October 31, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 31, 2011

Twins Notes: The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right

- "Here Comes The Sun"

• Since the Twins open the season on the road against the Blue Jays tomorrow night I'm going to do a "live chat" here during the game. I realize Friday night isn't the ideal time for everyone to get on their computers and type things to each other while watching a baseball game, but if I'm willing to cancel my exciting plans with various supermodels hopefully at least some of you will stay in for some chat action. Carl Pavano versus Ricky Romero, chat doors open at 6:00.

• I wrote the season previews for all the AL Central teams over at Hardball Talk and concluded that the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers should basically be considered co-favorites in the range of 88-92 victories. RLYW's annual simulation of 100,000 seasons based on multiple projection systems thinks I'm a bit high on those win totals, but also has all three AL Central contenders within two games of each other. You can see my predictions for all the divisions here.

Joe Mauer's incredible popularity in Minnesota is no secret, but I was surprised to learn that he had the second-best selling jersey in all of baseball last season behind only Derek Jeter. Justin Morneau was also in the top 20 and as a team the Twins ranked No. 9 in merchandise sales. And according to Forbes magazine the Twins have the 12th-most valuable MLB franchise at $490 million, which is up 21 percent from last year. Pretty remarkable.

• There were several key statistical reasons for Denard Span's disappointing offense last year and the Twins have also talked about his struggling with some mechanical issues, but Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy combined stats and scouting for a truly unique analysis of Span's hitting that's a must-read and makes Patrick Reusse's recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column seem all the more silly for pitting stats versus scouting. As always, the best answer is "both."

• As part of my series ranking the Twins' top 40 prospects I called the farm system as a whole "solidly above average" but "not elite." Baseball America agrees, as their "organizational talent rankings" released last week have the Twins at No. 12. Kansas City ranks No. 1 with perhaps the best farm systems of the past several decades and the Indians are at No. 7, but the Tigers are No. 25 and the White Sox are No. 27.

Ron Gardenhire didn't pull any punches when asked why Jim Hoey was sent to Triple-A:

Hoey needs to slow the ball down. All he can do is throw hard, hard, harder. And on our level, hard, hard, harder normally gets hit, hit, hit.

Kind of an interesting quote considering the main criticism of the Twins' approach to pitching is that collecting strike-throwers with low-90s fastballs makes them too easy to hit when facing strong lineups. Acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy trade, Hoey has without question the fastest fastball in the entire organization now that Billy Bullock is regrettably gone.

Brendan Harris, whose $1.7 million contract the Twins dumped on the Orioles as part of the Hardy deal, has been assigned to Triple-A after failing to win a bench job in Baltimore.

• If the Twins ever change their minds about signing Francisco Liriano to a long-term contract extension, Chad Billingsley's new deal with the Dodgers may provide a template. Their service time is equal, but Billingsley avoided arbitration in his second year of eligibility for $6.3 million, whereas Liriano settled for $4.3 million. Los Angeles bought out his final arbitration year and first two free agent years for $32 million plus a $14 million option or $3 million buyout for 2015.

• I'm unsure if yesterday afternoon's game against the Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta counts as the spring training finale or a preseason exhibition, but it was nice to see Minnesota native, good guy, and friend of my family Andy Baldwin close out the win with a scoreless inning. He'll be assigned to Triple-A, where the combination of top prospects moving up the ladder and the Twins signing lots of minor-league veterans has Rochester looking strong after a terrible 2010.

• Most of the focus is obviously on the competition for spots on the Twins' roster, but this time of year also means making cuts in the minors and Seth Stohs notes that the Twins released a dozen players. No surprises or big names, but Michael McCardell twice cracked my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects, not so long ago some people thought Juan Portes had a shot to be a useful player, and once upon a time Justin Huber was a top prospect for the Royals.

• 1500ESPN.com has a mouth-watering collection of pictures showing all the new food choices available at Target Field. I'm planning to just stare at the pictures all season because I'm back on another diet, although as longtime AG.com readers unfortunately know by now that's highly unlikely to last until the All-Star break, let alone for 162 games. My (wildly unrealistic) goal is to lose more pounds than the Twins' win total. So far I'm really kicking their ass.

• I'd love to have overheard this conversation. I prefer to imagine they talked neck tattoos.

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped by here on a regular basis during the too-long offseason. My goal each winter is to find enough interesting stuff to write about that most of you keep showing up here, but I'm definitely ready to start talking about actual games again and look forward to my 10th season of blogging. Thanks for reading AG.com, thanks for following me on Twitter, and thanks for supporting my work at NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.

November 22, 2010

Twins Notes: 40 men, help for Rochester, decisions, and Webb

• Friday night was the deadline for teams to set their 40-man roster in preparation for the Rule 5 draft on December 9 and the Twins added four prospects: Joe Benson, Rene Tosoni, David Bromberg, and Chris Parmelee. No surprises among the additions, as all four rank among the Twins' top 20 prospects, but the one name that stands out among the various Rule 5-eligible players they chose not to protect is right-hander Kyle Waldrop.

Waldrop was a first-round pick in 2004 who looked less and less impressive as he moved up the minor-league ladder and then missed all of 2008 following shoulder surgery, but he shifted to the bullpen full time after returning in 2009 and has had back-to-back strong seasons as a reliever. This year Waldrop had a 2.59 ERA and 60-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 87.2 innings at Triple-A, allowing just five homers while inducing 64 percent ground balls.

His lack of top-notch velocity and mediocre strikeout rates make it unlikely that Waldrop will be a strong late-inning reliever, but as a 24-year-old who certainly looks capable of being a useful middle reliever he's someone worth protecting given the Twins' current bullpen questions. He struggled down the stretch at Triple-A and got knocked around in the Arizona Fall League, so the Twins have either soured on him or believe that will keep other teams from selecting him.

• In the past the Twins have generally had successful minor-league teams, but this year their four full-season affiliates combined for an abysmal 228-332 record (.407) that includes 49-95 at Triple-A and 44-98 at Double-A. Winning percentages in the minors are far from an accurate gauge of an organization's prospects, but keeping the affiliates in Rochester, New Britain, Fort Myers, and Beloit happy is still important.

In an effort to avoid another horrendous year at Triple-A the Twins have signed some veteran reinforcements to pair with whichever prospects are assigned to Rochester in 2011, inking Jeff Bailey, Phil Dumatrait, Yorman Bazardo, Chase Lambin, Jake Stevens, and Justin Huber to minor-league deals. Eric Hacker, who was confusingly signed to a major-league contract and given a spot on the 40-man roster last week, may also end up at Rochester.

Bailey, Dumatrait, Bazardo, and Huber have all played in the majors and Stevens once ranked among Baseball America's top 100 prospects, but aside from Hacker they were all brought in as Triple-A filler with long odds of playing their way into the Twins' plans. Those types of guys are never in short supply and signing them to ensure a more competitive Rochester team is smart, which is why giving the equally replaceable Hacker a 40-man roster spot seems to strange.

UPDATE: There's no official word yet, but I'm told the Twins have also inked right-hander Andy Baldwin to a minor-league deal. Baldwin is a Minnesota native and former fifth-round pick who spent the past three seasons pitching at Triple-A for the Mariners.

• I wrote last week about why keeping J.J. Hardy around for at least one more season should be a no-brainer move, but clearly the Twins don't feel the same way. Ron Gardenhire and Bill Smith have both spoken publicly about wanting to add more speed to the lineup, specifically at shortstop, and reportedly at least one team has talked to the Twins about possibly trading for Hardy. December 2 is the deadline to tender Hardy a contract for 2011.

• Based on the amount of reported interest in Carl Pavano it sounds like he's a goner unless the Twins want to give him a three-year contract. And they shouldn't. Depending on the price bringing Pavano back for one or maybe even two years could make sense, but a three-season commitment to a 35-year-old pitcher with his extensive injury history is just asking for trouble. Be happy with how well he pitched for 1.5 seasons and take the draft picks when he walks.

• According to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick the Twins are among the teams interested in former Cy Young winner Brandon Webb, who hasn't pitched since Opening Day of 2009 thanks to an assortment of shoulder problems. Before the injuries he was an elite starter and ground-ball machine, winning one Cy Young award and finishing runner-up twice, but he hasn't been right since the second half of 2008. Intriguing if the price is right, but it probably won't be.