July 18, 2011

Twins Notes: Closer changes, monster homers, regrets, and somersaults

Matt Capps blew a 1-0 lead and took the loss Friday, serving up a mammoth two-run homer to Royals rookie Eric Hosmer for his league-leading seventh blown save of the year, at which point Ron Gardenhire finally made a change at closer. Gardenhire turned back to former closer Joe Nathan rather than give the bullpen's most effective reliever, Glen Perkins, his first shot in the role, which I agreed last week makes the most sense as a short-term solution.

Perkins may eventually prove to be an elite closer, but he's been so valuable in part because of Gardenhire's willingness to use him in crucial spots whenever the need arises, whereas the manager's closer usage has always been far more rigid. For now at least I'd rather see Perkins throw 80 innings in a variety of tight situations than 65 innings with a lead of 1-3 runs in the ninth inning and Nathan's past closer experience makes the move even more of a no-brainer.

Nathan hasn't looked quite like his pre-surgery self, but he's still been impressive since coming off the disabled list in mid-June. His velocity is up compared to earlier this season, he pitched on three straight days over the weekend for the first time since 2009, and Nathan has allowed just one run in 9.1 innings since the month-long DL trip, with seven strikeouts versus one walk and a .125 opponents' batting average. As for Capps, there isn't much left to say at this point.

By focusing on save totals and supposed "proven closer" status the Twins overvalued a setup-caliber pitcher, paying a premium in players and money. It was a huge mistake then and looks even bigger now, but Capps has also fallen apart. He's managed just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is 30 percent below his career rate, and command issues have hitters teeing off on what's always been a nearly all-fastball repertoire. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• Fortunately even with Capps turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 loss Friday night the Twins began the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figures to define the season by taking three of four from the Royals. They're now just five games below .500 for the first time since April and sit five games back in the AL Central with the first-place Indians and second-place Tigers coming to town for back-to-back four-game series. Giddy up.

Scott Baker was scheduled to start Game 1 of today's doubleheader versus the Indians, but was scratched from that outing yesterday and placed on the disabled list with the elbow injury that prematurely ended his last start on July 5. Scott Diamond will start in Baker's spot, as the Twins bypassed No. 1 prospect and Triple-A rotation-mate Kyle Gibson. Kevin Slowey wasn't an option because he last started Friday at Rochester.

Diamond hasn't impressed at Triple-A, posting a 4.70 ERA and 68-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 innings while allowing opponents to hit .291 off him, but he's fared better of late and the Twins clearly think very highly of him. They picked Diamond in the Rule 5 draft and then, when it was clear there wouldn't be an Opening Day spot for him on the pitching staff, they overpaid to keep him by giving the Braves hard-throwing reliever prospect Billy Bullock.

Under normal circumstances the Twins likely would've replaced the injured Baker with Anthony Swarzak and avoided calling up Diamond (or even adding him to the 40-man roster), but with Swarzak already set to start Game 2 of the doubleheader they needed another stretched-out arm and promoting Gibson for a one-and-done start didn't make sense. And instead of taking Baker's spot tomorrow Gibson started yesterday at Triple-A, coughing up nine runs.

• In addition to sticking Baker on the DL and calling up Diamond the Twins also optioned Matt Tolbert to Triple-A so they could add another pitcher for the doubleheader, increasing the staff to a ridiculous 13 arms. Chuck James never should have been sent back to Triple-A in the first place when the Twins chose to keep Phil Dumatrait over him last month and has continued to dominate with a 2.25 ERA, .197 opponents' batting average, and 48 strikeouts in 40 innings.

Jim Thome's monstrous three-run homer yesterday was the 596th of his Hall of Fame career and came in his 150th game for the Twins. Thome, who earned around $2 million last season and will make about $3 million this year, has hit .264/.392/.573 in those 150 games, with 31 homers and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances. That works out to a .965 OPS, which is by far the best OPS and adjusted OPS+ in Twins history among all hitters with 150 or more games:

                       G      OPS                                 G     OPS+
JIM THOME            150     .965          JIM THOME            150     160
Harmon Killebrew    1939     .901          Harmon Killebrew    1939     148
Joe Mauer            871     .878          Rod Carew           1635     137
Chili Davis          291     .862          Chili Davis          291     135
Justin Morneau      1003     .855          Joe Mauer            871     134

Thome is also the only hitter in Twins history with a slugging percentage above .550 (.573) or an Isolated Power above .300 (.309), topping Harmon Killebrew in each category. My favorite part of Thome's homer may have been Delmon Young's reaction to it from the on-deck circle:

Thome has 31 home runs and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances for the Twins. Young has 45 home runs and 83 walks in 1,884 plate appearances for the Twins.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune talked to a source who says "the Twins have no plans to trade Michael Cuddyer even if they fall from contention" and in fact "an effort will be made to re-sign Cuddyer this fall." Among impending free agents Cuddyer would bring back the most in a trade, but considering his extreme popularity it's certainly not surprising that the Twins aren't shopping him despite various reported interest from contending teams.

As a good but not great 32-year-old making $10.5 million on the verge of free agency Cuddyer is exactly the type of player most sub-.500 teams should be looking to cash in for future value at the trade deadline, but because the division is so weak the Twins aren't like most sub-.500 teams. With that said, not trading Cuddyer for long-term help could be a missed opportunity if they fall out of contention and re-signing him for similar money would be very dangerous.

• Trading away J.J. Hardy, much like trading for Capps, was a poor move at the time that now looks considerably worse. Hardy has hit .278/.335/.490 through 65 games for the Orioles after hitting .302/.356/.436 in his final 65 games for the Twins, and passed up free agency by inking a three-year, $22.5 million extension over the weekend. He surely would have been cheaper for the Twins to sign, but instead they spent $15 million for three years of Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Meanwhile, neither player acquired for Hardy has impressed. Jim Hoey is faring well enough at Triple-A to think he may still provide some value, but he flopped with the Twins by allowing 17 runs in 12 innings as opponents hit .344 with nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (9). Brett Jacobson has split time between the rotation and bullpen at Double-A, posting a 4.24 ERA and ugly 60-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 innings. From the Baltimore Sun extension story:

Hardy, who came over this offseason in a trade with the Minnesota Twins for two minor-league pitchers, is a free agent at season's end and was looking for more stability after being with three teams since 2009. The Orioles have been pleased with his offense, defense, and leadership in the clubhouse.

Funny how that works. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• I've already written plenty about Slowey, so I won't delve back into that situation other than to say for as much harsh criticism as he's taken from fans, media members, and the Twins their handling of him fits on the same list of terrible decisions as the Capps and Hardy trades. He's currently in the rotation at Triple-A, trying to build back arm strength, and Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Pirates and Rockies have expressed interest in Slowey.

Slowey's value has likely never been lower and he's under team control for 2012, so there's no major urgency to move him. On the other hand, that 2012 team control would come with a salary of around $3 million and he's deep enough in the doghouse that it's awfully difficult to imagine digging out, in which case salvaging some kind of value for Slowey might make sense. He's the most likely player to be traded by July 31 whether the Twins are buyers or sellers.

• One offseason move that definitely worked out was not bringing back Nick Punto. Declining his $5 million option and instead giving him a $500,000 buyout was a no-brainer, but given the Twins' lack of quality middle infield depth I thought re-signing him for $1 million would've made sense. He ended up signing a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Cardinals, but missed much of April following hernia surgery and now may need season-ending elbow surgery.

• After taking three months off from game action following his disastrous season debut 2010 first-round pick Alex Wimmers has finally taken a big step in his recovery from extreme control problems. He returned to the mound last week at rookie-ball with just one walk in a scoreless inning, after which the Twins assigned him back to high Single-A. He's nowhere near out of the woods yet, but hopefully Wimmers can get somewhat back on track heading into 2012.

• I've written a few times that Ben Revere runs so fast that it often looks like his feet almost can't keep up as he flies around the bases. He took that to another level Friday night, losing his balance rounding second base and falling into a somersault before ending up on third base with a triple. Revere's long-term upside is still very much in question, but there's no doubt that he's been as fun to watch as a player could possibly be while hitting just .278/.314/.320.

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  • frightwig

    Jim Thome, posting “by far the best OPS and adjusted OPS+ in Twins history among all hitters with 150 or more games,” AT AGE 39-40… aaand while he’s been dealing with a bad back and other ailments. Crazy, huh? I guess he must be living right. *cough*cough*

  • mike

    Baker
    What the hell is with the training staff?Before the game Joe C reported Baker felt great. After the game he gets put on the DL.
    How can that happen? And why did they wait so long? If a starter faltered against the Royals the Twins wouldve had big problems.
    Luckily it worked out but the Training staff put the club at huge risk.

    And I read on another site the trainer was named to the All Star team. Must be a thanks from the rest of the AL for screwing it up time and time again

  • AM.

    Through age 27, Slowey’s MLB stats look like Cliff Lee’s; same ERA, slightly better WHIP and K:BB rates, and slightly worse HR/9 (1.4 vs 1.2/9). Lee had about a years worth more starts (which Slowey is missing out on this year.). Plus, Slowey’s minor league record is much, much better than Lee’s. Then, at age 28, Lee sucked. 6.29 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, demoted to AAA.

    When the Twins trade Slowey, Hardy will look like the good trade.

  • mike wants wins

    Capps trade=awful. Hardy trade (salary dump really)=awful. Santasa trade = awful. When they trade Slowey for nothing=awful.

    The only good trades they’ve made have been getting Hardy, and trading B prospects for MR that are hot that year.

    They really should re-look at their processes and decision making.

  • mike wants wins

    Aaron, why does it make sense not call up Gibson for 1 game? If they really think they can make the playoffs this year, shouldn’t they have their best players playing (assuming we agree Gibson is better than Diamond right now)?

    Also, what is with the team not understanding how to deal with injuries, and playing short handed year after year by waiting to put guys on the DL? If they were good at their jobs, wouldn’t they have held Slowey back from starting on Friday, and had him throw 1-2 innings? Slowey is better than Blackburn, maybe Duensing, and certainly Diamond or Gibson right now.

  • Kurt E.

    Eric Hosmer: .301 average with 9 homers vs. righties, sub .200 average with 0 homers vs. lefties. Here’s the ball Capps, get er’ done!

    If Perkins or any lefty for that matter faces Hosmer, we win. It’s been a good run Gardy, but time to hang it up!

  • mike wants wins

    I agree with Kurt, but that’s not a Gardy issue. Managers are obsessed with the closer concept. I think nearly every manager would have done the same thing, which shows that while they know 1000000x more about baseball than I do, that they are not perfect.

  • http://jasonwinter.blogspot.com Jason w

    “Thome has 31 home runs and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances for the Twins. Young has 45 home runs and 83 walks in 1,884 plate appearances for the Twins.”

    Thome could probably play a better left field, too.

  • Chris

    Congratulations to Bill Smith for already having made two of the worst trades in Twins history. And the thing is, many of us called it at the time. When I heard they traded Ramos for Capps, I didn’t actually believe it. I didn’t think a Major League GM could really be that stupid. And then he confirmed it with the Hardy trade. They said Hardy was a salary dump, but if they had kept both Hardy and Ramos, they’d be saving money over Capps, Nishi (who looks like a sure fire bust), and Hoey/Jacobson.

  • Curt

    I know I’m preaching to the choir but… obviously, having a closer can be effective if you have the right guy. Certainly, Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Trevor Hoffman and even guys like Reardon, Aguilera and Nathan are proof. When you don’t have that guy, why not use your best situational match-ups even if it requires three different guys to get three outs? Of course those guys have to be available in the ninth… If you don’t have one of those caliber closers, pretending you do is disastrous.

  • Tim

    What do those OPS numbers look like if you normalize the others to Thome’s 73.1% platoon advantage? Just from glancing at it on bbref Thome’s still going to be ahead, but I’m curious, if somebody has a tool that makes that easier. (It’s painful to separate out splits by career with a single team on bbref.)

  • Pedro Munoz

    1) Jim Thome is awesome. I love that man.

    2) Obviously the training staff are all morons and doesn’t have a clue about the health of anyone on the team. But beyond that, it seems really stupid that the starter for the second game of the doubleheader is being determined by the order of the Rochester rotation. Given that Baker had missed his last start and the fact that the double header was on the schedule, could the Twins not have envisioned that they might need another spot starter? The biggest problem with Slowey is that we had too many starters. Now we don’t have enough, but Slowey can’t pitch because he just pitched in AAA? Why is this so hard for the Twins to figure out? Swarzak has been pretty good, but if he has a short start and so does Diamond, we are going to be in rough shape.

    3) Its good to see you keeping Revere’s performance in perspective compared to a lot of the fawning over the guy. Given that the Twins regularly field sub-.200 hitters in their lineup, Revere’s numbers don’t look so bad, but compared to other outfielders, Revere is really an awful hitter.

  • Tim

    I suppose we can do that the other direction: Thome normalized to Killebrew’s 27% favorable platoon ratio hits 347/529/876 (I didn’t bother with BA). Thome normalized to Morneau’s 66.1 fpr hits 385/573/958. And Thome with Kent Hrbek’s ridiculous 72.9% fpr hits 392/580/972.

    Not that this really tells us anything other than that it’s good to be left-handed.

  • Dave T

    What a contrast between Capps and Nathan! Capps throws fastballs, and couldn’t hit a corner if his life depended on it. Nathan throws anything and everything, and nothing over the plate.

  • jeffk

    Pedro part 2 is right on. It would be fun to see the Twins make a run despite injuries, weaknesses, and an awful start – but the Capps blown save and planning for the starters are both management problems that there simply is no room for error for.

  • BR

    I was looking at an article on the availability of Ubaldo Jimenez and was wondering, shouldn’t the Twins be in on this guy? He’s signed for cheap for this year and next, AND there are two more relatively cheap club options beyond that. There are questions about whether he’s really an ace, but he’s at least at the Liriano level, imo.

    Colorado reportedly asked for 3 of the Yankees top prospects plus their young SP, Nova. That’s a ton. Not sure if this would get it done, but what if the Twins offered Hicks, Gibson and Slowey? Putting aside what Colorado would think, would that be too much from the Twins’ perspective?

  • Pedro Munoz

    Christ, Capps just gave up a home run in mop up duty (Twins down 4-0 in 9th) What an absolutely worthless turd.

  • mike wants wins

    Did the fans that braved the ridiculous weather boo him, or were they too tired?

  • RPB

    Aaron,

    Maybe you have done this, but I missed it. A retrospective on the Santana Trade. It has been 3+ years They got what they got, which turned out to be crap. What about what they left on the table…

    Boston,

    Lester, Crisp, Masterson, Bowden, Lowrie

    1 Ace, 1 Very good ground ball machine, 1 Serviciable to good pitcher, a decent shortstop (injured constantly) + and excellent defender in Crisp.

    NYY

    Hughes, Melky, + other crap

    I am not sure how real the speculative RedSox deal was, but it sure would be nice to have Lester.

    Bill Smith traded

    Santana for crap
    Ramos for crap
    Hardy for crap

    They were not piernowski (sp) trade here

  • Pedro Munoz

    RPB, that topic might have been covered once or twice.

  • jimbo92107

    Joe Nathan’s big advantage is balance. His posture and finish are so well centered that he almost never falls off to the left or the right after he releases the ball. Compare that to every other Twins pitcher – they struggle to keep from flopping on the ground, while Joe Nathan finishes like a gymnast on a balance beam.

    Think of other pitchers that succeeded because they had pinpoint accuracy. All of them have precise balance. No matter what pitch you’re trying to throw, you’ll deliver it more accurately and consistently if you are on balance. That’s why Joe Nathan will be an effective pitcher until his arm is completely worn out.

  • BJA

    RPB,
    First, those offers were never verified. It is unclear if they were ever actually on the table. If so, the Lester package would have been the obvious choice. However, Smith got 3.6 wins from Gomez, 2.5 wins from Hardy, and 1.1 wins from Rauch (for Mulvey). In total, this is 7.2 wins. Santana produced 4.8 wins in 2008 (this is all from fangraphs). You would need to take into account that in 2008, an extra win would have been enough to put the Twins into the playoffs, albeit as a weak team against stronger opponents. In total this was not a bad trade.

    Second, I believe that Cuddyer provides value outside of his on field production. He will be overpaid, but as fans, we need to be able to root for players that don’t leave every 5 years. I love Cuddyer; my grandma loves Cuddyer. I hope he retires as a Twin.

  • Pedro Munoz

    Capps was booed pretty hard. That was about the only thing to get people excited (positively or negatively) up to that point.

    Surprisingly, the spot starters both did ok today, but along with contributions from our crap defense and crap bullpen, what really killed us was the lack of offense. When your leadoff batter goes 0 for 9, its going to be a long afternoon. I realize that people like Revere for his defense, but does it have to be either or? The lack of power would be ok if he got on base, but Revere has 9 walks in 200 at bats. The guy just plain sucks.

  • Pedro Munoz

    BJA, that wasn’t a bad trade from a WAR standpoint only because Santana fell apart physically. If Santana had stayed healthy and pitched anywhere near like he did with the Twins, those numbers would be brutal. I think you would agree that if players have value outside of their on field production – like you think Cuddyer does – they also can have negative value outside of their performance. I think Gomez falls into that category because he was such a jackass.

    The Santana trade – like a number of others Smith has made – is indefensible, especially in light of the other possible offers.

  • JS

    He only included Santana’s 2008 WAR because that’s the only year the Twins would have had him, had they kept him. I wouldn’t trust Bill Smith to run an ant farm, but the Santana situation was bad aside from his incompetence. Nothing annoys me more than the go-to line of “we could have had Lester and Lowrie and Bard and the frozen head of Ted Williams”. The only confirmed offer during the whole fiasco was the crappy one we got. Everything else was rumors that people parroted as fact. Given the weak offers, it would’ve been nice if we kept him to make a run that year, and hoped for a better market near the trade deadline, but Bill Smith had made up his mind that he had to be traded… seems to be a recurring problem. So yes, Smith traded a valuable commodity at a time where he had little leverage, but he didn’t leave any star-studded packages on the table.