August 30, 2010

Twins Notes: Thome, Fuentes, Kubel, Neshek, Wimmers, and Span

• Not only has Jim Thome switching from the White Sox to the Twins had a massive impact on the AL Central race, Baseball-Reference.com's blog points out that he's having one of the best seasons ever by a 39-year-old (he actually turned 40 over the weekend, but this is his age-39 season). Here are the all-time leaders in adjusted OPS+ at age 39:

AGE 39              YEAR      PA     OPS+
Barry Bonds         2004     617     263
Ted Williams        1958     517     179
Hank Aaron          1973     465     177
JIM THOME           2010     279     161
Babe Ruth           1934     471     161

Thome has fewer plate appearances than everyone else on that list, but he's on pace to finish with approximately 350 and any time you can make a top-five list alongside Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth you're doing something really right. Paul Molitor is the only other player in Twins history to post an OPS+ above 100 at age 39, hitting .341/.390/.468 in 728 plate appearances for a 116 OPS+ in 1996.

And if you're already thinking about the Twins possibly re-signing Thome for next season, here are the all-time leaders in OPS+ at age 40:

AGE 40              YEAR      PA     OPS+
Willie Mays         1971     537     158
Carlton Fisk        1988     298     155
Edgar Martinez      2003     603     141
Moises Alou         2007     360     137
Dave Winfield       1992     670     137

That's a much different and less impressive list in terms of both names and numbers, which is a good reminder of how tough it is to dominate at age 40. In fact, based on OPS+ no hitter in the history of baseball has ever been as productive as a 40-year-old as Thome has been as a 39-year-old, which is something to keep in mind when it comes to 2011 expectations for the future Hall of Famer. Of course, I loved the signing at the time and would love to see him back.

• I made a rare weekend post analyzing the Brian Fuentes trade, so read that if you missed it Friday night. I wondered how Ron Gardenhire will use Fuentes down the stretch, but so far so good. Gardenhire smartly pulled Nick Blackburn after 8.2 scoreless innings Saturday when he walked speedster Chone Figgins as the tying run in a 1-0 game, bringing in Fuentes to get the 27th out with left-handed slugger Russell Branyan at the plate.

Fuentes dispatched Branyan with ease and in doing so hinted that perhaps Matt Capps won't always get the call in the ninth inning when dangerous left-handed bats are due up. Fans and media instinctively balked at the notion of "closer by committee" when Joe Nathan went down, but if Fuentes isn't needed early in a game bringing him in for tough ninth-inning lefties makes sense. I'm skeptical after the Twins focused on Capps' closing experience to explain that deal.

October 15 is the deadline for the Angels to pick the player to be named later they receive for Fuentes, but all indications are that they're choosing from a list of fairly marginal prospects and some reports even suggest "cash" could be substituted for the player. I already liked the deal when I thought the PTBNL could end up being a mid-level prospect, so a low-level prospect or cash would make it even more of a no-brainer.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about Fuentes' contract status, so let's try to clear it up. He has a $9 million option for 2011 that vests with 55 games finished, but that's a moot point with just 34 so far. He'll be a free agent and get Type A or B status, so in theory the Twins can receive compensation when he leaves. However, that first requires offering Fuentes arbitration and since he could guarantee himself $10 million by simply accepting the Twins won't do it.

Fuentes is a six-week rental, and a good one.

Luke French is the 47th left-handed starting pitcher the Twins have faced in 131 games this year, which means they've been matched up against a lefty 36 percent of the time compared to the league average of 29 percent. Jason Kubel started at designated hitter versus French and has started 34 of the 47 games against lefties despite hitting just .210/.306/.341 off them this season and .232/.312/.352 off them for his career.

Much like Jacque Jones before him, Kubel's career-long ineptitude versus lefties makes him an obvious platoon player who Gardenhire simply refuses to platoon. Even worse, Kubel was in the cleanup spot yesterday, which is the third time he's batted cleanup against a lefty. In fact, he's yet to hit in the bottom third of the lineup versus a lefty this season, batting nine times in the fifth spot and 22 times in the sixth spot along with the three cleanup starts.

And while he was at DH yesterday, Kubel has been in right field for 17 of the 34 starts versus lefties, which means in 13 percent of their total games the Twins have chosen to combine poor defense in right field with a .650 OPS from the middle of the lineup. Not having Justin Morneau since early July has made it impossible for Gardenhire to use his preferred lineups, but in half of Kubel's starts against lefties Morneau was also in the lineup. Platoon him, please.

• Every time the Twins make a change to the bullpen--and there's been no shortage of them recently--I get comments, e-mails, and tweets asking about Pat Neshek. Fans (and bloggers) love Neshek and want to see him succeed after Tommy John surgery, but because the Twins weren't pleased with how he handled his post-surgery finger injury he's become sort of the forgotten man at Triple-A (and is choosing to fly under the radar by not speaking to reporters).

He's pitched well since being sent to Triple-A in early June following a DL stint, going 4-1 with a 3.47 ERA, .263 opponents' batting average, and 24 strikeouts versus six non-intentional walks in 36.1 innings, but certainly hasn't been dominant or close to Rochester's best reliever. He's apparently no sure thing to get a September call-up and based on performance alone--rather than his history and presence on the 40-man roster--no one would be clamoring for Neshek.

Wilson Ramos made his Nationals debut last week, but was only called up for a couple days with Wil Nieves away from the team. Ramos went hitless in his only game before being sent back to the minors, making him 1-for-22 since starting his career with seven hits in his first two games. He has hit .319/.347/.514 in 18 games at Triple-A since being swapped for Capps last month and will be back in Washington when rosters expand later this week.

• After basically taking two months off before signing for $1.3 million a week or so before the deadline, first-round pick Alex Wimmers has been assigned to high Single-A for his pro debut. He's pitched twice so far at Fort Myers, tossing 5.2 scoreless innings with an 8-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .105 opponents' batting average while on a strict pitch count. By assigning him directly to high Single-A the Twins have set him up to advance through the system quickly.

Denard Span was caught trying to steal third base yesterday, so dating back to last season he now has 42 stolen bases while being thrown out or picked off 31 times. Yuck.

August 27, 2010

Twins get Brian Fuentes from the Angels for a player to be named later

Earlier this week the Twins added Randy Flores, a 34-year-old southpaw reliever who's an iffy fit for the "left-handed specialist" role because he's a marginal big leaguer and not particularly effective against left-handed hitters. Friday evening they added another 34-year-old southpaw reliever by sending a player to be named later to the Angels for Brian Fuentes, but if anything the four-time All-Star and longtime closer is actually vastly overqualified for the same gig.

I'm not sure what the Twins ever saw in Flores, against whom left-handed hitters have batted .290 with a .470 slugging percentage in his last 120 innings, but there's no such mystery with Fuentes. He's no longer the elite reliever he was for the Rockies from 2002-2008, but with his funky sidearm delivery and fastball-slider combo Fuentes remains death to left-handed batters and is potentially still good enough versus righties to be significantly more than a specialist.

Fuentes is perhaps one of the most underrated relievers of this era, posting a 3.48 ERA in 515 career innings despite calling Coors Field home for most of that time. Among all active relievers with at least 500 lifetime appearances Fuentes' adjusted ERA+ of 137 ranks seventh, behind only Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Cordero. He's no longer quite at that level, but he's a massive upgrade over Flores.

Fuentes has been nearly unhittable against left-handed batters this season, holding them to a .132 batting average and .158 slugging percentage in 44 plate appearances. You can blame the small sample size on opposing managers doing whatever they can to avoid letting lefties face Fuentes, and while no one is that good versus lefties over a larger sample during the past three years Fuentes also held them to a combined .213/.284/.276 line in 192 trips to the plate.

Fuentes was also very strong against right-handed hitters during that same three-year span, limiting them to a .224/.313/.349 mark that, for example, compares well to Matt Capps' career .260/.298/.396 line versus righties. This year Fuentes has allowed a .465 slugging percentage against righties due to five homers and nine doubles in 101 at-bats, but small-sample power numbers can be fluky and he's still held them to a .228 average and .328 on-base percentage.

Based on his 2007-2009 performance Fuentes is now the best reliever on the team. Based on his slightly less dominant performance this season Fuentes is now the best option on the team versus lefties and a capable option against righties. Assuming the player to be named later is no one special this is an ideal stretch-run pickup for the Twins, who add one of MLB's truly elite lefty-on-lefty relievers and someone capable of getting late-inning outs versus righties as well.

I'm hopeful that Ron Gardenhire recognizes Fuentes' strong track record against right-handed hitters and is willing to use him as more of a setup man than a pure lefty specialist, because Fuentes and the new-and-improved, slider-slinging Jesse Crain setting up Capps should be a very effective late-inning trio while leaving Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, and perhaps eventually Jose Mijares to work the middle innings. And if not, Fuentes can just shut down lefties.

Fuentes is in the second year of a two-year, $17.5 million deal and is owed $1.9 million for the rest of 2010. His contract also has a $9 million option for 2011 that vests if he has 55 games finished this year, but with just 33 so far it isn't an issue. PTBNLs always make me nervous, but as long as the prospect proves palatable this is a sound move and in fact adding a quality arm so cheaply makes me question trading Wilson Ramos for Capps even more than before.

Breaking news: Twins get Brian Fuentes from Angels

I'll have more later, but for now: Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports and LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune confirms that the Twins have acquired left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes from the Angels for a player to be named later. If nothing else, Fuentes beats the hell out of Randy Flores.

Link-O-Rama

• The good side and bad side of working from home, accurately presented in cartoon form.

• All that money bloggers save by living in their parents' basements is now coming in handy.

• I'm proud to say that Time magazine named Rotoworld one of the 50 best websites of 2010.

Macaulay Culkin turned 30 years old yesterday. I'd normally make some sort of joke, except he's been dating Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com Mila Kunis for nearly a decade.

Hawk Harrelson thinks umpire Joe West is conspiring against the White Sox, which sure is fortunate for the Twins.

• If you're not clear exactly what a "shit-eating grin" looks like, see the face Roy Oswalt made while playing left field in the 15th inning Tuesday night.

• Let's just say Jay Mariotti doesn't take the "practice what your preach" approach to life.

• My head exploded while trying to think of the best possible ball-related joke for this story.

Matt Capps feeding Adam Dunn with his hands on Top Chef was pretty hilarious, but Wilson Ramos will probably be better on a future show.

• AMC's upcoming new series The Walking Dead looks amazing.

• Speaking of amazing AMC shows, Christina Hendricks is still spectacular looking without the 1960s wardrobe.

• The greatest broadcaster in baseball history is coming back next year, and Ryan Longwell, Steve Hutchinson, and Jared Allen didn't even have to talk him into it.

• It took some digging, but I've uncovered a worse "specialist" than Randy Flores.

• Mighty Mighty Bosstones frontman Dicky Barrett is also the announcer on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Jimmy Kimmel recently joined the band by playing bass clarinet at a recent show:

At least he picked the one ska band that all wear suits and ties.

• Like father, like son (except for the whole being great at basketball thing).

• Not surprisingly, mainstream media members still treat one of their own a lot different than a blogger in a similar situation.

• The results of this study on baseball teams and access match what's going on locally.

Tom Tango launched his annual "scouting report by the fans for the fans," which is your shot to play a scout by entering in personal observations about the players you watch on a regular basis to become part of the huge collection of scouting reports compiled entirely by fans. Take a look at the instructions and details, and then go to the Twins page to mark down what you think of, say, Delmon Young's "instincts" in the outfield.

• Just in case you thought the stereotype about Polish people was in danger of dying off.

• Last week's Link-O-Rama featured a funny music video by the band Don't Stop or We'll Die. Their drummer, Harris Wittels, left a nice note in the comments section:

Thanks for linking my band's video, Aaron! I know nothing about baseball, but my boss Ken Tremendous seems to like ya!

Ken Tremendous is the pen name Michael Schur went by when he blogged about baseball at Fire Joe Morgan. He's also the co-creator of Parks and Recreation on NBC and Wittels writes for the show. I'm not sure if that qualifies more as "brush with greatness" or "worlds colliding" but either way I enjoyed it.

Jason Whitlock's exit from the Kansas City Star turned into an epic radio appearance that I'm sure makes him an even more polarizing figure than before.

Bert Blyleven is one of just three pitchers to reach 1,000 career strikeouts at a younger age than Felix Hernandez did earlier this week.

• Because my greatest skill in life is growing facial hair, I typically try to hit every data point on the spectrum in a given week.

Al Newman is the new head baseball coach at Apple Valley high school.

• Here are some highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

- White Sox reportedly planning waiver claim on Manny Ramirez
- Albert Pujols and Joey Votto must go through Omar Infante to win Triple Crown
- Behold: The most Jon Heyman tweet in the history of Jon Heyman tweets
- Bobby Jenks comes up big for worn out White Sox bullpen
- Dan Uggla reportedly seeking five-year extension worth at least $55 million
- With contract up season, would Joe Girardi want to replace Lou Piniella in Chicago?
- Billy Butler is closing in on the all-time record for double plays
- Johnny Damon turns down Red Sox, saying: "I'm not going"
- Dusty Baker taking his time deciding on Reds extension offer

• Finally, if you like soul music and don't care about curse words your mind should be blown by this week's AG.com-approved music video, which is Cee-Lo Green singing "F*** You":

August 26, 2010

Twins go in search of left-handed specialist, settle for Randy Flores

In their search for a left-handed reliever to fill the bullpen void created by injuries to both Jose Mijares and Ron Mahay the Twins claimed Randy Flores off waivers from the Rockies. At first glance Flores may appear to be a perfect fit because he's a 34-year-old veteran who posted a nice-looking 2.96 ERA in 27 innings for the Rockies, but the problem is that he simply isn't very good or even especially effective at getting out left-handed hitters.

Flores has a 4.53 ERA and 4.42 xFIP in 336 career relief outings, walking 3.8 batters per nine innings while allowing opponents to hit .285/.359/.442. Righties have clobbered Flores to the tune of .306/.383/.467 and lefties have hit .266/.337/.428 off him. To put that in context, the MLB average for a left-handed hitter is .260/.334/.409 and that includes facing both lefties and righties. In other words, for his career lefties are better against Flores than they are overall.

Actually improving the performance of left-handed hitters isn't exactly what teams are looking for in a supposed "left-handed specialist" and he's been particularly ineffective versus lefties in recent years. Including this season's 27 innings for the Rockies he's thrown 120 total innings since 2007 and during that time left-handed hitters have produced a .290 batting average and .470 slugging percentage off Flores. This year lefties are slugging .460 off him.

Devoting a roster spot to a left-handed specialist who faces one or two batters per game and tailoring your late-inning decisions to get him into matchups with left-handed batters can make sense when that pitcher is dominant in the role, but Flores isn't even effective enough versus left-handed hitters to be a clearly superior option against them than the various right-handers in the Twins' bullpen.

In the grand scheme of things a left-handed specialist is unlikely to have a very big impact and because the workload for the role is so limited Flores almost surely won't throw more than 10 innings down the stretch, so anything can happen. However, because Ron Gardenhire clearly felt the need to have "a lefty" in the bullpen the Twins focused on handedness over ability and in doing so added someone who's an iffy fit for the role and simply not a very good pitcher.

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