March 16, 2008

Twins Notes: Gomez, Ruiz, Livan, Ponson, Neshek

  • Throughout the offseason I've suggested several times that the Twins should sign Kenny Lofton or Corey Patterson as an inexpensive place-holder in center field to give Carlos Gomez additional time to develop before being handed an everyday job in the majors. That stance is unusual for me, because over the years I've typically been heavily in favor of playing talented youngsters over mediocre veterans, but Gomez's situation is much different than how the Twins handled someone like Jason Bartlett.

    For one thing, Bartlett was already 24 years old when he got to Triple-A for the first time and didn't get his first chance in the majors until he was 25, whereas Gomez turned 22 in December. When Bartlett finally grabbed hold of the shortstop job for good, he was 26 years old and had spent parts of three straight seasons at Triple-A, hitting .323/.384/.458 in 186 games overall. Gomez has a grand total of 36 games at Triple-A under his belt and posted a less impressive .286/.363/.414 hitting line there.

    Bartlett repeatedly showed that he was ready for the majors by hitting .300 with solid plate discipline and good strike-zone control in three different seasons at Triple-A, and was clearly better than Juan Castro, Nick Punto, and the team's other veteran options. There's little doubt that Gomez is a very good prospect, but there's plenty of doubt about whether or not he'd be any better than Lofton or Patterson right now, as a 22-year-old, and there's little reason to risk his development or service time to find out.


    Once upon a time Patterson was considered an elite prospect and got his first everyday job in the big leagues as a 22-year-old, but has since proven to be nothing special by hitting .258/.298/.414 in eight seasons. Patterson's story provides an example of how rushing a toolsy 22-year-old center fielder can go wrong, but even his modest career hitting line is similar to the type of offensive production that can reasonably be expected from Gomez this season.

    Rather than use up Gomez's team-controlled service time when he's likely to struggle as a 22-year-old, why not delay his free agency by letting Patterson keep the position warm with similar production offensively, defensively, and on the bases? Of course, it's too late now. While Lofton remains unsigned, Patterson agreed to a minor-league contract with Cincinnati last week, where he'll get a chance to keep the position warm for an even younger center-field prospect in 21-year-old Jay Bruce.

    It's understandable that fans and people within the Twins organization want to see what Gomez can do in the majors right now, because he was the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade, flashes tools that are major-league caliber, and looks likely to be the long-term replacement for Torii Hunter. With that said, my guess is that the Twins would have been better off this season with Lofton or Patterson in center field and would be better off long term by giving Gomez a bit more time to develop at Triple-A.

  • Another reason to give Gomez some additional time at Triple-A is that developing plate discipline as a 22-year-old with the Twins may prove difficult. Gomez didn't walk much in the minors, drew just six non-intentional walks in 139 plate appearances with the Mets, and has coaxed just two free passes in 42 trips to the plate this spring. Asked about the Gomez's poor plate discipline and the possibility of his posting a sub par on-base percentage from the leadoff spot, Ron Gardenhire responded:
    Sometimes with a young hitter, it is better to give him 500 or 550 at-bats and not worry about that on-base percentage and just let them play.

    That can often be a good approach to take with young hitters, but it's interesting to note that it's not an approach that Gardenhire has typically taken in the past. When it came to guys like Bartlett in 2005 and 2006 or Jason Kubel last season, Gardenhire certainly wasn't willing to actually "give him 500 or 550 at-bats and ... just let him play." Apparently loving speedy players and not caring about plate discipline trumps an overall aversion to trusting young talent.

    Gardenhire surely dreams of the damage that Gomez can do on the bases, but doesn't seem focused on teaching him how to get on base via walks. Combine that with the coaching staff reportedly trying to calm Gomez's high-effort swing, and the wheels are in motion to make him fit the Twins' preferred mold of a speedy, slap-hitting hacker. Thankfully the team isn't stifling Delmon Young's power yet, but Gardenhire also seems fine with the horrendous plate discipline that he showed as a rookie:

    All the on-base percentage [stats] and all those things, he's dangerous when he lets that thing fly and gets fastballs. We're going to want him to swing this year more than taking a lot of pitches and watching them go by. And I think he'll be more than willing to let them fly.

    Gardenhire's "swing away" attitude represents the long-standing, organization-wide approach to hitter development and helps explain why the Twins have ranked among the league's bottom half in walks every season since 1988. The team has now drawn a below-average number of walks for going on two decades, which unfortunately makes it tough to imagine Young or Gomez learning to be especially patient at the plate while in Minnesota.

  • Randy Ruiz has been the surprise of Twins camp by hitting .455/.500/.818 with two homers and two doubles in 24 plate appearances. A 30-year-old veteran of nine seasons and over 3,600 trips to the plate in the minors, Ruiz has yet to get even a sniff of the big leagues despite a .300/.370/.522 career hitting line. In fact, he's managed just 88 career plate appearances at Triple-A despite spending three seasons smacking around Double-A pitching to the tune of .310/.377/.569.

    Ruiz is never going to be a star, his glove is likely very shaky given his size and reports that he's spent much of his time in camp working to improve his defense at first base with the help of Tom Kelly, and even with a hot start this spring he's unlikely to crack the Opening Day roster. With that said, he's an example of the types of players who're often available for essentially nothing. In other words, Ruiz is a living, breathing example of the "replacement-level player" that's often referred to in this space.

    He has a lengthy track record of success in the minors and looks capable of filling a specific niche in the majors as a right-handed platoon bat, but unfortunately for Ruiz he picked the wrong year to make the Twins. He'd have come in handy during the past few years, including last season when the Twins regularly gave starts at designated hitter to Jason Tyner, Garrett Jones, Luis Rodriguez, Josh Rabe, and Matthew LeCroy, and but Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe figure to split DH duties this year.

    I'd argue that signing a scrap-heap bat like Ruiz for $350,000 makes more sense than handing $3.8 million to Monroe, but that ship sailed months ago. Ruiz faces an uphill battle to claim the final spot on the 25-man roster and is probably headed to Rochester. Strictly in terms of hitting ability the only real difference between Monroe and Ruiz is that the Tigers gave Monroe a chance in 2003 after he put up a string of impressive seasons in the minors. Ruiz has yet to get that chance and probably won't.

  • In what should surprise absolutely no one, the Twins are "leaning toward" Livan Hernandez as their Opening Day starter. Hernandez's performance has declined in four straight seasons--including a 4.93 ERA last year and a 4.83 ERA in 2006--and he has a 9.69 ERA this spring after allowing six runs on nine hits Sunday against a Toronto lineup that featured zero regulars, but there was never much doubt that he'd get the nod because he's 33 years old and the Twins are paying him at least $5 million.

    A young pitcher who performed as poorly as Hernandez has this spring would be in serious danger of a trip to Rochester after being criticized publicly by Gardenhire, but the veteran is treated with kid gloves in both respects. "He knows how to pitch," Gardenhire said. "He's in midseason form right now. He's getting his work in. He's doing his thing." All of which is perhaps technically true, because over the past couple seasons Hernandez's "thing" has been not pitching very well and he's certainly "doing" that.

    Santana started the Twins' opener in both 2006 and 2007, and before that it was Brad Radke as the Opening Day starter in 1996, 1997, and each season from 1999-2005. Over the past dozen years the only Twins pitcher other than Santana or Radke to start on Opening Day is Bob Tewksbury, who lost the 1998 opener to Roger Clemens and the Blue Jays. That was the first of 92 losses for the Twins and the 37-year-old Tewksbury went 7-13 with a 4.79 ERA in what was his 13th and final season.

  • Replaying the scene in Twins camp last spring, Sidney Ponson is now getting the Rangers' hopes up after signing a minor-league contract with Texas earlier this month:
    Newly signed right-hander Sidney Ponson made an impressive debut. He got five of his six outs on ground balls and finished his afternoon by striking out Alfonso Soriano. According the radar gun at Surprise Stadium, Ponson's velocity ranged between 92 and 94 mph. His velocity has been down in recent years.

    "When I was younger, I used to try to strike everybody out, but not anymore," Ponson said. "I don't care about the velocity. I was just happy to throw strikes and get people out. I'm not going to strike a lot of people out anymore."

    The above quote comes from Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. Now compare it to the following excerpt from a Joe Christensen article that appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune last April:

    Last season, he had outings ... in which his fastball barely hit 91 mph. He no longer could throw his curveball or changeup, so he was reduced to throwing sinkers and sliders--a four-pitch pitcher reduced to two. "It was my arm," Ponson said. "I'm not going to lie about it. I'm hard-headed and stuff like that. I didn't want to do surgery ... and finally, I surrendered."

    Ponson had surgery to remove bone chips in October. Already this spring, he's felt the difference. "I feel great now," he said. "I feel like I'm 19 again. ... I won't be throwing 98 [mph] again, but if I can bring it back to 93-94, I'll be happy."

    To save time and energy, perhaps the Morning News should just reprint all of Christensen's optimistic prose about Ponson from last year, complete with the "I must admit, I pulled for Ponson" farewell note when he's released after predictably going 2-5 with a 6.93 ERA.

  • Official Relief Pitcher of AG.com Pat Neshek is featured (sort of) in the Twins' new commercial:


    "Cheese?"

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