June 9, 2011

Twitter Mailbag: Answers

Last week I asked for mailbag questions submitted via Twitter, so here are about 2,000 words worth of me answering 140-character queries ...

@mabreen: Can the Twins trust Bill Smith to get quality returns at the deadline?

That's definitely a big worry and probably an overlooked aspect of the looming sell-off. Can the general manager and front office whose poor trades have contributed to the team's decline be counted on to capably rebuild through trades? They've never been in clear-cut "seller" mode before, so it's tough to know until it happens, but the thought of the Twins making several big trades definitely makes me very nervous.

@natesleeter: What's the best trade Bill Smith has made?

In-season trades to get Carl Pavano, Jon Rauch, and Brian Fuentes for mid-level prospects were good moves and dealing Carlos Gomez for J.J. Hardy was a strong offseason move. It certainly hasn't been pretty overall, though.

@brandonwarne52: Bigger mistake, dealing J.J. Hardy for pennies or forgoing the Type A compensation for Carl Pavano?

In retrospect trading Hardy and re-signing Pavano for two years both look like mistakes, but at the time I hated the decision to get rid of Hardy and had no problem with the Pavano deal.

@every108minutes: What's the easiest way to explain WAR to my wife?

The simplest explanation is that it measures how many wins a player is worth compared to the caliber of players teams can easily acquire on waivers or as minor-league free agents. And if your wife's eyes don't gloss over as you say that her Wins Above Replacement Wife (WARF) is obviously off the charts.

@kinsky21: Kevin Slowey is almost certainly a goner, but who do you think is the second most likely player to be moved?

Delmon Young seems like the obvious answer, but that assumes he has some semblance of trade value remaining and I'm not so sure that's the case at this point.

@commnman: Time to just cut bait on Delmon Young?

I've never been a Young fan and tried to emphasize how overrated his performance was last season, but at this point between the lack of production offensively, embarrassing effort, and a projected 2012 salary of at least $6 million his value is marginal at best. Unfortunately the other 29 teams have likely figured that out too.

@auzzie_02: What moves would you make at the trade deadline?

I'd look to trade Young, plus Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, Kevin SloweyMatt Capps, Joe Nathan, and Pavano.

@djjlav: How's the diet coming along?

So far so good. I'm down about 70 pounds since March 7, although I was thrown for a loop the other day when I moved the scale a few inches and my weight went up nearly 10 pounds. So now I'm not sure what to believe and it's probably not a great long-term sign that my reaction to the scale issue was to immediately think, "Screw it, I should order pizza and chicken wings."

@bertrecords: Are the Twins' medical reports credible?

At this point I assume a player will need 2-3 weeks on the disabled list any time the Twins say someone is "day-to-day" with an injury and most longer timetables can safely be doubled. For example, Tsuyoshi Nishioka was initially given a 4-6 week timetable and the Twins noted that he was "ahead of schedule" a few weeks in ... and he's already been out for nine weeks. And obviously the entire Joe Mauer situation has been a mess.

@SkiUMahGopher: What's going to happen with the 40-man roster when Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka come off the 60-day disabled list?

In the past--and even early on this year--the Twins have made decisions based on the 40-man roster management, but now they have plenty of dead weight that could either be passed through waivers unclaimed or wouldn't hurt to lose anyway.

@kinsky21: Assuming Joe Mauer doesn't attend the game, who's the Twins' representative for the All-Star game?

Ron Coomer? I have enough issues with the way All-Stars are selected that I won't attempt to predict who'll actually get the nod, but through around one-third of the schedule Denard Span has clearly been the Twins' most valuable player and Kubel is really the only other guy playing at anything close to an All-Star level. And of course now Kubel is on the disabled list and Span is out of the lineup with a potentially serious issue.

@Capt_Yossarian: What's the best show on television right now?

Right now my DVR is set to record more than 30 shows, so it wouldn't seem right to name just one. For comedy I like Parks and Recreation, Community, Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Modern Family, The Office, and Childrens Hospital. For drama I like Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and Men of a Certain Age. And for non-fiction I like Chopped, Poker After Dark, and Top Chef. Watch all of those or just buy a DVR of The Wire.

@jgbaskin: Defense has been bad. Is it an aberration or are most Twins playing to their historical Ultimate Zone Ratings?

Defensive numbers through one-third of a season are barely worth looking at, but Span and Young have rated surprisingly well. However, the Twins have clearly gotten away from their focus on defense. Young, Kubel, and Cuddyer are a horrendous defensive trio in the outfield corners, the middle infield has been a mess no matter the combination, and Danny Valencia seems slightly off compared to last year. It's just not a good defensive team.

@RyanHyde10: Who are potential 2012 top prospects to watch for who the Twins would consider drafting?

It looks like there's no clear-cut Bryce Harper- or Stephen Strasburg-type No. 1 pick for 2012, although I'm assuming the Twins will turn things around enough to avoid finishing with MLB's worst record anyway. In terms of (very early) favorites, I asked ESPN draft expert Keith Law about that last month and he pointed to Stanford shortstop Kenny Diekroeger, Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero, and high school pitcher/outfielder Lance McCullers Jr.

@commnman: What does the 2012 outfield look like and is Denard Span, Ben Revere, and Joe Mauer out of the question?

There's no indication that the Twins or Mauer are ready for him to switch positions, but if that changes an outfield with Span flanked by Mauer and Ben Revere would be a very interesting possibility. Unlikely though, at least in 2012. I'm not entirely sold yet on Revere's bat because his offensive upside is so limited, but I'm hoping the Twins make him the primary left fielder in 2012. At worst pairing him with Span would dramatically improve the outfield defense.

@jessejames3ball: Can Ricky Rubio play catcher?

Let's see if he can play point guard first.

@kinsky21: Ben Revere made it to the majors in 2010. Will Aaron Hicks, drafted a year later, see the majors in 2011?

Revere made it to the majors last season, but not until mid-September and only because Ron Gardenhire requested speed off the bench. Getting his first extended taste of the majors this year is more likely what the Twins had in mind for Revere's timetable and following those footsteps would have Aaron Hicks debuting in 2012, which is possible. I'd be shocked to see him this season. Hicks has more tools to develop than Revere and is on a slower path.

@dan_rausch: With no good internal options, who should the Twins target for shortstop in 2012? A young plus defender for Matt Capps?

Hardy? Jason Bartlett? On a less snarky point, it's difficult to say without knowing who might be available for trade this winter, but as has been the case for most of the past decade the Twins would be well served to look outside the organization for a shortstop. Jed Lowrie of the Red Sox might make sense for both teams, but suffice it to say I don't think they could get him or any other "young plus defender" for Capps, or at least not one with much offensive upside.

@zzhang33: Is Philip Humber for real?

Depends on your definition of "for real." He certainly looks much better now than he ever did in the majors or minors for the Twins, but he's also been extremely fortunate with a .223 batting average on balls in play. He hasn't been nearly as good as the 2.87 ERA suggests, but even a 4.03 xFIP is a pretty amazing accomplishment for White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. Just remember, Garrett Jones looked good for a while after rightfully being dumped by the Twins.

@jessejames3ball: Is Phil Mackey really wearing pants?

I saw Patrick Reusse's co-host Friday night and (surprisingly? luckily? unfortunately?) he was wearing pants. No white belt though, which was the real shocker. On a related note, thanks to Lindsay Guentzel and the TwinsCentric guys for organizing the get-together downtown. We watched a Twins game and then I drank too much while more attractive people danced, lost a staring contest, wore nametags, and had to be driven home by Seth Stohs. Good times.

@bhenehan: Might be early for this, but is it the worst season-to-season collapse in Twins history?

Without question. In fact, it's one of the worst season-to-season collapses in baseball history, as the Twins are on pace to go from division winners at 94-68 last year to MLB's worst record at 61-101 this year. Tough to decline by a whole lot more than 33 games.

@PLUnderwood: At what point is Ron Gardenhire's job on the line?

I've been plenty critical of Ron Gardenhire over the years and didn't think he deserved the Manager of the Year award last year, but he didn't turn into a terrible manager overnight and you'd have to go pretty far down on the list of this season's problems before getting to his name. Ultimately it's tough to win with a roster full of Triple-A players.

@KirkMcKinley: Who would you place most of the blame on with the Twins?

First and foremost, with the incredible number of injuries there's a pretty strong chance they wouldn't have been able to contend regardless of their decision-making. With that said, you can point to the front office along with any of the top handful of highest-paid players. Plenty of blame to go around with offseason moves, roster construction, and player performance. As the late, great Mitch Hedberg would say, this mess has been all-encompassing.

@TwinkieTown: What kind of a timeline would you work on for the Twins' sell-off?

I'm sure they're still holding out some hope for a turnaround after winning six of the last seven games, but realistically they should be willing to make trades immediately if teams are showing strong interest. In some cases the trade deadline could provide leverage, but the flip side to that is also possible and impending free agents should have more value with 100 games left on their contracts than they will with 60 games to go.

@kwdrake: Who's the most depressing (not necessarily worst) Twin of all time?

In the decade-long history of AG.com no player has annoyed and frustrated me more than Luis Rivas, although that had as much to do with the widely held but misguided perception that he was a promising young player as it did his actual performance.

@jgleeman: Is Ben Revere related to Paul Revere?

First of all, that question comes from my cousin. Second, the two being related seems unlikely. And third, has anyone thought to ask Sarah Palin what she thinks about Ben Revere?

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota law firm Snyder Gislason Frasier LLC, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your legal needs.

May 16, 2011

Sellers

I started this blog in 2002. I was a 19-year-old home for the summer after my freshman year of college, Ron Gardenhire was in his first season as manager, and the Twins were headed to the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1991. In the decade since then the Twins have won six division titles, compiled an 815-682 (.544) record, and finished below .500 just once, when they were 79-83. And they've never been sellers at the trade deadline.

They've traded plenty of veteran players during that time, including some veteran-for-prospect deals in the middle of seasons, but at no point since 2002 have the Twins been in position to give up on contending and shop short-term pieces for long-term value by July 31. There's still a chance to avoid that fate again this season, but time is quickly running out with an MLB-worst 12-26 record and an MLB-high 12.5-game deficit in the division. They're on pace to go 51-111.

If the Twins play at a 90-win pace from now until the end of the year they'll finish 81-81, which won't be enough to win a seventh division title and might not even be enough to hang around as a quasi-contender down the stretch. And it would take a special imagination to envision this team suddenly playing at a 90-win clip even if the entire injury wrecked roster got healthy and stayed healthy. They aren't out of it yet, but they're about as close as you can get in mid-May.

Writing about the Twins as potential trade deadline sellers is a new experience for me and I'd like nothing more than for the whole exercise to prove unnecessary when they surge back into contention, but in an effort to provide an early glimpse into what the options could be and also perhaps distract somewhat from their current ineptitude here are the players most likely to be shopped if things don't improve in a hurry.

Michael Cuddyer: As a 32-year-old earning $10.5 million in his final season before free agency Cuddyer would be an ideal piece to cash in for some value and he lacks the 10 full seasons of service time needed to veto trades as a 10-and-5 player. However, it's difficult to imagine any contending team wanting to add him to their lineup. Cuddyer has hit just .267/.332/.408 since the start of 2010 and for all his supposed versatility his glove isn't actually an asset anywhere.

My concern is the Twins are so in love with his personality and clubhouse presence that they'll ignore declining production and try to keep Cuddyer in Minnesota with another multi-year deal. And even if they're smart enough not to re-sign Cuddyer getting compensation for him leaving as a free agent would require offering salary arbitration, which is a huge risk because he could simply accept and lock himself into another $10 million salary for 2012.

Jason Kubel: Kubel will join Cuddyer in becoming a free agent after this season, but he's also three years younger, making half as much money, and off to a tremendous start. Offering him arbitration wouldn't be a risk, because the Twins would likely be happy to bring back Kubel on a one-year deal if he accepted, so any trade would have to fetch more value than a draft pick. And that's assuming the Twins aren't interested in re-signing Kubel to a multi-year deal.

As great as he's been so far this year Kubel is a career .275/.339/.465 hitter with no defensive value and will be 30 years old in 2012. Right now he looks like Babe Ruth compared to the rest of the sorry lineup, but Kubel has typically been a .275 hitter with 25-homer pop and mediocre plate discipline, which doesn't really stand out compared to designated hitters and bad-fielding corner outfielders. Trading him in the middle of a career-year could make a lot of sense.

Delmon Young: Young won't be a free agent until after 2012, but he's earning $5.4 million this year and will likely get a raise to at least $7 million via the arbitration process next year. That's a hefty price tag for a corner outfielder with a .429 career slugging percentage and he hasn't been able to duplicate a 2010 career-year that was already much less valuable than the RBI total suggested because of terrible defense and a modest .333 on-base percentage.

Young is still just 26 years old, but paying $7 million to wait more for everything to click is much less appealing with free agency looming after 2012 anyway and I'd be shocked if the Twins felt comfortable with the notion of a long-term commitment. Whether or not trading Young makes sense now depends largely on how much his value has declined since the Twins gave up Matt Garza to get him from the Rays in 2007, but shopping him seems like a no-brainer.

Jim Thome: Obviously trading a 40-year-old signed to a one-year contract would make sense, but Thome was in the Twins' price range to begin with because he's limited to AL teams unless someone in the NL wants him as a pinch-hitter. When the White Sox traded him in mid-2009 he was hitting .249/.372/.493 and they got a marginal prospect back, so with Thome currently on the disabled list after struggling early on his potential trade value is very limited.

Francisco Liriano: Trade rumors swirled around Liriano in spring training after reports that the Twins had no interest in signing him to a long-term deal, which I took as a sign that they were undervaluing him and setting themselves up to make a big mistake. Three months later they look brilliant for avoiding commitment, as Liriano has taken several huge steps backward while displaying the combination of diminished velocity and command that suggests arm problems.

Trading him now would be the epitome of selling low and Liriano is under the Twins' control for 2012 as an arbitration-eligible player, so there's still time for him to rediscover his electric 2010 stuff and either convince them a long-term deal is sensible or at least recoup enough value to fetch a strong return in an offseason or mid-2012 swap. I won't be surprised if the Twins shop Liriano leading up to July 31, but I will be surprised if the offers make it a worthwhile move.

Kevin Slowey: Pushed out of the rotation in spring training, Slowey landed on the disabled list after just three relief appearances and has struggled adjusting to typical bullpen usage after starting for his entire career, so a trade in the next two months seems like a strong bet. There was quite a bit of trade speculation surrounding Slowey locally and nationally before Opening Day, so he should have some value.

He's never thrown more than 160 innings in a season, but Slowey is relatively cheap at $2.7 million and relatively young at 27. He's also under team control for 2012 and 2013, but I can't see the Twins wanting to pay him, say, $4 million next season if they don't even think he's one of their five best starters right now. However, for teams that view him as a solid mid-rotation starter based on a 4.42 ERA in 82 career starts that price tag would be very reasonable.

Carl Pavano: Lack of interest in Pavano as a free agent is why the Twins were able to re-sign him for two years after initial speculation had him looking for three years, but now even a $16 million commitment looks like a lot to a 35-year-old pitcher with just one strikeout in his last 80 batters faced. By the time July rolls around his remaining contract will be more like $12 million for 1.5 years, but even then the Twins would probably have to eat money to facilitate a move.

Scott Baker: Baker is reasonably priced at $5 million this season and $6.5 million for 2012 with a $9.25 million team option for 2013 that doesn't include a buyout, so I'd be inclined to keep him unless the offer was a strong one. He's been his usual mid-rotation self with a 3.71 ERA and 40-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 44 innings, giving Baker a 4.12 ERA in 730 innings since 2007. There's no reason to dump his contract, so it should have to be a value-for-value swap.

Nick Blackburn: Through eight starts his 3.70 ERA looks good, but Blackburn's pinpoint control has mysteriously vanished while his strikeout rate remains among MLB's worst even after a career-high eight punchouts Saturday. Blackburn's four-year, $14 million extension was a poor decision that hasn't gotten better, but that was more about unnecessarily guaranteeing him money than the raw cost. If there are teams that like him the salaries may not scare them off.

Matt Capps: If the Twins were willing to give up a prospect as promising as Wilson Ramos to get Capps for one-and-a-half seasons and happily agreed to pay him $7 million this year they probably aren't going to let him walk as a free agent without a fight. And compounding the mistake of paying a huge premium for Capps' previous accumulation of saves by extending the overpayment is a scary thought, especially since he'll likely shoot for at least a three-year deal.

Re-signing Capps to a multi-year deal would be the worst possible outcome. Letting him walk as a free agent and collecting draft picks would be nice, but that would require an arbitration offer first and Capps could accept and force them to pay around $9 million for 2012. Paying him $9 million for one year is preferable to paying him $25 million for three years, but getting some value for Capps via trade is the best idea. Do the Nationals need a "proven closer"?

Joe Nathan: If he'd come back strong from elbow surgery Nathan might be a prime target for contending teams looking for bullpen help, but his struggles combined with an $11.25 million salary and $2 million buyout on a $12.5 million team option for 2012 makes that a long shot. Even if Nathan puts together an impressive six-week stretch the Twins would probably have to eat nearly all of that money just to move him for a mid-level prospect.

May 11, 2011

Twins Notes: Hail Mary

Joe Mauer took batting practice prior to last night's game, but told reporters that there's still no timetable for his return despite "feeling a lot better." Here's more from Mauer on his status:

Today was kind of my first day getting on the field a little bit, moving around, and it was a good day. That [viral infection] really did push me back quite a bit. When it was all said and done, I lost around 15 pounds. I lost a lot of strength, so that probably pushed me back a week or a couple weeks.

I'm feeling a lot better now. I'm getting my strength back and my weight back, so hopefully I can get back on the field. You've got to get back into baseball shape. But yeah, I still got some work to do, and I wish I knew when I would be back, and I know everybody else wishes too, but you just got to keep going in the right direction.

Mauer and Twins trainer Rick McWane have both admitted that he wasn't physically ready for Opening Day due to offseason knee surgery, but unsuccessfully played anyway until shutting it down after nine games. In his absence Drew Butera, Steve Holm, and Rene Rivera have hit a combined .102 with zero homers and a .136 slugging percentage. For comparison, National League pitchers have hit .133 with a .167 slugging percentage this season.

• Last week I wrote about Carl Pavano's strikeout rate plummeting and then he whiffed zero of the 25 batters he faced Sunday against the Red Sox, marking his second straight start with zero strikeouts. Pavano now has just 17 strikeouts in 42 innings this season and a total of 29 strikeouts in his last 81 innings dating back to August of last year. Since the beginning of 2010 here's a list of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball among pitchers with at least 200 innings:

                    SO/9
NICK BLACKBURN      3.92
Mark Buehrle        4.23
Brad Bergesen       4.45
CARL PAVANO         4.59
Livan Hernandez     4.77

Having two-fifths of the rotation on the lowest strikeout rate list isn't a good thing, particularly with a poor defense trying to turn all those balls in play into outs behind them, and Pavano's inability to miss bats is very worrisome six weeks into a two-year, $16.5 million deal.

• Unfortunately throwing one of the least impressive no-hitters of all time didn't magically get Francisco Liriano back on track, as he allowed four runs before departing after three innings with the same illness that pushed the follow-up start back in the first place. Liriano now has a 7.07 ERA and more walks (27) than strikeouts (21) in 36 innings after posting a 3.62 ERA and 201-to-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 192 innings last year. What a mess. And then it hailed.

• Ranking dead last among AL teams in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homers, and walks is depressing enough, but Nick Nelson notes that the Twins have still managed to hit into the fourth-most double plays. Pretty hard to do with the fewest baserunners, but they've found a way. Overall they're on pace to score 505 runs after scoring 781 runs last season. Makes the removal of those trees in center field seem kind of silly, huh?

Jason Kubel deserves plenty of praise for continuing to thrive in the middle of an otherwise horrendous lineup. He hasn't driven in many runs because no one else can get on base, but Kubel is hitting .347/.400/.504 with three homers and 10 doubles in 34 games. Take out Kubel and the rest of the Twins' lineup has hit .216 with a .297 slugging percentage. Seriously.

Matt Tolbert has a .290 career on-base percentage, including .183 this year, yet yesterday was the 10th time in 34 games this season he's batted first or second in the Twins' lineup. And prior to Trevor Plouffe's hamstring injury Ron Gardenhire had him batting second despite a .306 career OBP in the minors. At this point I should be used to it, but Gardenhire ignoring OBP skills because he has it in his head that No. 2 hitters should be middle infielders is maddening.

Michael Cuddyer has hit just .267/.332/.406 in 189 games since the beginning of last year while earning around $12 million, yet when it comes to the local mainstream media you're far more likely to see him touted as team MVP than criticized for sub par production. Following the various Twins beat writers on Twitter provides an interesting glimpse into why Cuddyer rarely gets any heat from people who rely on him for quotes in an otherwise untalkative clubhouse.

For instance, here's a recent tweet from Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press:

Wanna know why the Twins kept Cuddyer? Because he's a leader. Because he stands up and faces the music when they're struggling. Sets an example.

And here's a similar tweet from John Shipley of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

How long can media go with just Cuddyer, Span, and the starting pitcher talking after games?

Personality and media friendliness definitely impact how a player's performance gets portrayed and with Cuddyer serving as everyone's go-to quote his on-field struggles tend to be ignored. I'm not necessarily blaming reporters for taking that approach, since it's somewhat natural and I'd surely be guilty of doing the same to some degree if put in that position, but it's one reason why being an outsider with no access can be a positive thing for objective analysis.

Delmon Young went 4-for-5 in an extended spring training game yesterday and is aiming to come off the disabled list Friday, which would mean missing 19 games with a strained oblique muscle. Obviously the lineup is desperate for some help, but hopefully Young is fully recovered because oblique strains tend to linger. My guess is that Rene Tosoni heads back to Triple-A to make room for Young, if only because Ben Revere can back up Denard Span in center field.

• Much has been made about the Twins' franchise-record $113 million payroll, which only adds to the frustration with their early struggles, but Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star Tribune points out that they've basically gotten zero positive value from their five highest-paid players earning a total of $67 million in Mauer ($23 million), Justin Morneau ($15 million), Joe Nathan ($11.25 million), Cuddyer ($10.5 million), and Pavano ($8 million).

• Third base coaches from successful teams are frequently linked to managerial openings each offseason, yet Scott Ullger was rarely even mentioned as a candidate during his mistake-filled five seasons as the Twins' third base coach. Ullger was moved (or perhaps demoted) to bench coach this season and now Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune names him as a potential Ozzie Guillen replacement if the White Sox continue to struggle, writing:

Few potential candidates are more intriguing than Scott Ullger, who has been on the Twins' coaching staff since 1998 and is currently Ron Gardenhire's top lieutenant. Would the Twins let Ullger talk to the White Sox? Would Ullger want to?

Yes, please. Talk about killing two birds with one stone.

• Every time Jose Mijares allows a hit, let alone a run, my Twitter feed fills with people calling him names and acting as if he's the worst pitcher in Twins history, so just a reminder: Mijares has a 2.56 career ERA and .225 opponents' batting average. I realize fat people make for easy targets, literally and figuratively, but being overweight doesn't preclude someone from being good at their job.

Matt Capps didn't pitch in Monday night's extra-inning loss because there was never a "save situation." Last night he closed out a 10-2 loss. Modern closer usage is hilarious sometimes.

Conor Glassey of Baseball America broke down the picks for next month's draft and the Twins have seven of the first 200 selections, including their own first rounder at No. 30 and a pair of compensatory picks at No. 50 and No. 55 for losing Type B free agents Orlando Hudson and Jesse Crain. They forfeited as many as four more compensatory picks for Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch by not offering them arbitration.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka fracturing his fibula when Nick Swisher slid hard into second base raised questions about whether he was fully prepared for American baserunners aggressively trying to break up double plays after not having to account for that threat in Japan. As part of his ongoing rehab Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Nishioka may start working on double-play technique with former second baseman Paul Molitor in Fort Myers.

J.J. Hardy returned from the disabled list last night and homered for the Orioles.

• All the Twins' injuries and subsequent call-ups from Triple-A have left Rochester with a very thin roster, so they signed 27-year-old Aaron Bates to a minor-league contract. Bates was the Red Sox's third-round pick in 2006 and briefly made it to the big leagues in 2009, but as a first baseman with a .230/.318/.344 line in 198 games at Triple-A he's little more than roster filler. Bates is, however, engaged to Lacey Wilson, the reigning Miss Massachusetts.

• They also signed Deinys Suarez, a 27-year-old right-hander who defected from Cuba along with Yuniesky Maya in 2009. Maya and Suarez both threw in front of scouts in the Dominican Republic after defecting, but Maya got a $7.4 million deal from the Nationals and Suarez had to settle for a minor-league deal from the Twins two years later despite solid numbers in Cuba.

• Pitching prospect David Bromberg underwent surgery to fix a broken forearm that involved inserting five screws to stabilize the injury suffered from a line drive. Bromberg ranked 13th on my list of Twins prospects coming into the year and prior to the injury he had a 3.63 ERA and 11-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 innings at Double-A.

• Sad news about Paul Bargas, the 21-year-old reliever acquired from the Rockies this winter for Jose Morales. He was sent home from spring training with what was called a neurological condition and LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Bargas has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

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 11, 2011

Twins Notes: Nishioka, Hughes, Cuddyer, Nathan, Slowey, and Burnett

Tsuyoshi Nishioka got relatively positive news on his fractured fibula, as doctors determined he won't need surgery and could potentially return in 4-6 weeks. It was sad to see Nishioka on the field supporting himself with crutches during the home opener ceremonies, particularly since his parents flew in from Japan, but the Target Field crowd gave him a nice welcome and even a six-week recovery timetable could mean returning to the lineup by the end of May.

One interesting subplot with Nishioka's leg injury is whether he was fully prepared to deal with runners like Nick Swisher sliding hard into second base (or the general vicinity) in an effort to break up double plays. Baserunners in Japan typically don't engage in takeout slides and after watching Nishioka during early spring workouts bench coach Scott Ullger noted that "mak[ing] sure he clears the bag at second base so he doesn't get killed" was an issue.

Luke Hughes came up from Triple-A to replace Nishioka and started at second base Friday and Saturday, but Ron Gardenhire turned to Michael Cuddyer there yesterday. Cuddyer also made one start at second base last season, but before that hadn't started there since 2005. Sacrificing defense to get an extra bat in the lineup works in theory, but Cuddyer's defense at second base is likely beyond bad at this point and his bat isn't sacrifice-worthy versus righties.

Cuddyer hit .261/.319/.423 versus right-handed pitchers during the past three years, including .265/.307/.393 off them last season. That isn't enough production to warrant regular playing time against righties, let alone regular playing time at the expense of weakening an already shaky defense. It also doesn't say much for the Twins' faith in Hughes if they don't think he's a superior option at second base than an outfielder with a .261/.319/.423 line versus righties.

More than anything though it speaks to Gardenhire's inability to see that Cuddyer is no longer a quality regular against right-handers. He told reporters prior to yesterday's game that using Cuddyer over Hughes at second base was a way for him to get Jason Kubel and Jim Thome into the  lineup together versus a righty, but Gardenhire should have been willing to make that happen by benching Cuddyer versus righties anyway. Loyalty is clouding the manager's vision.

• Regardless of who sees most of the action at second base the middle infield defense will be ugly. Hughes' glove has never had strong reviews, Cuddyer last played second base regularly when Cristian Guzman was his double-play partner, and Alexi Casilla has predictably been shaky so far at shortstop. Combined with the standard lack of range from Delmon Young and Kubel (or Cuddyer) in the outfield and the defense is now poor in at least four of eight spots.

• For those of us clamoring for middle infielders past: J.J. Hardy might miss six weeks with an oblique strain and Nick Punto is on the disabled list following hernia surgery. Orlando Hudson is healthy and oddly batting third in the Padres' lineup.

• I'm pleasantly surprised that Gardenhire chose to move everyone up one spot in the batting order with Nishioka out rather than insert a weak hitter at No. 2 like he's done so many times before. Denard Span, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau being three straight lefty bats atop the lineup isn't ideal, but I've long clamored for the team's two best, most patient on-base threats to bat directly in front of the team's best power hitter, without anyone "scrappy" in between.

Hopefully they get an extended chance to make it work, at least versus righties. Against lefties it would probably make sense to break up the lefty bats with Young or perhaps even Cuddyer at No. 3. Against lefties Span and Mauer remain good OBP threats, but Morneau isn't quite as devastating and both Young and Cuddyer had a higher OPS than him off lefties during the past three years. Either way, anything that keeps a weak bat from the No. 2 spot is good.

Joe Nathan appears to be gradually increasing his velocity and improving his command as he comes back from Tommy John elbow surgery. He's still not throwing anywhere near as hard as he did prior to going under the knife, but Nathan went from 88-91 miles per hour in his first outing to 90-92 miles per hour Saturday, which is a bigger step than it probably looks like. He can have success as a closer throwing 92 mph, but 88-91 makes things awfully tough.

And as if you didn't already have enough reasons to root for Nathan's return to dominance he apparently scooped up some dirt from the mound after the final game at the Metrodome, kept it for 18 months, and then mixed the dirt into the Target Field mound prior to Friday's opener. FSN showed video of it and Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a nice article about the whole thing, all of which makes me like Nathan even more than before.

Kevin Slowey joined Nishioka on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, putting his transition to the bullpen on hold after just three relief outings. Based on his raw stuff and track record Slowey has a shot to be a setup-caliber reliever, but staying healthy is now the biggest issue following wrist surgery in 2009, a triceps injury last season, and his current shoulder problems. Gardenhire opined that he's "going to have to learn ... to warm up a little better" as a reliever.

In the meantime Alex Burnett got the call from Triple-A to replace Slowey despite being behind fellow right-handers Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Carlos Gutierrez in the bullpen competition this spring. Waldrop and Gutierrez aren't on the 40-man roster yet, so the choice likely came down to Burnett or Hoey. Burnett struggled in the second half last season in both Minnesota and Rochester, but still projects as a solid reliever long term. He may not be ready yet, though.

• Since the beginning of last year Carl Pavano has a 3.65 ERA and .273 opponents' average in 15 starts with Drew Butera catching compared to a 3.98 ERA and .259 opponents' average in 19 starts with Mauer catching. Butera is a defensive specialist and better at limiting steals, but given the small difference in performance and even smaller sample sizes involved the notions that a Pavano-Mauer pairing doesn't work or Butera is some kind of miracle worker are silly.

• Thome's homer yesterday went really, really far.

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