The Minnesota Twins Salary Game

*The following article is based strongly on the sabermetric stat: WAR. WAR is short for “Wins above Replacement” and attempts to compute how many wins a given player will provide your team over the course of the season compared a replacement level player. WAR considers replacement level to be 48 wins for the season or a .300 winning percentage. A team full of “replacement players” will produce a 48 win season and a WAR of 0.00. Of course, most teams have players who are better than this and, occasionally, players who are worse. Thus, WAR numbers allow us to calculate the relative worth of players. For further explanation of WAR see here.

Baseball’s winter meeting are over and the free agent days are waning so now’s a good time to take a step back and look at your 2012 Minnesota Twins. Specifically, I want to talk numbers. Last year was a disaster by any standards. The Twins spent more money than ever before and for their money they got their worst season since 1982. Actually, there can be little doubt that it was their worst season ever, because there were expectations last year that were certainly not there in 1982. Some of this was due to injuries. The lineup was shredded by long-term injuries to Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan and others. However, if we’re going to look at this fairly, these same players did not perform to high standards even when they were in the lineup, and the pitching staff was very bad even when healthy.

Since the end of the season the Twins have made some changes. Let’s talk about those and get to the bottom of whether this is a team that can compete now, soon, or never.

By the numbers

Twins payroll 2011: $112,737,000 (9th in MLB)

Twins payroll 2012 (est. to-date): $95 million

The Twins have created some buffer room from a number that probably was not sustainable at the current rate of wins and losses, which is to say that the Twins can’t spend more money if they continue to lose. These savings have come at the cost of Michael Cuddyer (3.1 WAR in 2011) and Jason Kubel (1.1 WAR).  The Twins would have had to pay around $10 million for Cuddyer–or in other words, around $3.2 million for every win he gets them above a standard replacement player. For Kubel, the $8 price tag he received from the D’backs per year equates to around $7 mil per win.

The question isn’t whether Kubel and Cuddyer were positive contributors. They both are (though Cuddyer has certainly been better) . The question is whether their salaries would be worth the investment in wins. Kubel has been up and down in WAR values over the past three years but he averages between 1.0 and 1.5, while Cuddyer’s 3.1 WAR was a personal best and his three year average works out to 2.25. So, for Kubel you would be committing $6-8 million per win, whereas for Cuddyer you would commit $3-4 million per win. We can see immediately that it made much more sense to keep Cuddyer all things being equal. However, things are not so simple.

What’s a win worth?

Fangraphs (www.fangraphs.com) has worked out that every 1.00 WAR value these days is worth about $4.5 million in salary. In other words, Michael Cuddyer was worth 3.1 WAR multiplied by $4.5 million dollars in 2011, which equates to $14 million. This may seem like a good deal of money, but let’s remember that is his value over a replacement player–i.e., a player who would contribute to a .300 winning percentage. It is not his value over an average MLB outfielder. And let’s also recall that his WAR value in 2011 was a career high, and we’ve seen that his 3-year average equates to a WAR of 2.25 or a Dollar Value just over $10 million. This number is interesting, because it is precisely the contract he was given by the Colorado Rockies.

What’s the plan in the Outfield?

But here’s where WAR gets truly enlightening. Cuddyer might be getting paid what is fair for the wins he provides, but we have to consider the wins he is blocking by keeping other players on the bench. If he is playing in the OF, which is his primary position, then he is blocking Ben Revere (2.0 WAR in 2011), Chris Parmelee (1.3 WAR in limited action), or Trevor Plouffe (-0.6). The realistic hope for the Twins is that Plouffe or Parmelee develop into players with WAR values between 1 and 2, which means that Cuddyer is essentially adding .25 to 1.25 wins per year over these players. In other words, Cuddyer is worth $1.5-5.5 million more than Plouffe/Parmelee. These two players are both signed for under $500,000.

The numbers–you can imagine–are much less favorable for Kubel considering he is blocking any number of players from the DH position and his average WAR is not up to snuff with his $8 million per year contract no matter how you cut it.

Sabermetrics offers lots of numbers, but in reality decisions are often made on more on the gut-level. These moves weren’t made because of metrics stats, even if some of the ideas behind these stats are very much in play in Terry Ryan’s office. Instead, Cuddyer and Kubel were allowed to leave because it did not seem right to spend money on the same  players after a season that was such a huge disappointment. Terry Ryan sees a franchise that spent money and had adverse consequences. It’s one thing to lose when you’re spending in line with  the bottom teams in the league; it’s quite another when you have a top-10 payroll. So, if I’m in the Twins GM office I’m thinking, “Let’s make this a manageable situation, not take on any more long-term contracts and work out a plan for the coming years.” This, in fact, seems to be Ryan’s philosophy.

This team is long from dead. It hurts to have $23 million tied down to Joe Mauer if he is hurt or unproductive–likewise with the $15 million the Twins owe Justin Morneau in 2012. However, there are still some good pieces in play. Another year for Ben Revere in the majors should do him good, and along with Denard Span, Josh Willingham (who the Twins got for $7 million and who has a comparably better WAR value than Cuddyer, I might add) and Chris Parmelee/Trevor Plouffe off the bench, the outfield actually looks like a strength of this club.

What about Cuddyer, the infielder?

Let’s not forget that Cuddyer does also play First Base and Second Base, though quite poorly in the latter case (his UZR/150 at 2B is -20.8 with 0 being average and -20 being one of the 5 worst in the majors for players with over 100 innings). This is the problem. If Cuddyer is playing 1B it is for an injured Morneau, which we hope is not the case, but if he is playing 2B he projects to be a horribly bad fielder. The Twins have few good options in the middle infield, and this is certainly an area of need, but it is a mark of how badly this is a need that you would even consider playing Cuddyer out of position to fill this kind of hole. If the Twins signed Cuddyer for $10 million/year with the idea of playing him at 2B they would be be hard pressed to make any improvement in fielding over the course of contract. As it is, the Twins have picked up Jamey Carroll to help out up the middle, albeit playing slightly out of position at SS. This is a typical, low-risk, low-reward move and fits the style of a franchise unwilling to commit money in an uncertain situation (by the way, Carroll’s 3-year WAR avg is 2.0 or a quarter win below Cuddyer’s and he signed for $7.3 million/year less!).

The real problem: Starting Pitching

The average MLB starting pitcher had a WAR value of 2.0 last year, which is quite high. This is to say that pitching matters–a lot, in fact. This is why teams pay a good deal for quality at this position; it is also why it is very difficult to compete in the free agent market.

The best SP to hit free agency this year was likely C.J. Wilson who eventually signed with the Angels for $77.5 million over 5 seasons, which equates to $15.5 million per year. Last year Wilson chalked up an impressive WAR of 5.9, though his 3-year average is a very good, though slightly less inflated 4.2. So, let’s bump that up a bit and assume he performs very well at a 4.5 WAR over the course of the contract. If he does then he is producing at a Dollar value of $20.25 million/year, which sounds like the Angels hit this one out of the park! However, we acknowledged earlier that the average SP is producing at 2.0 WAR, so really Wilson is producing an additional 2.5 WAR or $11.25 million above the average pitcher. The average SP last year earned $4.9 million , so when that number is subtracted from 15.5 we discover that Wilson is getting paid 10.6 million above average and is producing 11.25 million above average, so in other words the Angels got a good deal… but only if Wilson produces at that 4.5 clip. If he gets injured or becomes ineffective he could, in fact, be a positive detriment! This is the problem with starting pitching. There are more booms and busts here than anywhere else.

So, knowing that, let’s take a look at the Twins:

Carl Pavano (2.9 WAR on a slight decline)
Scott Baker (2.9 WAR, 3 yr average, steady)
Francisco Liriano (2.4 WAR, highly irregular, down more than up)
Nick Blackburn (1.3 WAR, 3 yr average, declining)
Anthony Swarzak (1.0 WAR in 2011, trending up over two years)

One look tells you all you need to know. We have a pitching staff lacking an ace. Without Liriano’s extraordinary 6.0 WAR in 2010 there is almost no way that this rotation does anything above the 2.0 WAR mark–i.e., their ceiling is mediocrity. Further, this rotation projects below average with 3 of the 5 (Pavano, Liriano and Blackburn) projecting downward.

Yet, as we’ve already seen, a good starting pitcher is one of the most expensive commodities. The Twins are in a bind here because spending on a SP opens up all kinds of risk/reward. The question they have to ask is whether now is the time to try to win at all costs, and I think it would be unadvisable to go that route after such a poor 2011 season. Fans might be appeased by signing a CJ Wilson–if such a thing were possible–but at this point that would seem like childishly putting all our eggs in one basket. Wisely, Ryan did not go this route.

The Wildcard: The bullpen

Much to the disdain of the general public, the Twins signed Matt Capps in 2012 for a $4.5 million contract with a club option for 2013. While there was no way the Twins were going to pay the exorbitant price that Joe Nathan demanded ($7.25 million/year, which by the way might have been the worst move in free agency this year… yes, I’m looking at you, Texas.), Twins faithful did not want to see Matt Capps at the back of bullpen either. Capps is relatively young for a closer, but he doesn’t have the kind of explosive stuff that is typical of the position. It has shown in rather up-and-down results. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which is designed to demonstrate a pitcher’s ability independent of how well his team fields behind him) has gone 3.28, 4.90, 3.31, 4.49 in the last four years. A change of over 1.00 in FIP from year to year is rather drastic. While FIPs below 3.50 are good for relievers, you might just as easily get a 4.5 from Capps which puts him near the bottom of all closers in MLB.

Nonetheless, I can understand the Twins thinking here only because without Capps their relievers don’t slot into roles very well at all. With Capps, even if he has a 4.50 FIP season, you have Glen Perkins in a familiar 8th inning role, Alex Burnett being allowed to develop further as a potential 7th inning in-betweener, and Jose Mijares perhaps laying off the ice cream sandwiches and joining the conversation (Mijares was non-tendered, thus significantly lowering the opportunity for extra Twins publicity care of The Biggest Loser).

Still, this is a bad bullpen that is going to need some time and infusion of talent to recover.

Conclusion

The Twins seem to have elected to wait and see who develops where and not commit to more salaries than they have to. Joe Mauer will be in Minnesota six more years. There is still plenty of time to build around him, assuming he can regain a semblance of his MVP form–whether at catcher, first base or wherever. Committing to more contracts right now seems like the wrong approach. Stability is key to building for the future. I have not touched on the draft picks the Twins will receive for the departures of Cuddyer and Kubel in part because it is difficult to put a value on those picks, but whatever they do provide is simply bonus; there is no collateral damage in having extra picks. In essence, they offer premium flexibility for a front office who seems to have that as a high priority.

It is possible that the Twins will contend again in the next couple of seasons if they stay healthy and get a career year here or there from unexpected sources. However, the front office has not mortgaged their future in the hope of bouncing back immediately. Instead, they have taken a wait-and-see approach. I would think that given the uncertainty surrounding their star players this is certainly the prudent plan for 2012. After that, let’s see how it all plays out. You can bet Terry Ryan will.

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