June 29, 2012

Gone Nerding

I'm at the annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention--which happens to be in downtown Minneapolis this year--so blogging will be on hold until next week. My apologies for the lack of a Link-O-Rama, but in the meantime check out this St. Paul Pioneer Press article about the Twins' involvement with sabermetrics. And if you're interested in updates on my SABR convention experience, follow me on Twitter.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Curt's Salsa, a locally owned salsa company that believes in fresh ingredients and rooting for the little guy. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

June 27, 2012

Down on the farm: Checking in on the Twins’ top 10 prospects

Each winter I rank and profile the Twins' top 40 prospects, so with the minor-league season reaching the halfway point let's check in on the top 10 prospects to see how they're faring:

No. 1 prospect Miguel Sano got off to a huge start at low Single-A, hitting .276/.422/.586 in April, but then showed that for all the incredible long-term upside he's still a teenager with shaky strike-zone control facing full-season competition for the first time. Sano went into a prolonged slump right around his 19th birthday and has hit just .220 with 58 strikeouts in 48 games since May 1, putting on hold any talk of a first-half promotion to high Single-A.

Sano also struck out 137 times in 127 games of rookie-ball, so the lack of consistent contact is nothing new and remains a potential red flag. On the other hand 19-year-olds with massive raw power are supposed to be strikeout prone and Sano has made major strides in plate discipline by drawing 42 walks in 73 games for Beloit after totaling 47 walks in 127 games at rookie-ball. And even while struggling overall recently he's continued to hit for huge power.

Sano leads the Midwest League with 15 homers and ranks fourth slugging percentage, fifth in walks, and seventh in OPS despite being the sixth-youngest player in the league. His low batting average and high strikeout total are certainly worrisome and make it impossible to project him as a future .300 hitter, but in terms of being a middle-of-the-order monster Sano remains right on track with a .240/.355/.483 line at the same age as a college sophomore.

No. 2 prospect Joe Benson has had a miserable season that started bad and got much worse. Finally promoted to Triple-A for the first time at age 24 he hit .179 in 28 games for Rochester, at which point the Twins decided to send him back down to Double-A for a third straight year. He got off to a slow start there before breaking his wrist on a swing in his eighth game, requiring surgery and a two-month recovery timetable.

Wrist injuries often prove tricky for hitters to bounce back from and when combined with hitting .173 in 36 games between Double-A and Triple-A his stock has clearly plummeted this season. Reacting to 28 bad games at Triple-A by demoting Benson back to a level he'd already mastered for two seasons was an odd, seemingly panicky move by the Twins, but that's mostly a moot point now as he simply needs to get healthy and start hitting again somewhere.

No. 3 prospect Aaron Hicks made the jump to Double-A and hit well enough early on to create some optimism that he was finally ready to tap into his offensive potential after underwhelming power and batting averages in the low minors. Instead he's basically back to where he's always been, showing excellent plate discipline and good speed while hitting just .248 with seven homers in 63 games for New Britain.

He's still 22 years old and it would be silly to brush aside 33 walks and 16 steals in 63 games from a strong-armed center fielder, but at this point his long-term upside needs recalibrating. His defense, speed, and on-base skills are still more than enough to make Hicks a potential quality regular in the majors, but any thoughts of stardom can wait until his average or power rise and his switch-hitting actually leads to good production from both sides of the plate.

No. 4 prospect Eddie Rosario was one of the few Twins minor leaguers having a standout year, hitting .293/.362/.473 with seven homers, 20 doubles, and 27 walks in 62 games at low Single-A as a 20-year-old. Then a batting practice line drive off the bat of a Beloit teammate struck him in the face on June 12 and surgery to insert a metal plate above his lip followed, putting his season on hold for at least six weeks.

Halting his strong hitting isn't ideal, but the bigger issue is that Rosario had been transitioning from center fielder to second baseman and all the missed repetitions will further complicate an already difficult proposition. Also worth noting is that while hitting well overall before the facial injury his power was down substantially from last year, which is what many people expected to happen considering Rosario is more of a line-drive hitter than a slugger.

No. 5 prospect Liam Hendriks was the Twins' choice to replace the injured Scott Baker in the Opening Day rotation despite being 23 years old with just nine starts at Triple-A. He predictably struggled and was sent back to Rochester three weeks later, but then put together an impressive seven-start stretch there in which he threw 46 innings with a 1.94 ERA, .180 opponents' batting average, and 42-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

That and more injuries to the rotation earned Hendriks a return to the majors two weeks ago and he promptly served up three homers in his first start back after allowing a total of three homers in 16 starts at Triple-A. Learning to keep the ball in the ballpark will be crucial, because Hendriks' raw stuff is mediocre and his bat-missing ability is in question. Hendriks was the top pitching prospect by default and his upside as a mid-rotation starter hasn't changed.

No. 6 prospect Oswaldo Arcia has moved past the slumping Sano to own the highest OPS by any Twins minor leaguer and while his long-term upside can't compete with Sano he's in the mix as one of MLB's best young outfield prospects. Arcia began the year at high Single-A and hit .309/.376/.517 with seven homers, 16 doubles, and an improved strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games to earn a promotion to Double-A and a spot in the Futures Game next month.

At just 21 years old Arcia is one of the half-dozen youngest hitters in the Eastern League and it's noteworthy that the Twins have gone away from their usual deliberate development by aggressively promoting him for a second straight season. In general testing good prospects is smart, although in Arcia's case his plate discipline and strike-zone control are shaky enough that constantly facing new, tougher competition makes improving those skills on the fly tough.

No. 7 prospect Kyle Gibson has been sidelined since undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery last September, but the 2009 first-round pick recently started a throwing program and is ahead of schedule in his recovery. He won't be an option for the Twins this season, whereas before the surgery he was on track to be in the majors by now, but getting back on the mound for some minor-league game action at some point in July would be great news.

No. 8 prospect Levi Michael was supposed to advance through the farm system quickly after starring in college at North Carolina, giving the Twins some much-needed middle infield depth. Jumping directly to high Single-A was part of that plan, but the switch-hitting first-round pick has struggled there by hitting .219 with two homers and 49 strikeouts in 61 games while splitting time between shortstop and second base.

Michael had excellent strike-zone control in college, totaling more walks (93) than strikeouts (73) in 2010-2011. So far the plate discipline side of that equation has remained with 31 walks despite a .295 slugging percentage not scaring pitchers, but the 49 strikeouts are a concern attached to such little power. Hopefully he simply wasn't as advanced as believed, since it'd be a shame if the Twins finally addressed their infield issues with a college pick who went bust.

No. 9 prospect Alex Wimmers recovered from extreme control problems to get back on track by the end of last season and the Twins were confident enough to assign the 2010 first-round pick to Double-A this year. Unfortunately he went down with an elbow injury after just one start there and was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, which typically leads to Tommy John surgery. For now he's attempting rest and rehab instead of surgery.

No. 10 prospect Brian Dozier began the year at Triple-A for the first time at age 25 and didn't play particularly well, but the Twins called him up in mid-May anyway and he arrived with some misguidedly inflated expectations among many fans and media members. Talk of him being "the next big thing" seems even sillier now, as Dozier has struggled both offensively and defensively while playing shortstop every day for the past six weeks.

He's hit .225/.249/.306 in 44 games with predictably little pop and a surprisingly ugly 33-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio after walking nearly as often as he struck out in the minors. Defensively he's shown iffy range and arm strength while also being less sure-handed than expected. He realistically never projected as anything close to a star, but struggling so much to control the strike zone and consistently make plays at shortstop is worrisome for 25-year-old.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Curt's Salsa, a locally owned salsa company that believes in fresh ingredients and rooting for the little guy. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

June 25, 2012

“Gleeman and The Geek” #47: Full Nelson

This week's episode of Gleeman and The Geek was minus The Geek, as Nick Nelson and Joe Nelson filled in for a vacationing John Bonnes as my guest co-hosts and topics included Matt Capps' injury and fill-in closers, Trevor Plouffe's case for the All-Star game, what to do with Francisco Liriano, buyers vs. sellers, Brian Duensing's move back to the rotation, more Josh Willingham heroics, Byron Buxton's debut, and why Bonnes shouldn't bother coming back.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 47

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Curt's Salsa, a locally owned salsa company that believes in fresh ingredients and rooting for the little guy. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

June 22, 2012

Link-O-Rama

• Fat-O-Meter update: I'm down to 168 pounds, compared to 355 pounds on March 7, 2011. Back on March 7 of this year I wrote about having lost 153 pounds in one year, but since then I've lost another 34 pounds to bring the grand total to 187 pounds lost in 472 days. I'm trying to think of interesting ways to write, talk, and chat about my weight loss, because whenever I mention it here or on Twitter it gets a far larger response than anything about baseball.

Here's a recent picture of me at around 170 pounds with my dad on Father's Day, along with a picture of the two of us when I was 355 pounds:

Not exactly the most flattering photos, but you get the idea. I realize at this point many of you are likely sick of hearing about my ongoing weight loss effort, but for those of you who remain interested in the topic please let me know what types of additional content related to the weight loss you'd like to see. Articles about specific aspects of my process? Podcasts devoted to weight loss and dieting? Q&A sessions? Let me know, via the comments section or e-mail.

• Last reminder: This year's SABR convention is in Minneapolis next week. Come hang out.

Congrats to Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com candidate Marisa Miller. It was a helluva run.

• Suddenly the fact that he regularly throws 100 miles per hour is the least interesting thing about Reds closer Aroldis Chapman.

• Imagining basketball stat-head LeBron James is pretty funny.

Geoff Schwartz, who signed with the Vikings in March, and Mitchell Schwartz, who was the Browns' second-round pick in April, are now the first Jewish brothers in the NFL since 1923.

• Do the Twins have a new long-term building block in Trevor Plouffe? I'm glad you asked.

• On a related note, all the cool kids at Target Field will wear this "Plouffe! There It Is!" shirt.

Padma Lakshmi covered in chocolate is a compelling advertisement for anything, always.

• Nationals manager Davey Johnson on Rays manager Joe Maddon: "I don't know him that well, but I thought he was a weird wuss anyway."

• Speaking of which: Throwback uniforms for a team that didn't exist yet? Sure, why not.

Jack White's appearance on Marc Maron's podcast was incredibly good.

• Friend of AG.com Bill Parker wrote an interesting article about the Twins' increasing efforts to engage fans via social media.

• Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com Mila Kunis shoots a basketball with Rick Barry's form and Shaquille O'Neal's accuracy:

And apparently she was so ashamed that she couldn't show her face for days.

• When he feels like playing tournament poker Phil Ivey is absolutely ridiculous.

• Compelling evidence that Mad Men is in fact a documentary, at least when it comes to dating.

January Jones as a redhead just inspires unflattering comparisons to Christina Hendricks.

• Baseball's leading thief had his wallet stolen at gunpoint.

Jim Rome took his television show from ESPN to CBS Sports Network and went from 442,000 daily viewers to 40,000 daily viewers. As always, no one is a bigger star than ESPN itself.

• Turner is reportedly in talks to buy Bleacher Report for $200 million.

• Because the story of Brien Taylor wasn't sad enough already, apparently.

• I try not to excessively plug my day job here, but I've written a dozen or more posts on Hardball Talk every day this week and I'd love it if every AG.com reader checked it out. If you like me and you like baseball, I promise you'll like it (and the rest of NBCSports.com too).

Chelsea Peretti is one of my favorite stand-up comedians, podcast guests, and Twitter follows, but she's no longer a writer on one of my favorite television shows.

• I was sad when TNT canceled the highly underrated Men of a Certain Age, but at least Ray Romano can have a guest role on an underrated show that didn't get canceled, Parenthood.

Esther Povitsky has gone from "Little Esther" the oddly lovable character in the powerful world of Joe Rogan's podcast to getting her own television show on MTV.

• I wrote way too many Twins notes yesterday.

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is the aforementioned Jack White and Ruby Amanfu performing "Love Interruption" on Saturday Night Live:

June 21, 2012

Twins Notes: Liriano, Benson, Rosario, Slama, Bard, Doyle, and Marquis

Francisco Liriano had a 9.45 ERA, .346 opponents' average, and 21-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings over six starts when the Twins demoted him to the bullpen in May. Since rejoining the rotation he has a 2.67 ERA, .155 opponents' average, and 35-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 innings over five starts. It's hard to imagine the Twins re-signing the impending free agent, in which case he has another half-dozen starts to build trade value.

• As if the Twins' farm system wasn't weak enough already now four of their top 10 prospects in my preseason rankings are on the minor-league disabled list. No. 7 prospect Kyle Gibson is still making his way back from last year's Tommy John surgery, No. 9 prospect Alex Wimmers is trying to rehab an elbow injury of his own to avoid the same fate, and now No. 2 prospect Joe Benson and No. 4 prospect Eddie Rosario are both sidelined for extended periods.

Benson fractured his left wrist and surgery will keep him out until mid-July. Rosario was struck in the face by a teammate's line drive and is expected to miss six weeks after surgery to insert a metal plate above his lip. Benson had already been demoted from Triple-A to Double-A and wrist problems often linger, so his injury is the bigger long-term concern. Rosario's injury is also a shame, because it sounds gruesome and he was hitting .293/.363/.473 at low Single-A.

• Sadly the "Free Anthony Slama" movement has been put on ice, and not because the Twins finally called him up after years of dominating in the minors. Slama is slated to miss six weeks after a line drive broke his leg, potentially ending his season with a 0.40 ERA, .175 opponents' average, and 37-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 innings at Triple-A. He'll be 29 years old before next season and has a 2.24 ERA with 172 strikeouts in 141 career Triple-A innings.

• No. 42 pick Luke Bard was the last remaining holdout among the Twins' top 11 draft picks and the Georgia Tech right-hander agreed to a deal yesterday, meaning just two weeks after the draft they've signed every player selected within the first 250 overall picks. No. 2 pick Byron Buxton is expected to make his rookie-ball debut within a week, so the earlier signing deadline as part of the new collective bargaining agreement has worked well for the Twins.

Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that in preparing scenarios for the No. 2 pick the Twins narrowed their list to Buxton, Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and Kyle Zimmer. Most pre-draft speculation had them choosing whichever one of Buxton or Appel didn't go No. 1, but in reading between the lines it seems like they were set to take Correa if the Astros had taken Buxton. And there was lots of organizational disagreement about the best player.

• In examining the Twins' draft it was obvious that they went out of their way to get power arms, even if they came in the less-than-ideal form of college relievers. Sure enough vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff admitted that was the plan going in, saying: "Pitchability and playability, maybe we overemphasized that. Maybe we emphasized that for too long. It added up. This year, we went for the more presentable qualities."

• Going into the draft Mitch Brown seemed destined for the Twins, as they had six picks in the top 100 and the local right-hander from Rochester Century high school was regarded as a consensus top-100 player. General manager Terry Ryan even scouted him in person multiple times, but then the Twins passed on him at 32, 42, 63, and 72. Brown wound up with the Indians at 79 and signed for an above-slot bonus of $800,000.

• They also repeatedly passed on Gophers right-hander T.J. Oakes, who was selected by the Rockies in the 11th round and signed for $100,000. Oakes is considered a marginal prospect, placing 292nd in Baseball America's pre-draft rankings, but the Twins liked the 6-foot-5 starter enough to draft him in the 41st round last year as a sophomore and have a history of picking Gophers. Oakes had a 2.31 ERA and 78-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 97 innings as a junior.

Released by the Twins with an 8.47 ERA and more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) in seven starts, Jason Marquis signed a minor-league deal with the Padres and made one Double-A start before returning to the majors. Marquis and his agent were smart to choose an NL team with MLB's most-pitcher friendly park, but this is crazy: Through three starts he has a 1.86 ERA and 20/8 K/BB ratio in 19 innings, including his first double-digit strikeout game since 2001.

• Waiver claim Erik Komatsu became expendable once the Twins decided to recall Ben Revere from Triple-A a month ago, so the Rule 5 pick was designated for assignment and predictably the Nationals accepted his return. Komatsu had more upside than the guy he replaced as fourth outfielder, Clete Thomas, but there wasn't much fit for him on a roster that includes both Revere and Denard Span. He's back at Triple-A for the Nationals.

• Speaking of the Rule 5 draft, Terry Doyle is headed to Japan after the Twins selected him with the No. 2 pick only to send him back to the White Sox in spring training. Doyle rejoined the White Sox at Triple-A with a 2.83 ERA and 71-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76 innings, including a near no-hitter against Rochester, but they agreed to release the 26-year-old right-hander so he could sign with a Japanese team. A fitting end to an all-around weird story.

Phil Dumatrait, who was pitching in Rochester's bullpen after spending much of last season with the Twins, announced his retirement at age 30. He spent parts of 10 years in the minors and finishes with a 6.20 ERA in 151 career innings as a big leaguer, but the 2000 first-round pick had enough smoke and mirrors to post a 3.92 ERA in 45 appearances for the Twins last season despite an ugly 29-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 innings.

Kevin Mulvey also called it quits, becoming the first player from the Johan Santana trade to retire. At the time of the Santana deal Mulvey was 23 years old and the former second-round pick looked like a potential mid-rotation starter who was billed as close to MLB-ready, but he posted a 7.90 ERA in 27 innings as a big leaguer. He was a bust, but the Twins managed to get some value out of Mulvey by trading him to the Diamondbacks for Jon Rauch in mid-2009.

Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors crunched the numbers on every team's payroll commitments for next season and the Twins have the 13th-most money already spent at $65 million. This year's payroll is around $94 million, which represents a 17 percent drop from last year's $113 million.

Trevor Plouffe isn't the only Twins hitter putting up big numbers since May 15. Through that date the Twins' lineup scored an average of just 3.3 runs in 36 games, but in 31 games since then they've averaged 5.2 runs.

Alex Burnett has a great-looking 2.16 ERA, but he's gotten it done with a ton of smoke and mirrors while posting a horrid 13-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 innings. Burnett's strikeouts per nine innings have plummeted from 7.0 in 2010 to 5.9 in 2011 to 3.5 this season, which is the lowest mark by any reliever in baseball.

Jim Thome has hit .315 with 61 homers and a .640 slugging percentage in 194 career games against the Twins. He hit .266 with 37 homers and a .562 slugging percentage in 179 games for the Twins, producing the highest Isolated Power in team history.

Paul Konerko (.431) and Joe Mauer (.415) are the only hitters in the American League with an on-base percentage above .400.

Justin Morneau is hitting .310 with a .595 slugging percentage against right-handers and .091 with a .197 slugging percentage against left-handers.

Lew Ford, who last played in the majors for the Twins in 2007 and is now 35 years old, has hit .383/.450/.626 with five homers and four steals in 28 games at Triple-A for the Orioles.

John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com took a trip to Beloit to see the Twins' low Single-A team and had some interesting thoughts on a variety of prospects, including a pre-injury Rosario.

• ESPN.com ranked the 25 best single-game performances in postseason history and two of the top three spots belong to Twins.

• I was a guest on the Bucs Dugout podcast, talking about the Twins and my decade blogging about them with host Charlie Wilmoth.

• And if you haven't listened to this week's Gleeman and The Geek episode yet, the show was a good one as my guest co-hosts Parker Hageman and Joe Nelson subbed for Wally Pipp.

This week's blog content is sponsored by DiamondCentric and their new "Plouffe There It Is!" shirt, which is available in men's and women's sizes. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

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