June 18, 2008

Twins Notes: Liriano, Rincon, Guerra, Lamb, and Buscher

  • Francisco Liriano turned in another encouraging outing Sunday at Triple-A, allowing two runs on five hits over 7.1 innings. With five strikeouts and more fly balls than ground balls he's still not dominating, but Liriano handed out zero walks and has now issued a grand total of 11 free passes over his last eight starts. He walked 13 batters in three starts with the Twins, so that's a huge improvement. During that eight-start stretch Liriano posted a 3.38 ERA and 42-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 53.1 innings.
  • Removed from the roster last week, Juan Rincon declined an assignment to Triple-A and will soon be a free agent unless the Twins can make an unlikely trade in the next few days. Rincon is owed $2.5 million either way and clearly feels that his career will be more easily salvaged elsewhere, saying: "I've got to go do something, find another team to make it back to the big leagues." Rincon's steady decline has been chronicled here repeatedly over the past two years, but for anyone who's missed it:
    YEAR      SO%     K/BB     OAVG     xFIP
    2004 32.4 3.4 .181 3.15
    2005 26.3 3.1 .224 3.32
    2006 20.6 3.0 .270 3.73
    2007 18.1 2.0 .273 4.67
    2008 15.0 1.3 .292 5.34

    Rincon's performance has declined across the board each year since 2004, including annual drops in strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, opponent's batting average, and Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. Beyond that, his fastball and slider are both down 3-4 miles per hour compared to his prime. He's only 29 years old, but there's little chance of the decision to release Rincon coming back to haunt the Twins in a meaningful way. Agreeing to pay him $2.5 million for this season was the mistake.

    After posting mediocre numbers as a full-time starter in the minors, Rincon shifted to the bullpen with the Twins and ended up making just three starts in 386 total appearances. He struggled initially, but emerged as one of the AL's elite setup men as a 24-year-old in 2003. In 2004 he had a career-year, going 11-6 with a 2.63 ERA, 106-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .181 opponent's batting average over 82 innings.

    He remained an elite reliever in 2005, was still fairly good in 2006, and then struggled in 2007 before completely falling apart this season. For his Twins career Rincon went 30-26 with a 3.69 ERA over 441 innings, including a four-year stretch that saw him appear in 44 percent of the team's games while posting a 2.93 ERA with 318 strikeouts in 319 innings. Rincon's time in Minnesota came to an ugly end, but his run from 2003-2006 ranks among the best by a reliever in Twins history.

  • J.J. Cooper of Baseball America talked to an unnamed scout about teenage right-hander Deolis Guerra, who was acquired from the Mets in the Johan Santana deal. According to the scout, Guerra's velocity being down significantly compared to last season may be due to mechanical changes:
    He's throwing from a higher arm slot than last year. I really think he'll be fine, but I think he has a couple of mechanical things. I think he tried to create some angle to the plate instead of just relying on his changeup being his best pitch. He's trying to be a different guy. I only saw flashes of the changeup I saw last year. It's not as good as it was.

    [...]

    Long-term, he'll be fine. A lot of times a team will wait to make changes with a player they pick up in a trade. They'll do the right things and get him going again. I'll be interested to see the difference between his first-half and second-half splits.

    Guerra was considered by many to be the centerpiece of the Santana deal from the Twins' point of view and prior to the trade BA ranked him as the Mets' top prospect ahead of the trade's other three pieces, Carlos Gomez, Kevin Mulvey, and Philip Humber. Guerra spent last year playing at high Single-A in the Florida State League and is back there again this season. Along with missing 4-5 miles per hour on his fastball, here's how his numbers compare:

    YEAR       IP      ERA      SO%      BB%     K/BB     OAVG     GB/FB
    2007 89.2 4.01 17.8 6.7 2.64 .240 1.42
    2008 63.1 4.83 12.1 10.6 1.13 .266 0.64

    He's still only 19 years old, but that's pretty ugly for someone repeating a level. His strikeouts are down 32 percent, his walks are up 58 percent, and he's shifted from ground-ball pitcher to a fly-ball pitcher. Mulvey and Humber haven't fared much better together at Triple-A. Mulvey has a 3.82 ERA and 64-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 71 innings, while Humber has a 5.52 ERA and 39-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 60 innings. Without Gomez's flashes of brilliance, the trade's early returns would be pretty rough.

  • When the Twins signed Mike Lamb to a two-year deal this offseason the hope was that he'd provide enough of an upgrade offensively to make up for sub par defense. He's predictably shown the lack of range that made the Twins one of only a few teams interested in him as a starting third baseman, but surprisingly has also hit just .224/.263/.302 after batting .281/.342/.464 in four seasons with the Astros. In terms of all-around performance, Lamb has been every bit as bad as Tony Batista was in 2006.

    Batista was mercifully let go after 50 games, but the Twins' investment in him was just $1.25 million. Lamb is owed $3.5 million this season and $3 million next season, and the Twins hold a $3.5 million option for 2010 (with a $100,000 buyout), so he'll almost surely stick around. Beyond the contractual differences, Lamb's track record shows that he's capable of far better production offensively, whereas Batista's track record matched his putrid offense and defense.

    There's still hope for Lamb to turn things around offensively, but it sounds like the Twins will give Brian Buscher a chance to supplant him against most right-handers, with Matt Macri taking over against left-handers. As a left-handed hitter who potentially offers a good batting average, solid on-base skills, and mediocre power with a poor glove, Buscher profiles as very similar to Lamb. Interestingly, that same Buscher-Macri platoon was suggested in this space a month prior to the Lamb signing:

    If the Twins were somehow willing to go with unproven players and perhaps take a hit defensively, a Macri-Brian Buscher platoon at third base could be pretty productive for about $650,000.

    It took $6.6 million and 58 bad games from Lamb for the Twins to give it a try, but the Buscher-Macri platoon remains very capable of being productive offensively at a low cost and it'd be tough for them to be any worse than Lamb defensively. Buscher didn't do much for the first four seasons of his pro career and at 27 years old he doesn't possess much long-term upside, but he's been fantastic since coming to the Twins last year.

    Buscher hit .309/.385/.493 in 103 games between Double-A and Triple-A last year, and .319/.402/.514 in 50 games at Triple-A this year. He's shown decent power during that time with 22 homers and 61 total extra-base hits in 645 plate appearances, and has done a great job controlling the strike zone with a 62-to-64 strikeout-to-walk ratio to go with a .312 average. His age and pre-2007 struggles make him far from a sure thing, but if given a chance he could hit much like the Twins hoped Lamb would.

  • First-round pick Aaron Hicks agreed to a $1.78 million signing bonus and will begin his pro career in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Fellow first-round picks Carlos Gutierrez and Shooter Hunt have yet to sign, but they're expected to do so eventually and it looks like the Twins will end up agreeing to terms with each of their first six selections. That may not sound newsworthy, but the Twins (and other teams) have lost quite a few high-round picks and future major leaguers because they didn't sign.

    Among the prominent players who were drafted by the Twins from 1990-2003 and declined to sign: J.J. Putz, Jason Varitek, Jeff Clement, Gary Matthews Jr., Aaron Heilman, Paul Maholm, Steve Pearce, Travis Lee, Adam Lind, Emil Brown, Danny Kolb, Brian Lawrence, Josh Bard, and Alex Cora. In fact, during that 14-year stretch the Twins drafted and failed to sign over 30 players who ended up in the big leagues (including multiple All-Stars and several current top prospects).

  • Lamb, Macri, and Nick Punto were also originally drafted by the Twins and failed to sign, but ended up in Minnesota eventually anyway via trades and free agency. Coming out of high school Pat Neshek was drafted by the Twins in the 45th round, but chose Butler University instead of signing and was taken again by the Twins three years later, this time in the sixth round. Along with moving up 39 rounds, Neshek went from a marginal signing bonus to a nice chunk of change.

    Adam Johnson was taken by the Twins in the 25th round coming out of high school in 1997, but chose Cal-State Fullerton over signing. Three years later the Twins selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the entire draft, but unfortunately Johnson proved to be a complete bust almost immediately. After putting up mediocre numbers in the minors, he posted a hideous 10.25 ERA in just 26.1 innings with the Twins and was released at the age of 25.

  • Over at his Minneapolis Star Tribune blog, Joe Christensen passed along an interesting note from the Twins' recent road trip to Milwaukee:
    They are closing the roof here, as another storm is on its way. ... Think about this: The Brewers have kept the roof open for only six of their first 30 home games. That's a harrowing stat for the Twins, with an open-air ballpark being built for 2010.

    There's a group of "ballpark defenders" who come out of the woodwork whenever someone like me opines that it's a mistake to build an open-air venue in Minnesota, but the above stat about Milwaukee seems more relevant than the "average" temperatures and rainfalls that are often quoted to argue that Minneapolis isn't much different than other cities where teams play without roofs. Whatever the case, the Twins will be canceling multiple games or playing in some ugly weather come 2010.

  • In what may prove to be a rare bright spot on the otherwise execrable St. Paul Pioneer Press site, news editor Mike Decaire has started up a new blog called "The Curse of Big Papi." So far it serves mostly as a clearinghouse for Twins content in other places, with Decaire occasionally adding in a few thoughts of his own alongside various links. One good sign: Decaire liberally links to blogs rather than focusing on mainstream sources, which is a must for anyone diving into the vast Twins blogosphere.

  • Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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