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.

  • curlguy

    I have said from early this year that Duensing was a better option out of the pen. Not that Slowey is going to win any Cy Young, but as a starter I felt he had more upside than Duensing. To get the max out of those two players (again it might not be that much) I think it would be best to Start SLowey and move Duensing to the pen. At this point though I am certain Slowey will be gone, curious what they can get in return.

  • brian

    Great summary on Valencia. Duensing is much better out of the bullpen. Too bad they need a starter. The Twins kinda needed to go 3 out of 4 against Cleveland and Detroit to perpetuate the illusion a little longer.

  • Evan

    Can’t keep just treading water, it’s time to either sink or swim. These next 4 in Texas hopefully will give us our direction before the deadline.

  • mrgerbik03

    Cuddyer would have made too much sense for the Giants. They really could use another bat.

  • mike

    Dear Bill Smith

    Please dont trade the future to appease the fans and the manager. Dont over think this. Sell an outfielder and Thome.

  • mike wants wins

    Dear Bill Smith….

    I agree with mike, please don’t trade the future for the present. The present is not pretty. PLEASE do not trade anyone that can play in the majors for middle relievers. Please don’t trade Kevin Slowey for no good reason. You may want to ask yourself why Gardy has so much trouble with certain types of personalities, and if it is the personalities, or Gardy.

    Please don’t be fooled by Valencia’s RBI totals. They need a SS, 3B, LF. They probably need another catcher. They might need a 2B. They certainly need another starter (um, Slowey). Getting a MR or two will not move this team from being near last in runs scored and runs allowed. It just won’t.

  • Mike

    Interesting: ” Hoynes notes that the Tribe’s dealings are tempered by the fact that while they have a chance to win the AL Central, they probably don’t have a realistic shot at the World Series so the team doesn’t want to mortgage the future for just a token playoff berth.” Some teams look at building a world series type team the Twins look to win division titles and hang their hats on that.
    Smith still has Gibson or Hicks to trade for a relief pitcher and we’ll be right in the hunt! Read that they could use Span in a trade for a relief pitcher? Are they insane?

  • SoCalTwinsfan

    Valencia will be fine. His BABIP has dropped to .257 this season. He’s just having little luck. He’s slightly improved his walk rate and his walk to strikeout rate. His line-drive rate is right at league average. His biggest problem is too many IF popups, which I think is a product of teams pitching him inside and he is making the adjustment by trying to pull the ball more (and which is why Dick n Bert need to shut up. If the ball is in, pull it!). The average BA on a line drive is about .700, but Valencia is only batting .554. When those start dropping in more, his batting average will improve. Last year, Valencia had good luck on BABIP, now it’s evening out. For his career, Valencia has exactly a 100 OPS+, which makes him very valuable considering his rookie pay.

  • Pedro Munoz

    Dear Bill Smith

    I am going to make it even more simple for you: Don’t trade anyone. This team has so many holes in it that there isn’t enough talent in organization to trade to fix those holes. Since you can’t tell your ass from third base, much less evaluate baseball talent, you are probably just going to make the situation worse. Why don’t you and David Kahn go retire together somewhere.

    I don’t get the Valencia bashing. He had a great rookie season, is slumping this season (but still showing real power) and as Aaron has said, the real Valencia is somewhere in between. At his salary and under team control for years, that is a pretty good situation. Its certainly not the biggest problem on the team.

    Gardy has indicated this week that Revere won’t be sent down, nor will he get a break during this stretch. I think we may have found our new Nick Punto. I didn’t read that Span might be traded, but the idea scares me. Span is a very good player, and Revere is terrible. If you want to know why things went to badly the last two series you need look no further than the production from the leadoff spot: 33 plate appearances, two singles, two walks. His on-base percentage for the season is now .287 which is the same as the much maligned Nishioka. You might be able to get away with that if you had some power (and weren’t batting leadoff and playing the outfield) but Revere has none. There is only one outfielder in baseball (Alex Rios) who has a worse OPS than Revere.

    http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/batting/_/position/of/sort/OPS/count/81/minpa/225

  • mike wants wins

    I’m not bashing Valencia, I’m just not convinced. His batting is not great (I’m shocked his OPS+ is 100), but his fielding has not been good enough. I’m just not convinced hes’ the answer at 3B long term. But, I agree, he’s not near the top problem on this roster, not even close.

  • Jeff

    I don’t know the statistics but watching him he seems to be a pretty competent fielding third-baseman. He’s made some neat plays and has a great arm. As for batting, he’s average and only a second-year player. Definitely leave him be and see what happens and focus on the big problems.

  • Caleb

    Wow! There sure is a lot of negativity regarding our Revere and Valencia. Revere was called up out of need and like, Valencia, performed pretty well early on. MLB pitchers have made adjustments to both of them and now they each need to adjust as well. Both of these guys have solid track records in the minors. Give them a chance and they will make the adjustments necessary.

    As far as Aaron Hicks goes, has anyone else noticed that he is not only in a terrible slump but that for the year he is hitting .229 vs righties and .303 vs lefties? It is about that time for him to give up the switch hitting. To be a top 50 prospect he certainly isn’t playing anywhere near that level.

  • Pedro Munoz

    Revere does not have a solid track record. He has a track record that suggests he will be marginal player at best. As Aaron put it:

    “Great speed, few strikeouts, and a line-drive swing make Revere capable of hitting .300 in the majors, but even if he does a glaring lack of secondary skills would leave him with limited value offensively. An empty batting average works when joined by elite defense and base-stealing, but there are questions about Revere thriving in center field and he’s yet to turn great speed into great success rates on the bases. Right now he looks like a poor man’s Juan Pierre.”

    http://aarongleeman.com/2011/02/21/top-40-twins-prospects-of-2011-10-9-8-7-6/

  • Pedro Munoz

    I got into the same argument with someone about track records with regard to Nishioka a couple of weeks ago. Unless you have actually demonstrated your level of play in the American major leagues, you don’t have a track record. The fact that someone plays well in the minors doesn’t mean that they will succeed in the majors. The same is true for players in foreign leagues.

    When Mauer was hitting .200, it was safe to assume that his average was going to go up significantly, and it has. That is because Mauer has a track record as a very good major league hitter. Revere and Nishioka have been absolutely horrible, but there is no guarantee that they are going to improve, even if they make adjustments. Lew Ford was a player who was great his first time through the league, but got worse as time went on and crapped out after a couple of years. It could be we have already seen the best of Revere and Nishioka.

    Revere has played because Span has been hurt, and that’s fine. Its not his fault that Gardy insists on playing someone with such a terrible OBP in the leadoff spot. But what will not be fine is if we get rid of Span – a good fielder and relatively inexpensive player – to make a huge downgrade to one of the worst hitters in the league in Revere. Please, Bill Smith, don’t do it. We too many guys who can either hit or field, but not both. Span is the exception. He is the last guy we should be trading.

  • brian

    You could just feel it in your bones in the bottom of the first in game 1 against Texas that the season was over.

  • Mark R (Columbus)

    Twins down 18-1 going into the 6th… comeback starts now????

  • morts

    Carrying 13 pitchers may not be enough with Liriano and Blackburn imploding in back to back starts. The Twins may challenge Houston and Bodymore, Murdaland for the worst run differential in the majors.

  • Kirby

    Love reading your stuff Aaron but have to ask, Given what’s transpired in the two games since, How “absurd” does it look now to carry 13 pitchers. Not really having a problem finding enough work. 15 might not be enough at this point.

  • Steve J

    I’m thinking they hold on to Cuddyer even if they realize they can’t contend. I think the Twins have some idea that they may not want to retain Young after this season, Kubel really shouldn’t play defense [though Cuddy's not a whole lot better] and they need another couple seasons of some level of certainty in the outfield before Hicks\Arcia\Benson\etc arrive.

    I could tolerate Minnesota overpaying him at around 12m next year on a 1 year contract, but knowing the Twins they’ll probably ink him to a lucrative multiyear decline-phase contract.

  • mike wants wins

    Carrying 13 pitchers is still absurd. You should not expect that level of performance from your pitchers, so you should not carry that many pitchers.

  • adjacent

    “Carrying 13 pitchers is still absurd. You should not expect that level of performance from your pitchers, so you should not carry that many pitchers.” That is if things are going well. But if you are the manager, see the bullpen sessions, see things not going well, you may anticipate that need. Of course, you cannot tell the press “I am carrying 13 pitchers because such and such are gonna suck”.

  • mike wants wins

    adjacent, fair enough, but I’d hope they didn’t expect those last two performances. bummer about Mijares being bad, he could have been a real trade chip if he’d have done well I think.