Five Questions: Minnesota Twins

1) Is there any hope for Luis Rivas?

One thing Luis Rivas has always had going for him is his youth. And, for the most part, that has been the only thing. Rivas was young for every league he played in while in the minors and has already appeared in 397 games spread over parts of four seasons with the Twins, despite not turning 25 until this upcoming August.

Being young is great, but the only problem is that, regardless of his age, Rivas has simply never produced offensively. Well, I shouldn’t say never. Rivas actually had a pretty good 157 at bat stretch as a 20-year-old in Triple-A, way back in 2000. If you take those 41 games out of his career record however, it looks very ugly:

LEVEL            G      AVG      OBP      SLG      GPA
Rookie          53     .259     .318     .343     .228
Single-A       253     .257     .299     .345     .221
Double-A       214     .253     .317     .380     .238
Majors         397     .263     .312     .377     .235

That is over 900 games of extremely bad offense, spread over eight years. Even if you include his 41 games of good hitting at Triple-A in 2000, he is a career .260/.312/.369 hitter in 561 minor league games. Those numbers are essentially identical to his numbers as a major league hitter, which are .263/.312/.377 in 397 games.

The guy has simply never hit for more than a month or two at a time and regardless of whether he is 16, 24 or 40, doesn’t he have to actually produce at some point? Well, that’s the big question…

In the history of Major League Baseball, only 17 second basemen have accumulated more plate appearances than Luis Rivas (1,550) through their age-23 season, and a total of 20 second basemen have totaled at least 1,500 plate appearances through age-23.

The list includes some incredibly good names: Roberto Alomar, Bill Mazeroski, Bobby Doerr, Joe Morgan, Willie Randolph, Paul Molitor, Lou Whitaker, Eddie Collins, Johnny Evers, Rod Carew – it’s a who’s who of great second basemen.

So, by virtue of his playing so much at such a young age, Rivas’ future might look promising. The only problem with that logic is that every single one of those other 19 second basemen in MLB history with 1,500+ plate appearances through age-23 produced more than Rivas offensively.

According to Lee Sinins‘ Runs Created Above Position (RCAP), Rivas has been 34 runs worse offensively than the average second baseman during his career. Of the 19 other second basemen with 1,500+ plate appearances through the age of 23, only one of them also has a negative RCAP: Lou Bierbauer, -27

Bierbauer played in the late 1800s and was a starter for the Philadelphia A’s from the age of 20 to 23. He went on to play a total of 13 seasons and finished his career a .267/.301/.354 hitter with an 83 OPS+. In other words, he never became a good player.

And that’s it. Unlike Rivas and Bierbauer, the other 18 guys all had positive RCAP totals through age-23. You see, the whole “Rivas might become good because other young second basemen became good” thing only works if you completely ignore his actual performance, which has been incredibly bad.

In fact, in the entire history of baseball, only four second basemen have had worse RCAP totals than Luis Rivas through age-23:

Jiggs Parrott            -63
Hal Lanier               -57
Ken Hubbs                -38
Tommy Dowd               -36
Luis Rivas               -34

Here’s the rest of the list of second basemen with RCAP of at least -25 through age-23:

Jimmy Bloodworth         -34
Fred Pfeffer             -30
Hobe Ferris              -29
Heinie Scheer            -27
Lou Bierbauer            -27
Ed Somerville            -27
Connie Ryan              -26
Bill Wambsganss          -26
Roberto Mejia            -25
Bill Cunningham          -25

Suddenly Rivas’ company isn’t quite so impressive.

Let’s recap: Rivas has never, in his entire professional career, had a good offensive performance for any extended period of time. No second baseman in major league history with as much playing time as him through age-23 has ever been as bad offensively. Only three second basemen in major league history have ever been as bad as him offensively through age-23, period.

If you want to join along with many optimistic Twins fans in thinking that because the Twins have foolishly decided to give Rivas tons of playing time at such a young age he is comparable to Joe Morgan or Rod Carew or Roberto Alomar, you go right ahead. Until he proves otherwise (and I’ve been waiting now for about three years), I will continue to see him as the next Jimmy Bloodworth, Hal Lanier or Tommy Dowd.

Oh, and don’t get me started on his defense…

2) What’s in Joe Mauer’s future?

The Twins passed on Mark Prior with the #1 overall pick in the 2001 draft and instead drafted Joe Mauer, a high school catcher from St. Paul, Minnesota. In the three years since, Mauer has established himself as one of baseball’s elite prospects, hitting .330 in over 1,000 minor league at bats, including .341 in 73 Double-A games last season.

In addition to his impressive batting averages, Mauer has earned unanimous praise for his defense, work ethic and character. Earlier this month, I ranked him as my #1 prospect in all of baseball. Now, with the trade of A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco, Mauer will be Minnesota’s starting catcher in 2004, at the tender age of 21.

Assuming Mauer doesn’t suffer a serious injury or get sent back down to the minors, there’s a very good chance he will accumulate over 450 plate appearances in his rookie season (Pierzynski had 533 plate appearances in 2003 and 469 in 2002). A 21-year-old catcher getting 450+ plate appearances in a season is a very rare thing in baseball history. In fact, since 1900, it has happened just seven times:

Ray Schalk               1914
Al Lopez                 1930
Frankie Hayes            1936
Johnny Bench             1969
Ted Simmons              1971
Butch Wynegar            1977
Ivan Rodriguez           1993

(Johnny Bench, Ivan Rodriguez and Butch Wynegar all also had 450+ plate appearances as 20-year-olds.)

If Mauer is to join that list, he’ll be among some very elite company. Ray Schalk, Al Lopez and Bench are all Hall of Famers, and Rodriguez will join them five years after he retires. Frankie Hayes had a 14-year career and was a six-time All-Star. Ted Simmons had a 21-year career, which included eight trips to the All-Star game, as well as three top-10 finishes in the MVP balloting. Wynegar played 13 seasons and made two All-Star teams.

Basically, if Mauer gets 450 plate appearances as a 21-year-old in 2004 and then doesn’t became a multi-time All-Star, he will be the only catcher to do so in over 100 years.

As for what the more immediate future holds for Mauer, here is a look at what those seven catchers did as 21-year-olds:

                           G      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+
Ray Schalk               136     .270     .347     .314     100
Al Lopez                 128     .309     .362     .418      89
Frankie Hayes            144     .271     .335     .388      79
Johnny Bench             148     .293     .353     .487     129
Ted Simmons              133     .304     .347     .424     114
Butch Wynegar            144     .261     .344     .370      96
Ivan Rodriguez           137     .273     .315     .412      98

The average OPS+ of that group is 101, which means just slightly above league-average.

Considering the lack of power he displayed in the minors, I don’t think anyone is expecting Mauer to approach Johnny Bench’s numbers as a 21-year-old (26 HR, 90 RBIs). However, aside from Bench’s age-21 season, I think the other six on the list could all belong to Joe Mauer in 2004, and I think the Twins would be more than happy with any of them.

In case you’re wondering, Pierzynski had OPS+ figures of 98, 106 and 114 over the last three years and he has a career OPS+ of 105.

For those of you wanting a little more specificity, here are Mauer’s various projections for 2004:

                          AVG      OBP      SLG
Baseball Prospectus      .250     .306     .346
Baseball Primer          .311     .377     .388
Rotoworld                .288     .338     .395
Insider Baseball         .298     .361     .422
Baseball HQ              .290     .365     .378

Also, Mauer’s Major League Equivalency (MLE) from his time at Double-A last year is .319/.367/.420.

Aside from Baseball Prospectus‘ PECOTA projection, those are all fairly similar and all seem very reasonable to me. Put me down for .290/.350/.400, with a big side of “cautiously optimistic.”

3) Okay Gleeman, how good can Johan Santana be?

I’ve been front and center on the Johan Santana bandwagon for quite a while now. Some time ago I became convinced, both by watching him pitch and looking at his numbers, that Santana was something special. I even gave him the great honor of being “The Official Pitcher of Aaron’s Baseball Blog.”

A Rule-V pick back in late 1999, Santana spent the 2000 and 2001 seasons pitching in blowouts and making a few spot starts. He combined to go 3-3 with a 5.90 ERA in 129.2 innings. Then something clicked for him while in the minors in 2002, and he’s been a dominant pitcher ever since.

Over the last two years, Santana has gone 20-9 with a 3.04 ERA in 266.2 innings pitched. He was even better as a starting pitcher than he was as a reliever, going 18-6 with a 2.97 ERA in 185 innings as a starter, including 11-2 with a 2.86 ERA in 18 starts last season.

A large part of my optimism for Santana’s future stems from his incredible ability to strike batters out. Over the last two years he has 306 strikeouts in those 266.2 innings, which works out to 10.33 per nine innings pitched.

Among pitchers with at least 250 total innings over the past two seasons (125 per year), only six struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings:

Randy Johnson            11.05   
Mark Prior               10.76   
Curt Schilling           10.74   
Pedro Martinez           10.38   
Johan Santana            10.33   
Kerry Wood               10.24

How’s that for good company?

Here’s something else to consider: In the entire history of baseball, only three pitchers who threw at least 250 total innings between the ages of 23 and 24 struck out 10+ batters per nine innings:

Johan Santana            10.33   
Sandy Koufax             10.15   
Kerry Wood               10.09

In other words, what Santana has done striking out batters over the past two years has never been bettered by anyone his age in the sport’s history, and the only two guys who have come close are Sandy Koufax and Kerry Wood.

Santana will be a full-time starter for the first time in 2004. He had off-season surgery to clean out bone chips in his elbow, which scares the hell out of me. If he can stay healthy – and that’s a big if – he is at the beginning of a very special career.

4) Exactly how big a mess is Minnesota’s starting rotation in?

It has not been the best off-season to be a Twins fan. They lost their two best relief pitchers and traded away their starting catcher. They re-signed a 30-year-old left fielder and were unable to cash in their former left fielder in a trade that they liked. Now they’re back where they almost always are, with too many outfielders and not enough infielders, except now they’ve added “not enough pitching” to the equation.

From among last year’s starting pitchers, the Twins lost Kenny Rogers, Rick Reed, Joe Mays and Eric Milton. That sounds like disaster has struck the franchise, until you realize Reed and Mays both stunk and Milton only threw 17 innings all year.

I’ve heard very intelligent Twins fans talking about how the team won’t be able to replace all those innings they lost and how you can’t lose that many starters and expect to compete. All sorts of stuff like that. Here’s the thing though – Minnesota’s starting pitchers simply weren’t all that great last year.

                         GS        IP      ERA
Brad Radke               33     212.1     4.49
Kyle Lohse               33     201.0     4.61
Kenny Rogers             31     193.1     4.56
Rick Reed                21     124.2     5.13
Joe Mays                 21     110.1     6.77
Johan Santana            18     110.1     2.85
Eric Milton               3      17.0     2.65
Carlos Pulido             1       3.0     9.00
Grant Balfour             1       2.2    13.50

As you can see, replacing Milton’s production can be done without any problem. Replacing Mays’ 6.77 ERA in 110 innings could likely be done by choosing a Triple-A pitcher at random and having him make 20 starts, and Reed’s 5.13 ERA in 124.2 innings should be fairly easy to replace as well. Rogers’ 193 innings of 4.56 ERA pitching are going to be tougher to fill, but it’s not like he was a Cy Young candidate last season.

Here’s what the Twins’ rotation did last season, overall:

 GS        IP      ERA
162     974.2     4.69

Among the 14 American League teams, they ranked 6th in innings pitched and 8th in ERA.

Let’s see what the starters would have to do in 2004 to match last season’s production…

First, let’s look at the three holdovers from last year: Brad Radke, Kyle Lohse and Santana. Let’s simply project Radke and Lohse to perform exactly as they did last season. With Santana it is a little tougher, as he didn’t join the rotation until around mid-season.

He made 18 starts last year and 13 starts in 2002, which equals 31 over the last two years. Assuming he’s healthy, that is just about how many starts he would make as a full-time member of the rotation in 2004. So, let’s just add up his numbers as a starter over the past two years and make that his 2004 projection.

Here’s what we get:

                         GS        IP      ERA
Brad Radke               33     212.1     4.49
Kyle Lohse               33     201.0     4.61
Johan Santana            31     185.0     2.97
----------------------------------------------
TOTAL                    97     598.1     4.06

And here’s what that leaves, in order to duplicate the entire rotation’s 2003 production:

GS        IP      ERA
65     376.1     5.69

If you give Radke and Lohse credit for exactly what they did last season and give Santana credit for what he’s done over his last 31 starts, that leaves the Twins needing to fill 65 starts and 376.1 innings worth of 5.69 ERA pitching in 2004. Not exactly the same “sky is falling” outlook I’ve been hearing from many Twins fans.

The Twins signed long-time MLB starter Rick Helling during the off-season and their plan was to let him eat up about half of those starts and innings. However, Helling took a line drive off his leg during a spring start and is expected to be out for at least a month. In Helling’s absence, projected #5 starter Carlos Silva, who came over in the Milton trade, will slide into the #4 spot in the rotation. Silva has looked very good this spring and should be a fine back-end-of-the-rotation guy.

To fill the final spot in the rotation, it looks like the Twins will turn to Brad Thomas, a 26-year-old lefty from Australia. Personally, I was hoping they would give another 26-year-old Australian, Grant Balfour, a chance to show what he can do as a starter, but the fifth spot in the rotation will likely be skipped frequently during the first part of the year anyway, so it’s not a huge deal.

I see little reason to think the Twins won’t be able to get 376.1 innings worth a 5.69 ERA pitching out of the fourth and fifth spots in their rotation, and there’s a very good chance Silva and Thomas/Balfour/Helling (if/when he returns) will perform a whole lot better than that. In fact, I would be very surprised if Minnesota’s starting pitchers, as a whole, didn’t improve upon their 4.69 ERA from last season.

No, if the Twins are going to have big problems with their pitching-staff in 2004, it’s not going to be because they lost guys from the starting rotation. The bullpen on the other hand…

5) For a small-market team like the Twins, being able to restock the team with young, inexpensive players is essential. Do the Twins have the prospects to allow them to continue to do this?

Here is how I rank Minnesota’s top 10 prospects, heading into 2004:

 1)   Joe Mauer                C
 2)   Justin Morneau           1B
 3)   Jesse Crain              RHP
 4)   J.D. Durbin              RHP
 5)   Grant Balfour            RHP
 6)   Matt Moses               3B
 7)   Michael Restovich        OF
 8)   Boof Bonser              RHP
 9)   Francisco Liriano        LHP
10)   Jason Bartlett           SS

Minnesota’s farm system is very strong, with both elite-level talent like Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jesse Crain, and quality depth throughout.

Mauer is obviously the #1 guy, but Morneau isn’t too far behind him. He is one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball and will likely start the yeat at Triple-A. Doug Mientkiewicz recently signed a contract extension, so it looks like Morneau will have to establish himself as a DH.

Jesse Crain is a right-handed reliever who the Twins selected in the second round of the 2002 draft. He impressed just about everyone involved with the Twins this spring and, although he won’t start the season with the team, he’ll almost certainly get a chance to make a major impact before the year is over.

I expect Crain to be a dominant late-inning reliever. In 84 innings between three levels of the minors last year, he struck out 114 batters and posted a 1.93 ERA. He has power stuff and is destined to be Minnesota’s closer of the future.

J.D. Durbin is Minnesota’s top starter prospect. A second round pick in 2000, he has had a lot of success at each stop in the minors. Last year, he combined to go 15-5 with a 3.12 ERA between Single-A and Double-A and he went 13-4 with a 3.19 ERA at Single-A in 2002.

Grant Balfour is a guy I think gets overlooked. He will likely begin the season pitching out the bullpen for the Twins and, while I’m not ready to start up a “Free Grant Balfour!” campaign just yet, he definitely deserves a chance to be a starter.

Balfour had a 2.41 ERA at Triple-A last season and struck out 87 batters in 71 innings there. For his minor league career, he has a 3.43 ERA in 532 innings and has struck out 567 batters while walking just 196. I’d give him a chance to establish himself in the rotation long before I ever messed around with someone like Rick Helling.

Matt Moses was the Twins’ first round pick in last June’s draft, and hit .385/.417/.492 in 18 games after signing. He’s a long way from the majors at this point, but is an excellent hitting prospect.

Michael Restovich once again finds himself in the log-jam of hitters who need a place to play. He’ll start the year back at Triple-A yet again, and he’s certainly behind Michael Cuddyer in the job line.

Speaking of Cuddyer, I don’t care if it is second base, right field, designated hitter, or if the Twins need to petition MLB for a 10th spot in the batting order, he needs to play. The guy is 25 years old and he has destroyed minor league pitching consistently over the past few years. Despite that, the Twins have yet to give him a chance to establish himself in the lineup for more than a couple weeks at a time before they jerk him around again.

Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano both came to the Twins, along with Joe Nathan, for A.J. Pierzynski. Liriano has the higher ceiling of the two, but has had some serious injury problems. Bonser’s stock has dropped quite a bit in the last two years, but he’s still a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter and very close to being ready.

Finally, Jason Bartlett is pretty much the only hope Twins fans have of ridding themselves of either Cristian Guzman or Luis Rivas. Bartlett came over from San Diego in a trade for Brian Buchanan a couple years go and had a very nice season at Double-A last year. He hit .296/.380/.425 with 47 extra-base hits and 41 stolen bases in 139 games, while playing good defense at shortstop.

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