May 3, 2012

Rock bottom? Twins no-hit by Jered Weaver, fall to MLB-worst 6-18

When the Twins are on a West Coast road trip I'll often get on the elliptical machine at the beginning of the game and force myself to ride until they score a run, however long that takes. I'm dead now. Please be nice to my mother.

The good news for the Twins is that many of their fans don't even stay up to watch these late-night games. The bad news for the Twins is ... everything else. Shut out by journeyman Jerome Williams one night, no-hit by Cy Young runner-up Jered Weaver the next night, and the saddest part is that I'm so numb to all the losing at this point that I'm not even sure which was more depressing to watch. I suppose the correct answer is "both." Or maybe just "sigh."

They're now 6-18, which is the worst record in baseball, and 71-128 dating back to the final 10 games of the 2010 regular season, which is the equivalent of a 58-104 record per 162 games. Their starting pitchers have allowed 102 runs in 125 innings and their offense hasn't produced a hit in 15 innings. At least they can't lose today. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite books/movies: If this isn't rock bottom, it'll do until rock bottom gets here.

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March 26, 2012

Twins Notes: Outfield realignments, Rule 5 returns, and drugs of abuse

• In signing Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract in mid-December the Twins indicated that he'd be their everyday right fielder despite playing just 264 career innings there compared to 5,524 innings in left field. Getting a first-hand look at Willingham and the various other outfield options in camp apparently changed those plans, as Ron Gardenhire announced yesterday that Willingham will be the starting left fielder.

Gardenhire also made official what was expected by naming Denard Span the starting center fielder, which leaves right field for ... well, everyone. Depending on how often and at which positions Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are in the lineup right field could potentially be manned by Ben Revere, Trevor Plouffe, Chris Parmelee, or Ryan Doumit, none of whom have ever played the position on more than a semi-regular basis in the majors or minors.

For years the Twins stressed how valuable Michael Cuddyer's arm was in right field, so their willingness to use Revere there when he might have the majors' worst arm and his range is of better use in the more spacious left field is surprising to say the least. If nothing else it signals that Revere is headed for a part-time role, which along with Gardenhire's stubbornness could lead to his biggest strength being diminished and his biggest weakness being magnified.

If the manager were more willing to make daily shifts he could platoon Revere and Plouffe by using Revere in left field with Willingham in right field against right-handed pitching and Plouffe in right field with Willingham in left field against left-handed pitching. That's something plenty of managers do regularly, but it's something Gardenhire has always avoided with occasionally laughable results. Runners going first-to-third at will with Revere in right field would fit that bill.

Whatever the case, based on Terry Ryan's offseason comments and Gardenhire's outfield announcement yesterday it seems clear that the Twins are less sold on Revere than commonly believed. They're certainly right to be skeptical, as I've been making that case since Revere was in the low minors, but the less he plays the less chance their defense has of being above average and I'm similarly skeptical about Parmelee being ready to thrive offensively.

Terry Doyle seemed like an odd choice for the Twins with the No. 2 pick in the Rule 5 draft. Despite being 26 years old he had just 15 starts above Single-A, including zero at Triple-A, and nothing about his raw stuff or track record suggested more than back-of-the-rotation starter potential. At no point has the Rule 5 draft been a sure-fire way to add useful big leaguers, but when picking so high it seemingly made sense to at least target someone with more upside.

In explaining their reasoning for the pick the Twins talked about how impressed they were by Doyle's performance in the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a 1.98 ERA. However, that consisted of just eight starts and was fueled by an incredibly low batting average on balls in play that screamed fluke. My assumption was that they wouldn't have chosen Doyle if they weren't at least convinced he could stick in the majors as a mop-up man, but apparently not.

Doyle coughed up 10 runs in 5.1 innings this spring and the Twins didn't even keep him around until the end of camp, sending him back to the White Sox. Ultimately it's not a huge deal, as they're out $25,000 and the opportunity to add a higher-upside arm, but it's discouraging for a supposedly scouting-heavy team to take someone atop the Rule 5 draft while citing his fluky, small sample size performance in the AFL as a big factor and then cut him five innings later.

Aaron Thompson, a 25-year-old left-hander the Twins signed to a minor-league contract in December, has been suspended 50 games after violating MLB's drug policy for a "drug of abuse." His track record in the minors is mediocre at best, but Thompson is a former first-round pick and apparently the Twins will keep him in the organization despite the suspension. Once activated he'll likely be a fifth starter or long reliever at Triple-A.

• I'll have a lot more on this subject once my annual series ranking the Twins' top 40 prospects concludes later this week, but Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus recently released their annual organizational talent rankings and the Twins placed 20th and 22nd.

• On a related note, Baseball America crunched the numbers to find that the Twins ranked 15th in international spending last season after ranking 12th in 2010. Miguel Sano alone got a record $3.15 million signing bonus from the Twins in 2009, but in the two years since then they've spent a total of $4.85 million internationally.

• This offseason the Twins sliced $15 million from their payroll, but according to Forbes magazine in 2011 they had baseball's 13th-highest revenue at $213 million and an operating income of $16.6 million, causing the franchise's value to rise four percent to $510 million.

Nick Punto is getting the same treatment from the media in Boston that he got from the media in Minnesota. For instance:

In a game where talent can be measured by precise statistical metrics, Punto is a player whose value is harder to calculate but can’t be denied.

Punto played for $750,000 last year and will make $1.5 million both this season and next season, so teams seem to be in agreement that his value is fairly limited. Then again, I've not experienced his charm in person.

Seth Stohs of Twins Daily reports that the Twins released six minor leaguers: Michael Tarsi, Dan Osterbrock, Kane Holbrooks, Blayne Weller, Matt Schuld, and Derek Christensen. Osterbrock, Tarsi, and Holbrooks each cracked my annual top-40 prospects list at one point, but none were ever considered more than marginal prospects. Christensen was a 2010 draft pick and dominated the low minors, so cutting the 22-year-old right-hander loose seems odd.

• In late 2010 the Twins acquired reliever Brian Fuentes from the Angels for Loek Van Mil, a marginal pitching prospect whose claim to fame was being baseball's tallest player at 7-foot-1. He spent last year at Double-A, throwing 66 innings with a 2.04 ERA and 46-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but the righty from the Netherlands failed to make the Angels this spring and manager Mike Scioscia explained that "he's certainly searching for an out pitch" at age 27.

• Last season the local mainstream media often mocked Kevin Slowey for his intelligence, using it as a way to portray him in a negative light, but a fresh start in Cleveland means the narrative has changed. Jordan Bastian, who covers the Indians for MLB.com, wrote last week:

Always nice as a writer when you find ballplayers who are avid readers on the side ... two in Cleveland's clubhouse include Lonnie Chisenhall and Kevin Slowey.

Funny how that works.

• Last and least, with Opening Day right around the corner I'm restarting the AG.com "sponsor of the week" program. For details about advertising and to reserve your week, click here.

September 2, 2010

Twins complete Fuentes trade by sending Van Mil to Angels

Technically the Angels had until October 15 to decide on the player to be named later heading their way in the deal for Brian Fuentes, but it turns out they were simply waiting for Loek Van Mil to go through waivers after being designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for Fuentes. He predictably went unclaimed and yesterday the Twins finalized the trade by sending the 7-foot-1 right-hander to the Angels.

Van Mil ranked 39th on my list of the Twins' top prospects this winter, but has been limited to just 33.2 innings due to injuries and posted a 6.15 ERA between high Single-A and Double-A. He's intriguing simply by virtue of standing 7-foot-1 and actually had quite a bit of success prior to this season, but Van Mil will turn 26 years old next month, has yet to throw even 50 innings in a season, and almost surely would've been cut from the 40-man roster by the offseason.

By going through waivers Van Mil was available to any team willing to place him on the 40-man roster and he also would have been eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 draft in December, so giving the Dutchman up as the PTBNL for Fuentes is a no-brainer for the Twins. Because of his size and good fastball Van Mil is perhaps still capable of developing into a quality reliever if he can stay healthy, but he's a pretty fungible commodity at this point.

Fuentes might actually accept and stick them with a $10 million bill for 2011, so I'll be surprised if the Twins risk offering him arbitration in order to receive compensatory draft picks when he leaves as a free agent. Essentially that means they dealt Van Mil and $1.9 million for six-plus weeks of a good left-handed setup man. For a contending team with an obvious bullpen need that's an ideal move, although Fuentes' back problems unfortunately may complicate things.

August 30, 2010

Twins Notes: Thome, Fuentes, Kubel, Neshek, Wimmers, and Span

• Not only has Jim Thome switching from the White Sox to the Twins had a massive impact on the AL Central race, Baseball-Reference.com's blog points out that he's having one of the best seasons ever by a 39-year-old (he actually turned 40 over the weekend, but this is his age-39 season). Here are the all-time leaders in adjusted OPS+ at age 39:

AGE 39              YEAR      PA     OPS+
Barry Bonds         2004     617     263
Ted Williams        1958     517     179
Hank Aaron          1973     465     177
JIM THOME           2010     279     161
Babe Ruth           1934     471     161

Thome has fewer plate appearances than everyone else on that list, but he's on pace to finish with approximately 350 and any time you can make a top-five list alongside Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth you're doing something really right. Paul Molitor is the only other player in Twins history to post an OPS+ above 100 at age 39, hitting .341/.390/.468 in 728 plate appearances for a 116 OPS+ in 1996.

And if you're already thinking about the Twins possibly re-signing Thome for next season, here are the all-time leaders in OPS+ at age 40:

AGE 40              YEAR      PA     OPS+
Willie Mays         1971     537     158
Carlton Fisk        1988     298     155
Edgar Martinez      2003     603     141
Moises Alou         2007     360     137
Dave Winfield       1992     670     137

That's a much different and less impressive list in terms of both names and numbers, which is a good reminder of how tough it is to dominate at age 40. In fact, based on OPS+ no hitter in the history of baseball has ever been as productive as a 40-year-old as Thome has been as a 39-year-old, which is something to keep in mind when it comes to 2011 expectations for the future Hall of Famer. Of course, I loved the signing at the time and would love to see him back.

• I made a rare weekend post analyzing the Brian Fuentes trade, so read that if you missed it Friday night. I wondered how Ron Gardenhire will use Fuentes down the stretch, but so far so good. Gardenhire smartly pulled Nick Blackburn after 8.2 scoreless innings Saturday when he walked speedster Chone Figgins as the tying run in a 1-0 game, bringing in Fuentes to get the 27th out with left-handed slugger Russell Branyan at the plate.

Fuentes dispatched Branyan with ease and in doing so hinted that perhaps Matt Capps won't always get the call in the ninth inning when dangerous left-handed bats are due up. Fans and media instinctively balked at the notion of "closer by committee" when Joe Nathan went down, but if Fuentes isn't needed early in a game bringing him in for tough ninth-inning lefties makes sense. I'm skeptical after the Twins focused on Capps' closing experience to explain that deal.

October 15 is the deadline for the Angels to pick the player to be named later they receive for Fuentes, but all indications are that they're choosing from a list of fairly marginal prospects and some reports even suggest "cash" could be substituted for the player. I already liked the deal when I thought the PTBNL could end up being a mid-level prospect, so a low-level prospect or cash would make it even more of a no-brainer.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about Fuentes' contract status, so let's try to clear it up. He has a $9 million option for 2011 that vests with 55 games finished, but that's a moot point with just 34 so far. He'll be a free agent and get Type A or B status, so in theory the Twins can receive compensation when he leaves. However, that first requires offering Fuentes arbitration and since he could guarantee himself $10 million by simply accepting the Twins won't do it.

Fuentes is a six-week rental, and a good one.

Luke French is the 47th left-handed starting pitcher the Twins have faced in 131 games this year, which means they've been matched up against a lefty 36 percent of the time compared to the league average of 29 percent. Jason Kubel started at designated hitter versus French and has started 34 of the 47 games against lefties despite hitting just .210/.306/.341 off them this season and .232/.312/.352 off them for his career.

Much like Jacque Jones before him, Kubel's career-long ineptitude versus lefties makes him an obvious platoon player who Gardenhire simply refuses to platoon. Even worse, Kubel was in the cleanup spot yesterday, which is the third time he's batted cleanup against a lefty. In fact, he's yet to hit in the bottom third of the lineup versus a lefty this season, batting nine times in the fifth spot and 22 times in the sixth spot along with the three cleanup starts.

And while he was at DH yesterday, Kubel has been in right field for 17 of the 34 starts versus lefties, which means in 13 percent of their total games the Twins have chosen to combine poor defense in right field with a .650 OPS from the middle of the lineup. Not having Justin Morneau since early July has made it impossible for Gardenhire to use his preferred lineups, but in half of Kubel's starts against lefties Morneau was also in the lineup. Platoon him, please.

• Every time the Twins make a change to the bullpen--and there's been no shortage of them recently--I get comments, e-mails, and tweets asking about Pat Neshek. Fans (and bloggers) love Neshek and want to see him succeed after Tommy John surgery, but because the Twins weren't pleased with how he handled his post-surgery finger injury he's become sort of the forgotten man at Triple-A (and is choosing to fly under the radar by not speaking to reporters).

He's pitched well since being sent to Triple-A in early June following a DL stint, going 4-1 with a 3.47 ERA, .263 opponents' batting average, and 24 strikeouts versus six non-intentional walks in 36.1 innings, but certainly hasn't been dominant or close to Rochester's best reliever. He's apparently no sure thing to get a September call-up and based on performance alone--rather than his history and presence on the 40-man roster--no one would be clamoring for Neshek.

Wilson Ramos made his Nationals debut last week, but was only called up for a couple days with Wil Nieves away from the team. Ramos went hitless in his only game before being sent back to the minors, making him 1-for-22 since starting his career with seven hits in his first two games. He has hit .319/.347/.514 in 18 games at Triple-A since being swapped for Capps last month and will be back in Washington when rosters expand later this week.

• After basically taking two months off before signing for $1.3 million a week or so before the deadline, first-round pick Alex Wimmers has been assigned to high Single-A for his pro debut. He's pitched twice so far at Fort Myers, tossing 5.2 scoreless innings with an 8-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .105 opponents' batting average while on a strict pitch count. By assigning him directly to high Single-A the Twins have set him up to advance through the system quickly.

Denard Span was caught trying to steal third base yesterday, so dating back to last season he now has 42 stolen bases while being thrown out or picked off 31 times. Yuck.

August 27, 2010

Twins get Brian Fuentes from the Angels for a player to be named later

Earlier this week the Twins added Randy Flores, a 34-year-old southpaw reliever who's an iffy fit for the "left-handed specialist" role because he's a marginal big leaguer and not particularly effective against left-handed hitters. Friday evening they added another 34-year-old southpaw reliever by sending a player to be named later to the Angels for Brian Fuentes, but if anything the four-time All-Star and longtime closer is actually vastly overqualified for the same gig.

I'm not sure what the Twins ever saw in Flores, against whom left-handed hitters have batted .290 with a .470 slugging percentage in his last 120 innings, but there's no such mystery with Fuentes. He's no longer the elite reliever he was for the Rockies from 2002-2008, but with his funky sidearm delivery and fastball-slider combo Fuentes remains death to left-handed batters and is potentially still good enough versus righties to be significantly more than a specialist.

Fuentes is perhaps one of the most underrated relievers of this era, posting a 3.48 ERA in 515 career innings despite calling Coors Field home for most of that time. Among all active relievers with at least 500 lifetime appearances Fuentes' adjusted ERA+ of 137 ranks seventh, behind only Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Cordero. He's no longer quite at that level, but he's a massive upgrade over Flores.

Fuentes has been nearly unhittable against left-handed batters this season, holding them to a .132 batting average and .158 slugging percentage in 44 plate appearances. You can blame the small sample size on opposing managers doing whatever they can to avoid letting lefties face Fuentes, and while no one is that good versus lefties over a larger sample during the past three years Fuentes also held them to a combined .213/.284/.276 line in 192 trips to the plate.

Fuentes was also very strong against right-handed hitters during that same three-year span, limiting them to a .224/.313/.349 mark that, for example, compares well to Matt Capps' career .260/.298/.396 line versus righties. This year Fuentes has allowed a .465 slugging percentage against righties due to five homers and nine doubles in 101 at-bats, but small-sample power numbers can be fluky and he's still held them to a .228 average and .328 on-base percentage.

Based on his 2007-2009 performance Fuentes is now the best reliever on the team. Based on his slightly less dominant performance this season Fuentes is now the best option on the team versus lefties and a capable option against righties. Assuming the player to be named later is no one special this is an ideal stretch-run pickup for the Twins, who add one of MLB's truly elite lefty-on-lefty relievers and someone capable of getting late-inning outs versus righties as well.

I'm hopeful that Ron Gardenhire recognizes Fuentes' strong track record against right-handed hitters and is willing to use him as more of a setup man than a pure lefty specialist, because Fuentes and the new-and-improved, slider-slinging Jesse Crain setting up Capps should be a very effective late-inning trio while leaving Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, and perhaps eventually Jose Mijares to work the middle innings. And if not, Fuentes can just shut down lefties.

Fuentes is in the second year of a two-year, $17.5 million deal and is owed $1.9 million for the rest of 2010. His contract also has a $9 million option for 2011 that vests if he has 55 games finished this year, but with just 33 so far it isn't an issue. PTBNLs always make me nervous, but as long as the prospect proves palatable this is a sound move and in fact adding a quality arm so cheaply makes me question trading Wilson Ramos for Capps even more than before.

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