July 29, 2011

Twins Notes: “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in”

• I'm going to be on 1500-ESPN with Darren Wolfson before Saturday night's Twins-A's game, talking about potential trades and various other stuff from around 6:30 to 7:45. I'm sure we'll take plenty of questions and comments from listeners too, so tune in and/or give us a call.

• Rumors about the Nationals pursuing Denard Span continue to swirl, with Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reporting that they may make closer Drew Storen available after declaring him off limits in talks with the Twins initially. Of course, a short time later Bill Ladson, who covers the Nationals at MLB.com, reported that they're "not willing to trade Storen for Span." In which case the Nationals might save the Twins from themselves.

Whatever the case, it seems clear that the Twins are open to at least discussing Span trades and even that surprises me. Unless they're convinced his concussion is a long-term issue I'm not sure what's accomplished by dealing a 27-year-old center fielder with good on-base skills, solid defense, and a reasonable contract that runs through 2015. Storen is good, young, and cheap, but if they're going to trade Span the centerpiece shouldn't be a 70-inning pitcher.

Jayson Stark of ESPN.com reports that the Pirates have targeted Jason Kubel in their quest for a "professional hitter." Kubel is an impending free agent and shopping him makes sense, but the Twins will be in a position to either get a compensatory draft pick when he leaves or re-sign him to a one-year deal if he accepts arbitration. That same either/or scenario is riskier with Michael Cuddyer because of his $10.5 million salary, but Kubel is making $5.25 million.

LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Rockies are among teams interested in Kevin Slowey and speculates that the Twins might look to swap him for reliever Rafael Betancourt or infielder Ty Wigginton. Neither of them do much for me because they're old, mediocre, and relatively expensive for 2012, but in theory targeting a middle reliever or a right-handed hitter for Slowey isn't a bad plan under the circumstances.

Alexi Casilla injured his hamstring legging out a double Wednesday and has been placed on the disabled list with a Grade 1 strain, which the Twins expect will keep him out for 2-3 weeks. Given their history with return timetables this season, I'd expect to see him again in mid-2013. Casilla has hit just .248/.314/.390 in 37 games since moving from shortstop to second base in mid-June, but he's played better of late and as usual the Twins' middle infield depth is shaky.

My initial assumption was that Trevor Plouffe would be given the opportunity to play regularly at second base with Casilla sidelined and that may still prove true, but last night at least Matt Tolbert got the start. Tolbert was demoted to Triple-A last week after hitting .181 in 55 games for the Twins and went 7-for-36 (.194) during his brief stay at Rochester, but Ron Gardenhire got him right back into the lineup as soon as he rejoined the roster and that worries me.

There's zero upside to be had with Tolbert, who's a 29-year-old career .229/.289/.326 hitter in the majors, whereas Plouffe might actually end up being a decent hitter if given a shot. Plouffe lacks experience at second base, but he played 34 games there in the minors and has another 680 games at shortstop. And lack of experience at a position didn't keep the Twins from calling Plouffe up to man right field and first base, neither of which he'd played prior to last month.

• Not that Casilla is much of a table-setter himself with a .322 on-base percentage this season and a .310 career mark, but without him batting second the top of the Twins' lineup last night had the .249/.294/.283-hitting Ben Revere leading off and the .209/.264/.236-hitting Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the No. 2 spot. And the 7-9 spots were filled by OBPs of .288, .288, and .245. On a completely unrelated note, Scott Baker took a loss despite seven innings of two-run ball.

• Now that Casilla is injured Cuddyer, Tolbert, Danny Valencia, and Drew Butera are the only position players from the Opening Day roster to avoid the disabled list. Span, Kubel, Nishioka, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Delmon Young, Jim Thome, Jason Repko, and now Casilla have each spent time on the DL, along with half of the 12-man Opening Day pitching staff. And there are still more than two months left to play.

• In adding Tolbert and Luke Hughes as infield reinforcements the Twins went from 13 to 12 pitchers, which is good. Chuck James being the odd man out isn't as good, but he was among those knocked around in Monday's blowout loss and they never seemed particularly keen on calling him up in the first place. James has thrived at Triple-A and has a far better track record than Phil Dumatrait, who sticks around with a 14-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 innings.

Alex Wimmers thankfully seems to be back on track after sitting out three months following a disastrous season debut in which the 2010 first-round pick walked all six batters he faced at high Single-A. Pulled from the rotation and sent to extended spring training, Wimmers saw his first game action in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League last week and is now back at Fort Myers in the bullpen. Baby steps, but he's allowed three runs in nine innings with a 12/6 K/BB ratio.

• Cuddyer stayed hot last night with a pair of hits and is now 34-for-96 (.354) with five homers and 15 walks in 26 games this month. His overall OPS is up to .853, which leads the team by a wide margin and ranks 37th among all MLB hitters with enough playing time to qualify for the batting title. As usual Cuddyer is crushing left-handers, but he has a .407 slugging percentage against right-handers this season and a .435 slugging percentage off righties for his career.

• Mauer passed Tony Oliva for eighth place on the Twins' all-time walk list with 449 and did so in 3,119 fewer plate appearances than Oliva. To put that in context, consider that David Ortiz and A.J. Pierzynski combined for 3,233 plate appearances as Twins.

• After splitting four road games versus the first-place Rangers the Twins are now 27-39 (.409) against teams outside the AL Central, which is a 66-96 pace for a 162-game season. They're also now 22-42 (.344) against .500-or-better teams, which is a 56-106 pace.

Headline from The Onion: "Twins Shocked To Learn You Can Score Two Runs In Same Play."

• Last but not least, my video analysis of the Twins' season.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.

July 27, 2011

Twins Notes: Span, Mijares, Cuddyer, Nathan, Aguilera, and Gibson

Amanda Comak of the Washington Times writes that Denard Span "is high on the Nationals' list of targets" and Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the two sides "have talked." Whether that means the Twins actually engaged in negotiations is unclear, but the Nationals are looking for a long-term solution in center field and Rosenthal speculates that shortstop Ian Desmond and one of Washington's relievers could interest the Twins.

Rosenthal specifically mentions Tyler Clippard, who's been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball since moving to the bullpen full time in 2009, posting a 2.59 ERA and 251 strikeouts in 209 innings while holding opponents to a .184 batting average. However, he also says the Nationals are "reluctant" to trade the 26-year-old Clippard and "unwilling" to move 23-year-old closer Drew Storen, in which case the Twins shouldn't even be engaging in talks for Span.

As a 25-year-old shortstop Desmond fills a Twins need in theory, but aside from hitting .355 for two months at Triple-A in 2009 he simply hasn't been any good. Desmond hit .259/.326/.388 in 638 total games as a minor leaguer and has hit .254/.296/.377 in 269 games for the Nationals. He's also committed 54 errors with an Ultimate Zone Rating of -7.5 in 259 games at shortstop. Clippard is very intriguing, but Desmond as the centerpiece of a Span trade would be awful.

Of course, with Span still on the disabled list nearly two months after a concussion and taking back-to-back days off while rehabbing at Triple-A it's probably a moot point anyway.

• On a related note, can you imagine the look of pure joy on Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo's face when his phone rings and "Bill Smith" appears on the caller ID? Actually, after the Wilson Ramos-for-Matt Capps swap last year Rizzo is probably the one calling Smith.

According to ESPN.com's Buster Olney the Twins have "been looking to trade" Jose Mijares, so Monday's five-run appearance probably didn't do much for his value. Criticism of Mijares has never matched his 3.09 career ERA, but this year's performance clearly deserves to be ripped. He has a 5.47 ERA and 21 walks in 26 innings compared to 32 walks in 105 innings coming into the season. I can't imagine the Twins getting much for him, though, so I'd probably hold on.

• Local and national reporters continue to insist Michael Cuddyer won't be traded despite his being linked to just about every contending team looking for a right-handed hitter. There are also doubts about whether the Twins will look to sell anyone, although my guess is that Kevin Slowey will be moved whether they're in sell mode or buy mode going into Sunday's deadline and my hope is that they're shopping (in vain, perhaps) Capps and Delmon Young either way.

• No word yet on how many teams are interested in Cuddyer as a pitcher after Monday night's scoreless inning versus the Rangers, but he averaged 87.3 miles per hour with his fastball. By comparison, Carl Pavano has averaged 89.1 mph with his fastball this year. In addition to his mid-80s heat Cuddyer also threw an assortment of off-speed pitches, producing the following strike zone chart:

It wasn't pretty, but Cuddyer mopped up with a scoreless eighth inning after Nick Blackburn, Chuck James, Phil Dumatrait, Alex Burnett, and Mijares combined to allow 20 runs on 25 hits in the first seven frames. He's the first Twins position player to pitch since John Moses in 1990.

• Last night Joe Nathan tied Rick Aguilera for the Twins record with his 254th save and once again looked very good in the process, striking out two left-handed hitters to preserve a 9-8 win with a scoreless inning. Since coming off the disabled list in late June he's now thrown 12 innings with a 1.46 ERA and 10-to-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .159 batting average. And his overall ERA is finally under 5.00 for the first time since April 12.

• Prior to coming off the bench to deliver the game-winning double last night, Joe Mauer was 6-for-35 (.171) as a pinch-hitter in his career.

Kyle Gibson probably would've needed to dominate the International League for the Twins to have called him up already, but instead the 2009 first-round pick had a nice first two months at Triple-A and has struggled of late. Gibson was 0-4 with a 5.17 ERA in June and then took 17 days off before coughing up 13 runs in two July starts, including a career-high five walks last time out. And now Rochester will skip his next turn in the rotation because of elbow soreness.

Gibson's ugly win-loss record and mediocre ERA overstate how much he's struggled overall this season, as a 91-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 95 innings is plenty impressive and he's done a decent job keeping the ball in the ballpark. However, there's no getting around the fact that his recent performance and health are worrisome. Through the end of May he had a 3.60 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 55 innings, but in 40 innings since he has a 6.47 ERA and 32 strikeouts.

Between the Twins' rotation depth and tendency to move prospects along slowly thoughts of Gibson being in Minnesota by June were perhaps misguided to begin with, but expecting him to be knocking on the door to the majors by now was certainly reasonable. Instead he's taken a step backward and has looked a lot more like a future mid-rotation starter than the potential second-tier ace Twins fans were dreaming on following his strong pro debut.

Jim Callis of Baseball America reports that Twins signed Vanderbilt southpaw Corey Williams for $575,000, which is double the MLB-recommend "slot" bonus for a third-round pick. Always good to see the Twins spending in the draft and August 15 is the deadline to sign other picks.

Justin Morneau's lengthy list of health issues now includes migraine headaches, which could threaten his goal of returning from neck surgery in mid-August.

Tyler Mason of FOXSportsNorth.com did an enjoyable "where are they now?" piece on Marty Cordova, although he neglected to mention the former Rookie of the Year's frequent cameos in UFC president Dana White's travel videos.

• Last and least, just a reminder/plug: I'll obviously have analysis here of any moves the Twins make, but in the meantime you can read my thoughts on all the rumors and trades throughout baseball each day at Hardball Talk on NBCSports.com. It's good stuff, I promise.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.

July 25, 2011

Twins Notes: Time’s a wastin

• Yesterday marked the two-thirds point of the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figured to define the Twins' season leading right up to the July 31 trade deadline. So far they're 6-6 and seven games out of first place, which is a half-game further back than the start of the stretch and the same deficit as a month ago. For all their getting healthy and turning things around the Twins have basically tread water for a month, leaving only 61 games to close a seven-game gap.

At this stage various playoff odds put the Twins less than five percent to win the division, but a) they're presumably better than the overall record shows, b) the rest of the AL Central is far worse than an average division, and c) memories of what happened down the stretch in 2006 make many people reject the idea of becoming sellers regardless of the odds. Tough decisions need to be made this week, the impact of which extends well beyond August and September.

Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun reports that the Twins are "eyeing" Orioles reliever Koji Uehara, who's quietly been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball since moving to the bullpen full time last season. Uehara was a solid but injury prone mid-rotation starter, but as a reliever he has a 2.35 ERA and ridiculous 113-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 88 innings while holding opponents to a .187 batting average.

It doesn't get much better than that and sure enough his 2.51 xFIP since the beginning of last season ranks third among all relievers with at least 80 innings. Uehara isn't a household name and as a 36-year-old with injury baggage he'd come with some risk, but if healthy he's an elite reliever and has a reasonable $4 million option for 2012. Connolly writes that the Orioles "are looking for major league-ready starting pitching," which makes Kevin Slowey a possible fit.

• Slowey has actually been linked to quite a few teams as rumors swirl leading up to Sunday's trade deadline. Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Blue Jays scouted him at Triple-A, which makes sense given that they showed interest in Slowey during spring training. Toronto is believed to be shopping various veteran relievers, including old friend Jon Rauch, so that seems like a natural fit. At this point I'd be very surprised if Slowey isn't traded.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last week that the Twins won't deal impending free agent Michael Cuddyer, but apparently that didn't stop at least one team from trying to change their mind. According to Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News the Giants expressed interest in Cuddyer with the intention of using him at second base, but were rebuffed and quickly moved on to acquire Jeff Keppinger from the Astros for two prospects.

Danny Valencia is putting together one of the most polarizing seasons by any hitter in Twins history, piling up memorable hits and RBIs while hitting terribly overall. Valencia is hitting just .236/.286/.391 overall, yet leads the team with 53 RBIs and many of them have come in key spots. Talk of Valencia's ability to come through in the "clutch" has already become prevalent, but he's actually been awful in situations normally associated with that concept.

With runners on base Valencia has hit .253/.303/.374. With runners in scoring position he's hit .247/.308/.381. And in "close and late" situations he's hit .206/.260/.235. So if he's not thriving with runners on base or in key late-inning spots, how does Valencia have so many RBIs and big hits? Because he's come to the plate with 269 runners on base, which leads the Twins and ranks 10th in the league. RBIs are a function of opportunity as much as performance.

Glen Perkins has shown no sign of slowing down, allowing one run in his last 15 games with a 17-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 innings. His overall ERA is down to 1.63, with zero home runs and 43 strikeouts in 39 innings. Vic Albury is the only Twins pitcher to allow zero homers in more than 39 innings, tossing 50 homer-less frames in 1976, and Joe Nathan (four times) is the only Twins pitcher with a sub-2.00 ERA and more strikeouts than innings. Perkins is unreal.

Scott Baker looked good in his return from the disabled list Saturday, shutting out the Tigers for five innings. He was on a pitch count after missing two weeks with a sore elbow, but Baker had good velocity and recorded five strikeouts while allowing just three singles and one walk. In beating Detroit he sliced his ERA to 2.88, which is ninth in the American League and would be the lowest mark posted by any Twins starter other than Johan Santana since 1991.

Brian Duensing struggled Friday against the Tigers' right-handed-heavy lineup, coughing up seven runs in 4.2 innings. He's allowed right-handed hitters to bat .306 with a .486 slugging percentage off him, which is one of the reasons why I thought the Twins should have left him in the bullpen to begin the season. Early on the decision to pick Duensing over Slowey looked smart, but since May 1 he has a 5.22 ERA and 56-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 79 innings.

Luke Hughes got an unexpected demotion to Triple-A over the weekend as the Twins opted to stick with 13 pitchers and 12 position players for a while. Finding enough consistent work to go around is very difficult with a 12-man staff, so carrying 13 pitchers is absurd. With that said, Hughes didn't exactly make himself indispensable by hitting .237/.293/.322 with 46 strikeouts in 193 plate appearances. At best he's a 26-year-old platoon bat with limited defensive value.

• Assuming the Twins don't trade an outfielder it's tough to imagine Ben Revere staying in the lineup or perhaps even the majors once Denard Span returns from his concussion. Revere has looked very good tracking down fly balls in center field, but the initial excitement created by his singles and speed has predictably faded at the plate. His overall line is down to .249/.287/.284 in 62 games as the obvious limitations shown by his track record have been on full display.

Kelsie Smith covered her final game as the Twins beat reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press yesterday, announcing that she's leaving the newspaper to move to Canada and have a baby next month. Smith doesn't like me much--which puts her in some pretty good company--but I always thought she did quality work and linked to her stuff often here despite the perpetual difficulties of navigating the Pioneer Press website. Her coverage will definitely be missed.

Steve Singleton quickly signed a minor-league deal with the Phillies after the Twins released him from Triple-A last week due to reported "off-the-field issues."

• And last but not least: Bert Blyleven took his rightful place in the Hall of Fame yesterday.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.

July 22, 2011

Link-O-Rama

This week's Link-O-Rama is sponsored by Wholesale Gold and Diamond Distributors in Minneapolis, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your jewelry needs ...

• Not that it was ever tough to sell me bacon in the first place, but this is especially effective.

Bruce Willis has never looked so good.

• Earlier this week the Twins sold $391,000 worth of bobblehead dolls in one day.

Jay-Z and Kanye West teaming up for the sample-filled song "Otis" is interesting, but mostly just reminds me how awesome Otis Redding was.

• Sure, but at least it's a really great face.

• Congratulations to Jonah Hill for losing a ton of weight, although unfortunately for his career this means Hollywood will have to find a new fat guy to co-star in every comedy movie.

David Brauer of MinnPost reports that Chip Scoggins will soon become the Minneapolis Star Tribune's newest sports columnist after years of covering the Vikings alongside Judd Zulgad.

• Someone tell Adrian Peterson to get in line.

• I'm still grieving the end of Friday Night Lights, but Connie Britton has already moved on.

Friday Night Lights was able to squeak out five great seasons despite poor ratings, but sadly the similarly underrated and underwatched TNT show Men of a Certain Age isn't so lucky.

• Cleveland starter Justin Masterson shut out the Twins for 7.2 innings Tuesday night despite throwing a fastball on 103 of his 104 pitches.

• If you turned off last night's Twins game early, you missed Wilson Betemit make one of the worst throws in baseball history.

• I've never seen an episode of iCarly and presumably never will, but there's a big The Wire fan on their writing staff who deserves credit for this scene:

For anyone not smart enough to have watched The Wire already, here's the original scene.

• I'm not sure if Ron Gardenhire really loves Japan women's soccer, but we definitely know he pays off his bets.

• Rochester lost 18-3 yesterday and Toby Gardenhire threw a scoreless ninth inning.

• I'm hoping Rihanna has started a new fashion trend for exceptionally good-looking women.

• His bat no longer works like it once did, but Torii Hunter celebrated his 36th birthday earlier this week by announcing that he doesn't have erectile dysfunction.

• Grantland inducted my favorite book of all time, Ball Four, into their sports book Hall of Fame.

• It's been more than a decade and this still makes me sad and furious at the same time.

• As usual, things are going really well for the Canseco brothers. Jose has had a tough week.

Paz de la Huerta gives good interview, particularly for an insane person.

• Tuesday night's Conan had Marc Maron and Susan Tedeschi, which means they were just a Mila Kunis short of creating a show specifically for me.

Wonderful news for Jenna Fischer is slightly less wonderful news for her Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com candidacy and The Office.

Danny Valencia and Chris Perez had a sleepover.

Michael Rand posted a picture of what his Minneapolis Star Tribune colleague Patrick Reusse looked like in the 1970s and it's way too good not to share:

Mind. Blown.

Howard Stern won't take him back, so Artie Lange is doing a new sports radio show.

• Listening to Jonah Keri's podcast as Jon Weisman brought up my name and said nice things about me pretty much made my week. Us original baseball bloggers have to stick together.

• I actually thought about flying to Philadelphia just to steal all the tea.

• Congratulations to Sam Miller for his new gig at Baseball Prospectus and congratulations to Baseball Prospectus for hiring one of the best baseball writers around.

Ozzie is getting upset.

• One of my favorite writers, Clay Travis, launched a new site called Outkick The Coverage.

• Podcast recommendation: Nick Adams was great as a guest co-host on "Jordan, Jesse, Go!"

• I've extended the AG.com "sponsor of the week" program into September and October, so if you're interested in reserving a spot check out the details and current openings.

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Tedeschi and her husband Derek Trucks doing a live cover version of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" by Bob Dylan:

July 21, 2011

Trevor Plouffe, Denard Span, and the hope of a late-blooming prospect

Trevor Plouffe was a mess in his first taste of the majors last year, going 6-for-41 (.146) with 14 strikeouts and zero walks, and began this season back at Triple-A for the fourth year in a row, where he'd hit just .253 with a .303 on-base percentage and .419 slugging percentage in 1,194 plate appearances. Recalled to help replace the injured Tsuyoshi Nishioka at shortstop in early May, he went 12-for-60 (.200) with sloppy defense and was sent back to Rochester.

At that point Plouffe was a 25-year-old with 1,200 unimpressive plate appearances at Triple-A who had gone 18-for-101 (.178) in the majors and the Twins seemed convinced that he lacked the defensive skills to be a regular shortstop, which left "utility man" as his upside. And then a funny thing happened: Plouffe went back to Rochester and destroyed Triple-A pitching, hitting so well that the Twins gave orders to play him at first base and right field.

Plouffe had never played a single inning at either position through his first seven-plus seasons as a pro, but after starting seven times at first base and six times in right field the Twins called him back up last week. He was supposed to start at first base Thursday, but instead moved to designated hitter when Jim Thome was a late scratch from the lineup with a sprained toe, and then Plouffe started in right field for all three weekend games against the Royals.

His time as a regular right fielder figures to be limited, as the Twins are hoping to get Denard Span and Jason Kubel back from the disabled list relatively soon and once that happens the outfield logjam won't leave any room for Plouffe. However, the far bigger question is whether Plouffe's performance at Triple-A this season is for real and what that means for his suddenly resuscitated prospect status.

After seven mediocre-at-best years in the minors, including three consecutive underwhelming seasons at Triple-A, has Plouffe truly gone from a light-hitting, shaky defensive shortstop to a slugging corner outfielder at age 25? Probably not, as focusing on 50 good games following seven so-so years doesn't usually make sense, but Plouffe's performance at Triple-A goes well beyond good and Span is another former Twins first-round pick who had a very similar story.

Coming into the 2008 season Span was a 24-year-old repeating Triple-A after hitting just .267 with a .323 on-base percentage and .355 slugging percentage in 139 games the previous year and had hit just .283/.348/.348 overall in five pro seasons. Much like Plouffe he narrowly clung to a spot on my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects and seemed destined for a career as a bench player.

And then Span hit .340 in 40 games at Triple-A, showing dramatically improved patience and power. Called up to Minnesota for his big-league debut in mid-2008, he hit .294/.387/.432 in 93 games and then showed it was no fluke by hitting .311/.392/.415 as an everyday player in 2009. Span's production declined to .264/.331/.348 in 153 games last season, but he bounced back to hit .294/.361/.385 in 56 games this year before suffering a concussion on June 3.

Span looked like a first-round bust heading into 2008, but an impressive 40-game stretch at Triple-A forced his way into the Twins' plans and now he's one of the better all-around center fielders and leadoff men in the league, hitting .289/.366/.391 through 447 career games with the Twins after batting just .283/.348/.348 through his first 507 games in the minors. Span's overall skill set remains mostly the same, but he suddenly became a different player in 2008.

Span making massive strides at age 24 after five unimpressive seasons in the minors doesn't actually make it any more likely that Plouffe will do the same at age 25 after seven mediocre seasons under his belt, but it does provide an example that's both recent enough and similar enough to warrant some optimism. And as far as disappointing former first-round picks having two-month breakouts at Triple-A go, Plouffe stands out even more than Span did.

What made Span's breakout at Triple-A more impressive than just another fluky 40 games was that his lofty batting average also came along with significant improvements in plate discipline, strike-zone control, and power. In other words, he didn't just hit .340 for 40 games, he hit .340 with more walks, fewer strikeouts, and more power. Plouffe is similar in that his breakout at Triple-A wasn't simply driven by a fluky batting average.

Plouffe also smacked 15 homers in 51 games, which matched his career-high for a season and represented a 235 percent leap in Isolated Power compared to his previous career mark. He continued to strike out at around the same rate, but drew about 25 percent more walks than usual. Plouffe didn't just hit .313 for 51 games, he hit .313 with twice as much power and 25 percent more walks while maintaining a similar strikeout rate. He showed signs of changing.

With that said, in the grand scheme of things 51 games is still a very small sample, particularly within the context of a seven-season career that looks nothing like it. However, these aren't just any 51 games. Not only did Plouffe show improvements beyond his lofty batting average, those improvements added up to perhaps the most dominant performance any Twins hitting prospect has had at Rochester in ... well, ever.

As is often the case with minor leaguers the raw numbers don't tell the whole story. Plouffe hitting .313/.384/.635 would be impressive anywhere, but rarely does anyone approach those numbers in the pitcher-friendly International League. Not only does his 1.019 OPS lead the league this year, Carlos Santana and Dan Johnson were the only International League hitters from any team to top a 1.000 OPS in more than 50 games during the previous five seasons.

Rochester became the Triple-A affiliate for the Twins in 2003 and in the nine years since then Plouffe is just the sixth Red Wings hitter to top a .900 OPS in at least 150 plate appearances:

                  YEAR      PA      OPS
TREVOR PLOUFFE    2011     220    1.019
Justin Morneau    2004     326     .992
Jason Kubel       2004     390     .958
Brian Buscher     2008     214     .915
Denard Span       2008     184     .915
Randy Ruiz        2008     456     .902

Plouffe sits atop a list that includes Span's aforementioned breakout and the final step Kubel and Justin Morneau took before becoming impact hitters in the majors. It also includes Randy Ruiz and Brian Buscher, so a .900 OPS in Rochester doesn't guarantee stardom in Minnesota, but then again Plouffe posted a 1.019 OPS, not a .900 OPS, and the only two Rochester hitters in nine years to come within 100 points went on to be two of the best bats in Twins history.

There's plenty of reason to be skeptical, as even with this monster season thrown into the mix he's a .262/.316/.451 hitter in 337 games at Triple-A. Those numbers translated to the majors project poorly at shortstop, let alone right field, but the breakout was so spectacularly out of character that it may make Plouffe's track record an afterthought and there's still a shot he can handle a position with more defensive value and a lower offensive standard than right field.

This week's content is sponsored by Wholesale Gold and Diamond Distributors in Minneapolis, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your jewelry needs.

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