October 28, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #38 Eric Milton

Eric Robert Milton | SP | 1998-2003 | Career Stats

Selected out of the University of Maryland by the Yankees with the 20th pick in the 1996 draft, Eric Milton won New York's minor league pitcher of the year in 1997 by going 14-6 with a 3.10 ERA in 171 innings between Single-A and Double-A. That turned out to be his only year in the Yankees organization, as Milton was shipped to the Twins along with fellow prospects Cristian Guzman, Brian Buchanan, and Danny Mota for Chuck Knoblauch in February of 1998.

He likely would've spent at least another year or two in the minors had he remained Yankees property, but following the deal Milton was immediately thrust into the Twins' rotation despite a grand total of 14 starts above Single-A. His big-league debut came on April 5, 1998 against the Royals, and Milton tossed six innings of shutout ball to pick up the win. He continued to pitch fairly well during the first four months of the year, going 6-7 with a 4.64 ERA through July.

Then, as you might expect from a 22-year-old rookie with little experience, he fell apart down the stretch. Milton was 2-7 with an 8.10 ERA in 11 starts between August and September, and disappointingly finished the season at 8-14 with a 5.64 ERA in 32 starts for a Twins team that went 70-92. Despite a sub par rookie campaign, Milton had clearly shown flashes of potential and it was no surprise when he put things together in his sophomore season.

While his 7-11 record in 1999 was underwhelming, it was more a reflection of the Twins' awful 63-97 record and league-worst offense than Milton's performance. In fact, that was arguably the best season of Milton's career, as he tossed 206 innings with a 4.49 ERA in a high-scoring environment, struck out 163 batters, allowed opponents to bat just .243, and threw the fifth no-hitter in team history against the Angels in September.

Milton was brilliant that afternoon, striking out 13 batters, but the game isn't exactly etched in the memory of many Twins fans. Not only did the no-hitter come versus an awful Angels lineup that consisted almost entirely of September call-ups and bench players, the game wasn't even on television in the Twin Cities and the first pitch was moved up thanks to a Gophers football game later that day. At most 11,222 people saw Milton's gem.

After going 13-10 with a 4.86 ERA during his third year Milton began the 2001 season 8-3 with a 3.73 ERA in the first half and was selected to his first All-Star team as the Twins came out of nowhere to lead the division by five games at the break. They ended up six games behind the Indians as guys like Milton faded badly in the second half, but even with the fade he was 15-7 with a 4.32 ERA in 221 innings and the Twins finished above .500 for the first time since 1992.

Milton was in the middle of what had become a fairly typical season for him in 2002, going 13-7 with a 4.60 ERA in his first 24 starts. Then, after a 131-pitch complete-game shutout against the White Sox on August 1, he reportedly heard his left knee "pop" while warming up for his next start against the Orioles. He was scratched from the start, immediately headed to the hospital, and underwent surgery to repair a tear in his lateral meniscus a couple days later.

He ended up missing just under a month of action and returned to the mound on September 2 as the Twins started him off slowly and gradually increased his workload with an eye towards getting him on track for the postseason. Milton struggled, going 0-2 with a 6.64 ERA in five September starts, but went 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in two playoff starts as the Twins made it all the way to the ALCS. Sadly, Milton was far from done with the injury.

After a winter filled with stories of his surgically repaired knee swelling and Milton "toughing it out" the Twins finally announced in March that he'd need a second surgery. Initial reports had him missing around two months, but instead Milton missed nearly six months and didn't make it back until the final two weeks of the season. He made just three regular-season starts and then threw 3.1 scoreless innings as a reliever in Game 4 of the ALDS loss to the Yankees.

That was his final game with the Twins. With one year and $9 million left on the four-year deal signed in 2001, the Twins sent Milton to the Phillies for Carlos Silva, Nick Punto, and Bobby Korecky on December 3, 2003. At the time of the deal my take was that simply getting Milton's salary off the books had "a lot of value" considering his uncertain health status and suggested that the players general manager Terry Ryan got in return were "just an added bonus."

Milton led the NL in homers allowed and had a 4.75 ERA in 201 innings for the Phillies in 2004, which wouldn't have been worth $9 million to a small-payroll team. Silva stepped right into the rotation and out-pitched Milton by going 14-8 with a 4.21 ERA in 203 innings while making just $340,000. He left Philadelphia as a free agent after the season and signed a three-year, $25.5 million deal with Cincinnati, where he was 16-27 with a 5.83 ERA before blowing out his elbow.

Back surgery wrecked Milton's comeback with the Dodgers in 2009, likely ending his career at age 33. In researching this and other installments of my Top 40 Minnesota Twins series, there were some striking similarities between Milton and the starting pitcher one spot below him, Scott Erickson. The most obvious comparison is between their actual numbers with the Twins, which were nearly identical:

                GS        IP      W      L     ERA+     WAR
Milton         165     987.1     57     51     101     13.2
Erickson       153     979.1     61     60     104     11.9

Eerily close and the similarities run deeper. Both were in the rotation at age 22 and how their Twins careers played out tells the story of the team during each period. Erickson peaked early, winning 20 games for a championship team in his second year, but went downhill as the Twins fell into a funk for the rest of the decade. Milton struggled early on as the team continued its post-1992 tailspin and began to thrive as they finally became contenders again in 2001.

Even the differing returns the Twins received in trading them paved the way for the franchise's fate. Erickson was sent to Baltimore for prospects who failed to pan out in a period defined by the team's inability to develop young talent. At the other end of the spectrum, Milton went to Philadelphia in a deal bringing back a young pitcher who immediately became a key contributor on a team that was filled with prospects who blossomed together over the next five years.

The end result was basically the same 1,000 innings of slightly above-average pitching over six years in Minnesota, but their paths were very different. One was a right-handed ground-baller who peaked early and struggled with an arm injury while the other was a left-handed fly-baller who developed gradually and struggled with a knee injury. Two players whose Twins careers were typical of the entire franchise. It's probably fitting that they're back-to-back on this list.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
Starts                165    10th
Quality Starts         83    10th
Innings               987    11th
Strikeouts            715    11th
Wins                   57    12th
Batters Faced        4196    12th
K/BB Ratio           2.66    14th
Opponents' OBP       .309    16th
Walk Rate            2.45    17th
Shutouts                4    18th
WHIP                 1.29    22nd
Strikeout Rate       6.52    23rd
Winning Percentage   .528    23rd

October 27, 2010

On this day in 1991 …

And yesterday in 1991 wasn't bad either.

UPDATE: Turns out today is also the 50-year anniversary of the Senators becoming the Twins. So yeah, October 27 is kind of a big date in Twins history.

October 26, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #39 Scott Erickson

Scott Gavin Erickson | SP | 1990-1995 | Career Stats

Scott Erickson's career got off to one of the fastest starts in Twins history. A fourth-round pick out of the University of Arizona in 1989, he posted a 2.97 ERA in 78.2 innings at Single-A after signing, went 8-3 with a 3.03 ERA in 101 innings at Double-A to begin the 1990 season, and found himself in the big leagues at age 22. Erickson's debut came against the Rangers on June 25, 1990 and he got a win with six innings of four-hit, one-run ball at the Metrodome.

Erickson allowed his first hit to Rafael Palmeiro, a 31-year-old Julio Franco started at second base for Texas that day, and Kirby Puckett and Shane Mack each homered to provide the run support in a 9-1 victory. Despite finishing 8-4 with a 2.87 ERA in 113 innings, including 5-0 with a 1.35 ERA in September, Erickson failed to get a single vote in the Rookie of the Year balloting that saw rotation-mate Kevin Tapani rate fifth with a 12-8 record and 4.07 ERA in 159 innings.

For his sophomore campaign Erickson helped lead the Twins to the playoffs by going 20-8 with a 3.18 ERA in 204 innings, including a 12-game winning streak that lasted from April 21 to June 24 and a 30-inning scoreless streak that tied Frank Viola's team record. He led the AL in wins and finished second to Roger Clemens in the Cy Young balloting, but battled arm problems in the second half before struggling in the ALCS and World Series as Jack Morris stole the show.

At just 23 he was a 20-game winner with a championship and had a 28-12 record with a 3.07 ERA, but it was all downhill from there. He had a strong 1992, going 13-12 with a 3.40 ERA in 212 innings as the Twins narrowly missed the postseason, but as was the case with the entire franchise things started to fall apart in 1993. While the Twins dropped to 71-91, he won just eight games and led the league in losses (19), hits allowed (266), and runs allowed (138).

Improbably, in his fifth start the next season Erickson became the third pitcher in Twins history to toss a no-hitter, blanking the Brewers at the Metrodome as Puckett and Chuck Knoblauch combined for seven hits and Kent Hrbek homered. Sadly, that was just about the lone bright spot that year. He finished 8-11 with a 5.44 ERA in 144 innings for a fourth-place team and the season ended more than two months early when the players went on strike.

The strike dragged into 1995 and when Erickson finally got back on the mound in late April he was a mess. After going 4-6 with a 5.95 ERA in his first 15 starts, the last-place Twins traded the 27-year-old righty to the Orioles for prospects Scott Klingenbeck and Kimera Bartee. He never rediscovered the success from his first few years, but Erickson became a workhorse in Baltimore, throwing 220-plus innings in four straight seasons before arm injuries did him in.

He was Baltimore's starter and threw a complete-game shutout when Cal Ripken Jr. tied Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played on September 5, 1995 and Erickson was also on the mound the next year when Roberto Alomar spit on umpire John Hirschbeck. Oh, and he had a cameo on Baltimore-based Homicide: Life on the Street with teammate Armando Benitez when the storyline involved a Yankees fan being murdered at Camden Yards.

Erickson's last effective season was 1999, yet he managed to stick around until 2006 despite going 7-20 with a 5.87 ERA during his final 254.1 innings while spending far more time on the disabled list than the field and marrying former Monday Night Football reporter Lisa Guerrero. Meanwhile, like most of the prospects acquired by the Twins in the mid-90s, Klingenbeck and Bartee were complete flops who combined for one win and zero hits in Minnesota.

In many ways Erickson's career in Minnesota mirrored the whole team's story in the 1990s. He peaked in 1991 as the most effective pitcher on a championship team at 22, but that success was short-lived with poor strikeout rates and K/BB ratios perhaps foreshadowing the decline. Even the players received in return for Erickson were among the many prospects who turned out to be busts as the Twins failed to return to respectability in the last half of the decade.

Like the Twins, when Erickson was good he was very good. An extreme ground-ball guy with black shoes, black socks, a black glove, and an intimidating stare, he was a lot of fun to watch and remains my mom's favorite player. And like the Twins, when Erickson was bad he was very bad. When the sinker wasn't sinking, the right elbow was barking after heavy workloads, and those grounders were finding holes and skipping through the infield turf, things got ugly.

Had you told someone in 1991 that Erickson would win just 61 games in a Twins uniform they never would've believed it, but he ended up staying in Minnesota for just six years and split them evenly between three very good seasons and three very bad ones. The end result is a Twins career that could have been a lot better, yet for a brief time shined brighter than just about anyone and still makes him one of the dozen most successful starters in team history.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
Shutouts                7    10th
Wins                   61    11th
Starts                153    11th
Batters Faced        4244    11th
Innings               979    12th
Quality Starts         73    12th
Home Run Rate        0.76    13th
Complete Games         24    15th
Strikeouts            527    20th

October 25, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #40 Randy Bush

Robert Randall Bush | RF/LF/1B/DH | 1982-1993 | Career Stats

Selected out of the University of New Orleans by the Twins in the second round of the 1979 draft, Randy Bush struggled in his first two minor-league seasons before hitting .290 with 22 homers and 94 RBIs in 136 games at Double-A in 1981. After hitting well at Triple-A to start the 1982 season, he was called up to Minnesota and made his MLB debut against the Brewers on May 1, 1982 by pinch-hitting for catcher Sal Butera leading off the bottom of the ninth inning.

With the Twins trailing by one run Bush struck out against Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers, but he went on to hit a respectable .244/.305/.412 in 55 games as a 23-year-old rookie and never returned to the minors. A left-handed hitter, Bush quickly took on what would become a career-long role as a platoon player and bench bat. He never received 500 plate appearances during a season, but typically came to the plate 350-450 times and put up solid numbers.

His career splits are extreme to say the least, with a .255/.338/.422 line off righties compared to a .152/.250/.232 mark against southpaws, and Bush had an absurdly low total of 118 plate appearances versus lefties in a dozen major-league seasons. Had his career started in 2002, rather than 1982, Ron Gardenhire likely would've used Bush nearly every day and stubbornly watched him struggle against lefties much like he did with Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel.

Instead under managers Billy Gardner and Tom Kelly he was allowed to thrive in a role that magnified his strengths and lessened his weaknesses. The fact that he averaged fewer than 10 trips to the plate per season against lefties is remarkable considering Bush batted nearly 3,500 times overall and his strict usage shows how valuable a fairly run-of-the-mill player can be when utilized optimally.

Bush finished his career with back-to-back poor campaigns in 1992 and 1993, but posted an adjusted OPS+ of 106 through his first 10 years with the Twins. He enjoyed hitting at home in the Metrodome, where he had a .796 OPS compared to .699 on the road, and also performed better in important spots, posting a .711 OPS with the bases empty while stepping it up to .798 with runners on base and .801 with runners in scoring position.

Bush played right field most often, but also spent substantial time at left field, first base, and designated hitter. He typically batted second, fifth, or sixth in the lineup, but logged over 100 plate appearances in each of the nine spots. It's difficult to identify the best season of Bush's career because he was so consistent in terms of both performance and playing time. His best overall production likely came in 1988, when he received a career-high 466 plate appearances.

His raw numbers are modest, as Bush batted .261/.365/.434 with 14 homers, 51 RBIs, and 51 runs, but MLB as a whole slugged under .400 in 1988 and Bush had a 121 OPS+ that ranked 28th in the league. He also ranked fifth with 10 intentional walks. His most effective season was without question 1991, when at 32 years old Bush hit .303/.401/.485 for a 140 OPS+ in 192 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter and occasional starter.

Bush led the league with 13 pinch-hits that season while batting .318/.423/.500 off the bench and hit .378/.489/.622 in "close and late" situations. That also turned out to be Bush's final productive season, as he hit .214 in 1992 and then retired after batting .156 over 32 games in 1993. After retiring as a player Bush spent five seasons as the head coach at his alma mater before stepping down in 2004 and has been the Cubs' assistant general manager since 2006.

His biggest game came on May 20, 1989 when he batted cleanup and went 3-for-4 with a pair of homers and team-record eight RBIs in a 19-3 win over Texas. He also came up big in Game 2 of the 1987 World Series, yanking a key two-run double off Danny Cox and later scoring on a head-first slide that evaded Tony Pena's tag. Another memorable moment was breaking up Jim Clancy's perfect game with a ninth-inning leadoff single on September 28, 1982.

Bush's career spanned a dozen seasons and they all came in Minnesota, as he re-signed with the Twins three times. He finished with a .251/.334/.413 line in 3,480 plate appearances that doesn't look particularly impressive on the surface, but in the context of the low-scoring era Bush played in they were solid. His career OPS+ was 102 on a scale where 100 is average and he's one of seven Twins to be on both the 1987 and 1991 championship teams.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
Games                1219     9th
Homers                 96    15th
Triples                26    15th
RBIs                  409    16th
Walks                 348    18th
Extra-Base Hits       276    19th
Plate Appearances    3480    20th
Total Bases          1257    20th
Times On Base        1160    20th
Runs Created          427    20th
Doubles               154    21st
Runs                  388    23rd
Isolated Power       .162    23rd
Hits                  763    24th

October 22, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• You know what's even more "baller" than a Division II football player? A taser.

• Remember the "boom goes the dynamite!" kid from a few years ago? Well, his name is Brian Collins and now he's a news reporter for the local ABC affiliate in Alexandria, Minnesota.

Esquire magazine named former Friday Night Lights star, current Parenthood guest star, and longtime Derek Jeter girlfriend Minka Kelly the "sexiest woman alive" for 2010.

• Based on this study, I should be a billionaire.

Zooey Deschanel and Katy Perry are like a before-and-after comparison, but I'm not exactly sure for what.

• My favorite headline of the week: "Why did Kanye West replace his bottom row of teeth with diamonds?" Even better, his answer: "I just thought that diamonds were cooler." Obviously.

• One of the greatest and most underrated soul singers of all time, Solomon Burke, died last week at age 70.

• This story is why the Target Field crowd is better off if I watch most Twins games from home.

• Is this guy doesn't become a superstar, something is wrong with the world:

He looks eerily like a miniature Patton Oswalt.

Ozzie Guillen's impression of David Ortiz trying to bunt for a hit is pretty great.

• When it comes to White Sox fans, sometimes the jokes write themselves.

• There's no shortage of great Randy Moss pictures, but none can top this beauty.

• Two weekends ago a phone call woke me Saturday morning and I was confused to hear a woman claiming to be "a reporter from the New York Post." Intrigued but still groggy, I checked my e-mail and found several messages from the same person offering $200 for "a freelancer to go out to a house in Eden Prairie and interview someone today." I'm not a reporter and barely leave my own house, so I replied with a simple "no thanks."

It turns out, as David Brauer of MinnPost found by doing a bit more digging, the New York Post was looking for someone to basically go ring the doorbell at Brett Favre's house while he was in New York to play the Jets. Apparently their goal was to get his wife involved and turn that into a story, which is just about the grossest possible thing someone could pay you $200 to do on a Saturday morning. Perhaps that was covered in journalism school after I dropped out.

• I'd be thrilled if marijuana saved the newspaper industry.

• On a related note, that's a whole lot of pot.

• Despite using exclusively laptops for a decade I've somehow managed to avoid "toasted leg syndrome." Clearly, like Robert Neville in a great book turned disappointing film, I am immune.

• I just hope they had an open bar at the reception.

Jessica Alba is back on the Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com radar.

• Speaking of Alba, this is a slippery slope that ends with a lot of disappointed perverts.

• This video of Hakeem Olajuwon tutoring Dwight Howard is a must-watch for NBA fans:

After watching it I'm convinced Olajuwon a) would be an amazing coach, and b) could probably still give some team 10 solid minutes off the bench at age 47.

Roy Oswalt might be even better at photo-bombing than he is at pitching.

Mariano Rivera's unique greatness, as shown by heat maps.

Jon Heyman of SI.com blocked my Hardball Talk colleague Craig Calcaterra from following him on Twitter a while back, so I'm endlessly amused that a TBD.com post on social networking "tearing friends apart" included this excerpt:

The snub came months after Heyman called Calcaterra at home to discuss criticism Calcaterra had made of Heyman. Calcaterra says the call "ended civilly enough" but then came the Twitter block, a move that "far more offended" him than the phone call. "It's just so passive aggressive," he says.

Heyman confirms the block, saying that Calcaterra wrote numerous negative posts about him and he didn't want his tweets to provide further fodder. "I guess it's flattering, but I wasn't flattered," he says. Calcaterra says he's "moved on," but the incident made him question "odd interpersonal relationships" social networking sites encourage.

Heh.

• This is what many non-New Yorkers picture when they think of Yankees fans.

• Now that I've got a floor plan, it's probably time to remodel the AG.com home office.

• Professional poker player Nick Schulman was recently the subject on MTV's day-in-the-life style documentary show World of Jenks and my fellow degenerates will enjoy the episode.

Baseball America's scouting report on a 21-year-old Roy Halladay was right on the money.

• Here's an interesting interview with one of my favorite podcasters, Marc Maron.

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

- Zack Greinke can block a trade to 15 teams in 2011
- And a rookie shall lead them: Buster Posey carries Giants to brink of World Series
- Giants embracing the power of Aubrey Huff's "rally thong"
- Tigers sign Brandon Inge to two-year, $11.5 million deal with option for 2013
- Mariners’ new manager has an ugly history with Milton Bradley
- Rangers acquired Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus by trading Mark Teixeira in 2007
- Red Sox owner John Henry buys Liverpool soccer team for $476 million
- Ted Lilly’s three-year deal with Dodgers worth $33 million
- Tony La Russa will return as Cardinals manager in 2011

• Finally, in honor of his passing away this week's AG.com-approved music video is Burke and The Blind Boys of Alabama singing "None Of Us Are Free":

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