I was surfing the Twitterverse yesterday when I saw a tweet that caught my eye: Apparently one of the writers of Hardball Talk had ranked the Twins as having the 5th-worst offseason thus far. Now Hardball Talk is one of my favorite baseball sites, so I was taken aback by this opinion.
Even though I immediately disagreed, I took the time to read the entire article. For those that are not interested in clicking the link above, here's the relevant part about the Twins.
The Twins won 66 games in 2013 but help is on the horizon. They have one of the best Minor League systems around and it’s only a matter of time before the Twins are fielding a lineup with Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. But this off-season, the Twins signed Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, and Mike Pelfrey to multi-year deals totaling $84 million. Years ago, the trio might have been deemed underrated, but each has been in the league long enough to establish a track record, and each has failed to live up to expectations. The Twins are essentially gambling $84 million for them to, at once, realize their potential. The Twins could have instead used this money to try to get Masahiro Tanaka and more cheaply gamble on players like Josh Johnson (now with the Padres).
The author, Bill Baer, is not the first person that wasn't impressed by the Twins' moves this offseason. However, I think some people like Baer don't realize how truly awful the Twins rotation had been in the past two years. Specifically looking at the 2013 season, here's how the team fared in multiple key pitching statistics.
That right there is vomit-inducing, and really, it's not too surprising when you note that the team handed out 103 of a possible 162 starts to Mike Pelfrey, Scott Diamond, Pedro Hernandez, Kyle Gibson, Vance Worley, P.J. Walters, Liam Hendriks, and Cole DeVries, all pitchers that had ERAs over 5, a strikeout rate below 6 per 9 innings (except DeVries but he had only 2 starts), and a batting average allowed of .296 or worse. With the exception of the walk rate, the starting rotation from last year was horrendous.
This offseason, the signings of Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, and Mike Pelfrey were not designed to fix the rotation, but simply to return it to respectability. Baer suggested in his article that the Twins should have focused on Masahiro Tanaka and a reclamation project like Josh Johnson, but I think that would have been a mistake. First, note that Tanaka was just posted in the past week by his team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles. The offseason is already half over; missing out on Tanaka would have been disastrous for the Twins. Assuming Pelfrey, Hughes, and Nolasco would have signed with other teams, the Twins would be looking at Bronson Arroyo, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Matt Garza as the top remaining starting pitchers on the free agent market. That's not a bad crop, except two of these players would require a draft pick to sign, something the Twins have not been receptive of doing. Additionally, the Twins would need to outbid other teams in order to sign Tanaka, something I'm not confident would happen.
Second, Baer does note that Josh Johnson is a reclamation project, and that means he carries a ton of risk. While he was a top tier pitcher when he was younger, he has fought injury problems his entire career. Right now, the Twins want pitchers that can eat innings so they can avoid going to the replacement and below-replacement level pitchers I listed above. Plus, and this applies to Tanaka as well, he'd have to have been willing to come to Minnesota. I know that Johnson is a native here, but that's no guarantee that he'd want to return.
Therefore, I think the Twins did a solid job with their signings, even if they're not spectacular on the whole. Really, the Twins wanted their rotation to become passable, and I think they accomplished that. A popular thing to check right now during the offseason are projections for the 2014 season, and we can use these to estimate how much the rotation has already improved.
What I did was compile the same key stats as I used above for the 2013 rotation, except I used the projections for Nolasco, Hughes, Kevin Correia, Pelfrey, Vance Worley, Scott Diamond, and Samuel Deduno. Yes, that's seven pitchers when a major league rotation is five, but there's a method to my madness.
You see, there are multiple projection systems available to me on FanGraphs, my baseball statistical website of choice. These two projections are Steamer and Oliver. Now, I have no idea who created these systems, nor do I know how they work, but I find them interesting to see how a player is predicted to perform in the upcoming season. In case you were wondering, I did happen to choose to use one of these systems over the other, and I chose to go with Steamer. If you're familiar with them, Oliver is a bit optimistic for players as it typically projects the player for a full season's worth of appearances, whereas Steamer is a bit more realistic with playing time (i.e. it projects Nolasco for only 30 starts because of a minor injury instead of a full season's 33-34 like Oliver).
Going back to why I chose seven pitchers for five spots, it's because I knew that Worley, Diamond, and Deduno were not predicted to pitch the entire season in the Twins' rotation, so I included them to fill the #5 spot as a whole. Also, I omitted Alex Meyer even though he will inevitably be called up this year simply because Steamer projected him to make only one appearance (obviously false) and Kyle Gibson was ignored because I'm thinking he'll start the season in the minors because he has options and the Worley/Diamond/Deduno trio does not.
Finally, I will compare the projected 2014 Twins rotation to all of the 2013 rotations, simply because, well, to be honest, I was too lazy to run the projections for every single team. Behold!
That's... well... that's not much better, sadly. Yes, there are improvements across the board, but this is still reeking of a below-average rotation. Nevertheless, I think the main takeaway is again that the 2013 staff was putrid, and this is looking like a starting staff that will not embarrass the team.
Two things I want to point out as well: First, yes, the strikeout rate improves by a full strikeout per game and yet it's still the worst in the majors. That's how bad the Twins were with strikeouts on the pitching side last season. Second, the innings pitched is still worst in the majors, but it should really have an asterisk as the seven pitchers I selected will combine for only 137 starts next year. If we're extremely conservative and say the remaining 25 starts are filled by pitchers that average 5 innings per start, that would push the Twins' total innings mark up to 951, a number that would have ranked 20th last year. If you're feeling more bullish and bump it up to 6 innings per start, the Twins are then at 976 innings and 11th from 2013.
Overall, no matter what anyone says, I am still encouraged by the early spending the Twins front office did this offseason. I will admit I felt the re-signing of Mike Pelfrey was not a great move, but it did add some more depth to the pitching staff and will help the team avoid calling up some retread from the minor leagues to make 10-20 starts next year. In time, as a few more minor league studs like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano get called up, the turnaround for the Twins franchise will arrive.