September 22, 2014

Who will the Twins purge from the 40-man roster this offseason?

Jared Burton Twins

At the beginning of each offseason every team goes through the ritual housecleaning of shedding players from the 40-man roster to prepare for a winter of adding new players and protecting new prospects. As one of baseball's worst teams for a fourth straight year the Twins have no shortage of dead weight on the 40-man roster, plus plenty of marginal talents clinging to spots, so here's my breakdown of the players most likely to be shed and where they stand (in alphabetical order):

A.J. Achter: Added to the 40-man roster in September after a nice season between Double-A and Triple-A, the former 46th-round pick debuted at age 26. His success this season was driven largely by an unsustainably great batting average on balls in play and Achter's control has never been particularly good, which along with a high-80s fastball and unspectacular strikeout rates makes him unlikely to project as more than a middle reliever.

Doug Bernier: Last year the Twins called up Bernier to fill a little-used bench role and dropped him from the 40-man roster after the season, which is presumably the plan again this time. He had a solid season at Triple-A, hitting .280/.348/.396 in 124 games, but Bernier is 34 years old and the epitome of a replacement-level player. Great to have stashed at Triple-A, not great to have in the majors or even taking up a spot on the 40-man roster.

Jared Burton: One of the Twins' better scrap-heap pickups, Burton was a high-end setup man for a year-and-a-half before struggling down the stretch last year and showing major signs of decline this season. Dating back to August of last season Burton has a 5.12 ERA and 50/28 K/BB ratio in 72 innings. His velocity is down, he's ceased missing bats, and at age 33 it's hard to see him being trusted enough in a high-leverage role to justify picking up his $3.6 million option for 2015.

Chris Colabello: He was a good story and absolutely deserved a shot in the majors after crushing Triple-A pitching, but Colabello hit .214/.284/.364 with a ghastly 124/34 K/BB ratio in 114 games. He has no defensive value and, unlike most right-handed hitters, his approach at the plate doesn't lend itself to crushing left-handers. At age 31 it's tough to imagine giving him another extended opportunity, especially considering the Twins' depth at first base and designated hitter.

Logan Darnell: It's tough to see Darnell sticking in the big leagues as a starter. He has a 3.82 ERA with a poor strikeout rate and mediocre control in 172 innings at Triple-A, his average fastball so far in the majors is 89 miles per hour, and he struggles against right-handed hitters. At age 25 he may still have a future in the bullpen, but the same could be said of nearly every left-handed starter and there isn't much in his track record to suggest his upside there is notable.

Brian Duensing: It's masked by a strong ERA, but Duensing's secondary numbers collapsed with a 32/20 K/BB ratio in 53 innings. His inability to handle righties means he can't be trusted in the late innings and he's not dominant enough against lefties to be a southpaw specialist. Duensing is a perfectly decent middle reliever, but at age 31 and with an arbitration-fueled raise to at least $3 million coming for his final pre-free agency season he's a non-tender candidate.

Eric Fryer: Tabbed to fill the Drew Butera role as a catcher who can't hit enough to warrant a roster spot, Fryer took over as Kurt Suzuki's backup when the Twins demoted Josmil Pinto to the minors. He's hit .248/.325/.345 in limited MLB action, which is actually much better than his .217/.314/.316 line in 204 games at Triple-A. Even if the Twins are convinced Pinto has no future behind the plate they can do better than Fryer as a second (or third) catcher.

Chris Herrmann: In theory Herrmann brings versatility to the table as a catcher/outfielder, but the Twins want nothing to do with him behind the plate defensively and he doesn't hit enough to have any business in the outfield. He's hit .184/.256/.268 in 91 games for the third-worst OPS in the Ron Gardenhire era of 2002-2014, ahead of only Butera and Tsuyoshi Nishioka. And at age 27 his .262/.331/.399 line in 129 games at Triple-A is barely any better.

Kris Johnson: Acquired from the Pirates as part of the Justin Morneau trade, it was never clear why the Twins wanted Johnson unless they focused on his misleadingly good 2.39 ERA at Triple-A last season. He posted another decent-looking 3.48 ERA at Triple-A this year, but managed just 102 strikeouts in 132 innings while walking 3.8 per nine frames. Johnson is 30 years old with 6.2 strikeouts and 3.5 walks per nine innings for his career at Triple-A.

Eduardo Nunez: When the Twins acquired Nunez they talked up his offensive potential as if he hadn't hit .267/.313/.379 for the Yankees or had similar numbers in the minors. He's been even worse for the Twins, hitting .251/.274/.385 in 67 games. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him as one of the worst shortstops in baseball at 30 runs below average per 150 games and he's looked shaky at third base as well. It's unclear where exactly the upside is with the 27-year-old Nunez.

Lester Oliveros: He hasn't looked good in the majors yet, but Oliveros put together an excellent season between Double-A and Triple-A in his first full year back from Tommy John elbow surgery. He struck out 88 batters in 66 total innings, posting a 1.64 ERA while allowing zero home runs. His control remains spotty, but with a mid-90s fastball and outstanding strikeout rates Oliveros seems deserving of an extended chance. It's just unclear if he'll get that in Minnesota.

Chris Parmelee: Since his big September debut Parmelee has hit .237/.303/.372 in 248 games for the Twins, showing mediocre power while failing to control the strike zone. Good numbers at Triple-A suggested the former first-round pick may have finally figured things out, but he's failed to do anything with semi-regular playing time in three straight seasons and will soon be 27 years old. Why keep waiting for what might be, at best, an average first baseman/corner outfielder?

Mike Pelfrey: Re-signing Pelfrey to a two-year, $12 million deal never made any sense and he allowed 23 runs in 24 innings before being shut down with an elbow injury. He's owed $5.5 million next season, so Pelfrey being cut loose would be a surprise, but he's 12-29 with a 5.00 ERA in 390 innings since 2011, throws one mediocre pitch, and injuries have wiped out two of his last three seasons. He's a sunk cost, but perhaps they can salvage some value out of Pelfrey in the bullpen.

Yohan Pino: When he was a prospect posting great numbers in the minors from 2005-2009 the Twins never called up Pino, but they finally gave him a chance as a 30-year-old journeyman in his second stint with the organization. Pino had an ugly 5.07 ERA in 11 starts and struggles to limit home runs, but his 50/14 K/BB ratio in 60 innings was solid. As the past four seasons have shown there's always plenty of need for rotation depth, but elbow problems cloud his status for 2015.

Ryan Pressly: After spending all of last year in the majors as a Rule 5 pick Pressly spent most of this year at Triple-A, throwing 60 innings with a 2.98 ERA and 63/21 K/BB ratio. He throws hard, but it has never led to big strikeout rates and Pressly has just 63 strikeouts 102 innings for the Twins. He has a nice-looking 3.54 ERA and the Twins have been to known to let that sway their opinion more than it should, but at age 26 it's tough to see significant upside.

Stephen Pryor: Acquired from the Mariners in the Kendrys Morales swap/salary dump, Pryor is one of the few players on the 40-man roster not to receive a September call-up. He was once a top reliever prospect with a high-90s fastball, but he's struggled to regain velocity after shoulder surgery. He posted a 3.93 ERA at Triple-A with awful control and just 52 strikeouts in 55 innings. Still just 25 years old, presumably the Twins liked Pryor enough to see what he looks like in 2015.

Jordan Schafer: It seems unlikely that the Twins would get rid of Schafer after how well he's played in 40 games since they claimed him off waivers in early August, but he's the type of player who regularly gets dropped from 40-man rosters. Schafer is a 27-year-old career .230/.312/.311 hitter who also batted just .225/.278/.294 at Triple-A and despite great speed he's a mediocre defensive center fielder. He's a decent fit as a backup outfielder, but that skill set is plentiful.

Anthony Swarzak: After flopping as a starter Swarzak found a fit as a long reliever able to soak up low-leverage innings, but his effectiveness slipped this year and he's due for a raise to around $2 million via arbitration. Swarzak's strikeout rate of 5.2 per nine innings ranks 125th out of the 131 pitchers with at least 50 innings as relievers and his career rate as a reliever is 5.8 per nine innings. His role could be better utilized to break in a young starter.

Aaron Thompson: His flukishly good numbers versus lefties this season caught the Twins' eye and earned him a call-up, but Thompson is a 27-year-old journeyman with a high-80s fastball and a 4.33 ERA in a decade as a minor leaguer. That includes a 3.52 ERA and 107/51 K/BB ratio in 120 innings at Triple-A. Like most reasonably effective lefties he could probably hold his own in a southpaw specialist role, but the Twins should be aiming higher for a Duensing replacement.


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July 18, 2014

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Pitchers

perkins and suzuki

For all the talk about and money spent on improving their starting pitching the Twins' rotation ranks 28th in ERA among the 30 teams. Last year they ranked 30th. Two years ago they ranked 29th. Three years ago they ranked 26th. And even with some pretty good relief work included the Twins' pitching staff has the fewest strikeouts in baseball for the fourth consecutive season. Before the second half gets underway here's a pitcher-by-pitcher look at the individual performances ...

Phil Hughes: .283/.297/.410 in 501 plate appearances

When the Twins signed Phil Hughes to a three-year, $24 million contract this offseason the idea was that getting him away from homer-inflating Yankee Stadium would fix his biggest problem of serving up long balls. That's played out exactly as hoped, with Hughes allowing just nine homers in 122 first-half innings after averaging 19 homers per 122 innings from 2010-2013. Beyond that there was also another big but unexpected change: He stopped walking anyone.

Hughes has always had mediocre control, averaging nearly 3.0 walks per nine innings for his Yankees career, but this season under Rick Anderson's coaching his walk rate is a miniscule 0.8 per nine innings. Not only is that the second-lowest rate in all of baseball--sandwiched between Hisashi Iwakuma and Clayton Kershaw--it's the second-lowest walk rate in Twins history behind only Carlos Silva's ridiculous 0.4 per nine innings in 2004.

Hughes' velocity and strikeout rate remain nearly identical to his Yankees days and he's still one of MLB's most extreme fly-ball pitchers, but switching home ballparks has made those fly balls less of a weakness and refusing to walk anyone has turned him into a different pitcher. He walked zero or one batter in 17 of 19 first-half starts (89 percent) after doing so in 61 of 132 starts (46 percent) for the Yankees. He's been a souped-up version of the Twins' long-preferred pitching mold.

Kevin Correia: .292/.335/.439 in 478 plate appearances

Kevin Correia got off to a horrendous start, put together a nice stretch heading into the All-Star break, and just like last year finished the first half as one of baseball's worst starters. Offensive levels dropping across MLB have kept his numbers from being as gag-inducing as bad pitchers from 5-10 years ago, but among the 93 qualified starters this season Correia ranks dead last in strikeout rate, second-to-last in xFIP, and 84th in ERA. He also leads MLB with 11 losses.

Last year when Correia tossed 185 innings with the league's second-worst strikeout rate and seventh-worst ERA the Twins portrayed it as successful, but that was spin and now with several good prospects knocking on the door to the majors there's little value to be had in letting Correia finish out his two-year, $10 million contract. Since the beginning of last season the only two MLB pitchers with more innings and a higher ERA than Correia are Kyle Kendrick and ...

Ricky Nolasco: .330/.368/.538 in 459 plate appearances

Signed to a four-year, $49 million deal this offseason to front the Twins' rotation, Ricky Nolasco was the worst starter in the league for three months and then revealed that he'd been pitching through an elbow injury since spring training. Within his terrible performance was some poor luck on balls in play, even by Nolasco's often "unlucky" standards, but his velocity, strikeout rate, and walk rate were also all worse than the 31-year-old's career norms.

Based on secondary numbers Nolasco performed more like a 4.50 ERA pitcher than a 5.90 ERA pitcher, but that's still awful in a year when the average starter has a 4.05 ERA. Justin Morneau hit .321/.375/.559 in his MVP-winning 2006 season. This year opponents have hit .330/.368/.538 off Nolasco. Thankfully for the Twins adding Hughes to the rotation has worked out well, because the decisions to sign Nolasco and re-sign Mike Pelfrey have gone about as poorly as possible.

Kyle Gibson: .251/.303/.356 in 423 plate appearances

Kyle Gibson returned from Tommy John elbow surgery without bat-missing raw stuff, generating just 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings since going under the knife. That limits his upside and means he'll always be in danger of a rapid collapse, but his ability to induce grounders has remained with the rebuilt elbow and his ground-ball rate of 54.6 percent ranks seventh among all MLB starters. And after some early control problems he issued just nine walks in his final 10 first-half starts.

Throwing strikes and keeping the ball on the ground is a recipe for success, but without strikeouts that success likely tops out in the middle of the rotation. Which is fine, of course. The last Twins starter to log 150 innings with a higher ground-ball rate than Gibson's current mark was ... no one, at least not since 2002 when the data begins. Still, fewer than 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings is Silva, Nick Blackburn, and Scott Diamond territory, which is a dangerous place to be.

Sam Deduno: .260/.344/.370 in 305 plate appearances

Once presumed to be a member of the rotation, Sam Deduno began the season in the bullpen before shifting into starter mode to replace the injured Pelfrey in May. After an ugly June 14 start he moved back to the bullpen, where he finished the first half by throwing 13 scoreless innings. His sample size of relief work is too small to draw any conclusions, but with a 4.51 ERA and 4.5 walks per nine innings in 41 career starts there's no need to see more of Deduno in the rotation.

Anthony Swarzak: .265/.323/.359 in 198 plate appearances

Nearly all of the gains Anthony Swarzak made last season have vanished this year, as his strikeout and walk rates have regressed to the pre-2013 levels that made him look like a marginal big leaguer. His durability has value in a bullpen-saving role, but Swarzak is now 28 years old with a 3.69 ERA and just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 132 career relief appearances. He doesn't miss enough bats or throw enough strikes.

Glen Perkins: .230/.264/.375 in 163 plate appearances

I'm not sure people fully appreciate just how good Glen Perkins has been since moving to the bullpen full time in 2011. During that four-year span he's posted a 2.54 ERA in 235 appearances, compiling 269 strikeouts compared to 49 non-intentional walks in 234 innings. And since taking over for Matt Capps as closer in mid-2012 he's converted 74 saves at an 89 percent success rate. By comparison, Mariano Rivera converted 89 percent of his career save chances.

Among all MLB relievers with at least 200 innings since 2011 he ranks seventh in strikeout-to-walk ratio, eighth in average fastball velocity, and ninth in Win Probability Added and xFIP. He's been one of the 10 best relievers in baseball since becoming a reliever and Perkins is actually getting better, as this year's 49/7 K/BB ratio in 39 innings represents the best strikeout and walk rates of his career. He's the third-best reliever in Twins history behind Joe Nathan and Rick Aguilera.

Jared Burton: .236/.306/.396 in 160 plate appearances

It'd be easy to point to his 3.34 ERA in 35 appearances since back-to-back ugly April outings as proof that Jared Burton has been his old self of late, but the truth is that a 3.34 ERA isn't even much better than this season's MLB average of 3.60 for relievers and his 24/10 K/BB ratio in 32 innings during that span is hardly vintage Burton. His velocity and strikeouts are down, his walks and fly-ball rate are up, and after a helluva run for the Twins he's in decline mode at age 33.

Casey Fien: .215/.242/.347 in 155 plate appearances

Extreme fly-ball pitchers always make for tricky late-inning relievers and Casey Fien has had a few home run-based blowups, but he's also got a 2.95 ERA and fantastic 137/27 K/BB ratio in 137 innings since the Twins signed him as a minor-league free agent in 2012 and then called him up with zero expectations that July. During that three-year span Fien has been superior to Burton in strikeout rate, walk rate, opponents' average, ERA, and xFIP. He's the Twins' best setup man.

Brian Duensing: .260/.327/.382 in 148 plate appearances

Compared to last season his ERA looks much better, but Brian Duensing's secondary numbers are actually much worse and in particular he's managed a poor 21/13 K/BB ratio in 36 innings. Duensing continues to be decent versus left-handed hitters, but he's walked more righties (10) than he's struck out (9). For his career righties have hit .297/.356/.462 off Duensing and he's not nearly dominant enough against lefties to make up for it.

Mike Pelfrey: .305/.419/.505 in 119 plate appearances

Pelfrey was terrible in 2013, going 5-13 with a 5.19 ERA in 29 starts, but for some reason the Twins felt compelled to give him a two-year, $11 million contract. He went 0-3 with a 7.99 ERA in five starts, got shut down with a dubious groin injury, and later underwent elbow surgery. He's probably done for the season, but Pelfrey will be back in the mix for a rotation spot next season because he's still owed another $5.5 million.

Caleb Thielbar: .231/.271/.413 in 118 plate appearances

Last season Caleb Thielbar came out of nowhere to emerge as the Twins' secondary left-handed setup man and he's filled the same role relatively well this year. At age 27 the former independent leaguer lacks long-term upside, but through 76 innings as a big leaguer he's got a 2.23 ERA and 60/22 K/BB ratio without extreme platoon splits. He's been used in low-leverage situations, but that could change in the second half if the Twins start auditioning him for Duensing's gig.

Matt Guerrier: .245/.295/.324 in 113 plate appearances

Signed to a minor-league deal and then promoted to Minnesota one day before the mid-May opt-out clause in his contract, Matt Guerrier has posted a nice-looking 2.67 ERA with just one homer allowed in 20 appearances. He hasn't quite been his old self, however, with just 12 strikeouts in 27 innings and an average fastball velocity of 89 miles per hour. At age 35 he's a low-leverage reliever, which is exactly how the Twins have used the former setup man.


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January 22, 2014

Twins Notes: Arbitration, Korea sales, Molitor shifting, and drugs of abuse

Philadelphia Phillies v Minnesota Twins

• As usual the Twins avoided arbitration with all of their eligible players, agreeing to pre-hearing 2014 deals with Trevor Plouffe for $2.35 million, Brian Duensing for $2 million, and Anthony Swarzak for $950,000. They previously non-tendered Josh Roenicke rather than paying him approximately $1.5 million via the same process. Following the Plouffe, Duensing, and Swarzak signings the Twins' payroll sits at $83 million, which is nearly identical to last season's spending.

Here are their payroll figures since moving to Target Field in 2010:

2010: $98 million
2011: $113 million
2012: $100 million
2013: $82 million
2014: $83 million

When the Twins signed Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes there was a lot of talk about how they were finally spending some money--and certainly within the context of free agency they opened their wallets like never before--but in the grand scheme of things nothing has really changed despite revenue across baseball rising rapidly. Barring a late acquisition their payroll will likely rank among the bottom third of MLB in 2014.

• It's not official yet, but Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that the Twins are finalizing an agreement to sell Andrew Albers to a Korean team. Albers reaching the majors at age 28 and tossing 17 scoreless innings in his first two starts was a helluva story, but a mid-80s fastball and lack of missed bats made it tough to envision a scenario in which he was anything more than a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Once the Twins re-signed Mike Pelfrey in addition to signing Nolasco and Hughes it became clear that Albers wouldn't be getting another extended opportunity this season unless a ton of injuries struck the rotation. Going to Korea allows him to pitch regularly somewhere other than Rochester, New York and gives Albers a chance to make big-league money as opposed to Triple-A wages. And for a guy who was in an independent league a few years ago, that ain't bad.

• As part of his new job on the Twins' coaching staff Paul Molitor will be in charge of positioning the infielders defensively during games and Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com has an interesting note about his approach to those duties:

Molitor has already got a head start on positioning, as he met last week with Sean Harlin, the club's major league video director, and Jack Goin, the club's manager of major league administration and baseball research, to learn more about the club's video system and the advanced defensive statistics available for infield shifts.

The Twins haven't been a club that leans heavily on shifting aggressively in the past, but Molitor believes that baseball is trending that way and that it can help the Twins, especially given that the club has several ground-ball pitchers.

"The game has changed so much; we're seeing more overshifts and people not afraid to give up space based on tendencies, so it's something I'm excited about learning about and applying to the way we play defense," Molitor said. "They showed me the capabilities of not only pregame information but how we can use whatever data we have, including our in-house cameras at Target Field, to try to line up the defenses based on the pitcher's capability of executing pitches and the hitter's tendency of where they might hit the ball."

Those are the type of open-minded, analysis-driven quotes that we've rarely seen from anyone involved with the Twins over the years, which is awfully encouraging.

• Twins prospect Eddie Rosario received a 50-game suspension after a second positive test for a "drug of abuse." On one hand that means it wasn't a performance-enhancing drug. On the other hand that means Rosario tested positive once already and couldn't stop himself from continuing to use the unnamed drug. As a 22-year-old trying to make a position switch to second base the lost development time could be costly, but he remains a very good prospect.

Yohan Pino, who the Twins traded to the Indians for Carl Pavano in mid-2009, is back in the organization on a minor-league deal. Pino posted great numbers in the low minors before a lack of velocity caught up to him and now he's 30 years old with a 4.27 ERA in more than 800 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.

Joe Benson, who was released by the Twins in the middle of what proved to be a lost season, is now with the Marlins on a minor-league contract. Benson is still just 26 years old, but injuries and the inability to make consistent contact at the plate have turned him into a non-prospect.

• Just as I feared at the time of the signing Terry Ryan has already dropped some hints that Kurt Suzuki could be the Opening Day catcher, with Josmil Pinto heading back to the minors.

• For a lot more about the arbitration process and how it works, plus a lengthy discussion about Molitor and embracing analytics, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

December 5, 2013

Twins Notes: Morneau, Nathan, Kazmir, Pierzynski, and Saltalamacchia

joe nathan and justin morneau twins

Justin Morneau is joining Michael Cuddyer and LaTroy Hawkins in Colorado, agreeing to a two-year, $13 million deal with the Rockies. Morneau is smart to try to resurrect his career in the majors' most hitter-friendly ballpark and calling Coors Field home for half his games should lead to decent-looking raw numbers even if he doesn't actually improve any, but that's a whole lot more money than I'd feel comfortable investing in him at this point.

Joe Nathan is coming back to the AL Central, signing a two-year, $20 million contract with the Tigers that also includes a team option for 2016, when he'll be 41 years old. Nathan was brilliant in two years with the Rangers, saving 80 games with a 2.09 ERA, 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and a .198 opponents' batting average, and then shrewdly declined his $9 million player option for 2014 knowing that he could get a multi-year deal for similar annual money on the open market.

Scott Kazmir signed a two-year, $22 million contract with the A's, which is interesting within the context of Phil Hughes' three-year, $24 million contract with the Twins. Both signings seem reasonable to me, but as noted last month in my breakdown of free agent starters I think Kazmir has more upside than Hughes. Kazmir is perhaps also at considerably higher risk to provide zero value at some point, but there's only so much that can go wrong during a two-year commitment.

• There was quite a bit of buzz linking the Twins to free agents Jarrod Saltalamacchia and A.J. Pierzynski, but now both catchers are off the board. Pierzynski signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Red Sox and it sounds like he passed up multi-year offers to join the defending champs. Saltalamacchia got a three-year, $21 million deal from the Marlins, which is pretty reasonable and suggests he really wanted to play in Miami and/or the Twins' reported interest was overstated.

• As expected the Twins tendered contracts to all of their arbitration-eligible players: Anthony Swarzak, Trevor Plouffe, and Brian Duensing. All three are due for raises to around $1.5 million, so there were no monetary reasons to let any of them go. Last month the Twins parted ways with another arbitration-eligible player, Josh Roenicke, because they didn't think he was worth that type of money for a low-leverage middle relief role.

Caleb Thielbar, Andrew Albers, and Chris Colabello worked out well, so the Twins dipped back into independent ball to sign right-hander Jon Velasquez. He spent a couple seasons in the Phillies' farm system before moving on to the Canadian-American Association (where Colabello was MVP) and Atlantic League. Velasquez's track record was nothing special as a starter, but in shifting to the bullpen this year at age 27 he threw 74 innings with a 1.95 ERA and 82 strikeouts.

• They also signed career minor leaguers Brandon Waring, Chris Rahl, and Matt Hoffman to minor-league deals. Waring is a 27-year-old corner infielder with lots of power and strikeouts who hit .214/.317/.449 with 25 homers and 148 strikeouts in 109 games this year. Hoffman is a lefty reliever with just 117 strikeouts in 148 innings at Triple-A. Rahl is a 30-year-old outfielder who's hit .292/.328/.445 at Triple-A. Depth for Rochester, mostly.

Ron Coomer, who does television work for FOX Sports North during Twins games and co-hosts a daily radio show on K-TWIN, is one of two finalists for the Cubs' radio analyst gig.

Adam Platt interviewed Twins owner Jim Pohlad for Twin Cities Business magazine.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode might be the most baseball-focused show we've ever done, with an hour of non-stop talk about the Hughes and Ricky Nolasco signings.


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July 18, 2013

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Pitchers

glen perkins and joe mauer

Last year Twins starters ranked dead last in the league with a 5.40 ERA, but after big talk of fixing the rotation the actual additions were inexpensive and uninspired. This year Twins starters have a 5.23 ERA that ranks dead last in either league and even with surprisingly good work from a largely makeshift bullpen the pitching staff has the league's worst ERA and fewest strikeouts. Before the second half gets underway here's a pitcher-by-pitcher look at the individual performances ...

Kevin Correia: .296/.336/.472 in 472 plate appearances

Signed to a two-year, $10 million contract that didn't make much sense this offseason, Kevin Correia posted a 2.23 ERA in April that had people coming up with all sorts of theories about why he'd turned a corner at age 32. Since the calendar flipped to May he's made 15 starts with a 5.21 ERA, allowing opponents to hit .321 with 15 homers in 74 innings. Since completing at least seven innings in each of his five April starts Correia has done so just once in his last 15 outings.

Overall he has a 4.23 ERA compared to the AL average of 4.08 and across baseball Correia ranks 85th among 89 qualified starters in both strikeout rate and swinging strike percentage, which is some serious pitching to contact. He's been slightly less ineffective than expected thanks to the fast start, but Correia has shown why the multi-year commitment was misguided and if the Twins can trade him before the ERA rises any further they should.

Scott Diamond: .313/.355/.514 in 394 plate appearances

Scott Diamond's miniscule strikeout rate suggested that last year's success would be short-lived and sure enough he unraveled in the first half. His strikeout rate fell even further to 4.2 per nine innings, which is the worst in baseball, and his walk and ground-ball rates declined from excellent to merely good. Toss in a 30-point uptick in Diamond's batting average on balls in play and you end up with an ERA that jumps from 3.54 to 5.32.

Diamond wasn't as good as he looked last season and isn't as bad as he's looked this season, but overall he's a whole lot closer to a left-handed Nick Blackburn than a long-term building block. In fact, through three seasons the comparison between Diamond and Blackburn is eerily close. Diamond has a 4.27 ERA and rates of 4.5 strikeouts, 2.1 walks, and 1.0 homers per nine innings. Blackburn had a 4.14 ERA and rates of 4.4 strikeouts, 1.8 walks, and 1.1 homers per nine innings.

Mike Pelfrey: .313/.359/.478 in 363 plate appearances

All the offseason and early spring training talk of Mike Pelfrey being vastly ahead of schedule in his recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery gave way to his actually having to pitch and it was ugly. Pelfrey had a 6.66 ERA through 11 starts, including a .332 opponents' batting average and 26-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51 innings. He then likely saved his rotation spot with a decent five-start stretch to finish the first half, with a two-week disabled list stint mixed in.

Pelfrey wasn't particularly effective before the surgery, serving mostly as an innings-eater for the Mets, and going under the knife didn't fix his inability to miss bats. He relies almost exclusively on a low-90s fastball, which is why Pelfrey is averaging fewer than 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings for the eighth time in eight seasons. That pitch used to at least generate lots of ground balls, but his current rate of 43.8 percent is a career-low and actually qualifies Pelfrey as a fly-ball pitcher.

Samuel Deduno: .262/.327/.371 in 264 plate appearances

Last season Samuel Deduno was relatively successful with a 4.44 ERA in 15 starts despite nearly as many walks (57) as strikeouts (53) in 79 innings. Even that modest success won't work long term with those secondary numbers and somewhere along the way pitching coach Rick Anderson appears to have hammered that point home to Deduno. Prior to this year Deduno had walk rates of 6.1 per nine innings in the majors and 5.0 per nine innings at Triple-A. This year he's at 2.9.

It's a sample size of 10 starts, but Deduno has three or fewer walks in all 10 of them after doing so just half the time last year. His strikeout rate has actually fallen to 4.5 per nine innings, which is among MLB's worst, but he's made up for the lack of missed bats by nibbling less and letting the movement of his pitches induce an AL-high 61 percent ground balls. Or, put another way: Pitching to contact actually works for Deduno. There's more reason to believe in him now than last year.

Anthony Swarzak: .281/.314/.412 in 237 plate appearances

After three sub par years split between the rotation and bullpen Anthony Swarzak has taken a step forward as full-time long reliever. Compared to his first three seasons Swarzak has upped his strikeouts by 28 percent, reduced his walks by 26 percent, and become less fly-ball prone. He's been one of the most effective pitchers on the entire staff, although that's admittedly not saying much and because most of his work comes in long-relief spots his impact has been minimal.

In fact, the Twins are 6-21 when Swarzak pitches. That should be blamed on his role rather than his performance, which includes a 3.55 ERA and 41-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 58 innings. So far they've resisted the urge to put Swarzak back into the rotation and they've also yet to really move him up the bullpen hierarchy. Considering the overall state of the pitching staff if Swarzak keeps pitching this well in the second half he'd warrant some kind of higher-leverage gig.

Vance Worley: .381/.427/.577 in 234 plate appearances

When the Twins acquired 25-year-old Vance Worley from the Phillies in the Ben Revere trade he was supposed to step in as a long-term mid-rotation starter. Worley had thrown 278 innings with a 3.50 ERA for the Phillies and while there were questions about his many called strikeouts being sustainable there was little reason to expect a collapse. And then he went from Opening Day starter to Triple-A in less than two months, allowing 43 runs in 49 innings.

He generated just 15 strikeouts in 10 starts, got a swinging strike on an abysmal 4.5 percent of his pitches, and allowed a .381 opponents' batting average. Worley has been much better since the demotion to Rochester, but it's hard to be very encouraged by a 3.88 ERA at Triple-A when it comes with 34 strikeouts in 58 innings. He'll be back with the Twins at some point, but Worley hasn't been right since last year's elbow issues and was never a high-upside arm to begin with.

Ryan Pressly: .255/.321/.345 in 185 plate appearances

As far as Rule 5 picks go Ryan Pressly has been a big success. Used mostly for mopping up and long relief, he threw 44 innings with a 3.09 ERA and averaged 93 miles per hour with his fastball. Far less impressive than the shiny ERA is a 30-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio and Pressly is unlikely to be as stingy with homers going forward considering his high fly-ball rate, but he's been a useful member of the bullpen and has definitely shown some long-term upside.

Jared Burton: .247/.333/.377 in 184 plate appearances

Jared Burton picked up right where he left off following a fantastic 2012 season with a 2.10 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 26 innings through the end of May. Then he went through a rough patch while dealing with a groin injury, allowing 12 runs in 10 appearances as his ERA ballooned to 4.29 and he was removed from setup duties. Burton recovered to end the first half with six shutout outings in a row, although his usual swing-and-miss stuff still wasn't there.

Last year's .220 batting average on balls in play was always unsustainable and his overall stats remain decent with a 3.67 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 42 innings, but Burton has already walked more batters than all of last year and both his velocity and swinging strike rate are down slightly. Hopefully it's just a blip on the radar, because a healthy Burton can be light outs and he's signed through 2015 at salaries that make him a reasonably priced setup man or good trade bait.

P.J. Walters: .311/.383/.494 in 183 plate appearances

For the second time in two seasons the Twins called up P.J. Walters when their rotation was a mess, got a handful of decent outings from him before things fell apart, and then passed him through waivers unclaimed to keep the 28-year-old right-hander in the organization as Triple-A depth. Meanwhile, he has a 5.79 ERA in 20 starts for the Twins after posting a 4.60 ERA in 133 starts at Triple-A, making Walters the epitome of a replacement-level starter.

Pedro Hernandez: .311/.373/.517 in 169 plate appearances

Acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade, Pedro Hernandez is a soft-tossing, strike-throwing lefty who struggled against right-handed hitters in the minors and not surprisingly big-league righties have crushed him to the tune of .353/.423/.639 with eight homers in 137 plate appearances. He had two first-half stints with the Twins as a rotation fill-in, posting a 6.17 ERA in seven starts, and it's tough to see Hernandez having long-term success as a starter.

Josh Roenicke: .238/.331/.420 in 167 plate appearances

When the Twins claimed Josh Roenicke off waivers in November the story of his career was a big fastball and not much else, including a modest strikeout rate and poor control. His average fastball dipped to 91.2 miles per hour in the first half, but the rest of the story stayed the same with an awful 25-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings. And after some initial success he gave up 14 runs in his final 24 innings with as many walks (15) as strikeouts (15).

Brian Duensing: .300/.373/.393 in 159 plate appearances

Brian Duensing flopped as a starter, but has yet to rediscover his previous success as a reliever. Slated to be the primary left-handed setup man, Duensing struggled against lefties and righties while posting a 4.67 ERA and 30-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35 innings and spent the final month or so of the first half working mostly in a mop-up role. His inability to handle righties will forever limit Duensing, but the good news is that his trouble with lefties looks like a fluke.

Lefties hit .307 off Duensing in the first half, but that was due to a ridiculously high .408 batting average on balls in play. Delving a little deeper, he posted a great 20-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio versus lefties and held them to just one homer in 82 plate appearances. Despite the rough first half not much has really changed with Duensing, but unfortunately that just means he's still a decent middle reliever who's a bad bet facing righties and a good bet facing lefties.

Casey Fien: .179/.217/.284 in 146 plate appearances

Burton and Duensing struggling as the main setup men pushed Casey Fien into a more prominent late-inning role and he responded by continuing to thrive. Not only did he have a 3.03 ERA and 42-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 first-half innings, dating back to his debut with the Twins last season Fien has a 2.57 ERA and 74-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 frames. Not bad for a guy who joined the Twins as a minor-league free agent last offseason at age 28.

He's probably due to come back down to earth at least a little bit and if that does happen it'll likely stem from serving up too many homers, as Fien was an extreme fly-ball pitcher in the minors and has one of the 10 lowest ground-ball rates in the majors since last season. However, his overall track record in the minors showed someone capable of being a quality middle reliever and so far he's allowed just seven homers in 287 plate appearances.

Glen Perkins: .172/.221/.262 in 131 plate appearances

Glen Perkins' first full season as the Twins' closer has been an overwhelming success except for the part about the team failing to find him consistent work. Perkins converted 21 of 23 saves with a 1.82 ERA and 47-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34.2 innings, holding opponents to a .172 batting average. That's about as dominant as a pitcher can be and Perkins was rewarded with his first All-Star selection, yet the Twins used their All-Star closer for just 131 batters in 92 games.

Some of that stems from their lack of late leads, but Ron Gardenhire's refusal to use Perkins in non-save situations is the real culprit. Not only have 100 different relievers thrown more innings than Perkins, six Twins relievers have worked more. It's gotten so bad that Perkins requested more action, but Gardenhire continues to manage the bullpen around the save statistic while calling on lesser relievers in game-changing spots. Perkins is great, but his usage is terrible.

Kyle Gibson: .315/.392/.393 in 102 plate appearances

In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery Kyle Gibson entered spring training in the mix for a rotation spot, but pitched his way out of the immediate plans and then the Twins decided to keep him at Triple-A for three months. He was one of the International League's best pitchers, posting a 3.01 ERA with tons of ground balls and a 79-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings, and after going through eight other starters the Twins finally called him up three weeks ago.

Gibson had a very nice debut followed by three mostly poor outings, but looking beyond the ugly 6.45 ERA he induced 51 percent ground balls, generated a decent number of swinging strikes, and averaged 92.3 miles per hour with his fastball. Ultimately the key for Gibson is whether he can get enough strikeouts to be more than a mid-rotation starter who throws strikes and kills worms. At this point the jury is still very much out and his second-half workload may be limited.

Caleb Thielbar: .103/.205/.221 in 78 plate appearances

Twenty straight scoreless innings is an amazing start to anyone's career, let alone a 26-year-old rookie signed out of independent ball in 2011. Caleb Thielbar turned what looked likely to be a short-term call-up into a two-month gig, and while his secondary numbers and inherited runners allowed paint a much less impressive picture than his sparkling ERA he's shown more than enough to stick around with 21 strikeouts in 21 innings and 11 percent swinging strikes.

Note: For a similar first-half review of the Twins' hitters, click here.


This week's blog content is sponsored by the Twins Daily light rail pub crawl/Twins game, where you can join Aaron Gleeman, John Bonnes, Parker Hageman, Nick Nelson, and Seth Stohs for a day of bar-hopping and baseball on September 14. Space is limited, so book your spot.

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