March 23, 2012

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2012: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6

Also in this series: 1-5, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

10. Brian Dozier | Shortstop | DOB: 5/87 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2009-8

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2009     RK+    248     .353     .417     .431      0     17     23     26
2010     A-     170     .278     .347     .338      0      8     16     16
         A+     410     .274     .352     .354      5     17     44     41
2011     A+     218     .322     .423     .472      2     18     27     20
         AA     351     .318     .384     .502      7     36     28     46

Brian Dozier was the Twins' eighth-round pick out of Southern Mississippi in 2009 and had an underwhelming first full season in 2010, hitting .275/.350/.349 in 132 games between two levels of Single-A as a 23-year-old. He entered last year as a marginal prospect, as evidenced by the Twins having him repeat high Single-A at 24, but Dozier hit .322/.423/.472 in 49 games to force a midseason promotion and then batted .318/.384/.502 in 78 games at Double-A.

Overall he batted .320/.399/.491 with nine homers, 54 total extra-base hits, 24 steals, and nearly as many walks (55) as strikeouts (66) in 127 games, which put Dozier squarely on the prospect map and got him named Twins minor league player of the year. That likely overstates Dozier's upside, as he had a very good but not spectacular season as a 24-year-old between Single-A and Double-A, but there's no doubt that he's now in the Twins' plans.

Dozier has shown good on-base skills at every stop with a .307 average, few strikeouts, and a fair number of walks, but his power potential is iffy and his ability to play shortstop in the majors is often questioned. Even as a singles-hitting second baseman Dozier would be plenty useful because of the Twins' longstanding inability to develop middle infielders, but handling shortstop and smacking double-digit homers would make him a long-term building block.

9. Alex Wimmers | Starter | DOB: 11/88 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2010-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2010     A+      4      4     0.57      15.2       6      0      23      5
2011     A+     12      4     4.20      40.2      28      5      39     22

Alex Wimmers won back-to-back Big Ten pitcher of the year awards at Ohio State and was touted as one of the 2010 draft's most advanced pitchers when the Twins selected him 21st overall, but his first full pro season was derailed by extreme control problems. He walked the first six hitters he faced, was immediately removed from the high Single-A rotation, and spent three months trying to avoid going further down the scary Steve Blass/Rick Ankiel path.

He rejoined Fort Myers as a reliever and later moved back into the rotation, pitching well while avoiding any serious control issues. And then in his final start of the season Wimmers threw a seven-inning no-hitter, issuing just two walks while facing the minimum 21 hitters in a 1-0 win. After his disastrous season debut and lengthy stay in extended spring training Wimmers threw 41 innings with a 3.32 ERA, 39-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .189 opponents' average.

He's certainly not out of the woods yet, but Wimmers is back on track and should move quickly through the system if he can throw strikes. He lacks top-notch raw stuff, but the 6-foot-2 right-hander combines a low-90s fastball with an oft-praised changeup and has 62 strikeouts in 56 pro innings. And prior to the extreme wildness Wimmers' control was actually a major strength, so he fits the Twins' preferred pitching mold and projects as a potential mid-rotation starter.

8. Levi Michael | Shortstop | DOB: 2/91 | Bats: Switch | Draft: 2011-1

Not only is Levi Michael the first college middle infielder picked by the Twins in the first round or supplemental first round since LSU second baseman Todd Walker in 1994, they last used a first rounder on a college hitter of any position for Clemson catcher Matthew LeCroy in 1997. As a three-year college starter who figures to move through the system quickly Michael fills an obvious need in an organization that has long struggled to develop middle infielders.

Michael had a disappointing junior year after a monster sophomore campaign, hitting just .289 with five homers in 65 games, but that was partly due to injuries and the switch-hitter still got on base at a .434 clip with more walks (49) than strikeouts (47) and 15 steals in 16 tries. Despite the down year ESPN pegged him as "the top college shortstop in the class" and Baseball America ranked Michael as the draft's 22nd-best prospect.

Defensively there are some questions about Michael's ability to stick at shortstop, but prior to the draft Baseball America noted that "scouts are warming up to the idea" and publicly at least the Twins are optimistic. He signed too late to debut last season, agreeing to a $1.175 million bonus just hours before the August 15 deadline, so Michael will likely spend most of this year in the low minors and hopefully force his way into the Twins' plans by late 2013.

7. Kyle Gibson | Starter | DOB: 10/87 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2009-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2010     A+      7      7     1.87      43.1      33      2      40     12
         AA     16     16     3.68      93.0      91      5      77     22
         AAA     3      3     1.72      15.2      12      0       9      5
2011     AAA    18     18     4.81      95.1     109     11      91     27

By going well beyond the MLB-recommended slot bonus and taking a chance that the stress fracture in Kyle Gibson's forearm would heal the Twins were able to snag a top-10 talent with the 22nd pick in the 2009 draft. He debuted in 2010 by cruising through three levels of the minors with a 3.04 ERA and 118-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 142 innings and got off to a strong start at Triple-A last season, posting a 3.60 ERA and 59 strikeouts through 55 innings.

Gibson began to struggle in June, going 0-5 with a 6.47 ERA over an eight-start stretch, and was eventually diagnosed with a torn elbow ligament elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery in September, which means Gibson is no sure thing to pitch at all this year and is unlikely to reach the majors before mid-2013. It's a shame, because he was looking MLB-ready as a potential No. 2 starter with good control, above-average stuff, and lots of ground balls.

Making a full recovery from Tommy John surgery is a much better bet now than it was even five years ago, but in recent Twins history Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek have shown that it's still not guaranteed. Gibson's best-case scenario is making a few late-season appearances in the minors and beginning 2013 as a full-time member of the Triple-A rotation at age 25, setting up a possible midseason call-up to Minnesota. Lots of hurdles to clear before then, though.

6. Oswaldo Arcia | Right Field | DOB: 5/91 | Bats: Left | Sign: Venezuela

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2009     RK-    187     .275     .337     .455      5     18     15     18
2010     RK+    283     .375     .424     .672     14     42     19     67
2011     A-      81     .352     .420     .704      5     14      9     16
         A+     227     .263     .300     .460      8     24      9     53

Oswaldo Arcia signed with the Twins out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old in 2007, fared well at low rookie-ball in 2009, and then burst onto the prospect scene by hitting .375 with 14 homers and a .672 slugging percentage in 64 games for rookie-level Elizabethton in 2010. That earned Arcia a promotion to low Single-A last season and he hit .352 with five homers and a .704 slugging percentage in 20 games before being shut down with an elbow injury.

Minor surgery and a stint on the disabled list followed, but instead of Arcia simply rejoining the low Single-A lineup once he got healthy the Twins immediately promoted him to high Single-A. He held his own in Fort Myers, hitting .263 with a .460 slugging percentage, but as you'd expect from a 20-year-old facing much older, more experienced competition Arcia posted a hideous 53-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and ugly .300 on-base percentage in 59 games.

Promoting him so aggressively was very out of character for the Twins, especially considering Arcia was coming back from elbow surgery, but regardless of the wisdom behind the move it certainly shows how highly they think of him. Aside from Miguel Sano he might have the highest-upside bat in the Twins' system, but a 137-to-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the low minors during the past two seasons should keep expectations somewhat in check for now.

September 5, 2011

Twins Notes: Bad news, good news, call-ups, vetoes, and symptoms

• Unfortunately in a season ruined by injuries not even the Twins' minor leaguers are safe, as Kyle Gibson will undergo Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. On the Twins' advice Gibson tried to avoid surgery with rest and rehab, but the odds were always in favor of his eventually going under the knife. In the past telling pitchers to put off surgery hasn't worked well for the Twins, but in this case the delay likely won't matter.

Because the typical recovery timetable for Tommy John surgery is 12-18 months Gibson would have missed most and perhaps all of 2012 whether he had the operation now or a month ago when the partially torn ligament was identified. All things being equal sooner is better, but there are some examples of pitchers with similar injuries avoiding Tommy John surgery and the chance of that, however slim, was probably worth the month-long delay for a 23-year-old.

Stephen Strasburg is back in the majors and throwing mid-90s fastballs again almost exactly 12 months after his Tommy John surgery, so it's possible that Gibson could see game action by late next year. Either way, his timetable for joining the Twins' rotation has now been pushed back until at least mid-2013 and the 2009 first-round pick has gone from the organization's top prospect to a major question mark. What a shame.

Alex Wimmers walked the first six hitters he faced this year, was immediately removed from the rotation at high Single-A, and spent three months trying to avoid going further down the scary Steve Blass/Rick Ankiel path. He rejoined Fort Myers as a reliever and then moved back into the rotation last month, pitching very well while avoiding any serious control issues. And on Saturday night he threw a seven-inning no-hitter in his final outing of the season.

Perhaps more importantly than not allowing any hits Wimmers issued just two walks and faced the minimum 21 batters in a 1-0 victory, with Aaron Hicks knocking in the lone run. Since his disastrous season debut and lengthy stay in extended spring training Wimmers has thrown 41 innings with a 3.32 ERA and 39-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio while limiting opponents to a .189 batting average. He's not out of the woods yet, but the 2010 first-round pick is back on track.

• Rosters expanded from 25 to 40 players on September 1 and the Twins called up Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Brian Dinkelman as their first batch of reinforcements. Hoey was acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy deal and flopped earlier this season, allowing 18 runs in 15 innings. He still has high-90s velocity, but Hoey is 28 years old and didn't even fare particularly well at Triple-A with a 3.83 ERA and 38-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 42 innings.

Waldrop was similarly underwhelming in Rochester's bullpen, striking out just 44 batters in 79 innings while opponents to hit .276 with seven homers. He was far better in 2010, tossing 88 innings with a 2.57 ERA and 25 percent more strikeouts, but the Twins left him off the 40-man roster during the offseason and Waldrop went unpicked in the Rule 5 draft. Finally adding him now is odd timing, but Waldrop gets enough ground balls to possibly be a useful reliever.

When the Twins called up Dinkelman in June it was surprising, but two weeks later they put him through waivers unclaimed and sent the 27-year-old career minor leaguer back to Triple-A, removing him from the 40-man roster in the process. All of which makes it even more surprising that they've now re-added Dinkelman to the 40-man roster and called him up again. He must be one hell of a guy, because he hit .243/.316/.324 in 127 games at Triple-A.

UPDATE: Fittingly the Twins spelled Dinkelman's name wrong on the official lineup card today.

Liam Hendriks is also slated to come up from Triple-A tomorrow and make his debut against the White Sox. Hendriks ranked No. 8 on my preseason list of Twins prospects and has upped his stock since then by throwing 139 innings with a 3.36 ERA and 111-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Double-A and Triple-A. He projects as a mid-rotation starter, but with Gibson out and Wimmers a worry the 22-year-old Australian is arguably the Twins' top pitching prospect.

Jim Thome's departure opened one spot on the 40-man roster and the Twins created another opening by transferring Nick Blackburn to the 60-day disabled list, ruling him out for the rest of the year because of a forearm injury. They'll need to clear one more space for Hendriks and Ron Gardenhire indicated that shifting Francisco Liriano to the 60-day DL could be the move despite his wanting to "throw at least a couple innings" before the end of the season.

• Leading up to the August 31 waiver trade deadline Joe Nathan told reporters that he "would consider" waiving his no-trade clause for a Thome-like deal to a contender, but when it came time to actually make a decision he vetoed any potential deals. In order to move Nathan the Twins would have had to eat his remaining $2 million salary for this season plus a $2 million buyout for 2012, and even then the best they might have hoped for was a marginal prospect.

Still, considering the Twins paid him $11.25 million not to pitch in 2010 and $11.25 million for a 5.02 ERA this year giving them a shot to swing a deal would have been nice. Nathan told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that next year's $12.5 million option played a part in the decision, but there's virtually zero chance of the Twins bringing him back at that price and even after being traded he could have returned next season a la Rick Aguilera in 1996.

Justin Morneau going on the disabled list with a wrist problem and then having neck surgery took the focus off last year's concussion, but now he's sidelined again with further symptoms stemming from the initial injury 14 months ago. His current symptoms were deemed "mild," but it's tough to think of anything concussion-related as "mild" given Morneau's ongoing struggles and Denard Span's similarly troubling attempts to come back from his own concussion.

Even after missing two months Span mistakenly came back before he was ready and Morneau still has headaches, dizziness, and fogginess 14 months later, making them both big question marks heading into 2012. Morneau has played just 150 of the past 327 games dating back to late 2009, undergoing back and neck surgeries in addition to the concussion, and was nothing like his usual self in 69 games this season. Scary times for two of the Twins' building blocks.

• Perception versus reality: Joe Mauer has driven in 16.1 percent of all runners on base for his plate appearances this season. Michael Cuddyer has driven in 13.8 percent. Mauer also had a higher RBI percentage than Cuddyer in 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

Jim Mandelaro, who covers the Triple-A team for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, notes that they've lost 90 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1903 and 1904.

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August 8, 2011

Twins Notes: The fat lady is clearing her throat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 29, 2011

Twins Notes: “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in”

• I'm going to be on 1500-ESPN with Darren Wolfson before Saturday night's Twins-A's game, talking about potential trades and various other stuff from around 6:30 to 7:45. I'm sure we'll take plenty of questions and comments from listeners too, so tune in and/or give us a call.

• Rumors about the Nationals pursuing Denard Span continue to swirl, with Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reporting that they may make closer Drew Storen available after declaring him off limits in talks with the Twins initially. Of course, a short time later Bill Ladson, who covers the Nationals at MLB.com, reported that they're "not willing to trade Storen for Span." In which case the Nationals might save the Twins from themselves.

Whatever the case, it seems clear that the Twins are open to at least discussing Span trades and even that surprises me. Unless they're convinced his concussion is a long-term issue I'm not sure what's accomplished by dealing a 27-year-old center fielder with good on-base skills, solid defense, and a reasonable contract that runs through 2015. Storen is good, young, and cheap, but if they're going to trade Span the centerpiece shouldn't be a 70-inning pitcher.

Jayson Stark of ESPN.com reports that the Pirates have targeted Jason Kubel in their quest for a "professional hitter." Kubel is an impending free agent and shopping him makes sense, but the Twins will be in a position to either get a compensatory draft pick when he leaves or re-sign him to a one-year deal if he accepts arbitration. That same either/or scenario is riskier with Michael Cuddyer because of his $10.5 million salary, but Kubel is making $5.25 million.

LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Rockies are among teams interested in Kevin Slowey and speculates that the Twins might look to swap him for reliever Rafael Betancourt or infielder Ty Wigginton. Neither of them do much for me because they're old, mediocre, and relatively expensive for 2012, but in theory targeting a middle reliever or a right-handed hitter for Slowey isn't a bad plan under the circumstances.

Alexi Casilla injured his hamstring legging out a double Wednesday and has been placed on the disabled list with a Grade 1 strain, which the Twins expect will keep him out for 2-3 weeks. Given their history with return timetables this season, I'd expect to see him again in mid-2013. Casilla has hit just .248/.314/.390 in 37 games since moving from shortstop to second base in mid-June, but he's played better of late and as usual the Twins' middle infield depth is shaky.

My initial assumption was that Trevor Plouffe would be given the opportunity to play regularly at second base with Casilla sidelined and that may still prove true, but last night at least Matt Tolbert got the start. Tolbert was demoted to Triple-A last week after hitting .181 in 55 games for the Twins and went 7-for-36 (.194) during his brief stay at Rochester, but Ron Gardenhire got him right back into the lineup as soon as he rejoined the roster and that worries me.

There's zero upside to be had with Tolbert, who's a 29-year-old career .229/.289/.326 hitter in the majors, whereas Plouffe might actually end up being a decent hitter if given a shot. Plouffe lacks experience at second base, but he played 34 games there in the minors and has another 680 games at shortstop. And lack of experience at a position didn't keep the Twins from calling Plouffe up to man right field and first base, neither of which he'd played prior to last month.

• Not that Casilla is much of a table-setter himself with a .322 on-base percentage this season and a .310 career mark, but without him batting second the top of the Twins' lineup last night had the .249/.294/.283-hitting Ben Revere leading off and the .209/.264/.236-hitting Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the No. 2 spot. And the 7-9 spots were filled by OBPs of .288, .288, and .245. On a completely unrelated note, Scott Baker took a loss despite seven innings of two-run ball.

• Now that Casilla is injured Cuddyer, Tolbert, Danny Valencia, and Drew Butera are the only position players from the Opening Day roster to avoid the disabled list. Span, Kubel, Nishioka, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Delmon Young, Jim Thome, Jason Repko, and now Casilla have each spent time on the DL, along with half of the 12-man Opening Day pitching staff. And there are still more than two months left to play.

• In adding Tolbert and Luke Hughes as infield reinforcements the Twins went from 13 to 12 pitchers, which is good. Chuck James being the odd man out isn't as good, but he was among those knocked around in Monday's blowout loss and they never seemed particularly keen on calling him up in the first place. James has thrived at Triple-A and has a far better track record than Phil Dumatrait, who sticks around with a 14-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 innings.

Alex Wimmers thankfully seems to be back on track after sitting out three months following a disastrous season debut in which the 2010 first-round pick walked all six batters he faced at high Single-A. Pulled from the rotation and sent to extended spring training, Wimmers saw his first game action in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League last week and is now back at Fort Myers in the bullpen. Baby steps, but he's allowed three runs in nine innings with a 12/6 K/BB ratio.

• Cuddyer stayed hot last night with a pair of hits and is now 34-for-96 (.354) with five homers and 15 walks in 26 games this month. His overall OPS is up to .853, which leads the team by a wide margin and ranks 37th among all MLB hitters with enough playing time to qualify for the batting title. As usual Cuddyer is crushing left-handers, but he has a .407 slugging percentage against right-handers this season and a .435 slugging percentage off righties for his career.

• Mauer passed Tony Oliva for eighth place on the Twins' all-time walk list with 449 and did so in 3,119 fewer plate appearances than Oliva. To put that in context, consider that David Ortiz and A.J. Pierzynski combined for 3,233 plate appearances as Twins.

• After splitting four road games versus the first-place Rangers the Twins are now 27-39 (.409) against teams outside the AL Central, which is a 66-96 pace for a 162-game season. They're also now 22-42 (.344) against .500-or-better teams, which is a 56-106 pace.

Headline from The Onion: "Twins Shocked To Learn You Can Score Two Runs In Same Play."

• Last but not least, my video analysis of the Twins' season.

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July 18, 2011

Twins Notes: Closer changes, monster homers, regrets, and somersaults

Matt Capps blew a 1-0 lead and took the loss Friday, serving up a mammoth two-run homer to Royals rookie Eric Hosmer for his league-leading seventh blown save of the year, at which point Ron Gardenhire finally made a change at closer. Gardenhire turned back to former closer Joe Nathan rather than give the bullpen's most effective reliever, Glen Perkins, his first shot in the role, which I agreed last week makes the most sense as a short-term solution.

Perkins may eventually prove to be an elite closer, but he's been so valuable in part because of Gardenhire's willingness to use him in crucial spots whenever the need arises, whereas the manager's closer usage has always been far more rigid. For now at least I'd rather see Perkins throw 80 innings in a variety of tight situations than 65 innings with a lead of 1-3 runs in the ninth inning and Nathan's past closer experience makes the move even more of a no-brainer.

Nathan hasn't looked quite like his pre-surgery self, but he's still been impressive since coming off the disabled list in mid-June. His velocity is up compared to earlier this season, he pitched on three straight days over the weekend for the first time since 2009, and Nathan has allowed just one run in 9.1 innings since the month-long DL trip, with seven strikeouts versus one walk and a .125 opponents' batting average. As for Capps, there isn't much left to say at this point.

By focusing on save totals and supposed "proven closer" status the Twins overvalued a setup-caliber pitcher, paying a premium in players and money. It was a huge mistake then and looks even bigger now, but Capps has also fallen apart. He's managed just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is 30 percent below his career rate, and command issues have hitters teeing off on what's always been a nearly all-fastball repertoire. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• Fortunately even with Capps turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 loss Friday night the Twins began the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figures to define the season by taking three of four from the Royals. They're now just five games below .500 for the first time since April and sit five games back in the AL Central with the first-place Indians and second-place Tigers coming to town for back-to-back four-game series. Giddy up.

Scott Baker was scheduled to start Game 1 of today's doubleheader versus the Indians, but was scratched from that outing yesterday and placed on the disabled list with the elbow injury that prematurely ended his last start on July 5. Scott Diamond will start in Baker's spot, as the Twins bypassed No. 1 prospect and Triple-A rotation-mate Kyle Gibson. Kevin Slowey wasn't an option because he last started Friday at Rochester.

Diamond hasn't impressed at Triple-A, posting a 4.70 ERA and 68-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 innings while allowing opponents to hit .291 off him, but he's fared better of late and the Twins clearly think very highly of him. They picked Diamond in the Rule 5 draft and then, when it was clear there wouldn't be an Opening Day spot for him on the pitching staff, they overpaid to keep him by giving the Braves hard-throwing reliever prospect Billy Bullock.

Under normal circumstances the Twins likely would've replaced the injured Baker with Anthony Swarzak and avoided calling up Diamond (or even adding him to the 40-man roster), but with Swarzak already set to start Game 2 of the doubleheader they needed another stretched-out arm and promoting Gibson for a one-and-done start didn't make sense. And instead of taking Baker's spot tomorrow Gibson started yesterday at Triple-A, coughing up nine runs.

• In addition to sticking Baker on the DL and calling up Diamond the Twins also optioned Matt Tolbert to Triple-A so they could add another pitcher for the doubleheader, increasing the staff to a ridiculous 13 arms. Chuck James never should have been sent back to Triple-A in the first place when the Twins chose to keep Phil Dumatrait over him last month and has continued to dominate with a 2.25 ERA, .197 opponents' batting average, and 48 strikeouts in 40 innings.

Jim Thome's monstrous three-run homer yesterday was the 596th of his Hall of Fame career and came in his 150th game for the Twins. Thome, who earned around $2 million last season and will make about $3 million this year, has hit .264/.392/.573 in those 150 games, with 31 homers and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances. That works out to a .965 OPS, which is by far the best OPS and adjusted OPS+ in Twins history among all hitters with 150 or more games:

                       G      OPS                                 G     OPS+
JIM THOME            150     .965          JIM THOME            150     160
Harmon Killebrew    1939     .901          Harmon Killebrew    1939     148
Joe Mauer            871     .878          Rod Carew           1635     137
Chili Davis          291     .862          Chili Davis          291     135
Justin Morneau      1003     .855          Joe Mauer            871     134

Thome is also the only hitter in Twins history with a slugging percentage above .550 (.573) or an Isolated Power above .300 (.309), topping Harmon Killebrew in each category. My favorite part of Thome's homer may have been Delmon Young's reaction to it from the on-deck circle:

Thome has 31 home runs and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances for the Twins. Young has 45 home runs and 83 walks in 1,884 plate appearances for the Twins.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune talked to a source who says "the Twins have no plans to trade Michael Cuddyer even if they fall from contention" and in fact "an effort will be made to re-sign Cuddyer this fall." Among impending free agents Cuddyer would bring back the most in a trade, but considering his extreme popularity it's certainly not surprising that the Twins aren't shopping him despite various reported interest from contending teams.

As a good but not great 32-year-old making $10.5 million on the verge of free agency Cuddyer is exactly the type of player most sub-.500 teams should be looking to cash in for future value at the trade deadline, but because the division is so weak the Twins aren't like most sub-.500 teams. With that said, not trading Cuddyer for long-term help could be a missed opportunity if they fall out of contention and re-signing him for similar money would be very dangerous.

• Trading away J.J. Hardy, much like trading for Capps, was a poor move at the time that now looks considerably worse. Hardy has hit .278/.335/.490 through 65 games for the Orioles after hitting .302/.356/.436 in his final 65 games for the Twins, and passed up free agency by inking a three-year, $22.5 million extension over the weekend. He surely would have been cheaper for the Twins to sign, but instead they spent $15 million for three years of Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Meanwhile, neither player acquired for Hardy has impressed. Jim Hoey is faring well enough at Triple-A to think he may still provide some value, but he flopped with the Twins by allowing 17 runs in 12 innings as opponents hit .344 with nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (9). Brett Jacobson has split time between the rotation and bullpen at Double-A, posting a 4.24 ERA and ugly 60-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 innings. From the Baltimore Sun extension story:

Hardy, who came over this offseason in a trade with the Minnesota Twins for two minor-league pitchers, is a free agent at season's end and was looking for more stability after being with three teams since 2009. The Orioles have been pleased with his offense, defense, and leadership in the clubhouse.

Funny how that works. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• I've already written plenty about Slowey, so I won't delve back into that situation other than to say for as much harsh criticism as he's taken from fans, media members, and the Twins their handling of him fits on the same list of terrible decisions as the Capps and Hardy trades. He's currently in the rotation at Triple-A, trying to build back arm strength, and Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Pirates and Rockies have expressed interest in Slowey.

Slowey's value has likely never been lower and he's under team control for 2012, so there's no major urgency to move him. On the other hand, that 2012 team control would come with a salary of around $3 million and he's deep enough in the doghouse that it's awfully difficult to imagine digging out, in which case salvaging some kind of value for Slowey might make sense. He's the most likely player to be traded by July 31 whether the Twins are buyers or sellers.

• One offseason move that definitely worked out was not bringing back Nick Punto. Declining his $5 million option and instead giving him a $500,000 buyout was a no-brainer, but given the Twins' lack of quality middle infield depth I thought re-signing him for $1 million would've made sense. He ended up signing a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Cardinals, but missed much of April following hernia surgery and now may need season-ending elbow surgery.

• After taking three months off from game action following his disastrous season debut 2010 first-round pick Alex Wimmers has finally taken a big step in his recovery from extreme control problems. He returned to the mound last week at rookie-ball with just one walk in a scoreless inning, after which the Twins assigned him back to high Single-A. He's nowhere near out of the woods yet, but hopefully Wimmers can get somewhat back on track heading into 2012.

• I've written a few times that Ben Revere runs so fast that it often looks like his feet almost can't keep up as he flies around the bases. He took that to another level Friday night, losing his balance rounding second base and falling into a somersault before ending up on third base with a triple. Revere's long-term upside is still very much in question, but there's no doubt that he's been as fun to watch as a player could possibly be while hitting just .278/.314/.320.

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