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.

April 2, 2012

Drew Butera loses his scholarship as Twins set Opening Day roster

"No scholarships." That's how Terry Ryan stressed not handing players jobs this year simply because they had jobs last year. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was the first casualty and now Drew Butera joins him in Rochester after two years in Minnesota. Butera's job was in jeopardy as soon as Ryan Doumit signed, but Ron Gardenhire's fear of catching emergencies and the Twins' aversion to ditching marginal guys for whom they develop an affinity had me skeptical.

Actually replacing replacement-level players is a step in the right direction, although Butera remains on the 40-man roster and, considering Joe Mauer's injury history and Doumit's shaky defense, there's a good chance he'll be back. Butera stuck around despite the lowest OPS of any non-pitcher with 300 plate appearances since 1990 because the Twins loved his defense, liked him as a person, and believed he had a big influence as Carl Pavano's personal catcher.

There's no doubt that Butera did a good job controlling the running game despite Pavano barely paying attention to runners, so the pairing may have been a good fit and may have even helped Pavano. However, evaluating catcher defense is very complicated and assuming something is true because a pitcher thinks it's true doesn't always show itself in the results. In terms of preventing runs Butera catching Pavano was the same as Mauer catching Pavano:

Pavano with Butera catching: 294 innings, 4.14 ERA.
Pavano with Mauer catching: 201 innings, 4.08 ERA.

Butera is a good catcher who can't hit. And not just "can't hit" like most bench players "can't hit." He's historically awful, hitting .178/.220/.261 for the Twins after hitting .214/.296/.317 in the minors. There are plenty of good-glove, no-hit players in the majors, and rightfully so in many cases, but good defenders with absolutely zero hitting ability belong in the minors and by sending Butera there the Twins set the position player side of the Opening Day roster:

   LINEUP                     BENCH
 C Joe Mauer               IF Luke Hughes
1B Chris Parmelee          IF Sean Burroughs
2B Alexi Casilla           OF Ben Revere
SS Jamey Carroll           OF Trevor Plouffe
3B Danny Valencia
LF Josh Willingham
CF Denard Span
RF Ryan Doumit
DH Justin Morneau

My assumption is that Doumit will be the primary right fielder because he's one of the team's best hitters, has experience there, and presumably wasn't signed to mostly sit on the bench regardless of his position. However, if demoting Butera means that Gardenhire will use Doumit as more of a true backup catcher then Trevor Plouffe would seemingly be in line for most of the starts in right field or at least a time-share with Ben Revere.

Chris Parmelee parlayed a big September call-up and strong spring training into the starting first base job, with the Twins deciding that the best chance of keeping Justin Morneau in the lineup is at designated hitter. Morneau may prove healthy enough to return to first base and Parmelee may show that his mediocre track record is more telling than his most recent 100 at-bats, in which case the Twins could shift Doumit to DH and use Plouffe/Revere in right field.

They certainly have no shortage of first base/designated hitter/corner outfield options, which should be good for an offense that scored the second-fewest runs in the league last season, but they're also lacking a true backup middle infielder should 38-year-old shortstop Jamey Carroll or oft-injured second baseman Alexi Casilla need time off and it's unclear to me what role there is for Sean Burroughs unless he eats into Danny Valencia's starts at third base.

On an individual basis this is far stronger than the typical Twins bench during the past decade, although that admittedly isn't saying much. Burroughs, Plouffe, and Luke Hughes are each useful hitters and Revere is at the very least a useful fourth outfielder, but in terms of actually putting that collection of individuals into practice as a functioning bench the lack of a quality defensive middle infielder could get tricky. And speaking of tricky, here's the pitching staff:

   ROTATION                   BULLPEN
SP Carl Pavano             RH Matt Capps
SP Francisco Liriano       LH Glen Perkins
SP Liam Hendriks           LH Brian Duensing
SP Nick Blackburn          RH Anthony Swarzak
                           RH Jared Burton
   DISABLED LIST           LH Matt Maloney
SP Scott Baker             RH Alex Burnett
SP Jason Marquis           RH Jeff Gray
RP Kyle Waldrop

Injuries are keeping the Twins from beginning the season with their preferred 12-man pitching staff. Scott Baker is on the disabled list with an elbow injury, so 23-year-old Liam Hendriks will step into his rotation spot. Jason Marquis has been away from the team following his daughter's bicycling accident and the Twins will take advantage of an early off day on the schedule to skip his first turn in the rotation, which means they'll have eight relievers initially.

Kyle Waldrop would have been one of those eight relievers, but he's on the DL with an elbow injury of his own, leaving space in the bullpen for a pair of early offseason waiver claims (Matt Maloney and Jeff Gray), a non-roster invitee on a minor-league contract (Jared Burton), and a 2011 holdover with a 5.40 ERA in 98 career innings (Alex Burnett). Once everyone is healthy one or two of those guys will lose their spot, but that's a very shaky middle relief corps.

And the presumed late-inning options don't inspire a whole lot more confidence aside from Glen Perkins as the primary setup man. Matt Capps has plenty of questions to answer at closer coming off a disastrous season, Anthony Swarzak seemingly lacks the raw stuff and bat-missing ability for a high-leverage role, and Brian Duensing still needs to show that he can consistently get right-handed hitters out after flopping as a starter.

Aside from overpaying Capps it's a bullpen built on the cheap with failed starters, waiver wire pickups, former mid-level prospects, and injury comebacks. Odds are at least one solid reliever will emerge from that group because that's just how relievers work--my money would be on Burton, assuming he's healthy--but in the meantime things could get pretty ugly as Gardenhire searches for someone dependable beyond Perkins.

October 31, 2011

Twins Notes: Nathan’s option, Thome’s options, releases, and single ladies

• As expected, the Twins declined their $12.5 million option on Joe Nathan and instead paid a $2 million buyout, making the 36-year-old a free agent. General manager Bill Smith has said repeatedly that they're interested in re-signing Nathan for a lesser salary, but doing so may require a two-year deal and there's no shortage of closers available this offseason. Declining the option was a no-brainer, but the wisdom of bringing Nathan back depends on the price.

Nathan looked nothing like his old self upon returning from Tommy John surgery and ended up going back on the disabled list with more elbow problems in late May. He came off the shelf a month later and reclaimed closer duties within a few weeks, posting a 3.38 ERA and 28-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final 29 innings. Those numbers aren't quite pre-surgery Nathan and his velocity remained several ticks below his peak, but he looked very good.

With about $30 million to spend and at least a handful of holes to address coming off a 99-loss season the Twins would be smart not to commit tons of money to a 70-inning pitcher, let alone a 70-inning pitcher who'll soon be 37 years old and has just 29 innings of success since elbow surgery that cost him miles per hour. Nathan's price tag rising any higher than one year and $7 million or so should push the Twins to strongly consider cheaper, younger bullpen options.

• Smith has indicated that the Twins are unlikely to pursue Jim Thome as a free agent, citing their desire to have a more flexible roster that doesn't include a 41-year-old designated hitter who can't run or field. All things being equal that makes sense, particularly since they already limit the bench options by carrying 12 pitchers, but if Thome is available for $1 million it would be silly to rule him out completely.

There's a lot he can't do, but Thome still hit .256/.361/.477 with power and patience this year and slotting him into the DH spot for a minimal investment would give them a much-needed big bat while leaving most of their money to patch other holes. Roster flexibility is nice, especially given the Twins' many health issues, but if you can add an .800-OPS hitter for $500,000 more than the minimum salary it's probably worth living with some bench limitations.

Matt Eddy of Baseball America notes that the Twins released 12 minor leaguers: Kyle Wahl, Nick Alloway, Marcus Limon, Bobby O'Neill, Nick Cicio, Justin Parker, Sam Spangler, Matt Tone, Jamaal Hawkins, Nick Romero, Brandon Henderson, Derek McCallum. Most of those guys were late-round picks and organizational depth, but Romero was the Twins' fifth-round pick in 2008 and McCallum was their fifth rounder in 2009.

McCallum was the first Gophers hitter with a .400 batting average since Brent Gates in 1994, broke Robb Quinlan's single-season school RBI record, and led the Big Ten in hits, home runs, slugging percentage, and RBIs during his final season, but struggled with injuries as a pro and simply never hit. McCallum was never considered a good defender at second base and hit just .215/.295/.302 with 179 strikeouts in 201 games while failing to advance beyond Single-A.

• I'm still holding out some hope that Alex Burnett can develop into a solid setup man despite a 5.40 ERA through his first 107 appearances, but Parker Hageman of Over The Baggy passed along a discouraging stat: This season Burnett got a swinging strike on just 5.4 percent of his pitches, which is the lowest rate of any reliever in baseball. By comparison Jonathan Papelbon led baseball at 16.8 percent and Glen Perkins led the Twins at 11.2 percent.

• Last winter the Twins reportedly finished runner-up in the bidding for Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, who ultimately failed to sign with the A's after they bid $19 million for his exclusive negotiating rights. Oakland got a refund and Iwakuma went back to Japan, where he posted a 2.42 ERA and 90/19 K/BB ratio in 117 innings at age 30. Iwakuma is now an outright free agent and requires no bidding, so it'll be interesting to see if the Twins try again.

• Last but certainly not least, here's Ben Revere singing (sort of) "Single Ladies" by Beyonce:

Apparently a bunch of Rochester players showed off their pipes, because there's also YouTube evidence of Brian Dinkelman singing "Wanted Dead Or Alive" by Bon Jovi and Andy Baldwin singing "Rock With You" by Michael Jackson.

July 19, 2011

Twins Notes: Diamond’s debut, Mauer’s momentum, and Rauch’s return

Scott Diamond had a decent big-league debut, particularly for a mid-level prospect called up for an emergency spot start after posting a 4.70 ERA at Triple-A. He was very efficient early on and ended up using 90 pitches in 6.1 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits and two walks against an Indians lineup that ranks 11th among AL teams in OPS versus lefties. He served up a homer to Lou Marson, which is pretty tough to do, but also induced 12 ground-ball outs.

In terms of projecting his future performance Diamond looked basically like you'd expect based on his minor-league track record, showing good control and ground-ball tendencies along with mediocre raw stuff. He averaged just 88.9 miles per hour with his fastball, topping out at 90.3 miles per hour, and wasn't very successful with his off-speed pitches. Diamond struck out just one of the 26 batters he faced and also managed only one swinging strike on 90 pitches.

• In yesterday's doubleheader Joe Mauer made a pair of good defensive plays at first base in Game 1, threw out one of the two runners attempting to steal against him in Game 2, and was 6-for-8 at the plate while the rest of the Twins' lineup went 10-for-60 (.167). Mauer struggled initially after returning from a two-month stay on the disabled list and was hitting just .186 on June 24, but since then he's 27-for-72 (.375).

Mauer still hasn't shown any power yet, but he's hitting .375 with a .456 on-base percentage and .431 slugging percentage during the past 21 games, raising his batting average from .186 to .290 in three weeks. During that same time his on-base percentage rose from .234 to .361, which ties Denard Span for second-highest on the team. Oh, and the Twins are 19-15 when Mauer starts and 25-36 when he doesn't. It's almost as if he's still really good or something.

• In an interview with Tom Pelissero of 1500-ESPN assistant general manager Rob Anthony said that the Twins will be looking for middle relief help going into the July 31 trade deadline, which makes sense assuming they should be buyers at all. Glen Perkins has been fantastic all year in a setup role and Joe Nathan has thrived since returning from the disabled list, but with Matt Capps basically relegated to mop-up duties they could use another right-handed option.

Alex Burnett has been thrust into a high-leverage role almost by default and has the potential to some day be a viable late-inning asset, but for now he's an overmatched 23-year-old rookie with a 6.21 ERA and 20-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29 innings and has struck out just two of the last 30 hitters he's faced. Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune speculates the Twins may try to reacquire Jon Rauch from the Blue Jays, which would certainly be interesting.

• Over the weekend the Twins released 25-year-old former 11th-round pick Steve Singleton, who'd been starting regularly at shortstop and second base at Triple-A. Singleton is hardly an elite prospect, but the release still raised eyebrows considering the Twins' organization-wide lack of middle infield depth and Rochester's ongoing struggles just to put a competitive lineup on the field thanks to the big-league team calling up most of their best hitters.

Sure enough, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Singleton was let go due to "off-the-field issues." Singleton cracked my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects just once, ranking 33rd in 2009, but since then he's hit just .273/.320/.414 with twice as many walks (117) as strikeouts (58) in 265 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Singleton never projected as more than a potential utility man and even that seems like wishful thinking now.

Justin Morneau has been cleared to resume "baseball activities" three weeks after surgery to address a pinched nerve in his neck, which according to trainer Rick McWane means "he's ready to take ground balls, play catch, and run around." Swinging the bat will come later, so even setting aside the Twins' inability to get any injured players back within their initial return timetables this season Morneau is unlikely to be ready before mid-August.

• Last but certainly not least: Delmon Young's adorable reaction to Jim Thome's monstrous 596th career homer is now in GIF form. If he never played baseball and only reacted to Thome homers, Young would be my favorite Twin of all time.

This week's content is sponsored by Wholesale Gold and Diamond Distributors in Minneapolis, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your jewelry needs.

April 11, 2011

Twins Notes: Nishioka, Hughes, Cuddyer, Nathan, Slowey, and Burnett

Tsuyoshi Nishioka got relatively positive news on his fractured fibula, as doctors determined he won't need surgery and could potentially return in 4-6 weeks. It was sad to see Nishioka on the field supporting himself with crutches during the home opener ceremonies, particularly since his parents flew in from Japan, but the Target Field crowd gave him a nice welcome and even a six-week recovery timetable could mean returning to the lineup by the end of May.

One interesting subplot with Nishioka's leg injury is whether he was fully prepared to deal with runners like Nick Swisher sliding hard into second base (or the general vicinity) in an effort to break up double plays. Baserunners in Japan typically don't engage in takeout slides and after watching Nishioka during early spring workouts bench coach Scott Ullger noted that "mak[ing] sure he clears the bag at second base so he doesn't get killed" was an issue.

Luke Hughes came up from Triple-A to replace Nishioka and started at second base Friday and Saturday, but Ron Gardenhire turned to Michael Cuddyer there yesterday. Cuddyer also made one start at second base last season, but before that hadn't started there since 2005. Sacrificing defense to get an extra bat in the lineup works in theory, but Cuddyer's defense at second base is likely beyond bad at this point and his bat isn't sacrifice-worthy versus righties.

Cuddyer hit .261/.319/.423 versus right-handed pitchers during the past three years, including .265/.307/.393 off them last season. That isn't enough production to warrant regular playing time against righties, let alone regular playing time at the expense of weakening an already shaky defense. It also doesn't say much for the Twins' faith in Hughes if they don't think he's a superior option at second base than an outfielder with a .261/.319/.423 line versus righties.

More than anything though it speaks to Gardenhire's inability to see that Cuddyer is no longer a quality regular against right-handers. He told reporters prior to yesterday's game that using Cuddyer over Hughes at second base was a way for him to get Jason Kubel and Jim Thome into the  lineup together versus a righty, but Gardenhire should have been willing to make that happen by benching Cuddyer versus righties anyway. Loyalty is clouding the manager's vision.

• Regardless of who sees most of the action at second base the middle infield defense will be ugly. Hughes' glove has never had strong reviews, Cuddyer last played second base regularly when Cristian Guzman was his double-play partner, and Alexi Casilla has predictably been shaky so far at shortstop. Combined with the standard lack of range from Delmon Young and Kubel (or Cuddyer) in the outfield and the defense is now poor in at least four of eight spots.

• For those of us clamoring for middle infielders past: J.J. Hardy might miss six weeks with an oblique strain and Nick Punto is on the disabled list following hernia surgery. Orlando Hudson is healthy and oddly batting third in the Padres' lineup.

• I'm pleasantly surprised that Gardenhire chose to move everyone up one spot in the batting order with Nishioka out rather than insert a weak hitter at No. 2 like he's done so many times before. Denard Span, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau being three straight lefty bats atop the lineup isn't ideal, but I've long clamored for the team's two best, most patient on-base threats to bat directly in front of the team's best power hitter, without anyone "scrappy" in between.

Hopefully they get an extended chance to make it work, at least versus righties. Against lefties it would probably make sense to break up the lefty bats with Young or perhaps even Cuddyer at No. 3. Against lefties Span and Mauer remain good OBP threats, but Morneau isn't quite as devastating and both Young and Cuddyer had a higher OPS than him off lefties during the past three years. Either way, anything that keeps a weak bat from the No. 2 spot is good.

Joe Nathan appears to be gradually increasing his velocity and improving his command as he comes back from Tommy John elbow surgery. He's still not throwing anywhere near as hard as he did prior to going under the knife, but Nathan went from 88-91 miles per hour in his first outing to 90-92 miles per hour Saturday, which is a bigger step than it probably looks like. He can have success as a closer throwing 92 mph, but 88-91 makes things awfully tough.

And as if you didn't already have enough reasons to root for Nathan's return to dominance he apparently scooped up some dirt from the mound after the final game at the Metrodome, kept it for 18 months, and then mixed the dirt into the Target Field mound prior to Friday's opener. FSN showed video of it and Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a nice article about the whole thing, all of which makes me like Nathan even more than before.

Kevin Slowey joined Nishioka on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, putting his transition to the bullpen on hold after just three relief outings. Based on his raw stuff and track record Slowey has a shot to be a setup-caliber reliever, but staying healthy is now the biggest issue following wrist surgery in 2009, a triceps injury last season, and his current shoulder problems. Gardenhire opined that he's "going to have to learn ... to warm up a little better" as a reliever.

In the meantime Alex Burnett got the call from Triple-A to replace Slowey despite being behind fellow right-handers Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Carlos Gutierrez in the bullpen competition this spring. Waldrop and Gutierrez aren't on the 40-man roster yet, so the choice likely came down to Burnett or Hoey. Burnett struggled in the second half last season in both Minnesota and Rochester, but still projects as a solid reliever long term. He may not be ready yet, though.

• Since the beginning of last year Carl Pavano has a 3.65 ERA and .273 opponents' average in 15 starts with Drew Butera catching compared to a 3.98 ERA and .259 opponents' average in 19 starts with Mauer catching. Butera is a defensive specialist and better at limiting steals, but given the small difference in performance and even smaller sample sizes involved the notions that a Pavano-Mauer pairing doesn't work or Butera is some kind of miracle worker are silly.

• Thome's homer yesterday went really, really far.

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