November 20, 2013

Twins Notes: Bartlett, Welker, Johnson, Ibarra, Rosario, and Fryer

jason bartlett twins

• After being injured and ineffective in 2012 and sitting out all of this season Jason Bartlett is making a comeback, signing a minor-league deal with the Twins. During his first stint as general manager Terry Ryan traded Brian Buchanan to the Padres in mid-2002 for Bartlett, who was a 22-year-old non-prospect at Single-A. He later became the Twins' starting shortstop, although not before being stuck at Triple-A for far too long so they could play Juan Castro instead.

Bartlett has the third-highest OPS among all shortstops in Twins history, but at age 27 he was traded to the Rays as part of the Matt Garza-for-Delmon Young disaster. Bartlett played well in Tampa Bay for three years, including an All-Star season in 2009, but hasn't been the same since being traded to San Diego. He's now 34 years old and hasn't been healthy and productive since 2010, but considering the other infield options it won't be shocking if Bartlett snags a bench job.

• Back in August the Twins traded Justin Morneau to the Pirates for outfielder Alex Presley and reliever Duke Welker, except they couldn't officially announce Welker's inclusion at the time and instead insisted that they would be choosing a player to be named later from a predetermined list. Six weeks later it became official, as the Twins acquired Welker as the PTBNL. And then yesterday, less than three months after the initial trade, the Twins sent Welker back to the Pirates.

In a move totally separate from the Morneau swap the Twins traded Welker back to Pittsburgh for left-hander Kris Johnson, a 29-year-old career minor leaguer who finally got to the big leagues in August. Welker never appeared in a game as a member of the Twins organization and the oddness of the trade extends beyond that because he's a mid-90s thrower with strong strikeout rates and Johnson has a low-90s fastball with a 4.76 ERA in 431 career innings at Triple-A.

That includes a shiny 2.39 ERA at Triple-A this year, but Johnson managed just 94 strikeouts in 136 innings and had a sub par walk rate. For his Triple-A career Johnson has 5.9 strikeouts and 3.4 walks per nine innings, which is terrible. It's possible that he'll be able to stick for a while as a fifth starter or middle reliever and odds are Welker won't have much of a career anyway, but I'd have taken my chances on the hard-throwing pitcher who hasn't been awful at Triple-A.

• Speaking of left-handers with nice-looking ERAs and poor secondary numbers, the Twins added 24-year-old reliever Edgar Ibarra to the 40-man roster. He posted a 1.93 ERA this year between Double-A and Triple-A to convince the Twins he needed protecting from the Rule 5 draft, but he's not a hard-thrower and a 54-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 innings was unimpressive. Ibarra also had a 4.69 ERA with poor control and just 69 strikeouts in 79 innings last season.

• There's been no confirmation from the Twins yet, but based on this Spanish-language report it sounds like second base prospect Eddie Rosario is facing a 50-game suspension. Rosario ranked seventh on my list of Twins prospects coming into the year and hit .302/.350/.460 in 122 games between high Single-A and Double-A as a 21-year-old, likely rising even higher on the 2014 list and putting himself in position to reach Minnesota in the second half.

• When the Twins called up Eric Fryer for September catching depth my assumption was that he'd be dropped from the 40-man roster as soon as the season ended, yet two months later he remains. Fryer isn't quite the new Drew Butera, but he's a 28-year-old career .208/.312/.313 hitter at Triple-A who has no real business on a 40-man roster regardless of how worried the Twins are about their catching situation with Joe Mauer moving to first base.

• In preparation for the Rule 5 draft the Twins added Max Kepler, Logan Darnell, Jorge Polanco, and Kennys Vargas to the 40-man roster and dropped B.J. Hermsen. No surprises.

Clete Thomas, who started 79 of the Twins' final 105 games this year before being removed from the 40-man roster last month, signed a minor-league contract with the Phillies.

Pedro Hernandez, the soft-tossing left-hander acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade, was also dropped from the 40-man roster and signed with the Rockies.

Antoan Richardson, a journeyman outfielder who never got a chance with the Twins this year despite hitting .285 with a .404 on-base percentage in the minors, signed with the Yankees.

• For a lengthy discussion of Mauer switching positions and an attempt to figure out the Twins' odds of signing a big-money pitcher, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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June 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Gibson’s debut, Buxton’s promotion, and Slama’s release

kyle gibson rochester

• It took Mike Pelfrey going on the disabled list with a back injury, but the Twins finally called up Kyle Gibson from Triple-A. Gibson will start Saturday at Target Field against the Royals, making his debut four months before his 26th birthday and nearly 22 months after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in 2011. He'll be the ninth different pitcher to start a game for the Twins this season, which shows the lengths they went to avoid calling up Gibson.

He leaves Rochester having thrown at least six innings in seven consecutive starts, posting a 2.20 ERA and 41-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 49 innings over that span. Overall in 15 starts there Gibson had a 3.01 ERA and 79-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings, holding opponents to a .229 batting average and four homers in 371 plate appearances. His age and modest strikeout rate keep Gibson from being an elite pitching prospect, but he's plenty good and very ready.

Gibson has never missed a ton of bats, but the 6-foot-6 right-hander throws harder than a typical Twins starting pitcher and has a chance to post an above-average strikeout rate in the majors. His main strength is keeping the ball out of the air, with 57 percent ground balls and just 16 homers in 210 career innings at Triple-A. To put that in some context, only four MLB starting pitchers have a ground-ball rate above 55 percent this season. If things go well he has No. 2 starter upside.

• Gibson is presumably in Minnesota to stay, which could get tricky because of a team-imposed innings limit in his first full season back from surgery. It's been tough to nail down specifics on Gibson's workload cap, but it's likely somewhere around 130-150 innings and he's already thrown 93 innings at Triple-A. If he started every fifth day for the rest of the season he'd be in line for 17 starts and even at just five innings per outing that's 85 innings. He'd fly past any limit.

Gibson sticking around for good would also require dumping someone from the rotation whenever Pelfrey returns from the DL. Pelfrey could be that someone considering he's signed to a one-year deal and has a 6.11 ERA in 14 starts, but P.J. Walters would also be an obvious candidate to dump. Walters imploded Saturday against the Indians, failing to make it out of the first inning, and now has a 5.42 ERA in 18 starts for the Twins.

Walters has a 6.06 ERA in 144 total innings as a major leaguer, which is about what you'd expect from a 28-year-old with a 4.45 ERA in 597 innings at Triple-A. There's little in his lengthy track record to suggest more than a replacement-level starter. He was acquired on a minor-league deal last offseason, passed through waivers unclaimed shortly after the season, and then re-signed on another minor-league contract.

• Two weeks after promoting Miguel Sano from high Single-A to Double-A the Twins promoted Byron Buxton from low Single-A to high Single-A. Buxton wound up playing 68 games for Cedar Rapids and stuffed the stat sheet by hitting .341/.431/.559 with eight homers, 33 total extra-base hits, 32 stolen bases, and a 56-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is incredible production from a 19-year-old center fielder in a league where the average player is 22.

As of the promotion Buxton led the Midwest League in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, triples, and runs. He also ranked second in batting average and third in walks, steals, and RBIs. It doesn't get any better for a stud prospect's first exposure to full-season competition and as Jeff Johnson of the Cedar Rapids Gazette pointed out Buxton's performance looks a lot like what Angels superstar Mike Trout did as Cedar Rapids' center fielder back in 2010:

            PA     AVG     OBP     SLG    HR   XBH    BB    SO    SB
Trout      388    .358    .452    .514     6    32    45    76    45
Buxton     320    .341    .431    .559     8    33    44    56    32

It's worth noting that Trout was 18 when he played for Cedar Rapids and Buxton is 19, but those numbers are close enough to make me grin from ear to ear. Trout got promoted to high Single-A for the second half of 2010, crushed Double-A to begin 2011, and made his MLB debut that July at 19. And now he's the best player in baseball. None of which means Buxton is destined to become the next Trout, but so far at least he's walking in Trout's footsteps.

• Here's a complete list of all the teenagers with an OPS of .975 or higher in the Midwest League during the past 30 years:

Byron Buxton      2013     .990
Javier Baez       2012     .979
Oscar Taveras     2011    1.028
Mike Trout        2010     .979
Alex Rodriguez    1994     .984
Larry Walker      1986    1.011

Six total players in 30 seasons. Buxton, Oscar Taveras, and Javier Baez are currently among the top 20 prospects in baseball, Trout is the best player in baseball at age 21, Alex Rodriguez is a three-time MVP with 647 career homers, and Larry Walker is a three-time batting champ with an MVP. Buxton has a long way to go, but doing what he just did as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League is special.

• For years I wrote about how frustrating it was that the Twins refused to give Anthony Slama an extended opportunity in the majors despite extraordinary numbers in the minors and now it's too late. Slama is nearly 30 years old and injuries have started to pile up, causing him to struggle for the first time this season at Triple-A and leading to the Twins releasing him. Not exactly how I envisioned the whole "Free Anthony Slama" campaign ending.

Prior to this year Slama had a 1.99 ERA and 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings in six seasons as a minor leaguer, including a 2.27 ERA and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings at Triple-A. And yet for all that dominance in the minors the Twins saw fit to give him a grand total of just seven innings in the majors, relegating him to Triple-A for parts of five seasons before finally cutting him loose as a shell of his former self.

It's a real shame, not because Slama was capable of being an elite reliever but because he was certainly deserving of a chance to show that he was at least capable of being a useful part of a major-league bullpen. His raw stuff didn't match his incredible numbers, but Slama threw in the low-90s just like plenty of other successful relievers and the Twins have given bullpen jobs to all sorts of awful pitchers over the years. I'll never understand why they ignored him.

• In the past week Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff and St. Paul Pioneer Press beat reporter Mike Berardino have separately compared Oswaldo Arcia to Bobby Abreu. Both players are relatively short and stocky left-handed-hitting corner outfielders from Venezuela, which may be where a lot of the comparison stems from, but in terms of actual skill sets Arcia and Abreu are very different.

Abreu was among the most disciplined hitters of his era, drawing 100 walks eight seasons in a row, at least 70 walks every year from 1998 to 2011, and the 22nd-most walks of all time. He even averaged 80 walks per 150 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Meanwhile, if Arcia has one clear weakness as a hitter it's his lack of strike zone control. He has 40 strikeouts versus 12 walks in the majors after posting a 92-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Double-A and Triple-A.

Abreu was also a good base-stealer, with at least 20 steals in 13 straight seasons and 399 career steals at a 76 percent success rate. Arcia has 29 steals in 449 pro games and has been caught 22 times. There's no doubt that Arcia has huge long-term upside and Twins fans should be thrilled if he's anywhere near as valuable as Abreu, who played 17 seasons and hit .292/.396/.477 with 300 homers, 400 steals, and 4,000 times on base. But stylistically any comparison seems forced.

• Just like Buxton last year, No. 4 pick Kohl Stewart signed with the Twins just two weeks after the draft. He agreed to the exact slot bonus recommendation of $4,544,400 and will begin his pro career in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Of the Twins' top 15 picks only second-rounder Ryan Eades, fifth-rounder Aaron Slegers, and eighth-rounder Dustin DeMuth are unsigned and all three are expected to agree to deals eventually.

• Two weeks ago I wrote about Triple-A center fielder/on-base machine Antoan Richardson and he hasn't slowed down. Richardson is now hitting .317/.454/.413 with 58 walks and 29 steals in 71 games between Double-A and Triple-A, raising his career on-base percentage to .404. As a 29-year-old journeyman with little power he's not exactly a hot prospect, but a switch-hitter with good speed and a .450 OBP seems worth giving an opportunity to at some point.

• Nearing the midway point of the season the Twins are 10-2 against the Brewers and White Sox compared to 24-36 versus every other team, which is probably the most fun way to be 34-38.

Joe Mauer has scored 53 percent more runs than anyone else on the Twins. He's on pace for 103 runs. No one else is on pace for more than 68.

• Pitching staff walks: Twins 193, Tigers 197. Pitching staff strikeouts: Twins 424, Tigers 701.

• MLB.com headline: "Phillies remaining patient with Delmon Young."

• For a lot more about Gibson's call-up, Arcia's upside, and Richardson's on-base skills check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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June 12, 2013

Twins Notes: Sano, Buxton, Hicks, Arcia, Rosario, and Richardson

miguel sano fort myers

• Last year the Twins kept Miguel Sano at low Single-A for the entire season despite his having the second-highest OPS in the Midwest League. He moved up to high Single-A to begin this year and was even better, so this time around the Twins decided that a promotion was in order after two months of Florida State League destruction. Sano fittingly homered twice in his final game for Fort Myers, including a monstrous blast in his last at-bat.

Overall he hit .330/.424/.655 with 16 homers in 56 games, leading the FSL in homers, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage despite being the league's youngest hitter. It just doesn't get much better for a 20-year-old stud prospect and in fact no FSL hitter of any age has topped his OPS since 27-year-old Morgan Burkhart in 1999. Sano even stole nine bases at an 82 percent clip and reviews of his defense at third base have been a little more positive than last year.

And now he moves up to Double-A, where the average pitcher is five years older than Sano and both the off-speed pitches and command are much sharper than Single-A. It's a huge test for a truly elite hitting prospect, so even holding his own there at age 20 would be more evidence that Sano is very special and thriving there would put him on the verge of the majors. Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia arrived in Minnesota having played a combined nine games at Triple-A.

• Presumably the Twins considered promoting Byron Buxton in tandem with Sano to give Fort Myers a new stud prospect after losing the FSL's best hitter. For now at least Buxton remains at low Single-A, where he's batting .350/.444/.578 with 29 extra-base hits, 26 steals, and nearly as many walks (39) as strikeouts (44) in 58 games as a 19-year-old. Toss in standout defense in center field and Buxton's performance has been every bit as impressive as Sano's.

FOX Sports North broadcast Monday afternoon's Cedar Rapids game and Buxton put on a show, going 3-for-4 with a bases-loaded double off the left-center field wall, a legged-out triple on a ball that didn't even get to the right-center field wall, and a spectacular sprawling catch. No doubt the Twins wanted to avoid promoting Buxton until after FSN's special broadcast, but the kid is leading the Midwest League in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

Eddie Rosario and Angel Morales are joining Sano in getting the promotion from Fort Myers to New Britain. Rosario ranked No. 7 on my annual Twins prospect list coming into the season and has improved his stock since then, batting .329/.377/.527 with 24 extra-base hits in 52 games at high Single-A as a 21-year-old and reportedly getting more comfortable defensively in his ongoing transition from center fielder to second baseman.

Morales once ranked among the Twins' top prospects, but injuries and poor performances have sent the 2007 third-round pick's stock plummeting in recent years. He turned things around in a big way at Fort Myers, batting .297/.364/.525 with 28 extra-base hits and 20 walks in 55 games as the everyday center fielder, but it's worth noting that Morales is 23 years old and had already played there for part of 2011 and all of 2012.

• Hicks' hamstring injury puts on hold the rookie's slow climb to respectability following a brutal 2-for-48 start to his career. Hicks has hit .225/.275/.423 in 42 games since then, which is at least more in line with standard rookie struggles. Oddly enough when Hicks couldn't buy a hit he drew walks in bunches, but he's walked just 10 times versus 36 strikeouts in those 42 games. His less patient approach resulted in plenty of pop, with six homers and a .198 Isolated Power.

To replace Hicks on the roster the Twins recalled Arcia from Triple-A just two weeks after sending him back there in part due to a lack of consistent playing time. Arcia clearly has no business in center field, the corner outfield logjam hasn't lessened any in the meantime, and he hit just .218 in 15 games at Triple-A between call-ups, so it's not exactly an ideal situation. Also far from ideal: Clete Thomas will presumably be the everyday center fielder with Hicks out.

• Thomas was playing well in Rochester, but he's a .250/.326/.423 hitter in 400 career Triple-A games and at 29 years old is the epitome of a replacement-level outfielder. Darin Mastroianni's ankle injury left the Twins short on center field depth and that's what replacement-level talent is there for, but if they were turning to a Triple-A journeyman as a stop gap Antoan Richardson would have been a more interesting call-up.

Richardson is the same age as Thomas and has only a brief cup of coffee with the Braves in 2011, but he's hit .314 with a .451 on-base percentage between Double-A and Triple-A this season and has a .404 OBP for his career. Thomas has much more power and perhaps the Twins don't trust Richardson's defense, but the switch-hitter has topped a .400 OBP in three straight seasons while averaging 40 steals per 150 games. Why not give him a shot in the unproductive leadoff spot?

• For the second time in two weeks the Twins lost a former top prospect in order to clear 40-man roster space. Joe Benson was claimed off waivers by the Rangers and now Tyler Robertson was claimed off waivers by the Nationals. At this point Benson and Robertson are long shots to become valuable big leaguers, but they at least have some upside remaining and the same can't be said of 40-man roster holdovers like Drew Butera and Cole De Vries.

When discussing the Twins' haul in last week's draft it's worth noting that Benson and Robertson were their second- and third-round picks in 2006. They both developed well enough to emerge as good prospects, with Benson even cracking Baseball America's top 100 in back-to-back seasons, only to be lost for nothing. Neither loss is hugely troubling in a vacuum, but considering how much the Twins preach patience with prospects it's frustrating to lose talent when it could be avoided.

Alex Meyer, the 6-foot-9 right-hander who was acquired from the Nationals for Denard Span and ranks as the Twins' best pitching prospect, is on the Double-A disabled list with shoulder soreness. Hopefully it proves to be a minor injury, because Meyer was off to a very good start with a 3.69 ERA and 73-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 innings while holding opponents to a .226 batting average and just three homers.

• It took seven seasons, but Carlos Gomez is finally living up to his potential by becoming one of the best all-around players in baseball. Unfortunately it's coming far too late to help the Twins and Gomez's recent comments about how he's changed as a hitter sound a lot like David Ortiz's old comments when he started thriving with the Red Sox:

Before, Carlos Gomez tried to put the ball in play, hit the ball on the ground, because that's what people wanted. That takes my ability out. That's not me. I'm a free swinger. I like to swing hard, whether I have one or two strikes. When I step to the plate, I try to hit a home run.

I may hit a ball to right field, but I'm not trying to. I’m letting my instincts and my ability do the job. I'm looking for my pitch, a pitch I can hit out of the ballpark. If they throw me a different pitch, I can make the change and hit the ball the other way. If I try to hit the ball the other way, I get in trouble, because I slow down my swing. That’s not me.

Obviously the Brewers deserve credit for Gomez's development, but he joins Ortiz and some other less prominent players in suggesting that the Twins stifled power potential by forcing hitters to fit their preferred mold.

Scott Diamond allowed double-digit hits Sunday for the sixth time in 45 starts and opponents are now batting .293 off him for his career. That ranks as the fifth-highest batting average against in Twins history among all pitchers with 250 or more innings:

Travis Miller      .304
Nick Blackburn     .303
Carlos Silva       .303
Bob Tewksbury      .294
Scott Diamond      .293

If you can't strike anyone out you're going to give up a ton of hits and the above list is basically a mediocre middle reliever and four of the biggest pitch-to-contact starters you'll ever find.

• In the American League there are 66 pitchers with at least 50 innings and only three of them have a strikeout rate below 4.5 per nine innings: Diamond, Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey.

• Last year the Twins drafted Connecticut second baseman L.J. Mazzilli in the ninth round and he ended up being their highest pick not to sign, returning to school for his senior season. Mazzilli hit .354/.408/.515 with 29 steals in 63 games and was drafted by the Mets in the fourth round, so Lee Mazzilli's son probably earned himself an extra $250,000.

• Current third base coach and former hitting coach Joe Vavra's son, Valparaiso infielder Tanner Vavra, was drafted by the Twins in the 30th round. Nepotism aside Vavra has an incredible story, overcoming being blinded in his right eye by two serious childhood injuries to hit .332 as a junior and .330 as a senior. He's very much a legitimate late-round pick.

• General managers usually get the credit or blame for draft picks, but Terry Ryan talked to Parker Hageman of Twins Daily about why that's misleading.

• Since taking over for Matt Capps last season Glen "Proven Closer" Perkins has converted 30-of-34 save chances with a 2.31 ERA and 77-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 66 innings.

Delmon Young in 225 games since leaving the Twins: .263/.296/.424 with 171 strikeouts, 33 walks, and 31 double plays. Toss in defense and he's been worth -1.5 Wins Above Replacement.

Francisco Liriano has a 1.75 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 36 innings for the Pirates.

• For a lot more about Sano's promotion and the Twins' draft, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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