May 2, 2011

Rotation tops, infield middles, and standings bottoms

Kevin Slowey is scheduled to make what could be his final minor-league rehab outing tonight at high Single-A, as the Twins are apparently stretching him out to possibly replace Francisco Liriano in the rotation. Ron Gardenhire hinted during a radio interview Friday afternoon that Liriano might only get one more start to save his rotation spot, but then backed off that stance somewhat while still making it clear that the Twins are seriously considering a change.

No one has praised Liriano's performance last year more than me, but instead of repeating his great secondary numbers with some better luck to take the big step forward into clear-cut ace territory he's taken several huge steps backward. He hasn't been as terrible as the 9.13 ERA suggests, but Liriano has been legitimately awful and compared to last year his strikeouts are down 38 percent, his walks are up 115 percent, and his fastball is missing two miles per hour.

Whether you thought Liriano's performance last year was ace-caliber because of his secondary numbers or merely very good because of his 14 wins and 3.62 ERA, it should be pretty obvious that the pitcher we saw in 2010 isn't the same pitcher we've seen through five starts in 2011. Not only do the Twins look smart for balking at a long-term contract extension for Liriano this offseason, he's been so bad and so different that his health is now a major question mark.

I long for those annoying-at-the-time arguments about whether the Twins' ace was Liriano or Carl Pavano. Liriano's issues are more extreme and have gotten more attention, but Pavano has been plenty terrible himself with a 5.84 ERA through six starts. More worrisome than the bloated ERA is that his strikeout rate continues to plummet, dropping from 7.2 per nine innings in 2009 after the Twins acquired him at midseason to 4.8 last year and now 4.1 this season.

For some context, Nick Blackburn's career rate of 4.3 strikeouts per nine innings is dead last among all active MLB pitchers with 500 innings. Pavano, like Blackburn, doesn't induce enough ground balls to thrive with that few missed bats, particularly with a shoddy defense behind them. As a pitching staff the Twins have managed just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is dead last in MLB. Lots of contact plus sub par defense equals runs in bunches.

Pavano lost to the Royals yesterday, but at least he defeated a trash can in the dugout:

In addition to possibly dumping Liriano from the rotation the Twins also appear to be running out of patience with Alexi Casilla. I never understood why they showed so much faith in him to begin with, basically handing Casilla a starting job in December despite the fact that he was a career .249/.306/.327 hitter with little major-league experience at shortstop and a mediocre defensive track record at second base.

He's struggled even more than usual offensively, batting .190/.257/.286 in 24 games, and his defense has been predictably sloppy and erratic at a position where he started a grand total of 24 times prior to this season. Casilla is overmatched as an everyday player on both sides of the ball, but that should have been pretty clear long before now and unfortunately the options to replace him are lacking because the Twins put so many eggs in his basket all offseason.

Trevor Plouffe is the most obvious in-house replacement and off to a good start at Rochester, but he's also a 25-year-old career .254/.305/.427 hitter in 1,300 plate appearances at Triple-A who draws mixed reviews defensively at shortstop. Plouffe will bring more power to the table than Casilla and probably be somewhat less mistake-prone, but he's a mediocre prospect and hardly a strong everyday shortstop option. They don't have one of those anywhere, sadly.

Gardenhire indicated that Tsuyoshi Nishioka could be an option at shortstop once he returns from a fractured fibula, but that's still several weeks away and he looked very shaky at second base before the injury. Nishioka has plenty of experience at shortstop in Japan, winning a Gold Glove there last year, but he also won a Gold Glove at second base and the combination of iffy arm strength and a stated preference for second base is why he ceded shortstop to Casilla.

Brendan Harris lacked shortstop range, but Gardenhire used him there because he felt Harris struggled turning double plays as a second baseman. Similar logic might apply to Nishioka, but it's unclear if his double play issues are position-based or a function of runners in Japan rarely using hard slides. Beyond that, moving Nishioka to shortstop and starting Michael Cuddyer or Luke Hughes at second base is just a different version of flawed rather than a defensive fix.

This is my 10th year blogging about the Twins and they've essentially had middle infield issues that entire time, which is remarkable for an organization that emphasizes speed, defense, and athleticism so consistently and has a former middle infielder as manager. Here's a list of all the middle infielders to play at least 100 games for the Twins since Gardenhire replaced Tom Kelly as manager in 2002 (which is also the year I started blogging) and their adjusted OPS+ totals:

                     G     OPS+
J.J. Hardy         101      94
Orlando Hudson     126      94
Luis Castillo      227      92
Jason Bartlett     321      88
Luis Rivas         396      80
Brendan Harris     296      79
Cristian Guzman    436      78
Nick Punto         747      74
Luis Rodriguez     206      73
Matt Tolbert       180      70
Denny Hocking      185      70
Alexi Casilla      334      68
Juan Castro        147      64

On the OPS+ scale 100 represents an average MLB hitter, which tells you how ugly the Twins' middle infield has been for the past decade. That list also shows why guys like me wanted J.J. Hardy retained despite his injuries and felt Jason Bartlett never got a fair shake. Casilla ranks second-to-last on the list above only Juan Castro, who played over Bartlett for much of 2005 and 2006. And sadly the farm system is still devoid of any standout middle infield prospects.

There are no shortage of problems with the Twins, but the top of the rotation and the middle of the infield are perhaps the biggest. Being swept by the Royals for the first time since 1998 leaves the Twins with MLB's worst record at 9-18, which is a 54-108 pace with one-sixth of the schedule completed and puts them 10 games behind the first-place Indians. Here's how that stacks up to their record at the same point in nine previous seasons under Gardenhire:

YEAR     W     L     GB
2010    18     9    ---
2009    13    14    3.0
2008    13    14    1.0
2007    15    12    2.5
2006    11    16    8.0
2005    16    11    4.5
2004    16    11    1.0
2003    13    14    5.0
2002    16    11    0.5

Remarkably, last season was the first time under Gardenhire they led the AL Central after 27 games, although they were within one game of first place three other times and within three games in six of the nine years. Their current 9-18 record is two games worse than they've ever been after 27 games under Gardenhire, with 2006 being the closest comparison. That year the Twins were 11-16 and eight games back after 27 games ... and went on to win the division.

April 25, 2011

Nevermind, I’ll find someone like you

Catching up with old friends in new places ...

Matt Guerrier signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers and got off to a great start in Los Angeles with 11 straight scoreless innings before coughing up five runs Saturday. Guerrier has filled largely the same role with the Dodgers that he did with the Twins, working the seventh and eighth innings setting up closer Jonathan Broxton while recording more than three outs in five of his first 10 appearances.

Brian Fuentes has been filling in for the injured Andrew Bailey as the A's closer, converting six of seven save chances with a 4.09 ERA and 10-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 innings. He was unable to find a full-time closing opportunity as a free agent and settled for a two-year, $10.5 million deal at age 35. Bailey is due back early next month, at which point Fuentes will slide into a setup role alongside former Twin and original AG.com favorite, Grant Balfour.

Jon Rauch also stumbled into a brief stint filling in as Toronto's closer with Frank Francisco sidelined to begin the season. Just as he did for the Twins last year Rauch did a perfectly solid job in the role, converting all three save chances before Francico returned 18 games in, and he has a 2.25 ERA and 6-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine innings overall. Dating back to last year Rauch has converted 24-of-28 saves with a 2.98 ERA and 52/18 K/BB ratio in 66 innings.

• Obviously the three-year, $13 million contract helped, but Jesse Crain also talked about the opportunity to be in the mix for saves as one of the reasons for signing with the White Sox. Chicago's bullpen has been a mess, with closer Matt Thornton blowing four saves already and manager Ozzie Guillen trying all kinds of different combinations late, but Crain has yet to get a crack at closing duties despite a 1.93 ERA and 11-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine innings.

Orlando Hudson got off to strong start in San Diego while oddly batting third in the Padres' lineup, but a recent slump has knocked his overall line down to .229/.349/.271 in 21 games. Of course, even that .620 OPS is still much higher than the Twins have gotten from Alexi Casilla (.485), Matt Tolbert (.469), Luke Hughes (.448), and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (.519) in the middle infield and Hudson is playing half his games in the majors' most pitcher-friendly ballpark.

• I didn't like the Twins' decision to trade J.J. Hardy after he was above par offensively among shortstops and outstanding defensively in the 101 games he was healthy enough to be in the lineup, but they have to be smiling after he lasted just six games with the Orioles before being placed on the disabled list. Hardy is out until mid-May with a strained oblique and one of the two minor-league relievers the Twins got for him, Jim Hoey, has been thrust into a setup role.

Brendan Harris was also traded to Baltimore in the Hardy swap or more accurately dumping $1.25 million of his $1.75 million salary on the Orioles was part of the Twins' side of the deal. No one will ever be able to explain why the Twins handed Harris a two-year, $3.2 million deal last January, but after spending most of last season at Triple-A he failed to make the Orioles out of spring training and is once again struggling in the International League.

Wilson Ramos has overtaken Ivan Rodriguez as Washington's starting catcher and all of a sudden articles have popped up explaining how the Twins don't regret trading a 22-year-old top catching prospect for the right to pay $10 million for one-and-a-half years of Matt Capps. I'm sure the timing is purely coincidental. Ramos is hitting .351 with surprisingly decent plate discipline early on, giving him a .302/.347/.414 career line through 34 games.

Dealt for Single-A reliever Paul Bargas in December after the Twins settled on Drew Butera as their preferred backup catcher, Jose Morales is now backing up Chris Iannetta in Colorado and playing sparingly in the early going. He owns a career line of .295/.374/.358 in 81 games, but the Twins never trusted his glove. Bargas unfortunately has been hospitalized due to a neurological condition, with general manager Bill Smith describing him as "very sick."

Nick Punto's one-year, $750,000 contract with St. Louis got off to a rough start when he underwent hernia surgery within days of reporting to spring training, but he's healthy now and already starting regularly in place of injured second baseman Skip Schumaker. I thought the Twins should have re-signed Punto as long as the money was no more than $1 million and the projected role was minor. For all his faults, he'd be their best middle infielder right now.

Pat Neshek not only won a spot in the Padres' bullpen out of spring training after being lost on waivers for nothing by the Twins, he threw eight innings with a 2.25 ERA and .222 batting average against. However, while I'm happy to see Neshek doing well and didn't understand cutting him loose, his 7-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio is anything but impressive, his average fastball has clocked in at just 85.6 miles per hour, and now he's been optioned to Triple-A.

• Traded to the Braves for Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond last month in one of the most confusing Twins moves in a long time, Billy Bullock has struggled at Double-A with a 12.15 ERA through 6.2 innings. He thrived at Double-A in the second half of last season, but his shaky control has been a big problem with six walks. Diamond, meanwhile, has a 3.48 ERA and 13-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three starts at Rochester.

Rob Delaney was lost on waivers to Tampa Bay in late January when they Twins dropped him from the 40-man roster to make room for Dusty Hughes. Delaney failed to make the Rays out of spring training, but has a 2.45 ERA and 14-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 innings at Triple-A and will likely get a chance in Tampa Bay at some point this season. Hughes has been a mess so far, living up to his mediocre track record by allowing seven runs in seven innings.

Ron Mahay left the Twins as a free agent, signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers only to be released in the final week of spring training, and has latched on with the Diamondbacks at Triple-A, continuing a career-long pattern of having to prove himself anew seemingly every season despite consistently solid numbers. He might finally just be out of gas at age 40, but Mahay has a career ERA of 3.83 that includes a 3.49 mark in the previous five seasons.

Dennys Reyes beat out Hideki Okajima for the left-handed specialist role in the Red Sox's bullpen coming out of spring training, turning a minor-league deal into $900,000 in guaranteed money, and then got demoted to Triple-A one week into the season after four shaky outings. Reyes cleared waivers and accepted an assignment to Pawtucket, but the $900,000 salary is locked in whether "Big Sweat" gets called back up to Boston or not.

Yohan Pino, a right-hander the Twins swapped to the Indians for Carl Pavano in mid-2009, was traded to the Blue Jays last week for cash considerations. Pino was a mid-level prospect when the Twins dealt him, posting standout numbers in the minors despite mediocre raw stuff, and now he's organizational filler at age 28. Pavano was an impending free agent back then, but went on to re-sign with the Twins twice and has a 4.09 ERA in 326 innings since the trade.

March 31, 2011

Twins Notes: The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right

- "Here Comes The Sun"

• Since the Twins open the season on the road against the Blue Jays tomorrow night I'm going to do a "live chat" here during the game. I realize Friday night isn't the ideal time for everyone to get on their computers and type things to each other while watching a baseball game, but if I'm willing to cancel my exciting plans with various supermodels hopefully at least some of you will stay in for some chat action. Carl Pavano versus Ricky Romero, chat doors open at 6:00.

• I wrote the season previews for all the AL Central teams over at Hardball Talk and concluded that the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers should basically be considered co-favorites in the range of 88-92 victories. RLYW's annual simulation of 100,000 seasons based on multiple projection systems thinks I'm a bit high on those win totals, but also has all three AL Central contenders within two games of each other. You can see my predictions for all the divisions here.

Joe Mauer's incredible popularity in Minnesota is no secret, but I was surprised to learn that he had the second-best selling jersey in all of baseball last season behind only Derek Jeter. Justin Morneau was also in the top 20 and as a team the Twins ranked No. 9 in merchandise sales. And according to Forbes magazine the Twins have the 12th-most valuable MLB franchise at $490 million, which is up 21 percent from last year. Pretty remarkable.

• There were several key statistical reasons for Denard Span's disappointing offense last year and the Twins have also talked about his struggling with some mechanical issues, but Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy combined stats and scouting for a truly unique analysis of Span's hitting that's a must-read and makes Patrick Reusse's recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column seem all the more silly for pitting stats versus scouting. As always, the best answer is "both."

• As part of my series ranking the Twins' top 40 prospects I called the farm system as a whole "solidly above average" but "not elite." Baseball America agrees, as their "organizational talent rankings" released last week have the Twins at No. 12. Kansas City ranks No. 1 with perhaps the best farm systems of the past several decades and the Indians are at No. 7, but the Tigers are No. 25 and the White Sox are No. 27.

Ron Gardenhire didn't pull any punches when asked why Jim Hoey was sent to Triple-A:

Hoey needs to slow the ball down. All he can do is throw hard, hard, harder. And on our level, hard, hard, harder normally gets hit, hit, hit.

Kind of an interesting quote considering the main criticism of the Twins' approach to pitching is that collecting strike-throwers with low-90s fastballs makes them too easy to hit when facing strong lineups. Acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy trade, Hoey has without question the fastest fastball in the entire organization now that Billy Bullock is regrettably gone.

Brendan Harris, whose $1.7 million contract the Twins dumped on the Orioles as part of the Hardy deal, has been assigned to Triple-A after failing to win a bench job in Baltimore.

• If the Twins ever change their minds about signing Francisco Liriano to a long-term contract extension, Chad Billingsley's new deal with the Dodgers may provide a template. Their service time is equal, but Billingsley avoided arbitration in his second year of eligibility for $6.3 million, whereas Liriano settled for $4.3 million. Los Angeles bought out his final arbitration year and first two free agent years for $32 million plus a $14 million option or $3 million buyout for 2015.

• I'm unsure if yesterday afternoon's game against the Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta counts as the spring training finale or a preseason exhibition, but it was nice to see Minnesota native, good guy, and friend of my family Andy Baldwin close out the win with a scoreless inning. He'll be assigned to Triple-A, where the combination of top prospects moving up the ladder and the Twins signing lots of minor-league veterans has Rochester looking strong after a terrible 2010.

• Most of the focus is obviously on the competition for spots on the Twins' roster, but this time of year also means making cuts in the minors and Seth Stohs notes that the Twins released a dozen players. No surprises or big names, but Michael McCardell twice cracked my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects, not so long ago some people thought Juan Portes had a shot to be a useful player, and once upon a time Justin Huber was a top prospect for the Royals.

• 1500ESPN.com has a mouth-watering collection of pictures showing all the new food choices available at Target Field. I'm planning to just stare at the pictures all season because I'm back on another diet, although as longtime AG.com readers unfortunately know by now that's highly unlikely to last until the All-Star break, let alone for 162 games. My (wildly unrealistic) goal is to lose more pounds than the Twins' win total. So far I'm really kicking their ass.

• I'd love to have overheard this conversation. I prefer to imagine they talked neck tattoos.

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped by here on a regular basis during the too-long offseason. My goal each winter is to find enough interesting stuff to write about that most of you keep showing up here, but I'm definitely ready to start talking about actual games again and look forward to my 10th season of blogging. Thanks for reading AG.com, thanks for following me on Twitter, and thanks for supporting my work at NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.

December 10, 2010

Twins trade J.J. Hardy to Orioles for James Hoey and Brett Jacobson

Speculation about trading J.J. Hardy steadily increased after the Twins placed the high bid for exclusive negotiating rights to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka last month and yesterday they pulled the trigger, sending Hardy, Brendan Harris, and $500,000 to the Orioles for minor-league relievers James Hoey and Brett Jacobson. Nishioka and the Twins are negotiating, but moving Hardy shows they're very confident in signing him before the December 26 deadline.

However, even with Nishioka expected to sign shortly the decision to part with Hardy is a very questionable one for several reasons. First and foremost is that Hardy is simply a good player at a key position and tends to be underrated by those who don't recognize the full value of his defense, don't appreciate the lack of offensive production generally found in shortstops across baseball, or focus solely on the time he missed with a wrist injury.

Hardy is certainly not without flaws and some of them are prominent, but a deeper look at his performance clearly shows an above-average shortstop the Twins could have retained without having to make a multi-year commitment. He hit .268/.320/.394, which may not look like much but is actually better than the MLB average for shortstops of .262/.319/.371. And after coming back from the wrist injury Hardy hit .302/.356/.436 in 64 games.

Among the 28 shortstops to play at least 100 games this season Hardy ranked 11th in batting average, 13th in on-base percentage, 10th in slugging percentage, and 11th in OPS, making him above average for the position offensively no matter how you slice it. Toss in outstanding defense that Ultimate Zone Rating pegged as MLB's best at 12.8 runs above average per 150 games and Hardy was one of the top 12 shortstops in baseball even while missing 60 games.

Beyond underrating Hardy relative to other shortstops the trade also shows a level of faith in both Nishioka and Alexi Casilla that makes me nervous. Investing about $15 million for three years of Nishioka is a sound move, but like previous Japanese imports he's a question mark at the plate and is also coming off a career-year above his track record. And while he won a Gold Glove at shortstop in Japan, opinions are mixed at best on if he can thrive there in the majors.

Casilla is also an option at shortstop after faring well there in limited action subbing for Hardy, but he hasn't played the position regularly since 2007 at Triple-A and has never even graded out strongly at second base. He's also far from reliable offensively, or at least far from reliably good offensively. Casilla has hit well at times, but owns a career line of .249/.306/.327 in 1,073 plate appearances. To put that in some context, Nick Punto is a career .247/.321/.322 hitter.

Turning over the middle infield to Nishioka and Casilla has the potential for disaster, especially given that the primary backup options at this moment are Matt Tolbert and Trevor Plouffe. It doesn't shock me that the Twins have undervalued Hardy, but unless there's another move up their sleeve it does surprise me that they're so willing to go into 2011 with a pair of question marks atop the depth chart and a pair of replacement-level players as fallback options.

In speaking about the trade yesterday general manager Bill Smith made it very clear that the move was made largely because Ron Gardenhire wants to add more speed to the lineup and Hardy, despite his excellent range defensively, is one of the slowest shortstops in baseball. In a vacuum adding more speed is obviously a good thing, but in this case adding the speed may come with getting worse on both sides of the ball and being faster isn't that vital to winning.

Of course, the deal wasn't just about dumping Hardy and in fact the Twins chose to tender him an arbitration offer last week specifically because they felt confident about getting something in return for him via trade. Smith admitted to discussing Hardy with at least six teams and the decision to settle on the Orioles' offer of Hoey and Jacobson makes the Twins' targets in those talks crystal clear. They wanted bullpen help for 2011 and beyond in the form of power arms.

For the most part the Twins' longstanding, organization-wide focus on drafting and developing pitchers with better control and command than raw stuff has served them well, but at times it has also left them short on the flame-throwing relievers many other teams prefer to rely on in late-inning roles. Neither pitcher acquired from Baltimore fits the Twins' typical mold, as Hoey and Jacobson are both big guys with power fastballs and shaky command.

Jacobson was the Tigers' fourth-round pick in 2008 and was traded to the Orioles for Aubrey Huff in mid-2009. He spent this season repeating high Single-A at age 23, making his 2.79 ERA and 67-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 71 innings less impressive than it looks. His first crack at high Single-A included a 4.13 ERA and 55/26 K/BB ratio in 65 innings, so while being 6-foot-6 with mid-90s velocity gives Jacobson some upside his performance so far hasn't been special.

I'll need to study up on Jacobson before determining a ranking, but if he cracks my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects it'll likely be just barely. Hoey has fewer than 50 career innings in the majors and has spent the past two seasons exclusively in the minors, so technically he meets my qualification for "prospect" status too, but he also turns 28 years old in a few weeks and made his big-league debut way back in 2006. He's more of a project than a prospect.

Hoey was selected by the Orioles in the 13th round of the 2003 draft and emerged as a top relief prospect after putting up some incredible minor-league numbers in 2006 and 2007, but then blew out his shoulder and missed all of 2008 following surgery. He initially struggled so much after coming back in 2009 that the Orioles dropped Hoey from the 40-man roster and he passed through waivers unclaimed.

He remained in the Orioles' organization at Double-A and put together a decent 2009 despite struggling to throw strikes, but was left off the 40-man roster last offseason and wasn't picked in the Rule 5 draft. Hoey began this year back at Double-A, but earned a midseason promotion to Triple-A and combined for a 3.25 ERA, .196 opponents' batting average, and 70 strikeouts in 53 innings between the two levels.

His control was awful with 34 walks in 53 innings and the great numbers aren't much different than what Anthony Slama has done in the high minors, but Hoey's velocity has bounced back enough post-surgery that his raw stuff is superior to Slama's. As a 28-year-old "prospect" with a surgically repaired arm he's by definition a long shot, but Hoey's numbers this year show the potential for dominance and unlike Slama he has the mid-90s heat and power slider to match.

Hardy and Nishioka starting with Casilla as a backup would've been the best chance to win in 2011. Instead they focused on Hardy's flaws, trading an above-average shortstop under team control at a palatable one-year price and turning to two question marks in the name of getting faster. It makes them worse in the short term, perhaps by a lot, and the haul from Baltimore isn't impressive, but clearing Harris' salary off the books is nice and at least Hoey is intriguing.

July 29, 2010

Twins Notes: Valencia, Mauer, Young, Harris, and Rumors

• Beating up on the cellar-dwelling Orioles and Royals tends to make teams look good, but the Twins have won 10 of 14 to go from 4.5 games behind the White Sox to just one game back despite playing that entire stretch minus Justin Morneau. Even without the AL's second-best hitter for the past 18 games the Twins now lead the league in batting average, rank second in on-base percentage, and are two runs from trailing only the Yankees and Red Sox in scoring.

Danny Valencia went 0-for-3 with a walk yesterday to snap an amazing hot streak that saw him go 14-for-19 (.737) during a four-game stretch. Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com looked it up and since 1993 the only players to rack up more than 14 hits in four games are Johnny Damon (2000), Mike Benjamin (1995), and Brett Butler (1995). Valencia is now hitting .387/.441/.495 in 30 games overall after batting just .292/.347/.387 in 49 games at Triple-A before his call-up.

Obviously he'll be coming back down to earth soon enough and if you look beyond the flukishly high batting average he hasn't shown much pop with one homer and a .108 Isolated Power in 93 at-bats, but his 12-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a positive sign after Valencia struck out 71 times versus 22 walks at Triple-A and his defense has been far better than I expected based on the not-so-positive reviews the Twins put out there last season and this spring.

• As noted previously in this space, I've heard rumblings for much of the season regarding Joe Mauer being more hurt (and with a wider variety of injuries) than he's let on publicly, so it was interesting to read one of my favorite writers, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, tackle the topic in a column yesterday. Passan predictably wasn't able to get Mauer or anyone else to definitively comment on specific injuries, but it's pretty clear that he's very banged up physically.

Despite that Mauer went 9-for-13 (.692) with a home run and four doubles in the three-game sweep of the Royals, including 5-for-5 with seven RBIs in Monday's slaughtering. He passed up a chance for a sixth hit in the eighth inning, amusingly telling Ron Gardenhire "no, I'm good." It was the fourth five-hit game of his career, which ties Victor Martinez for the second-most of all time by a catcher. Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi holds the record with six five-hit games.

Mauer is now 21-for-52 (.404) with two homers, nine doubles, and 17 RBIs in a dozen games to begin the second half. He's nowhere near last year's MVP-winning numbers, but duplicating that historic performance was never likely anyway and his current .310/.377/.465 line is more or less identical to his pre-2009 career mark of .317/.399/.457. In fact, it may be slightly better if you factor in the move to pitcher-friendly Target Field and scoring being down across MLB.

• Delmon Young is crushing the ball and Matt Garza tossed a no-hitter Monday night against the Tigers, so the 2007 trade that sent Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan to Tampa Bay for Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie is suddenly a very popular topic again. Twins fans who're rightfully excited about Young's breakout won't want to hear it, but the Rays are still clearly in the lead based on Wins Above Replacement since the November 28, 2007 deal:

TWINS                WAR          RAYS                 WAR
Delmon Young        +0.6          Matt Garza          +7.6
Brendan Harris      +0.2          Jason Bartlett      +7.0
Jason Pridie        -0.3          Eduardo Morlan       0.0
TOTAL               +0.5          TOTAL              +14.6

To put those numbers into some context, Mauer as been worth 5.8 WAR per 150 games. So in terms of production and value received from the trade, the Rays have an edge of basically 2.5 seasons from Mauer. At the moment the trade looks far less horrible for the Twins than it did in 2008 and 2009, but Young playing well for four months doesn't wipe away his playing terribly for the previous two years or Garza and Bartlett both being huge contributors for the Rays.

Since the trade Garza has 516 innings with a 3.89 ERA, which is better than any Twins starter in that time, and Bartlett has a .761 OPS that's close to the .780 OPS from Young even without factoring in the huge defense/position gap. I'm thrilled that Young has figured things out and the deal is starting to lean in the Twins' favor, but let's not get crazy with the hyperbole. Can't we recognize his emergence without re-writing history and going completely over the top?

• Speaking of Harris, he's hit just .238/.273/.386 with a hideous 23-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 games at Rochester since being dropped off the 40-man roster, passed through waivers unclaimed, and demoted to Triple-A. He's making $1.45 million this year and is still owed $1.75 million for 2011, so a return to Minnesota remains very possible at some point, but he's looking more and more like a washed-up sunk cost. I'll never understand why he got a multi-year deal.

• Earlier this week I wrote about the negative impact outfield defense has had on the Twins' pitching staff and Adam Peterson of Twinkie Town did some serious numbers-crunching to find that my analysis "appears to be correct." He goes into a whole lot more depth than that, so if you're into learning about the pitching-defense relationship his work is worth checking out. Of course, if Jason Repko continues to start regularly in right field that changes things quite a bit.

• There is sure to be all kinds of Twins-related trade speculation between now and Saturday's deadline. I've never really filled AG.com with rumor-collecting and don't plan to start now, but I will be tracking the pre-deadline rumors for the Twins and every other team at Hardball Talk, where I've been writing an average of 15 posts per day. And, of course, if the Twins actually make a move before Saturday afternoon I'll have a full write-up here.

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