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.

  • MC

    I think this is, although not as sure as last year’s, is a relatively solid starting point for the season given the roster. I’ll take Hudson and Hardy over our MIF’s this year, but who know’s, maybe over the 2-3 year horizon, they’re better. I think the Twins gambled a bit with that but it’s a relatively small gamble and could pay dividends for roster stability.

  • AM.

    The Twins have a decent set of options for the bullpen…how nervous would you be if they haddecided to go with 7 rookies? Such as:

    Slama
    Waldrop
    Burnett
    Diamond
    Perkins
    Bromberg/Hoey/Delaney
    Guttierrez

  • David

    No way I’d take Hudson over Nishioka. It’s always a bit of a gamble whenever you sign a Japanese player, but based on what we’ve seen the kid’s got plus speed and fielding skills and terrific bat control. An ideal two-hole hitter.

  • AM.

    (I know Delaney is gone…)

  • Rick

    Need a shortstop? Weak excuse. It’s almost as bad as the need for 3 catchers. Can’t Nishioka play there? In an emergency Hughes could play there too until someone from Rochester could get on a plane.

  • Josh

    I’m more unhappy about the fact that we’re carrying 7 guys in the bullpen than than anything else. I just don’t see the logic in it. The only way this makes sense is if none of the starters manage to go past 5 innings the first couple of trips through the rotation, and I just don’t see it happening (and if it does, we have bigger problems). Some of those guys in the pen are going to be vastly under utilized and basically be dead weight. Wouldn’t we be better off with a bench bat?

    Right now the only PH threat we have is Thome. Tolbert isn’t a guy you can count on to hit. Repko is a decent 4th OF, but he’s no great shakes with the bat either and is mostly there for his defense and flexibility in the field. Butera is possibly the worst hitter in MLB. Maybe the pitchers all deserve to be there, but I have to think the team would be better served and the final roster spot would have more utility with a hitter with a little pop in his bat.

  • grubah

    The only problem with keeping a bench bat is this: the only viable candidate is Hughes, and do you want him to sit around, playing a few innings a week and maybe hitting 4 times? I would let him play all year in AAA if we don’t need him, and let Tolbert rot on our bench.

  • Dave T

    Send Hughes to Rochester with instructions to learn how to play shortstop. If/when Tolbert reverts back to his Punto-esque batting average, bring Hughes back up here.

  • Zach Morris

    I agree with Dave T. I’m excited to see Hughes bat, but I think if he polishes his defense a little bit more he will be a better player for it (hopefully this year!) The bullpen is something to work with for Gardy. I’m sure it will look much different in September/October, but for now it’s a good starting point. Like every Twins fan, I am beyond nervous to see how Nathan does.

  • Rick

    Good call, Dave T. Let’s just tell Hughes to learn how to play shortstop. While we’re at it, let’s just tell Delmon how to play center, just tell Blackburn to learn how to be an ace, and tell Butera to learn how to hit like Mauer. Then we’ll be set!

  • jeff

    Based on the small sample of spring training performance, Hughes could be that bench guy with the “pop” in his bat. And I don’t see why the argument that both Casilla and Nishi can play either position changes – I don’t see why it matters that Hughes is not a SS.

    But maybe a few months of AAA will reveal if he’s the hitter he seems to have the potential to be.

  • Rick

    Correction: Tell Delmon to learn how to play center.

  • mike wants WINS

    According to Seth, they just dealt Bullock for the right to keep JAG Diamond. They traded their SS for two marginally bad power arms, then deal a power arm for another #5 starter/middle reliever type. Can someone explain this to me?

  • Rick

    Bullock for Diamond was utterly moronic. We already have half a dozen guys just like Diamond with the same #3 starter ceiling. Power arms like Bullock don’t come around often.

    Smith is slowly gutting the organization.

  • Brian

    All that can really be said at this point is, LOL Bill Smith.

  • Siehbiscuit

    The Bullock for Diamond deal is very disappointing! Bullock’s arm may be erratic, but it is electric. The Twins know how to teach “control” and if they would invest into a power pitcher like Bullock, we may have had our closer of the future (and no the answer is not Capps). Very disappointing.

  • Brian

    But Capps is a PROVEN, ALL-STAR closer!

  • Pedro Munoz

    There is actually a difference between knowing how to play a position and playing it well. Young knows how to play his position – he’s just not very good at it. If Hughes hasn’t played any (or very little) shortstop, he actually could learn how to play it.

    I just noticed that the Rays traded Jason Bartlett awhile back. For as badly as Bill Smith supposedly got screwed in the Delmon Young trade, you would think that the Rays would have held on to the guys they got. Yet they dumped them both, while Young is still with the Twins. I can’t say much good about the Santana trade other than the little they got was still better than owing 100 million to a guy who is out half the year and appears to be increasingly injury prone. When guys who get traded away start lighting it up, you can go after Smith. But its pretty sad to accuse him of gutting the organization after trading a few minor league prospects.

  • WalterSolbcheck

    I can’t wait to see someone try and defend this brutal Bullock trade.

    Sometimes, Bill….sometimes.

  • Brian

    Walter,

    Just go to Seth Speaks, you’ll see some interesting leaps of logic any time Smith makes a trade. Like blogger, like commenter I suppose.

  • ML

    I know this is crazy, utterly insane but I’m going to put it out there. Maybe someone in the Twins org knows something you don’t. Just maybe.

  • Kram

    How could the Twins know more than us!?!? Inconceivable!!!
    I mean, they should have drafted that Prior ace- oh wait. And they’ll never win the division without Johan- oh wait. Oh, and who’s gonna replace Torii!!!??? 3 years will tell us whether slick Billy knew something we didn’t on the ole’ Bullock/Diamond deal. Do the Twins have a history of success with Rule V’s?

    Bring on the Yankees!!!

  • Brian

    Kram,

    I don’t know what you’re talking about or how any of those things are relevant. Personally I liked all of those moves you listed, although I thought the Twins could have gotten more for Johan. Moving on…guess what, the Braves and all of the rest of MLB teams that passed on Diamond know more than us as well. But keep assuming every thing the Twins touch will turn to gold, meanwhile I will look at things objectively, with no presumptions.