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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Delmon Young and Matt Cain

MLB Trade Rumors has a a Twins-related Trade Rumor that has gotten a bit of discussion elsewhere also: Delmon Young for Matt Cain, a SF Giants RHP who just turned 24 and has pitched ~200 innings/year in 2006-2008 after coming up at the end of 2005 (yes, he was 20 then). Cain's career ERA is 3.74,

Discussion of this rumor has ranged wildly, and I believe troublingly. My hypothesis at the outset was that this might be a good trade for both sides, but then having looked closer, I felt it would be a mistake for the Twins. Finally, after discussing this with my brother Mark (his thoughts at the bottom), I'm now interested again. So here's my closer look at Delmon Young and Matt Cain (along with a few other trade-pieces). Your thoughts and comments are quite appreciated (especially any Giants fans out there).

Preliminary Summary
Matt Cain is a great young pitcher and could be a good fit for the Twins. A trade of Delmon Young and Boof Bonser for Matt Cain seems to be a fair deal for both sides. Matt Cain and Delmon Young are both young, cheap, and productive players with upside (though neither has lived up to expectations or reached their projected numbers yet).

Matt Cain

The question for me surrounds whether Cain can be a #2 or higher starter. People who consider him as good as Lincecum or King Felix need to recheck their numbers. Right now in comparing the oppositional hitting, I don't see Cain as being as good as some pitchers the Twins already have: Liriano, Baker, and Slowey. Therefore, anyone who expects the Twins to trade one of those three along with anyone else seems foolish (at least to me).

Delmon Young
The question about Delmon Young is whether he can live up to his projected production.

In terms of Twins bloggers, Aaron Gleeman thought when the Twins acquired him and still thinks Delmon projects worse than most other analysts and hopeful Twins fans, and Nick Nelson is telling people not to sell low (and give up on) Delmon just yet. And Seth says we should keep all the OF/DH options and put a rotation in play.

So what does this mean?
The questions for Twins fans should be: Is (a) Delmon good enough to be trade bait for a good pitcher, while remaining (b) not so good that the Twins hate Bill Smith for trading him away? I think he probably fits well between these two concerns. I think he might not be quite proven enough to get Cain straight up (and most commenting fans at MLBTR seem to agree). Projecting the value of pitchers and hitters on the same metric is almost impossible (at least for me), but because of their similar ages, time the team has cheap control of the player, performances, and upsides, I think that the two aren't too far off. In other words, I don't think getting Cain will require too much more than Delmon and an MLB ready starting pitcher.

If the Giants require a pitcher of some sort to go with a batter like Delmon, I might choose to part with Perkins first, but I'd be fine with Boof. In fact, the Giants may prefer Perkins, but they would be wise to choose Boof. Here's a simple explanation of why:

Cain's ERA (like Perkins') looks good, but both Cain and Perkins lose a lot when you consider fielding independent variables like tRA and xFIP. On the other hand, Boof would be expected to do better than he has. Additionally, Cain's Swinging Strike% looks better than these three Twins (and similar to Liriano, Baker, and Slowey), but he's in the National League facing pitchers, which appears to bump up this percent. Cain throws hard (FB = 92.4mph compared to Baker at 90.7 and Blackburn at 91.2), so it's no wonder that he throws more balls and has a worse K/BB ration than any of the Twins except Perkins. The biggest thing that stands out is Cain's K% which is higher than these three Twins and in the range of Liriano, Baker, and Slowey. But Boof's is better than the other two, which again tells me Boof should be more desirable to the Giants than Perkins or Blackburn.

Balls and Called Strikes
To address this question in more detail, consider the following three charts with Balls and Called Strikes. I find that I can predict good pitchers using these numbers pretty easy. In the AL, a pitcher should get swinging strikes on at least 8% of their pitches and limit their balls to 34% of their pitches. The other options (called strikes, foul balls, and in play) seem to be less important. In the NL, the pitcher should get a higher percentage--maybe 2% higher--of swinging strikes (because they face pitchers a couple times each game).

Note: I color-coded things from green (good) to yellow to red (bad) for some of these stats, just so you can easily pick out what stats I think are important.

ERA, xFIP, and tRA
Now consider a similar set of three charts that shows first the AL, then the NL, then the Twins. As you can see, Liriano, Baker, and Slowey are the Twins' best pitchers by most metrics, and Boof is probably the fourth. Again, this could be due to Blackburn and Perkins being rookies, but from the Giants' perspective, that should mean little. They're just looking for a pitcher to fill out their rotation while picking up a young, cheap, high-upside batter. Boof fits the bill. So does Perkins. So does Blackburn.

I sorted these by the AVG08 (average of xFIP and tRA), but you can see how well these numbers line up with K% and GB%, two good indicators of how well a pitcher is doing. But they also follow the Swinging Strike% numbers pretty closely. The Twins should be worried about Perkins (and maybe Blackburn) if the whole rookie thing isn't factored in.

Boof Bonser
The unfortunate situation with Boof is that he's probably out of options with the Twins. I mean that not just from the technical standpoint (he can't be sent back to the Minors, nor should he be), but also from the organizational standpoint: Boof is probably not going to get another chance to be a starting pitcher with the Twins (though his numbers suggest maybe he should).

In other words, he is a good trading chip for the Twins, a great trading target for any team looking for a good SP option, and someone with whom the Twins ought to recognize as a more valuable trading chip than many fans might realize. Even Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors has Boof as a likely candidate for breaking out next year, especially if he ends up in the NL West.

Glen Perkins

I've made my case about Glen Perkins before. Yes, he was a rookie as a starting pitcher this year (having been a late relief guy in '06-07). So like Slowey and Baker before him, he could do better next year as he settles in (we can't expect everyone to take the MLB by storm like Liriano did in 2006). The same thing can be said for Blackburn, who also had a solid rookie season. This is reason enough for avoiding any trade that gets rid of our starting five without bringing in another good pitcher. I get this. But by the numbers, Perkins worries me, as does Blackburn, only more so with Perkins. Besides, if the Giants choose Boof rather than Perkins, the Twins could still trade Perkins to Seattle or Milwaukee to get a left-side infielder (Beltre or Hardy).

Final Summary

Cain does not appear to be a franchise player, much to the chagrin of Giants fans I'm sure. And it reinforces a Young + Boof for Cain or Young + Perkins for Cain deal. So I hold by the earlier comment that Twins fans should be happy enough with this trade.

Most of these trades are going to come down to whether DY or Cain are considered a better player, both in general and for the organization. They are both quite young for their MLB experience. They both have done quite well already in their careers (though neither has performed to the level critics have expected). They both have room to improve (Delmon with power, Cain with a better K/BB ratio). Delmon is not yet a franchise outfielder. Cain is not yet a #1, and to this point has been a stretch at #2, but he seems to be moving toward #2 status. But those are the potential upsides that both have.

Trade Option #1: Straight up: Matt Cain for Delmon Young
MN: Opens OF spot, gets young pitcher, but risky if Young turns out good (this point could be made for all other options)
SF: Upgrades the offense, but downgrades the pitching--very risky if Delmon doesn't live up to projections (and so far, he hasn't)

Trade Option #2: Matt Cain for Delmon Young and Boof Bonser
MN: Opens OF spot, gets young pitcher for guy who wasn't going to get much of a chance with MN
SF: Great chance to improve the offense while possibly getting just as good of a pitcher (though older) in return

Trade Option #3: Matt Cain for Delmon Young and Glen Perkins (or Nick Blackburn)
MN: Opens OF spot, switches young pitchers in a likely upgrade
SF: Upgrades the offense without losing much pitching (pretty good deal, but watch out for Perkins if 2008 was not just a rookie year)

Trade Option #4: Matt Cain for Delmon Young and Kevin Slowey
MN: Opens OF spot, gets young pitcher, but loses young pitcher who is just as good or better (in other words, this is dumb)
SF: This would be a steal

What I hope happens
I'd really like for the Twins to pursue this. I would try Delmon for Cain first, but I'd be quite willing to try Delmon and Boof for Cain. And if my general rule for proposing a trade as a biased party holds (make sure that you feel like the other team has a decent, even good chance of getting the better part of the deal, and that they might therefore make the trade), then I could see this happening.

I'll let MVB give his take in the comments section since I know he's been thinking a lot about this possible trade also, but in the mean time, here's my brother's take.

Mark Werner's Analysis

I've always been a big fan of Cain (though this might be because he was a nice fantasy pickup when he was the best pitcher with so few wins). I would generally be in favor of trading for years 24, 25, and 26 of Cain.

First, Cain is younger than any of the current twins rotation, already has years of MLB experience, and still seems to be improving each year.

Second, his deficiencies could well be ameliorated by the twins system. He pitches much like Baker with the only downside being his high walk rate, something the pitching staff could easily temper.

Third, while his xFIP isn't too appealing, his FIP is excellent. This is due to him having a very low HR/Fly ratio. Can he keep this up? I would argue yes. Cain has consistently defied the weight of xFIP, in his four years, always being around a point below with his FIP. Remember, xFIP is still an experimental stat. Some pitchers can keep flyballs in the ballpark and some can't. And it's not just pitching in SanFran since Cain's road HR rates are similar. You see similar defiance of xFIP in pitchers like Oswalt, Pedro, and Lackey until this year.

Fourth, his pitching style suits the Twins. If Cain keeps flyballs in the park, his high flyball rate plays right into our defence of Gomez and Span. So it's likely his ERA would drop with an exceptional outfield backing him up, catching more balls and turning some doubles into singles.

Of course, some people out there would say Cain isn't a pitcher that can win, being just 15-30 in the last two years. But as your spreadsheet shows, his run support has been awful.

I made a spreadsheet with the most similar 7 pitching lines to Cain's own from the last two years.

From that, you could expect Cain to go 14-8 with average run support, flipping his 1 to 2 win to loss ratio around. On the spreadsheet, you also see Cain pitching solid seasons comparable to much older pitchers. Danks probably had the most similar year to Cain this year. I would argue he is already a #2 starter, potentially joining Liriano, Slowey, and Baker as legit top-end starters. I wouldn't consider Boof, Blackburn, or Perkins at that level.


MVB said...

You're right Brett, I have been thinking about this one quite a bit. Here's where I'm currently at.

First I think, why would we trade Young for Cain? Shouldn't we have just kept Garza? Unfortunately, hindsight is not 20-20. But then I think, maybe we'd rather have an arm like Cain instead of Garza.

Cain is one year younger and seems more reliable to me. Garza has the capability to pitch a great game any given day but you never know what you're going to get. As noted by the Werner Bros, Cain gives you innings, a solid ERA, and can truely benefit in the Minnesota system. Part of me wonders what Rick Anderson could do for the young Cain. Baker, Slowey, and Blackburn are pitchers breed through the system. Cain may not be as polished, but has arguably more raw stuff on the mound. I agree with Mark that Cain could win 15 games in Minnesota next year.

The second issue of contention is at what point do you cut ties on Young? Is dealing young for an arm like Cain, Bill Smith's way of making up for his "mistake" trade last year? Or does Young still have the potential to be a breakthrough player? I do believe that Young will still become a better player, in fact, can still become a great player. But I also think that from the start the Twins overvalued Young. If he stays in Minnesota and has another similar year to his first two, his trade value will not be very high. If the Giants are still this high on Young like the Twins were last year, perhaps it's time to cut ties while you can and sell this stock somewhat high. Plus, amid rumors about Young not fitting into the Twins clubhouse, I wonder if there is more to a Young trade than simply clearing up more space in the outfield.

The final issue in my head is does this trade fulfill our needs? I would actually answer no, because the Twins could simply bring back the same rotation they had last year and theoretically be ok. However, if this move is really made I believe it'll be a precursor to further moves in Smith's plan. If we can do Young and either Boof/Humber/Perkins I would pull the trigger. A rotation of Liriano/Baker/Slowey/Cain would even make Blackburn expendable for another move that would hopefully include an Adrian Beltre or a JJ Hardy. That's an awesome, young four man rotation of proven arms.

We will wait to see how this rumor develops in the next few weeks. The first week will be the first step in offeason moves with the GM meeting in Las Vegas.

Anonymous said...

there's also the point of delmon's defense. it's horrid. he plays far inferior defense to an average left fielder. replacing him with span and putting cuddyer in right greatly improves the defense next season. i mean cuddyer's not great, but even delmon makes him look like a great fielder. another thing - his weight. he sure looks like he's gaining weight fast, and i read somewhere that the twins were afraid his body would turn into that of his brother, dmitri.

cain has more upside than any pitcher the twins currently have (even franchise). he's young, big/strong, and seems like a down to earth and good clubhouse guy. he has an overpowering fastball and would benefit from being on a team that actually scores him runs and also being on a team that focuses on throwing strikes. if they can get cain for young/boof and then trade one of blackburn/perkins for a SS/3B i would be very happy and could see the twins doing great things for a few years. while were getting to that, why not get mike lowell from the sox (he wouldn't cost anything but money as the sox seem content on teixera) rather than go get 1 year of beltre for 2 or 3 good young prospects? he's an injury risk but i'd still rather have him with buscher as insurance than give the M's good prospects for 1 year of beltre (who's also coming off surgery). just a thought.

MVB said...

Good point about Delmon's D. His arm was so highly touted, but sitting in the home run porch this season right behind Delmon became "difficult" at times.

Lowell is an intriguing option. He would bring some right handed pop and plays excellend defense. You're right, Buscher would be a great person to spell Lowell, but the health concerns worry me a bit too much. We'll have to wait and see how this hip surgery recovery turns out. The Sox do seem set on going after Tex and with Youkilis, Lowell could be the odd man out.

I wonder how his old back and legs would hold up on the dome turf all year long? Good thought though!