May 15, 2013

Twins Notes: Hicks, Arcia, Parmelee, Dozier, Mauer, and mock drafts

aaron hicks gatorade

Aaron Hicks got off to such a dreadful start that his overall numbers are going to look ugly for a long time--and maybe even the entire season--but there's no doubt he's putting together better plate appearances and getting better results. That all culminated with Monday's two-homer game and Hicks is now hitting .215/.333/.431 with three homers and a 15-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last 22 games. Before that he was 2-for-43 (.047) with 20 strikeouts and three walks.

Since mid-April or so Hicks has been exactly the type of hitter that his minor-league track record suggested he would be, offsetting a low batting average with lots of walks and some power. Much has been made of Oswaldo Arcia's impressive start, and rightfully so, but since being recalled from Triple-A on April 20 he has an .839 OPS and Hicks has a .764 OPS. There are two rookies playing well offensively in the Twins' outfield right now.

Defensively has been another issue, however. Hicks was billed as a very good center fielder and has shown flashes of that, including robbing Adam Dunn of a homer along with hitting two of his own Monday, but overall he's been shaky with lots of bad reads and delayed reactions. Arcia was billed as a very good right fielder and actually played center field 77 times in the minors, which is almost impossible to believe while watching him stumble around struggling to make routine plays.

• Arcia's arrival initially cut into Ryan Doumit's playing time, but now that Doumit has broken out of his early slump Chris Parmelee is the one finding himself on the bench most often. Doumit or Parmelee is an interesting dilemma. Doumit is a switch-hitter, but since he's typically unproductive from the right side they might as well both be left-handed hitters. Doumit has a far superior track record and is signed through next season, but he's also 32 years old and Parmelee is 25.

In theory a team focused on 2013 should play Doumit and a team focused on the future should play Parmelee, but Doumit being signed for 2014 changes that a bit and the jury is very much still out on whether Parmelee is part of the future anyway. Parmelee had a great September debut in 2011 and crushed Triple-A pitching for two months last season, but he's hit .223/.292/.364 with eight homers and an 81-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 96 games for the Twins since 2012.

• In terms of age and lackluster performance Brian Dozier is similar to Parmelee, but the major difference is that the Twins don't have Arcia-caliber alternatives in the infield. I've been impressed by Dozier's defense at second base, but today is his 26th birthday and he's hit .230/.267/.324 with an 85-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 113 career games. He also hit just .232/.286/.337 in 48 games at Triple-A, so it's been a while since Dozier showed any sort of promise.

At the very least Dozier and his .267 career on-base percentage have no business in the leadoff spot, where the Twins have gotten a grotesque .189/.229/.233 line. That helps explain how Joe Mauer has just 13 RBIs despite batting .340 with 17 extra-base hits in 35 games. Jamey Carroll replacing Dozier at second base would likely improve the leadoff spot, but it's sort of a Parmelee-or-Doumit situation because Carroll is 39.

• Mauer has hit .319 with men on base, including .381 with runners in scoring position, but he's had a grand total of just 76 runners on base in his 157 plate appearances. By comparison Justin Morneau has had 126 runners on base in 149 plate appearances because he's got Mauer (.426 OBP) and Josh Willingham (.377 OBP) back-to-back in front of him. And batting Mauer second isn't really the issue, because in the third spot he'd just have two awful OBPs in front of him.

Mauer hit .366 in his first 17 games, then went into a career-worst 0-for-21 slump, and has now hit .431 with 10 doubles and 11 walks in 13 games since snapping his hitless streak. That works out to a .532 OBP and .628 slugging percentage. On this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode we talked about how odd it is for Mauer to be striking out so much, but his overall production is solidly above his career norms and he's also playing much better than last year defensively.

• Saturday night Vance Worley allowed five runs on 11 hits in 5.1 innings against the Orioles and got the win (Mauer, Morneau, and the Twins' lineup really got the win, but old stats die hard). In doing so Worley became just the seventh Twins pitcher in the Ron Gardenhire era (2002-2013) to win a game in which he allowed 11 or more hits:

Vance Worley      5/11/2013     Orioles
Nick Blackburn     5/4/2010     Tigers
Carlos Silva       5/9/2006     Rangers
Carlos Silva      4/29/2005     Angels
Carlos Silva       8/3/2004     Angels
Kyle Lohse         9/2/2003     Angels
Brad Radke        8/24/2002     Royals

Carlos Silva had 47 wins for the Twins and three of them came while allowing 11 or more hits, including a complete-game shutout in 2004. In all there have been 89 wins assigned to pitchers who allowed 11 or more hits in Twins history and Roger Erickson on June 25, 1978 is the only one to get fewer outs than Worley.

• On a related note, Twins pitchers have the fewest strikeouts in baseball with 204. No other team has fewer than 232 strikeouts and 14 teams have more than 300 strikeouts, including the Tigers with an MLB-leading 378. Breaking it down even further, Twins starters have 4.3 strikeouts per nine innings and Twins relievers have 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings, so the bullpen has actually been missing plenty of bats.

Glen Perkins and Jared Burton since the beginning of 2012:

                 IP      ERA     SO     BB     HR     OAVG
Glen Perkins     83     2.71     98     21      9     .216
Jared Burton     79     2.05     74     22      5     .190

I wish Gardenhire would use Perkins a little more in non-save situations, but knowing that duo is looming whenever the Twins have a lead after seven innings is pretty fun.

• With a .500 record through 36 games the Twins have dramatically out-performed expectations so far. Here's how 18-18 compares to their previous records through 36 games under Gardenhire:

2013   18-18
2012   10-26
2011   12-24
2010   22-14
2009   18-18
2008   19-17
2007   17-19
2006   17-19
2005   21-15
2004   22-14
2003   20-16
2002   22-14

During their run of six AL Central titles from 2002-2010 the Twins' average record after 36 games was 20-16 when they made the playoffs and 19-17 when they didn't. Either way, it sure beats the hell out of where they stood after 36 games in 2011 and 2012.

• Last night was the 34th time in 36 games that the Twins have been the gambling underdogs. If you'd have bet $100 on the Twins to win each game so far you'd be up $618, which is on pace for a $2,781 profit over the course of 162 games.

Jim Callis' first mock draft for Baseball America has the Twins taking Texas high school pitcher Kohl Stewart with the No. 4 pick. Callis also writes: "Rumors persist that Minnesota could cut a deal with Washington high school catcher Reese McGuire and spend heavily further down in the draft." Baseball America's current top-100 rankings have Stewart at No. 6 and McGuire at No. 12.

• Baltimore wants Alexi Casilla to give up switch-hitting even though his career numbers don't suggest it makes any sense.

• I love this picture of Hicks robbing Dunn of a homer.

John Bonnes was on vacation, so Parker Hageman stepped in as my co-host for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode and we got super-nerdy with the hardcore Twins talk.


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March 7, 2010

Nathan Gets An MRI, Blackburn Gets A New Contract


There were two prominent bits of Twins news over the weekend, as Joe Nathan left Saturday's game with soreness in his surgically repaired right elbow and Nick Blackburn signed a four-year, $14 million contract with an option for 2014. I'm hesitant to comment much on Nathan's status until further details are known, but he flew from Fort Myers to Minneapolis yesterday to undergo an MRI exam and the hope is that the pain was from scar tissue breaking up following October 20 surgery to remove bone spurs.

As the 35-year-old closer put it: "We're going to get some pictures just for some peace of mind." Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that doctors will compare his current MRI results to his pre-surgery exam and proceed from there, with a couple days of rest to deal with the scar tissue qualifying as the best-case scenario and going under the knife again to fix a separate injury looming as the worst-case scenario. And no reason to panic in the meantime.

While the Twins hold their breath waiting for word on Nathan's elbow, they signed Blackburn to a deal that could keep him in Minnesota through 2014. However, he was already under team control through 2013 via arbitration eligibility. Rather than being a true "extension" the contract pays him $750,000 this season, pre-pays $13.25 million for Blackburn's three arbitration-eligible years in 2011-2013, and then gives the Twins an $8 million option for his first season of free agency in 2014.

Cost certainty during the arbitration process is important for the Twins and the deal ensures Blackburn won't file for a big salary following a particularly strong season, but because they're paying for what he will do rather than what he has done the downside is that cutting bait is no longer a choice if injuries or poor performances strike. The ability to delay free agency for another season also has value, although there's certainly no guarantee that they'll want to pay $8 million for a 32-year-old Blackburn.

When he was coming up through the minor leagues I pegged Blackburn as little more than a potential fifth starter or long reliever, criticizing Baseball America for ranking him as the Twins' best prospect as a 26-year-old in 2008. Since then he's significantly outperformed my expectations, beginning his career with back-to-back solid and (nearly identical) seasons as a durable middle-of-the-rotation starter who led the team in innings both years:

YEAR     GS      W      L     ERA      IP        SO     BB     HR     OAVG
2008     33     11     11     4.05     193.1     96     39     23     .292
2009     33     11     11     4.03     205.2     98     41     25     .290

You'd be hard-pressed to find many starters who began their career with more similar seasons and it's easy to see why the Twins think Blackburn is a big part of their future. However, his minuscule strikeout rates and high opponents' batting averages put him at risk to age poorly and the underlying numbers in his performance are closer to a 4.50 ERA than a 4.00 ERA. Toss in the fact that they could've controlled him through age 31 with no upfront commitment and the deal has some risk without much upside.

Blackburn has been a solid, dependable mid-rotation starter and is now entering just his third season, so the tendency is to assume that he'll naturally either maintain his performance or get better. He may do exactly that, in which case locking him up through 2014 at a total cost of $22 million would look like a steal, but many people felt the same way about Joe Mays and Carlos Silva once upon a time before the often sobering reality of low-strikeout pitchers without heavy ground-ball tendencies set in.

I'm generally in favor of locking up young players to long-term contracts, but logically not every instance of doing so is by definition a smart decision even if a certain segment of the fan base will automatically default to that assumption. In this case cost certainty comes with the risk of Blackburn tripping on the fine line he's walked thus far and there isn't a ton of value in having the right to pay him $8 million as a 32-year-old, so I would've gone year-to-year with him and let things play out from there.

That the Twins feel differently certainly isn't surprising because they're likely focused much more on his 4.04 ERA through 66 career starts than what his lack of missed bats and modest number of ground balls say about his chances of keeping that up for another 125 starts. I've been wrong about Blackburn through two seasons and hopefully I'll also be wrong about his next four or five seasons, but to me this is an unnecessary commitment with less upside and more downside than perhaps meets the eye.


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