Thursday, September 23, 2010

Russell Martin as a Potential Catching Option For AL Central Teams?

Catching is always at a premium in baseball, and that's no different now. Two teams in the Central, the Twins and Indians seem to have their catching solutions at hand with Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana. But for the other teams in the division, answers are less readily apparent. Near the outset of the 2010 season I wrote a series of articles about the Central's promising young catchers.

Since then, Santana has graduated to the Majors and made an impressive debut by posting a .868 OPS despite a poor BABIP before succumbing to a nasty injury that required surgery. Twins top-prospect Wilson Ramos was dealt to the Nationals where he's provided decent production in limited work.

The other two players, Alex Avila and Tyler Flowers have struggled to varying degrees. Avila has an OPS of just .654 , despite a much improved LD rate with consistent K and BB rates. Flowers has a more respectable .768 OPS in AAA, but that came replete with a 35% K rate that simply wont come anywhere close to cutting it in the Majors.

Of course, we also have to consider the emergence of Wil Myers in Kansas City as one of the better prospects in the game. He's still a few years away however and there are persistent questions as to whether he can stick behind the plate. But we've talked about him recently.

The more immediate catching concerns are with the White Sox and Tigers franchises. Two teams who are already competitive but who could use upgrades at catcher.

The White Sox at one point early in the year were tasked with the difficult decision of whether to deal starting catcher AJ Pierzynski as the team was floundering heading into June. They didn't and went on to post rattle off an impressive run to take the lead in the division. But with the Sox now officially eliminated, and Pierzynski headed toward free agency, attention must be drawn to the future of the position.

Flowers is an option, but his peripherals make him unlikely to succeed at the Majors offensively, while his defensive shortcomings don't seem to have improved by a considerable margin during his time at AAA this season. Unfortunately, he's the only realistic option in the system. Josh Phegley has been decent, but he also has just 72 at-bats at AA and has the same strikeout issues that plague Flowers, with significantly less power.

The Tigers are in a somewhat better position. While presumptive starter Gerald Laird has had two incredibly disappointing seasons in a row, and it appears he'll fail to crack the .600 mark for OPS this year. Yikes. Avila has been better (which isn't exactly saying much) but his season as a whole has still be a disappointment.

So given their proximity to competing, combined with the poor performance the two teams have received from the catchers position, it's not exactly a stretch to assume the teams will be looking to bolster their offense here. With what is shaping up as a poor catching crop in free agency - perhaps led by John Buck off a career year - I'm guessing GMs Kenny Williams and Dave Dombrowski will be scouring other teams rosters to see if they can find an upgrade.

One possible answer could be Russell Martin.

Martin came onto the scene back in 2006 by hitting .282 with a .792 OPS and 10 home runs as a 23 year old rookie. He backed up that performance by posting a .843 OPS in 2007 and a .781 in 2008.

Since then however, Martin's production has fallen off sharply and someone who was once viewed as one of the best young catchers in the game - compared favorably by many in the media to Joe Mauer - has seen his stock drop rapidly as his .680 OPS in 2009 and his .679 mark with 10 games remaining this season are well below average, even by catching standards.

Martin's offensive decline, combined with the fact that he'll be entering his final year of arbitration - where he'll be due for a raise on his 5.05m salary - and the Dodgers precarious ownership/payroll situation have conspired to make what once would've been almost unthinkable, a non-tender, perhaps likely.

The Dodgers are in a position where they're likely going to be forced to trade someone to make payroll for 2011. The most widely speculated names have been those of Jonathan Broxton and Matt Kemp. Two players who have also been disappointing to some degree, but who are also likely to fetch more in return.

However, it's also possible that they simply non-tender Martin this winter, making him a free agent. The other possibility would be a trade. The Dodgers could try and unload Martin (and the salary he'll make in 2011) for likely little more than minor league filler.

In either case, Martin could make sense for the Tigers or White Sox. Despite Martin's relatively poor performance, he's still been a fair margin better than any of their incumbent options appear to be. He also comes with something you won't find amongst the rest of the free agenct crop.


While Martin's production stats have seen sharp declines the past couple years, I still see a lot to like.

Consider, when Martin experienced his most success during his first three seasons, he posted the following marks:

BB Rate (2006/2007/2008):
9.6% - 10.8% - 13.8%

K Rate:
13.7% - 16.5% - 15.0%

LD Rate:
19.9% - 17.5% - 19.4%

And now the marks for the past two seasons:

BB Rate (2009/2010):
11.7% - 12.4%

K Rate:
15.8% - 18.4%

LD Rate:
20.5% - 20.6%

As you can see, the rate stats really haven't changed much at all. Fundamentally, Martin remains the same hitter, posting above average strikeout, walk, and line drive rates. Another important rate, ground ball rate, remains unchanged as well. There is little reason that performance metrics that for three years supported solid production should suddenly be so incapable of doing so in the future.

The ground ball rate, it should be mentioned is the only real concern. It's always been consistent, and bad. Between 48.4% and 51.1% every year of his career. The obvious concern with ground ball hitters from a sabermetric point of view is that they rarely turn into extra base hits. They also tend to hold down a players BABIP if they have poor speed. However, Martin has never had exceptionally poor foot speed. He's actually quite a bit above average as catchers go.

I don't think Martin can replicate the successes he had when he broke into the league, but he should still be capable of providing league average offense and above average defense. To that end, even as he's posted poor offensive showings the past two years, he's posted WAR marks of 2.2 and 2.1 in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

With the Tigers set to shed Laird's 3.9m contract, and the White Sox dropping Pierzynski's 6.25m - there should be payroll available for both teams to pursue Martin via free agency or a trade, should they prefer to do so.

Morning Links for 9-23-10


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Projecting Brennan Boesch's 2011 Season

Yesterday I wrote about Carlos Guillen's microfracture procedure. But before any of that happened, Guillen went to the disabled list with a strained hamstring back in April that opened the door for Brennan Boesch to come in. Boesch was hitting .379 for AAA Toledo and the Tigers thought he could help fill in at designated hitter.

Boy we're they right about that.

Boesch proceeded to take Detroit by storm, posting a .973 OPS in May, and a stunning 1.025 mark in June. During that two month stretch he blasted 26 extra base hits, including 11 home runs in just 188 at-bats while driving in 36. Things went awry after that however and since the end of June, he's struggled to a .204/.287/.274 mark in the 226 at-bats since then.

So what gives?

Well, as is so often the case when relatively unknown players surge to incredible heights, there was a pretty significant amount of luck involved. During Boesch's incredible two month run he was buoyed by a BABIP of .384 - obviously a completely unsustainable rate. Since then he's suffered the predictable regression that always eventually follows. When paired with Brennan's Minor League track record of mediocrity his decline shouldn't have come as a huge surprise.

That being said, there are things to like about the 25 year old's game. He's a big body at 6'6" from the left side of the plate and he uses that ample frame to generate plus power. Many of the homeruns he hit we're of the definite no-doubt variety. That power was evident in the minors as well as he jacked 28 home runs as a 24 year old at AA Erie last year. He's also got a plus arm and moves well in the outfield, especially given his frame, getting consistently good reads on fly balls off the bat.

Brennan's draw backs are a poor eye at the plate - he struck out in 19.7% of his Minor League at-bats, while walking in just 5.9% of his plate appearances. And poor contact rates - a MiLB batting average of just .273 rarely translates well in the Majors.

In the Major's Boesch had a propensity for getting out on his front foot in an effort to get inside the ball and pull it to right. That has made him extremely susceptible to off-speed pitches as well as fastball inside. His batting averages against sliders this year has been just .235 and against changeups he's been even worse at .228.

Essentially Major League pitchers learned very quickly that you could get inside of Boesch's power by pounding him inside and his lack of plus bat speed has really hurt him.

I think Brennan has the raw tools to eventually be a solid if unspectacular hitter. His plus power will always play well but he's going to have to learn to adjust. You can cheat pitchers in the minors by letting your hips fly open, but you can't get away with that at this level.  It might cut down on his homerun totals, but if the Tigers can teach him to stay back and stay inside the ball more often, he can stick. His defense should, at the very least keep him from being a defensive liability while giving him the possibility of being an asset.

I'm certainly not bullish on Boesch but I think he could provide a long-term line of something in the neighborhood of .250/.320/.450. I'm sure that's not what some Tiger fans want to see, but it's really not that bad at all. That's close to league average offense in right with the potential for above average defense. Overall, he's a solid player. Just probably not the star Tigers fan might've thought they had stumbled onto in June.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Travis Hafner's Misleading Second Half Surge

There has been much rejoicing in Cleveland since the All-Star break about the resurgent performance of Travis Hafner who has performed exceptionally well. Hafner has put together one of his best prolonged stretches in, well, a long time. All told, he's managed a .320/.388/.504 line that, if extrapolated over a full year, would be his best OPS since 2006.

The Indians are obviously an offensively challenged organization. Beyond Shin-Soo Choo (who might be the current reigning champion in the most-under-rated-player contest), and Carlos Santana, the Tribe lacks much in the way of legitimate firepower. Yes, players like Asdrubal Cabrera and Matt LaPorta have the potential to be solid supporting bats, but they need more. Cabrera's best season was a .799 OPS mark in 2009, and LaPorta has yet to realize the considerable potential many once saw in him.

An effective Hafner, even at a rate of production significantly less than that he produced during his peak years would be a significant boost to one of the weakest lineup in the American League. Indeed a lineup featuring Pronk at his second-half .892 OPS, Choo, and Santana could compete against most lineups provided the team could bring in a couple extra complementary bats to augment the top and bottom of the order.

Unfortunately, it appears that Hafner's second half resurgence is little more than a fluke resulting from an unsustainable .407 BABIP. This from a player with a career mark of .316. Sadly, nothing fundamental has changed for Hafner, his strikeout, walk, and line drive rates, along with his ISO remain essentially unchanged during the streak.

The Indians need to generate production from the middle of their lineup in a bad way. But they'll have to find some way other than relying upon Hafner, because he's not going to be the answer.

Twins Notes

Justin Morneau remains out of the Twins lineup and there is still no evidence that he's going to return any time soon. Though I suppose this can be taken as a positive. Morneau has pretty much reached the point where it's become unlikely that he'll have enough time to rehab and find his swing prior to the playoffs. That said, it's good to see that the Twins front office realizes that Morneau's long-term health and ability to contribute is vastly more important than his ability to do so now. Always nice to know that not every team is run like the Mets.

That's unfortunate for the Twins. So is this...

The Twins will likely be Mauerless in Minnesota for at least the next few games after Joe Mauer strained his knee. Thankfully for the Twins this seems like a minimal issue. They're going to simply give Mauer all the time he needs to rest. Of course, this makes last weeks sweep in Chicago all the more important as it affords the team the luxury of playing this as safe as they like.

Should make for some interesting lineups however with center fielder Denard Span battling a hurt shoulder, and regular DH Jason Kubel out with a sore wrist. The Twins will be without their opening day leadoff man, #3/4/5 hitters. Can anyone imagine the outcry if the Yankees were without Jeter, Tiexiera, A-Rod, and Posada? Oh the humanity!

Wil Myers, The Next Carlos Santana?

Once again with the season winding down, Royals fans have little left to follow. One thing they can look forward to however is the play of Wil Myers. The raw but extremely talented Myers was drafted in the third round by the Royals who went above slot to sign the talented youngster who was considered on of the more intriguing high school bats in the '09 draft class.

The Royals got Myers' feet wet in 2009, sending him to the rookie leagues where he posted impressive numbers in a small 22 game sampling of things to come. They then opened him up at Low-A Burlington to open 2010. I tend to think that's awfully aggressive, but the Royals are known for pushing young bats they like pretty hard. He didn't disappoint as he posted a .908 OPS in 68 games there before a mid-season promotion to High-A Wilmington of the Carolina League. In a league where the average OPS for 2010 was just around .725, the 19 year old Myers posted a .966 mark in 58 games on the back of a .345 batting average.

Myers' average in High-A was aided by an unsustainably high BABIP, but there is a lot to like going forward in the peripherals. Registering 94 strikeouts in 447 at-bats, Myers does strikeout more than you'd like to see, but given that he was a 19 year old playing against guys usually at least 2-3 years his senior, that's far from concerning at this point. Extremely encouraging was his walk rate as he drew 85 free passes over the same period. The home run numbers don't exactly leap off the page - just 14 in 447 at-bats, but again, given the age and level, that's a very impressive number. In addition Myers showed he can run at least a little bit, registering three triples and twelve steals.

Defensively, the questions that plagued Myers out high school remain. Saying that of course should come as no surprise what-so-ever. He's in his first full year of catching and he's going to need a few more years to really develop that aspect of his game. That is of course, if it ever does develop. Not every catcher works out - indeed, many don't. But we won't have an answer to that question for at least a couple more years. Concerning ourselves too much with it now hardly seems worthwhile.

The exciting part to me is when you start playing the comparison game. And, as the title of this post no doubt suggests, I'm referring to the Indians Carlos Santana. Santana, a catching transplant didn't even get his first whiff of pro-ball until age 20. But at age 22 at High-A posted similarly eye-popping numbers with nearly identical strikeout and walk rates.

Making such simple comparisons is foolhardy - but it's fun. In this case, given that Myers is two years junior to where Santana was after exploding onto the scene in 2008, one can at least begin to build some dreams on the youngster. And in a city that has suffered so much for the past 25 years, dreams are a good thing. Especially when they come wrapped up in a talented young catcher.

Carlos Guillen Has Microfracture Surgery

Carlos Guillen finally went under the knife to have microfracture surgery this past Friday. The produce is relatively knew and involves doing precisely what the name implies - creating many miniature fractures which is supposed to help improve the overall strength of the bone. That might sound odd, but in general, bones, when broken, heal much stronger than they were before. This is the general premise behind the surgery.

The time table for the produce is difficult. While ideal circumstances would have the player back on his feet in four months, and playing again in six, that's not always the case. The surgery is most common amongst basketball players and not infrequently, those players have taken much longer to fully recover, or simply never have. In terms of baseball players, the only notable cases has been those of Brian Giles and Grady Sizemore. Giles never made it back and Sizemore is still struggling two years later. I don't say that to create panic - but to be realistic. Guillen is facing a long, complicated recovery process, and one that doesn't always go well.

For the Tigers as a franchise, the injury and the surgery have significant on-field and front-office implications. Guillen has struggled through injuries the past few years, playing just 113 games in 2008, 81 in 2009, and just 68 in 2010. All the while he's seen his defensive abilities predictably decline as his range has diminished. That said, he was managing to play a passable 2nd base (-5.0 UZR/150) in a small sample size after taking over for the extremely disappointing Scott Sizemore earlier in the year. before being hurt in a collision with the Yankees Brett Gardner.

In Guillen's stead the little heralded Will Rhymes has taken over and been a pleasant surprise. Rhymes has posted a .293/.341/.369 triple slash on a perfectly sustainable .319 BABIP. At 27 years old the slightly built Rhymes possesses neither significant upside, nor any power to speak of, but he's a solid contact hitter and plays decent defense. Long-term, he's not the answer at the position, but provided he doesn't show any significant decline, there is little reason to believe that he can't continue to play passable (-8.5 UZR/150) defense while providing a solid bottom-of-the-order OBP.

In a more ideal world however, Sizemore will begin to perform to his fairly impressive capabilities. While the Tigers had expected Sizemore to be ready to take over for the departed Placido Polanco it appears that an injury suffered the previous fall in the Arizona Fall League had not yet full healed and he struggled significantly. After being demoted early in the year, he pulled his game together somewhat, posting progressively better numbers each month for AAA Toledo (save for a pretty rough month of August). In his limited time since that return he's performed well, launching two homeruns in the Tigers past two games.

For the remainder of this year, Manager Jim Leyland will go with a Rhymes/Sizemore platoon. However, he's stated that he does not want to have to platoon his second baseman next year, citing concerns over the continuity of the teams double-play combination. The Tigers second base job is likely to open 2010 as an open competition between Sizemore and Rhymes. I would have to believe that the best possible option would be for the younger, more talented Sizemore to win the job outright and hold on to it. Something he failed to do this year.

The final aspect to this situation is Guillen's 13m financial commitment for 2011. Odds are that the Tigers have Guillen's contract insured, as is the case with most significant contracts. It's also likely that the insurance would cover roughly half of his salary in the event that Guillen was unable to play in 2011. Should Guillen be physically able to play however, the Tigers would likely not be able to collet insurnace monies and would, therefore, be stuck paying a player who might have very little to contribute, even if used strictly as a designated hitter. Long-term, the injury is thankfully less impactful. 2011 was Guillen's final year under contract and it was unlikely he'd be back with the Tigers (or if so, at a greatly reduced cost). 

Of course, we always hope for the best - for the player and the organization - and that's no different in this case. But the Tigers need to be prepared to go forward in the event that their former All-Star shortstop is either incapable of performing well - or at all.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Aaron Laffey Back For The Third Time

For the third time this season Aaron Laffey will be joining the Indians. This time he'll be rejoining the team because Justin Masterson's season will either be over after his start this evening, or shortly thereafter. That and AAA Columbus just finished off their season by winning the Governors Cup, freeing Laffey up to rejoin the big club.

Once considered a long-term part of the back-end of the Indians rotation, Laffey has never managed to stick in the Majors. Quite simply, Laffey walks too many to overcome his inability to miss bats. That hasn't changed and Laffey and at this point, Laffey's long-term potential may be as a lefty specialist, but even in that regard, he isn't very good.

Ryan Raburn Deserves a Real Chance

In 2009, the Tigers opened the season with Josh Anderson as their opening day left fielder and handed innings to no less than seven different players at the position before Ryan Raburn finally cemented himself at the position, closing the season with a very good run, by posting an OPS of 1.043 on a not wildly unsustainable (though still very high) BABIP of .350.

That display of offensive prowess wasn't enough however to keep the Tigers from seeking an upgrade, and this offseason they brought in All-Star veteran Johnny Damon to try and solidify the position. Damon was coming off a very strong 2009 of his own that saw him post a .854 OPS - his best mark since 2004. However, most teams shied away from him and his asking price on the basis that most viewed him as more of a DH than regular in left and over concerns that his performance had more to do with other factors (like the shiny new stadium in the Bronx). But the Tigers saw an opportunity to buy low on a guy who had finished the game of musical chairs that is the MLB off season without a job, and signed him for a one year 8m deal.

It turns out those concerns were largely justified. Damon posted an OPS of just .763. His defense has been ok, as he posted a +5.3 UZR/150 in limited action, getting most of his playing time at DH when Carlos Guillen (again) landed himself on the disabled list and Brennan Boesch emerged as an offensive force through the first half.

Raburn was again relegated to bench duty, pinch hitting work, and the occasional spot start. Not surprisingly, he struggled with the inconsistent at-bats. But then Magglio Ordonez went down with injury, and Boesch eventually came back to Earth after his BABIP fell out of the 400s. Suddenly there was another chance for Raburn.

Again, Raburn has taken his chance at every day work and run with it. Since Ordonez went down on July 24th, Raburn has picked up the slack, hitting .333 with a 1.005 OPS and 11 home runs in 173 at-bats. After posting a .891 OPS in 2009, he's backed it up with a .827 this year and for his career - one that spans nearly a thousand at-bats - he now has an OPS of .802. And, despite a reputation of struggling against righties, he's posted OPS marks of .800 in 2009 and .769 in 2010

There should be little doubt about it, he can hit.

To be clear, Raburn is a liability in the field, but his defense in left throughout his career has been passable. I tend to think the +1.7 UZR/150 in left that he's accumulated throughout his career isn't indicative of his real fielding abilities (which aren't that good) but he's not nearly as bad as the reputation he's received either.

In total, Ryan Raburn is a guy who can, and will, hit. He'll do so while playing a below average left field, but his bat should more than make up for that and I can't see any reason why he shouldn't be able to provide 2/3 WAR for the next few years.

Oh yeah, and he won't run the Tigers 8m either.

Examining Brent Morel

With the 2010 season on ice after being swept at home by the Twins to put them nine games out of first, the White Sox have turned to playing their youngsters. One of those players is third baseman Brent Morel. Earlier in the season the Sox gave Dayan Viciedo a shot but his inability to make consistent contact combined with poor defense at third made that a short-lived experiment. There certainly is no guarantee that the Morel experience will last any longer or be any more effective, but with 2010's regular third baseman Omar Vizquel, who worked himself into the role more by happenstance, not getting any younger the Sox are doing their due diligence by getting the youngsters some at-bats.

Morel split his 2010 season between AA and AAA posting an OPS of .806 at the first stop and .851 at the second. He still strikes out a bit more than you'd like and his walk rates are pretty anemic, but at 23 he's still young for his level and there is plenty of reason to hope that he'll improve on those numbers some more. Defensively he's solid but unspectacular, though he's already made a couple minor gaffs. Undoubtedly the White Sox are going to want to see him iron out his game some more in AAA again next year.

In his short tenure with the big club he's already clubbed a pair of homeruns in just 12 at-bats. That power wont last - he's hit just 32 home runs in 1,207 minor league at-bats - but his 10 home runs between AA and AAA at just 23 suggest he has 15-20 homerun pop as his offensive game develops. His .320 average in the minors this year is largely the result of a huge .372 BABIP but he looks like a guy who can hit .270-.280 over his career.

Actually, he reminds me a little bit of the Twins Danny Valencia and I think their offensive games project similarly. Like Valencia last year, there were questions about his defense, and Morel will need to answers those questions for the better, but overall, the complete package looks like a guy who will be a solid if unspectacular Major Leaguer for quite a few years to come.

At just 21 years old, Viciedo is the more interesting prospect, especially with his huge power, but he's got tons of holes in his game. He strikes out far too much, doesn't walk nearly enough, and wont hit for enough average as is. To say nothing of his defense, which could generously be described as awful. Of course it's extremely important to remember that he's just 21 and spent this year splitting time between AAA and the Majors. He's got plenty of time to figure his game out. But in terms of projectability, you have to like Morel.

Justin Masterson Making His Final Appearance Of 2010?

The Indians have stated that they'd like to keep Justin Masterson under 180 innings this year. Initially they had implemented their plan to move him to the bullpen a week ago, but after an abbreviated start by Mitch Talbot, they were forced to put Masterson back into the rotation. Tonight he'll take the mound with 173 innings already on the arm, and the Indians are sticking by their desire to limit his innings in a season that has seen him throw 50 more than last year.

Should Masterson throw the seven innings necessary, he'll likely be done for the season. Or, if he doesn't they may send him to the bullpen. That seems like an unnecessary step to me, but it shouldn't make a huge difference one way or another.

Masterson is an intriguing pitcher who has the peripherals to suggest Major league success: a solid strikeout rate (though that took a dip this year), and a very good ground ball rate. He does need to improve his control however, and if he can't he might be a better fit in the bullpen than he is in the rotation. That said, he's posted xFIP marks in the low fours the past two seasons and one way or another, the Indians should give Masterson every opportunity to stick in the rotation.

Royals Dragging Their Feet on David DeJesus' 2011 Option

The Royals hold a 6m team option on David DeJesus for the 2011 season. To me, it seems like an easy option to exercise. DeJesus has been a solid/major contributor to the Royals for a long time and was in the midst of what was possibly his best season ever, posting a .827 OPS until he went down. Throw in the fact that 6m isn't exactly the toughest pill to swallow and DeJesus himself seems to want to be back... this has to be a no brainer right?

Well for some reason with less than a month until a decision needs to be made in regards to the option, Dayton Moore has yet to make a decision regarding that option. It's certainly not time to panic or anything, but given DeJesus' consistent performance and his bargain price - Fangraphs has only once pegged his open-market value at less than 10m since 2005 - it seems silly to drag this out.

Given a somewhat crowded outfield picture looking forward, the Royals seemed poised to move DeJesus this summer and until he broke his thumb, he was one of the better outfield trade chips on the market. That however should not mean the Royals simply cut-bait on DeJesus.

This decision should be made all the easier given that Alex Gordon, who the club sent down to AAA in hopes he could rediscover his swing, has not. Gordon lit up AAA pitching (not a huge shock) while the Royals moved him to left field in order to create a spot Alberto Callaspo - who they promptly traded. But Gordon has yet to translate any of that to the Majors as he's posted an OPS of just .725 since returning.

By all measures DeJesus' option is one that should be exercised. His performance more than justifies it, there are no age concerns, there shouldn't be any concerns about the injury, and it's not like Gordon is banging down the door with his bat or anything. Not having done so already only feeds the impression that the Royals front office just doesn't get it.

Twins Surge In Spite Of Cuddyer

Last year when the Twins lost Justin Morneau to a stress fracture in his lower back on September 12th, they stood 5.5 games out of first place. But, bouyed by a late season hot streak from Morneau's replacement at first, Michael Cuddyer, they managed to come back to claim the division in a dramatic game 163. In Morneau's absence, Cuddyer hit .325 with a 1.073 OPS, slugging eight homeruns in 83 at-bats and driving in 24 runs in just 21 games. Or more simply put, he was a monster.

This year the Twins have again been without Morneau's services - this time since Mid July - and again they have surged in his absence. Hopefully no one is foolish enough to presume that Morneau being out of the Twins lineup is a good thing. We are after all talking about a guy who could've very well won his second MVP award this season had he not gone down with his concussion. Morneau was in the midst of his greatest offensive season ever with an OPS of 1.055 (best in the league at that time) that dwarfed his output from his 2006 campaign. Also important was that Morneau, once criticized by the organization as a defensive liability had developed into an elite defensive first baseman with a 18.0 UZR/150 before he went down.

That the Twins have played so well - they own baseball's best record since the all-star break and have won eleven of their past thirteen - however is the result not of Morneau's replacement, but in spite of him. Indeed, it's a testament to how much deeper and how much better the 2010 iteration of the Minnesota Twins is in comparison to the 2009 version.

After posting perhaps his best offensive season ever last year with a .862 OPS, 124 OPS+, and 3.0 oWAR, Cuddyer has struggled for most of 2010. More notably, since Morneau went down on July 7th, Cuddyer has posted an OPS of just .771, about 20 points below his career average. His bat has been particularly bad of late, with an OPS of just .680 since the beginning of August.

In addition, he's played a questionable first base, allowing multiple matchable balls to sail past while botching far more plays than anyone would like to see en route to a -4.4 UZR in just 62 games. Cuddyer's defensive struggles at first are forgivable - it's difficult after all to credibly criticize a player who is playing out of position because he's the only capable option. But it doesn't make the struggles any less glaring.

The Twins have been without Morneau's services for over two months now - far longer than anyone could've anticipated from a play that looked so benign. While they've fared far better than I think most would've anticipated without their best offensive player, any notion that they don't miss him terribly would be incorrect.

Michael Cuddyer deserves plenty of praise for he unselfish play he's displayed throughout his career, playing essentially anywhere and everywhere he's been asked. But the Twins need Morneau back. Not only for his bat, but for his defense. While Cuddyer is a capable player, the Twins will have a much easier time making a deep run into the playoffs with their regular first baseman than they would with his replacement.

Carlas Carrasco Producing For Cleveland

I touched on Carlos Carrasco very briefly earlier this year, but the fact that I've started writing again, coupled with his strong performance over the past month certainly warrants another look.

Back then I wrote;

"Thankfully to say Carrasco can still reach the mid-90's but operates in the 91-93 range, and his fastball still has plenty of life. If the curve and changeup are still at least league average pitches, anyone with a good enough fastball can have some success, but his secondary pitches, namely his curveball will have to regain it's earlier form for him to ever realize his old potential."

Well, Carrasco is living at the high end of my fastball projections, averaging 93.0 and 93.1 mph on his four seam and two seam fastballs respectively. While his curve still hasn't regained it's old form, Carlos has developed some kind of nasty with his changeup. A pitch that for Carrasco just a year ago was more of an after-thought has become a devastating, fall-off-the-table offering as he's gotten hitters to swing and miss at the pitch nearly on nearly a quarter of his offering.s (23.4%)!

Want to know how bad the bottom of this pitch falls out? Just check out the charts. Jimminy cricket. He doesn't possess what I'd consider plus speed differential (8mph+), but with the way that pitch dies, he doesn't seem to need it. Carrasco is also clearly very confident with the pitch, offering it up 23% of the time.

Carrasco's stuff still doesn't project to a top-of-the-rotation kind of arm, but the development of his changeup, coupled with improved control suggest that he should be a strong long-term option in the middle of the Indians roster for the foreseeable future. Speaking of the control, his release points look really, really solid. If he can maintain that kind of consistency he should be able to maintain his improved control. The last thing you'd like to see would be for him to get on top of his curve a little better. He's getting solid depth on the pitch, but he's still a little too 10-4 with the pitch for my liking.

Looking at the FIP metrics, he's looking solid across the board. He's got slightly above average strikeout and walk rates and he's inducing 68.7% ground balls. That latter number is completely unsustainable, but he's always been ground ball prone and it appears that he's improved in that area. As stated above, neither the raw stuff, nor his rate stats are what you'd expect from an ace, but he's set up well in all areas of the game. His 2.18 ERA is the fluky result of a .240 BABIP, but the package is real. His xFIP of 3.67 gets a boost from that huge GB rate, but I see a guy who should be able to consistently post ERAs in the 4.00 range provided his stuff holds up.

Kudos to Carrasco and the Indians pitching staff for turning a negative (his diminished curve) into a positive (the plus change). Lemons to lemonade as they say.

The Emergence of Chris Sale

The White Sox season has fizzled down the stretch, and after being swept by the Twins to fall nine back, it's officially (unofficially) over. But that doesn't mean they don't have good things to look forward to in 2011. Perhaps the most exciting aspect to 2011 will be the performance of Chris Sale.

Drafted with the 13th overall pick in this years draft, Sale made just 11 relief appearances in the minors before being called up to the big club after striking out 19 in just 10 innings of work. He's got a body scouts love at 6'5" and at a wispy thin 170lbs, projects to fill out and perhaps add a little velocity to an already hot arm.

For now, Sale is essentially a two-pitch guy who works primarily off a fastball that has averaged 95.6mph and a frisbee slider at 81.4mph. The fastball doesn't have much sink, but he does generate good arm-side run. The slider is filthy. He throws it from the same 3/4 arm-slot that he does his fastball and the pitch has fantastic lateral and vertical movement. That, coupled with the speed differential between the slider and his fastball makes it a devastating offering, especially to lefties.

With only those two pitches in his arsenal at the moment, he's not a realistic option for the rotation - at least not yet. But the White Sox are insisting that he will be looked at as a starter in the future - which is good. I'm a big believer that relievers are, for all intents and purposes a dime-a-dozen, but electric arms with plus secondary stuff need to be given every chance to become starters where they can make the largest impact for an organization as possible.

To be an option out of the rotation he's going to need to develop a third pitch. He does throw a changeup, but at this point, it's a complete show-me offering and not a particularly good one at that. Developing that pitch will be vital in the future, because while the slider is great against lefties, righties will eventually key in on it. He'll need the changeup to keep right-handers off balance, and off his relatively flat fastball.

Beyond the raw stuff, the first thing that jumps out to everyone is the phenomenal K rate of 11.57/9IP. However, Sale has also been a ground ball machine, inducing ground balls on 51.4% of his balls in play. The last aspect of his FIP game that needs to be rounded out is his control - which is pretty rough still. That's neither surprising, nor of particular concern, after all the kid is in just his first season of professional baseball.

The White Sox and general manager Kenny Williams are known for promoting and pushing their best prospects aggressively - often bringing them to the Majors despite there being glaring holes in their games. Sale is no different in that regard, he's hardly a finished product. However it would be nice, for once, to see the Sox show the patience necessary to allow such a talented young arm to add some polish to his game. Let him develop his changeup and improve his control in the minors instead of needlessly burning through his arbitration clock with a pitching staff that shouldn't be in any immediate need of his services in 2011.