November 30, 2012

Twins trade Denard Span to Nationals for pitching prospect Alex Meyer

Reports of the Nationals trying to get Denard Span from the Twins started in mid-2011. Back then the rumored deal involved one of Washington's late-inning relievers, either Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard, coming to Minnesota. When it ultimately never happened speculation about the reasons why included Span's post-concussion health status and the Twins' request for a mid-level prospect also being part of their haul.

Seventeen months later the two sides agreed to a trade that sends Span to Washington in exchange for 22-year-old prospect Alex Meyer, a 6-foot-9 right-hander the Nationals picked out of the University of Kentucky in the first round of the 2011 draft right around the time rumors of their interest in Span began swirling. Meyer was the 23rd overall pick, seven spots ahead of where the Twins selected University of North Carolina infielder Levi Michael.

Meyer signed for $2 million and made his pro debut this year at low Single-A, moving up to high Single-A in the second half. Overall between the two levels he threw 129 innings with a 2.86 ERA and 139-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio, holding opponents to a .211 batting average and just six homers while inducing 52 percent ground balls. Debuting with such strong numbers is particularly encouraging because Meyer's raw stuff has never been in question.

Meyer works in the mid-90s with his fastball, topping out close to triple-digits, and Baseball America's season review of the South Atlantic League's top prospects praised his "wipeout slider in the mid-80s" and noted that his changeup "could become an average third pitch." Most prospect lists aren't published yet, but Baseball America staffers I talked to are confident he'll be in their top 75 and the one prominent list that's out, MLB.com, rated him No. 50 overall.

Keith Law of ESPN describes Meyer as a "potential frontline starter," writing that "his slider is filthy, a bona fide out pitch" and "his changeup has improved to the point where it's probably a future-average pitch." Law's annual prospect list isn't out yet, but he was kind enough to give me a sneak peak and said Meyer figures to be in the 50-75 range. Law also told me Meyer is in the class of the college arms the Twins passed on with the No. 2 pick to take Byron Buxton.

Ideally if the Twins were trading Span for pitching help it would have been for an established big leaguer or at least an MLB-ready prospect, but they were never going to get someone like James Shields for Span without including significantly more value in the deal and MLB-ready pitching prospects with big-time upside are rarely available in trades for non-stars. To acquire a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation upside for Span you likely also have to acquire uncertainty.

Meyer is a huge, hard-throwing pitcher 18 months removed from being a consensus top-20 player in a very deep draft class and performed well in his debut, striking out 139 batters in 129 innings with better than anticipated control. Simply by virtue of being a 22-year-old pitching prospect he's nowhere near a sure thing, but if the Twins' plan was to turn Span into high-upside young pitching they accomplished that about as well as could be expected.

Whether that plan was the right one is another issue, of course. Once upon a time Span was a first-round pick himself, going 20th overall in 2002 out of high school. As he climbed the minor-league ladder his upside began to deteriorate and after hitting .267/.323/.355 at Triple-A in 2007 he looked more likely to be a fourth outfielder than a quality regular. That all changed the next season, as Span hit .340 at Triple-A before a fantastic rookie showing with the Twins.

He hit .294/.387/.432 in 93 games as a rookie and followed that up by hitting .311/.392/.415 in 145 games in 2009. His production dropped off in 2010, as Span hit .264/.331/.348 in 153 games, and his strong start in 2011 was ruined by a concussion that sidelined him for most of four months and left him extremely ineffective when he tried to play. Span entered this year as a huge question mark, but responded with a productive, mostly healthy season.

In all Span hit .284 with a .357 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage in 589 games for the Twins, emerging as a prototypical leadoff man with patience, strike zone control, and speed. Among all center fielders with at least 1,500 plate appearances from 2008-2012 only Andrew McCutchen, Josh Hamilton, and Dexter Fowler had a higher on-base percentage than Span and his defensive numbers were consistently well above average.

Span is far from perfect--he lacks power and arm strength, and misleadingly good stolen base totals hide that he's regularly among the MLB leaders in being picked off--but players at up-the-middle positions with .357 on-base percentages and above-average defense are very difficult to find. And, as was usually the case with Span, those players tend to be underrated by people focusing on offense over defense and production without positional context.

He's also 28 years old and under team control for three more seasons at a total cost of $20 million, so in addition to being one of the better all-around center fielders he's one of the biggest bargains. Of course, that's all part of what made Span one of the Twins' few desirable trade pieces and perhaps their most desirable. He's the type of player teams build around, but unfortunately in the Twins' situation he's also the type of player needed to facilitate a rebuild.

Outfield depth throughout the organization made it easier to trade Span, as the Twins have Ben Revere ready to step in as the everyday center fielder, Chris Parmelee ready for a shot somewhere, and prospects like Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia, Joe Benson, and Eddie Rosario waiting in the wings. There's reason to be skeptical of Revere's bat and Parmelee's glove, but the Twins dealt from an area of strength to address a massive weakness.

I'd much rather have traded Justin Morneau or Josh Willingham or even Revere, but none of those players would have been in as much demand as Span and if the Twins' goal was to swap him for a young, high-upside starting pitcher they accomplished it. Meyer immediately becomes the Twins' top pitching prospect, which admittedly isn't saying much, but he's also one of the 30 or so best pitching prospects in baseball.

A lot can go wrong here if Revere fails to develop better on-base skills and/or Meyer fails to develop, period. And the only reason trading Span makes any sense to begin with is that the Twins are so lacking in pitching talent and so shaky in general coming off 195 losses in two seasons, but there's no magic wand that can be waved to make those problems vanish. They dug themselves this hole and Span-for-Meyer is a reasonable step on their climb out of it.

November 29, 2012

Offseason outlook: Josh Willingham

In the grand scheme of baseball a three-year, $21 million contract is hardly record-breaking, but Josh Willingham's deal last offseason was the largest free agent signing in Twins history. He was signed to replace Michael Cuddyer's right-handed bat in the middle of the lineup and at the time there was a lot of skepticism from fans when guys like me suggested Willingham was likely to be an upgrade for less money, but his track record of elite power hitting didn't lie.

Willingham got off to an amazing start, hitting .347/.447/.681 in April, and had an OPS above 1.000 as late as May 20. He eventually cooled off and reverted back to his career norms of a low batting average and lots of strikeouts with a ton of power. After the monster April he hit .246 with 126 strikeouts in 125 games, yet still produced an .852 OPS during that time to nearly match his .845 career mark thanks to 30 homers, 23 doubles, and 67 walks.

Even after sitting out the final week of the season with a shoulder injury his 145 games set a career-high and Willingham also established new highs in homers (35), walks (76), slugging percentage (.524), OPS (.890), RBIs (110), and runs (85) at age 33. It was his seventh straight season with an OPS in the .800s and ranks as one of the greatest seasons by a right-handed hitter in Twins history.

In fact, with 35 homers Willingham tied Bob Allison in 1963 for the most by a right-handed Twins hitter not named Harmon Killebrew, who amazingly owns the top eight spots on that list all by himself. Willingham also joined Allison as the only non-Killebrew right-handed hitters with an Isolated Power above .250 and his 144 adjusted OPS+ is the 12th-best in Twins history among right-handed hitters, with Killebrew owning seven of the spots above him.

Willingham had always been one of baseball's premier right-handed sluggers and analysis last offseason showed that his dead-pull power was well-suited for Target Field. Sure enough he almost single-handedly silenced all the talk about Target Field suppressing power too much by hitting .293/.407/.610 with 21 homers in 249 at-bats there. To put that in some context, the Twins got 29 total homers in 1,385 at-bats from right-handed hitters at Target Field in 2011.

Willingham's monster start followed by his usual .850 OPS led to reports of teams pursuing him at the July 31 trade deadline. On one hand that made sense, because he's a really good hitter. On the other hand just six months earlier those same teams apparently weren't willing to offer him more than $21 million. That speaks to how good the signing was for the Twins, but also brought thoughts of trading him to the forefront. Or at least it should have.

There's little indication that the Twins seriously considered dealing Willingham and parting with an immediate fan favorite putting up great numbers would have been hugely unpopular. However, considering Willingham ultimately cost them nothing but money to acquire trading a 33-year-old free agent signing for a package of prospects would have been a nifty/tricky way to add young talent and long-term help. If nothing else hopefully they at least considered it.

None of which is to suggest that Willingham won't be very valuable and worth his remaining contract in 2013 and 2014, but regressing back to his slightly less spectacular career norms can be expected and at age 34 a further decline wouldn't be shocking. Beyond that focusing strictly on Willingham's hitting overstates his all-around value, as his defense in left field was passable at best and often ugly.

Ultimate Zone Rating had Willingham as 7.9 runs below average in his 119 games as a left fielder, which is short of Delmon Young territory but still wipes away a sizable chunk of his hitting value. Willingham's career numbers are similarly bad in the outfield and he certainly looked bad most of the time. Even with defense factored in he was a very valuable all-around player and worth 2-3 times his $7 million salary, but he contributed to the pitching struggles.

If you think the Twins are legitimately on the verge of putting a contending team on the field then Willingham is a near-perfect fit as a righty slugger in the middle of a lefty-heavy lineup who doesn't seem to care that Target Field kills power. If you think the Twins are more than a year or two away then the most value to be extracted from a 34-year-old with two years on his contract might be in what he could fetch via trade. Either way, it was a helluva first season.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Justin Morneau, Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit

November 27, 2012

Twins Notes: Pinto, Thielbar, Bromberg, Clement, Valencia, and Nishioka

• After clearing lots of the dead weight from the 40-man roster the Twins filled the empty spots by adding eight players: Aaron Hicks, Kyle Gibson, B.J. Hermsen, Michael Tonkin, Daniel Santana, Josmil Pinto, Tim Wood, Caler Thielbar. All eight players would have been eligible for the Rule 5 draft on December 6 if they hadn't been added and the first five names on the list were expected, as they rank among the Twins' better upper-minors prospects.

Pinto was somewhat surprising in that he's played just 12 games above Single-A through age 23, already spent about half of his time as a designated hitter, and failed to crack a .700 OPS in 2010 or 2011. He did bounce back with a strong season at high Single-A, hitting .295/.361/.473 in 93 games before a late promotion to Double-A, and the Twins apparently believe Pinto has a chance to be an impact bat.

When the Twins signed Wood to a minor-league contract on November 10 he didn't get a 40-man roster spot, but for some reason two weeks later they decided the 30-year-old reliever with just 58 career innings of big-league experience needed to be protected. He has a decent Triple-A track record and looks capable of being a useful middle reliever, but adding Wood to the 40-man roster weeks after signing him to a non-roster deal certainly seems odd.

Thielbar was cut by the Brewers two years after being an 18th-round draft pick and latched on with the independent league St. Paul Saints, where the left-handed reliever impressed the Twins enough to sign him in mid-2011. This year he pitched at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, faring very well overall, but his 3.57 ERA and 32/16 K/BB ratio in 40 innings for Rochester were nothing special for a 25-year-old. Helluva story, questionable 40-man addition.

• Most of the aforementioned dead weight that was previously trimmed from the 40-man roster have either found new homes or re-signed with the Twins on minor-league deals. Samuel Deduno, P.J. Walters, Esmerling Vasquez, and Luis Perdomo re-upped without 40-man roster spots, Jeff Manship signed a minor-league contract with the Rockies, and Matt Carson signed a minor-league deal with the Indians.

At the time Carlos Gutierrez was the only player claimed off waivers after being dropped from the 40-man roster by the Twins, but two weeks later the Cubs dropped him from their 40-man roster and sent him outright to Triple-A when no one claimed the former first-round pick. As of now the Twins have a full 40-man roster, but there's still no shortage of replacement-level talent that can safely be let go if/when they need spots for trades or signings.

David Bromberg was the Twins' minor league pitcher of the year in 2009, but he was dropped from the 40-man roster after missing most of 2011 with a broken forearm and became a minor-league free agent last month. It was somewhat surprising to see the Twins sour on Bromberg so quickly, but he was never considered a top prospect and struggled this year working mostly as a reliever at age 24. He signed a minor-league deal with the Pirates.

• If you're into misleading headlines "Twins sign former top prospect, No. 3 pick" is a good one, but Jeff Clement seems destined for Rochester after inking a minor-league deal. While in the Mariners' farm system Clement ranked among Baseball America's top 75 prospects in 2006, 2007, and 2008, but poor defense kept him from playing catcher regularly and his bat hasn't been good enough for first base/designated hitter. For now he's just intriguing Triple-A depth.

Tim Doherty and Marty Mason replaced Tom Brunansky and Bobby Cuellar on the Triple-A coaching staff. Doherty will be Rochester's hitting coach after serving as a Red Sox assistant hitting coach this year. Mason takes over as pitching coach and his resume includes 11 seasons as the Cardinals' bullpen coach under manager Tony La Russa. Brunansky and Cuellar were promoted to the Twins' coaching staff as part of last month's quasi-shakeup.

• Last month when Tsuyoshi Nishioka forfeited the remaining $3.25 million on his contract to part ways with the Twins it was portrayed as an act of charity on his part. There's no doubt he did the Twins a favor, but as I wrote at the time: "He'll likely recoup the $3.25 million and then some back in Japan, where he was a .346-hitting, Gold Glove-winning star before leaving." Sure enough, Nishioka signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal with the Hanshin Tigers.

Danny Valencia spent most of his time at Triple-A after the Twins traded him to the Red Sox for a non-prospect in early August and now Boston has cut him from the 40-man roster. Overall this year Valencia hit .188/.199/.299 in the majors and .259/.300/.404 in the minors, posting a combined 90/21 K/BB ratio in 126 games. At age 28 he might be nearing the end of the line, although Valencia re-emering as a right-handed bench bat wouldn't be shocking.

Torii Hunter is back in the AL Central, signing a two-year, $26 million contract with the Tigers. That's a big commitment to a 37-year-old and his 2012 production was built on an sustainably great ball-in-play batting average, but it's worth noting that Hunter has more or less been worth $20 million over every two-year period since establishing himself in 2001. He's aged remarkably well and moving from center field to right field resuscitated his defense.

• For a whole lot more about the 40-man roster additions, Nishioka's raise, and the state of the Twins' farm system check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

November 26, 2012

“Gleeman and The Geek” #69: Inactivity, Prospect Lists, 40-Man Moves

This week's episode of "Gleeman and The Geek" was recorded at New Bohemia Wurst and Bier Haus in Downtown Minneapolis and topics included the Twins' lack of activity compared to last offseason, Denard Span and Josh Willingham trade scenarios, 40-man roster additions, prospect lists and the men who love them, Tsuyoshi Nishioka getting a raise back in Japan, Brett Myers rumors, avoiding Jeremy Guthrie, and the joys of Thanksgiving.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 69

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

November 23, 2012

Link-O-Rama

Headline of the week/weak: "Two drivers arrested for drunken driving in same car."

• Considering everyone involved, this has to be the best-looking fight of all time.

Elisha Cuthbert heard the Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com title might be up for grabs again and wants to apply for a second term.

• If you liked last week's Link-O-Rama music video, "Nothin' But A G Thang," you'll love this oral history of "The Chronic" as the album nears its 20th anniversary.

Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus crunched the numbers from Jack Taylor's record-breaking 138-point game for Grinnell and the sabermetric-style analysis is fun.

Hannibal Buress is at Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis tonight and tomorrow night. I'll be there for the late show Saturday and if you like stand-up comedy you should go too.

• I'd make Guillermo a -340 favorite.

• If the Twins go looking for free agent pitching in the bargain bin, what will they find?

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode was recorded at my house while we were being filmed for a documentary and then afterward I forced John Bonnes to drink Scotch.

• LSU coach Les Miles had an amazing start to his postgame press conference after a comeback win against Mississippi:

There isn't an actor alive who can display that range of emotion in the span of two minutes.

• In case you thought you had a rough week, Robert Andino got traded by the Orioles to make room for Alexi Casilla.

• Just a really important conversation about an extremely serious topic between two adults.

• Two of the greats, Chelsea Peretti and Bill Burr, teamed up for what might be my favorite podcast episode of all time.

Chris Brown of Grantland wrote a really interesting article about Chip Kelly's frantic offense, although naturally Oregon lost while scoring just 14 points Saturday.

• "Extreme Makeover: Bud Selig Edition" is a show I'd watch.

Casey Affleck is directing a movie about Josh Hamilton.

• Whatever this is, I had the opposite.

• I've enjoyed listening to David Cone announce Yankees games on YES Network and the former Cy Young winner is very much into sabermetrics.

• I'd make a joke about the 25-year history of cellphones, but I still have a Blackberry.

• Congrats to friend of AG.com and two-time "Gleeman and The Geek" guest Lindsay Guentzel for her new gig with the Minnesota Swarm.

Jimmy Kimmel's chat with Chris Hardwick on the "Nerdist" podcast was really enjoyable.

• Some of this week's weird and random search engine queries that brought people here:

- "Rob Dibble ex-wife"
- "Phil Ivey fat?"
- "Happy Festivus certificate"
- "Will the Twins sign someone already?"
- "Pictures of Otis Redding's funeral"
- "How to include beer into weight loss"
- "Gundars Vetra photo"
- "Aubrey Plaza face shape"

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is The Fugees covering "No Woman No Cry" by Bob Marley:

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