September 19, 2011

Twins Notes: Pneumonia, concussions, obliques, shortstops, and defense

Joe Mauer's mess of a season came to a premature end Friday as the Twins announced that he'd be shut down for the final two weeks after being diagnosed with mild pneumonia. Mauer missed six games last month with what the Twins called an upper respiratory infection, leading to even more criticism and mockery from fans and media members, but as has too often been the case with various players and injuries this year the team's initial diagnosis proved lacking.

Mauer played through the pneumonia after returning to the lineup on August 30, starting 12 of the next 14 games while hitting .289/.438/.500 with two homers and nine walks. Had another hitter produced that well playing through what turned out to be pneumonia it would likely be used as an example of toughness, but the narrative surrounding Mauer has been established in such a way that potential positives are simply ignored and negatives are magnified.

He finishes the first season of an eight-year, $184 million contract batting .287/.360/.368 in 82 games, which Fan Graphs calculates as worth $7.7 million to the Twins. When you produce $8 million in value and earn $23 million in salary that's a recipe for deserved criticism, but Mauer certainly isn't the first star player to have a poor, injury wrecked season in the midst of a huge contract and the level of fan vitriol and venomous media coverage has reached absurd levels.

Based on those same Fan Graphs calculations Mauer provided the Twins with $137.7 million in value from 2004-2010 while earning $34 million in salary. That speaks mostly to the nature of MLB's pre-free agency system of team control, but it also puts his 2011 performance and pay in a larger context. For the first seven seasons of Mauer's career the Twins got $4 in value for every $1 they paid him and unfortunately in his eighth season those numbers were reversed.

Mauer obviously needs to get healthy, stay healthy, and work extremely hard this offseason to return to where he was prior to undergoing knee surgery in December. Whether he's capable of doing that and specifically whether he's capable of doing that as a full-time catcher is a big question mark that looms over the Twins' future, but hopefully Mauer hitting .312/.390/.405 in 66 games and 269 plate appearances since mid-June shows a glimpse of better days ahead.

• Sadly there have been no such glimpses from Justin Morneau and Denard Span as they try to recover from concussions. Span initially suffered his brain injury on June 3, pushed himself to return two months later despite continued symptoms, and went right back on the disabled list after performing horribly for nine games. Span still isn't symptom-free four months after his concussion and Morneau is seemingly back to square one 15 months after his concussion.

Morneau, unlike Span, was able to return to the lineup for a long stretch, but looked nothing like his usual self before being placed on the DL with a wrist injury in June. It turned out the wrist injury was the least of Morneau's problems, as he underwent neck surgery while on the DL, re-triggered the concussion symptoms on a fairly routine lunging play in late August, and is now having foot and knee operations. He's played just 69 of the last 230 games, hitting .227.

This offseason will be filled with crucial decisions for the Twins as they try to bounce back from arguably the worst season in team history, but no moves would have a more significant impact than their three best long-term building blocks getting healthy and in the case of Morneau and Span there's really nothing that can be done beyond waiting, monitoring, and hoping. Morneau in particular seems to be nearing the stage where talk of retirement could become very real.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka's season is also over, as the Twins shut him down with an oblique strain. From breaking his leg in the sixth game to being overmatched both offensively and defensively Nishioka's first season couldn't have gone much worse. He hit .226/.278/.249 in 68 games with three times as many strikeouts as walks, stole two bases and was thrown out four times, and Ultimate Zone Rating pegged him as 7.2 runs below average defensively in only 508 innings.

In addition to the $5 million posting fee the Twins paid for exclusive negotiating rights Nishioka is owed $3 million in 2012 and 2013, so he'll remain in the team's plans unless he decides to follow Kenji Johjima's footsteps and voluntarily go back to Japan. However, according to Phil Mackey of 1500-ESPN the Twins are contractually able to demote Nishioka to the minors and at the very least he'll have to compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster next season.

• For a while it looked like Trevor Plouffe would be the obvious answer to unseat Nishioka at shortstop in 2012, but he's resumed struggling defensively and has hit just .220/.294/.369 in 71 games. Plouffe created some optimism by crushing Triple-A pitching for 50 games and with seven homers and 13 doubles in 241 at-bats he's maintained much of the power he displayed in Rochester, but hitting .220 with 61 strikeouts and 22 walks looks like the pre-2011 version.

His breakout at Triple-A was impressive enough that he warrants an extended chance in some kind of role next season, but it's difficult to imagine the Twins feeling comfortable with Plouffe and Nishioka atop their shortstop depth chart next spring. Plouffe is a 25-year-old with shaky defensive skills and a .262/.316/.451 mark in 1,400 plate appearances at Triple-A, so slotting him into a utility role with an emphasis on facing left-handed pitching makes the most sense.

• As a group Twins shortstops are second-worst in baseball defensively with a combined 10.6 runs below average according to Ultimate Zone Rating, with Nishioka (59), Plouffe (34), Alexi Casilla (36), and Matt Tolbert (22) each getting at least 20 starts there. UZR also pegs Twins second basemen at 5.9 runs below average and third basemen at 5.7 runs below average, so Ron Gardenhire is predictably determined to shore up the infield for next season:

We're going to definitely do a lot of research and a lot of digging on what's going to make us better in the infield. There's going to be a lot of people in camp, we hope, that are going to all push each other, and we're going to come out with a good defense. If you've got guys that pitch to contact, and you don't catch the ball, you're in trouble. We have to catch the ball. We have to cover more ground, the whole package. That's going to be huge.

Regardless of what you think of the wisdom behind building staffs full of pitch-to-contact arms, Gardenhire is absolutely correct that it places even more emphasis than usual on the defense converting all those extra balls in play into outs. Twins pitchers have the fewest strikeouts in baseball and it isn't even close, as they trail the next-worst team by 10 percent and the MLB leaders by 30 percent. They're also dead last in turning balls in play into outs at 69.8 percent.

Gardenhire has already hinted pretty strongly that Casilla will be the starting second baseman next year, so connecting the dots he's clearly viewing shortstop and third base as the areas to improve. All of which is more reason to believe the Twins won't go into 2012 with Plouffe and Nishioka as their top two shortstop options and adds to the speculation that Danny Valencia will be shopped because his place in Gardenhire's doghouse is due largely to defensive lapses.

This week's content is sponsored by Jane Gallop's new book, "The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing In Time."

  • PK

    Love to hear the Joe Mauer positivity. 1) yes it was a bad season. 2) He needs to reevaluate how he handles the off season 3). He’s still the Twins franchise player and is an unbelievable talent. Love this play…
    http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=4608765

    I’ve mostly tuned out the, “Fire Bill Smith” talk. It’s irresponsible and won’t happen. That was until I heard the Twins pregame show this morning. He sounded so ridiculous. I realize he’s not a polished speaker and would rather do 1000 oher things than a radio interview but it’s part of his job!
    The part that got me was when he was trying to explain, “the player to be named later” policy and used the long ago Dave Hollins trade as an example of something the organization did very well. The famous “player to be named later” for Hollins was no other than David Ortiz. COME ON…

  • Pk

    The inaccuracy of the FO reporting injuries and player updates this season was at an all time high. Why don’t the Twins have a hired team spoke person? Somebody to be in front of the cameras/reporters before/after the game talking about player injury updates, unique aspects of the game from the Twins Front Office perspective while promoting the team and upcoming games? I think everyone benefits from this idea.

    And don’t tell me this is Dave St. Peter’s job. If it is, then he’s failing.

    A lot can go wrong for an organization but what shouldn’t is something controlable like the PR communications.

    Thanks..

  • Brian

    Why would you tune out the Fire Bill Smith talk?

    How could he be any more inept at his job? I’m all for being positive about your team, but its counterproductive to take that attitude to this extreme.

  • BM Berry

    Name three things Billy Smith has done right because I certainly can name ten things he has done wrong. Also, Gardenhire’s future with this team should not be as secure as Pohlad made it seem at the end of last season. While BS should receive criticism, Gardenhire should as well, and eventually someone other than Tom Nieto needs to be held accountable for what’s wrong with this organization. Pohlad will demand more once ticket sales are down.

  • mariettamouthpiece

    Ir was hubris that lead the Twins to lose Hudson (apparently too annoying in the clubhouse) and Hardy (still haven’t figured out why he was traded), and as is usually the case with misplaced arrogance, the Twins got what they deserved.

  • Hurricane Cake

    For some reason, I’m expecting an offseason full of awful trades.

  • spoofbonser

    In hind sight its always easy to point out wrong decisions, and a GM has a tough job of suppressing second guessing. The part where Billy Smith should be criticized are in his decisions that seemed bad at the time. The short-sightedness of giving up Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps and letting go of Morales around the same time……hello? The JJ Hardy dump is the other “big one” imo. The Johan Santana and Matt Garza trades were much in the grey at the time and still largely to this day, though I think they could have gone on a run in Santana’s contract year, donb’t know why you would give up on that possibility.

    I have a feeling he is going to make a bunch of moves this off season and with that there will be enough evidence to judge his ability to negotiate and assess deals. At this point we would all agree he is starting off with a low grade from his past moves at the major league level, but some of his minor league stuff is up in the air. Remember, our first round draft pick from 2011 is a shortstop who is going to be close to a call up no matter where he starts off.

    One thing is for sure, this bed he is lying in, he made it himself. Dump Hardy? come on!

  • Kurt E

    The Twins are going to do a lot of research now!? Gardy must have Moneyball buzz going on!

  • mike wants wins

    I can’t even imagine trying to play professional sports with pneumonia. I could barely sit at my desk when I had it. More power to him. That does not, however, excuse his otheriwise awful year. Demanding one of the biggest contracts in sports history (and make no mistake he, unlike Jared Weaver, did) comes with a ton of responsibility and expectations, neither of which were met this year. For 20% of your team’s entire salary structure, you have to be more than good, or very good, or even great. You have to be one of the 10-15 best players in the game.

    Given that their “brain trust” decided speed was more important than actual baseball ability, I’m not sure why I should feel any optimism about fixing the MIF. This is the same group that didn’t like Hardy, and thought Nishi was a legit MLB starter. There is no obvious help in the minors (another sign about their ability to judge talent), and they are unlikely to sign any “in his prime, expensive” players as free agents.

    If I was Morneau, I’d take my money and retire. The guy needs to be able to think and live for 40 more years. Probably the same for Span. Very sad. They are both great baseball players.

  • Nikephoros

    Nobody made the Twins sign Mauer. Hell, nobody made them offer a contract that was 4-5 million over what he would have gotten as a free agent. And his awful year may or may not be excused by his continuous injury problems.

    And Orlando Hudson would have asked for too much money to resign, Not worth it for an average 2nd baseman.

  • Craig H

    You prided yourself on being the lone soul to publicly proclaim Torii Hunter was playing at 80% in 2006 (after he hurt his ankle in Boston in 2005).

    Does it not seem pretty clear that Joe’s missing knee ligament is catching up to him? I’m not diminishing Mauer’s past achievements, but I seriously doubt he will ever be worth $23 million anymore, or earn less overall than we owe him in back pay.

  • Pedro Munoz

    Why is talking about firing an incompetent employee irresponsible? I also don’t understand why Smith should only be critizized for his moves that looked bad at the time he made them. A GM either makes good moves or he doesn’t, and shouldn’t get a pass because the mistakes aren’t obvious. Just him by the results, and in Smith’s case, the results are quite poor.

    Mauer had a bad, injury-filled season that conincided with the first year of his huge contract. The team had to sign him (at 4-5 million UNDER what he would have received as a free agent) because he was the local hero and the taxpayer-funded new stadium meant we could keep our stars. He will bounce back and win a couple more batting titles.

    The real answer to the Mauer problem is not with Mauer, but with his backup. The Twins are going to end up giving 250 plate appearances to a guy with a sub-.200 OBP. They need to sign a backup catcher who isn’t a free out at the end of the lineup.

    Still frustrating to see talk of Valencia being replaced when he is so far down on the list of problems.

    Has Gardy seen Moneyball? I expect that the only lesson he will take from it was that it doesn’t work because the As lost their series to the Twins. Is there another way to explain to Gardy that you don’t want a terrible hitter like Revere batting first?

    If Burnett and Mijares are on the team next year, I am boycotting.

  • Pedro Munoz

    I don’t know if anyone is still watching, but the other night Joe Benson came a couple of feet (off the center field wall) from hitting for the cycle. The best part? Joe Benson has a mullet! Its not too long, but the guy definitely has a party going on in the back.

  • http://www.mog.com/funoka funoka

    Where do the Twins start? There’s very little hope with he current crew unless Mauer, Morneau, Baker, and Span can come back and play full seasons next year.

    It will be an interesting off season — no one should be off-limits after this crusher of a season. Good-bye Cuddy, Kubel, and Nathan — it was fun, but we didn’t like the end of the movie.

  • Josh

    I will be interested to see where guys like Joe Benson, Ben Revere, and Chris Parmalee fit into the team’s plans for next season. Plouffe is another curiosity, and you’d think he’d have a role at least as a guy to crush LH pitchers, but the Great Gardenhire has never been able to manage a platoon before, so expecting it to happen now may be a stretch.

    Very disappointed to see Valencia being set-up to be dumped. That’s a move that has Gardenhire written all over it. Admittedly, he need to get his D back in shape and not let what happens at the plate carry over into the field. But at the same time, I think he still has a bright future as an MLB player, and the Twins just can’t afford to let young guys with that ability go because the manager doesn’t like their attitude.

    As you might notice, I’m pretty down on our manager right now. I’m especially disappointed that in this season of utter disappointments and sheer disaster that he seems to be bent on making sure that the players take all the hits, especially the guys he doesn’t like. Great leadership!

  • mike wants wins

    Valencia looks like he could be a slightly below average 3B (note, average is not going to win you a lot of ball games) when you look at Fangraphs data. Admittedly, that is not the biggest problem on this roster, but if they can find a very good 3B somehow, that would help. That said, I have no idea how they’d find that 3B. It should be “easy”, however, to find a better SS/2B/LF than they had this year.

  • ML

    When is the last time they found a good 3B? If they move Valencia the alternative is guaranteed to be worse. A smart GM would go into the off-season assuming that Morneau and Span will not be playing in 2012, and that Nishi will start the season on the bench or in the minors.

  • Jeff

    “note, average is not going to win you a lot of ball games”

    wouldn’t average, by definition, win you 81 games? And it must be the fact that basically every other position is WAY below average this year. That should be enough for Valencia to be left alone. It’s only his second year, and he was rookie-of-the-year material last year. Give the man some time and tackle the gaping giant holes.

  • adjacent

    Unless is part of a package for a great starting pitcher, moving Valencia would be pretty stupid. In a down year, he provided a good chunk of the offense that this team had, and is going to be cheap for a number of years. There are a lot of things to fix in this team that are in worse shape than third base.

  • scott

    What the hell has Alexi done to automatically earn a starting job? There’s holes all over the place. Nieto deserved to be fired. There was no extra effort in rochester this year, guys playing there simply werent ready to come up to the minors.

    Personally, I’d have open competition everywhere. Including the starting rotation

  • Brian

    Extra effort? What does that even mean?

    Its not the AAA manager’s fault that Tolbert, Hughes, etc. suck. The minor league system is devoid of middle infield and catching prospects. Speaking of which, great job standing pat at the trade deadline Billy.

  • Steve J

    Its not the AAA manager’s fault that Tolbert, Hughes, etc. suck. The minor league system is devoid of middle infield and catching prospects. Speaking of which, great job standing pat at the trade deadline Billy.

    The scoop seems to that the AAA manager was let go not because they lacked talent (which wouldn’t be his fault, but because they demonstrated very poor fundementals (which can be taught)

  • Christian

    they had a superb bullpen….and now? they have nothing anymore….Trading for capps was a big fault
    the injuries? i do not know..this happens..
    future? there is no future the next 3 or 5 years…look on who they can draft 2012? they will draft 2nd!

  • BR

    Pneumonia is just a fancy word for bileteral lung weakness. Geez, why can’t the Twins just speak plainly about these things?!

    Mauer will bounce back. His projections and position, frankly, are pretty low down the list of worries for this organization right now. If Span and Morneau can’t continue to play, and play at or near their expected levels, the team is in deep doo-doo. It’s just not easy to replace a solid lead-off guy and a legit middle of the order bat.

  • Brian

    Steve J,

    I understand that is the claimed reasoning, but I think its a bunch of crap and I think he is being made the scapegoat. The reality is that the system is bare, and the longer Bill Smith is retained the longer any potential rebuilding process is delayed.

    The Twins weren’t good from 2002-2010 because of fundamentals, grit, or small-ball. They were good because they had a nucleus of stars that was unfortunately surrounded by fringe major-league talent that tried really hard. So the whole “Twins baseball” narrative needs to die IMO, its counterproductive.

  • Steve J

    Brian,

    I agree with the you on the “narative” (I personally like power pitchers, power hitters, on-base mavens, and guys who can cover ground vs “pick-it”) but there was some valid critisism since these AAA guys arrived not covering bases, throwing to the right base, etc. This is a direct reflection on minor-league instruction even if they were all replacement-level talents.

    And it’s not like the front office is going to fire itself over the lack of organizational talent. I’m hoping ownership takes a look at that possiblility as this is probably the last Front Office i would count on to be able to field a competitive team next year given current franchise conditions.

  • hansob

    The difference between Drew Butera and Wilson Ramos’ numbers this year in terms of AVE/OBP/SLG is BIGGER than the difference between 2011 Wilson Ramos and Mike Piazza’s 1997 season, which is considered the greatest offensive season ever by a catcher:

    Butera: .155./.191/.224
    Ramos: .261/.328/.432
    Piazza: .362/.431/.638

    Diff in AVE and SLG very similar. Jump in OBP is bigger from Butera to Ramos than Ramos to Piazza.

    THIS is why I’m starting to not take this club seriously. Butera hasn’t hit above .220 since 2007, when he spent most of the year as a 23 year old in A-ball, but I guess they like him down there in the country club.

  • Brian

    Steve J,

    Good points.

    I’ll agree to agree.

  • Castino

    For all the Fire Bill Smith guys:

    I’d like to hear what you would do right now in order to get the Twins going in the right direction. Let’s hear the concrete steps you would take. It’s easy to be a know it all, second guess, and say everything sucks. But come on, we already have Souhan for that. Let’s here something besides harping on the mistakes everyone knows are mistakes. Let’s here how you’d fix it. Ready, go:

  • Castino

    Doh, nice spelling. I meant *hear* something.

  • Brian

    Castino,

    Step 1: Invent time machine.

    Step 2: Go back in time with 2011 Gray’s Sports Almanac.

    Step 3: Prevent Bill Smith from being hired as GM.

    I mean seriously, how is anyone supposed to realistically answer that question? I could name specific problems with the roster and specific players that could be potential solutions, but thats not going to be realistic. There are too many factors going forward.

    What I do know is that the hate and blaming IS NOT SECOND GUESSING. The thought processes behind Bill Smith’s trades, acquisitions and signings are just so obviously flawed.

    All we have to judge Bill Smith’s ability going forward is what he has done in the past. How about you try arguing that his track record to this point gives you confidence in him going forward. Ready, go:

  • Pedro Munoz

    Castino, are you saying that everything doesn’t suck? Because I am pretty sure it does. And the criticism of Smith isn’t second guessing because it was clear his moves were terrible when he made them. And even if it wasnt clear, why shouldn’t we hold him accountable for his poor performance?

    You could make personnel decisions based on which side of the litter box my cat shits in and do a better job than Smith. That guy couldn’t find his ass with both hands and an instruction manual.