March 31, 2009

Twins Choose Morales Over Butera, Cut Mijares

The Twins made what will likely be their second-to-last round of cuts yesterday morning, sending down Jose Mijares, Drew Butera, and Alejando Machado. Recent reports suggested that Butera's defensive prowess gave him a leg up on the backup catcher job while Joe Mauer is sidelined, but ultimately the Twins decided to go with Jose Morales as Mike Redmond's caddy. It was the correct call and Morales deserves the opportunity after hitting .310/.357/.405 in 164 games at Triple-A.

Despite what the nice-looking batting averages at Rochester may have you believe Morales is far from an outstanding hitter and likely won't even produce league-average offense for a catcher, but compared to Butera he looks like Mike Piazza. Everyone raves about Butera's defense and the Twins clearly view him as a viable backup option despite a putrid .215/.303/.324 line in the minors, but pairing someone with Redmond makes the ability to fare reasonably well against righties more vital than a good glove.

Beyond that, Morales is already 26 years old and has spent the past two seasons starting at Triple-A, so if the Twins weren't going to give him a chance now it was never going to happen. If concerns about his defense prove legitimate they can always turn to Butera and lean far more heavily on Redmond, but the Twins' best chance to minimize the loss of Mauer involves starting Redmond versus all lefties and giving Morales about half the starts versus righties, against whom he hit .318/.373/.421 at Triple-A.

Meanwhile, sending Mijares to Triple-A despite his strong September leaves Brian Duensing and R.A. Dickey competing for a potential 12th spot on the pitching staff, assuming that Philip Humber gets the nod as the 11th man. Kelly Thesier of MLB.com appeared before me on Seth Stohs' podcast last night and speculated that the Twins will indeed go with a 12th pitcher rather than a 14th hitter, and LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has all but guaranteed that arrangement.

Ron Gardenhire noted yesterday that he disagrees with general manager Bill Smith when it comes to the final bench spot, which almost certainly means that Gardenhire wants to keep Matt Tolbert while Smith wants to keep Brendan Harris. Gardenhire has clearly fallen for Tolbert much like he fell for Nick Punto years ago, but hopefully Smith wins the argument. Tolbert is better defensively, but he's not good enough to be an asset at shortstop and Harris has a sizable edge offensively.

Plus, with minor-league options remaining Tolbert would remain in the organization if he doesn't make the team, allowing the Twins to retain both players. Harris is out of options and probably wouldn't pass through waivers unclaimed, so if the Twins don't give him a spot on the 25-man roster he'll likely either be traded or lost for nothing. Tolbert is a useful enough bench player, but keeping him around as the 25th man isn't worth losing middle-infield depth in the form of an arguably superior player.

Of course, my preference would be to keep both Harris and Tolbert while beginning the season with an 11-man pitching staff, but based on Gardenhire's comments and various reports that no longer seems like a possibility. Finding consistent work for 12 pitchers is difficult at best, and choosing Tolbert while parting with Harris in order to keep Dickey around as a second long reliever or Duensing as a second lefty could come back to bite the Twins if something happens to Punto, Alexi Casilla, or Joe Crede.


Me on Seth Stohs' Podcast Tonight

I'm one of three guests scheduled to appear tonight on Seth Stohs' weekly podcast, along with No. 39 prospect Dan Osterbrock and MLB.com beat reporter Kelly Thesier. I'm slated to come on around 9:40 p.m. central time, but the show starts at 9:00 p.m. and it's definitely worth tuning in for the whole thing.

March 29, 2009

Twins Swap Nolte for Jones, Narrow Roster Decisions

As expected Rule 5 pick Jason Jones did not crack the Opening Day roster, but rather than offer him back to the Yankees for half of the original $50,000 fee required to select him the Twins instead worked out a trade to keep him in the organization. Jones isn't totally without potential and may be a decent fifth starter or long reliever at some point, but he's already 26 years old and has a 3.77 ERA in the minors that includes poor peripheral numbers and all of two appearances above Double-A.

All of which is why it was disappointing to see that the player sent to the Yankees to retain Jones was Charles Nolte, who ranked No. 40 on my annual list of the Twins' top prospects. Certainly trading away the 40th-best prospect in the system isn't something that's likely to haunt any team and minor-league relievers like Nolte who've yet to advance past Single-A have an especially low likelihood of making an impact in the majors, but swapping him for a low-upside 26-year-old like Jones seems questionable.

Jones will head to Triple-A, where he'll join Rochester's rotation while taking up a spot on the 40-man roster. Many teams would love to stash a 26-year-old potential fifth starter or long reliever at Triple-A, but the Twins have a rotation of 27-and-under starters who're superior to Jones and already had Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Brian Duensing, and Anthony Swarzak waiting in the wings. Jones isn't clearly better than any of those guys, now or in the future. Meanwhile, here's part of my write-up on Nolte:

Nolte has served up a grand total of one homer while facing 417 batters, which is what happens when 71.3 percent of your balls in play are on the ground. To put that stat into some context, consider that no MLB pitcher had a ground-ball rate of even 70 percent last season and no Twins pitcher was above 60 percent. Nolte has induced over five ground balls for every fly ball as a pro and that alone would make him someone to watch even without the low-90s fastball and strong strikeout rate.

Most relievers who dominate in the low minors eventually fail to pan out and Nolte is a long way from Minnesota, but his combination of velocity, missed bats, and ground balls is much tougher to find than just another sparkling ERA at low Single-A. His lack of college experience suggests that Nolte could be a late bloomer and also means that his arm hasn't accumulated much mileage since the surgery four years ago, so if healthy he has a chance to move pretty quickly through the Twins' system.

Jones is much more likely than Nolte to reach the majors by virtue of the fact that he's 26 years old, will begin this season at Triple-A, and owns a spot on the 40-man roster. Despite that Nolte may be more likely to make a significant impact in the majors by virtue of being three years younger than Jones with a much higher ceiling. Plus, Nolte is years from requiring a spot on the 40-man roster, whereas Jones is there now and must remain there unless the Twins want to risk losing him like the Yankees did.

Pitchers just like Jones are available to the Twins on waivers all the time if they're willing to stick them on the 40-man roster and giving up an intriguing 23-year-old like Nolte to add yet another name to the already lengthy list of potential fifth starters in their mid-20s seems like short-sighted overkill. Odds are that parting with Nolte won't come back to bite the Twins, but why even take that chance when the odds are also that Jones will never successfully fill a meaningful role in Minnesota?

By retaining Jones and sending him to Triple-A the Twins have narrowed the competition for a potential 12th spot on the pitching staff to Duensing, Jose Mijares, and R.A. Dickey. Mijares or Duensing would be a second left-hander in the bullpen alongside Craig Breslow, while Dickey would be a second long reliever paired with Humber. Cutting all three of them while going with 11 pitchers is also an option, in which case the 25th spot on the roster would come down to keeping Matt Tolbert or a third catcher.

My feeling has always been that a 12-man pitching staff is beyond overkill, so the switch-hitting Tolbert seems like the right choice. He offers defensive versatility and at 27 years old there's no development to stall in a little-used bench role, although considering Ron Gardenhire's love for the poor man's Nick Punto odds are that Tolbert would see plenty of playing time anyway. Keeping a third catcher while Joe Mauer is out also makes some sense, particularly if that means fewer at-bats for Drew Butera.


March 26, 2009

Link-O-Rama

  • John Brattain joined The Hardball Times in early 2005, about one year after I co-created the site, but despite giving everyone else on the staff a head start he ranks third in THT history with 234 articles. He was every bit as entertaining as he was prolific, combining an amazing sense of humor with a passion for baseball and cracking everyone up on THT's internal e-mail list when he wasn't writing some of the site's most popular columns. All of which is why I'm so sad to report that John passed away this week.

    He leaves behind a wife and two daughters, along with thousands of fans and friends at The Hardball Times, Baseball Think Factory, and the entire online baseball community. THT boss Dave Studeman created a donation drive via Paypal to help support John's family, so if you're like me and have enjoyed his writing over the years please consider making a contribution. Along with the donation you can also include a personal note for his family to read. For more information, click here. Rest in peace, John.

  • Sage advice for all the 20-year-old top prospects out there: Don't marry 43-year-old women who like to steal babies.
  • Friend of AG.com Steve Silver passes along this video of a liquor store robbery gone horribly wrong:


    The whole thing is 159 seconds of comedy gold, but my favorite part is when our hero realizes that he's had enough and decides to sit down, smoke a cigarette, and wait to be busted (or freed).
  • Winnie Cooper is officially off the market.
  • Rolling Stone celebrates the 20-year anniversary of "Bust A Move" off Young MC's debut record Stone Cold Rhymin', which may be the very first tape (yes, tape) that I can remember owning. Few things can make you feel older than the 20-year anniversary of a song whose lyrics you memorized in the second grade, although seeing the video that you probably watched 500 times on Yo! MTV Raps does the trick.
  • Bill Simmons' recent podcast with guest Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live was a hugely entertaining conversation about comedy, show business, impressions, and all things SNL, and amusingly had so little to do with sports in any way that Simmons finished the hour-long ESPN.com production by saying, "We should probably talk about sports for a minute or something."
  • Speaking of good podcasts, earlier this week Scott Huff and Joe Stapleton launched a new website for Two Jacks in the Hole and made their long-awaited music video debut:


    I've always been a huge fan of talk radio, but have now turned almost exclusively to podcasts for my fix. Why sit through endless commercials, weather reports, and traffic updates on talk radio when you can get uninterrupted, often superior entertainment whenever you want it via podcasters like Simmons, Huff and Stapleton, and Adam Carolla? As someone who has long dreamed of doing radio I'd love to create an AG.com podcast, but for now laziness and a complete lack of tech skills stand in the way.
  • Just when you think it's safe to write off Jennifer Love Hewitt as The Wall's latest victim, she shows up on a beach looking like this. I'm confused.
  • On the other hand, Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com runner-up Marisa Miller is remarkably consistent.
  • If you ever wanted to read 5,500 words about the life and times of Sid Hartman, now is your chance. My favorite quote from the very enjoyable Minnesota Monthly piece by Jeff Severns Guntzel comes from CNN anchor Aaron Brown: "Sid's going to outlive newspapers."
  • Here's a new Twins blog to check out: Fanatic Jack Talks Twins.
  • Naturally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is the original version of "Bust A Move":


  • March 25, 2009

    Twins Notes: Mijares, Duensing, Floyd, Baker, and Koskie

  • Between showing up to spring training out of shape and coughing up 10 runs in eight innings, Jose Mijares has done just about everything he can to wipe away an impressive September debut. All winter Ron Gardenhire and Bill Smith insisted that Mijares was hardly a lock to make the Opening Day roster, and he now looks likely to begin the year at Triple-A. Mijares' big-league debut certainly made it seem like he was ready to thrive, but prior to last year his minor-league track record was far from spectacular.

    In fact, based on his multi-year track record Mijares is projected by Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Think Factory to have ERAs of 5.51 and 6.23 this year. He's a pretty good bet to beat those projections, but Mijares has thrown 19 career innings above Double-A and giving him six weeks at Triple-A makes sense if the Twins think it would help him shed 20 pounds or start throwing strikes again. Meanwhile, as Mijares pitches and eats his way off the roster Brian Duensing is emerging as a bullpen alternative.

    Duensing has made all of five relief appearances in four seasons as a pro and projects as a potential back-of-the-rotation starter long term, ranking 25th on my annual list of the Twins' top prospects. On the other hand he's already 26 years old, took a big step backward at Triple-A last season, and seemingly has little chance of claiming a rotation spot in the near future, so if the Twins think he has the potential to be an effective middle reliever that may be the best path for Duensing at this point.

    However, his high-80s fastball doesn't figure to play a whole lot better as a setup man and left-handed batters hit .283 against Duensing last year, so he doesn't profile as a situational southpaw. Of course, baseball history is littered with mediocre starter prospects who had something click after a move to the bullpen and for better or worse Duensing is likely about as close to MLB ready as he ever will be. If the Twins go with 12 pitchers, it will come down to Duensing, Mijares, Jason Jones, or R.A. Dickey.

  • Gavin Floyd and the White Sox recently agreed to a four-year, $15.5 million deal that includes a team option for 2013, which is extremely similar to the four-year, $15.25 million contract that the Twins inked Scott Baker to earlier this month:
    YEAR     SERVICE TIME              BAKER        FLOYD
    2009 Pre-Arbitration $0.75 $0.75
    2010 Arbitration Year 1 $3.00 $2.75
    2011 Arbitration Year 2 $5.00 $5.00
    2012 Arbitration Year 3 $6.50 $7.00
    2013 Free Agent Year 1 $9.25 $9.50

    Both deals cover one year of pre-arbitration and three years of arbitration with a team option for the first year of free agency, and the money is essentially identical. Floyd is 16 months younger than Baker, so he may have more room to improve, and on the surface their 2008 seasons were comparable. Baker had a 3.45 ERA over 28 starts in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, while Floyd had a 3.87 ERA over 33 starts in a hitter-friendly ballpark. However, their Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) tells a much different story:

    FIP                 2008     2007     CAREER
    Scott Baker 3.79 3.89 4.05
    Gavin Floyd 4.77 6.07 5.40

    Floyd won 17 games last year and tossed 206 innings with a 3.87 ERA, but he also walked 70 batters while allowing the AL's most homers (30) and unearned runs (19). FIP suggests that his performance was more in line with an ERA a full run higher and his pre-2008 track record is even worse. Meanwhile, Baker has posted a sub-4.00 FIP in back-to-back seasons and has a career mark of 4.05 compared to his actual 4.23 ERA.

    Floyd showed some definite signs of improvement after the All-Star break and could easily prove to be worth $25 million over the next five seasons, so the deal is hardly a bad one for the White Sox. With that said, Baker has clearly been the superior pitcher and from the Twins' point of view his deal now looks even better than it did three weeks ago. Interestingly, the White Sox also offered the Baker-Floyd deal to John Danks, who has the same service time, and he turned it down. Danks had a 3.44 FIP last year.

  • After nearly three years of struggling through post-concussion syndrome, Corey Koskie's comeback attempt with the Cubs unfortunately lasted all of three games. Koskie felt "weird" after diving for a ball at third base last week and decided to end his comeback rather than risk his health any further:
    I really have no doubt in my mind that I would have made this team. The guys over here were impressed. I don't feel my skills were diminished. I don't feel there was much of a rust factor at all. It actually made it harder, but I know that was the right thing to do.

    I kind of decided, after every play, do I want to be looking over my shoulder, [wondering] how do I feel? And with everything I've gone through the last 2 1/2 years, I know I don't want to go back there.

    For the last 2 1/2 years, I've been talking to kids, talking to parents, telling all those people, "Is it really worth it, sending their kids back out to play?" I made the decision that this time it wasn't worth it. The risks outweighed the rewards of the situation.

  • A favorite of teammates and reporters alike who is one of the best, most underrated position players in Twins history, Koskie finishes his nine-year career as a .275/.367/.458 hitter and All-Star prankster.

  • LaVelle E. Neal III reports that shortstop prospect Paul Kelly has suffered yet another setback in his recovery from 2006 knee surgery. Kelly twice cracked my list of the Twins' top prospects, ranking 14th in 2007 and 24th in 2008, but has played a grand total of just nine games during the past two seasons and has now been "sent home for 2-3 months" after doctors determined that his knee still "is not ready for action." The only good news is that despite the lost seasons he won't be 23 years old until October.

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