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.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.

June 22, 2011

Twins Notes: Sad Mad Bum, Alexi power, first rounders, and imagination

• San Francisco's starter last night, Madison Bumgarner, came into the game with a 3.03 ERA in 205 career innings, including a 3.21 ERA this year. He allowed eight runs on nine hits before getting yanked with just one out in the first inning. And then the Twins were held scoreless for 4.2 innings by Guillermo Mota, a 37-year-old reliever who'd never thrown that many innings in 13 seasons in the majors. Funny game, that baseball (but we knew that already).

• Not to be overlooked in last night's insanity: Alexi Casilla has now homered in back-to-back games after homering once in his previous 221 games.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com reports that the Phillies "made inquiries" about Michael Cuddyer. Presumably given the way he's hitting and the way the Twins are playing they were rebuffed. In the span of two weeks Cuddyer has gone from .260/.321/.370 to .281/.345/.454, raising his OPS by 109 points in 16 games. And the Twins have cut their deficit in the AL Central from 16.5 games to 6.5 games by going 15-3 in June, including eight straight wins, all after a 17-36 start.

Joe Nathan has thrown two scoreless innings while rehabbing at Triple-A and could be back in the Twins' bullpen as soon as this weekend.

Joe Mauer and Bill Smith addressed the media before his return to the lineup last week and what struck me is how much different the perception of his injury would've been had everyone involved simply called it complications from offseason knee surgery. Instead the Twins called it bilateral leg weakness, which raised eyebrows and never seemed to sit right with Mauer, and the odd diagnosis being shrouded in mystery magnified the criticism ten-fold.

Alex Wimmers was removed from the Fort Myers rotation after his season debut when the 2010 first-round pick walked all six hitters he faced and LaVelle E. Neal of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that two months in extended spring training hasn't solved his control issues. Wimmers has visited a psychotherapist and Neal writes that "the Twins are baffled" by how he went from starring at Ohio State with excellent control to following Shooter Hunt's footsteps.

Hunt was one of the top college arms in the 2008 draft coming out of Tulane and had a strong pro debut after the Twins picked him 31st overall, but in three seasons since then he's walked 181 batters in 129 innings and now looks unlikely to get past Single-A. Hunt went from being one of the highest upside pitchers in the system to a bust overnight and Wimmers is in danger of the same fate just a year after being touted as one of the draft's most polished pitchers.

• Speaking of Neal, he dipped his toe in the sabermetric pool yesterday. What a nerd.

This year's first-round pick, Levi Michael, isn't able to sign because he's still playing for North Carolina in the College World Series, but he was dropped from second to seventh in the lineup because of a recent slump that dragged his once-lofty batting average below .300. I've been watching most of North Carolina's games to get a look at Michael, but he's struggled so much that forming an opinion on his skill set is tough. His defense has looked decent at shortstop.

• Just in case you thought the media taking pot shots at Kevin Slowey stopped when he was placed on the disabled list and banished to extended spring training, Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan wrote this on Twitter during last night's game:

My imagination or did Twins turn it around after Slowey's plane landed in Fort Myers?

It's his imagination. In the days following Slowey being put on the DL the Twins went 1-6. And if you're going to attach their recent success to specific roster moves, the current 15-2 stretch started the same day they placed Jason Kubel and Jim Thome on the DL. That storyline isn't quite as convenient, though.

Dusty Hughes was removed from the 40-man roster and outrighted to Triple-A after clearing waivers. When the Twins claimed Hughes off waivers from the Royals in January they talked up his 3.83 ERA and how left-handed hitters like Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Denard Span gave glowing scouting reports after facing him. Hughes' track record suggested otherwise and sure enough he allowed 14 runs in 13 innings while opponents hit .365/.452/.673 off him.

Brian Dinkelman was also removed from the 40-man roster and sent back to Triple-A, which is no surprise given that his call-up early this month came out of nowhere. Dinkelman has been in the organization since 2006 and there wasn't much harm in giving him a cup of coffee in the majors when injuries left the Twins with few other options, but realistically he's a marginal role player at best and at age 27 seems unlikely to make it back to the big leagues.

Chuck James kept his spot on the 40-man roster, but the Twins optioned him back to the minors to make room for Glen Perkins' return from the disabled list. While not surprising, the decision to demote James rather than fellow left-hander Phil Dumatrait is unfortunate. Before shoulder surgery James was a solid young mid-rotation starter for the Braves and he deserves more of an opportunity after dominating as a reliever at Triple-A.

I'm sure the Twins based their decision on Dumatrait's sparkling ERA between Rochester and Minnesota, but his success has involved all of 25 innings and comes with more walks (17) than strikeouts (14). Dumatrait's track record includes a 6.67 ERA in 119 innings as a major leaguer and a 6.13 ERA with more walks (55) than strikeouts (46) in 104 innings at Triple-A last year. He's a bad pitcher having a fluky run, whereas James has the potential to actually be useful.

Pat Neshek returned to Minnesota as a member of the Padres over the weekend, throwing a scoreless inning Friday, and also shared some interesting thoughts about his departure with Phil Mackey of 1500-ESPN:

The best word is probably bittersweet I'd say. For that week before [I was waived], I knew everybody passed me up there. I didn't know why. I mean, I got the opportunity, but I didn't feel like anybody was really taking me serious. ... It was sad leaving behind the fan base, all the stuff I worked towards, all the stuff I did in my community, for my hometown. I was sad, but I knew it had to happen.

There comes a time when you're not getting that opportunity. Minnesota, that's my ideal place. I never would have left. I mean, I wish I would have stayed healthy, never had that Tommy John and stuff like that. My family's all decked out in Twins stuff. I don't know what to do with that stuff anymore. What do you do? My car's got a Twins emblem. I didn't expect it to happen. I thought as long as I pitched well I'd stay, but that's how the game works.

I'm very glad to see Neshek having success in San Diego with a 3.60 ERA and .222 opponents' batting average in 20 innings, although it comes with a horrendous 18-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He struggled to bounce back from elbow surgery and then upset the Twins by speaking publicly about the medical staff, but instead of just stashing him at Triple-A they cut him loose for nothing in a spring training move that didn't make much sense to me then or now.

• Rochester's search for players to fill out a roster plucked over by the Twins led them to sign right-hander Thomas Diamond, who was the No. 10 pick in the 2004 draft and twice cracked Baseball America's top 100 prospects while with the Rangers. Tommy John surgery derailed his career before Diamond bounced back enough to get a call-up to the Cubs last year, but they released the 28-year-old last week after he posted an 8.66 ERA in 45 innings at Triple-A.

• I'm giving serious thought to purchasing Toby Gardenhire's game-used Triple-A jersey in the name of both charity and irony.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota salsa company Curt's Salsa, which I've enjoyed on several occasions and personally recommend.

June 13, 2011

Twins Notes: Hotness, to and from contact, dizziness, and tough decisions

• They still have the worst record in the league at 26-39, still are on pace to go 65-97, and still would need to go 59-38 from here on out to finish with even 85 wins, but by going 9-3 to start June the Twins have at the very least put off a potential fire sale for a while and made their games fun to watch again. Baby steps, sure, but 26-39 looks a whole lot prettier than 17-37 and as usual the thoroughly mediocre AL Central makes much bigger steps seem possible.

Francisco Liriano had a panic-inducing April, posting a 9.13 ERA with as many walks (18) as strikeouts (18) as the Twins tried to convince him to "pitch to contact" with terrible results. His first May start was a no-hitter versus the White Sox and Liriano flirted with a second no-hitter yesterday against the Rangers, giving him a 1.89 ERA in six starts since May 1. And as Liriano explained after racking up nine strikeouts, his success has come from not following advice:

I've always been the power pitcher, trying to strike out people. I feel more comfortable pitching like that. I'm trying to be me, [the way] I used to pitch last year and the year before. I'm not thinking about contact at all.

Good. It never made much sense that the Twins would try to force Liriano into the same strike-throwing, contact-inducing mold they use for pitchers with inferior raw stuff and less ability to overpower hitters, so thankfully he stayed with the approach that led to so much success last season.  Liriano has allowed two runs or fewer in five of six starts, with the lone outlier coming after throwing 123 pitches in the no-hitter, so hopefully they'll stop trying to fix him for a while.

Carl Pavano has also put together a strong six-start stretch since beginning the season 2-4 with a 6.64 ERA, logging 43 innings with a 2.49 ERA and just two homers allowed. However, his lack of missed bats continues to be worrisome from a 35-year-old pitcher set to earn $8.5 million in 2012. Pavano has just 16 strikeouts in those 43 innings, which is a minuscule rate of 3.3 per nine innings and even lower than his 3.6 per nine innings through seven bad starts.

Pavano can still be effective by limiting walks and homers, but it'll be tough for the Twins to get their money's worth over the next season-and-a-half if he can't get back to at least 5-6 whiffs per nine innings like 2009 and 2010. Not only are his 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings this year the lowest rate in baseball, no other pitcher is below 4.0 and the last pitcher to qualify for the ERA title with a lower strikeout rate was Livan Hernandez at 3.4 in 2008 ... for the Twins.

Denard Span's collision with Royals catcher Brayan Pena didn't look like much at the time. In fact, I was watching on television alongside a handful of other Twins bloggers and a few beat reporters, and no one seemed to think much of it beyond Span not turning Pena into Buster Posey with a bigger collision. Span stayed in the game and even played a few days later, but then complained of dizziness and was put on the new seven-day disabled list for concussions.

Span told reporters that he's "definitely scared" about the situation and it's easy to see why. One reason is that Justin Morneau missed the final three-plus months of last season and was sidelined for a total of nine months following a concussion last July and still hasn't gotten back on track 11 months later. Beyond that, Span described what he's currently going through as "a familiar feeling" to when he missed time with vertigo in 2009:

I feel a little like somebody's kind of pushing me from the back a little bit. I'm not going to fall over, but it's the same exact feeling. I want to get this checked out. I'm frustrated, all those things. There's something wrong. I don't know what it is, so I want to get it taken care of.

Span, who'd bounced back from a disappointing 2010 to be the Twins' best all-around player through 60 games, also revealed that he still experiences symptoms related to the vertigo two years later, saying: "It's calmed down a lot and it's manageable, but it's been something I've dealt with since then." That's news to me and is a glimpse into the type of health information players and teams tend to keep to themselves whenever possible.

Alexi Casilla continues to play very well since escaping from the doghouse thanks to Trevor Plouffe's mistake-filled attempt to replace him and is now batting .337/.401/.421 in 27 games since mid-May. His defense is also improved and Casilla is finally using his elite speed. Despite great stolen base percentages Casilla attempted just 21.5 steals per 600 plate appearances prior to this year. This season Casilla has already tried 12 steals in 198 plate appearances.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka is finally on the verge of returning 10 weeks after an injury expected to last 4-6 weeks and once that happens Casilla seems destined for second base despite starting 10 straight games at shortstop. Nishioka looked shaky at second base before fracturing his fibula thanks in part to incorrect double play positioning, so the Twins presumably wouldn't have him playing shortstop while rehabbing if they planned to bring him back as a second baseman.

Ron Gardenhire has dropped some strong hints recently about being unhappy with Danny Valencia and Nishioka returning provides an opportunity for the Twins to keep Matt Tolbert as the utility man and Luke Hughes as the starting third baseman while demoting Valencia back to Triple-A. Hughes has hit well in a part-time role of late, but hasn't been impressive overall with a .270/.311/.360 mark and 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 games.

What's funny about Valencia's situation is that his power and plate discipline have been fine, but whereas an unsustainably high .345 batting average on balls in play fueled his better than expected rookie season an unsustainably low .239 batting average on balls in play has him fighting for his job now. Ultimately the "real" Valencia is somewhere in between and his career line of .270/.321/.397 is close to both his minor-league track record and Hughes' likely upside.

• Barring a setback it looks like Joe Mauer will come off the disabled list Thursday, returning to the lineup after missing 57 games with complications following offseason knee surgery. In his absence the Twins have gotten the worst production in baseball from their catchers, as Drew Butera and Rene Rivera (and Steve Holm, briefly) have combined to hit .178 with a .497 OPS. To put that in some context, Al Newman has the lowest OPS in Twins history at .581.

They've both done a good job defensively, particularly when it comes to controlling the running game, but Butera has hit .174/.207/.261 in 40 games and Rivera has hit .196/.262/.304 in 20 games. So naturally in discussing Mauer's impending return yesterday Gardenhire talked about what a "tough decision" it will be choosing which replacement-level catcher gets to avoid a trip back to Triple-A and stick around as the backup:

Oh, absolutely. You want tough decisions though. I don't like it when it's carved out, "this is going to happen." You want tough decisions. That means both of them are doing OK, and when Joe comes back, sure, we're going to have to make a tough decision. And both of them have done their parts and they continue to. But it's not going to be easy no matter which way we go.

"Both of them are doing OK" and "both of them have done their parts" is an interesting way to describe two players who've literally combined for the worst production in baseball. How much worse than a .497 OPS could they get before it no longer qualified as "doing OK"? In reality it's only a "tough decision" because neither Butera nor Rivera have played well enough to warrant sticking around, in which case "stub your toe or get a paper cut?" is also a "tough decision."

• Speaking of Rivera, last night he tweeted this charming picture of Ben Revere at Morneau's annual casino night charity fundraiser:

Is that a better or worse look for Revere than this little number from his rookie hazing?

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June 6, 2011

Twins Notes: Brooms, doghouses, soldiers, reinforcements, and pain

Some notes while being thankful that the Royals are still the Royals, at least for a bit longer ...

Trevor Plouffe may have set a record for the shortest time between replacing someone who was in the doghouse to being buried so deep in the same doghouse that the original guy was freed. Called up from Triple-A on May 3 when the Twins had seen enough of Alexi Casilla as a starting shortstop, Plouffe went 2-for-4 with a homer in his first game to get everyone's hopes up about his strong start at Rochester taking precedence over seven seasons of mediocrity.

Three weeks later he was benched and then sent back to Triple-A after hitting .200/.310/.383 with a varied assortment of defensive miscues. Plouffe struggled on both sides of the ball, but ultimately .200/.310/.383 is almost exactly the type of production you'd expect from someone with a .255/.306/.430 career mark in 307 games at Triple-A and his defense at shortstop has always drawn mixed reviews at best. He played like he should have been expected to play.

Based on Plouffe's track record he projected as a utility man, which is why he ranked just 32nd on my annual list of the Twins' prospects. That his predictable struggles when thrust into the lineup as a starting shortstop resulted in heavy public criticism from Ron Gardenhire and harsh words from the mainstream media shows just how desperate the Twins were for middle infield help and how willing people were to overlook years of mediocrity because of a good month.

• Meanwhile, after hitting .167 in April to lose his starting job Casilla has batted .329/.409/.447 in 29 games since May. Apparently he was worried that people might cease referring to him an enigma. Not only did Casilla escape from the doghouse and move back into the starting lineup, Gardenhire reversed course and resumed playing him at shortstop even when Matt Tolbert is also in the lineup.

Unfortunately we've seen hot stretches like this from Casilla before and, much like with Plouffe, there's a long enough track record of mediocrity that one strong month shouldn't change his long-term outlook. Casilla was a career .249/.306/.327 hitter going into this year and he's now hitting .262/.335/.352 this season. His recent play and the Twins' lack of alternatives certainly makes turning back to Casilla a worthwhile move, but he's still not a quality everyday player.

• To replace Plouffe on the roster the Twins called up Brian Dinkelman from Triple-A, which is interesting because in doing so they had to place him on the 40-man roster for the first time at age 27 and bypass a superior left-handed-hitting prospect in Rene Tosoni. Perhaps the Twins weren't impressed with Tosoni during his previous 13-game debut or maybe they wanted the added versatility Dinkelman has as a part-time infielder, but either way it's a surprising move.

Dinkelman has shown some flashes of potential since being a sixth-round pick in 2006, ranking 39th on my list of the Twins' prospects in 2008, but he's always been a marginal prospect and was left unprotected for multiple Rule 5 drafts. He has enough bat to possibly be an asset at second base, but his glove likely isn't good enough to play there regularly and about half of his action in the minors during the past three seasons has come as a corner outfielder.

He got the call-up after batting .296/.374/.402 in 50 games at Triple-A, but Dinkelman hit just .265/.336/.379 in 137 games at Triple-A last season and also hit just .282/.359/.413 in 181 games at Double-A. If he can play passable defense at second base and third base Dinkelman could be a moderately useful left-handed bench bat, but if he's more of a corner outfielder with emergency infield skills the odds of him hitting well enough to justify a roster spot are slim.

Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are finally nearing returns to the Twins' lineup, but in the meantime Jason Kubel and Jim Thome are the latest in a long line of regulars to land on the disabled list. Neither injury is believed to be serious, but then again initial recovery timetables have lost all meaning by now. Kubel and Thome are the only hitters on the team with an OPS above .760, which turns an awful lineup into one that might not even lead Triple-A in scoring.

Ben Revere should get a chance to play nearly every day with Kubel and Thome out, which will go a long way toward improving the outfield defense, especially if Gardenhire can talk Delmon Young into accepting starts at designated hitter. Revere's bat is a question mark, but this can give the Twins a chance to evaluate his readiness for a possible starting job in 2012. Because of his defense Revere won't have to hit a ton to be an asset while making the minimum salary.

• Overlooked in the Twins' struggles is that the never-ending injuries have sapped Rochester's depth, so they acquired Jeremy Reed from the Brewers for "future considerations" that will be about as valuable as a bucket of baseballs (give or take the bucket). Hardly huge news, but once upon a time Reed was an elite prospect. He was the White Sox's second rounder in 2002 and hit .373 with twice as many walks (70) as strikeouts (36) and 45 steals in his first full year.

Baseball America ranked Reed as the game's 25th-best prospect in 2004 and that June he was traded to the Mariners along with Miguel Olivo and Mike Morse for Freddy Garcia and Ben Davis. Reed made his MLB debut in September, hitting .397 in 18 games as a 23-year-old, and Seattle made him the Opening Day center fielder in 2005. And he hasn't hit since, batting just .245/.301/.348 in 465 games with the Mariners, Mets, Blue Jays, and Brewers.

Reed's power never developed, his speed failed to translate to base-stealing, and his contact skills were good rather than great, leaving a typical fifth outfielder. And even that's optimistic at this point, as Reed has hit just .263/.330/.390 in 123 games at Triple-A since last season. I've always liked Reed, ranking him higher than most as a prospect and suggesting in 2007 that the Twins consider him as a low-cost Torii Hunter replacement, but now he's just filler.

• Speaking of injuries sapping minor-league depth, two of the Twins' best prospects recently went under the knife. Joe Benson, who was playing well at Double-A after ranking sixth on my list, will miss a month following left knee surgery. Angel Morales' luck is even worse, as the outfielder who ranked 11th on my list won't play at all this season and could miss a chunk of 2012 after Tommy John elbow surgery that he initially tried to avoid with rest and rehab.

Benson and Morales join Aaron Hicks, Alex Wimmers, Oswaldo Arcia, and David Bromberg (plus Nishioka, technically) as preseason top-15 prospects to miss time already, which would be pretty remarkable if not for Nishioka, Kubel, Thome, Young, Mauer, Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Jose Mijares, and Jason Repko each spending time on the big-league disabled list. And we're only two months into a six-month season. Crazy.

• This year's draft is a three-day event, starting tonight with the first round and compensation round. By virtue of last season's 94-68 record the Twins' first selection is 30th overall and then they also pick 50th as compensation for losing Orlando Hudson and 55th as compensation for losing Jesse Crain. As usual I'm expecting the Twins to pick high school outfielders and college pitchers while hoping for a college middle infielder. Check back tomorrow for some analysis.

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May 19, 2011

Twins Notes: Perkins, Mauer, Swarzak, Dumatrait, Morneau, and Wimmers

• When the Twins let half of last season's bullpen leave via free agency and chose to replace them with in-house options the hope was that several young relievers would step up to claim long-term roles. That not happening has played a big part in the team's overall struggles, but the Twins have had one reliever step up in Glen Perkins. He fell out of favor due to injuries and poor work as a starter, spending last year at Triple-A, but now looks like a new man.

Getting healthy and moving to the bullpen full time has allowed Perkins to add velocity, with his average fastball clocking in at 92.7 miles per hour compared to 90.6 mph prior to this year, and the results are similarly encouraging. After impressively getting four key outs against the A's in last night's 4-3 win Perkins now has a 0.82 ERA and 22-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 innings, holding opponents to a .230 average and zero homers. He's been a rare bright spot.

• There's still no timetable for Joe Mauer's return, but he took a significant step in his recovery by heading to extended spring training to rehab alongside Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune interviewed Mauer recently for a column and speculates that what has "kept him from providing more clarity" about his ongoing health status "is that he doesn't want to blame anyone else for his lack of progress." Here's a little more from Souhan:

My guess is that he feels he didn't receive proper guidance or advice at some point during his surgery/rehab process, but he's too polite to call anyone out. That would explain why he took an extra visit to the Mayo Clinic to get checked out even after the Twins gave him medical clearance to play.

What I took away from my talks with Mauer is that he hates being portrayed as a slacker, and is desperate to get back on the field, but fears that if he rushes the process he'll be lost for the season or do himself permanent harm.

All of which seems to fit with Mauer and team trainer Rick McWane both admitting that he was not physically ready to begin the season on the active roster following knee surgery.

• They'll still be nowhere near full strength, but the Twins will get a little healthier Monday with Jim Thome and Jason Repko expected to return from the disabled list. Both players will need to avoid setbacks while playing minor-league rehab games until then, as Repko has been out since May 2 with a strained right quadriceps and Thome has been hampered by a strained left oblique since April 24.

• Repko's return will push Ben Revere back to Triple-A, while Thome's return forces the Twins to trim the pitching staff from 12 to 11 or demote Luke Hughes, Alexi Casilla, or Matt Tolbert from the infield mix. Casilla is out of minor-league options and appears to have secured the second base job with four straight starts there. Hughes has more starts than Tolbert recently, but just like in spring training Tolbert's ability to play shortstop likely gives him the edge.

Delmon Young missed back-to-back starts to "clear his head" after coming off the DL with 10 strikeouts in 16 at-bats and pathetic effort defensively, which allowed Revere to show off his range last night with a sprinting catch in Oakland's expansive foul territory on a fly ball that would've landed 10 feet from Young. Revere's arm is awful and his upside is limited offensively, but using him in left field next season would completely change the Twins' outfield defense.

Jose Mijares heading to the disabled list with a strained elbow might explain his 11 walks in 12 innings after issuing a total of 32 walks in his first 105 innings. In addition to placing Mijares on the shelf the Twins also optioned Jim Hoey back to Triple-A after a month-long bullpen stint in which his mid-90s fastball and poor control were both as advertised and opponents batted .375/.432/.725 off him in 10 games. Oddly, six of his 10 outings came in high-leverage spots.

• To replace Mijares and Hoey on the roster and in the bullpen the Twins brought up Anthony Swarzak and Phil Dumatrait from Triple-A. This is Swarzak's second stint with the Twins this year and he's been on the 40-man roster since 2009, but Dumatrait's call-up required clearing a spot first and they did so by designating Steve Holm for assignment. As a replacement-level catcher Holm will likely pass through waivers unclaimed and the Twins soured on him anyway.

• At first glace Dumatrait might look like an intriguing call-up based on his 1.15 ERA at Triple-A, but don't be fooled. His shiny ERA is the result of just 16 innings and came along with an awful 12-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He had a 6.13 ERA with more walks (55) than strikeouts (46) in 104 innings as a starter at Triple-A last year and has a 7.06 ERA with almost as many walks (65) as strikeouts (68) in 110 innings in the majors. Oh, and he's 29 years old.

• Swarzak once ranked among the Twins' top pitching prospects, but got knocked around in 12 starts as a 23-year-old rookie in 2009 and then went 5-12 with a 6.21 ERA in 22 starts back at Triple-A last year. He's been much better at Rochester this year with a 3.90 ERA and 25/7 K/BB ratio in 32 innings, but as a 25-year-old with a 4.32 ERA and 165/80 K/BB ratio in 269 innings spread over parts of four seasons at Triple-A he projects as a marginal big leaguer.

• There hasn't been any talk of Justin Morneau's post-concussion symptoms returning, but Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writes: "I believe [Morneau] is playing daily despite being more injured than some of the Twins players on the disabled list." Whether or not that's accurate, Morneau has yet to get on track offensively and Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy broke down his swing mechanics to find that they've changed for the worse.

• Sadly the Twins' injuries aren't limited to the big-league roster. Oswaldo Arcia, who ranked 12th on my list of the Twins' top prospects coming into the year and was off to a tremendous start at low Single-A, is expected to miss two months following elbow surgery.

Alex Wimmers isn't hurt, but what ails him may be even worse. He had a disastrous season debut at high Single-A, walking all six batters he faced and uncorking several wild pitches, at which point the Twins removed Wimmers from Fort Myers' rotation and sent him to extended spring training. Seth Stohs reports that Wimmers walked five batters over three innings in his first start there, so the 2010 first-round pick is going down the Rick Ankiel/Steve Blass path.

Carl Pavano turned in a solid start against the A's last night, allowing just one earned run in seven innings, but once again struggled to miss bats and has now managed to strike out just three of the last 105 batters he's faced. Not a very encouraging sign for a 35-year-old pitcher under contract for $8.5 million next season.

Darren Rovell of CNBC notes that Francisco Liriano's no-hitter earned him at least $22,000 thanks to an autograph-signing deal. Meanwhile, his nine-strikeout, one-walk outing Tuesday night against the Mariners was more impressive than the two-strikeout, six-walk no-hitter.

• Ultimately the Twins will probably be far enough out of contention come July to actively shop as many as a dozen veteran players, but even if they avoid going into full-scale seller mode for the first time in a decade I'm now convinced Kevin Slowey will be traded.

• Friend of AG.com and baseball historian Chris Jaffe wrote a pair of worthwhile articles about Harmon Killebrew at The Hardball Times, recapping his Hall of Famer career in an interesting way and then examining his game-by-game highlights.

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