Thursday, May 31, 2012

Terry Ryan's Swap

If you're a baseball fan you will probably remember that the Twins signed Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham this winter in lieu of Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. If you're a Twins' fan you probably had an opinion about it.

The Twins were coming off their worst season in over a decade, finishing dead last in the American League. The last thing many fans wanted to see was two-thirds of the outfield to leave via free agency in Jason Kubel and fan-favorite Michael Cuddyer. However, the new-GM Terry Ryan didn't wait around to fight with the market for the two mainstays and signed cheaper options in Ryan Doumit (1 year $3 million) and Josh Willingham (3 years $21 million). It's fairly clear that Kubel and Cuddyer both believed, like most Twins fans, they'd be returning as both of them waited to sign until the week after Willingham inked his contract with the Twins and it was clear that ship had sailed. That next week Kubel signed with Arizona for 2 yeas and $16 million while Cuddy signed a 3 year deal for $31.5 million.

(Read the rest after the jump)

These moves surprised a lot of Twins' fans. Cuddyer and Kubel had supplied much of the hitting production behind stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau since 2006. Though Josh Willingham seemed to be a decent replacement for Cuddyer in the batting order, he wouldn't be able to replace his skill in right field and Doumit was really just a gamble, based on health and the versatility to play multiple positions. Many fans accused the front office of being cheap (shocking, I know) and of mailing in the season before it even started.

 The first two months of the 2012 season have vindicated Terry Ryan & Co.'s decision to swap out the more expensive veterans for the cheaper misfits as one of the few positives of the season. First of all, they save $23.5 million over the next three seasons. Whether the fans care or not, that pays for a full season of Joe Mauer and is very significant for the future financial flexibility of the team.

Secondly, the replacements have flat out been more valuable than Cuddyer and Kubel. The Twins' guys have combined for 1.5 bWAR compared to 0.4 bWAR for the old guys. Willingham has hit .276/.401/.564 (197 Plate Appearances) in pitcher-friendly Target Field compared Cuddyer who has hit .271/.330/.488 (185 PAs) in hitter-paradise Coors' Field. Even adjusted for Cuddyer's superior defense, Willingham has been better. On the other hand Doumit has hit .256/.336/.432 (146 PAs), starting a plurality of his games at catcher, has been less valuable offensively than Kubel who has crushed the ball .297/.385/.461 (192 PAs), albeit in another hitter's haven. Though, because Kubel is pretty horrific in the outfield and because Doumit has the rare ability to play catcher, their relative value is difficult to pin down and could be closer than it looks.

Looking forward the moves also jive better as the Twins look to rebuild. Having Cuddyer and Kubel locked in at the corner outfield positions through 2013 would block top prospects Ben Revere, Joe Benson and Aaron Hicks who all figure to spend some time in the major league outfield during the next two seasons. As currently constructed, right field is open to be used as something of a proving ground for future Twins, like Ben Revere is now (who, by the way is hitting .302/.343/.413). Doumit is a near perfect fit defensively, as he can stand in for the oft-injured and highly-paid catcher and first baseman at positions where there are no top prospects waiting in the wings, as well play a worthy DH against lefties and righties (unlike Kubel, who never really hit lefties~ .245/.319/.373).

Lastly, the moves set the Twins up for a better future. The compensation for losing Cuddyer and Kubel netted the Twins the #32 and #42 picks in the upcoming draft. These picks aren't guaranteed to yield top prospects, but based on the Twins' recent past they will probably grab a couple high-upside players with a chance at making an impact when the major league team is back on the upswing. Also, because Doumit and Willingham are both over-performing their affordable contracts, they could be desirable assets at the trade deadline this year, returning some prospects who could potentially blossom into some useful players for 2013 or 2014.

Even though it's still crazy early to judge the transactions, it seems that Terry Ryan's first significant off-season moves were a success. The Twins are receiving at least as good production at a much lower cost with more potential to quickly rebuild the ball club for the future.

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