August 8, 2011

Twins Notes: The fat lady is clearing her throat

• When the July 31 trade deadline came and went without a move of any kind by the Twins it signaled that the front office had talked themselves out of being sellers by virtue of hanging around the edges of contention in a horrible division, yet still didn't quite feel strong enough about their chances to actually become buyers. So instead they did literally nothing, failing to cash in impending free agents for future value and failing to acquire any short-term help.

And now a week later the team looks just about finished, getting swept at home by the White Sox for the first time since 2004 while falling to 1-5 since the trade deadline passed and 5-12 since the beginning of a crucial four-game series versus the Tigers on July 21. They're also now 51-63 overall and have been out-scored by 108 runs through 115 games for MLB's third-worst run differential ahead of only the cellar-dwelling Astros and Orioles. This is simply a bad team.

What makes that disappointment all the more frustrating is a sense that the Twins may have squandered an opportunity to better position themselves for the future by refusing to view the current situation realistically. Maybe they'll cash in some veterans before the secondary August 31 trade deadline and maybe they'll recoup some of that squandered value via compensatory draft picks, but none of that's a given and right now it sure seems like they played it wrong.

Michael Cuddyer was without question the Twins' most sought-after player at the deadline, reportedly drawing interest from the Giants, Phillies, and various other contending teams that eventually paid premium prices for veteran bats. Rather than swap the 32-year-old impending free agent for long-term help in what was a strong seller's market the Twins turned away all inquiries while making it obvious that they wanted to re-sign Cuddyer.

Sure enough, Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Twins recently offered Cuddyer a two-year, $16 million contract extension, which he predictably turned down. Offering much more than that would be a big mistake by the Twins, but from Cuddyer's point of view he'd be silly to accept it. For one thing that represents a sizable pay cut from his current $10.5 million salary and Cuddyer is in the midst of arguably the best season of his career.

Beyond that many of those same teams linked to Cuddyer at the trade deadline would also be linked to him as a free agent and even if he ultimately wants to remain in Minnesota it surely wouldn't be all that difficult to coax the Twins into raising their offer on the open market. After all, the Twins' message through the media all year has been what an amazing player, person, and teammate Cuddyer is and it's hard to believe their maximum bid for that is $16 million.

• Several members of the big-league rotation have been struggling for a while now and Kevin Slowey has a 3.55 ERA and 29-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings at Triple-A, but to no one's surprise the Twins aren't interested in letting him out of the doghouse. Ron Gardenhire explained during an interview with 1500-ESPN that Anthony Swarzak, not Slowey, will get the nod if the Twins make a rotation change and repeated the company line on Slowey:

Who knows what's going to happen with him? He's a good pitcher. He's got a great arm. Unfortunately for us, he just couldn't pitch out of the bullpen and it just wasn't going to work out for him. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to go with that. ... Unfortunately, he couldn't do the bullpen thing, and that didn't help us. It didn't help us at all. So we definitely have to look at this thing as we go along.

Gardenhire also dropped plenty of hints about the team still being upset with Slowey, saying:

That's definitely a situation you have to monitor. I don't know about rehabilitating, that's totally up to him whether he wants to come up and be a part of it. And he's definitely going to be in the mix again for next year, unless something happens over the course of the winter where he gets moved, because he's a good pitcher. He can get people out, there's no doubt about that.

Slowey deserves plenty of blame for how he handled the situation--which he's certainly gotten and then some--but the Twins' refusal to take any responsibility is galling. Slowey didn't simply balk at becoming a reliever, he balked at becoming a reliever after four years as a starter with a 39-21 record and 4.42 ERA. And the Twins created the situation by choosing Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn over Slowey in a questionable decision that hasn't gone well.

Blackburn has a 5.00 ERA and .302 opponents' batting average in 291 innings since last year, including allowing 39 runs in his last 33 innings. Duensing's inability to get right-handed hitters out has been exposed as a starter and in 98 innings since May 1 his ERA is 5.13 while giving up a .295 batting average and .475 slugging percentage. Slowey can't be blamed for their bad performances and the Twins should be held accountable for the choices they made.

• Swarzak has fared well as both a starter and a long reliever, throwing 59 innings with a 3.20 ERA, but his track record is spotty and his current secondary numbers paint a less encouraging picture if he were to grab hold of a rotation spot. His control has been solid, but with just 29 strikeouts in 53 innings Swarzak has a lower strikeout rate than even Blackburn's minuscule mark and his fly-ball rate would be the third-highest in the league among starters.

If you're not missing bats and nearly half of your balls in play are hit in the air ... well, it's not a recipe for long-term success. Those weaknesses haven't caught up to Swarzak yet because his batting average on balls in play is an unsustainably low .249 compared to the MLB average of .290 and just 5.3 percent of his fly balls have gone for homers compared to the average of 9.2 percent. All of which is why his ERA is a sparkling 3.20 and his xFIP is 4.79.

• One key decision that the Twins absolutely made correctly was not signing Francisco Liriano to a long-term extension coming off his excellent 2010. Doofuses like me called it a mistake, but Liriano has taken several massive steps backward. Compared to 2010 his fastball is down 1.8 miles per hour, his strikeouts are down 23 percent, his ground balls are down 7 percent, and he's already walked more batters (59) in 111 innings than he did (58) in 192 innings. Yuck.

Joe Mauer has batted second in the lineup while playing first base three times so far, which got me curious about which first basemen through baseball history have hit in the No. 2 spot most often. Via the always amazing Baseball-Reference.com the answer is Jake Daubert, who did it 659 times from 1910 to 1924, followed by Pete Rose (487), Vic Power (408), Jack Burns (402), and Rod Carew (387). Power and Carew both racked up a lot of those games as Twins.

Denard Span went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts yesterday, making him 1-for-20 with one walk and six strikeouts since returning from his concussion. He also went 8-for-39 (.205) with zero walks and five strikeouts while rehabbing at Triple-A. Obviously plenty of rust is to be expected after two months on the sidelines, but given the type of injury and Span's previously fantastic strike-zone control his 11-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is worrisome.

Alexi Casilla has been on the disabled list since July 28, during which time the Twins played 10 games. Matt Tolbert started six of them and Trevor Plouffe started four of them. It'll soon be a moot point with Casilla scheduled to return shortly, but apparently Plouffe's spectacular performance at Triple-A can't even convince Gardenhire to play him over Tolbert, a 29-year-old career .232/.289/.326 hitter. Now should be the time to see what Plouffe can do.

• As if the Twins haven't had enough go wrong this season, now 2009 first-round pick and top prospect Kyle Gibson has an elbow injury that may require Tommy John surgery. Gibson was finally shut down at Triple-A following a six-week stretch in which he went 0-5 with a 6.47 ERA and the Twins' doctors are scheduled to examine the right-hander and his MRI results today. Surgery would knock the 23-year-old Gibson out for all of 2012 and potentially part of 2013.

• Things aren't looking good for Gibson, but at least 2010 first-round Alex Wimmers seems to be back on track after sitting out three months with extreme control problems. He tossed four scoreless innings of relief Saturday at high Single-A, striking out six and giving up just two hits. And most importantly Wimmers issued only one walk. He has a 23-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 innings since rejoining Fort Myers, including 13/2 in his last three appearances.

• Too little too late, but still good to see: Justin Morneau went 3-for-5 with a double last night while rehabbing at Triple-A.

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  • Zack

    I’m hoping that Slowey is inserted back into the rotation soon.

  • Brooklyn Twins Fan

    I know I give you a hard time Aaron, but honestly, you nailed it with your part about Slowey and the Twins’ abhorrent dealing with that situation. Gee, when you trash a guy to the media, is it any wonder there wasn’t a market for him? I mean honestly, how incompetent can one GM be? I look forward to future posts lambasting the GM’s performance this year, and hopefully more critiques of the coaching staff. Blame should absolutely be shifted them and not as much the players going forward.

  • JeMiHami

    This was all so predictable! Unfortunately, the only two that didn’t see it coming were Bill Smith and Rob Antony. I think Gardy’s act (Anderson’s too) have become tired. The Twins are really in need of wholesale changes.

  • LaBombo

    A franchise bordering on total disarray.

    Bill “Ok, I’ll accept your trade offer of 1000 picoliters of your milk for 4 gills of mine” Smith has dismantled the Twins’ talent base with a combination of precision and deniability that would make a Cold War-era Soviet spy blush.

    Ron Gardenhire continues to garner M.O.Y awards for patting his favorite players (good or not) on the head, dispensing popular cliches from his rectum, and managing the team as if he’s the sworn enemy of both sabermetrics and common sense. “Toby for MVP 2012!!!”

    Am I leaving someone out of this rant(z)? Take a bow, Jim Rantz, and accept our thanks for many years of Twins farm system excellence. Then get lost, because the minor league system has devolved into a disgrace while the franchise’s revenue stream has gone through the roof.

    Who else? How about almost all the players? When Baker and Cuddyer(no offense, love ‘em both) are your best guys, well…profanity doesn’t begin to cover it, and profanity is all that I have left.

    Sincerely,
    F#@%

  • Andrew Madison

    @LaBombo
    I wish I had written your rant, because that is exactly how I feel.

    The Twins failures this season are due to more than just bad luck. It’s been a toxic combo platter of bad planning, mediocre scouting and drafting, and personal beefs between management and certain players (this year and years past) that have conspired to create the dysfunction that has become the Minnesota Twins. When will anyone of those things change?

  • LaBombo

    A-Mad,

    I wish that I had written your reply to my rant.

    When will it change? Who knows? Maybe after Thome hits #600 (chaching!), the ’91 guys collect their well-deserved laurels(chaching!), and the Twins front office is then confronted with selling a below-average team in a below-average division to a fan base that’s suddenly…uhh,

  • ganderson

    Plenty of seats available for 2012!

  • Quentin

    In the words of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, I’ll say:
    …piss on the fire, call in the dogs, and head it on back to Bowlegs…

  • mike wants wins

    The handling of Slowey is truly a marvel to watch. The ego and lack of intellect shown by the Twins is amazing. They are proud not to know what BABIP and FIP mean, Aaron. It isn’t the Twins’ way to use all that collegy stuff. Can’t wait for Gibson and Wimmers to get up here so Gardy can trash them for being smart and not fitting in.

    I cannot understand why Tolbert is playing. There is no excuse for Tolbert to play. None.

    This organization is in denial. Denial that they aren’t good this year. Denial that their drafts have been bad lately. Denial that their manager can teach the basics, and motivate and improve young players. Denial that advanced math can teach them anything.

    It’s sad. They finally have the income to field a good team, and they don’t know how.

  • JB_Iowa

    It wasn’t just that Slowey had to compete for a spot in the rotation, it was that there wasn’t a fair competition to begin with. As I recall, Pavano and Liriano were “givens”, then the speed with which Gardenhire named Blackburn and Duensing to the rotation was astonishing — basically leaving a “competition” between Baker and Slowey. And that “competition” had a foregone conclusion.

    This franchise IS in disarray — it is stale, complacent and in-bred. The Pohlads need to fire Bill Smith immediately, bring in a G.M. from outside the organization and let him take the steps necessary to get this franchise back on track.

    Are there any “gunslinger” type GMs out there? Ones who might only want the position for 2-3 years and are willing to take on the nasty job of firing people who need to be fired and re-organizing the system? I see this much as in business, schools, hospitals, etc. — the first replacement GM is probably not the answer over the slightly longer term. I am not saying tha the Twins need to abandon all of their philosophies, policies and personnel — but they all need to be reviewed and that review needs to be led by someone with an objective eye.

  • ML

    Those of you so up in arms about the Slowey situation would do well to remember Glen Perkins’s history with the team.

    As far as I can tell, nothing has gone quite right this year (and that is bound to happen sometimes). The rash of injuries, which just might be blameless, from Morneau to Mauer and on down the line, has upset the apple cart plenty. Did the front office drop the ball? Yes, but so did the players on the field this weekend (literally) and that is solely on the players. Performance is everything, and the lack of it on the field simply cannot be ignored, nor blame transfered to the coaches, manager, or GM.

  • mike wants wins

    If the coaches can’t help the players be better (name the young guys who came up and got better under this regime other than Span), then they aren’t coaching….right? It always comes down to the players and luck, sure. But it is the jobs of the coaches and FO to put the team together, and on this, there appear to be major issues going forward.

  • Jeff

    I sorta drifted back to paying attention to the Twins for the first time since I was in grade school, largely thanks to their lovely new stadium that we paid for and the budget that should be big enough to fund a winning team. It has definitely been a tough year to start out on.

  • mariettamouthpiece

    ML – I’m with you for the most part. It really comes down to the simple premise that if you are forced to play multiple minor leaguers on a regular basis, over a 162 game schedule they get exposed for their shortcomings and/or inexperience – there is a reason these guys are minor leaguers. This year is not much more than that premise in action.

    Blame? Sure – enough to go around. Smith does struggle; but it seems to me that any GM would have had a tough time replacing the injured and the suddenly inadequate sufficiently to properly contend.

  • spoof bonser

    It is clear to see that the Twins problems are personel. Delmonzie “twinkle toes” Young fielding left? Nishi over Hardy? Tolbert over whomever? Butera over Ramos? and I wont get going on the bullpen, but Chuck James is the new Slama.

    I think it has become clear that Bill Smith listens to what Gardy wants and Gardy in not a great or even good GM. Smith doesn’t need to go, but now would be a good time for Gardy to hand the reins over to Molitor. He would be able to grab the attention of the players and he would influence Smith with a greater degree of understanding.

    I love the Twins for being the only team where guys like Matty Tolbert, Jason Tyner, and Lew Ford can get a sniff of the big leagues but the tenure some of these guys maintain is bordering on the absurd.

    Singing Cuddyer to the 4 years is wants will be the next biggest blunder. I can’t wait for the offseason, will be lots of chatter on the blogsphere!

  • for the love of mauer

    What do we pay Bill Smith to do exactly? He has successful steered a once successful franchise into the dirt. He is one of the worst GMs in baseball with a shockingly low baseball IQ. I can’t remember him having trade deadline or trade for that matter (JJ Hardy for C. Gomez otherwise no). Admittedly, he has done decent work during the offseason I’ll give him that. But, I’d take 1/2 the money Bill makes as GM of the Twins and run them 3X as well.

  • for the love of mauer

    What do we pay Bill Smith to do exactly? He has steered a once successful franchise into the dirt. He is one of the worst GMs in baseball with a shockingly low baseball IQ. I can’t remember him having a good trade deadline or trade for that matter (JJ Hardy for C. Gomez otherwise no). Admittedly, he has done decent work during the offseason I’ll give him that. But, I’d take 1/2 the money Bill makes as GM of the Twins and run them 3X as well.

    *anyone see an edit button

  • David

    Two things this organization doesn’t do well:

    1) Take accountability.

    2) Play hands well.

  • Pedro Munoz

    What really concerns me is that the Twins are likely going to attribute this bad year to injuries (which are clearly a factor) while ignoring all of the bad personnel decisions. Does anyone sense that the Twins feel that Smith has done a bad job? Is there any pressure on Smith, or on Gardy for that matter? The stadium is full every night, so is there any need for accountability?

    The Blackburn thing is crazy. I don’t think there is a pitcher in baseball who is as streaky as he is. He will have stretches where is is fantastic, and then will turn around and have stretches where he can’t get anybody out. He’s in the middle of one of those right now. Last year he got sent down, but this year it looks like they are just going to keep sending him out there – even though there are decent, if not solid, replacement options in Slowey and Swarzak. His overall numbers are crappy, but there is simply no way that you can let a guy keep pitching with his performance the last two months. Right now he is not a 5.00 ERA pitcher. He is a 9.00+ ERA pitcher. The reason he keeps pitching (and the reason he made the rotation in the first place this year) is because of Smith’s mistake in giving him a big contract.

    I went to the game yesterday (7-0 loss to Chicago, 4 hits by Twins, 4 White Sox HRs) and it was absolutely brutal. The biggest cheer of the day was for some old people on the kiss cam. I did a lot of booing.

    Anyway, we are 10 games out so we need to be in player evaluation mode. Plouffe and Revere need to be in the lineup every day to see if they have futures with the team. Slama and James need to get some innings at the major league level.

  • Ben

    I realize that you made that list long ago, Aaron, but do you still think Nishioka is a better prospect than Benson, Hendriks, Rosario, Morales, Arcia or hell even Toby Gardenhire? Is there anything that this guy actually does properly? Now it seems some folks want to blame Nishioka but it’s not his fault that he isn’t nearly good enough to be in New Britain, let alone just down the street. The blame belongs with the guys who evaluated then signed him. I don’t belong in the majors either but if you offered me 9 million dollars to play for 3 years I’d take it too. You’d be stupid if you didn’t. So at least we can say he isn’t stupid.

  • http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com Bill

    well this was the most depressing post i’ve read in a long time

  • adjacent

    I sense that Bill Smith is not there to put a good baseball team that wins championships, but to make money for the Twins. Nishioka was not hired because he was an outstanding shortstop (Probably they thought he was better than he is) but because he opens the japanese market. The expensive players that are signed (Pavano, Mauer, even Cuddy) are signed because they make sense from the marketing point of view. In that sense, Smith is a useful and clever guy for the Pohlad’s, even if we hate it as baseball fans.

  • mike wants wins

    The crowd was definitely not happy with Mauer tonight. Quite a few boos on the dropped play at the plate. Other than the women in front of me, the crowd was not happy about Mauer at all tonight.

  • sayhey

    23 million reasons not to be happy with a .691 OPS and defensive play that makes half the staff want to avoid him.

  • http://bigleaguewiffleball.com/ Jon L.

    The Twins had last night’s game under control against the Red Sox, but their pitching let the Ckx right back in it.

  • bohemian club

    Are there similarities between the way Slowey is being handled and the way Garza was handled?