August 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Thome, Oliveros, Blackburn, Swarzak, Neshek, and Hardy

Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the Twins placed Jason Kubel and Jim Thome on revocable waivers yesterday, which is no surprise and doesn't necessarily mean anything. Both impending free agents will likely be claimed, at which point the Twins can either work out a trade with the claiming team or pull them back for the rest of 2011. They won't have options or leverage, but trading Thome and to a lesser extent Kubel could still be worthwhile.

• It took the Twins about 72 hours to choose Lester Oliveros as the player to be named later in the Delmon Young trade and then less than a week to call him up, adding the 23-year-old to the bullpen while placing Nick Blackburn on the disabled list with a forearm strain. Oliveros' fastball velocity and minor-league strikeout rates make him intriguing, but his awful control is a big hurdle to get over if he's going to become a useful late-inning option.

• For the second straight season Blackburn has pitched horribly before revealing an arm injury. Last year he earned a late-July demotion to Triple-A by throwing 104 innings with a 6.66 ERA, returned a month later to pitch well down the stretch, and then had elbow surgery. This year he was very good through mid-June, posted a 7.01 ERA and .366 opponents' batting average in his next 11 starts, and exited Sunday's game with "sharp pain" in his forearm.

Anthony Swarzak will step into the rotation for Blackburn, which is a perfect opportunity for Swarzak to convince the Twins that he's more than just a long reliever. His miniscule strikeout rate and mediocre minor-league track record suggest he's been pitching over his head and will be overmatched as a full-time starter, but Swarzak has certainly earned the chance to prove the numbers are wrong with a rubber-armed 3.12 ERA in 66 innings.

J.J. Hardy going deep last night might have been the most inevitable homer of all time or at least the most inevitable homer since Young's first post-trade swing last week. Hardy now has 24 homers for the Orioles, which is the most by an AL East shortstop since Miguel Tejada back in 2006. Hardy has 24 homers in 383 at-bats while the Twins' entire infield, including everyone to play first base, second base, shortstop, or third base, has 37 homers in 2,328 at-bats.

• Gardenhire claimed yesterday that Hardy "was probably going to be non-tendered" by the Twins if they hadn't traded him to Baltimore, except they actually tendered Hardy a contract on December 2 and didn't trade him until December 9. Perhaps they already had the framework of a deal in place, in which case Gardenhire is telling the truth about their misguided plan to cut Hardy for nothing. Ultimately the only difference is the degree of the Twins' ineptitude.

• On other hand, Gardenhire saying that the Twins planned to non-tender Young this winter if they hadn't traded him to the Tigers is totally believable and equally justified. Much like with Hardy they got whatever modest return they could for Young rather than simply cut him loose for nothing, but the fact that they apparently viewed Hardy then and Young now in the same light is pretty discouraging from a player evaluation standpoint.

• Also discouraging was Hardy strongly hinting that the Orioles' training staff has done a much better job than the Twins' training staff, which unfortunately isn't difficult to believe given the Twins' incredible number of injuries and failures to meet recovery timetables this year.

• Old friend Pat Neshek has been designated for assignment by the Padres after throwing 25 innings with a 4.02 ERA and more walks (22) than strikeouts (20). Neshek has been hard to hit with a .216 opponents' batting average, but between the hideous strikeout-to-walk ratio and an average fastball velocity of 86.4 miles per hour he hasn't made the Twins regret letting him go for nothing during spring training.

Jim Callis of Baseball America crunched the numbers for the past five drafts and reports that the Pirates and Nationals led all MLB teams in spending at $52 million and $51 million while the White Sox were last in spending at $18 million. During the five-year span the Twins were 25th in spending at $24 million, which is largely due to having just one top-20 pick and zero top-10 picks from 2007 to 2011.

• Speaking of the draft, after last night's loss the Twins are in line for the No. 5 pick next year. Last time they picked higher than 14th was in 2001, when they took Joe Mauer first overall.

Jeff Sullivan of SB Nation reviewed Mauer's first career appearance in the outfield and found that playing right field seems pretty damn easy most of the time.

Ron Gardenhire's history with umpire Hunter Wendelstedt trumped his history with Danny Valencia last night, so hopefully the manager and his third baseman at least cracked a couple beers together in the clubhouse after their dual ejections.

Ben Revere's iffy routes, weak arm, and six errors in just 60 games in center field have been frustrating, but last night he made one of the best, most spectacular catches I've ever seen.

John Bonnes and I are slated to record the second episode of our "Gleeman and The Geek" podcast tonight, so hopefully you'll be able to download it here or on iTunes in the morning. If you'd like to ask us questions to be answered on the show or want podcast-related updates, follow @GleemanAndGeek on Twitter.

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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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August 8, 2011

Twins Notes: The fat lady is clearing her throat

• When the July 31 trade deadline came and went without a move of any kind by the Twins it signaled that the front office had talked themselves out of being sellers by virtue of hanging around the edges of contention in a horrible division, yet still didn't quite feel strong enough about their chances to actually become buyers. So instead they did literally nothing, failing to cash in impending free agents for future value and failing to acquire any short-term help.

And now a week later the team looks just about finished, getting swept at home by the White Sox for the first time since 2004 while falling to 1-5 since the trade deadline passed and 5-12 since the beginning of a crucial four-game series versus the Tigers on July 21. They're also now 51-63 overall and have been out-scored by 108 runs through 115 games for MLB's third-worst run differential ahead of only the cellar-dwelling Astros and Orioles. This is simply a bad team.

What makes that disappointment all the more frustrating is a sense that the Twins may have squandered an opportunity to better position themselves for the future by refusing to view the current situation realistically. Maybe they'll cash in some veterans before the secondary August 31 trade deadline and maybe they'll recoup some of that squandered value via compensatory draft picks, but none of that's a given and right now it sure seems like they played it wrong.

Michael Cuddyer was without question the Twins' most sought-after player at the deadline, reportedly drawing interest from the Giants, Phillies, and various other contending teams that eventually paid premium prices for veteran bats. Rather than swap the 32-year-old impending free agent for long-term help in what was a strong seller's market the Twins turned away all inquiries while making it obvious that they wanted to re-sign Cuddyer.

Sure enough, Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Twins recently offered Cuddyer a two-year, $16 million contract extension, which he predictably turned down. Offering much more than that would be a big mistake by the Twins, but from Cuddyer's point of view he'd be silly to accept it. For one thing that represents a sizable pay cut from his current $10.5 million salary and Cuddyer is in the midst of arguably the best season of his career.

Beyond that many of those same teams linked to Cuddyer at the trade deadline would also be linked to him as a free agent and even if he ultimately wants to remain in Minnesota it surely wouldn't be all that difficult to coax the Twins into raising their offer on the open market. After all, the Twins' message through the media all year has been what an amazing player, person, and teammate Cuddyer is and it's hard to believe their maximum bid for that is $16 million.

• Several members of the big-league rotation have been struggling for a while now and Kevin Slowey has a 3.55 ERA and 29-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings at Triple-A, but to no one's surprise the Twins aren't interested in letting him out of the doghouse. Ron Gardenhire explained during an interview with 1500-ESPN that Anthony Swarzak, not Slowey, will get the nod if the Twins make a rotation change and repeated the company line on Slowey:

Who knows what's going to happen with him? He's a good pitcher. He's got a great arm. Unfortunately for us, he just couldn't pitch out of the bullpen and it just wasn't going to work out for him. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to go with that. ... Unfortunately, he couldn't do the bullpen thing, and that didn't help us. It didn't help us at all. So we definitely have to look at this thing as we go along.

Gardenhire also dropped plenty of hints about the team still being upset with Slowey, saying:

That's definitely a situation you have to monitor. I don't know about rehabilitating, that's totally up to him whether he wants to come up and be a part of it. And he's definitely going to be in the mix again for next year, unless something happens over the course of the winter where he gets moved, because he's a good pitcher. He can get people out, there's no doubt about that.

Slowey deserves plenty of blame for how he handled the situation--which he's certainly gotten and then some--but the Twins' refusal to take any responsibility is galling. Slowey didn't simply balk at becoming a reliever, he balked at becoming a reliever after four years as a starter with a 39-21 record and 4.42 ERA. And the Twins created the situation by choosing Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn over Slowey in a questionable decision that hasn't gone well.

Blackburn has a 5.00 ERA and .302 opponents' batting average in 291 innings since last year, including allowing 39 runs in his last 33 innings. Duensing's inability to get right-handed hitters out has been exposed as a starter and in 98 innings since May 1 his ERA is 5.13 while giving up a .295 batting average and .475 slugging percentage. Slowey can't be blamed for their bad performances and the Twins should be held accountable for the choices they made.

• Swarzak has fared well as both a starter and a long reliever, throwing 59 innings with a 3.20 ERA, but his track record is spotty and his current secondary numbers paint a less encouraging picture if he were to grab hold of a rotation spot. His control has been solid, but with just 29 strikeouts in 53 innings Swarzak has a lower strikeout rate than even Blackburn's minuscule mark and his fly-ball rate would be the third-highest in the league among starters.

If you're not missing bats and nearly half of your balls in play are hit in the air ... well, it's not a recipe for long-term success. Those weaknesses haven't caught up to Swarzak yet because his batting average on balls in play is an unsustainably low .249 compared to the MLB average of .290 and just 5.3 percent of his fly balls have gone for homers compared to the average of 9.2 percent. All of which is why his ERA is a sparkling 3.20 and his xFIP is 4.79.

• One key decision that the Twins absolutely made correctly was not signing Francisco Liriano to a long-term extension coming off his excellent 2010. Doofuses like me called it a mistake, but Liriano has taken several massive steps backward. Compared to 2010 his fastball is down 1.8 miles per hour, his strikeouts are down 23 percent, his ground balls are down 7 percent, and he's already walked more batters (59) in 111 innings than he did (58) in 192 innings. Yuck.

Joe Mauer has batted second in the lineup while playing first base three times so far, which got me curious about which first basemen through baseball history have hit in the No. 2 spot most often. Via the always amazing Baseball-Reference.com the answer is Jake Daubert, who did it 659 times from 1910 to 1924, followed by Pete Rose (487), Vic Power (408), Jack Burns (402), and Rod Carew (387). Power and Carew both racked up a lot of those games as Twins.

Denard Span went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts yesterday, making him 1-for-20 with one walk and six strikeouts since returning from his concussion. He also went 8-for-39 (.205) with zero walks and five strikeouts while rehabbing at Triple-A. Obviously plenty of rust is to be expected after two months on the sidelines, but given the type of injury and Span's previously fantastic strike-zone control his 11-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is worrisome.

Alexi Casilla has been on the disabled list since July 28, during which time the Twins played 10 games. Matt Tolbert started six of them and Trevor Plouffe started four of them. It'll soon be a moot point with Casilla scheduled to return shortly, but apparently Plouffe's spectacular performance at Triple-A can't even convince Gardenhire to play him over Tolbert, a 29-year-old career .232/.289/.326 hitter. Now should be the time to see what Plouffe can do.

• As if the Twins haven't had enough go wrong this season, now 2009 first-round pick and top prospect Kyle Gibson has an elbow injury that may require Tommy John surgery. Gibson was finally shut down at Triple-A following a six-week stretch in which he went 0-5 with a 6.47 ERA and the Twins' doctors are scheduled to examine the right-hander and his MRI results today. Surgery would knock the 23-year-old Gibson out for all of 2012 and potentially part of 2013.

• Things aren't looking good for Gibson, but at least 2010 first-round Alex Wimmers seems to be back on track after sitting out three months with extreme control problems. He tossed four scoreless innings of relief Saturday at high Single-A, striking out six and giving up just two hits. And most importantly Wimmers issued only one walk. He has a 23-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 innings since rejoining Fort Myers, including 13/2 in his last three appearances.

• Too little too late, but still good to see: Justin Morneau went 3-for-5 with a double last night while rehabbing at Triple-A.

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July 18, 2011

Twins Notes: Closer changes, monster homers, regrets, and somersaults

Matt Capps blew a 1-0 lead and took the loss Friday, serving up a mammoth two-run homer to Royals rookie Eric Hosmer for his league-leading seventh blown save of the year, at which point Ron Gardenhire finally made a change at closer. Gardenhire turned back to former closer Joe Nathan rather than give the bullpen's most effective reliever, Glen Perkins, his first shot in the role, which I agreed last week makes the most sense as a short-term solution.

Perkins may eventually prove to be an elite closer, but he's been so valuable in part because of Gardenhire's willingness to use him in crucial spots whenever the need arises, whereas the manager's closer usage has always been far more rigid. For now at least I'd rather see Perkins throw 80 innings in a variety of tight situations than 65 innings with a lead of 1-3 runs in the ninth inning and Nathan's past closer experience makes the move even more of a no-brainer.

Nathan hasn't looked quite like his pre-surgery self, but he's still been impressive since coming off the disabled list in mid-June. His velocity is up compared to earlier this season, he pitched on three straight days over the weekend for the first time since 2009, and Nathan has allowed just one run in 9.1 innings since the month-long DL trip, with seven strikeouts versus one walk and a .125 opponents' batting average. As for Capps, there isn't much left to say at this point.

By focusing on save totals and supposed "proven closer" status the Twins overvalued a setup-caliber pitcher, paying a premium in players and money. It was a huge mistake then and looks even bigger now, but Capps has also fallen apart. He's managed just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is 30 percent below his career rate, and command issues have hitters teeing off on what's always been a nearly all-fastball repertoire. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• Fortunately even with Capps turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 loss Friday night the Twins began the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figures to define the season by taking three of four from the Royals. They're now just five games below .500 for the first time since April and sit five games back in the AL Central with the first-place Indians and second-place Tigers coming to town for back-to-back four-game series. Giddy up.

Scott Baker was scheduled to start Game 1 of today's doubleheader versus the Indians, but was scratched from that outing yesterday and placed on the disabled list with the elbow injury that prematurely ended his last start on July 5. Scott Diamond will start in Baker's spot, as the Twins bypassed No. 1 prospect and Triple-A rotation-mate Kyle Gibson. Kevin Slowey wasn't an option because he last started Friday at Rochester.

Diamond hasn't impressed at Triple-A, posting a 4.70 ERA and 68-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 innings while allowing opponents to hit .291 off him, but he's fared better of late and the Twins clearly think very highly of him. They picked Diamond in the Rule 5 draft and then, when it was clear there wouldn't be an Opening Day spot for him on the pitching staff, they overpaid to keep him by giving the Braves hard-throwing reliever prospect Billy Bullock.

Under normal circumstances the Twins likely would've replaced the injured Baker with Anthony Swarzak and avoided calling up Diamond (or even adding him to the 40-man roster), but with Swarzak already set to start Game 2 of the doubleheader they needed another stretched-out arm and promoting Gibson for a one-and-done start didn't make sense. And instead of taking Baker's spot tomorrow Gibson started yesterday at Triple-A, coughing up nine runs.

• In addition to sticking Baker on the DL and calling up Diamond the Twins also optioned Matt Tolbert to Triple-A so they could add another pitcher for the doubleheader, increasing the staff to a ridiculous 13 arms. Chuck James never should have been sent back to Triple-A in the first place when the Twins chose to keep Phil Dumatrait over him last month and has continued to dominate with a 2.25 ERA, .197 opponents' batting average, and 48 strikeouts in 40 innings.

Jim Thome's monstrous three-run homer yesterday was the 596th of his Hall of Fame career and came in his 150th game for the Twins. Thome, who earned around $2 million last season and will make about $3 million this year, has hit .264/.392/.573 in those 150 games, with 31 homers and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances. That works out to a .965 OPS, which is by far the best OPS and adjusted OPS+ in Twins history among all hitters with 150 or more games:

                       G      OPS                                 G     OPS+
JIM THOME            150     .965          JIM THOME            150     160
Harmon Killebrew    1939     .901          Harmon Killebrew    1939     148
Joe Mauer            871     .878          Rod Carew           1635     137
Chili Davis          291     .862          Chili Davis          291     135
Justin Morneau      1003     .855          Joe Mauer            871     134

Thome is also the only hitter in Twins history with a slugging percentage above .550 (.573) or an Isolated Power above .300 (.309), topping Harmon Killebrew in each category. My favorite part of Thome's homer may have been Delmon Young's reaction to it from the on-deck circle:

Thome has 31 home runs and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances for the Twins. Young has 45 home runs and 83 walks in 1,884 plate appearances for the Twins.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune talked to a source who says "the Twins have no plans to trade Michael Cuddyer even if they fall from contention" and in fact "an effort will be made to re-sign Cuddyer this fall." Among impending free agents Cuddyer would bring back the most in a trade, but considering his extreme popularity it's certainly not surprising that the Twins aren't shopping him despite various reported interest from contending teams.

As a good but not great 32-year-old making $10.5 million on the verge of free agency Cuddyer is exactly the type of player most sub-.500 teams should be looking to cash in for future value at the trade deadline, but because the division is so weak the Twins aren't like most sub-.500 teams. With that said, not trading Cuddyer for long-term help could be a missed opportunity if they fall out of contention and re-signing him for similar money would be very dangerous.

• Trading away J.J. Hardy, much like trading for Capps, was a poor move at the time that now looks considerably worse. Hardy has hit .278/.335/.490 through 65 games for the Orioles after hitting .302/.356/.436 in his final 65 games for the Twins, and passed up free agency by inking a three-year, $22.5 million extension over the weekend. He surely would have been cheaper for the Twins to sign, but instead they spent $15 million for three years of Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Meanwhile, neither player acquired for Hardy has impressed. Jim Hoey is faring well enough at Triple-A to think he may still provide some value, but he flopped with the Twins by allowing 17 runs in 12 innings as opponents hit .344 with nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (9). Brett Jacobson has split time between the rotation and bullpen at Double-A, posting a 4.24 ERA and ugly 60-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 innings. From the Baltimore Sun extension story:

Hardy, who came over this offseason in a trade with the Minnesota Twins for two minor-league pitchers, is a free agent at season's end and was looking for more stability after being with three teams since 2009. The Orioles have been pleased with his offense, defense, and leadership in the clubhouse.

Funny how that works. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• I've already written plenty about Slowey, so I won't delve back into that situation other than to say for as much harsh criticism as he's taken from fans, media members, and the Twins their handling of him fits on the same list of terrible decisions as the Capps and Hardy trades. He's currently in the rotation at Triple-A, trying to build back arm strength, and Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Pirates and Rockies have expressed interest in Slowey.

Slowey's value has likely never been lower and he's under team control for 2012, so there's no major urgency to move him. On the other hand, that 2012 team control would come with a salary of around $3 million and he's deep enough in the doghouse that it's awfully difficult to imagine digging out, in which case salvaging some kind of value for Slowey might make sense. He's the most likely player to be traded by July 31 whether the Twins are buyers or sellers.

• One offseason move that definitely worked out was not bringing back Nick Punto. Declining his $5 million option and instead giving him a $500,000 buyout was a no-brainer, but given the Twins' lack of quality middle infield depth I thought re-signing him for $1 million would've made sense. He ended up signing a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Cardinals, but missed much of April following hernia surgery and now may need season-ending elbow surgery.

• After taking three months off from game action following his disastrous season debut 2010 first-round pick Alex Wimmers has finally taken a big step in his recovery from extreme control problems. He returned to the mound last week at rookie-ball with just one walk in a scoreless inning, after which the Twins assigned him back to high Single-A. He's nowhere near out of the woods yet, but hopefully Wimmers can get somewhat back on track heading into 2012.

• I've written a few times that Ben Revere runs so fast that it often looks like his feet almost can't keep up as he flies around the bases. He took that to another level Friday night, losing his balance rounding second base and falling into a somersault before ending up on third base with a triple. Revere's long-term upside is still very much in question, but there's no doubt that he's been as fun to watch as a player could possibly be while hitting just .278/.314/.320.

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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.

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