February 17, 2012

Link-O-Rama

• I'll be hanging out at Smalley's 87 Club in downtown Minneapolis tonight, raising money for charity and supporting Lindsay Guentzel's bid for the "MLB Fan Cave" contest. My podcast co-host John Bonnes will also be there, along with Nick Nelson and Parker Hageman. And depending on how things go, we might even record a "Gleeman and The Geek" episode in front of an actual audience for the first time. Here are the details:

Who: Gleeman, Bonnes, Guentzel, Nelson, Hageman, and more

What: Blogger get-together, MLB Fan Cave voting party, charity fundraiser

Where: Smalley's 87 Club at 100 Sixth Street downtown

When: 7:00 p.m. Friday night, February 17

Why: Drink beer, talk Twins, win prizes

It'll be fun, trust me.

• I've spent 29 years thinking I was pretty weird, but then I read about this guy.

Jeff Sullivan at SB Nation collected footage of the 10 worst swings of the 2011 season.

• I can't imagine why Ricky Rubio wouldn't spend $500,000 on this.

• If you've ever wondered what famous literary characters would look like if drawn by police sketch artists, this is your lucky day.

• When does getting cut from a basketball team qualify as the good news? When the reason you were cut involves "male enhancement pills."

• I normally mock people who bring signs to sporting events, but this is an obvious exception.

• My beloved Hardball Dynasty league on WhatIfSports.com starts a new season next week. If you're interested in joining, click here for more details.

Louis C.K. is nearly everyone's favorite comedian at this point, but only because he evolved:

On a related note: George Carlin was pretty great.

• After being on life support for years my 1994 Grand Am finally died. I'm having a difficult time deciding on a replacement, in part because it would be nearly impossible to pick a car that wasn't a huge upgrade and in part because I know absolutely nothing about cars. I drive so infrequently that spending more than, say, $5,000-$7,500 seems sort of silly, which has me wondering if leasing might be my best option.

An argument against leasing is that you don't own the car, but if you're only spending $7,500 to begin with owning that car a few years later barely has value anyway. For similar money in a cheap lease you can get a significantly newer, better car for three years. My dream scenario is that a nice reader with a car dealership wants to trade an inexpensive lease for Official Car Dealership of AG.com status and various other ads/plugs, but I'd settle for some advice.

• What did Royals fans do to deserve this?

• Quote of the week, from television writer Alan Sepinwall about Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke playing himself on Luck: "The sabermetric side of me can't stand the guy."

Jon Heyman can't stop being Jon Heyman.

Tony Gwynn had a facial nerve transplant during a 14-hour surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his cheek, which is yet another reminder that using smokeless tobacco is stupid.

Matthew Leach is almost as good at photo-bombing as he is at writing for MLB.com.

• Also good at photo-bombing? Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com candidate Lizzy Caplan.

Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover model Kate Upton is helping Justin Verlander, David Price, C.J. Wilson, and Jay Bruce sell video games:

There are so many possibilities for a joystick-related joke that I'm not even going to make one.

• Texas Christian University is apparently a lot more fun than the name would suggest.

• How did Allen Iverson burn through $150 million by age 35? Practice.

• If you've ever seen me reference the "defensive spectrum" and wondered what it meant, read this article by friend of AG.com Jay Jaffe.

• As an 18-year-old wannabe writer I attended a sports journalism event at the University of Minnesota during the Final Four in 2001. Lots of big-name media members were there, but none impressed me more than Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe. This week he announced his upcoming retirement on Bill Simmons' podcast.

• In light of his Grammy performance earlier this week, it's important to remember certain things about Chris Brown.

• Netflix recommendation: I put off watching Buck despite hearing it was great because a documentary about a horse trainer didn't sound all that interesting, but ... it's great.

• Baseball Prospectus should definitely give Kevin Goldstein's girlfriend her own column.

Carl Pavano got married, apparently.

• It's now the law that the Twins and White Sox are "arch rivals."

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Whitney Houston singing a live version of "How Will I Know" from 1986:

October 3, 2011

Twins Notes: Pohlad, payroll, surgeries, power arms, and naked parties

• During a lengthy interview with LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune owner Jim Pohlad predictably confirmed that manager Ron Gardenhire and general manager Bill Smith will be back in 2012, saying: "We're not a knee-jerk organization." When asked about holding people accountable following one of the worst years in Twins history, Pohlad cited "the perfect storm of injuries and players not performing":

We need to address how can we keep the players healthy. We need to address how can we encourage the players during the offseason to get to a point where they're going to play up to their capabilities. I'm not saying that the medical staff or the training staff has done anything wrong. I'm just saying let's look at the injuries and see how they can be prevented in the future.

Pohlad told Neal that the Twins "are very pleased with the job [Gardenhire] has done" under "very difficult conditions." He stopped short of praising Smith, saying instead that "he also has had a very tough situation" and then citing his 15 years in the organization. Neal brought up Smith saying he's more administrator than talent evaluator and asked if he's "the right man to turn things around." Pohlad initially replied with "what's Billy's title?" and then said:

General manager, so he's in charge of managing the baseball operation. I mean those are his words, like you said. I don't remember reading that, but if those are his words that's really his job, to manage the baseball department. We don't look to Billy solely--I don't know if any organization does, maybe they do at some place--we don't look solely at him as the premier judge of talent. He has a whole bunch of people that he gets input from on the judgment of talent.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Smith, but Pohlad is absolutely right that the Twins' front office decision-making involves a lot more voices than just the general manager. When asked how much money Smith and the front office will have available this offseason, Pohlad indicated that the payroll "is going to come down naturally because it exceeded where we wanted it" for this season "but it's not going to be slashed." Hmm. Check out the full interview for more.

Ben Revere, Justin Morneau, and Nick Blackburn each underwent surgeries within days of the final game. Revere's surgery was considered a minor knee "cleanup," as Neal reports that he was "seen with ice on his left knee after games" down the stretch. For a guy whose entire game is built on speed knee problems at age 23 are worrisome, but Revere never missed time and hit .368 with seven steals in his final 15 games.

Morneau underwent surgery to stabilize a tendon in the back of his left wrist, which is actually the injury that initially forced him to the disabled list in mid-June before neck surgery and more concussion issues followed. Morneau also recently had knee and foot surgeries, which means he'll be rehabbing four different operations this offseason along with trying to recover from the concussion that occurred 16 months ago. At age 30 he's clearly at a career crossroads.

Blackburn, who had elbow surgery last fall, underwent an operation to remove pressure from an entrapped nerve in his forearm as part of a radial tunnel syndrome diagnosis. He'll be in a splint for six weeks and can't throw for two months, which makes the timing curious. Blackburn hasn't pitched since August 21 and was shut down on September 4, yet waited until Friday to have the surgery. He's under contract for $4.75 million in 2012 and $5.5 million in 2013.

Denard Span appears to have avoided a major setback in his concussion recovery despite a scary looking collision with the center field wall in Game 161. Span came back too early from his concussion initially, looking lost for nine games and heading back to the disabled list with more symptoms, but he finished the season with some reason for optimism by going 5-for-18 (.278) with four extra-base hits in five games after returning on September 21.

That may not seem like much, but before stringing together those hits late Span went through a brutal 2-for-42 (.048) stretch following the concussion. Span was hitting .300/.367/.392 in 55 games before colliding with Royals catcher Brayan Pena on June 3, yet finished the year with a .264/.328/.359 mark in 70 total games. Hopefully a full winter of rest is better for Span than it was for Morneau, because there's not much the Twins can do besides wait.

Even if the Twins wanted to revisit their July trade talks with the Nationals for Span it's hard to imagine Washington general manager Mike Rizzo being comfortable enough with his status to pull the trigger. If he gets over the concussion symptoms the Twins shouldn't be willing to deal Span for a reliever--even a very good, young one like Drew Storen--and if he doesn't get over the concussion symptoms no team is going to give them anything worthwhile for him anyway.

• Dating back to the end of last year the Twins have talked about adding more "power arms" to the organization rather than continuing to stock the minors and majors with low-90s control artists. Generally speaking that's an excellent idea, but so far that plan has mostly just led to acquiring hard-throwing middle relievers with massive control problems, like getting Jim Hoey from the Orioles for J.J. Hardy and Lester Oliveros from the Tigers for Delmon Young.

Esmerling Vasquez is the latest pickup to fit that mold, as the Twins claimed the 27-year-old right-hander off waivers after he was designated for assignment by Arizona. Vasquez throws hard, averaging 93.7 miles per hour with his fastball, but has managed just 120 strikeouts in 137 innings to go along with 80 walks. And those numbers are actually great compared to his time at Triple-A, where Vasquez had more walks (97) than strikeouts (93) in 121 innings.

Vasquez has been reasonably tough to hit whenever he throws the ball over the plate and his changeup has been much more effective than his mid-90s fastball, so there's some semblance of upside to be unlocked. However, if the Twins are serious about changing the organizational approach to acquiring and developing pitchers they'll need to dig a lot deeper than plucking a few hard-throwing middle relievers with awful walk rates from other teams.

• Even with his strong finish Revere posted a .309 slugging percentage and .619 OPS in 117 games, which are both the lowest marks in Twins history from an outfielder with at least 450 plate appearances. He managed zero homers and just 14 extra-base hits in 481 trips to the plate, and two of those extra-base hits were actually outs as Revere unsuccessfully (but very excitingly) tried to turn triples into an inside-the-park homers.

Revere also stole 34 bases at a solid 79 percent clip. If you add an extra base to his hitting for each steal and erase one time on base for each unsuccessful steal his overall line morphs into .267/.291/.384. I'm not sure if that's more or less encouraging than his actual .267/.310/.309 line, but it does show that all the running didn't make up for the poor hitting. Of course, given his speed and defense Revere merely needs to be not-horrible at the plate to have nice value.

• Not surprisingly Revere led the Twins with 26 infield hits, which is a function of both his elite speed and a 68.5 percent ground-ball rate that was the highest in baseball by a wide margin. As a team the Twins also had MLB's highest ground-ball rate, yet even with Revere boosting the total they were just ninth in infield hits. On the flip side Twins pitchers allowed an AL-high 198 infield hits despite ranking 20th in ground balls, which speaks to the awful infield defense.

Carl Pavano is a prime example of why judging pitchers on their win-loss record or even ERA can be extremely misleading. Last season he went 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA and this season he went 9-13 with a 4.30 ERA. Big dropoff in his performance, right? Well, maybe not:

YEAR      IP      SO     BB     HR      GB%      FIP
2010     221     117     37     24     51.2     4.02
2011     222     102     40     23     50.6     4.10

Pavano pitched slightly worse this year because his already poor strikeout rate fell further, but most of the difference between his 2010 numbers and 2011 numbers can be traced to bad run support and the terrible infield defense behind him. Pitchers who don't miss bats are always at the mercy of their defense and it doesn't necessarily mean the Twins should be happy to have Pavano under contract for $8.5 million in 2012, but his record and ERA overstate the decline.

Rick Knapp left his job as the Twins' longtime minor-league pitching coordinator in 2008 to become the Tigers' big-league pitching coach, but was fired midway through this season. He'll stay in the AL Central, joining the Royals last week as their minor-league pitching coordinator. Knapp got a lot of credit for the Twins' strike-throwing philosophy throughout the organization, so it'll be interesting to see what he can do working with the Royals' stockpile of young arms.

• Hardy finished his first season in Baltimore with 30 home runs and an .801 OPS in 567 plate appearances (which is more than everyone on the Twins this year except Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer). In the entire history of the Twins no shortstop has hit more than 24 home runs and only Cristian Guzman in 2001 topped an .800 OPS.

• In ranking second-to-last among AL teams in scoring this season the Twins hit a combined .247/.306/.360. For comparison, Nick Punto is a career .247/.325/.327 hitter.

• One of the Twins' rare September wins apparently came because Gardenhire scratching his chin got confused for the manager giving the steal sign. Seriously.

• Based on this tweet Brian Duensing has already had an eventful offseason:

Probably for the best considering the collective state of the team's immune system this year.

August 29, 2011

Twins Notes: Waivers, trades, types, reinforcements, and Bernardo Brito

• Cleveland claimed Jim Thome off revocable waivers to facilitate last week's trade, but Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the Indians were also the team that claimed Jason Kubel. No deal was struck and the Twins pulled Kubel back off waivers, in part because their asking price for him was much higher than for Thome and in part because the Indians ceased needing a left-handed bat after acquiring Thome.

Ron Gardenhire revealed during his weekly radio show that Thome and his agent asked the Twins to place him on waivers "to see what happened." There's speculation that Thome ideally wanted to land back in Philadelphia, where a playoff appearance is guaranteed, but he would have been merely a pinch-hitter for the Phillies. Cleveland's playoff hopes are slim, but Thome is playing every day for the Indians and homered Saturday on his 41st birthday.

Joe Nathan explained that he "would consider" waiving his no-trade clause for a Thome-like trade to a contender, but his contract complicates things. He's owed around $2 million for the rest of this season and has a $12.5 million option or $2.5 million buyout for 2012. To get even a mid-level prospect in return for Nathan the Twins would presumably have to eat nearly that entire $4.5 million and any move would have to be made by Wednesday.

Michael Cuddyer moving to first base has helped the Twins during Justin Morneau's lengthy absences, but it also appears to have hurt his free agent ranking. MLB and Elias Sports Bureau keep their official rankings secret until the offseason, but MLB Trade Rumors reverse-engineers the data and posts frequent updates. Cuddyer was projected as a Type A free agent until last week, when his listed position changed from outfield to first base and he dropped to Type B.

• Based on MLB Trade Rumors' latest projection Cuddyer and Kubel are both slightly below the Type A cutoff, but a lot can still change. It's an important distinction in terms of compensation the Twins would receive if they sign elsewhere, but also in terms of how many teams figure to pursue them. Carl Pavano was an example of Type A status hurting a free agent's market, as many potentially interested teams didn't want to forfeit a first-round pick to sign him.

• There are seven AL pitchers who qualify for the ERA title with an opponents' batting average above .290 and the Twins have three of them (Pavano, Brian Duensing, and Nick Blackburn). In throwing 181 innings this season Pavano has allowed the most runs (103), hits (214), and baserunners (264) among AL pitchers and also has the league's second-lowest strikeout rate at 3.98 per nine innings. He'll be 36 years old next season and is owed $8.5 million.

Scott Diamond coughed up 10 hits in Friday's spot start versus the Tigers, becoming the fifth Twins pitcher to allow double-digit hits in a game this year. Diamond, Duensing, and Francisco Liriano have done it once apiece, Pavano has done it four times, and Blackburn has done it seven times in 26 total starts. Overall a Twins pitcher has allowed double-digit hits 14 times, which leads MLB. Not coincidentally their rotation has MLB's third-lowest strikeout rate.

• So far the Twins have used 16 players who weren't on the Opening Day roster and the only one of those 16 call-ups with an OPS or ERA better than league average is Anthony Swarzak. Seven are hitters and they've combined for 20 percent of the lineup's playing time while hitting .232/.281/.323 in 1,018 plate appearances. Nine are pitchers and they've logged 18 percent of the staff's batters faced while posting a 4.57 ERA in 187 innings (5.09 ERA without Swarzak).

Trevor Plouffe air-mailed a throw to first base over the weekend, but for the most part he's looked much improved at shortstop while subbing for the injured Tsuyoshi Nishioka. However, the destruction of Triple-A pitching that got him recalled to Minnesota hasn't shown up yet, as Plouffe has batted just .250/.293/.411 with an ugly 30-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34 games since rejoining the Twins in mid-July.

Ben Revere swiped his 25th base yesterday, moving into second place on the Twins' all-time list for rookies. That sounds impressive, except the person atop the leaderboard is Luis Rivas, who stole 31 bases as a rookie in 2001. Not only did Rivas bat just .266/.319/.362 in stealing those 31 bases, he went on to steal a grand total of just 48 bases in his next 479 games. Of course, even .266/.319/.362 is quite a bit better than Revere's current .255/.301/.294 mark.

Luke Hughes went deep twice yesterday in his 73rd career game, becoming the first Twins hitter with multiple homers in one of his first 75 games since Morneau and Joe Mauer both did it in 2004. Before then the last Twins to do that were Corey Koskie in 1999 and Ron Coomer in 1996. Oh, and Bernardo Brito in 1993. Brito, who spent seven years at Triple-A for the Twins and totaled 164 homers there, managed just five homers in the majors.

• Mauer came off the disabled list on June 17. Since then he's played 61 games and Cuddyer has played 55 games. Since the All-Star break Mauer leads the Twins in batting average (.320) and on-base percentage (.380) while playing more games than anyone but Revere and Danny Valencia. Not everything must fit the pre-established narrative. Speaking of which, this is one of the rare times when Patrick Reusse and I are in complete agreement.

Dr. David Altcheck, who performed Tommy John elbow surgery on Nathan in March of 2010, provided a second opinion on Kyle Gibson's partially torn elbow ligament and agreed with the Twins' recommendation that he attempt to rest and rehab the injury before going under the knife. Gibson will miss all of 2012 whether he undergoes surgery now or in two months, so the delayed decision won't necessarily impact his return timetable much.

• Gardenhire finished ninth in a Sports Illustrated poll asking players which manager they'd like to play for, with Joe Maddon of the Rays holding the top spot at 14 percent.

• One big Thome is back in Cleveland, but 10,000 little Thomes are still in Minnesota.

Charley Walters wrote the most St. Paul article in the history of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

• Old friend Pat Neshek learned the hard way that there's a considerable difference between "designated for assignment" and "optioned."

Delmon Young has zero walks in 58 plate appearances since being traded to the Tigers.

• Since the All-Star break the Twins are hitting .247 with a .305 on-base percentage and .366 slugging percentage compared to their opponents hitting .297 with a .353 on-base percentage and .467 slugging percentage.

• Overall this year the Twins have been out-scored by 144 runs for the worst run differential in the league and the second-worst mark in baseball ahead of only the Astros at -157. Last year the Twins out-scored their opponents by 110 runs.

• Dating back to 2010 and including the playoffs, the Twins are 58-88 in their last 146 games.

• Here's how the race for the top draft picks in 2012 looks:

              W      L       GB
Astros       44     90     ----
Orioles      53     78     10.5
Royals       55     79     11.0
TWINS        56     77     12.5
Mariners     56     76     13.0
Cubs         57     77     13.0

They may have to call up Mark Madsen to shoot some three-pointers in late September.

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August 15, 2011

Twins Notes: “Psst. It’s Over.”

• To put the Twins' current 11.5-game AL Central deficit into context consider that they're 15.0 games ahead of the Astros for the worst record in baseball. They're also just 3.0 games ahead of the Royals for last place in the AL Central and 5.5 games ahead of the Orioles for the worst record in the AL. There are 43 games remaining and the Twins would have to go 29-14 just to finish .500. In their last 43 games the Twins are 20-23.

Alexi Casilla spent two weeks on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring and then aggravated the injury in the seventh inning of his first game back Friday, immediately returning to the DL. Trevor Plouffe, who was optioned to Triple-A to clear a roster spot for Casilla, was called right back up and will hopefully get more of an opportunity than last time, when he often found himself on the bench in favor of Matt Tolbert.

Plouffe has plenty of flaws and is hardly guaranteed to become a solid big leaguer, but if ever there was a time for the Twins to find out it's when the division title is out of reach and their primary alternative is a 29-year-old career .235/.291/.326 hitter. Using the final six weeks to see if Plouffe can be a part of the team's plans in 2012 and beyond is far more valuable than giving Tolbert more time to cement his status as the definition of a replacement-level player.

Kevin Slowey's long-awaited return to the Twins' rotation technically never happened, as he allowed one run in two innings yesterday before the game was washed away by rain.

Denard Span is 2-for-35 (.057) with nine strikeouts versus three walks since spending two months on the disabled list, telling LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he's still having post-concussion symptoms and is struggling with new medication. Not good.

Justin Morneau returned to the lineup six weeks after surgery to remove a herniated disk fragment from his neck, but told Neal that he still doesn't have feeling in his left index finger because of nerve damage. Despite that Morneau went 11-for-30 (.367) with a homer and four doubles in seven games rehabbing at Triple-A.

Joe Nathan became the Twins' all-time saves leader Wednesday with his 255th since joining the team in 2004, moving past Rick Aguilera. Nathan is definitely the most dominant closer in Twins history--and one of the most dominant in baseball history, for that matter--but his save total and Aguilera's save total isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. Here's an explanation of the differences from my write-up of Aguilera as the 18th-best player in Twins history:

It's important to note that Tom Kelly used Aguilera much differently than Ron Gardenhire has used Nathan. Nathan has inherited a grand total of 54 runners in seven-plus seasons with the Twins, which works out to one per eight innings. Aguilera inherited 38 runners in his first year as closer, and then saw 37 and 40 more in the next two years. In all, Aguilera inherited 207 runners during his time in Minnesota, which works out to one every 2.5 relief innings.

The vast majority of Nathan's saves involved starting an inning with a clean slate, but Aguilera often saved games he entered with runners on base. That goes a long way toward explaining his seemingly mediocre save percentage and Aguilera also deserves credit for stranding more than three-fourths of the runners he inherited.

In addition to being more difficult than Nathan's saves, on average, Aguilera's saves were also longer, as he recorded 55 more outs in his 254 saves than Nathan has in his 255 saves.

Glen Perkins might be wearing down in his first full season as a reliever. He allowed eight runs in 43 innings through August 5, including 37 scoreless appearances in 45 total outings, and never gave up more than one run in a game. And now Perkins has allowed six runs in his last four innings, including four straight outings with a run and multiple runs in two of them. David Ortiz's homer was the first served up by Perkins in 178 plate appearances this year.

Amelia Rayno of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote an interesting article about the pitcher-catcher relationship and specifically Carl Pavano picking Drew Butera as his personal catcher. Near the end of the article she noted Pavano's respective ERA with different catchers, but it's worth repeating: Pavano has a 4.26 ERA in 35 starts with his preferred catcher, Butera, and a 4.09 ERA in 31 starts with Joe Mauer. And this year's numbers skew further in Mauer's favor.

• MLB suspended Twins minor leaguer Kennys Vargas for 50 games after he violated the drug prevention and treatment program by reportedly testing positive for phentermine, which can be used to speed metabolism for weight loss. Vargas is 6-foot-5 and Seth Stohs notes that his weight has been an issue. Vargas, a 20-year-old first baseman who was signed out of Puerto Rico in 2009, was hitting .322/.377/.489 in 44 games at rookie-level Elizabethton.

Ted Uhlaender is the only outfielder in Twins history to get 200-plus plate appearances in a season with an on-base percentage below .300 and a slugging percentage below .300, hitting .226/.280/.286 in 403 plate appearances in 1966. Ben Revere is hitting .245/.294/.285 in 298 plate appearances. And his noodle arm was in right field Wednesday because Ron Gardenhire refuses to move Delmon Young there. Don't mess with success. Or something. How silly.

Jim Thome has faced three pitchers at least 70 times in his career. One is Tim Wakefield, whom he faced last week, and the other two are Roger Clemens and Brad Radke. Thome has hit just .185 off Wakefield and .225 (with good power) off Radke, but crushed Clemens to the tune of .355/.438/.855 with eight homers and seven doubles in 62 at-bats. Among all hitters Clemens faced at least 50 times Thome is the only one to top a 1.000 OPS. And he's at 1.293.

• Tonight is the deadline for MLB teams to sign draft picks and the Twins' first-rounder, North Carolina junior shortstop Levi Michael, remains unsigned, as do supplemental first-round picks Travis Harrison and Hudson Boyd. Their next six picks are all signed.

• While watching Tom Kelly fill in for Bert Blyleven during one of the recent FSN broadcasts I looked up his old minor-league numbers and the former manager hit .272/.406/.436 with more walks (538) than strikeouts (429) in 782 games at Triple-A. Of course, he was a first baseman, which is why Kelly spent 13 seasons in the minors and 47 games in the majors. Offensively at least he was a poor man's Doug Mientkiewicz.

• Why was Chuck Knoblauch a no-show at the 1991 team's reunion last week? Because "he's considerably out of shape," according to Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Which is smart, because Kent Hrbek would have really goofed on him.

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June 13, 2011

Twins Notes: Hotness, to and from contact, dizziness, and tough decisions

• They still have the worst record in the league at 26-39, still are on pace to go 65-97, and still would need to go 59-38 from here on out to finish with even 85 wins, but by going 9-3 to start June the Twins have at the very least put off a potential fire sale for a while and made their games fun to watch again. Baby steps, sure, but 26-39 looks a whole lot prettier than 17-37 and as usual the thoroughly mediocre AL Central makes much bigger steps seem possible.

Francisco Liriano had a panic-inducing April, posting a 9.13 ERA with as many walks (18) as strikeouts (18) as the Twins tried to convince him to "pitch to contact" with terrible results. His first May start was a no-hitter versus the White Sox and Liriano flirted with a second no-hitter yesterday against the Rangers, giving him a 1.89 ERA in six starts since May 1. And as Liriano explained after racking up nine strikeouts, his success has come from not following advice:

I've always been the power pitcher, trying to strike out people. I feel more comfortable pitching like that. I'm trying to be me, [the way] I used to pitch last year and the year before. I'm not thinking about contact at all.

Good. It never made much sense that the Twins would try to force Liriano into the same strike-throwing, contact-inducing mold they use for pitchers with inferior raw stuff and less ability to overpower hitters, so thankfully he stayed with the approach that led to so much success last season.  Liriano has allowed two runs or fewer in five of six starts, with the lone outlier coming after throwing 123 pitches in the no-hitter, so hopefully they'll stop trying to fix him for a while.

Carl Pavano has also put together a strong six-start stretch since beginning the season 2-4 with a 6.64 ERA, logging 43 innings with a 2.49 ERA and just two homers allowed. However, his lack of missed bats continues to be worrisome from a 35-year-old pitcher set to earn $8.5 million in 2012. Pavano has just 16 strikeouts in those 43 innings, which is a minuscule rate of 3.3 per nine innings and even lower than his 3.6 per nine innings through seven bad starts.

Pavano can still be effective by limiting walks and homers, but it'll be tough for the Twins to get their money's worth over the next season-and-a-half if he can't get back to at least 5-6 whiffs per nine innings like 2009 and 2010. Not only are his 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings this year the lowest rate in baseball, no other pitcher is below 4.0 and the last pitcher to qualify for the ERA title with a lower strikeout rate was Livan Hernandez at 3.4 in 2008 ... for the Twins.

Denard Span's collision with Royals catcher Brayan Pena didn't look like much at the time. In fact, I was watching on television alongside a handful of other Twins bloggers and a few beat reporters, and no one seemed to think much of it beyond Span not turning Pena into Buster Posey with a bigger collision. Span stayed in the game and even played a few days later, but then complained of dizziness and was put on the new seven-day disabled list for concussions.

Span told reporters that he's "definitely scared" about the situation and it's easy to see why. One reason is that Justin Morneau missed the final three-plus months of last season and was sidelined for a total of nine months following a concussion last July and still hasn't gotten back on track 11 months later. Beyond that, Span described what he's currently going through as "a familiar feeling" to when he missed time with vertigo in 2009:

I feel a little like somebody's kind of pushing me from the back a little bit. I'm not going to fall over, but it's the same exact feeling. I want to get this checked out. I'm frustrated, all those things. There's something wrong. I don't know what it is, so I want to get it taken care of.

Span, who'd bounced back from a disappointing 2010 to be the Twins' best all-around player through 60 games, also revealed that he still experiences symptoms related to the vertigo two years later, saying: "It's calmed down a lot and it's manageable, but it's been something I've dealt with since then." That's news to me and is a glimpse into the type of health information players and teams tend to keep to themselves whenever possible.

Alexi Casilla continues to play very well since escaping from the doghouse thanks to Trevor Plouffe's mistake-filled attempt to replace him and is now batting .337/.401/.421 in 27 games since mid-May. His defense is also improved and Casilla is finally using his elite speed. Despite great stolen base percentages Casilla attempted just 21.5 steals per 600 plate appearances prior to this year. This season Casilla has already tried 12 steals in 198 plate appearances.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka is finally on the verge of returning 10 weeks after an injury expected to last 4-6 weeks and once that happens Casilla seems destined for second base despite starting 10 straight games at shortstop. Nishioka looked shaky at second base before fracturing his fibula thanks in part to incorrect double play positioning, so the Twins presumably wouldn't have him playing shortstop while rehabbing if they planned to bring him back as a second baseman.

Ron Gardenhire has dropped some strong hints recently about being unhappy with Danny Valencia and Nishioka returning provides an opportunity for the Twins to keep Matt Tolbert as the utility man and Luke Hughes as the starting third baseman while demoting Valencia back to Triple-A. Hughes has hit well in a part-time role of late, but hasn't been impressive overall with a .270/.311/.360 mark and 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 games.

What's funny about Valencia's situation is that his power and plate discipline have been fine, but whereas an unsustainably high .345 batting average on balls in play fueled his better than expected rookie season an unsustainably low .239 batting average on balls in play has him fighting for his job now. Ultimately the "real" Valencia is somewhere in between and his career line of .270/.321/.397 is close to both his minor-league track record and Hughes' likely upside.

• Barring a setback it looks like Joe Mauer will come off the disabled list Thursday, returning to the lineup after missing 57 games with complications following offseason knee surgery. In his absence the Twins have gotten the worst production in baseball from their catchers, as Drew Butera and Rene Rivera (and Steve Holm, briefly) have combined to hit .178 with a .497 OPS. To put that in some context, Al Newman has the lowest OPS in Twins history at .581.

They've both done a good job defensively, particularly when it comes to controlling the running game, but Butera has hit .174/.207/.261 in 40 games and Rivera has hit .196/.262/.304 in 20 games. So naturally in discussing Mauer's impending return yesterday Gardenhire talked about what a "tough decision" it will be choosing which replacement-level catcher gets to avoid a trip back to Triple-A and stick around as the backup:

Oh, absolutely. You want tough decisions though. I don't like it when it's carved out, "this is going to happen." You want tough decisions. That means both of them are doing OK, and when Joe comes back, sure, we're going to have to make a tough decision. And both of them have done their parts and they continue to. But it's not going to be easy no matter which way we go.

"Both of them are doing OK" and "both of them have done their parts" is an interesting way to describe two players who've literally combined for the worst production in baseball. How much worse than a .497 OPS could they get before it no longer qualified as "doing OK"? In reality it's only a "tough decision" because neither Butera nor Rivera have played well enough to warrant sticking around, in which case "stub your toe or get a paper cut?" is also a "tough decision."

• Speaking of Rivera, last night he tweeted this charming picture of Ben Revere at Morneau's annual casino night charity fundraiser:

Is that a better or worse look for Revere than this little number from his rookie hazing?

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