July 18, 2012

Twins Notes: Liriano, Santana, Mauer, Blackburn, Capps, and Pavano

• How dominant was Francisco Liriano against the A's on Friday night? Not only were his 15 strikeouts the second-most in Twins history behind Johan Santana with 17 on August 19, 2007, his 30 swings and misses induced were the most by any MLB pitcher since ... Santana had 32 on August 19, 2007. I went back through the AG.com archives to find what I wrote about his incredible performance that day and shockingly it included a Jessica Alba comparison.

Liriano's first start following his brief demotion to the bullpen also came against Oakland and he overpowered the A's then too, giving him a ridiculous 24-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14 innings against them since May 30. And it was good timing, as at least a half-dozen teams reportedly sent scouts to evaluate Liriano for a potential trade. Since rejoining the rotation he's thrown 57 innings with a 2.83 ERA, .170 opponents' batting average, and 67 strikeouts.

• Some fun facts from that Santana start on August 19, 2007: He struck out 17 in eight innings and then closer Joe Nathan struck out two more in the ninth inning, as they combined for 19 strikeouts, zero walks, and two hits allowed in a 1-0 shutout of the Rangers. Michael Cuddyer homered for the game's only run, C.J. Wilson pitched in relief for Texas, and the Rangers had a 38-year-old Sammy Sosa batting cleanup. And here was the Twins' lineup:

1. Alexi Casilla, 2B
2. Joe Mauer, DH
3. Torii Hunter, CF
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
6. Mike Redmond, C
7. Rondell White, LF
8. Tommy Watkins, 3B
9. Nick Punto, SS

Oh, and Jason Tyner came in defensively for Rondell White late in the game. One not-so-fun fact about the game: Santana made just seven more starts in a Twins uniform.

• Friday's deadline to sign draft picks came and went without much drama for the Twins, who'd already agreed to deals with their first 11 picks weeks ago. Or so everyone thought. It turns out sixth-round pick Andre Martinez, a high school pitcher from Florida who originally agreed to an over-slot $260,000 bonus, ended up reworking his deal after a pre-signing physical exam revealed shoulder issues. He signed Friday for $80,000 compared to the $200,000 slot.

Another last-minute signing was 20th-round pick Zach Larson, a high school outfielder from Florida who agreed to a $190,000 deal that's nearly twice the slot value for picks after the 10th round. By saving money elsewhere compared to the slot values for various picks the Twins had plenty of extra money to throw Larson's way and in fact overall they spent about $300,000 less than their MLB-high $12.3 million allotment.

Ninth-rounder L.J. Mazzilli is the earliest Twins pick not to sign, as the Connecticut second baseman and son of longtime big leaguer Lee Mazzilli presumably turned down close to the $130,000 slot amount for the No. 280 overall pick. Mazzilli hit .339/.404/.548 with 16 steals in 58 games as a junior, but also committed 20 errors and was no sure thing to stick at second base defensively as a pro. In all the Twins signed 27 of 43 picks, including 14 of their first 15.

Mark Appel, the Stanford pitcher represented by Scott Boras who fell to No. 8 after being an oft-projected No. 1 pick and possible Twins choice at No. 2, ended up as the only first-rounder not to sign. He turned down $3.8 million, which is $900,000 more than slot and the most the Pirates could offer without forfeiting next year's pick. Appel can return to college for his senior year and be drafted again, while the Pirates get the No. 9 pick in 2013 as compensation.

• After going 3-for-4 with a walk (and a great diving catch) last night Joe Mauer is now hitting .333/.420/.462, which is nearly identical to his .324/.404/.470 career line despite offense being down across baseball. He leads the league in on-base percentage and ranks second in batting average, has hit .385 in his last 45 games, and is projected to be worth $26 million this year according to Fan Graphs. He's being paid $23 million.

Nick Blackburn is already back with the Twins after allowing one earned run in two starts at Triple-A following his demotion, but the bad news is that he managed just five strikeouts in 15 innings. He succeeded there by keeping the ball in the ballpark, but his ground-ball rate wasn't exceptional and as usual there's little reason to think pitching to that extreme level of contact is going to get the job done against big-league hitters.

Matt Capps' return from the disabled list lasted all of five days, as he showed decreased velocity and was shut down again with more shoulder problems. That ruins whatever chance the Twins had of trading Capps before July 31, which is a shame because reportedly at least one team was actually showing interest. Suffice it to say that the Twins' decision to forfeit a draft pick in order to re-sign Capps for $5 million has gone about as well as expected.

Carl Pavano isn't close to returning from his own shoulder injury, so the even slimmer odds the Twins had of trading him before the July 31 deadline is officially gone. It's possible that he could return in time to make a few starts before the August 31 waiver trade deadline, but even that's no sure thing and obviously counting on Pavano to be effective enough to draw interest at that point would be wildly optimistic.

David Laurila of Fan Graphs interviewed Terry Ryan and the lengthy transcript is definitely worth reading, but here's one particularly interesting excerpt about the team's oft-questioned involvement with statistical analysis:

We never messed with that too much back in the '70s, but we did in the '80s and the '90s and the 2000s. We've been looking at that forever. ... People don't want to hear that out of the Minnesota Twins. But we've been looking at that forever. Way before some. We're not as deep as some, but we do believe in certainly doing our work, and that stat page is one big piece to the puzzle of putting players together.

Our scouts, and our people, will tell you if I'm looking at a player, and I go down and look at his line, and it doesn't add up, I've got to give him a call quick. I tell him, "This doesn't make any sense." His role, his skills and his statistical history, and you're going to tell me this? How do you get there? I believe in that.

All forms of information are good. I've drilled that into our people. Bring it on. All forms, let me sort it out. ... I read all that stuff, and sometimes it's so much information that I do get paralyzed reading it and taking it all in. You can spend as much time as you want on everything that is available. It's almost mind-boggling how much stuff is out there.

Ryan and other Twins decision-makers have adopted "we're into that even if you don't know it" as their response to those questions. And that's fine, although it's worth noting that, for instance, assistant general manager Rob Antony lacked familiarity with basic aspects of statistical analysis as recently as two years ago and even in the above excerpt Ryan talking about looking at stats isn't really what anyone would consider a new-school approach.

When people wonder if the Twins are involved with statistical analysis the questions aren't about literally looking at a player's stats--that much is assumed, no matter a team's public stance--but rather taking full advantage of new technology and the increasingly in-depth data available. They've recently hired some stat-heads and clearly want to keep things secretive, but what little Ryan and others do say about the issue leaves plenty of room for skepticism.

• Midseason prospect rankings are out and Baseball America moved Miguel Sano from No. 18 to No. 22, whereas ESPN.com moved Sano from No. 28 to No. 26. In other words Sano remains a top-30 talent as an all-around prospect and among hitters who don't play up-the-middle positions only Wil Myers of the Royals, Oscar Taveras of the Cardinals, and Nick Castellanos of the Tigers rank ahead of Sano on both lists.

• As part of their minor-league roster shuffling the Twins released Jairo Perez, who ranked 34th on my preseason list of the team's prospects. He hit .337/.413/.580 at low Single-A last year and .265/.350/.403 at high Single-A this year, which makes cutting Perez in July an odd move. On the other hand at age 24 he was very old for Single-A and didn't really have a clear defensive home. And now he's playing in an independent league.

Matt Maloney parlayed a good spring training into an Opening Day bullpen spot after the Twins claimed him off waivers from the Reds in October, but the soft-tossing left-hander coughed up 10 runs in 11 innings and not surprisingly passed through waivers unclaimed in May. He was even worse at Triple-A, allowing 33 runs in 24 innings, and now he'll be out until mid-2013 following Tommy John elbow surgery.

• Twins castoff Luke Hughes was released by the A's after hitting .223/.316/.338 in 42 games between Double-A and Triple-A.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Ballplayer: Pelotero, a controversial new documentary about baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic starring Miguel Sano as a 16-year-old.

June 6, 2012

Twins follow Byron Buxton pick by loading up on hard-throwing pitchers

Using their highest pick since 2001 to choose Georgia high school center fielder Byron Buxton over Stanford right-hander Mark Appel will understandably be the focus of the Twins' draft, but along with the No. 2 pick they also had five other top-100 selections in one of the most stacked collections of early picks in draft history. That included No. 32 and No. 42, which are essentially first-rounders and not far off from where they've usually made their first picks.

For instance, last year their top choice was No. 30 and from 2002-2011 they chose higher than No. 20 just once. This year, thanks to a combination of last season's 63-99 record and losing Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel to free agency, they had picks at 2, 32, 42, 63, 72, and 97. That provided a unique and much-needed opportunity to restock the farm system and after taking the best player available in Buxton the Twins loaded up on high-velocity pitchers.

Buxton being the focus of everything means No. 32 pick Jose Berrios will get considerably less attention than No. 30 pick Levi Michael received last year, but in a draft where Carlos Correa became the first Puerto Rican player to be the top pick Berrios also became the highest drafted Puerto Rican pitcher of all time. Berrios threw a no-hitter against Correa's team in April and the Twins snagged the high school right-hander sooner than most draft analysts expected.

Baseball America ranked Berrios as the 49th-best player, including 25th among pitchers, while ESPN.com ranked him 73rd overall and 27th among pitchers. That suggests the Twins may have reached a bit for him, although that's much more common in MLB than the NFL or NBA and the scouting reports on Berrios are encouraging. Baseball America noted that he added significant muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame and "his fastball now sits in the 93-95 mph range."

ESPN had a similar review of his raw stuff, noting that "he'll touch 96 and works at 92-94 with a hard downward-breaking curveball at 80-82 and a straight changeup in the same range." While watching the first round of the draft unfold Monday night it became apparent that there weren't many top-ranked college pitchers left on the board for the Twins at No. 32 and that may have played a part in choosing Berrios, but he certainly sounds like a high-upside arm.

Ten picks later the Twins took Georgia Tech reliever Luke Bard, who'll be given a chance to start. His brother, 2006 first-round pick Daniel Bard, emerged as a top setup man for the Red Sox before struggling in a move to the rotation. Luke doesn't quite have Daniel's overpowering raw stuff, but in ranking him as the 93rd-best player Baseball America noted "plenty of power in his fastball, at times sitting 93-95 mph" and "a power breaking ball with depth and late bite."

Bard's college numbers were fantastic, with a 0.99 ERA and 26-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings to go along with zero homers allowed, but he missed much of the season with an injured lat muscle that ESPN.com speculated may have kept him out of the first round. Twins scouting director Deron Johnson called the injury "a low to moderate risk" and expressed optimism that Bard can develop his changeup enough to be an effective starter.

Berrios was compensation for losing Cuddyer and Bard was compensation for losing Kubel, so with their own second-rounder the Twins took Northwestern State reliever Mason Melotakis with the 63rd pick. ESPN actually ranked Melotakis higher than Berrios and Bard at No. 63 while Baseball America rated the left-hander No. 88 following a junior season in which he threw 62 innings with a 3.63 ERA and 70-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Melotakis made the occasional start in college, but Baseball America calls him "a true power relief arm" with "short arm action" who works in the mid-90s and has an inconsistent but potentially solid slider. ESPN calls him "one of the best potential left-handed relievers in this draft" and offers more praise for "a hammer curveball" while suggesting that he might have a future as a starter, so like with Bard the Twins may let him try it in the low minors.

With their second compensatory pick for losing Cuddyer the Twins selected yet another college reliever in Rice right-hander J.T. Chargois, whom Baseball America rated 77th and ESPN rated 64th. As a junior Chargois threw 38 innings with a 2.15 ERA and 38-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and according to ESPN he has the mid-90s fastball, sharp-breaking slider, and high-effort delivery "that virtually demands he get to the majors as quickly as possible."

Chargois also played first base for Rice and hit .323 with a .411 on-base percentage, but he failed to homer in 51 games and his future is on the mound. Unlike with Bard and Melotakis there's no chance of Chargois starting and concerns about his mechanics appear in every scouting report, but ESPN says he's "someone to sign and send right out to Double-A" and praises his slider for being "almost comical in how quickly it appears to dive down out of sight."

After selecting three consecutive college pitchers the Twins used their third-round pick on a college hitter, taking Jacksonville first baseman Adam Walker with the 97th pick. Rarely have the Twins used high picks on college sluggers, but the Wisconsin native whose father was a replacement player for the Vikings in 1987 apparently caught their eye by hitting .343 with 12 homers, 14 doubles, and a .581 slugging percentage in 56 games as a junior.

And he was even better as a sophomore in 2011, hitting .409 with a .682 slugging percentage in 61 games. Unfortunately all that power came with 110 strikeouts in 117 games, which along with far fewer walks than strikeouts is often a red flag for a college bat. Sure enough, Baseball America notes that Walker "struggles to lay off breaking pitches or fastballs up and out of the zone." Despite that they rated him as the 58th-best player in the class.

After snagging a potential power bat in Walker the Twins went back to the well for more college relievers, using their fourth-rounder on San Jose State right-hander Zack Jones and their fifth-rounder on Rice right-hander Tyler Duffey. Jones started occasionally, but Baseball America says "scouts view him as a reliever" because he lacks a quality third pitch to go with a mid-90s fastball and hard slider. As a junior he threw 54 innings with a 60/17 K/BB ratio.

Twins scouts apparently saw a lot of Rice games, because Chargois and Duffey were the Owls' co-closers and now they have both of them. Duffey can't match Chargois' dominant raw stuff, but Baseball America says he throws in the low-90s with a good slider and his numbers were even better with a 1.93 ERA and 68/21 K/BB ratio in 51 innings. And unlike Chargois there's apparently some hope that Duffey's changeup is good enough to make it as a starter.

Stepping away from the college ranks the Twins took Florida high school left-hander Andre Martinez and Puerto Rico high school catcher Jorge Fernandez in the sixth and seventh rounds, but then went to college with their next eight picks. That included big, hard-throwing College of Charleston right-hander Christian Powell and good-hitting, iffy-fielding Connecticut second baseman L.J. Mazzilli, whose father Lee Mazzilli played 14 seasons in the majors.

They went high school heavy at the top, putting their faith in Buxton over Appel and using the No. 32 pick on Berrios, but the Twins took college players with 14 of their next 16 picks. And within all those college players the theme is clear: After years of hoarding low-velocity strike-throwers the Twins have finally focused on adding more big-time velocity and bat-missing ability. Powers arms is what the fan base has wanted and powers arms is what they got.

Unfortunately this wasn't a deep draft for high-end college starters and by the time the Twins were ready to start picking again after Buxton the cupboard was pretty bare, so they went heavy on college relievers. Normally that's not a great investment in the top 100, but the lack of highly touted college starters available beyond the first round forced their hand and they seem confident that at least some of those college relievers can develop into starters as pros.

This group isn't the amazing collection of high-upside talent you'd like to see come from such a stockpile of early picks, but that has more to do with the weak draft class than any decisions the Twins made. They deserve credit for addressing the organization-wide pitching issues, albeit several years later than they should have and with relievers instead of starters. It'll be years before we can properly pass judgment on this draft, but the approach was a good one.

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