March 31, 2011

Twins Notes: The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right

- "Here Comes The Sun"

• Since the Twins open the season on the road against the Blue Jays tomorrow night I'm going to do a "live chat" here during the game. I realize Friday night isn't the ideal time for everyone to get on their computers and type things to each other while watching a baseball game, but if I'm willing to cancel my exciting plans with various supermodels hopefully at least some of you will stay in for some chat action. Carl Pavano versus Ricky Romero, chat doors open at 6:00.

• I wrote the season previews for all the AL Central teams over at Hardball Talk and concluded that the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers should basically be considered co-favorites in the range of 88-92 victories. RLYW's annual simulation of 100,000 seasons based on multiple projection systems thinks I'm a bit high on those win totals, but also has all three AL Central contenders within two games of each other. You can see my predictions for all the divisions here.

Joe Mauer's incredible popularity in Minnesota is no secret, but I was surprised to learn that he had the second-best selling jersey in all of baseball last season behind only Derek Jeter. Justin Morneau was also in the top 20 and as a team the Twins ranked No. 9 in merchandise sales. And according to Forbes magazine the Twins have the 12th-most valuable MLB franchise at $490 million, which is up 21 percent from last year. Pretty remarkable.

• There were several key statistical reasons for Denard Span's disappointing offense last year and the Twins have also talked about his struggling with some mechanical issues, but Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy combined stats and scouting for a truly unique analysis of Span's hitting that's a must-read and makes Patrick Reusse's recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column seem all the more silly for pitting stats versus scouting. As always, the best answer is "both."

• As part of my series ranking the Twins' top 40 prospects I called the farm system as a whole "solidly above average" but "not elite." Baseball America agrees, as their "organizational talent rankings" released last week have the Twins at No. 12. Kansas City ranks No. 1 with perhaps the best farm systems of the past several decades and the Indians are at No. 7, but the Tigers are No. 25 and the White Sox are No. 27.

Ron Gardenhire didn't pull any punches when asked why Jim Hoey was sent to Triple-A:

Hoey needs to slow the ball down. All he can do is throw hard, hard, harder. And on our level, hard, hard, harder normally gets hit, hit, hit.

Kind of an interesting quote considering the main criticism of the Twins' approach to pitching is that collecting strike-throwers with low-90s fastballs makes them too easy to hit when facing strong lineups. Acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy trade, Hoey has without question the fastest fastball in the entire organization now that Billy Bullock is regrettably gone.

Brendan Harris, whose $1.7 million contract the Twins dumped on the Orioles as part of the Hardy deal, has been assigned to Triple-A after failing to win a bench job in Baltimore.

• If the Twins ever change their minds about signing Francisco Liriano to a long-term contract extension, Chad Billingsley's new deal with the Dodgers may provide a template. Their service time is equal, but Billingsley avoided arbitration in his second year of eligibility for $6.3 million, whereas Liriano settled for $4.3 million. Los Angeles bought out his final arbitration year and first two free agent years for $32 million plus a $14 million option or $3 million buyout for 2015.

• I'm unsure if yesterday afternoon's game against the Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta counts as the spring training finale or a preseason exhibition, but it was nice to see Minnesota native, good guy, and friend of my family Andy Baldwin close out the win with a scoreless inning. He'll be assigned to Triple-A, where the combination of top prospects moving up the ladder and the Twins signing lots of minor-league veterans has Rochester looking strong after a terrible 2010.

• Most of the focus is obviously on the competition for spots on the Twins' roster, but this time of year also means making cuts in the minors and Seth Stohs notes that the Twins released a dozen players. No surprises or big names, but Michael McCardell twice cracked my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects, not so long ago some people thought Juan Portes had a shot to be a useful player, and once upon a time Justin Huber was a top prospect for the Royals.

• has a mouth-watering collection of pictures showing all the new food choices available at Target Field. I'm planning to just stare at the pictures all season because I'm back on another diet, although as longtime readers unfortunately know by now that's highly unlikely to last until the All-Star break, let alone for 162 games. My (wildly unrealistic) goal is to lose more pounds than the Twins' win total. So far I'm really kicking their ass.

• I'd love to have overheard this conversation. I prefer to imagine they talked neck tattoos.

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped by here on a regular basis during the too-long offseason. My goal each winter is to find enough interesting stuff to write about that most of you keep showing up here, but I'm definitely ready to start talking about actual games again and look forward to my 10th season of blogging. Thanks for reading, thanks for following me on Twitter, and thanks for supporting my work at and Rotoworld.

March 29, 2011

Twins trade Billy Bullock to keep Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond

Some trades seem like good moves, some trades seem like bad moves, and some trades seem like bad moves and don't make much sense. Yesterday's trade with the Braves to retain Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond unfortunately qualifies as the latter, as the Twins swapped a high-upside, hard-throwing reliever prospect in Billy Bullock for a low-90s throwing left-hander who wasn't even protected from the Rule 5 draft and projects as no more than a mid-rotation starter.

In the wake of the deal there are reports about the Twins wanting Diamond so much that they nearly traded up in the Rule 5 draft to make sure they got him and reports about how they've since grown to like him even more this spring. And that's fine. I like Diamond too and when the Twins plucked him from the Braves in the Rule 5 draft four months ago I wrote about him being a nice low-cost pickup for the total investment of just $50,000 and a spot on the MLB roster.

However, the Twins apparently didn't love Diamond enough to give him one the seven spots in their bullpen as a long reliever or mop-up man and because of that were forced to either offer him back to the Braves or work out a separate deal to keep him in the minors outside of the Rule 5 system. They chose to work something out with Atlanta, which is perfectly reasonable in theory, except "something" inexplicably turned out to be a far better prospect than Diamond.

Bullock was the Twins' second-round pick in 2009 and the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder signed for a $533,000 bonus, posting a 3.18 ERA with 150 strikeouts in 108 innings through two seasons while advancing all the way to Double-A as a 22-year-old. He has control problems, but that comes with the mid-90s fastball that made the former University of Florida closer perhaps the hardest-thrower in a farm system perpetually loaded with potential mid-rotation starters.

All offseason the Twins talked of wanting to acquire more big, hard-throwing strikeout pitchers with overpowering raw stuff, yet they traded arguably the best example of that in their entire organization for a mid-rotation starter they already controlled and could have kept for nothing by simply giving him a low-leverage job in a bullpen housing seven relievers. I'm dumbfounded by the move purely on a talent level, but even more so because of the Rule 5 aspect.

Atlanta didn't even deem Diamond worthy of a 40-man roster spot to protect him from the Rule 5 draft in December and he lasted all the way to the Twins with the 27th selection, later going unclaimed on waivers this week, yet the Braves somehow just turned him into a power arm two years removed from being a second rounder. And all because the Twins weren't willing to trust Diamond with a long relief job that would've allowed them to keep him for nothing.

I'm admittedly a bigger Bullock fan than most, viewing him as a potential future closer and the epitome of the type of high-upside arm the Twins should be trying to add while ranking him as the team's No. 10 prospect (whereas Diamond placed No. 36). But clearly I'm not alone, as the Twins liked Bullock enough to spend a second-round pick and $533,000 on him 20 months ago and Baseball America ranked him as the No. 15 prospect in the system, with Diamond at No. 29.

You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who values Diamond higher than Bullock. Except for the Twins, apparently. Yet if they love Diamond that much the Twins could have just stuck him in a low-leverage bullpen role like they did with Johan Santana in 2000. And if they don't love him enough to let Diamond fill one of the seven bullpen jobs at age 24 so they could retain him for nothing, then why trade a high-upside, consensus top-20 prospect for him? I just don't get it.

March 28, 2011

Twins set 25-man roster, name Nathan closer, send Hughes to Triple-A

Things could change before April 1, but yesterday the Twins set the 25-man roster by sending Luke Hughes and Jim Hoey to Triple-A. That means Matt Tolbert beat Hughes for the utility man job and Jeff Manship beat Hoey for the final bullpen spot, with Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond still in roster limbo. Rule 5 picks must be offered back to their original teams if not kept in the majors all year, but the Twins are trying to avoid that by working out a trade with the Braves.

In the meantime, here's what the Opening Day roster looks like barring a last-minute change:

LINEUP:                            ROTATION:
C  Joe Mauer                       SP Carl Pavano
1B Justin Morneau                  SP Francisco Liriano
2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka               SP Nick Blackburn
SS Alexi Casilla                   SP Scott Baker
3B Danny Valencia                  SP Brian Duensing
LF Delmon Young
CF Denard Span                     BULLPEN:
RF Michael Cuddyer                 CL Joe Nathan
DH Jason Kubel                     SU Matt Capps
                                   SU Jose Mijares
BENCH:                             RH Kevin Slowey
C  Drew Butera                     RH Jeff Manship
IF Matt Tolbert                    LH Glen Perkins
OF Jason Repko                     LH Dusty Hughes
DH Jim Thome

Hughes homered six times and slugged .569 in 65 at-bats this spring, but he also hit .246 with a .265 on-base percentage and 17-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And despite Ron Gardenhire saying last week that the ability to play shortstop would not be the deciding factor in the utility man competition, general manager Bill Smith cited Tolbert's ability to play shortstop as one of the reasons he got the job over Hughes, saying: "We need a shortstop."

With a 12-man pitching staff Tolbert or Hughes was the only decision to make on the position player side once Trevor Plouffe played his way out of the mix, but multiple bullpen spots were up for grabs. In theory at least. Joe Nathan, Matt Capps, Jose Mijares, and the sixth starter (Kevin Slowey) were always locks, and very early on it seemed pretty clear that Glen Perkins and Dusty Hughes would make the team as the second and third left-handers.

That essentially left a single middle relief opening for a right-hander, with Manship, Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Carlos Gutierrez in the mix. However, neither Waldrop nor Gutierrez are on the 40-man roster and the coaching staff's familiarity with Manship gave him the upper hand over Hoey. There was certainly competition going on, but aside from carrying Hughes as a third lefty and dumping Pat Neshek this is the 25-man roster I'd have predicted entering spring training.

Nathan reclamining his old closer role was equally predictable as long as he avoided any major setbacks returning from Tommy John elbow surgery and sure enough Gardenhire made that all but official yesterday during an interview on 1500-ESPN, saying:

I would imagine we'll start out probably something like that. We like what he's doing. I think the big thing is to see how he does early in the season and go from there. We're going to use them both right away. I just don't think Nathan is ready to go three-four days in a row.

At no point did Nathan report any physical problems and he allowed zero runs in six of eight appearances, but an ugly outing last week caused him to end the spring with a bloated 11.05 ERA overall and his velocity is still lagging behind where it was pre-surgery. Ultimately though, unless the Twins were going to start Nathan off in a low-leverage role or on the disabled list there isn't a huge difference between pitching the eighth inning and pitching the ninth inning.

In most tight games the closer and primary setup man are both going to make an appearance anyway and both roles almost always involve starting an inning fresh and being asked to get three outs, so if the Twins believe Nathan is ready for a late-inning role they might as well just give him ninth-inning duties. Whether he's actually ready for a late-inning role is up for debate, of course, and plenty of people who watched him in Fort Myers were skeptical.

I'm curious to see how Dusty Hughes fares after the Twins used a 40-man roster spot to claim him off waivers in January and quickly made it pretty obvious that he'd crack the Opening Day bullpen. His being let go by the Royals doesn't necessarily mean anything, since they've made plenty of awful decisions with the major-league roster recently, but there's really nothing in his multi-year track record to suggest Hughes is much more than a replacement-level reliever.

Beyond that, Hughes doesn't even seem particularly well-suited for the left-handed specialist role that he'll likely fill as long as Mijares is the main southpaw setup man. Through his first 70 career innings Hughes has a poor 20-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio versus lefties and they've hit .261 off him, albeit with minimal power. Perkins is an even worse fit for the lefty specialist role, as he's actually been better against righties (.801 OPS) than against lefties (.840 OPS).

Assuming that he can rediscover something resembling his old effectiveness a healthy Nathan combined with Capps from the right side and Mijares from the left side is potentially a strong late-inning trio and I'm relatively optimistic about Slowey as a bullpen asset, but Hughes and Perkins trying to shut down big left-handed bats in the middle innings scares me and so far at least Manship looks more like the next Brian Bass than the next Matt Guerrier.

Nathan's setback-free spring training and Slowey's switch have me slightly less worried about the bullpen now than six weeks ago, but Nathan remains a big question mark and there could be enough middle relief ugliness to cause some early changes. Hoey, Waldrop, Gutierrez, Alex Burnett, and Anthony Slama give the Twins plenty of right-handed reinforcements at Triple-A and lefty Chuck James could emerge as an interesting alternative to Perkins or Hughes.

March 24, 2011

Hardball Dynasty league openings

I'm addicted to's excellent Hardball Dynasty game and my league has a few franchises open with the new season set to begin next week. Hardball Dynasty is not fantasy baseball and in fact has nothing to do with fantasy baseball. It's much better. From rookie-ball to the majors it's an incredibly detailed simulation of running a fictional MLB organization, with fictional players and everything from the Rule 5 draft to international signings.

Due to the steep learning curve involved in the game and extensive time commitment required to master it we're looking first and foremost for owners with some previous Hardball Dynasty experience. Mostly, though, we're just looking for good owners and despite the sales pitch-like tone of this post I get absolutely nothing in return for someone signing up (except for a better league to enjoy, of course). If you're interested, let me know.

March 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Fifth starters, old friends, bullpens, and short shelf lives

Ron Gardenhire announced yesterday that Scott Baker will be in the rotation alongside Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, and Brian Duensing, which means Kevin Slowey is bullpen bound despite a 39-21 record and 4.42 ERA in 82 career starts. Winning percentage is a mostly useless stat, but it's still notable that Slowey is headed to the bullpen with a .650 mark that ranks second to Johan Santana in Twins history among pitchers with 50 decisions.

I'm of the belief that both Baker and Slowey deserved rotation spots ahead of Blackburn, but with Gardenhire awarding Blackburn a starting job weeks ago that was clearly never an option and short of that Baker over Slowey is the right call. Baker is the longest-tenured member of the rotation and has a 4.33 ERA in 138 career starts, including a 4.49 mark in 29 outings last season after drawing the Opening Day assignment. He's a perfectly solid mid-rotation starter.

Slowey fits that description as well, but his durability has been in question since returning from late-2009 wrist surgery and there's been various speculation that the Twins aren't thrilled with his demeanor. It also likely didn't help Slowey's cause that he's not signed to a multi-year deal and is owed $2.7 million this season, whereas Baker is under contract for $11.5 million through 2012. To his credit, Slowey apparently took the demotion to the bullpen in stride yesterday.

Whether he'll be an effective enough reliever to gain Gardenhire's trust in a high-leverage role is unclear. Slowey has all of four career relief appearances, half of which came when he was a 23-year-old rookie in 2007, but has a 2.74 career ERA in the first inning and like most relievers the short appearances should help lessen the importance of his mediocre secondary stuff. As a reliever Slowey can focus on his fastball and slider while leaning less on his iffy changeup.

Of course, Slowey may not be long for the bullpen anyway. Rarely do teams make it through a 162-game season using just five starters, leaving Slowey just an injury away from being called back into rotation duty, and it wouldn't be surprising if teams have expressed trade interest in an affordable 27-year-old mid-rotation starter under team control through 2013. Shopping him seems natural, especially if they think No. 1 prospect Kyle Gibson will be ready by midseason.

• Dumped by the Twins and claimed off waivers by the Padres earlier this week, Pat Neshek flew from Florida to Arizona and tossed a perfect inning with two strikeouts yesterday. His first strikeout victim? None other than Carlos Gomez. Neshek is reunited with Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson, the latter of whom is already annoying new teammates with the same motor mouth that reportedly helped guarantee his departure from the Twins after one season.

Alex Burnett was seemingly never viewed as a strong Opening Day bullpen option thanks to last year's second-half fade and he's been assigned to Triple-A. He jumped all the way from Double-A to the majors and then struggled in 14 appearances following a midseason demotion to Rochester, so some more time there at age 23 is probably a good thing. I'm still convinced Burnett can eventually be a solid bullpen contributor, perhaps this season.

• Burnett returning to Triple-A, Neshek going to San Diego, and Slowey moving to the bullpen did a lot to clear up the relief picture. Slowey joins Joe Nathan, Matt Capps, and Jose Mijares as locks, with Dusty Hughes and Glen Perkins looking like clear favorites to serve as second and third lefties behind Mijares. That would leave just one open spot, presumably for a righty, with Jeff Manship, Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and perhaps Carlos Gutierrez as candidates.

Trevor Plouffe entered camp with at least an outside chance of pushing Matt Tolbert for the utility man job, but was 7-for-34 (.216) with seven strikeouts versus just one walk at the plate and was an absolute disaster defensively, making six errors in 16 games. He'll head to Triple-A for the fourth straight season, leaving Tolbert and Luke Hughes to duke it out for the backup infielder gig. For whatever it's worth, Hughes is in a 0-for-13 slump following a hot start.

• Last week I linked to a study showing that the Twins promote their position player prospects through the minors slower than every other organization and the first round of spring training cuts included a couple assignments that will add to those numbers. Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson were sent back to Double-A after playing 111 and 103 games there last year. Benson led New Britain in homers and OPS, so his repeating the level is the epitome of that study.

Ben Revere spent last year alongside Benson in New Britain's outfield, but he was assigned to Rochester in a move that makes it very clear he'll be the first outfielder called up if needed. Obviously no surprise after Revere spent most of September with the Twins last year, but his moving up the ladder while Benson stays behind is interesting given that Benson topped his OPS by 128 points at Double-A. Revere is more polished than Benson, but has far less upside.

• There's been very little talk about left-hander Scott Diamond potentially making the Opening Day roster and Rule 5 picks must be sent back to their original team if they aren't kept in the majors all season, but the Twins reportedly may try to work out a deal with the Braves to keep him without the Rule 5 restrictions. He hasn't been impressive this spring, but Diamond has a chance to be a useful back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever at some point.

• Injuries to Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel mean Jon Rauch looks likely to start the year as the Blue Jays' closer and the Twins kick off the season with a three-game series in Toronto.

• It was fun while it lasted, but Gardenhire is already too in on the whole "just fire it through the internet" thing for the humor to really continue much longer. Based on various beat writer accounts of his media briefings the past couple days, Gardenhire has been jokingly mentioning the internet, blogs, and Twitter seemingly every other sentence and has apparently also come up with his own set of accompanying sound effects. We'll always have the t-shirt, at least.

• Speaking of beat writers, Jon Marthaler of Twinkie Town put together some brilliant advice for Rhett Bollinger as he replaces Kelly Thesier at

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