April 11, 2011

Twins Notes: Nishioka, Hughes, Cuddyer, Nathan, Slowey, and Burnett

Tsuyoshi Nishioka got relatively positive news on his fractured fibula, as doctors determined he won't need surgery and could potentially return in 4-6 weeks. It was sad to see Nishioka on the field supporting himself with crutches during the home opener ceremonies, particularly since his parents flew in from Japan, but the Target Field crowd gave him a nice welcome and even a six-week recovery timetable could mean returning to the lineup by the end of May.

One interesting subplot with Nishioka's leg injury is whether he was fully prepared to deal with runners like Nick Swisher sliding hard into second base (or the general vicinity) in an effort to break up double plays. Baserunners in Japan typically don't engage in takeout slides and after watching Nishioka during early spring workouts bench coach Scott Ullger noted that "mak[ing] sure he clears the bag at second base so he doesn't get killed" was an issue.

Luke Hughes came up from Triple-A to replace Nishioka and started at second base Friday and Saturday, but Ron Gardenhire turned to Michael Cuddyer there yesterday. Cuddyer also made one start at second base last season, but before that hadn't started there since 2005. Sacrificing defense to get an extra bat in the lineup works in theory, but Cuddyer's defense at second base is likely beyond bad at this point and his bat isn't sacrifice-worthy versus righties.

Cuddyer hit .261/.319/.423 versus right-handed pitchers during the past three years, including .265/.307/.393 off them last season. That isn't enough production to warrant regular playing time against righties, let alone regular playing time at the expense of weakening an already shaky defense. It also doesn't say much for the Twins' faith in Hughes if they don't think he's a superior option at second base than an outfielder with a .261/.319/.423 line versus righties.

More than anything though it speaks to Gardenhire's inability to see that Cuddyer is no longer a quality regular against right-handers. He told reporters prior to yesterday's game that using Cuddyer over Hughes at second base was a way for him to get Jason Kubel and Jim Thome into the  lineup together versus a righty, but Gardenhire should have been willing to make that happen by benching Cuddyer versus righties anyway. Loyalty is clouding the manager's vision.

• Regardless of who sees most of the action at second base the middle infield defense will be ugly. Hughes' glove has never had strong reviews, Cuddyer last played second base regularly when Cristian Guzman was his double-play partner, and Alexi Casilla has predictably been shaky so far at shortstop. Combined with the standard lack of range from Delmon Young and Kubel (or Cuddyer) in the outfield and the defense is now poor in at least four of eight spots.

• For those of us clamoring for middle infielders past: J.J. Hardy might miss six weeks with an oblique strain and Nick Punto is on the disabled list following hernia surgery. Orlando Hudson is healthy and oddly batting third in the Padres' lineup.

• I'm pleasantly surprised that Gardenhire chose to move everyone up one spot in the batting order with Nishioka out rather than insert a weak hitter at No. 2 like he's done so many times before. Denard Span, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau being three straight lefty bats atop the lineup isn't ideal, but I've long clamored for the team's two best, most patient on-base threats to bat directly in front of the team's best power hitter, without anyone "scrappy" in between.

Hopefully they get an extended chance to make it work, at least versus righties. Against lefties it would probably make sense to break up the lefty bats with Young or perhaps even Cuddyer at No. 3. Against lefties Span and Mauer remain good OBP threats, but Morneau isn't quite as devastating and both Young and Cuddyer had a higher OPS than him off lefties during the past three years. Either way, anything that keeps a weak bat from the No. 2 spot is good.

Joe Nathan appears to be gradually increasing his velocity and improving his command as he comes back from Tommy John elbow surgery. He's still not throwing anywhere near as hard as he did prior to going under the knife, but Nathan went from 88-91 miles per hour in his first outing to 90-92 miles per hour Saturday, which is a bigger step than it probably looks like. He can have success as a closer throwing 92 mph, but 88-91 makes things awfully tough.

And as if you didn't already have enough reasons to root for Nathan's return to dominance he apparently scooped up some dirt from the mound after the final game at the Metrodome, kept it for 18 months, and then mixed the dirt into the Target Field mound prior to Friday's opener. FSN showed video of it and Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a nice article about the whole thing, all of which makes me like Nathan even more than before.

Kevin Slowey joined Nishioka on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, putting his transition to the bullpen on hold after just three relief outings. Based on his raw stuff and track record Slowey has a shot to be a setup-caliber reliever, but staying healthy is now the biggest issue following wrist surgery in 2009, a triceps injury last season, and his current shoulder problems. Gardenhire opined that he's "going to have to learn ... to warm up a little better" as a reliever.

In the meantime Alex Burnett got the call from Triple-A to replace Slowey despite being behind fellow right-handers Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Carlos Gutierrez in the bullpen competition this spring. Waldrop and Gutierrez aren't on the 40-man roster yet, so the choice likely came down to Burnett or Hoey. Burnett struggled in the second half last season in both Minnesota and Rochester, but still projects as a solid reliever long term. He may not be ready yet, though.

• Since the beginning of last year Carl Pavano has a 3.65 ERA and .273 opponents' average in 15 starts with Drew Butera catching compared to a 3.98 ERA and .259 opponents' average in 19 starts with Mauer catching. Butera is a defensive specialist and better at limiting steals, but given the small difference in performance and even smaller sample sizes involved the notions that a Pavano-Mauer pairing doesn't work or Butera is some kind of miracle worker are silly.

• Thome's homer yesterday went really, really far.

25 Comments »

  1. Why would it be really tough for Nathan to have success at 88-91? Jon Rauch did. Brian Fuentes does. Are their off-speed pitches that much better than Nathan’s? I’d like to see Joe throwing 95 as much as anyone, but I think his command is more important than the number on the jugs gun.

    Comment by Javer — April 10, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

  2. Why would it be really tough for Nathan to have success at 88-91? Jon Rauch did. Brian Fuentes does.

    Fuentes is lefthanded with a funky release and Rauch has one of the highest – if not highest – release points out of all pitchers in baseball (remember how higher pitching mounds depressed offense, it’s a similar principle). They can get away with a little less velocity. Also, these three pitchers are not the same. Some can get away with less velocity regardless of release points or deceptive deliveries.

    Aaron, the Twins currently have 2 spots on their 40-man roster open. If they really wanted to call up Waldrop or Gutierrez, they would have done it.

    Comment by Bryz — April 10, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

  3. Twins should call up Trevor Plouffe before another reliever. I like Casilla, but he’s just not a good shortstop. You gotta have a guy at SS that plays aggressively and really guns the ball. Even if Plouffe isn’t much of a hitter, he can’t be much lamer than Casilla these days at the plate. As for Hughes, to me he doesn’t seem that bad at 2B, just needs playing time to settle down.

    Comment by jimbo92107 — April 11, 2011 @ 12:05 am

  4. The entire AL had a .740 OPS against right-handed pitching last year, so how does Cuddyer having a .742 OPS vs. righties the past three years make it clear that he doesn’t deserve regular ABs vs. righties? I agree that he should be included in a rotation getting off days vs. righties along with Delmon and possibly even Valencia, but I don’t see a reason to make him a platoon player. Also, AL second baseman had a .7l9 OPS overall (not just against righties), so even against a righty, Cuddyer is a better than average offensive second baseman. Hughes would seem to be a downgrade offensively and I doubt his defense would make up the difference. The real question would be is Tolbert enough of an upgrade defensively to offset the downgrade in defense from Cuddyer. Probably not with Scott Baker on the mound, which you failed to mention. If you’re going to take a hit on the infield, the time to do it is with Baker pitching. With the way Trevor Plouffe is hitting right now, maybe the Twins should call him up and move Casilla back to second.

    Comment by SoCalTwinsfan — April 11, 2011 @ 12:13 am

  5. To SoCalTwinsfan:

    There is no doubt that Cuddyer’s defense is worse than well… anyone. Look up his defensive ratings the sabremetric sites. It’s a common misconception that Cuddyer is a good right fielder. Last year he was among the five worst in all of baseball. And that position takes a hell of a lot less finesse than 2B.

    Comment by RBroc — April 11, 2011 @ 7:26 am

  6. I’m really surprised Bert’s yammering in the 6th inning about the ball being ‘up’ didn’t make a bullet point. It’s still really surprising that Bert of all people refuses to acknowledge a difference between ‘up in the zone’ and ‘meatball at the belt/thigh in the middle of the plate’

    Comment by TMW — April 11, 2011 @ 8:35 am

  7. socal, making the argument that Cuddy should 100% be platooned in the outfield…..

    As for 2B, it is clear that Gardy just loves Cuddy. I don’t understand why they can’t just give Hughes a try. For years, I’ve said they just prefer veterans over rookies, and this is just more evidence.

    I agree, I’d rather have Plouffe up here than another RP. I am not, nor have I ever been, a believer in Casilla. It won’t be July before he’s benched/cut.

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 11, 2011 @ 8:37 am

  8. Casilla only does well when he’s filling in and his plate appearances are not being over-managed. When he is handed the job, he appears over-coached and tentative in the field and at the plate.

    A stat-head front office is eventually going to realize this in June/July and hose the Twins in a trade for nothing. They’ll get an above average utility guy who will hit .275ish/.345ish OBP off the bench while the Twins stick with Tolbert till Toby Gardenhire gets the call.

    Comment by TMW — April 11, 2011 @ 8:47 am

  9. “Loyalty is clouding the manager’s vision.”

    “it is clear that Gardy just loves Cuddy”

    I’m sure Gardy does like Cuddyer as a person, but I doubt that’s why he gets playing time. Part of being a player’s manager is showing faith in regulars during slumps and establishing a meritocracy (or more likely a system based on seniority). Players respond to that and I suspect overall it helps the players and the team.

    Comment by John W — April 11, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

  10. cuddy isn’t slumping….he’s not a good player compared to other corner OFers, and I doubt he’ll field well enough to be good compared to other 2B.

    This is about seniority, not meritocracy. It is about not understanding platoons. It is about a lot of things, including his ability to manage the clubhouse (which he does very well, as evidenced by how much they win – I do think that some of the loyalty is well placed). At times, that helps, at other times, it hurts. Based on their success, I guess it helps more than it hurts, but that doesn’t mean every individual decision is correct.

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 11, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

  11. In fairness, he was good in 2006, 2007 and 2009…but not as good the other years. Not sure who the “real” cuddy is….

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 11, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  12. Would Valencia work in the #2 spot? He doesn’t seem to walk a lot, but he doesn’t strike out too much (some, but not a bad amount). It seems like he might be an aggressive option at #2, with the ability to hit for a little power and put the ball in play to move runners without sacrificing. Just a thought…

    Comment by Dan — April 11, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

  13. Joe Nathan will turn out fine and he will be a good closer once again. Just give him some time to get his stuff back.

    Comment by Jon L. — April 11, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

  14. but ain’t Gardy the reigning AL manager of the year???

    Comment by Pat — April 12, 2011 @ 12:32 am

  15. “Casilla only does well when he’s filling in and his plate appearances are not being over-managed. When he is handed the job, he appears over-coached and tentative in the field and at the plate.

    A stat-head front office is eventually going to realize this in June/July and hose the Twins in a trade for nothing. They’ll get an above average utility guy who will hit .275ish/.345ish OBP off the bench while the Twins stick with Tolbert till Toby Gardenhire gets the call.”

    A “stat-head” front office is going to trade for Casilla because he is “over-coached and tentative” when starting, but apparently not when backing up. LOL, yeah, sounds like some solid sabermetric analysis.

    Lets not create revisionist history and pretend Casilla was a great hitter as a back-up. He was always mediocre, and I’m sure he will end up being mediocre this year too once we have a sample size of >25 plate appearances.

    Comment by Brian — April 12, 2011 @ 2:27 am

  16. Alex Wimmers scoreline last night

    Wimmers (L, 0-1) 0.0 0 4 4 6 0 0 —

    6 batters….0 outs..4 earned runs…OUCH

    Comment by chris — April 12, 2011 @ 3:10 am

  17. I wasn’t saying Casilla was Jose Reyes or anything. But he has value off the bench. We’ve seen it and it’s in the numbers. He’s blowing his last chance here unless he turns it around very soon. With Plouffe raking right now, that clock is ticking.

    All I was saying was eventually some front is going to figure out that a versatile defender who has the wheels to pinch run that can be had dirt cheap is a great value when used properly off the bench. If the Twins waive him or offer him for a bucket of balls, he will get picked up and by a savvy front office.

    Comment by TMW — April 12, 2011 @ 8:51 am

  18. I agree with TMW, Casilla has value as a late inning PR, an occassional starter (utility guy) to give someone a break, a guy off the bench to play any infield position after the regular is pinch hit for….I agree with all of that.

    No way the Twins trade top prospects for Reyes, they wouldn’t trade for Cliff Lee last year…does anyone believe they will ever trade multiple top prospects for an expensive veteran?

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 12, 2011 @ 9:33 am

  19. TMW,

    So you’re backing down from your opinion that Casilla hits well as a backup, but not as a starter, based on 20 plate appearances thus far this season?

    By the way, he has never had an OBP above .333, and his career line is .248/.304/.326. Not exactly “.275ish/.345ish.”

    I haven’t seen his value off the bench, and I don’t see it in the numbers.

    The Twins couldn’t get much for Casilla even if they wanted to deal, and I doubt they will be looking to trade him unless they fall completely out of the race and decide its time to give Plouffe a shot.

    Comment by Brian — April 12, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

  20. Where did I say he’s not a solid backup?

    I just said he’s pressing again like he did in 09 and he lost his job after only a couple weeks then. Then I reinforced that a front office would recognize the bench value there if Plouffe came up and the Twins happened to waive Casilla (not sure if he’s out of options, just assuming because he’s been around for a while). In 2008 and 2010, he put 1.2 WAR and 1.1 WAR respectively in a limited role. For a bench player, that’s relatively valuable and front offices who care about metrics like WAR are going to notice.

    Comment by TMW — April 13, 2011 @ 8:43 am

  21. Reread my posts. You originally claimed that Casilla hits well as a backup, but that he is tentative and over-coached when starting, whatever that means.

    You then said that a “stat-head” front office would notice this and trade for him.

    Do you not see how your original argument is the EXACT OPPOSITE of the type of logical reasoning a smart front office would be using?

    Yeah, he has been awful this year, but its a small sample, only 25 plate appearances. And you apparently overrated how good he was in the past as a reserve/sometimes starter, based on your quoting of his stat line as “.275ish/.345ish.”

    He just isn’t that good, as a back-up or otherwise.

    Comment by Brian — April 13, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

  22. Ok, so we’re talking about a few different things. Also, I think you assume I’m being a stat curmudgeon because I used the term ‘stat-head’ front office. I’m not. I’m a nerd too.

    Let’s organize here:

    - We’ve been on this ride before. He has pressed with a starting job before, and he’s doing it now.

    - All I’m saying is that front offices with a statistical focus have to be creative. The big market teams with big budgets are using the fangraphs, standard advanced metrics. This forces front offices like the Rays and the A’s to be creative with their smaller budgets and find value where the Red Sox and Yankees might overlook. This enhances the need for specified role players. Casilla only really does well (yields positive WAR) when used properly in a bench role or as a depth play. What I’m trying to communicate is that if I can see this based on his WAR numbers, it’s going to turn up in the more advanced analytical departments of these front offices.

    - I was off by about .015 points on his OBP, so I concede that. I thought that was sort of trivial and semantic, but apparently that’s really important in this discussion.

    Comment by TMW — April 13, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

  23. The point is, your argument that Casilla does really well as a reserve, but can’t hit as a starter is complete bunk, and not supported by any evidence whatsoever. Why would he “press” when he is a starter, but not when he is fighting for playing time? I actually heard the opposite argument from many people this offseason, that Casilla would hit BETTER knowing that he was secure and confident in his role. Either way, its a bunch of crap. Furthermore, I can only assume you are basing your argument solely on 25 PA this season, because he hit fine as a starter in 2008.

    And yes, 15 points of OBP is significant whether you put it as 15 or .015. Furthermore, his career OBP is .303. Thats 42 points of OBP, not 15, you can’t just take the seasons where positive variance was on his side, assume that is his real talent level, and then add another 15 points.

    And the fact that the Twins think Casilla is a starting SS would lead one to believe that they overrate his abilities, so I really doubt that they would just give up on him if they decide later this year to end this experiment. They would just return him to a reserve role, where they likely value him at least as much as any other team does.

    Comment by Brian — April 13, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

  24. Just look at his WAR year to year and take what I said into consideration as the season progresses. I guess we’ll see what happens.

    Comment by TMW — April 13, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

  25. Sample size, variance.

    Thats the bottom line, don’t try to make up explanations in hindsight for what is nothing more than randomness.

    Furthermore, as I stated, one of Casilla’s 2 good years was 2008 when he was the starting 2b from May onward, so that sinks your theory right there.

    Comment by Brian — April 13, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

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