Monday, April 15, 2013

The Curious Case of Chris Colabello

After two straight 90+ loss seasons and a cool start to 2013, a lot of attention has shifted to the Twins promising stockpile of prospects. Plenty has been written about top prospect Miguel Sano and last year's 2nd overall pick Byron Buxton, but this post will take a look at a lesser known "prospect" in 29 year old Chris Colabello. At this time last year, I had never heard of Colabello. In fact, it wasn't until the Twins fell out of contention and I started aggressively following minor league performances that I noticed him.

Who is he?
Chris Colabello is a 29-year old 1B/DH who played high school and college baseball in the Boston area. After going undrafted out of Assumption College in Worcester, MA, he continued his playing career in the Independent League, primarily with the Worcester Tornadoes. In 2012, at the age of 28, Colabello finally got his first shot in affiliated baseball, as the Twins signed him and sent him to their AA team in New Britain, CT. After a very successful season at AA, Colabello spent the winter playing ball in Mexico, where he continued to hit for both average and power. These performances were enough to win an invite to spring training with the Twins, as well as a spot on Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic. After an impressive showing at the WBC, he was assigned to AAA Rochester, one step away from the majors. So far this season, Colabello has obliterated AAA pitching, adding "International League Player of the Week" to his resume.

The case against
For the past year, Colabello has been one of the most productive players in the entire Twins system, so why the lack of hype (and hope)? Primarily, it is because of his age. As a general rule, 29 year old men dominating AA playing against guys in their early 20's don't generate a lot of excitement. On top of that, he plays a position (1B) where the Twins don't need help (Morneau/Parmalee), and doesn't provide any flexibility as a utility player, pinch runner, or defensive replacement. It is easy to look at his situation and assume that he's overproducing because he's playing against younger players, and that he's past his prime and unlikely to get any better. It is also easy to overlook a player who played 4 years of college baseball, failed to sign a minor league deal, and then spent 7 seasons playing for the East Coast version of the St. Paul Saints.

The case for
Ever since I first noticed his name in the New Britain boxscores, "CC" has done nothing but hit. In his first season of affiliated professional baseball, he hit .284/.358/.478 with 19 home runs, 37 doubles, and 98 RBI. A winter spent in Mexico produced the following numbers: .332/.399/.644 with 17 home runs, 13 doubles and 44 RBI in just over 200 at-bats. In the WBC, he hit .333/.368/.667 with 2 more home runs and 7 RBI in only 18 at-bats. In a very limited spring with the Twins, he added 2 more doubles to go along with a .333/.429/.444 batting line. As of this posting, his AAA numbers are .441/.525/.853 with 4 HR and 2 doubles in 34 at-bats! That production was good enough to earn him the afforementioned "player of the week" honors.

Is it possible that he is a "late bloomer" and finally learned how to hit as he approched his 30s? The answer is a resounding NO. Colabello was a 4 year starter in college, with batting averages of .301/.361/.361/.380. He averaged 10 doubles and 6 home runs per year. As a 21 year old for Worcester, he hit .320 with 8 home runs and 7 doubles playing for only half a season. Throughout his 7 years playing independent league baseball, his batting average was .317, hitting as high as .348 and never once hitting below .300 for a full season. He managed to hit for average while showing some power, hitting 86 HR and 166 doubles in 7 seasons. While it is difficult to judge these numbers against Indy League competition, it is clear that Colabello has put up amazingly consistent numbers at every level, both as a young kid playing against older players, and now as an older player playing against younger, higher regarded prospects.

Final Analysis
Chris Colabello is too old to be considered a prospect, but has been too productive to be ignored. Is it possible that he simply flew under the radar for a number of years, finally got his chance with the Twins, and is now blossoming into a legitimate major league first baseman? The guy can flat out hit, plays a decent first base, and is mature enough to handle a bench role on a bench that is carrying a similarly limited player in Wilken Ramirez primarily because he has some skills with the bat. I think it would be a mistake to overlook his impressive body of work simply because of his age. Later on this evening, I'll be braving the elements at Target field watching the major league debut of Oswaldo Arcia, who will hopefully solidify his status as a promising future contributor for the Twins. After a short audition, he'll likely be sent back to Rochester to join Chris Colabello even if he has a successful debut with the big club. It won't be a popular move, but it simply doesn't make sense for a 21 year old prospect to sit on the bench when he could be playing every day at AAA. A 29 year old non-prospect is a different matter entirely...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Emotions

I’m confident that my wife is happy that the trade deadline has passed, as it means that I can stop checking Twitter on my phone every 3-5 minutes. My emotions, however, are much more complicated.

Frustration:
I’m frustrated that the Twins front office decided the best move was to stand pat at the trade deadline instead of making moves to improve the team either now or for the future. I can’t remember a season when the Twins have had so many tradeable assets as they have this year, and yet we pass into August with nothing in return. We can be confident that the team got calls about Cuddyer, Kubel, Span, Revere, Thome, Slowey, Liriano, Pavano, Baker, Nathan, Capps and Young. Of that group, I would at least consider cashing in on a few, but apparently the offers just weren’t good enough.

Confusion:
In order to run any sort of business, you have to have a plan. In the Twins case, you need to know what direction you are going. At the trade deadline, this requires a simple decision. Are you buyers or sellers? Answering neither to this question is a cop out, and is unacceptable to me. It would be like playing the stock market and deciding to wait and see if the start-up company pans out before deciding to invest more or sell off. It is your job to decide what to do and doing nothing is not doing your job! I’m not saying that every GM has to make a move at every trade deadline in order to do their job. Some GMs don’t have enough tradeable assets to be sellers, or don’t have enough minor league prospects to be buyers. If you are truly unable to predict the chances of making the playoffs, I can see why standing pat may be the smart choice. When you have a 2% chance of winning the division, a 0% chance at the wild card, and a variety of tradable players at your disposal, passing up good trade opportunities is just bad business.

Relief:
The Denard Span rumors kept me entertained for the past few days, but I’m both happy and relieved that no deal was struck. I am not surprised that the Nationals were interested in Span, but I can’t imagine anyone on the Twins roster that should bring a larger package of players in return. Span is relatively young at 27, signed to a team friendly contract through 2014 (team option in 2015), bats very well in the leadoff spot (..366 OBP) and plays an above average CF. He is also a solid person and good team player. In short, he is exactly the type of player that the Twins should NOT be trading, unless it is to add a sure thing missing piece to a World Series run.

Odds and Ends:
• August Trades: Bill Smith seems to do a better job making transactions after the trade deadline has passed, rather than before. Maybe this is because there are fewer options to confuse him. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but waiver trades typically pan out better for buyers than sellers, and we’ll be sellers soon enough.
• Outfield Logjam: The only reason that I didn’t hate the Span rumors was because it did address a real problem for the Twins. We not only have too many outfielders on the current roster (assuming everyone is healthy), but the majority of our top prospects play the same positions. Filling two (or three) holes on a potential major league roster in return for a player like Span would seem like a logical move. A deal involving Storen or Clippard plus a solid middle infield prospect (Lombardozzi) and a younger prospect would make sense for the Twins. Such a deal leverages a valuable asset at a position where we have an excess, and fills obvious holes in the middle infield and bullpen with young major league ready prospects who can help right away (or soon).
• Payroll Issues: In addition to the numbers problem in the OF, there is a numbers problem in the finance department. The Twins are going to have to trim the payroll for a second straight year in the offseason. Much of this could be accomplished by simply allowing our free agents to leave and/or declining expensive team options. This includes Cuddyer (FA), Kubel (FA), Thome (FA), Capps (FA) and Nathan (12M Option / 2M buyout). Some very quick math suggests letting these players walk will save the team about $35 million in 2012. Some of that savings will be eaten up by the arbitration raises of players like Casilla, Young, Liriano, Slowey, Mijares and Perkins. It is not scientific, but this is essentially the list of players we should consider trading in order to get the books in order.
• Mauer: It is becoming more and more likely that Mauer will spend most of his gigantic contract as something other than a catcher. I know he doesn’t like the idea, but it has to happen. No matter when it happens, or what form it takes, it would be nice if the organization were actively planning for it. Here are a few options that should be considered.
o First Base: As much as I hate to use Mauer defensively at first base, he could potentially be the best defensive first baseman in the league within a year or two. In this scenario, Mauer splits his time between catcher and first base, with Morneau as DH when he is not playing in the field. Ideally, we trade or sign a free agent catcher who can hit to split duties with Mauer, and Butera becomes our third catcher or is traded.
o Third Base: A couple years ago, this was Mauer’s most likely landing spot, and I think it is still a possibility. Is Danny Valencia really capable of holding down this spot long term? That is the question that the organization needs to decide. A Mauer/Valencia platoon would be possible, but at Valencia’s age, he needs to either start or be traded. I truly believe Mauer could win a gold glove at 3rd base which would be more valuable than at first.
o Corner OF: Mauer doesn’t have great speed, but he is very athletic for his size, has excellent instincts, and an above average arm. I don’t think this move makes much sense, especially due to the large number of OF prospects in the system.
• In any of the above scenarios, the Twins need to somehow acquire a starting caliber catcher. I don’t mind Butera as a backup, but his offense creates a big hole in the lineup. If Mauer moves to third base, we not only need to decide about Valencia, but will also need to find a new home for Miguel Sano should he work his way to the majors in 3-4 years. If first base is the answer, what do you do with a steadily improving Chris Parmalee, who should be playing in AAA right now?


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Cuddyer Debate

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about the merits of trading Michael Cuddyer at the deadline. He is a right handed hitter with good power who can hit for average and provide serviceable defense at almost every position on the field. He could be a valuable contributor for any contending team, both on and off the field. He is also likely to be a Type A free agent, which means the team that trades for him will get compensation if they don't re-sign him after the season. Essentially, any team that can't work out a deal for Carlos Beltran or Hunter Pence by Sunday will likely place a call to Mr. Smith.

The arguments against trading him are far less compelling. The organization, the fans, and the city love Michael, and rightfully so. He was drafted and developed by the Twins organization, is the longest tenured active Twin, and is a class act both on the field and in the community. He has also expressed a desire to sign a contract extension, yet he has been willing to play out the last year of his contract without complaining about the lack of a long term deal. Basically, he is a really great guy.

From a baseball standpoint, bringing him back in 2012 is a questionable proposition, even at a drastically reduced salary. His value on the field is his versatility, and his ability to hit very well in streaks. Fortunately for the Twins, these streaks seem to coincide with Justin Morneau's frequent trips to the disabled list. In a previous posting, I argued that trading him before the season would be desireable, both to free up salary and improve the outfield defense. With the emergence of Ben Revere, and the impending return (hopefully) of Denard Span, the outfield is going to get crowded quickly. If Morneau returns sometime this season, it will get very difficult to keep Cuddyer's bat in the lineup. Since the odds don't look good for another division title, it also makes sense to let some of the younger guys audition for 2012 and beyond.

Jim Souhan made a very compelling argument for making this trade happen, and then re-signing Cuddy to a new contract in the offseason. I have to agree with this suggestion for a number of reasons:
1. Cuddyer's trade value will likely never be higher than it is today. His batting line is verging on career highs across the board (.298/.373/.468) and is in the final year of his contract.
2. Resigning him for next year depends on his willingness to accept a reduced role and salary. While I think it is likely he'd be willing to do this, there is no guarantee that it will happen if someone else offers him a better deal. So, if we can get a deal we consider better than compensatory draft picks, we should do it.
3. Most of our top prospects are outfielders (Revere, Tosoni, Benson, Hicks, Arcia, Morales) and we need to "open the door" to give them an opportunity. Cuddyer should NOT be brought back in 2012 as an everyday outfielder.
4. If we do re-sign him after the season, our first round pick will be protected if we finish in the bottom 15 teams. We would only need to give up our 2nd round pick in order to bring him back. If we don't place that kind of value on him, then I'm not sure why we would consider re-signing him in the first place.
5. Most importantly, we need to give up hope of a division title in 2011. Not only are we 7 games back with 59 to play, but we are chasing three teams to the finish. That means we not only need to get hot in a hurry, but that Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago can not. I just can't see this happening, despite some historic comebacks in recent years.

I hope that Bill Smith takes a good look at the offers that come in, picks up some solid prospects in the deal, and treats Cuddy with the respect he deserves by sitting down face-to-face and explaining why the trade is going down. I then hope he thanks him for all he has done for the organization and sets up a meeting with Cuddyer's agent immediately following the World Series to discuss a potential return as a super-utility player, clubhouse leader and great all-around guy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Twins For Sale

This is a posting that I meant to put up months ago when the Twins had fallen desperately out of the race.  By the time I was ready to post it, however, losses started turning into wins.  Out of respect for the nearly unprecedented run that followed, I held off on posting my thoughts. Now that the team has returned to something resembling an average baseball team, the post is starting to feel relevant again.  My fear is that the Twins winning ways, combined with a terrible AL Central division, may force the front office into some bad decisions in the next couple weeks.   

I've decided to post the original version, so please take that into account.  I have provided updates in a few places.

If there is one positive thing about the Twins falling out of contention in May, it is that the front office can approach the trade deadline as sellers.  There is a legitimate argument to be made that competing for a division title every year can take a toll on your organization.  First of all, it means that your draft picks are in the 20s and 30s instead of single digits each year, where most of the “can’t miss” prospects are drafted.  It also makes it difficult to leverage current assets to accumulate additional prospects at the trade deadline. 

Imagine the haul that the Twins could have received in 2007 had we been sellers at the trade deadline.  With almost no hope of retaining Torii Hunter and Cy Young pitcher Johan Santana long term, both players could have been dealt to contenders for big returns.  As it turns out, staying in contention left us with compensatory picks for Hunter when he signed a $90M deal with the Angels and a number of marginal prospects for Santana that have currently amounted to Jim Hoey and his 10+ ERA (Update: Hoey continues to dominate AAA hitters with an ERA of 2.63 and WHIP of 1.06, while his major league ERA has dropped below 8).  In fact, the “big piece” of the Santana deal, Deolis Guerra, is currently 3-5 with an ERA of 9.0 at AA (Update: Guerra has been much improved since moving to the bullpen: 2-2 4.13 ERA and 1.375 K/IP) . 

Last year we missed an opportunity to trade bullpen arms such as Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier at the deadine, and instead sent Wilson Ramos to the Nationals for Matt Capps.  The move, which looked questionable at the time, looks even worse now that Ramos is doing well as the starting catcher in Washington (Update: Ramos is still a work in progress with a .243 average, but has slugged 9 HR) and Joe Mauer is on a “leg strengthening program” in Ft. Myers. To make matters worse, Mauer’s replacements have batting averages of .216, .133, and .118 (does it really matter who’s who?) (Update: Mauer's return to the lineup as a singles hitting utility infielder has been welcome, but has not had a huge impact on wins and losses).

As clear sellers this year, the powers that be have a lot of options as they look out to next year and beyond.  Personally, I would look to trade the following players in order to strengthen the club in the future.  I wouldn’t necessarily make all of these trades, as it depends on what we would receive in return.

  • Kevin Slowey: Since anyone reading the newspaper knows this trade will happen, I’m not sure what we could expect in return, but his combination of major league experience and low cost should generate some interest (Update: Still waiting on this one).
  • Carl Pavano: I still like “stache” and advocated resigning him this year, but if you can pickup a decent prospect or two, it would make sense to move him now and hand his spot to Kyle Gibson next season.
  • Jason Kubel: This is a difficult one as Kubel has been our best player this year.  He will be a (type A) free agent after the season and looking for a long term deal, which we probably can’t afford.  My guess is that we hold onto him, offer arbitration, and take the picks when he signs elsewhere (Update: Kubel's injury has hurt is trade value, and may knock him back to a type B free agent, which could affect this decision).
  • Matt Capps: We’re paying him too much this year, and can’t afford to pay him next year just to justify trading away Ramos.  He is still young and a good setup man for a contender with bullpen issues. (Update: Capps' play of late definitely limits his trade value)
  • Delmon Young: I can’t imagine a more frustrating player than the D-Train.  Trading him at this point would be the definition of buying high and selling low, but I just can’t stand watching him play baseball anymore.  As logic takes over, however, I probably hold onto him one more year to see if anything clicks.

During the offseason, I wrote that the Twins needed to make significant changes in the outfield, mostly maintain the status-quo in the infield, keep the bullpen together to the extent possible, and make some changes to the starting pitching staff.  I find it interesting that the front office decided to keep the same outfield, make major changes to the infield, blow up the bullpen and maintain the starting staff.  I’m not suggesting that the Twins are the worst team in the league because no one listened to me…but they ARE the worst team in baseball, and clearly no one listened to me.

Friday, June 3, 2011

T-Wolves 2012 (pre-draft edition)

Update 6/7: This idea may be starting to gain some steam as a number of sources are now reporting talk of a deal with the Raptors that would include the #2 pick and Flynn for DeMar DeRozen and their #5 selection.  DeRozen would provide more size and defense at the SG spot than Ellis, and getting back the #5 pick would allow us to select either Enes Kanter or Jonas Valanciunas as a potential upgrade at center.  While not as explosive or unique a player as Ellis, DeRozen is under team control through 2013/2014 at a very reasonable price, which would upgrade the talent level at SG while maintaining most of our current salary cap flexibility.  Because of that, however, I have my doubts that the Raptors would consider this trade.  It is possible, however, as Flynn is almost a Toronto native (born and raised in Niagra Falls, NY) and the Raptors have been linked to him in trade rumors since the Rubio signing. 

After a longer than planned hiatus from blogging, I think it is only appropriate to get back on the horse with another analysis of our hometown NBA team.  For those of you who are not familiar, that would be the Timberwolves.  When I decided to kick this blog off with a season preview of the 2010 Wolves, I got more comments on that one posting than all the others combined.  The comments were mostly from readers who couldn’t figure out why I would waste my time blogging about the Wolves, but confused feedback is better than none at all.  In any case, why mess with a winning formula?

While winning 32 games in two years should be enough to push a team to the back of the line for blogging priority, recent events have managed to keep them relevant for now.  Even after finishing with the worst record in basketball this year, the Wolves managed to keep their perfect record in the NBA draft lottery.  That record is, of course, having never improved their draft position in the history of the lottery format.  The optimistic view in this case is that it could have been much worse.  In what is considered to be (and certainly isn’t) a two player draft, the Wolves managed to avoid getting “Laetnered” by falling to #3.    Combined with a second 1st rounder (#20 via the Al Jefferson trade) and the recent signing of Spanish enigma Ricky Rubio, this creates some interesting possibilities for the upcoming season and beyond.

Scenario #1: Stick at #2 and select Derrick Williams.
By selecting Williams, David Kahn takes the consensus best player available on the board and gets a young, intriguing prospect with a ton of upside.  This would allow us to trade a completely redundant talent in Michael Beasley for either a solid shooting guard or a 2012 1st rounder.  After our second first round selection and the inevitable departure of Jonny Flynn, our starting lineup would look like this:
K-Love          Darko          Williams
Rubio     Wes Johnson

Bench:  Webster, Ridnour, Randolph, Tolliver, Pekovic, Ellington, 3rd (veteran) PG, and the #20 draft pick (Chris Singleton, Florida State?)

Why this just might work: 
If Love is going to be the cornerstone of the franchise, the Wolves are going to have to sign him to a near max extension soon.  By drafting Williams and trading Beasley (who should have some legitimate value), we get a younger, less expensive version of the same player, and avoid the temptation to sign both Love and B-easy to big deals in consecutive years.  By rolling with Rubio, we can take advantage of a pass-first point guard that should make his teammates better, especially a very talented Wes Johnson.  If Darko, after posting career numbers last year, can become a more consistent presence inside, this team might start to win a few games next year. Though I am still a Jonny Flynn fan, I’m not sure what he would fetch in a trade at this point.

Why this may fail:
As Delmon Young seems intent on proving, having a breakout season one year does not necessarily guarantee success the following year.  Kevin Love simply must continue improving in order to justify this approach.  I’m fairly confident that both Johnson and Darko will be more consistent next year, so the wild card is really Rubio.  Though I’m not counting on him to score much next year, he can’t be effective unless he can keep the defense honest by hitting a jumper now and then. 

Scenario #2: Use assets to acquire an impact veteran player   
With Rubio now as the (current) point guard of the future, the obvious target should be a proven, explosive scorer in the backcourt to compliment his pass-first mentality.  One very interesting option would be trading the second pick and Flynn for Monta Ellis of Golden State.  Regardless of the details of the trade, our starting lineup immediately looks better:
Love         Milicic          Beasley
Rubio     Ellis

Bench: Johnson, Webster, Randolph, Ridnour, Ellington, Pekovic…

Trade analysis:
First of all, the Warriors need to trade Ellis now, as his value will never be higher and there is no room to keep both he and Steph Curry long term.  At $11M/year, they will have limited options unless they are willing to take back a lot of salary in return.  The Wolves are one of a few teams that can absorb Ellis’ salary in return for young players and draft picks.  By selecting Williams with the #2 pick, they fill a huge need on their roster and get a talented PG in Flynn.  Not only is he a full year removed from major hip surgery, but he should also be much better in an offensive scheme that better fits his talents.  They could then use the cost savings to sign a mid-level free agent, likely at shooting guard. 

From the Wolves point of view, they get an explosive scorer to compliment Rubio in the backcourt who also draws attention away from Michael Beasley on the offensive end. The team can then move Wes Johnson to a 6th man role, where he could continue to adjust to the NBA game in season number two.  From a financial standpoint, Ellis immediately becomes the highest paid player on the roster and makes it more difficult to sign both Love and Beasley to extensions in the next couple years.  As Johnson profiles as more of a small forward than a shooting guard, his continued improvement could allow the Wolves to trade Beasley if he becomes too expensive. 

With my GM hat on, I would start negotiations by asking for Ellis and Golden State’s pick (#11) for the #2 (Williams) and Flynn, especially since we’d be taking back so much salary in the deal.  At #11, we could afford to take a flyer on someone like Jimmer Ferdette, Klay Thompson, or Alec Burke to further strengthen our bench.  I’d keep our #20 pick in my back pocket just in case we needed to sweeten the deal a bit.  If not, I’d look to flip that pick for a first rounder in 2012 (since the Clippers will get ours due to the failed Marko Jaric experiment).    

The good news is that both of these scenarios keep the Wolves moving in the right direction by building around a young core of solid players.  Scenario #1 takes a bit of a longer term view as we actually get younger in the short term and retain much of our financial flexibility for a future move.  It would be the quality of that future move that would determine the success of this strategy.  Scenario #2 makes a move now by cashing in some of that flexibility and locks us into a larger (and more expensive) core of players.  Success in either scenario depends on continued development of our young talent, much improved defensive execution, and most importantly, solid floor leadership from a 20 year old Spanish point guard.