The offseason has gotten off to a fast start for the Twins – much faster than I could have expected. On Friday, the Twins sent the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade, enigmatic speedster Carlos Gomez, to Milwaukee in exchange for J.J. Hardy. On Saturday, the Twins exercised Michael Cuddyer’s 2011 (not 2010) option. In general, these moves, in addition to the moves the Twins made in the second half of 2009, seem to indicate a new organizational urgency to win now. Consider that in the past three and a half months, the Twins have traded two AAA pitchers, their only player even resembling a bona fide short stop prospect, and a promising if extremely raw center fielder, for a veteran starting pitcher, a good if unspectacular reliever, a veteran shortstop, and a former all-star shortstop coming off a miserable campaign in 2009. While the prospects lost were by no means locks (or even likely) to become impact players in the major leagues, these are the sorts of moves that, in the past, the Twins probably would have forgone in the name of long-term organizational stability.
It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the Twins are motivated by Joe Mauer’s looming free agency and expressed desire to play for a team intent on winning. Near the trade deadline last year, Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan made it no secret that they expected to play for a winning team, and that they were sure Mauer felt the same way. Their words seem to have had some effect, because the front office hasn’t really slowed down since. (Of course, this is all relative to the norm, which, for the Twins, is pretty slow to begin with.)
Of course, becoming too aggressive with the major league club at the complete expense of the minor leagues can be disastrous. (See: Mets, New York.) The best part about this three-and-a-half month stretch is that the Twins have also fortified their minor league ranks with the Max Kepler, Miguel Angel Sano, and Kyle Gibson signings. None of these players are locks to make the majors, and are even less likely to become all-star players, but they are high quality prospects, and the more high quality prospects an organization has in its minor league system, the greater the chance there is that some of those prospects will turn into good major league players. The Twins, for now anyway, seem to have found a way to fortify the big league club while arguably strengthening their reserves. The front office deserves credit for that so far.
That’s not to say the recent moves aren’t without risks and questions. First, Gomez: While most fans undoubtedly have fresh memories of baserunning blunders, horrible at bats and a maddening tendency to hop like a jack-rabbit before throwing the ball past the cutoff man, the fact remains that Gomez had the ability to be an asset to this club immediately despite his offensive inabilities. Looking at a variety of defensive metrics, it’s widely accepted by baseball experts that Gomez is one of the premier fly-catchers in the game. According to Fangraphs UZR data, Gomez saved 16 runs on defense per 150 games in 2008, and 10 runs per 150 games in 2009. Given regular playing time in center field, Gomez’s defense itself would have been worth 2-3 more wins than an average defensive centerfielder. I’d put that estimate at 3, given that the Twins possess numerous pitchers that rely heavily on getting flyball outs. In addition, this means a full season of Delmon Young’s atrocious defense in left. Hopefully, Young will improve defensively, but it’s difficult to see him making up the 10-15 runs lost with Gomez’s departure.
That said, acquiring a potential all-star shortstop for a one-dimensional center fielder makes this a worthwhile trade, even considering the fact that Gomez is under team control for four years, and Hardy for only two. The only concern with Hardy, obviously, is his season last year. It’s tempting to write off Hardy’s ’09 campaign as simply an aberration and/or a maddening stretch of bad luck. Indeed, Hardy’s batting average on all balls in play (BAbip) was .264, well below last year’s major league average of .301. This gives some reason to think that Hardy was simply the victim of bad luck (by hitting an inordinate amount of balls right at fielders) and is bound to bounce back, but some peripheral numbers indicate this may not be the case. Hardy has never been one to draw many walks, swinging at almost 22% of all pitches outside the strike zone for his career. In his successful 2007 and 2008 campaigns, Hardy managed contact on 68 and 67% of those swings; last year, that number plummeted to 57%. This indicates that, along with a substandard BAbip, Hardy was just plainly not making as much contact as years past. His strikeout percentage correspondingly increased from 17.3% in 2008 to 20.5% in 2009. Another reason for concern is Hardy’s batted ball tendencies. Remember that average on balls in play? Well, a big reason that number went down was quite possibly the fact that only 13.9% of balls off Hardy’s bat last year were line drives, meaning balls he put in play tended to be easier for fielders to handle. (Of course, this assumes that fly balls and (to a lesser extent) ground balls are easier to field than line drives.) This isn’t to say it’s impossible to be successful with such a low line drive rate, but just that a huge improvement in BAbip is no guarantee. In all, I think the trade was a good one, but it’s not a sure thing. The Twins lost a valuable commodity with Gomez, and took on some risk with Hardy.
Regarding Cuddyer’s extension, I firmly disagree with contentions that this is a bad move by the Twins, due to their alleged budget constraints. Cuddyer does have his flaws (specifically his range in right field and his propensity to swing at curveballs in another zip code), but the fact remains that, at worst, the Twins are only slightly overpaying for Cuddyer. The Twins essentially have committed to paying Cuddyer $9.5 million (given that they owed a $1 million buyout if they didn’t pick up the option) in 2011. By 2011, players will likely be more expensive and that number will be more reasonable. In addition, Cuddyer’s clubhouse leadership and Ewing Theory credentials increase Cuddyer’s value intangibly, at least a little bit. Furthermore, there is a sobering reality to the state of this club. The Twins core of Mauer, Morneau, Span, Kubel, and Cuddyer aren’t going to play forever, and they are all either in or just entering the prime of their careers. If ever there was an appropriate time to overpay a bit for quality players, this is it.
Really, the front office seems to have realized this reality over the last three and a half months. The Twins currently possess arguably the best player in baseball, and he happens to play the most physically demanding position on the diamond. Mauer gives the Twins an enormous advantage by playing excellent defense and beyond-belief offense at a premium position. The only way this advantage will mean anything is if, when Mauer hits his prime, the Twins surround Mauer with a quality team, thus maximizing the advantage they enjoy with Mauer. So far, the Twins are off to a good start, having improved the bullpen last year, improving the infield this year and locking up a valuable team player through 2011. In my opinion, they still need a quality (not just “veteran”) starter and a third baseman to really make a push. Here’s hoping they keep moving.