May 31, 2011

Twins Notes: Nathan, James, Plouffe, Liriano, Swarzak, and Slama

Joe Nathan's comeback from Tommy John surgery went from bad to worse, as the Twins put him on the disabled list with more elbow pain. The good news is that an MRI exam revealed only inflammation. The bad news is that there's no return timetable and Nathan is "prepared" to be out as long as a month. Tommy John surgery recovery is often said to be 12 months, but as we've seen with Francisco Liriano and now Nathan unfortunately that often isn't the case.

Nathan gradually added velocity after arriving at spring training throwing in the mid-80s, but never approached his pre-surgery stuff and the missing miles per hour also came attached to far worse command. Along with his ERA rising from 2.10 in 2009 to 7.63 this season, Nathan's strikeouts are down 38 percent, his walks are up 50 percent, and his average fastball fell from 93.6 to 91.4 mph. He hasn't been as bad as the 7.63 ERA, but he hasn't been Joe Nathan.

• To replace Nathan in the bullpen the Twins called up Chuck James, for whom the bloggers I read and tweeters I follow have been pining. I'm far from convinced that James can make a big impact, but unlike Dusty Hughes or Phil Dumatrait or Eric Hacker there's at least a chance of James proving to be more than just the latest replacement-level bullpen stopgap. James, like Nathan, is an example of how long the road back from arm surgery can be.

Once upon a time James was a top prospect in the Braves' system, posting great numbers in the minors before debuting in September of 2005. He joined Atlanta's rotation the next season at age 24 and posted a 4.05 ERA with a 207-to-105 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 280 innings over two years before blowing out his shoulder. He missed most of 2008 and all of 2009 following rotator cuff and labrum surgery, returning as a Triple-A reliever for the Nationals last season.

He pitched well with a 2.32 ERA and 69/11 K/BB ratio in 66 innings, signed with the Twins this winter, and forced them to call him up by throwing 29 innings with a 1.57 ERA and 37/9 K/BB ratio out of Rochester's bullpen. James' raw stuff doesn't match those numbers, but even while succeeding as a mid-rotation starter in Atlanta his average fastball was just 88 mph and with 106 strikeouts in 95 innings since returning he's missed bats without overpowering hitters.

Sad as it may be, at this point the Twins' main goals should be to get healthy, play respectable baseball, make some smart trades, and sort out who can help them in 2012. Cycling through more guys like Hughes or Dumatrait accomplishes none of that, but James may still have some upside at age 29. Before surgery he was a young mid-rotation starter with a 4.00 ERA and in coming back he's been a very effective Double-A and Triple-A reliever with great K/BB ratios.

Trevor Plouffe got off to a fantastic start after being called up from Triple-A to replace Alexi Casilla at shortstop, but the flaws that made him just the 32nd-best Twins prospect heading into the season have since been exposed. Plouffe has 15-homer power and a very strong arm, but that's about it. Or as I wrote in ranking him No. 32 back in February: "A career as a utility man looks like his most realistic upside." Unfortunately the other options aren't any better.

• Liriano's no-hitter got everyone's hopes up and he's sprinkled in a couple of strong outings, but his overall struggles along with decreased velocity suggested something wasn't quite right physically and yesterday the Twins placed him on the DL with shoulder inflammation. For now the official word is that the Twins are hopeful he can return when eligible next week, but then again they initially hoped he'd miss just one start and avoid the DL in the first place.

Compared to last year Liriano's strikeouts are down 36 percent, his walks are up 107 percent, and he's missing 1.7 mph on his average fastball, which is how his ERA has gone from 3.62 to 5.73 and his xFIP has gone from 2.95 to 5.01. Even while posting an impressive-looking 2.52 ERA in four starts this month Liriano also had a sub par 16-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings, succeeding because of a ridiculously fortunate .154 batting average on balls in play.

Anthony Swarzak took a no-hitter into the eighth inning Saturday while starting in Liriano's place against the Angels, so naturally he'll stay in the rotation during the DL stint. However, much like Plouffe the longer Swarzak remains in a prominent role the more obvious his faults will become. He also started very strong as a rookie in 2009, tossing seven shutout innings in his debut and sporting a 3.90 ERA after five starts, only to finish with a 6.25 ERA in 59 innings.

And since then Swarzak has a 5.67 ERA and 94-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 144 innings at Triple-A, although he was pitching reasonably well prior to the latest call-up. Swarzak may do a nice job filling in for Liriano and may even prove to be a capable back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever, but don't let the great first impressions fool you into thinking he's more than a marginal prospect at age 25.

• To replace Liriano on the roster the Twins called up reliever Anthony Slama, who's similar to James this year in that his outstanding minor-league numbers have always screamed out for an extended opportunity. Slama has a 2.11 ERA and 369 strikeouts in 273 total innings in the minors, including a 2.73 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 105 innings at Triple-A, yet he's 27 years old and has just five appearances in the big leagues.

Slama isn't destined to become an elite reliever, but like James there's at least some reason to think he could be useful to the Twins this year and beyond. Obviously having the worst record in baseball at the end of May is a nightmare scenario for the Twins, but hopefully they can find small positives within the huge negative by giving legitimate opportunities to guys like Slama, who deserves 50 innings to sink or swim even if they've never trusted his minor-league stats.

Danny Valencia batting around .350 for much of his half-season debut last year had many people willing to dismiss his underwhelming minor-league numbers, but he's now played 136 games in the big leagues while hitting .280/.329/.412. He played 120 games at Triple-A and hit .289/.322/.421. Funny how that tends to work. Valencia's defense, however, has been much better than advertised and makes him a solid regular despite a mediocre bat.

• For a while the Twins kept saying Tsuyoshi Nishioka was ahead of schedule in his recovery from a fractured fibula, but he was initially given a 4-6 week timetable on April 7. Monday will be two months since the injury and Nishioka hasn't even started a minor-league rehab stint. When it comes to the Twins and injuries, there's no such thing as "ahead of schedule."

• Orioles manager Buck Showalter was full of praise for Wilson Ramos after an interleague series versus the Nationals, saying: "I love that Ramos kid. He's about as good a young player as I've seen this year. The kid they got from Minnesota. He's really impressive." Ramos has slumped recently, but the 23-year-old's .731 OPS still ranks 14th among the 32 catchers with at least 100 plate appearances and he's the youngest starting catcher in baseball.

• Old friend Brian Fuentes hasn't made many new friends in Oakland, although in fairness it sounds like he's not the first late-inning reliever to have a problem with manager Bob Geren's communication methods.

• Speaking of old friends in Oakland, the A's dealt former Twins minor leaguer Steven Tolleson to the Padres for a player to be named later. Tolleson was never a particularly good prospect, but he looked like a potentially useful role player and ranked 37th on my list last year only to be claimed off waivers by the A's literally the day the rankings were posted in January.

• Dusty Hughes has been a horrendous pickup, but at least Rob Delaney hasn't thrived for the Rays after being waived to make room for Hughes on the Twins' roster. Tampa Bay designated Delaney for assignment, meaning the Twins could potentially use their No. 1 waiver priority to claim him back. Don't count on it, though. He's still my second-favorite Rob Delaney.

Martire Garcia ranked 31st on my list of the Twins' top prospects after throwing 73 innings with a 3.31 ERA and 93-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio between rookie-ball and low Single-A as a 20-year-old. Sent back to Beloit to begin this season, Garcia posted a 5.57 ERA and 22/25 K/BB ratio in 21 innings ... and the Twins released him. Those are ugly numbers, for sure, but there must be a little more to the story too.

• As a team the Twins have an adjusted ERA+ of 84 through 52 games. Among all the pitchers in team history with at least 300 innings Pat Mahomes is the only one with a worse adjusted ERA+ at 81. In other words, after about one-third of the season the Twins have pitched like an entire staff full of Pat Mahomes. And their hitting has been even worse.

Jim Hoey has a 10.45 ERA in 10 innings. The last Twins pitcher with a higher ERA than Hoey in at least 10 innings was Mike Lincoln, who had a 10.89 ERA in 21 innings in 2000. He went on to post a 2.96 ERA in 113 innings for the Pirates in 2001 and 2002, so perhaps there's still some hope for Hoey yet.

• Last season the Twins allowed 67 runs in the eighth inning. This season they've allowed 51 runs in the eighth inning. And there are still 112 games to go.

May 27, 2011

Link-O-Rama

• In a tale as old as time, dating Kim Kardashian got Kris Humphries his own photo spread in GQ magazine, so he gave her a $2 million ring and they're getting married. (He's now No. 2 on the married-to-a-Kardashian sister depth chart at power forward.)

Oscar De La Hoya can apparently confirm what Rick James always said.

David Cone, stat-head.

Tom Brady appears to be enjoying the NFL lockout. Maybe a little too much, even.

• As someone who grabbed chocolate milk in the cafeteria every day from kindergarten to high school this news gives me mixed feelings. On a related note, I've been fat since junior high.

Estella Warren sounds like a fun hang.

• Before he spent $200 million to be the new Mets minority owner David Einhorn finished 18th in the World Series of Poker main event and donated the entire $660,000 prize to charity.

• As a big Bill Withers fan who wishes he'd have kept churning out albums, his interview with The Onion is fascinating.

• After weighing the joy of motherhood versus her Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com title chances, longtime candidate Jenna Fischer made what can only be described as a questionable call.

• Prior to adopting the "Macho Man" persona and becoming one of the greatest pro wrestlers of all time, Randy Savage was Randy Poffo and he played minor-league baseball.

• My first thought after reading this story? "Hey, that happened right next to the Taco Bell and White Castle that I go to." Luckily danger only makes fast food taste even better.

• I've seen enough people mocking "jorts" to know that jean shorts are a no-no and lately I've seen similar goofing on cargo shorts, which has me wondering exactly what type of shorts are acceptable for, say, a 28-year-old man to wear in the summer? I don't buy into the "no shorts are acceptable on men" theory, because I'm not prepared to sweat to death any time the sun comes out. Some of us require ventilation to survive in the outdoors.

Zach Galifianakis' recent appearance on Conan was predictably odd and amusing:

Speaking of Conan O'Brien, the comedian warming up the audience for his show is also one of the original podcasters and the Los Angeles Times ran a nice feature on Jimmy Pardo.

• Four words: The Cosby Sweater Project.

• My boss resigning was a pretty big story. I heard about it in the New York Times.

• ESPN and FOX teamed up to keep NBC away from college football.

• Call me crazy, but it sure seems like Maria Menounos might work out.

• Two of my favorite podcasters, Jesse Thorn and Marc Maron, have teamed up to bring "WTF with Marc Maron" to public radio in a trend we'll likely see more of as the medium evolves.

• My latest podcast discovery: "How Was Your Week" with Julie Klausner, which can probably best be described as delightful even though a scan of the archives shows that I've used that word just twice in 10 years of blogging. For starters, listen to the episode with Jen Kirkman.

David Kahn is as good at telling jokes as he is at general managing.

• Baseball writers might be going a little overboard quoting anonymous scouts.

• I should have spent more time learning about IPO and less time learning about OPS as a kid.

• Speaking of which, I'm now on LinkedIn even if I'm not sure why exactly.

Christina Hendricks, if you read this (she often skips non-Twins entries): I'm not deterred.

• The fatal flaw with this study? What about the men who're moody because they can't attract any women? Not me, of course. I'm asking for a friend.

Worst couple ever?

• One of my favorite writers, Michael David Smith, recently added editor at SB Nation Chicago to his list of gigs along with ProFootballTalk and MMAFighting.com.

• Speaking of Chicago, the "Bear Jew" is a factual nickname for Gabe Carimi.

• On a related note, a couple months ago I mentioned a documentary about Jews in baseball that was playing at a local film festival and now the movie is available on Netflix streaming.

• New blog to check out: Twins Fan From Afar.

• As you may have noticed on the sidebar the "AG.com Sponsor of the Week" program is set to begin next week. I'm happy to report that the response has been positive and early spots are filling up fast, so if you're interested in promoting a product, service, website, or local business while also supporting all the free content on this blog please check it out.

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is the aforementioned Bill Withers singing a live version of "Use Me":

May 26, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #17 Earl Battey

Earl Jesse Battey Jr. | C | 1961-1967 | Career Stats

Signed by the White Sox in 1953 out of a Los Angeles high school, Earl Battey made his MLB debut in 1955 at age 20. He collected a pair of hits in a five-game cup of coffee, but didn't see his first extended action in the majors until 1957. Battey then spent the next three seasons serving as Sherm Lollar's backup in Chicago, playing sparingly behind the seven-time All-Star while batting just .209/.301/.377 in 413 total plate appearances.

In the last of those three seasons backing up Lollar a 24-year-old Battey lost playing time to another 24-year-old catcher, rookie Johnny Romano. Romano hit .294/.407/.468 in 53 games to overtake Battey for the second spot on the depth chart during Chicago's run to the World Series. Meanwhile, the 34-year-old Lollar was showing no signs of slowing down, turning in his second straight 20-homer, 80-RBI season while batting .265/.345/.451 in 140 games.

Lollar had been one of the AL's best catchers for a decade, so the White Sox decided to stick with him. That offseason owner Bill Veeck dealt Romano and 24-year-old first baseman Norm Cash to the Indians for a four-player package that included Minnie Minoso. Then two weeks before Opening Day the White Sox sent Battey, 22-year-old first baseman Don Mincher, and $150,000 to the Senators for Roy Sievers.

The trades paid immediate dividends, as both the 33-year-old Minoso and 34-year-old Sievers gave Chicago two strong seasons before leaving, but the moves were long-term disasters. Cash batted .361 with 41 homers and 132 RBIs for Detroit in 1961 and went on to make five All-Star teams. While not quite the hitter that Cash became, Mincher made two All-Star teams and hit .249/.348/.450 with 200 homers.

Romano, who went on to make a pair of All-Star teams while batting .255/.354/.443 during his 10-year career, immediately took over as the Indians' starting catcher, hitting .272/.349/.475 in 1960 while the 35-year-old Lollar hit just .252/.326/.356 for the White Sox. Similarly, 1960 also saw Battey become an instant starter for the Senators, winning the AL Gold Glove award while batting .270/.346/.406 with 15 homers during the team's final season in Washington.

They moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961 and Harmon Killebrew starred by hitting .288/.405/.606 with 46 homers and 122 RBIs. While he was putting together the first of what would be seven 40-homer seasons, Battey was quickly establishing himself as one of the premier all-around catchers. Battey, now 26, won his second straight Gold Glove award and hit .302/.377/.470 with 17 homers while starting 127 games and catching over 1,100 innings.

Battey declined in 1962, hitting .280/.348/.393, but won his third straight Gold Glove and made the first of four All-Star teams. He bounced back to have the best season of his career in 1963, hitting .285/.369/.476 with 26 homers while catching an AL-leading 1,237 innings in an AL-high 142 starts and finishing seventh in the MVP voting. Yankees catcher Elston Howard won the MVP, but Battey produced similar numbers while batting 55 more times in 12 more games:

            G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     HR     RBI
Howard    135     531     .287     .342     .528     .870     28      85
Battey    147     586     .285     .369     .476     .845     26      84

Battey declined in 1964, hitting a still-solid .272/.348/.407, but bounced back in 1965 to finish 10th in the MVP voting. Twins teammates Zoilo Versalles and Tony Oliva finished one-two in the balloting and Mudcat Grant placed sixth, with Battey hitting .297/.375/.409 as the team won 102 games and the AL crown before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series. He caught all seven games despite running neck-first into a railing chasing a foul ball in Game 3.

Despite being just 30 years old 1965 proved to be his final great season as weight problems, injuries, and big workloads caught up to Battey. He hit .255/.337/.327 in 1966, but split time with Russ Nixon and Jerry Zimmerman in 1966, batting .165. After retiring he worked with inner-city kids in New York before going to college at age 45, graduating Summa Cum Laude. He then became a high-school teacher and coach in Florida before dying from cancer in 2003.

Battey's relatively brief career ended shortly after his 30th birthday and one of his best years came in Washington for the Senators, yet for four decades he ranked as the best catcher in Twins history. His raw offensive numbers during seven seasons in Minnesota (.278/.356/.409 with 76 homers) look solid and the multiple Gold Gloves awards tell the story of his defensive reputation, but without a closer look at Battey's career it's easy to undersell his impact.

His entire career was spent in one of the lowest-scoring eras ever and he played a position that was the most physically demanding and often home to no-hit defensive specialists. Battey was a stud on both sides of the ball, logging a huge number of innings, frequently catching one of the league's best pitching staffs, throwing out a high percentage of steal attempts, and putting up numbers offensively that were far more impressive than they initially appear.

For instance, when Battey hit .285/.369/.476 with 26 homers in 1963 the AL as a whole hit just .247/.312/.380. Go forward 40 years to 2003 and the AL hit .267/.333/.428, which means Battey's line in 1963 was the equivalent of batting .315/.400/.530 in 2003 and he would have cleared 30 homers with ease. As it stands, he ranked among the AL's top five catchers in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) in each of his six full seasons with the Twins:

1961              VORP     1962              VORP     1963              VORP
Elston Howard     52.6     Johnny Romano     33.8     Elston Howard     44.0
Johnny Romano     41.5     Elston Howard     26.1     EARL BATTEY       41.1
Johnny Blanchard  32.6     EARL BATTEY       17.2     John Orsino       28.0
EARL BATTEY       32.0     Jim Pagliaroni    13.4     Joe Azcue         17.6
Earl Averill      21.6     Ken Retzer        11.9     Yogi Berra        14.0

1964              VORP     1965              VORP     1966              VORP
Elston Howard     43.1     EARL BATTEY       29.8     Johnny Romano     16.7
Bill Freehan      37.0     Johnny Romano     24.1     Joe Azcue         10.4
Bob Tillman       24.7     Billy Bryan       18.4     Elston Howard      7.9
Johnny Romano     21.1     Charlie Lau       10.4     Paul Casanova      7.8
EARL BATTEY       19.0     John Orsino        9.7     EARL BATTEY        5.8

No other catcher cracked the top five in each of those six seasons and the only guys to make it five times were Howard and Battey's old competition, Romano (see what I mean about those trades not working out especially well for the White Sox long term?). And VORP only accounts for hitting. As outstanding as Battey was offensively, it's his defense--and specifically his great arm behind the plate--that actually may have been the strongest part of his game.

Battey was never especially mobile to begin with and became perhaps MLB's slowest player once age, the rigors of five straight 1,000-inning seasons defensively, and excess weight from a goiter problem sapped him of whatever limited quickness he once had. Despite that, Battey never lost his amazing arm and remained the league's best-throwing catcher throughout his career. Battey allowed just 226 stolen bases in over 6,700 innings at catcher for the Twins.

Allowing one steal for every 30 innings during the run-heavy 1960s is amazing enough, but he also gunned down nearly 40 percent of steal attempts. Teams rarely tested him despite the huge steal totals being posted throughout baseball, yet Battey still managed a league-leading caught-stealing total three times. He also led the AL in pickoffs four times, including 15 in 1962. That season Battey allowed 34 steals and picked off or threw out 42 runners.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
On-Base Percentage   .356    18th
Walks                 328    19th
Adjusted OPS+         109    21st
Games                 853    22nd
Hits                  768    22nd
Times On Base        1113    22nd
Runs Created          399    22nd
Plate Appearances    3161    24th
Homers                 76    24th
Total Bases          1131    24th
Batting Average      .278    25th
RBIs                  350    25th

May 24, 2011

Twins preparing to part ways with Kevin Slowey

Kevin Slowey has been a full-time starter since he was 19 years old at Winthrop University in 2003 and he wants to continue starting, which makes sense given his 4.42 ERA in 82 starts for the Twins. However, during spring training the Twins decided that they didn't want him in the rotation and moved Slowey to the bullpen, where he's been equal parts injured and miserable while struggling to adjust to a relief workload for the first time in his career.

There's more to the story than that, like rumors of Slowey not being particularly popular in the clubhouse and various media members making it clear that they aren't fond of dealing with him either, but ultimately it boils down to this: Slowey wants to start and the Twins don't want him in their rotation. After unsuccessfully trying to turn him into a reliever the Twins have chosen to send Slowey back to Triple-A, where he can resume starting and showcase himself for a trade.

Slowey has been a solid mid-rotation starter, posting ERAs of 4.60, 3.99, 4.86, and 4.54 in four seasons in the rotation. As an extreme fly-ball pitcher he's allowed lots of homers, but Slowey has made up for the long balls by walking just 1.5 batters per nine innings, which is tied with Roy Halladay for the best walk rate in baseball since 2007. He's also missed more bats than a typical control pitcher, averaging 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings for an average rate.

Overall he has a 4.42 ERA in 464 innings spread over 82 starts, with 354 strikeouts versus 77 walks for MLB's third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2007 behind Halladay and Cliff Lee. He fares even better in advanced metrics, with a 4.16 xFIP, and if for some reason you still prefer to judge pitchers on their win-loss records Slowey (39-21) remarkably has the second-highest winning percentage in Twins history behind only Johan Santana. Seriously.

By any measure he's consistently been an effective third or fourth starter, but what he hasn't been is durable. Slowey has never topped 160 innings in a season and has averaged just 5.65 innings per start. Clearly the lack of durability frustrated the Twins, especially once it extended to his bullpen availability. However, while Slowey isn't blameless and all but forced their hand by being unable or unwilling to pitch regularly in relief it's just as clear why he'd be frustrated.

There was local and national speculation about Slowey being shopped long before the Twins announced his demotion to the bullpen in mid-March and the writing on the wall has been so clear since that decision that I wrote last week: "Even if they avoid going into full-scale seller mode for the first time in a decade I'm now convinced Slowey will be traded." With his situation becoming even more public since then, the only question now is when they'll pull the trigger.

Slowey was never going to fetch a huge return in trade and his value is probably at an all-time low right now, but I'd be surprised if the Twins aren't able to find at least a couple suitors for a 27-year-old mid-rotation starter with a 4.42 ERA and excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios who's earning $2.7 million this year and is under team control for 2012 and 2013. Slowey has burned his bridge in Minnesota, but he's too useful and too cheap not to draw interest elsewhere.

May 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Perkins, James, Hughes, Thome, Revere, Capps, and Mauer

Glen Perkins emerged as one of the few bright spots for the Twins in this miserable season, escaping the doghouse with a 1.59 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23 innings, so naturally he injured his oblique muscle Saturday night and is expected to miss at least three weeks. Normally that would give Jose Mijares an opportunity to step forward and prove himself in a higher leverage role, except he's already on the disabled list with an elbow injury.

You'd think that losing their two main left-handed relievers would motivate the Twins to call up Chuck James, a former Braves top prospect signed as a minor-league free agent after injuries derailed his career. James has thrived in the Triple-A bullpen with a 1.75 ERA, .177 opponents' batting average, and 35-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26 innings, but because he's not on the 40-man roster the Twins opted instead to bring back Dusty Hughes.

Hughes was demoted to Triple-A just two weeks ago after allowing 12 runs in 11 innings as opponents hit .356/.434/.622 off him and didn't even fare particularly well in five appearances at Rochester. From a roster management perspective turning to Hughes again is much easier than giving James a shot, but from a trying to actually win some games perspective it looks like the Twins are content to just shuffle through the same replacement-level players.

Ron Gardenhire's left-handed relief options are now Hughes, who never deserved an Opening Day job to begin with and pitched his way to Triple-A just 15 days ago, and Phil Dumatrait, a 29-year-old journeyman owning a 6.95 ERA in 113 innings. And three of his five right-handed options are Alex Burnett and Anthony Swarzak, who shouldn't be trusted in anything close to an important spot, and Kevin Slowey, a career-long starter struggling to adjust to relief work.

At this point the seven-man bullpen consists of one mediocre closer, one formerly great closer coming back from elbow surgery, one mid-rotation starter not well suited for relieving, and four guys who should be at Triple-A. There's no "risk" to losing replacement-level arms like Hughes, Dumatrait, and Eric Hacker on waivers, but the Twins predictably avoid 40-man changes and no one in Rochester's bullpen besides James is pitching well enough to really force the issue.

Heading into the season the Twins' two biggest non-injury question marks were the bullpen and middle infield, as guys like me wondered all offseason why they did so little to address the lack of depth in both areas. Injuries have magnified that lack of depth while also wrecking the Twins in other areas, but through 45 games they rank dead last among AL teams in bullpen ERA and middle infield OPS. Sometimes big question marks turn into big problems.

• As expected, after yesterday's game the Twins activated Jim Thome and Jason Repko from the disabled list and sent Luke Hughes and Ben Revere back to Triple-A. Matt Tolbert sticks around instead of Hughes for the same reason he beat out Hughes for an Opening Day roster spot, which is his ability to play shortstop. Hughes struggled in his first extended taste of the majors, hitting .211/.253/.296 with a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 75 plate appearances.

Revere was on the roster for 17 games, but started just six times and made his lone start in center field yesterday afternoon, misplaying a double into a triple ahead of what proved to be the game-winning run for Arizona. Revere also hauled in a fantastic over-the-shoulder catch in the same inning and made several impressive grabs while playing left field, but his lack of arm strength and limited offensive potential were both on full display.

Gardenhire hinted that he may have pushed the front office to keep Revere instead of bringing back Repko, saying he "really enjoyed Ben" and "told Billy [Smith] ... Rep hasn't swung the bat great down there." Repko "hasn't swung the bat great" anywhere, really, and the fact that he's a right-handed hitter backing up the left-handed-hitting Denard Span and Jason Kubel is rendered nearly meaningless by Gardenhire's refusal to platoon anyone.

Because he rarely starts, even versus lefties, Repko's main duties are coming in as a defensive replacement and pinch-running, both of which Revere could handle. Of course, it doesn't make much sense to keep Revere in the majors as a bench player and with Thome returning to the lineup the outfield playing time will be even harder to come by. Repko is very expendable, but Revere will benefit more from starting at Triple-A than sitting on the Twins' bench.

• I've written plenty about how closing is a role rather than a skill and about how closers are made rather than born. Matt Capps showing that the "proven closer" label is silly while Wilson Ramos thrives with the Nationals has brought the topic to the forefront, but posting the Rick Aguilera installment of my ongoing "Top 40 Minnesota Twins" series caused me to think about the issue in terms of Twins history.

Prior to becoming the Twins' all-time leader in saves Aguilera wasn't a closer. In fact, he didn't even want to be a reliever. Yet the Twins thought he had the raw stuff for the job and gave him a role he'd never filled before rather than give up assets to acquire an experienced closer. Nathan joins Aguilera as the only pitchers with more than 150 saves in a Minnesota uniform, yet when the Twins acquired him from the Giants he was a 29-year-old with one career save.

Eddie Guardado has the third-most saves in Twins history, but he was given the job almost by default in mid-2001 and at the time had a grand total of 18 career saves in eight seasons. Not every successful Twins closer lacked prior experience, as Ron Perranoski and Jeff Reardon racked up saves elsewhere before arriving in Minnesota. And not every good reliever pans out at closer, as Guardado only got his chance to close after LaTroy Hawkins flopped in the role.

Players can sink or swim at closer just like every other role, but logic, history, and specifically Twins history all show that paying a premium for experience accumulating saves is misguided. Judging from the bullpen's current state the Twins may have to go outside the organization for their next closer, but my hope is that they learn a lesson from Ramos-for-Capps and focus on ability instead of previous save totals. Aim for the next Aguilera or Nathan, not the next Capps.

• During his weekly radio show on 1500-ESPN yesterday Gardenhire explained that the plan is for Joe Mauer's first game action since April 12 to come today or tomorrow at extended spring training. That doesn't necessarily mean Mauer is close to returning from the DL, as he'll likely start out as a designated hitter and work his way back into playing shape, but at least there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Tsuyoshi Nishioka may also get into a game there this week.

Justin Morneau revealed that he got cortisone injections for neck and shoulder pain on May 12. Obviously after missing nine months with a concussion Morneau had enough on his plate without new health problems, but those injuries perhaps help explain his early struggles and altered hitting mechanics. His season totals are still ugly, but since getting the shots Morneau is 12-for-40 (.300) with one homer and three doubles.

• Each season when the Twins travel to National League ballparks for interleague games Dick Bremer asks Bert Blyleven about his career batting average and the FSN announcing crew jokes about his hitting. Blyleven hit more or less like most pitchers do, batting .131 with a .290 OPS in 514 career plate appearances. So far this year Drew Butera is hitting .110 with a .288 OPS in 85 plate appearances. Not quite as funny without the Hall of Fame pitching attached.

• I've seen some confusion about whether Michael Cuddyer has the ability to veto trades as a 10-and-5 player. That requires 10 full seasons of MLB service time, including five seasons with the same team. Cuddyer has the latter and this is his 11th year in the majors, but they aren't full seasons. He got merely a September call-up in 2001 and spent much of 2002 and 2003 in the minors, totaling just 76 games with the Twins in those two seasons. He can be traded.

• Perkins' injury left the Twins in a bind Saturday and put Capps into a two-inning save chance that he blew before recording two outs, but Edward Thoma of the Mankato Free Press explains why Gardenhire not making a double-switch while playing under NL rules cost the Twins twice.

Tom Brunansky's son, Terry Ryan's son, Mickey Hatcher's nephew, and Tyler Robertson's brother are among the 2011 draft prospects with relatives in baseball.

• Between the injuries and bullpen shuffling the Twins have already used 36 different players through 45 games. In the previous five seasons they used 42, 42, 40, 42, and 39 players, and that includes September call-ups.

• Since winning two of three games from the first-place Indians in mid-April the Twins are 6-18, with a pair of three-game winning streaks surrounded by losing streaks of nine, six, and now three games. Overall they're 15-30, which is the worst record in baseball and puts the Twins on pace to go 54-108 for the worst record in team history. Their current winning percentage is .333 and the only sub-.400 seasons so far (1981, 1982, 1995, 1999) were all above .370.

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