October 17, 2011

Twins Notes: Roster trimming, old friends, minor awards, and 10-5-2004

• Most teams prepare for the offseason by trimming at least a handful of lesser players from the margins of their 40-man roster and the Twins' initial purge included Anthony Slama, Matt Tolbert, Jason Repko, and Rene Rivera. All four players were outrighted off the 40-man roster and went unclaimed on waivers before being assigned to Triple-A. In order to call any of them up to the majors next season the Twins would first have to re-add them to the 40-man roster.

Slama is the one questionable cut, as his minor-league track record has long screamed out for an opportunity that the Twins simply never seemed interested in giving him. He likely would've finally gotten an extended shot in the majors during the second half because of all the Twins' injuries, but Slama missed the final two months of the season with an elbow injury of his own. If healthy he's capable of being a solid middle reliever, but at age 28 time is just about up.

Tolbert is the epitome of a replacement-level infielder and the Twins realizing that's not worth 40-man roster space is encouraging considering they gave him at least 100 plate appearances in each of the past four seasons. I've called Tolbert a poor man's Nick Punto, but that actually might short-change Punto. Tolbert is 29 years old, doesn't offer anything special defensively, and has hit just .230/.288/.319 in 680 plate appearances as a big leaguer.

Rivera entered this season as a 27-year-old with 159 plate appearances in the majors, but the Twins gave him 35 starts and 114 plate appearances because Joe Mauer wasn't healthy and they had embarrassingly little catching depth behind him. Just as Tolbert is the definition of a replacement-level infielder, Rivera is a prime example of a replacement-level catcher. He's solid defensively, but Rivera has hit .193 in the majors and .254/.297/.421 in 186 games at Triple-A.

Repko's best fit is as a fifth outfielder who starts against left-handed pitching, but that role is pretty limited to begin with and Ron Gardenhire never utilizes a platoon anyway. When put in a more traditional fourth outfielder role Repko doesn't hit enough to be a reasonable fill-in and mostly just wastes a bench spot, which the Twins can't afford when combined with the 12-man pitching staff Gardenhire prefers. He'll likely be in another organization next season.

• Old friends Pat Neshek and Jose Morales were also dropped from 40-man rosters in similar house cleanings by the Padres and Rockies. Neshek split this year between Triple-A and San Diego, but struggled in both places as his fastball topped out in the high-80s following elbow surgery in November of 2008. Morales missed most of the season with a broken thumb, hitting .267/.352/.317 in 22 games as the Rockies' backup catcher. They'll both likely be free agents.

• Rochester is plenty frustrated with the Triple-A team after back-to-back 90-loss seasons, so the Twins re-signed minor-league free agents Aaron Bates, Ray Chang, and Mike Hollimon to begin stockpiling some depth. All three guys are closing in on 30 years old with basically zero chance of being called up to Minnesota, but Bates is a first baseman who hit .316/.408/.439 in 106 games for Rochester this season and Chang and Hollimon are useful infielders at Triple-A.

Brian Dozier was named the Twins' minor league player of the year, which is both a tribute to how well he played this season and an indictment of how poorly the rest of the farm system fared. Dozier was an afterthought coming into this season, as the Twins assigned him to high Single-A as a 24-year-old and only promoted him to Double-A after the 2009 eighth-round pick hit .322/.423/.472 in 49 games at Fort Myers.

Dozier was just as productive at Double-A, hitting .318/.384/.502 in 73 games, but he currently projects as more of a utility man than a strong everyday player and won't be anywhere close to cracking any top prospect lists for 2012. Depending on how the Twins address their woeful middle infield depth this winter Dozier may get a chance to force his way onto the Opening Day roster, but more likely he'll begin next season in Rochester at age 25.

Liam Hendriks got the nod as the Twins' minor league pitcher of the year after throwing 139 innings with a 3.36 ERA and 111-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Double-A and Triple-A. Hendriks is two years younger than Dozier and a step or two above him as a prospect, looking like a future middle-of-the-rotation starter. He ranked No. 8 on my list of the Twins' prospects coming into this season and got his feet wet in the majors with four September starts.

Here are the Twins' recent minor-league award winners:

YEAR     PLAYER              PITCHER
2011     Brian Dozier        Liam Hendriks
2010     Joe Benson          Kyle Gibson
2009     Ben Revere          David Bromberg
2008     Ben Revere          Anthony Slama
2007     Brian Buscher       Kevin Slowey
2006     Alexi Casilla       Matt Garza
2005     David Winfree       Francisco Liriano
2004     Jason Kubel         Scott Baker
2003     Joe Mauer           Jesse Crain
2002     Lew Ford            J.D. Durbin

Certainly a mixed bag, to say the least.

• How far has Aaron Hicks' prospect stock fallen? According to Baseball America at least, a ton. On their annual preseason prospect list they ranked him No. 19 for 2010 and No. 45 for 2011, but on their recently released postseason list of top prospects by league Hicks ranked No. 18 ... in the Florida State League. Seems like a safe bet that he won't crack Baseball America's top 100 for 2012. In fact, Miguel Sano may be the only Twins prospect who does.

• Speaking of Hicks, this out of context quote amused me: "I was pretty much going down the same road as Tiger Woods."

John Ourand of Sports Business Journal crunched the numbers on local television audiences across baseball and the Twins' viewership declined 28 percent compared to last year, dropping from 152,000 to 109,000 viewers per game. That decline of 43,000 viewers per game was the largest drop of any MLB team, although based on percentage of viewers lost the Twins' drop was only the fifth-highest. Whatever the case, FSN had an ugly season along with the Twins.

• How long has it been since the Twins won a playoff game? Their last postseason win came on October 5, 2004 against the Yankees, as Johan Santana tossed seven shutout innings and Jacque Jones homered off Mike Mussina in a 2-0 victory. New York's lineup that day included Gary Sheffield, Bernie Williams, John Olerud, and Ruben Sierra, all of whom are retired. And here was the Twins' lineup:

1. Shannon Stewart, LF
2. Jacque Jones, RF
3. Torii Hunter, CF
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Corey Koskie, 3B
6. Lew Ford, DH
7. Cristian Guzman, SS
8. Michael Cuddyer, 2B
9. Henry Blanco, C

Wow. Lew Ford at designated hitter, Corey Koskie at third base, Henry Blanco at catcher, and Justin Morneau in the cleanup spot as a 24-year-old rookie, not to mention a double-play duo of Cristian Guzman at shortstop and Michael Cuddyer at second base ... with Cuddyer batting after Guzman. I was still in college at the time, Sano was 11 years old, and on that same day Dick Cheney and John Edwards had their vice presidential debate.

• I wrote an article for MinnPost attempting to make sense of Delmon Young's playoff power.

August 10, 2011

Twins Notes: Elbows, elbows, and more elbows

Scott Baker has been fantastic despite ongoing elbow problems, throwing 132 innings with a 3.21 ERA and 120-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but it sounds like the pain may have gotten to where he can't pitch through it. Baker, who underwent elbow surgery in October and spent half of July on the disabled list with a strained flexor muscle, showed decreased velocity while struggling in his last two outings and was placed back on the DL with the same injury, saying:

I have no problem pitching with some discomfort as long as it's something that's not going to get worse. I'm OK being a little sore, but if you're not effective because of it, then that's a different story. So we've got some things to talk through. It's not as bad as it initially was. It's just really kind of lingered for a while, and it takes a lot of work to get loose. I guess there's never an ideal time for this. It's never easy, but you don't want to be that guy that has to go on the DL, if that's the decision they make.

It's remarkable that he's pitched as well as he has for as long as he has, but with the Twins all but out of the playoff picture and Baker not looking like his usual self lately shutting him down is absolutely the right move. Among all Twins pitchers to make at least 20 starts in the past 20 years Baker's current ERA ranks fifth-lowest behind Johan Santana in 2004, Santana in 2005, Santana in 2006, and Joe Mays in 2001.

• In a surprise move, the Twins decided to replace Baker on the roster and in the rotation with Kevin Slowey, who's been buried in the doghouse and stuck at Triple-A for months. Just days ago reports had Anthony Swarzak getting the nod over Slowey if a rotation replacement was needed, but apparently the Twins came around to the notion that they've totally botched the Slowey situation or agree with me that Swarzak isn't likely to fare well as a full-time starter.

I didn't expect Slowey to ever pitch for the Twins again and thought he'd be traded by July 31, but I'm glad to see them giving him another shot. Slowey was one of their five best starters in March when Ron Gardenhire picked Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing over him for rotation spots and he's one of their five best starters now. I still expect Slowey to be dealt before next season and it wouldn't shock me if he's moved yet this month, but at this point who knows.

• A healthy Kyle Gibson may have been in line to replace Baker down the stretch, but instead the Twins' top prospect has serious elbow problems of his own. Gibson was shut down after a six-week stretch at Triple-A in which he went 0-5 with a 6.47 ERA and the 23-year-old former first-round pick was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. That's the injury repaired by Tommy John surgery, but for now he'll try to avoid going under the knife.

In the past choosing rest and rehab over Tommy John surgery hasn't worked out very well for Twins pitchers, but because having the operation now would likely knock Gibson out for all of 2012 anyway there's a small window in which waiting won't significantly alter his timetable. In other words, he'll be aiming to return in March of 2013 whether the surgery is now or in two months, and in the meantime maybe Gibson will get lucky and avoid the knife altogether.

Anthony Slama will be rehabbing alongside Gibson in Fort Myers after being diagnosed with a strained flexor muscle, but it sounds as though the 27-year-old reliever is far less likely to need surgery. Of course, there's little to suggest that a healthy Slama would have been in the Twins' plans anyway and his odds of securing a long-term spot in the bullpen are pretty slim at this point despite a 2.59 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 118 innings at Triple-A.

• Over the weekend Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the Twins offered Michael Cuddyer a two-year, $16 million extension that he predictably turned down and now Christensen says they "also spoke to" fellow impending free agent Jason Kubel. No word yet on if they made an actual offer to Kubel also, but according to Christensen he shares Cuddyer's desire to "hold off on negotiating until after the season."

• On the other hand, Joe Nathan told Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press he hasn't heard "one way or another" from the Twins about their plans for him in 2012. He's technically under contract for next year, but the Twins will surely choose a $2 million buyout rather than exercise their $12.5 million option on the 36-year-old reliever. Nathan has pitched well enough of late to think he can be an effective closer in 2012, but he'll have to accept a pay cut to stay.

Justin Morneau had another big game at Triple-A last night, going 3-for-5 with two doubles, and is now 8-for-14 with four doubles in his last three games in Rochester. Not surprisingly the Twins seem just about ready to activate him from the DL, with Gardenhire saying that Morneau could potentially return as soon as Monday. That would be almost exactly six weeks after neck surgery that was expected to sideline him for at least six weeks.

Jim Souhan, in his most recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column:

Mauer's contract kept the Twins from bolstering their bullpen this winter and it might keep them from re-signing Michael Cuddyer, who has vastly outperformed Mauer over the past two years.

Wins Above Replacement since the beginning of last season: Mauer 6.5, Cuddyer 3.8. (Sigh.)

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June 15, 2011

Twins Notes: Immobilized, underrated, grated, deteriorated, and elevated

• Just when the Twins are finally getting key players healthy Justin Morneau has been put on the disabled list. And not with symptoms from last year's concussion or the neck pain that led to cortisone injections last month, but because of a wrist injury the origin of which was never really explained. Answers given last night were oddly vague, but Nick Nelson had a source tell him that "Morneau's wrist injury was the result of a locker room tirade after a strikeout."

Whatever the case, the Twins announced last night that Morneau's wrist will be "immobilized" for 10 days. General manager Bill Smith explained that "we're looking at this as a short-term event," but nearly every recovery timetable the Twins have issued this season has proven to be wildly optimistic. Morneau being shut down with Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka on the verge of rejoining the lineup is unfortunate, but Morneau hasn't looked like himself anyway.

He showed some flashes at various points, but was never able to string together any kind of hot streak and went 2-for-27 following a two-homer game on May 31. Morneau was batting .345 with 18 homers and a 1.055 OPS in 81 games at the time of his concussion last July. After nine months on the sidelines he's hit just .225 with four homers and a .619 OPS in 55 games this season. At this point some more time on the DL might be the best thing for Morneau.

• With the Twins now playing well enough to get people thinking about winning the thoroughly mediocre division MinnPost boss Joel Kramer passed along 2007 analysis from Nate Silver at Baseball Prospectus examining the largest comebacks of all time. Baseball Prospectus recently made its archives free and the article is worth checking out, as you can see where the Twins overcoming their current deficit would rank and where their amazing 2006 comeback fits.

Carson Cistulli at Fan Graphs crunched the numbers and concluded that Denard Span might be the most underrated player in baseball. I wouldn't go quite that far, but twice in the past week I've written that Span has been the Twins' most valuable all-around player this year and both times multiple comments and e-mails strongly disagreed. His performance has definitely flown under the radar, so hopefully the concussion doesn't derail Span's season.

• Speaking of Span being underrated ... I couldn't care less about the All-Star game, but given what I wrote here last month about the local media's treatment of Michael Cuddyer (and the reaction I got from some members of the local media) it was amusing to see Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune devote an entire column to Cuddyer being deserving of an All-Star spot with a .273/.339/.423 hitting line and versatile but poor defense.

• With every Matt Capps blown save giving up Wilson Ramos for a "proven closer" looks even worse. Capps is 24-for-31 (78 percent) converting saves since the deal, whereas Jon Rauch was 21-for-25 (84 percent) prior to being replaced and is now 7-for-9 (78 percent) in Toronto while earning half as much as Capps. Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently wrote that Rauch "might have been a keeper if his personality hadn't grated on the Twins."

Flawed logic regarding the closer role led to mistakenly thinking Capps was a big upgrade over Rauch, poor decision-making led to paying a premium for that non-existent upgrade in the form of a top catching prospect, and the Twins compounded the problem by evaluating Rauch based more on personality than performance or cost. Ramos' current OPS is 30 points above average for a catcher and he's thrown out an MLB-high 50 percent of steal attempts at age 23.

• Christensen also penned a lengthy article about something that has been a frequent topic in this space, which is that the oft-repeated notion of "playing the right way" and "doing the little things" being "the Twins way" has become more perception and less reality with each season. National media members and people who mostly pay attention to other teams haven't caught on yet, but I'm glad to see someone with a mainstream audience busting the myth.

• My grandpa has said for years now that Toby Gardenhire will eventually be the Twins' utility infielder, which I've always laughed off because ... well, he's a career .230/.293/.268 hitter in the minors and nepotism can only go so far, right? Maybe. Tyler Mason wrote a lengthy profile of the manager's 28-year-old son for FSN's website, and between the "Toby Gardenhire moves closer to MLB debut" title and article's content it no longer seems so far fetched. An excerpt:

Gardenhire, now with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, is closer than ever to his dream. A call to the majors, however, would mean something more for him: the chance to be coached by his father, Ron, the Minnesota Twins' manager. "Having my dad up there, it would probably just be an added bonus," said Toby Gardenhire, 28, who is primarily a shortstop but has been a jack-of-all-trades in the minor leagues.

"If somebody told me Toby's the guy, we think he deserves a shot to come up here, I don't know how I'd handle it, to tell you the truth," said his dad. "I'd have to regroup. But I know he's worked really, really hard and he's played very well. If that ever happens, it would be a really, really cool thing."

Gardenhire is hitting .254 with a .291 on-base percentage and .349 slugging percentage in 39 games at Rochester for a .640 OPS that's dead last on the team. Yet his dad says "he's played very well" and "has actually swung the bat very, very well." Triple-A manager Tom Nieto says "he's really progressed." Mason notes his "elevated play." Meanwhile, even Drew Butera beat Gardenhire's career OPS by 70 points in the minors. I'm starting to think my grandpa is right.

Anthony Slama's latest "opportunity" lasted all of two games, as the Twins didn't even see fit to give him a chance when they had the league's worst record and a bullpen in flux. He has a 2.10 ERA and 370 strikeouts in 274 innings as a minor leaguer, including a 2.71 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 106 innings at Triple-A, yet is 27 years old with a grand total of seven games in the majors. Slama isn't going to be great, but he might be useful and they'll never know.

• If the Twins opt to move Mauer to another position in 2012 they ought to call the Reds. John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote recently that catcher prospect Devin Mesoraco "killing it in Triple-A" may soon force the Reds to call him up, at which point "a lot of teams would likely be interested in Ramon Hernandez or Ryan Hanigan." Hernandez is 35 years old, but Hanigan is a 30-year-old career .275/.375/.365 hitter with a good arm under team control through 2014.

• Old friend J.J. Hardy hasn't been injury free in Baltimore, missing a month with a strained oblique muscle, but he's yet to make an error in 37 games while hitting .299/.371/.493 for an .864 OPS that ranks third among all MLB shortstops. He's played so well that Orioles president and former Twins general manager Andy MacPhail wants to keep Hardy from becoming a free agent after the season by signing him to a contract extension before the All-Star break. Sigh.

• Earlier this week Nick Nelson and I had a Twitter discussion about Francisco Liriano and all this "pitch to contact" stuff, which Sean Schulte at Hitting The Foul Pole pieced together along with his own take.

• To preview the (now rain-shortened) Chicago series marvelously named White Sox blogger J.J. Stankevitz asked me some questions over at Beerleaguer.

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May 31, 2011

Twins Notes: Nathan, James, Plouffe, Liriano, Swarzak, and Slama

Joe Nathan's comeback from Tommy John surgery went from bad to worse, as the Twins put him on the disabled list with more elbow pain. The good news is that an MRI exam revealed only inflammation. The bad news is that there's no return timetable and Nathan is "prepared" to be out as long as a month. Tommy John surgery recovery is often said to be 12 months, but as we've seen with Francisco Liriano and now Nathan unfortunately that often isn't the case.

Nathan gradually added velocity after arriving at spring training throwing in the mid-80s, but never approached his pre-surgery stuff and the missing miles per hour also came attached to far worse command. Along with his ERA rising from 2.10 in 2009 to 7.63 this season, Nathan's strikeouts are down 38 percent, his walks are up 50 percent, and his average fastball fell from 93.6 to 91.4 mph. He hasn't been as bad as the 7.63 ERA, but he hasn't been Joe Nathan.

• To replace Nathan in the bullpen the Twins called up Chuck James, for whom the bloggers I read and tweeters I follow have been pining. I'm far from convinced that James can make a big impact, but unlike Dusty Hughes or Phil Dumatrait or Eric Hacker there's at least a chance of James proving to be more than just the latest replacement-level bullpen stopgap. James, like Nathan, is an example of how long the road back from arm surgery can be.

Once upon a time James was a top prospect in the Braves' system, posting great numbers in the minors before debuting in September of 2005. He joined Atlanta's rotation the next season at age 24 and posted a 4.05 ERA with a 207-to-105 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 280 innings over two years before blowing out his shoulder. He missed most of 2008 and all of 2009 following rotator cuff and labrum surgery, returning as a Triple-A reliever for the Nationals last season.

He pitched well with a 2.32 ERA and 69/11 K/BB ratio in 66 innings, signed with the Twins this winter, and forced them to call him up by throwing 29 innings with a 1.57 ERA and 37/9 K/BB ratio out of Rochester's bullpen. James' raw stuff doesn't match those numbers, but even while succeeding as a mid-rotation starter in Atlanta his average fastball was just 88 mph and with 106 strikeouts in 95 innings since returning he's missed bats without overpowering hitters.

Sad as it may be, at this point the Twins' main goals should be to get healthy, play respectable baseball, make some smart trades, and sort out who can help them in 2012. Cycling through more guys like Hughes or Dumatrait accomplishes none of that, but James may still have some upside at age 29. Before surgery he was a young mid-rotation starter with a 4.00 ERA and in coming back he's been a very effective Double-A and Triple-A reliever with great K/BB ratios.

Trevor Plouffe got off to a fantastic start after being called up from Triple-A to replace Alexi Casilla at shortstop, but the flaws that made him just the 32nd-best Twins prospect heading into the season have since been exposed. Plouffe has 15-homer power and a very strong arm, but that's about it. Or as I wrote in ranking him No. 32 back in February: "A career as a utility man looks like his most realistic upside." Unfortunately the other options aren't any better.

• Liriano's no-hitter got everyone's hopes up and he's sprinkled in a couple of strong outings, but his overall struggles along with decreased velocity suggested something wasn't quite right physically and yesterday the Twins placed him on the DL with shoulder inflammation. For now the official word is that the Twins are hopeful he can return when eligible next week, but then again they initially hoped he'd miss just one start and avoid the DL in the first place.

Compared to last year Liriano's strikeouts are down 36 percent, his walks are up 107 percent, and he's missing 1.7 mph on his average fastball, which is how his ERA has gone from 3.62 to 5.73 and his xFIP has gone from 2.95 to 5.01. Even while posting an impressive-looking 2.52 ERA in four starts this month Liriano also had a sub par 16-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings, succeeding because of a ridiculously fortunate .154 batting average on balls in play.

Anthony Swarzak took a no-hitter into the eighth inning Saturday while starting in Liriano's place against the Angels, so naturally he'll stay in the rotation during the DL stint. However, much like Plouffe the longer Swarzak remains in a prominent role the more obvious his faults will become. He also started very strong as a rookie in 2009, tossing seven shutout innings in his debut and sporting a 3.90 ERA after five starts, only to finish with a 6.25 ERA in 59 innings.

And since then Swarzak has a 5.67 ERA and 94-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 144 innings at Triple-A, although he was pitching reasonably well prior to the latest call-up. Swarzak may do a nice job filling in for Liriano and may even prove to be a capable back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever, but don't let the great first impressions fool you into thinking he's more than a marginal prospect at age 25.

• To replace Liriano on the roster the Twins called up reliever Anthony Slama, who's similar to James this year in that his outstanding minor-league numbers have always screamed out for an extended opportunity. Slama has a 2.11 ERA and 369 strikeouts in 273 total innings in the minors, including a 2.73 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 105 innings at Triple-A, yet he's 27 years old and has just five appearances in the big leagues.

Slama isn't destined to become an elite reliever, but like James there's at least some reason to think he could be useful to the Twins this year and beyond. Obviously having the worst record in baseball at the end of May is a nightmare scenario for the Twins, but hopefully they can find small positives within the huge negative by giving legitimate opportunities to guys like Slama, who deserves 50 innings to sink or swim even if they've never trusted his minor-league stats.

Danny Valencia batting around .350 for much of his half-season debut last year had many people willing to dismiss his underwhelming minor-league numbers, but he's now played 136 games in the big leagues while hitting .280/.329/.412. He played 120 games at Triple-A and hit .289/.322/.421. Funny how that tends to work. Valencia's defense, however, has been much better than advertised and makes him a solid regular despite a mediocre bat.

• For a while the Twins kept saying Tsuyoshi Nishioka was ahead of schedule in his recovery from a fractured fibula, but he was initially given a 4-6 week timetable on April 7. Monday will be two months since the injury and Nishioka hasn't even started a minor-league rehab stint. When it comes to the Twins and injuries, there's no such thing as "ahead of schedule."

• Orioles manager Buck Showalter was full of praise for Wilson Ramos after an interleague series versus the Nationals, saying: "I love that Ramos kid. He's about as good a young player as I've seen this year. The kid they got from Minnesota. He's really impressive." Ramos has slumped recently, but the 23-year-old's .731 OPS still ranks 14th among the 32 catchers with at least 100 plate appearances and he's the youngest starting catcher in baseball.

• Old friend Brian Fuentes hasn't made many new friends in Oakland, although in fairness it sounds like he's not the first late-inning reliever to have a problem with manager Bob Geren's communication methods.

• Speaking of old friends in Oakland, the A's dealt former Twins minor leaguer Steven Tolleson to the Padres for a player to be named later. Tolleson was never a particularly good prospect, but he looked like a potentially useful role player and ranked 37th on my list last year only to be claimed off waivers by the A's literally the day the rankings were posted in January.

• Dusty Hughes has been a horrendous pickup, but at least Rob Delaney hasn't thrived for the Rays after being waived to make room for Hughes on the Twins' roster. Tampa Bay designated Delaney for assignment, meaning the Twins could potentially use their No. 1 waiver priority to claim him back. Don't count on it, though. He's still my second-favorite Rob Delaney.

Martire Garcia ranked 31st on my list of the Twins' top prospects after throwing 73 innings with a 3.31 ERA and 93-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio between rookie-ball and low Single-A as a 20-year-old. Sent back to Beloit to begin this season, Garcia posted a 5.57 ERA and 22/25 K/BB ratio in 21 innings ... and the Twins released him. Those are ugly numbers, for sure, but there must be a little more to the story too.

• As a team the Twins have an adjusted ERA+ of 84 through 52 games. Among all the pitchers in team history with at least 300 innings Pat Mahomes is the only one with a worse adjusted ERA+ at 81. In other words, after about one-third of the season the Twins have pitched like an entire staff full of Pat Mahomes. And their hitting has been even worse.

Jim Hoey has a 10.45 ERA in 10 innings. The last Twins pitcher with a higher ERA than Hoey in at least 10 innings was Mike Lincoln, who had a 10.89 ERA in 21 innings in 2000. He went on to post a 2.96 ERA in 113 innings for the Pirates in 2001 and 2002, so perhaps there's still some hope for Hoey yet.

• Last season the Twins allowed 67 runs in the eighth inning. This season they've allowed 51 runs in the eighth inning. And there are still 112 games to go.

March 14, 2011

Twins Notes: Whiffs, ladders, Polamalu, and “fire it through the internet”

Lucas Apostoleris of Beyond the Box Score broke down some numbers on which individual pitches produced the most swinging strikes last season. For instance, Cole Hamels' changeup led baseball by generating a whiff on 48.0 percent of swings, compared to the MLB average of 20.8 percent. Hamels' changeup was followed by Carlos Marmol's slider at 46.5 percent, Clay Buchholz's changeup at 46.2 percent, and Francisco Liriano's slider at 44.8 percent.

Liriano's stressful mechanics and reliance on his slider were primarily blamed for his past elbow problems and upon returning from Tommy John surgery in mid-2008 he altered his delivery and cut way back on his slider usage. However, after throwing his slider 26.9 percent of the time in 2009 while struggling with a 5.80 ERA he threw the pitch 33.8 percent of the time last season and thrived again.

Even last season's 33.8 percent sliders represents a 10.1 percent decrease compared to how often Liriano used the pitch prior to surgery, but only Ervin Santana (36.9 percent) and Ryan Dempster (35.1 percent) threw their sliders more often in 2010. Prior to surgery Liriano threw his slider more than anyone in baseball, whereas since surgery he's merely been among the leaders in slider usage.

I have no idea whether throwing 10 percent fewer sliders has a meaningful impact on Liriano's chances of staying healthy, but I do know that the pitch is dominant enough--and his fastball has been hittable enough since returning from surgery--that it's awfully tough to ask him to throw significantly fewer sliders. Not only is it Liriano's best pitch, it's one of the best pitches in baseball. His changeup is improved and his fastball is still pretty good, but the slider is special.

Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus did some very interesting research about how rapidly teams move their prospects up the minor-league ladder, finding huge differences between the slowest-moving teams and fastest-moving teams. For position player prospects the Twins are by far MLB's slowest-moving organization, allowing hitters to accumulate an average of 2,600 plate appearances in the minors before making their big-league debuts.

Not only is the Twins' average of 2,600 pre-debut plate appearances about 200 more than the next-slowest Angels, it's 1,000 more than the fastest-moving team, the Mets. That means the average Twins hitter debuts with two more full seasons' worth of plate appearances than the average Mets hitter. We saw that exact dichotomy in action with Carlos Gomez, as the Mets rushed him to the majors at age 21 and the Twins then kept him there at age 22.

For pitchers the Twins aren't quite as slow-moving, but still allow prospects to accumulate the third-most innings before their debuts behind only the Rays and Nationals. Again the Mets are the fastest-moving team with pitchers, which came in to play when the Twins acquired Deolis Guerra along with Gomez as part of the Johan Santana trade. Because the Mets had already pushed Guerra to high Single-A at age 18 he reached Triple-A as an overmatched 21-year-old.

All of which hammers home two points that everyone pretty much already understood, which are that Twins prospects generally have extremely conservative promotion timetables and the Mets were an organizational mess under former general manager Omar Minaya. Because of the Santana trade those two approaches collided and it certainly played a part in Gomez and Guerra (so far) failing to pan out as the Twins hoped. Conservative makes a lot more sense.

• If you've ever wondered what Steelers safety and reigning NFL defensive player of the year Troy Polamulu would look like wearing a Twins uniform, this is your lucky day:

Polamulu was apparently shooting a Head and Shoulders commercial with Joe Mauer.

Peter Gammons posted this note on Twitter last week:

Astros' first choice for a catcher to replace Jason Castro was Drew Butera, but Twins won't trade him. Outstanding catch-and-throw guy.

Drew Butera has such marginal value that the Twins should definitely be willing to trade him, but the odds of the Astros or any other team actually offering something of value in return are pretty slim and after trading both Wilson Ramos and Jose Morales the upper-minors catching cupboard is bare. Butera is a replacement-level player and ranks as perhaps the worst hitter in baseball, but the Twins love his defense and don't really have a better option behind Mauer.

• Speaking of Twitter, for some reason Ron Gardenhire is becoming increasingly annoyed with how quickly and efficiently reporters are able to relay his words to the Twins-loving public due to technology. Here's an amusing note from Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

When manager Ron Gardenhire announced Saturday that Nick Blackburn had made the rotation, it caused a mild stir in the Twins clubhouse.

"All you guys ... tweeted and blogged and all those things," Gardenhire told reporters Monday. "Before I could get back on the field, it was already back in here that we have a fourth starter.  So [the other pitchers] went right to [pitching coach Rick Anderson]. It's under control, Andy's talked to them. We knew going in that they were fighting for a job."

Gardenhire seems less than thrilled with how fast news travels these days, but he's keeping his sense of humor. When asked if Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes were on equal footing in their battle for a utility spot, the manager said: "Yes, equal footing. You can tweet that. Just tweet it. You don't even have to write it. Just fire it through the Internet."

Gardenhire also got angry when he told a room of people about Justin Morneau's doctor visit and the news was actually reported by reporters. It used to take a day for news to be printed in a newspaper. Then it took an hour for news to be posted on a blog. Now it takes a minute for news to be tweeted. Like many 53-year-olds Gardenhire isn't embracing Twitter, but media reporting what he says about the team they cover hasn't changed. It's just a new method.

With that said, "just fire it through the internet" is comedy gold. Put it on a t-shirt, someone.

Follow me on Twitter. Gardenhire would want it that way and I'm constantly just firing things through the internet on there.

Patrick Reusse of 1500ESPN.com wrote an interesting piece about whether the Twins know "the difference between an annoyance and a bad guy" as it relates to Kevin Slowey now and Matt Garza a few years ago (with plenty of other examples coming to mind as well).

Anthony Slama was already facing an uphill battle to claim an Opening Day bullpen spot, but elbow problems make it all but certain he'll begin the season back at Triple-A.

• Today the Twins are expected to trim the players on their spring training roster from 59 to 45 and No. 1 prospect Kyle Gibson will be included in the first batch of cuts. Gibson will begin the season at Triple-A, where he's made just three starts. Add another data point to the Twins not rushing prospects.

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