March 23, 2008

Twins Notes: Gardy Loves Garrett

According to various reports the Twins are close to signing Joe Nathan to a contract extension, but I'll wait for the deal to become official before breaking it down. In the meantime, here are some random notes to chew on ...

UPDATE: Along with the impending Nathan deal, the Twins essentially finalized the Opening Day roster this morning by sending Philip Humber, Denard Span, Jason Pridie, and Brian Buscher to Triple-A. Carlos Gomez will be the starting center fielder (and likely leadoff man), Nick Blackburn will be in the rotation, Francisco Liriano appears headed to the minors, and I'll have a full write-up of all the moves tomorrow.

  • Unless they've already established themselves as stars, Ron Gardenhire typically avoids offering public praise for young, inexperienced players. At the same time, he's always been perfectly willing to publicly criticize youngsters, with Scott Baker, Jason Kubel, Kevin Slowey, and Jason Bartlett serving as recent examples. All of which has made Gardenhire's constant praise of 26-year-old non-prospect Garrett Jones so odd and intriguing.

    Jones was called up last season after spending nine years in the minors, including three stints at Triple-A. After hitting .252/.310/.447 in 381 games at Triple-A he batted .208/.262/.338 in 31 games with the Twins, yet Gardenhire consistently heaped on praise. He spoke as if Jones was something other than a mediocre minor-league veteran and repeatedly talked up his power potential. It was so out of character for Gardenhire that something else seemed to be at play, at which point my theory emerged:

    For years I've thought that Gardenhire treated young players unfairly and irrationally favored mediocre veterans. That may actually be true, but of late I've started to think that perhaps it has less to do with "young" or "old" and more to do with "good" or "bad."

    [...]

    My theory is that what "allows" Gardenhire to say good things about Jones is that he's mediocre. If Jones was good, Gardenhire would surely be telling anyone who would listen that he strikes out too much or needs to work on his defense or isn't "having good at-bats." But because Jones has all those weaknesses and isn't good, Gardenhire lets the compliments and words of encouragement fly.

    There's a lot more to it, but you get the idea. Gardenhire's treatment of Jones this spring reinforced the notion that he's willing to praise him publicly because there's no expectation of him developing into a good player. Jones is out of minor-league options, which meant that if he failed to make the Opening Day roster the Twins would have to pass him through waivers before sending him back to Rochester for a fourth straight season. When asked about the situation, here's what Gardenhire said:

    He's a power guy, we know that. He can really launch the ball. He won't make it [through waivers without being claimed]. That's something you have to really think about.

    A 26-year-old first baseman with a .252/.310/.447 hitting line in three seasons at Triple-A isn't who most teams target on waivers, which leaves two possible explanations for the above quote. One is that Gardenhire truly believes what he said, in which case he's done a horrible job evaluating Jones' value. The other is that Gardenhire doesn't believe a word of what he said, in which case he's done a fine job evaluating Jones' value and realized that he'd pass through waivers with ease.

    Gardenhire struggling to correctly evaluate a young player wouldn't shock me, but if my theory is correct then the latter explanation is at work. In other words, Gardenhire correctly views Jones as having little major-league future and feels free to praise him to the point of suggesting that other teams see him as a valuable commodity. We may never know which is true, but here's what Gardenhire said last week when Jones predictably (to everyone but Gardenhire, at least) passed through waivers unclaimed:

    I'm always surprised when a good hitter goes through waivers, but the timing of it ... I don't see many teams searching for things right now. They're all trying to cut down.

    Gardenhire only praising young players publicly when he views them as not having much of a future in the majors is certainly very annoying. However, Gardenhire legitimately singling out Jones for praise and believing that he's good enough to be claimed off waivers is far worse, because it suggests that he's not especially good at his job. Neither option would surprise me at this point, but I'm leaning more toward the "praise the scrubs even if they're young" theory.

    After all, if Gardenhire truly believed what he said about Jones he'd have at least kept him around as a bench bat. Instead, Jones is headed for a fourth straight season at Triple-A, where he'll hit his usual .250 with a bad on-base percentage and decent power. He'll likely be called back up at some point this season, which will be Gardenhire's cue to talk up his power potential publicly. Or at least that's my hope, because Gardenhire truly thinking that Jones is a good player scares me.

  • Brian Bass is also out of options, but sneaking him through waivers may prove more difficult. Bass signed with the Twins last year after seven seasons in the Royals system, posting a 3.48 ERA and 80-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 103.1 innings split between the rotation and bullpen at Triple-A. His previous track record is sub par, but Bass has a 1.59 ERA this spring and the demand for mediocre pitchers is much stronger than the demand for mediocre first basemen, so the Twins may keep him.
  • Also included in the same round of cuts as Jones was Randy Ruiz, who's a far better hitter and more useful spare part. Ruiz has hit .300/.370/.522 in the minors, compared to Jones' .250/.304/.439, and as a right-handed bat could have filled a platoon role if not for the presence of Craig Monroe and his $3.82 million contract. Not only have the Twins bypassed many better, cheaper players in favor of Monroe, my guess is that he'll steal a significant number of Kubel's at-bats even against right-handed pitching.
  • Glen Perkins' rough outing over the weekend pushed his spring ERA to 7.50 in 12 innings, and the Twins sent him to Triple-A on Sunday. Perkins has logged just 44.1 career innings above Double-A after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury and has yet to start a big-league game, so he should benefit from some time in Rochester's rotation. I'm hopeful that the Twins still view him as a long-term starter, but his future role seems up in the air at this point.
  • Garrett Guzman ranked 36th on my list of the Twins' top 40 prospects last year and likely would have moved up a few spots on this year's version if the Nationals hadn't grabbed him in the Rule 5 draft back in December. Here's what I wrote at the time:
    The Nationals seemingly have way more than enough outfield depth, which increases the chances of Guzman not making the team out of spring training. ... Of course, strong outfield depth or not the Nationals may simply decide to keep Guzman around as their 25th man, in which case the Twins have given away one of the few solid upper-minors hitting prospects in the entire organization for absolutely nothing just because they didn't see fit to give him a spot on a 40-man roster that had plenty of room.

    Guzman is certainly a long shot to become an impact player in the majors, but he's also very capable of becoming a solid big leaguer after hitting .312/.359/.453 in 125 games at Double-A in 2007. He's a .290 hitter in 516 minor-league games who's struck out in fewer than 11 percent of his 2,085 career plate appearances and has shown increased power since coming back from a broken neck that wiped away his 2005 season following a car accident.

    Sure enough, the Nationals did "have way more than enough outfield depth" to keep Guzman on the major-league roster all season. Unfortunately, the Twins have decided to let them keep him anyway, trading Guzman to the Nationals for what figures to be a very modest player to be named later rather than welcoming him back into the organization.

  • Saber-Scouting is an interesting new site that attempts to blend sabermetric analysis with traditional scouting, and former MLB front-office staffer Kiley McDaniel's video-aided breakdown of Matt Garza's mechanics is definitely worth checking out. Here's how McDaniel concludes the extensive write-up:
    Matt Garza is an impressive young pitcher with #1 starter potential if he can successfully make the larger changes to his motion discussed in the tempo section. ... As is, with a few small tweaks, he has #2 starter upside and some of the best stuff in baseball when he's on, as evidenced above. There have been some whispers about his makeup and coachability, but thus far in Tampa none of these have appeared to be a problem.

    Interestingly, when it comes to Garza's potential McDaniel basically arrived at the same conclusion as me despite using a vastly different approach. Most fans and media members seem convinced that the Twins clearly got the better end of this winter's big trade with the Rays, but seeing Garza out-perform Delmon Young this season wouldn't surprise me. Young has a higher ceiling, but it may not be as a sky-high as many people believe and having a huge upside is very different than reaching that upside.

  • The Hardball Times finally found someone good to write their Twins season preview this year.

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