Smith & Gardy: The New Goose & Maverick?

“I feel the need… the need for SPEED!”

Some of you are probably too young to remember this line from Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards in “Top Gun” (is it really possible that movie is 25 years old?). The two actors portrayed Naval Aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his backseat RIO, “Goose” (20 bonus Knuckleballs points if you can tell us Goose’s character’s real name without looking it up… I couldn’t) as they piloted their F14A Tomcat from the USS Enterprise (that’s the aircraft carrier, not the starship) to Top Gun training at Miramar Naval Air Station.

Maverick, you see, was one helluva pilot (sorry… naval aviator) and there’s no doubt that if he would just “do it right”, he could be the best.

But Maverick’s personality was such that he had to go faster than anyone else. Goose would try to maintain some level of control and impress on his friend that being smart about things is important, too. In the end, however, he always went along with Maverick’s reckless “winning means doing it faster than anyone else, no matter what” approach. Goose knew better, but dangit, Maverick was such a lovable guy that in the end, all he could do is shake his head and go along for the ride.

The Twins never showed interest in bring back Orlando Hudson and now, with the addition of Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka and subsequent trade of JJ Hardy to Baltimore on the last day of MLB’s Winter Meetings, Twins General Manager Bill Smith officially bought in to Manager Ron Gardenhire’s desire to begin bringing the running game back in to the Twins’ offensive game plan.

Does Bill Smith really believe in this change in approach? Did he try to point out to Gardy that his team scored more runs than anyone else in the AL Central Division, even if Target Field proved more difficult than expected to hit a baseball out of?

It doesn’t really matter, of course, whether Smith knows the important thing is to outscore your opponents and win games, because dangit, Gardy is such a lovable guy and you know that, in the end, all Smith can do is shake his head and go get the kind of players Gardy wants.

A year ago… and really all throughout the 2010 season… a lot of us were having some fun drawing comparisons between the Twins and White Sox. Years earlier, Sox manager Ozzie Guillen had given the Twins a cute nickname… the piranhas (or was it “piranyas”?)… that portrayed the Twins as a scrappy group of speedy little guys with limited real athletic ability that consistently beat Ozzie’s more talented teams by nibbling them to death. By 2010, the roles had reversed and Ozzie had apparently convinced Sox GM Kenny Williams that he needed more versatile ballplayers who would battle their tales off, while Bill Smith went out and stocked the Twins with more professional hitters.

The beefed up Twins went something like 99-1 against the Sox team that Ozzie and Kenny had built in the Twins’ former image. As a result, this off-season, I’m not sure Williams has even asked Ozzie what he “wants”. He went out and bought the ultimate power hitter, Adam Dunn, in addition to re-signing Paul Konerko. (Alas, Mark Kotsay’s days DHing for the BitchSox are over… dammit.)

I’m concerned that Gardy got bored last year. Sure, the Twins scored a lot of runs and would almost certainly have scored even more if Justin Morneau hand’t been shelved by a concussion half way through the season. But something just didn’t feel right to Gardy. There were times, no doubt, when his instincts were to steal, bunt, hit & run… all those things the piranhas did… but there wasn’t a piranha in sight. Instead he had Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome and JJ Hardy out there clogging up the basepaths.

So what if the runs still scored (perhaps because the Twins weren’t needlessly giving up outs by bunting and getting caught stealing)? It just wasn’t the kind of baseball team Gardy enjoyed managing. It was like taking Maverick out of his F14A and putting him in a “clunky” B1 bomber. Sure he might eventually inflict more damage on the enemy, but without the speed and maneuverability of his Tomcat, it’s just not as much fun for the guy at the controls.

Look, I get that Target Field isn’t built for marginal power hitters… guys that rely on balls that barely clear fences to generate their HR numbers. But Bill Smith should remember that last season’s strategy of bringing in better offensive players, even if they weren’t the fastest guys in the game, resulted in the Twins winning 94 games.

And before Bill Smith completely buys in to Gardy’s dream of bringing us Piranhas II – The Sequel, he might also keep one more thing in mind…

While “Top Gun” ended with LT Mitchell all smiles, going along with Maverick’s “need for speed” didn’t turn out so well for Goose.

– JC

(Over)reactions to JJ Hardy Trade

If you aren’t one of those people who stay up in to the wee hours of the morning during MLB’s Winter Meetings, you may have awoken to the news that some time after midnight that the Twins and Orioles had agreed to a trade that sends JJ Hardy and Brendan Harris to Baltimore in return for two minor league relief pitchers, Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey.

It appears that the two pitchers have good velocity and could contribute to the Twins sooner, rather than later and I’m sure we’ll get more details on the trade during the course of the day Thursday. Still, I’m a bit disappointed in the return obtained for a very solid Major League shortstop. Of course, eliminating both Hardy’s estimated $6-7 million salary and the $1.75 million owed to Harris in 2011 does free up payroll room to be used elsewhere.

But, while I hoped to either keep Hardy around or get more in return for him, I’m not sure what surprises me more… that the Twins would trade JJ Hardy for no more than they are getting in return from the Orioles or that Twins fans/bloggers are so universally up in arms over the trade.The large and diverse Twins blogging community, by and large, has trouble agreeing on anything. No matter what moves Bill Smith makes, some people will like it, some people won’t like it, and some people (you know who you are) will think it’s the dumbest move ever made by any MLB front office since the last move made by the Twins… because every move made by the Twins is, by definition, the worst move made by any team, ever.

But long before this trade was finalized, the blogs, podcasts and Tweets were lighting up with almost unanimous criticism of the deal. There was some acknowledgment that the limited return the Rays got for Jason Bartlett on Wednesday indicated that Twins fans should be prepared to see similar limited returns for Hardy, but that hasn’t kept the complaints from pouring through cyberspace in the first hour or so following the announcement. That’s pretty incredible, when you think about it. How bad must a deal be to get all of us to agree that it’s bad?!

Hardy

The assumption seems to be that the Twins simply needed to dump Hardy’s estimated salary to make room for Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka… that having scored too many runs last year, Gardy longed to return to the “piranha”  game that he enjoys managing. I’m on record of being skeptical about the prospect of turning over a middle infield position to Nishioka before he’s taken a single ground ball in Spring Training and dispensing Hardy to Camden Yards certainly is risky, to me.

That said, we’re talking about JJ Hardy here, not Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau. I get that he’s developed a certain loyal fan base (largely among the womenfolk, for some reason), but let’s keep in mind this is a guy who the Brewers demoted to the minor leagues just 18 months ago and traded for Carlos Gomez just over a year ago. (Gomez is now available on the trade market again, by the way.)

If we want to take an honest look at why the Twins moved Hardy just a year after trading for him, we should take a step back and recall why they traded for him in the first place. A year ago, the Twins were intent on adding offense, even if it meant sacrificing some defense. Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson were brought in for their bats. They traded away their best defensive outfielder for a shortstop that they hoped might hit a few home runs. And the Twins, at that point, couldn’t really know how their new home, Target Field, would play.

Now fast-forward a year and put yourself in the Twins post-season organizational meetings. You know, now, that your new shortstop essentially has warning track power in Target Field (like pretty much everyone else). He’s not fast. He’s not quick. He’s an above average defensive shortstop in much the same way Cal Ripken was an above average shortstop. He positions himself very well. He just seems to get to the ball very well.

With the general dearth of quality middle infielders on the open market this winter, now might have been the Twins’ best opportunity to get anything of value for Hardy. While it may be difficult to make that argument with a straight face, given the return received from the Orioles, what we don’t know today is what Hardy’s performance level will be in 2011.

In the grand scheme of things, however, the Twins’ fortunes in 2011 aren’t likely to be significantly determined by having Nishioka and Casilla in the middle of the infield instead of one of those two paired with Hardy. And if one of them gets hurt or underperforms, it’s not like the Twins don’t have a couple of hundred middle infielders in their system that could step in.

I’ve felt from the beginning that the key to the Twins improving their roster for 2011 is improving the top of their starting rotation. Other than the fact that devoting so much of their time to the Nishioka/Hardy issue has kept them from focusing their attention on improving their rotation, I just can’t get all that worked up over this trade. In fact, part of me feels like anything disliked so much by so many of us must have a pretty good shot at turning out well!

I like JJ Hardy and I even like the Orioles. I hope he does well there.

And I hope the Twins and their scouts are right about Nishioka, not to mention Jacobson and Hoey.

–  JC

P.S. It appears that I can pretty much forget all about my off-season “blueprint”. Not only is it virtually impossible that the Twins would be able to get my preferred “ace”, Zack Greinke, but now my suggestion for a flyer in the outfield is off the table as well. Melky Cabrera has reportedly agreed to terms with Greinke’s Royals. Ah well.

Is There a Magic Wand(y) Out There?

I find myself in unfamiliar waters these days.

Despite what some may believe, I tend to be pretty supportive of the job the Twins’ front office does. I know the organization is a business and understand they aren’t going to spend more money than they take in. I know they aren’t going to go out and overpay for free agent talent the way the Yankees do. Unlike many Twins fans, I’m not one who constantly finds fault with the owner or the GM or the manager. I consider the lack of recent success in the playoffs to be a source of frustration, but not abject organizational failure.

Yet, I’ve been quite up front about my impatience with regard to the Twins seeming lack of progress toward making any sort of real improvement in the make up of the roster so far. And Day 1 of the Winter Meetings did nothing to make me feel better. Bill Smith indicated that the only non-pitching positions that are undecided already are SS and 2B. And while he didn’t come right out and say that JJ Hardy would be traded once Tsuyoshi Nishioka is signed, that is clearly where the signs are pointing.

I also understand that my Zack Greinke wish is not going to come true. In fact, given that the Royals would clearly demand from the Twins a premium of prospects over and above the premium of prospects that they’re going to demand from teams that AREN’T in their own division, I’m willing to admit it would probably be foolish for Smith to pay the Royals’ asking price.

So given that the Twins won’t be bidding on the lone remaining top of the rotation pitcher (Cliff Lee) and probably shouldn’t be bidding on the next best starting pitcher (Carl Pavano) because of his expectations regarding a three-year contract, what does constitute a reasonable expectation for a fan who strongly believes the Twins need another strong starting pitcher?

Let’s try this scenario on for size.

Near the bottom of a column he wrote on December 1, Jayson Stark mentioned that the Houston Astros were in the market for a reasonably priced, left-handed hitting outfielder. If the Twins re-sign Jim Thome, they will, coincidentally, have an arguably superfluous lefty-hitting outfielder floating around in the person of Jason Kubel.

Wandy Rodriguez

The Astros, in return, have a certain lefty starting pitcher who’s going to start getting a bit expensive very soon. Wandy Rodriguez lost his arbitration contest with the Astros last year and ended up pitching for $5 million and now he and his agent are trying to work out an extension that will buy out his last year of arbitration and first couple of years of free agency.

Shortly after Rodriguez overmatched the Twins in a 4-1 Astro win in June, the Twins reportedly tried, unsuccessfully, to trade for the lefty prior to the trade deadline at the end of July. They should try again.

I’ll be the first to admit that I know very little about the Astros. (I think they play in Houston, right?) But what I do know is that they are reportedly for sale and they’re trying to cut payroll while remaining at least competitive enough not to screw up their sale price.

I have no idea whether Houston would want Kubel. I have no idea whether they might be interested in a shortstop like JJ Hardy. Maybe, instead, it would take prospects or maybe the Twins would have to eat part of Kubel’s or Hardy’s 2011 salary. Smarter people than I would have to figure out exactly what a fair exchange would be.

I don’t even know if Rodriguez would be available, but given the current state of that franchise, it’s hard for me to believe he’s going to be an Astro beyond 2011, his final arbitration year. In any event, the purpose of writing this is simply to demonstrate that there ARE options out there, other than Lee, Pavano, Greinke, et al. The Twins need to improve their rotation and the time to do it is now, before other teams beat the Twins to the punch.

I’ve heard enough about middle-weight infielders and middle-inning relief pitchers. I don’t want to hear that we should just be satisfied to replace most of the talent being lost to free agency. If you’re standing in place, you’re falling behind and there are options out there that can, and would, actually improve the Twins roster now and in the future. The Twins have some highly compensated businesspeople who should be able to turn over a few rocks and find those options.

Either that or they should find another line of work.

-JC

A Mid-Offseason Report Card

It’s been a while since I was in school (though perhaps not as long ago as one might expect for someone of my advanced years). That said, I do recall something called “mid-term grades”. The cool thing about them was that they told you how you were doing in your coursework, but they didn’t really “count”. If you were doing well, you could afford to have a few beers and relax over the weekends, but if you were coming up short, the mid-term grades served as a wake-up call of sorts.

Sometimes, I think it would be nice if I could get the same sort of feedback once out in the real world. And if I think that would be of benefit to me, certainly an intelligent man like Bill Smith must feel the same way, right?

As hard as it may be to believe, we’re approaching the half-way point between the end of the Twins’ 2010 season and the date pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, 2011.

So it’s in this spirit of helpfulness that I offer the Twins’ GM his mid-term grade: D+.

And that grade assumes Tsuyoshi Nishioka gets signed by the December 26 deadline. If Smith doesn’t bring that home, the grade drops to an F.

The good news is, just like in college, the mid-term grades don’t really count. There’s still time to bring that grade up and not screw up the GPA. But time is wasting.

Monday at the the Swan and Dolphin hotels at DisneyWorld, MLB’s movers and shakers get together for their annual Winter Meetings, which wind up Thursday with the Rule 5 draft. Over the past five years, there have been an average of just over 10 trades announced during each year’s Winter Meeting gathering. It might be a very good idea for one or two of those deals this week to involve the Twins.

Why? Well, let’s take a look at what we’ve seen so far this offseason.

Unless/until deals are reached to bring some of these guys back in to the Twins fold, the Twins have lost their most reliable starting pitcher, Carl Pavano, their most prolific power hitter, Jim Thome, and four solid (or better) relief pitchers in Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes.. The Twins have done absolutely nothing about replacing the departing talent, much less making any improvements in those positions.

Nishioka is, so far, the only meaningful addition this offseason (and he isn’t even officially on board yet). And you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not as convinced as others seem to be that he represents a certain improvement over Hudson, Hardy or whoever’s roster spot he ends up taking.

Of course, Justin Morneau should be back and healthy by Opening Day and that represents a significant upgrade over Michael Cuddyer at 1B. But the Twins have done nothing to improve their lack of speed in their outfield, they haven’t replaced Pavano’s innings in the top half of the rotation and there looks to be a significant drop off in bullpen talent between the back end arms, Joe Nathan and Matt Capps, and the rest of the pen arms.

The Tigers have added Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit, the White Sox have added Adam Dunn to the heart of their line up, the Red Sox have acquired Adrian Gonzalez and are still kicking the tires on Jayson Werth [UPDATE: Werth has signed with the Nationals], the Yankees are going to add Cliff Lee and both the Angels and Rangers are in the hunt for Carl Crawford. Meanwhile, the Twins have done little but try to strengthen the Rochester Red Wings roster.

And excuse me if I don’t believe the chatter about potentially trading JJ Hardy for middle relief pitching would constitute any sort of improvement whatsoever. There are 70 or so middle relievers on the free agent market, including the four pretty good arms that wore Twins uniforms last season. Trading Hardy for talent you could easily bring on board through free agency would be a total waste of a valuable asset.

You don’t improve your chances of success in this league by trying to simply maintain the status quo while everyone else is focused on improving. Yes, the Twins won 94 games in 2010, but those who think they don’t have to improve the roster just to have a shot at being competitive in their division next season are kidding themselves.

Smith and his front office team have shown very little progress during the first half of the “semester” and that’s what they’re mid-term grade reflects. But there’s still time to salvage a passing grade. The second half of the offseason starts this week at Mickey Mouse’s Magic Kingdom.

It’s time to get to work, Mr. Smith.

– JC

Twins: Foreign/Domestic, New/Old, Friend/Foe

Just a few things that have come up around TwinsWorld lately that we haven’t gotten around to commenting about yet.

International Flavor:

Hope this is "our" Javier Pimentel. If not... oh well, worth a try, right?

In the past week, the Twins have submitted the high bid for the rights to negotiate with Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka and signed the supposed #10 prospect in the baseball-rich Dominican Republic, 17-year-old infielder Javier Pimentel. This continues the trend, started a couple of years ago, of the Twins flexing their international muscles more than a bit. They’ve had a strong presence in Australia for some time, but they’ve now made a name for themselves in the European, Latin American and Japanese markets, as well.

You have to give the Twins front office credit for not waiting for the increased revenues from Target Field before starting to bolster their international scouting organizations. Rather than waiting until the ballpark opened to start the long process of establishing a presence, learning how things worked, and getting to know the markets, they started doing all of that pretty much as soon as they had a deal in place to build the ballpark. As a result, now that the money is available, they’re already a recognized “brand” in those markets and it appears we’re seeing the fruits of those labors starting to be realized.

Red Dog gets a gig:

The Big Lug

Our old friend Mike “Naked Batting Practice” Redmond has been announced as the new manager of the Blue Jays Midwest League affiliate, the Lansing Lugnuts. It will be interesting to hear whether his BP style (if you can call being naked a “style”) is passed along to his players. Red Dog will be hanging out with Lansing mascot “The Big Lug”, who is certainly no TC Bear (but then, who is?). In any event, I’m already looking forward to seeing Red when the Lugnuts travel to Cedar Rapids to face the Kernels in 2011. Good luck NBP!

Keeping an Eye on the Competition:

It’s starting to look like it may be difficult to recognize some of the Twins’ AL Central competitors in 2011. The Tigers have been the media’s big “winner” in the free agent market so far, having added Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit to their ranks. It doesn’t look like they’ll have familiar faces Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Maglio Ordonez  around any more (though word is that they could still re-sign Mags). Detroit had something like $50 million in contracts come off their books after this season, so they’re still looking to add more. I have to say, though, that I think they’re overpaying for what they’re buying. I understand they probably had to overpay to get the guys they wanted, but in a year or two, I think they’ll be saddled with contracts they wish they didn’t have.

The bitchiest Bitch Sox?

The White Sox could very easily have neither Paul Konerko nor our old friend AJ Pierzynski in uniform next season. GM Kenny Williams always pulls some sort of surprise signing out of his butt so I’m sure they’ll make a splash yet. But they apparently don’t have a lot of salary room and his deals seem to almost always blow up in the Sox’ face, so it’s hard to worry too much about them getting a lot better. Admit it though… it won’t be nearly as much fun hating the Bitch Sox if their chief bitch, AJ, isn’t around, will it? On the other hand, if he gets no other offers and has to return to Chicago on some sort of minimum wage deal, that might be kinda humorous. As for Paulie, I hope he finds a nice place to play ball… preferably in the National League. I don’t want to see him back in Target Field unless it’s in the World Series… or he’s wearing a Twins uniform (or both). [UPDATE: Appears I may have spoken too soon. The Sox have signed Adam Dunn to a 4-year, $56 million deal and still are interested in bringing Konerko back. If they manage to sign both, there's no doubt they'll be improved. Twins should hope they stop at Dunn and let him play 1B]

Media experts keep talking about how the Royals have all these great young players coming up through their system and that now is the time for them to trade Zack Greinke. I’m on record already as wanting the Twins in on that action if the Royals are serious about letting him go, but after reading that his “partial no-trade” clause expires at mid-season (meaning after that date, the Royals are not limited with regard to who they can trade him to), I don’t really expect KC to get serious about letting him go until the trade deadline. And as for the Royals actually getting competitive… I’ve heard it all before, so pardon me if I’m skeptical until I see evidence on the field above the AA level.

Finally, there’s the Indians. I haven’t really heard or read anything of interest about Cleveland except that they’re the only team I’ve read about (other than possibly the Twins, of course) having an interest in signing Nick Punto. I guess if there’s one franchise around who could use a Tiny Superhero, it’s the Indians. By the way,we’re hearing that one of the things Nishioka is known for over in Japan is… wait for it… yes… sliding head first in to first base. Sigh.

New Road Jersey:

In case you missed it, the lone change to the Twins’ uniform options in 2011 will be a new alternate road jersey. It’s a navy blue jersey with the same “script Minnesota” across the chest that the grey road jersey has.

The Twins dropped the very popular navy “block MINNESOTA” road jersey from their options a couple of years ago and, since then, the only alternate road jersey has been the same “script Twins” jersey that’s also worn at home.

Twins new "alternate" road jersey for 2011

As others have pointed out, the Twins tended to wear their navy jersey most of the time, at home and on the road, through the middle third or so of the season. The home whites and road greys seemed to be worn regularly early and later in the season and some people wondered if it had to do with superstitions among the players.

While I’m certainly not going to reject that possibility, because ballplayers are notoriously superstitious, I think there’s actually a more likely reason. The navy jerseys are made of much lighter weight material and during the dog days of June, July and August, the players (especially the starting pitchers, who have traditionally chosen the jersey they want to wear for their starts) opt for the coolest jersey among their choices. Conversely, they were more likely to wear the heavier (and warmer) white or grey jerseys during the cooler spring/fall parts of the season.

While the new road jersey will hopefully give them a second light-weight option, the real question that you would think someone would get around to asking is, “Why can’t they make a second set of white/grey jerseys out of the cooler material?”

Anyway… maybe we should keep track, here at Knuckleballs, of how many times each jersey is worn by the Twins next season. It seems like one of those interesting, if not at all important, pieces of information that would fit in nicely around here.

– JC

A Brief Look Back at Twins History

Regular readers of our little blog here will recall that during the season, we ran a weekly (yes I know, I missed a week or two here and there… get off my back!) “Twins History Lesson” feature where we looked back at notable events in Twins history*. We haven’t done that since the season ended because, frankly, there aren’t many dates that warrant reviewing during the off-season. But on the heels of news that the Twins won the bidding for negotiating rights to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, it may be worth noting that the Twins have, in the distant and not-so-distant past, acquired new players the old fashioned way… by trading for them.

Back in 1967, the Twins had just finished a season winning 91 games and finishing one game behind the AL champion Red Sox. They were also just a couple of seasons removed from their first World Series, having dropped the 1965 Series, four games to three, to the Dodgers. Zoilo Versalles had not only won the AL MVP Award in 1965, but hit .286 with an .833 OPS in the World Series and Jim “Mudcat” Grant started three games, winning games 1 and 6 with complete game efforts, and posted a 2.74 against the Dodgers after winning 21 games during the regular season. But in 1967, both players’ productivity dropped off considerably (Versalles hit just .200 and Grant went 5-6 on the year) and on this date, November 28, they found themselves traded to their old WS opponents, the Dodgers.

In return, the Twins received catcher John Roseboro, along with pitchers Bob Miller and Ron Perranoski. The Twins definitely won that deal. Versalles and Grant each played one season with the Dodgers without distinction. Miller and Roseboro both put in two productive, if unspectacular, years with the Twins. But the star of the trade turned out to be Perranoski, who recorded 71 saves over the next three seasons for the Twins and led the AL in that category in both 1969 and 1970, helping the Twins to Division championships both seasons.

But we don’t need to go back 33 43 (oops) years for a notable trade on November 28. Just three years ago on this date in 2007, rookie GM Bill Smith made a deal that Twins fans are still debating today when he sent SS Jason Bartlett, SP Matt Garza and minor league RP Eddie Morlan to Tampa Bay in return for OF Delmon Young, IF Brendan Harris and minor league OF Jason Pridie. The two minor leaguers, Pridie and Morlan didn’t distinguish themselves for either of their new teams, while the four major leaguers have had varying degrees of success over the past three years.

Jason Bartlett

While it’s generally perceived that the Rays got the best of this deal so far, it’s interesting to note that both Bartlett and Garza have been frequently mentioned as possible targets to be traded this off-season by the Rays. Meanwhile, Young had a break out season for the Twins after a couple of somewhat disappointing years, while Harris spent the season in Rochester after the Twins signed him to a two-year extension last off-season.

Today, the Twins find themselves in need of a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher and some relief arms to replace those departing via free agency. They could also use some more speed in the outfield, in my opinion. While there are plenty of relievers on the open market, any significant improvements to the rotation and outfield may have to come via trade. So, on this, the anniversary of a couple of major trades in Twins history, I feel compelled to ask…

What’s next, Mr. Smith?

– JC

*************************************

*As with much of the Twins History information we recounted during the season, we pulled this information from “Twins Trivia”.

Shortstop: JJ Hardy vs Tsuyoshi Nishioka

UPDATED UPDATED UPDATE: The Twitter reports are flying now… Joe Christensen, Ken Rosenthal and Parker Hageman (among others) are keeping up with the news, but the long and short of the situation at 11:00 am CT Friday appears to be that the Twins HAVE won the bidding (for about $5 million) for the rights to negotiate with Nishioka and that the contract could come in at $2-3 million per year on a multi-year contract. If those numbers turn out to be relatively accurate, that’s not an unreasonable financial risk to take, in my opinion. – JC

Early this week, we should find out whether the Twins have posted a successful bid for the rights to negotiate with Japanese 2010 batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the Chiba Lotte Marines’ shortstop. This is kind of exciting for Twins fans. Our team has never had the money to consider signing significant MLB free agents, much less throw several million dollars at a Japanese team for the rights to pay several million dollars more to the actual player. The Twins are apparently swimming in revenue! So, you ask, why not go get this young Japanese hero?

I’m glad you asked.

Nishioka

We’ve been reading that Gardy and the Twins front office want to add speed to the Twins’ offense. It turns out that it’s kind of hard to hit baseballs out of Target Field. Those hard hit baseballs find lots of room in the gaps for doubles and triples, however. So the braintrust has decided they should add players that hit balls in the gaps and then have the speed to get around the bases quicker. I can’t really argue with this. It’s logical.

Of course, by my logic, they should probably look to upgrade that speed in their own outfield positions so they not only get better results on the bases, but also reduce the chances of opponents’ batted balls finding those wide gaps between the not-so-speedy outfielders the Twins send out to the corner OF positions.

Instead, apparently Gardy and Bill have decided that the upgrade in speed should be made at a position where the team already has one of the best defensive players in the league… shortstop. And since there are absolutely zero speedy shortstops available domestically, they’ve turned their eyes to the Land of the Rising Sun.

On the surface, it makes some sense, I suppose.

Nishioka did win the batting title in 2010 with a .346/.423/.482 split, good for an OPS of .905, and hit 11 home runs. He also stole 22 bases, while playing in all 144 of Chiba Lotte’s regular season games. He’s said to possess a strong arm and above average range at shortstop. He could also play second base if the coaches decide Alexi Casilla is the better shortstop. He’s also only 26 years old, so he could be a member of the Twins’ core group for several years to come. What’s not to like?

Plenty, actually.

Hardy

Let’s start with those stolen bases. He’s averaged about 25 stolen bases a year over the past five years and actually led his league with 41 six years ago. But he’s also been caught stealing about 1/3 of the time. That’s actually a bit above the average throw-out rate for MLB catchers. So you have to ask, do the stolen base totals indicate you’d be upgrading your speed or will he just be running the team out of rallies on a regular basis? In other words… if JJ Hardy attempted 30 steals every year, would he be successful much less than Nishioka would?

Of course, one knock on Hardy is that he’s been injury prone. If he and his bum wrist can’t take the field, what good is he? Let’s go get the guy who plays every day. OK… but that guy may not be Nishioka. While he did play the entire 2010 season, he missed anywhere between 14 and 29 games of each of his other five full seasons with the Marines, with injuries to his hamstring, knee, neck and… wait for it… yes, his wrist.

Don’t get me wrong… Nishioka may turn out to be the next Ichiro and if he does, it would be fun to see him in a Twins uniform. And maybe JJ Hardy will never regain the offensive talent he showed in 2007 and 2008. But finding out if either of those turns out to be the case will come with a cost.

Under the agreement between MLB and Nippon Baseball, once Chiba Lotte posted Nishioka, MLB teams had four days to submit a sealed bid to the Marines for the rights to enter a 30-day negotiating period with the player and his agent. It’s hard to predict what the winning bid might be, but given the lack of top tier middle infield options on the free agent market this off-season, it’s hard to imagine the winning bid being less than $10 million and I won’t be surprised if it’s closer to $15-20 million. [UPDATE: Boy did I miss on that assumption! The actual winning bid was reportedly around or just over a quite affordable $5 million.] That money only gets paid if the winning team eventually signs the player to a contract, however. Any team shelling out that kind of money for negotiating rights is going to want to lock the player up for several years.

If the Twins offer Hardy arbitration, they’ll probably end up negotiating a one-year deal for something between $6-7 million (though the possibility of signing him to a two-year deal for slightly less per year certainly exists). Compare that to the posting fee and multi-year commitment they’d have to make to acquire Nishioka, which would conservatively have to reach $25-30 million over 3-4 years. You have to ask yourself if you realistically should expect enough of an upgrade at the shortstop position to warrant that additional investment. Consider that the money you’re sending to Japan for the posting fee alone could otherwise be spent on bringing Carl Pavano back for 2011. [UPDATE: In addition to the actual $5 million-ish winning bid, early reports also indicate the possibility that salary demands may be somewhat lower than I projected here... if it's closer to $3 million/year, this becomes a much more reasonably priced "risk" in my opinion. But would it be reasonable enough to ALSO keep Hardy? Stay tuned.]

And it’s not like the Twins stand to profit by selling broadcast rights in Japan… MLB controls all international rights and divides all revenues (broadcast, merchandise, etc.) evenly among the teams. The Twins might get some additional advertising dollars from Japanese companies, but that’s about it.

In addition, while I’m not really a big “team chemistry” guy (I think it’s overrated as a success factor), I do have to wonder how well Nishioka would fit in with the Twins. In 2007, he announced that henceforth he would be listed on the Chiba Lotte roster simply as “Tsuyoshi”. Kind of like “Cher” or “Madonna”. Or that other diva, “Ichiro”.

Nishioka and fiance Tokuzawa

On the other hand… the guy has dated models and even a professional golfer and he’s apparently engaged to model/actress Naoko Tokuzawa, so he’s got that going for him. She’d certainly constitute one of those “Target Field enhancements” the Twins have been talking about if she attends his games. And get this… both Noshioka and Tokuzawa have blogs! (You might want to brush up on your Japanese before you add them to your daily list of “must reads”, though.)

This guy clearly is not short on self-esteem. However, until this past year, it doesn’t look to me like he had the performance to match his ego. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he chose this year to request that his team post him to MLB. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that Chiba Lotte agreed to post him this year. They’re selling high and hoping to cash in if one MLB team will overpay for a young player who’s had one good year in an inferior baseball league.

I don’t think that team should be the Twins.

– JC

UPDATE 12/18: Click here to read our post welcoming Tsuyoshi Nishioka to the Twins, now that he’s officially signed with the Twins. – JC

The Curious Case of Derek Jeter

Let me start this by saying I like Derek Jeter… at least as much as a person can “like” any New York Yankee. Maybe “like” is too strong a word. I appreciate the kind of ballplayer Derek Jeter has been during his career. Has he been overhyped as a result of being a Yankee? Sure. But he’s done his job well, stayed out of jail, and just generally has appeared to do things “the right way” throughout his career. If he had come up through the Twins system and played his career with our team, I’d probably sign a petition to erect a statue or something.

But he’s a Yankee, after all, so I really can’t say I like him… too much. In fact, he’s the Yankees’ captain.

He also just happens to be a 36 year old free agent shortstop with declining defensive skills coming off by far the worst offensive year in his career. In fact, statistically with the bat, he had about the same kind of year JJ Hardy did (outside of the fact that Jeter actually, you know, played in most of his team’s games). Then again, Hardy is eight years younger than Jeter and covers a lot more ground at SS (again, when he’s actually on the field).

There’s a fair amount of discussion among Twins fans, bloggers, and the media (and apparently their manager and GM) concerning whether the Twins should non-tender (or even trade, according to the Baltimore Sun) Hardy. Offering him arbitration might result in a modest increase in his $5.1 million salary. But the Twins want to add more speed to their line up and, since they’re apparently set on having the slowest outfield in professional baseball, they have identified the shortstop position as the spot to target in their quest to upgrade their wheels. In

Tsuyoshi Nishioka

fact, they’re so intent on making that improvement that they’re reportedly shopping overseas, having posted a bid for the rights to negotiate with Japanese batting champion, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. There’s no doubt that replacing Hardy and Orlando Hudson with Nishioka and Alexi Casilla would improve the Twins footspeed. Whether it would improve anything else is certainly a fair topic for debate.

Meanwhile, over in the Bronx, they’re talking money with Jeter and his agent. Jeter pocketed $21 million in 2010, the final year of his contract. Now, apparently, the Yankees and Jeter are playing a little game of “chicken”. Jeter and his agent don’t think he should really have to take much, if any, of a pay cut and should get at least a four year extension… if not longer. The Yankees, on the other hand, say they’re willing to overpay for Jeter (after all, they overpay for everyone else), but only for three years and for something less than $20 million per year.

This is where I have to admit that, while I occasionally sound off about MLB being complicit in a system that allows the Yankees to be able to spend twice on payroll what most teams can afford, it’s not really quite as bad as that. It COULD be really bad, if it weren’t for the fact that the Yankees owners are morons who almost seem intent on overpaying for every player they want by focusing on what those players have done in the past, rather than what they’re likely to do in the future.

If the Yankees were smart, they’d tell Jeter, “We’ll pay you $35 million over the next three years. Even that’s overpaying, but you’ve been a good Yankee and we want to acknowledge that. Feel free to go shop around and if someone offers you more, give us a call and we’ll talk about upping our offer. But we aren’t going to negotiate against ourselves.” They’d probably get him for that price, too. Instead, he’s going to end up being paid close to $20 million a year until he’s a 40 year old shadow of himself. Hell, they may not have to erect a statue of Jeter. He’ll be his own statute.

As a matter of fact, if I owned the Twins (and had as much money as the Pohlads do), I’d be on the phone with Jeter’s agent, offering him $70 million for four years. Why? Because we all know there is no… friggin… way… that the Yankees can NOT bring Jeter back. Knowing that, why not run that price up to the point where the Yankees not only overpay, but grossly overpay for Jeter? In the worst case scenario, the Yankees balk and you end up with him on your roster. That’s not ideal, but at least you have a right handed DH, plus you’ve pissed off virtually every Yankee fan in the country. That’s gotta be worth something! If you really feel you have to recoup some of the cost, though, I suppose you could always dress him up in his old Yankee uniform and put him in a dunk tank out on Target Plaza on days he’s not in the line up. That ought to bring in a few bucks.

But that’s how teams with $100 million payrolls compete with the guys who spend $200 million… they make sure the rich team has to pay twice what their players are worth to anyone else. They make sure they commit $20+ million a year for six years to starting pitchers who have virtually no chance of being worth that money every season of the contract. That’s why I’m glad the Rangers and Nationals are talking about throwing some big offers at Cliff Lee. Why let the Yankees have him for anything close to what he’s actually going to be worth? Let him be their next AJ Burnett or Carl Pavano over the next several years. Meanwhile, opposing teams can just keep slapping ground balls in to left field past the $50 million worth of statues the Yankees will be trotting out to 3B and SS for the foreseeable future.

And as long as the Yankees have Jeter attached to their infield like a ball and chain, the Twins front office can go shopping overseas for a guy like Nishioka, without having to be concerned about the Yankees overpaying for the rights to negotiate a contract that would overpay him to play in New York.

God bless Derek Jeter! Take ‘em to the cleaners, Captain!

-JC