ago didn't work, I figured I'd type up a s'storm. Even then, your occasional Greek references going back to TGF do warm my heart.

And yeah, I agree. Mauer's prime asset is his ability to stay at catcher. Yet he has an injury history and there've already been whispers of moving him. If he's at another position, and even moves to the NL (given how the Twins like to unpay people), I just don't think he'll magically gain 150 points of career OPS. He's only had one year like this with the bat so far and while he is very good, I'd need a few more years of this greatness to go with him.

I can agree that if Hanley were a plus defender, he'd rival Pujols for value. Even if he became a plus defender at another position like center field or maybe even second base, it'd be a good argument, especially if his offense is surpressed by the Marlin's current park. Of course, the main difference between a Mauer and a Ramirez is that Ramirez has performed at that high offensive level for three seasons and has played quite regularly...

Oct 13, 2009 23:36 PM
rating: 0
 
mark1623

Mauer has been performing at an exceptionally high level since 2006, so I can't get on board with the idea that Ramirez has been a stud all these years while Mauer just showed up.

EQA's last four seasons:

Mauer-- .315, .282, .306, .342

Ramirez-- .288, .316, .317, .322

The WARP numbers are similarly close, with Mauer at 31.3 over the last four years and Ramirez at 30.9. Of course, Pujols is up over 40 so there is no debate from me on the best overall player until Pujols starts to slide. But the debate between Mauer and Hanley should be a good one over the next couple of years and given that they are only 8 months apart it's a fair one.

Oct 14, 2009 08:45 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Mauer and Hanley is a good debate. And I don't mean that Mauer just recently showed up. As I said, he's been quite a good player... but is his established performance that .342 level, or is that a sample size/fluke season?

Oct 14, 2009 09:32 AM
rating: 0
 
mark1623

The .342 is almost certainly too much to expect every year, but my point was that Mauer's established level is probably closer to the .320 range where Hanley usually resides.

Oct 14, 2009 09:48 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I guess it depends on how we project sustainability. Ramirez has done a good job staying in that .320 range. I'm not sure Mauer has. Without another year of this caliber, or a "second best career year", Mauer's in the .310 range... but at this point, even at a .310 for Mauer in a Ramirez vs Mauer discussion, we're probably at the "personal preference" level on who is better. A few other choices, like an Utley, or even a 1B orOF like Teixiera are also around there and it again comes to taste. Pujols is, in my opionion, head and shoulders above them... though considering how lively this discussion has been, the idea that Mauer is "arguably best all around in baseball" rings true for a lot of people. So perhaps my taste for Pujols better bat, track record, and defense is just my personal preference and other issues like positional scarcity matter more for others. Pujols doesn't dominate quite like a Barry Bonds did, but I'd still grab him to start a franchise before Mauer. Next year, if Mauer keeps some of the progress that he made this year, then it'd be a different story...

Oct 14, 2009 16:09 PM
rating: 0
 
youwouldno

The Twins do have a deficit in 'plus stuff' starters but I don't think its quite so bad as described in the piece. Baker has pretty good stuff. All the listed draftees have upside... Gibson with 2 plus offspeed pitches, Bashore is a lefty with 4 pitches and above average velocity, and Tootle is a flamethrower when healthy (though he may be destined for the bullpen).

Oct 13, 2009 23:43 PM
rating: 0
 
Luke in MN

Re: Mauer = best:

I feel like this argument needs numbers. Here's the total WARP3 from 2006 to 2009 of the players I figured were around the top:

Pujols: 44.8
Utley: 33.4
Mauer: 31.3
H. Ramirez: 30.9
A. Rodriguez: 29
Wright: 27.5
L. Berkman: 27.5
C. Jones: 26.1
Teixeira: 25.8
M. Cabrera: 24.4

I think that's something like a top ten, though I'm probably missing a few people. I think WARP3 does a pretty good job of incorporating all the factors mentioned so far: defense, positional hitting, splitting time at DH, power vs. average, adjusting for league difficulty, etc.

I'm a Mauer fan above all others, but Pujols seems to be in a class by himself. I sort of agree that it's not really arguable--I mean, over the past four years he's been like 1.3 Mauers. You can argue age, but I agree that you'd have to balance Mauer's higher injury risk against it. Let's call Mauer the best player in the American League. (Btw, the guy who really seems to get jobbed in all this best-player-in-baseball talk is Utley, who doesn't really ever seem to be mentioned.)

Where Mauer really could have distinguished himself is if he'd pursued that football career simultaneously and was QBing the Vikings on Sundays too. That would have been hard to match.

Oct 14, 2009 08:46 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Last night, I looked at Utley when I was looking up Ramirez's offense. I love Utley a lot, but he's even older than Pujols and has an injury history like Mauer. Still, that's an interesting list.

Oct 14, 2009 09:35 AM
rating: 0
 
awayish

mauer vs pujols turns on whether you consider positional value as a part of the player's talent, or something incidental.

Oct 14, 2009 10:06 AM
rating: 1
 
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