Thursday, January 29, 2009

Did The Twins Screw Up By Signing Kubel?

    Both Dave Cameron (Fangraphs) and Rob Neyer (ESPN) seem flabbergasted that the Twins signed Jason Kubel to such a lucrative deal.  Cameron's solution would have been to cut Kubel loose and then sign 30-year-old Eric Hinske to a one-year, $1 million-to-$2 million dollar contract the Pittsburgh Pirates are soon to close with the former Rookie of the Year
Cameron writes "Compare that to Hinske (the guy who had to settle for a one year deal as a role player on a terrible team) - the offensive skillset is practically identical, but Hinske can actually play a competent 1B/OF. The offensive difference in their CHONE projections add up to 2-3 runs over a full season, but the defensive gap is clearly much larger. It’s hard to make a case that Kubel > Hinske."
Likewise, Neyer states "Hinske was worth around $9 million last year; Kubel was worth around $2 million. That difference is due largely to the fact that Hinske can play the outfield passably, while Kubel is (or should be) restricted exclusively to DH duties"
In the strict GMsian sense, both Cameron and Neyer have an argument.  They are analyzing this in a pure "cog-for-the-machine" sense of designing a roster.  Hinske is cheaper part and has the potential to provide similar output with the added caveat of defense if necessary.  The problem with the two writers' proposals as outsiders to the Twins organization is that the Twins are not interested in the defensive part of the equation.  Certainly a more enlightened franchise (Seattle, Boston) might weigh the added benefit of having a player on the roster that could stand in with serviceable defense but as it stands, the Twins have four outfielders ahead of anyone else on the outfield depth chart, so the focus revolves around the offense provided. 
Last year, the 30-year-old left-handed batting Hinske hit .247/.333/.465 with 20 home runs and 88-to-47 K-to-BB ratio in 432 plate appearances while playing corner outfield for the Rays.  Comparatively, the 26-year-old left-handed batting Jason Kubel hit .272/.335/.471 with 20 home runs and 91-to-47 K-to-BB ratio in 517 plate appearances while being used as a designated hitter.  Very similar, right?  On top of that, both have been treated like a platoon candidate over the duration of their careers.  Where Hinske has seen 78% of his plate appearances against right-handed pitchers (hitting .264/.347/.458), Kubel has seen 81% of his plate appearances against the right-handed variety (hitting .275/.327/.464). 
There should be consideration towards the trajectory of their 2008 season to put their final numbers into context.  Hinske opened the season white-hot, batting .292/.407/.639 with six home runs in 86 plate appearances with a solid 14 walks to 12 strikeouts.  From May 1st through September, Hinske hit .236/.315/.424 with 14 home runs in 346 plate appearances while walking just 33 more times and striking out 76 times.  His numbers were buttressed by a torid first month of the year.  In his initial month, Kubel hit .237/.257/.381 with four home runs and a putrid three walks to 20 strikeouts in 101 plate appearances.  As Kubel's season progressed and he was given a regular spot as the DH when Craig Monroe was released, Kubel hit a much sturdier .281/.353/.495 with 16 home runs in 416 plate appearances while walking 44 times and striking out 71 times.  If you use this as an indicator for future performance, Kubel's season shows progression while Hinske's shows wear. 
Furthermore, Kubel has made growth in proving that he can be used as an everyday player and not just a platoon partner.  The Twins gave Kubel more exposure to left-handed pitchers (22% of his at bats) and was somewhat useful hitting .232/.330/.374.  Hinske, on the other hand, was an extreme platoon player with only 12% of his plate appearances against lefties where he hit just .143/.263/.224.  There is value in having someone that kills a rally if a LOOGY is brought in.
The truth is that Kubel is just reaching his peak season and will be playing  his best baseball (in theory) in the next several years.  Meanwhile, at 31 in 2009, Hinske will see his numbers drop, both offensively and defensively, as he ages towards obscurity.