February 6, 2012

Twins Notes: Relievers, starters, outfielders, draftees, and signing an MVP

Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com has the details of Joel Zumaya's one-year deal with the Twins. He's guaranteed $400,000 even if they cut him during spring training and that would turn into $850,000 if Zumaya is on the Opening Day roster, with another $900,000 in potential bonuses based on appearances. If he were to stay healthy and effective for the entire season Zumaya could earn a total of $1.75 million.

Of course, Zumaya hasn't stayed healthy and effective since he was a 21-year-old rookie in 2006, so when he signed my assumption was that the Twins would still look to add another veteran right-hander for the bullpen. At this point, however, that looks increasingly unlikely, as capable relievers continue to sign elsewhere for modest one-year contracts and minor-league deals with no indication that the Twins will snatch one up.

I wrote about the bullpen last week, noting that the Twins' impatience led to overpaying Matt Capps in an obvious buyer's market and is extra frustrating when combined with the apparent unwillingness to spend even $1 million more to address a clear weakness. Since then Todd Coffey signed with the Dodgers for $1.3 million and Chad Qualls signed with the Phillies for $1.15 million. They had plenty of chances to cheaply add a decent setup man and refused.

Terry Ryan said that he views the rotation as a strength, which might be true relative to the rest of the team but certainly isn't true relative to the rest of baseball. Last year Twins starters combined for MLB's fifth-worst ERA and while they might be healthier this time around the front four of Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, and Nick Blackburn made 104 starts in 2011. Jason Marquis replacing Brian Duensing is the only real change and he had a 4.43 ERA.

Clearly the rotation is capable of being better and healthier, but when Pavano is your Opening Day starter and both Blackburn and Marquis are taking the mound every fifth day it's tough to see the group as anything but below average even if you're optimistic about Baker staying healthy and Liriano being way closer to the 2010 version than the 2011 version. My blog-mate Matthew Pouliot projected numbers for all 30 rotations and has the Twins in the bottom five.

• Ryan and Ron Gardenhire have both made it very clear that the starting outfield will be Ben Revere in left field, Denard Span in center field, and Josh Willingham in right field. Assuming that Span is healthy after missing much of last year following a concussion, obviously. Trevor Plouffe is no longer viewed as an infield option and platooning his right-handed bat with the left-handed Revere in left field would make sense, but as usual with Gardenhire that's unlikely.

• With the No. 2 overall pick in June's draft and seven of the first 100 picks the Twins will have MLB's highest signing bonus allotment at around $12 million, according to Jim Callis of Baseball America. February speculation is mostly silly, but Baseball America's early ranking has Stanford pitcher Mark Appel first, followed by high school pitcher Lucas Giolito, high school outfielder Byron Buxton, Arizona State shortstop Devin Marrero, and Florida catcher Mike Zunino.

Camilo Pascual will be this year's inductee into the Twins' team Hall of Fame, which should please Patrick Reusse and the other local media members who've stumped for him in recent years. Pascual, who pitched in Minnesota from 1961-1966, ranked 20th on my list of the best players in Twins history.

Tom Kelly will also have his numbered retired by the Twins, which rendered the normally stoic former manager speechless during the Diamond Awards banquet last week. "Tom Kelly Day" at Target Field is scheduled for September 8, when he'll join Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Kent Hrbek, and Bert Blyleven as retired numbers.

Chris Colabello is one of the more intriguing minor-league signings in an offseason filled with them, as the 28-year-old first baseman joins the Twins after winning MVP of the independent Canadian-American Association. Colabello has hit .317/.390/.541 in seven years in the CAMA, including .348/.410/.600 with 20 homers in 92 games last year. Not only was he MVP of the CAMA, he was Baseball America's choice as player of the year in all independent leagues.

Luke Hughes injured his shoulder while playing back home in the Australian Baseball League and the Twins have pulled him from the Perth Heat's roster for the championship series.

Justin Morneau denied Nick Nelson's report that his wrist surgery stemmed from an injury that occurred during a clubhouse incident.

• Old friend Pat Neshek, who split last year between the majors and Triple-A for the Padres, signed a minor-league deal with the Orioles.

• Because the Twins are seemingly done adding players this offseason, it's worth noting that their current roster doesn't fare very well based on early projections.

• Finally, just a heads up: My annual series ranking and profiling the Twins' top 40 prospects will begin either later this week or early next week. I'm putting the finishing touches on it now.

November 15, 2011

Offseason shopping on a budget: Relievers

For the second straight offseason the Twins need relief help. Last winter they ignored the free agent market, trusted various in-house options, and wound up with a fire-starting bullpen that had the worst ERA in baseball. Joe Nathan and Matt Capps are free agents and Glen Perkins is the only reliable holdover, so here are 14 worthwhile bullpen targets who figure to be cheap enough to fit into the Twins' budget assuming they don't bust it on Nathan or another closer.

Frank Francisco: If other teams pursue Francisco as a closer the Twins should bow out, but if he's available for setup man money it could be a nice fit. He can't be counted on for more than 50 or 60 innings, but over the past four seasons Francisco has a 3.54 ERA, 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and a .226 opponents' batting average while averaging 94.1 miles per hour with his fastball. If the Twins are serious about adding power arms, he's an obvious target.

Jonathan Broxton: After a four-year run as one of baseball's most dominant relievers Broxton began struggling in mid-2010 and fell apart this season, missing the final five months with an elbow injury. He underwent minor surgery in September, but is expected to be fully recovered by spring training and is still just 28 years old. Broxton had a 2.92 ERA with 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings through his first five years. He's a big risk, but the reward could be just as huge.

Mike Gonzalez: After a long history of arm problems Gonzalez is recovering from knee surgery, but if healthy he's an elite left-handed reliever. Gonzalez had 51 strikeouts in 53 innings this season and has averaged 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, which ranks second among all active lefties. His control can be shaky and offering more than a one-year deal would be a mistake, but Gonzalez is capable of getting high-leverage outs versus lefties and righties.

LaTroy Hawkins: At age 38 and eight years after leaving the Twins as a free agent Hawkins posted a 2.42 ERA and 28/10 K/BB ratio in 48 innings for the Brewers, giving him a 3.43 ERA in 444 total innings since exiting Minnesota. He's lost fastball velocity, but Hawkins still averaged 92.6 miles per hour this season and served up just one home run while inducing more than 60 percent ground balls for the second time in his career.

Brad Lidge: Once an elite closer with a devastating mid-90s fastball and high-80s slider, Lidge averaged just 88.9 mph on his fastball and 80.9 mph on his slider this year while being limited to 19 innings following elbow surgery. At age 35 his velocity likely isn't coming back, but Lidge still racked up 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings throwing in the high-80s and his slider remains one of the best pitches in baseball. If the price is right he'd be a nice boom-or-bust pickup.

Octavio Dotel: I suggested signing Dotel last offseason, when he got a one-year, $3.5 million deal and logged 54 innings with a 3.50 ERA and 62/17 K/BB ratio. He has the highest strikeout rate of all time among right-handers with 800-plus innings and even at age 37 got more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings for the fifth straight season. Dotel struggles against left-handed power hitters, but if spotted mostly versus righties he can be a major late-inning weapon.

Joel Peralta: Another of my suggested signings last winter, Peralta got a one-year, $925,000 deal from the Rays and tossed 68 innings with a 2.93 ERA and 61/18 K/BB ratio. His raw stuff has never been particularly impressive and Peralta is a 35-year-old extreme fly-ball pitcher, but his secondary numbers have always been excellent and he's got 110 strikeouts versus just 20 non-intentional walks in 117 innings since the beginning of 2010.

Takashi Saito: Saito is 41 years old and missed nearly the entire first half with hamstring and back injuries, but was his usual unhittable self after returning in July with a 1.46 ERA and .186 opponents' batting average in 25 innings. After a brilliant career in Japan he's played six years in the majors, posting ERAs of 2.07, 1.40, 2.49, 2.43, 2.83, and 2.09. Aging and injuries make him a risk, but Saito remains incredibly effective and would surely accept a one-year contract.

Jon Rauch: Rauch pitched much better than he got credit for as Nathan's replacement in 2010, converting 21 saves in 25 chances before the misguided deal for Capps bumped him back into a setup role. He left as a free agent last winter and had a mediocre season for the Blue Jays on a one-year, $3.5 million contract, but Rauch posted a 2.82 ERA and 60/20 K/BB ratio in 73 innings during one-and-a-half years for the Twins and remains a capable setup man.

Chad Qualls: Also on my list of suggested bullpen targets last winter, Qualls inked a one-year, $2.55 million deal with the Padres and threw 74 innings with a 3.51 ERA and 43/20 K/BB ratio. Because he called pitcher-friendly Petco Park home that ERA isn't as impressive as it appears and Qualls' strikeout rate was the worst of his career at age 32, but aside from a fluky 2010 season his annual ERAs are 3.55, 3.28, 3.76, 3.05, 2.81, 3.63, and 3.51 dating back to 2004.

Dan Wheeler: Yet another reliever I suggested last offseason, Wheeler signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Red Sox and threw 49 innings with a 4.38 ERA and 39/8 K/BB ratio. Much like Dotel he's susceptible to left-handed power hitters, but righties hit just .200/.233/.379 off Wheeler during the past three seasons, producing a 104/18 K/BB ratio. As an extreme fly-ball pitcher Target Field is a good fit and at age 33 he should be available for a one-year deal.

George Sherrill: Before missing the final six weeks of the season with elbow problems Sherrill tossed 36 innings with a 3.00 ERA and 38/12 K/BB ratio, and if healthy the 35-year-old would fit nicely as a left-handed specialist. Combined over the past three seasons lefties hit just .192 with two homers and an 80/17 K/BB ratio off Sherrill, who has a 3.68 ERA and 320 strikeouts in 323 career innings.

Todd Coffey: With his sizable gut and sprint to the mound Coffey seems like a sideshow, but over the past three seasons he posted a 3.68 ERA and 167/64 K/BB ratio in 206 innings. That includes a 3.62 ERA and 46/20 K/BB ratio in 60 innings for the Nationals, who signed him to a one-year, $1.35 million deal after Coffey was non-tendered last offseason. I wanted the Twins to sign him then and he'd make sense again now as a hard-throwing righty setup man.

Michael Wuertz: Wuertz was injured and ineffective this season, convincing the A's to decline their $3.25 million option on the 32-year-old right-hander. When healthy the Minnesota native was an extremely effective setup man from 2004-2010, throwing 381 innings with a 3.45 ERA and 9.7 strikeouts per nine frames. His velocity has declined recently, so anything more than a modest one-year deal would be too risky, but Wuertz's fastball-slider combo is worth a flier.

January 12, 2011

Twins Notes: Thome, Pavano, relievers, and invites

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is among multiple sources reporting that the Rangers are making a strong push for Jim Thome, which is surprising considering Texas spoke publicly about shifting Michael Young to designated hitter after inking Adrian Beltre to an $80 million deal last week and announced they were no longer interested in re-signing their 2010 designated hitter, Vladimir Guerrero.

Thome has talked about wanting to return to Minnesota and general manager Bill Smith told Christensen that the Twins still hope to re-sign him, but clearly the two sides are far apart on money or contract length. Thome's projected role could also be a factor, because if he re-signs and Justin Morneau is healthy the Twins would have five hitters for four lineup spots, which is the same logjam that led to Thome starting just 34 of 84 games prior to Morneau's concussion.

If the Twins are offering him only a part-time gig and won't pay a premium or make a two-year commitment it makes sense that other teams have entered the mix for Thome, who was one of the most valuable hitters in the league last season while earning just $2 million. Thome also isn't an ideal fit for the Twins' lefty heavy lineup because he's a left-handed bat who should be on the bench versus most left-handed pitching.

However, handedness is a secondary concern that should come well behind overall production and Thome is the best bat available. For instance Guerrero, who Thome would be replacing as the DH in Texas, is a right-handed hitter, but his OPS was 200 points worse than Thome's and he slugged just .426 in the second half before struggling mightily in the playoffs. Swapping out Thome for a righty might make the Twins' lineup more balanced, but it won't make it better.

• For much of the offseason the Nationals were believed to be the Twins' main competition for Carl Pavano, but last week general manager Mike Rizzo downplayed Washington's interest in Pavano, claiming "we haven’t talked to his agent since the winter meetings." Shortly after that reports began to surface that Pavano and the Twins were closing in on a two-year deal, but no new developments have emerged yet this week.

Pavano is a 35-year-old with an extensive injury history and the second-lowest strikeout rate in baseball last season among all pitchers with more than 180 innings, so even a two-year deal is a big risk for a team that could let him walk and fill the rotation with Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Brian Duensing, and Nick Blackburn. Beyond that, by re-signing him the Twins would be passing on two compensatory draft picks.

I'd probably let Pavano walk, take the draft picks, spend the money on relief help or a veteran bat, and head into the season with the above five-man rotation and Kyle Gibson waiting in the wings at Triple-A, but re-signing him for two years and $15 million or so would be palatable enough. Bringing back Pavano could also enable the Twins to move one of the other starters to the bullpen or use them as trade bait, although those aren't necessarily good things.

• Most of the relievers I highlighted early in the offseason as potential low-cost bullpen targets are now off the market and many of them signed cheaply enough that they would have made sense for the Twins. Here are the statuses of the 13 relievers I suggested the Twins pursue:

D.J. Carrasco - Signed two-year, $2.5 million deal with Mets
Todd Coffey - Unsigned
Octavio Dotel - Signed one-year, $3.5 million deal with Blue Jays
Frank Francisco - Accepted arbitration from Rangers
Bobby Jenks - Signed two-year, $12 million deal with Red Sox
Will Ohman - Signed two-year, $4 million deal with White Sox
Hideki Okajima - Signed one-year, $2.75 million deal with Red Sox
Chan Ho Park - Signed with Korean team
Joel Peralta - Signed one-year, $925,000 deal with Rays
Chad Qualls - Unsigned
George Sherrill - Signed one-year, $1.2 million deal with Braves
Koji Uehara - Signed one-year, $3 million deal with Orioles
Dan Wheeler - Signed one-year, $3 million deal with Red Sox

Aside from perhaps Jenks' two-year, $12 million contract every one of those relievers would've made sense for the Twins at those prices, but instead they've essentially done nothing to plug the bullpen holes left by Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch. Jim Hoey is an intriguing pickup from the J.J. Hardy deal and there are some minor leaguers capable of stepping in, but it would've been nice to see the Twins sign one or two of the above relievers.

Coffey and Qualls are the only unsigned relievers from my low-cost list, and yesterday Buster Olney of ESPN.com wrote that Qualls "is looking for a one-year deal to re-establish his value before going back out on the market." Here's what I said about Qualls in recommending him as a low-cost target a month ago:

With a 7.32 ERA in 59 innings between two teams Qualls had a dreadful season, but most of that can be blamed on a .399 batting average on balls in play that was the worst in all of baseball among the 327 pitchers who logged at least 50 innings. In fact, Qualls was one of just two pitchers with a BABIP above .375. Qualls could be unlucky again in 2011 and that number would still probably drop by 40 points, and his career mark is .309.

Thanks to a solid strikeout rate and high percentage of ground balls he posted a nice-looking 3.91 xFIP that would've ranked second on the Twins behind only Francisco Liriano and both his xFIPs and ERAs were consistently in the 2.75-3.50 range from 2004-2009. He's maintained good velocity on a fastball-slider combo and if the Twins can avoid being scared off by his ugly ERA there's a quality setup man to be found in Qualls' track record and secondary numbers.

There's no indication that Qualls is even on the Twins' radar, but I'd feel a lot better about the middle relief corps if they could sign him for $2 million or so.

• Yesterday the Twins announced non-roster invites to spring training, which are players not on the 40-man roster who'll report to big-league camp in Fort Myers. Six of the 19 non-roster invitees are catchers, which is common since teams need battery mates for the extra pitchers in camp. Beyond all the backstops the list includes minor-league veterans given invites as part of their deals and three legit prospects in Gibson, Carlos Gutierrez, and Kyle Waldrop.

Here's the full list:

Hitters                  Pitchers
Jeff Bailey              Yorman Bazardo
Matt Brown               Phil Dumatrait
Ray Chang                Kyle Gibson
Brian Dinkelman          Carlos Gutierrez
Brian Dozier             Chuck James
Jair Fernandez           Kyle Waldrop
Chris Herrmann
Steve Holm
Justin Huber
Chase Lambin
Danny Lehmann
Danny Rams
Rene Rivera

Odds are that none of those guys will crack the Opening Day roster, but there are certainly a handful of non-roster invitees with a chance.

November 11, 2010

Blowing up the bullpen on a budget: Low-cost free agent options

Joe Nathan going down for the year with a torn elbow ligament in the middle of spring training left the Twins without one of the most dominant relievers in baseball history and forced some unexpected changes on the bullpen, but Jon Rauch and Matt Capps converted 37-of-43 save opportunities while replacing him as closer and the relief corps as a whole ranked fourth in the league with a 3.49 ERA.

Nathan's recovery from Tommy John surgery will hopefully have him ready for Opening Day, but with Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Brian Fuentes all free agents the Twins could be forced to completely remake the bullpen this offseason. That quartet of free agents logged 45 percent of the Twins' total relief innings, including the vast majority of high-leverage work, and it seems unlikely that more than one or maybe two of the pitchers will be re-signed.

Healthy or not Nathan is under contract for $11.25 million in 2011 and as an arbitration eligible player Capps is all but guaranteed to get a sizable raise from his $3.5 million salary, meaning the Twins may have to rebuild the rest of the bullpen on a budget. Spending about $17 million on Nathan and Capps alone could make it difficult to re-sign any of their own free agents and also likely takes the Twins out of the running for other big-name relievers on the open market.

Nathan, Capps, and Jose Mijares are the under-contract holdovers and some other in-house options include Alex Burnett, Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney, Pat Neshek, Jeff Manship, Glen Perkins, and Kyle Waldrop, but whether it means re-signing their own free agents or bringing in outside help my guess is that at least two bullpen spots will be filled by pitchers not on that list. With a close eye on the budget, here are some potential low-cost suggestions ...

Koji Uehara: He couldn't stay healthy as a starter after leaving Japan to sign a two-year, $10 million deal with the Orioles two winters ago, but Uehara quietly had a ton of success following a move to the bullpen this season. He posted a 2.86 ERA, .220 opponents' batting average, and 55-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 44 innings, including an absurd 45-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half.

As a 35-year-old with a history of arm problems Uehara is risky, but that should also keep his asking price down and perhaps make him available for a reasonable one-year contract. Uehara converted 13-of-15 saves for the Orioles after moving into the closer role late in the year, but would make an ideal setup man for the Twins and certainly fits pitching coach Rick Anderson's preferred strike-throwing mold.

Chad Qualls: With a 7.32 ERA in 59 innings between two teams Qualls had a dreadful season, but most of that can be blamed on a .399 batting average on balls in play that was the worst in all of baseball among the 327 pitchers who logged at least 50 innings. In fact, Qualls was one of just two pitchers with a BABIP above .375. Qualls could be unlucky again in 2011 and that number would still probably drop by 40 points, and his career mark is .309.

Thanks to a solid strikeout rate and high percentage of ground balls he posted a nice-looking 3.91 xFIP that would've ranked second on the Twins behind only Francisco Liriano and both his xFIPs and ERAs were consistently in the 2.75-3.50 range from 2004-2009. He's maintained good velocity on a fastball-slider combo and if the Twins can avoid being scared off by his ugly ERA there's a quality setup man to be found in Qualls' track record and secondary numbers.

Dan Wheeler: Keeping the ball in the ballpark has been Wheeler's weakness, with 28 homers allowed in 172.1 innings over the past three seasons, but he still managed ERAs of 3.12, 3.28, and 3.35 in that time thanks to a 144-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That includes a 46/16 K/BB ratio and .207 opponents' batting average in 48 innings this season, which made it surprising that the Rays declined to exercise their $4 million option on the 32-year-old right-hander.

As a Type A free agent it's possible the Rays will offer Wheeler arbitration even after declining his option, in which case the Twins should cross him off their list because he's not worth giving up a first-round pick to sign. Even if they don't offer arbitration other teams with more money to toss around than the Twins may snatch him up for more than the declined $4 million option. He has a 3.31 ERA in 392 innings since 2005, including a sub-3.50 mark in five of six seasons.

Octavio Dotel: Available after the Rockies declined his $4.5 million option, Dotel is somewhat similar to Wheeler in that limiting homers has been his biggest weakness throughout most of his career. He's also 37 years old and has lost a bit of velocity in recent years, but Dotel still averaged 92 miles per hour with his fastball this season and racked up 75 strikeouts in just 64 innings. He's never averaged fewer than 10 strikeouts per nine innings in a full relief season.

To put that in some context consider that in Twins history there have only been 10 instances of a pitcher logging 50 or more innings while cracking double-digit strikeouts per nine innings, with Nathan and Johan Santana accounting for six of them. Dotel has done it eight times since 2000, including each of the past three seasons. He'll serve up some homers, but Dotel will also miss a ton of bats and put together plenty of dominant outings.

Frank Francisco: Early struggles saw Francisco lose his closer job to Neftali Feliz in April and a strained rib muscle got him left off the Rangers' playoff roster, but in between he posted a 2.84 ERA, .220 opponents' batting average, and 57/16 K/BB ratio in 51 innings from mid-April to the end of August. He also had a 3.43 ERA, .206 opponents' batting average, and 140/41 K/BB ratio in 113 innings during the previous two seasons.

There's a strong chance some teams may still view Francisco as a closer option, in which case the Twins can't really compete for his services, but if he fails to draw any offers for ninth-inning duties they shouldn't hesitate to offer the 31-year-old righty a two-year deal. He's consistently had elite raw stuff and results, perhaps masked by ugly outings in April and a non-arm injury. He's a Type A free agent, so they'll have to wait to see if the Rangers offer arbitration.

Chan Ho Park: He was a bust in New York after signing a one-year, $1.2 million contract last winter, but Park's struggles can be traced to serving up seven homers in 35 innings for the Yankees. Obviously that's not a positive thing, but his ground-ball rate suggested it wouldn't continue and sure enough he allowed just two homers in 28 innings after the Pirates claimed him off waivers in early August.

His overall numbers include a 4.66 ERA and 52/19 K/BB ratio in 64 innings and Park was a big part of the Phillies' bullpen in 2009 with a 2.52 ERA and 52/16 K/BB ratio in 50 innings. At age 38 and with the poor first-half showing in New York he's unlikely to be in high demand and I certainly wouldn't trust Park with a high-leverage role in 2011, but he still looks very capable of being a solid middle reliever and the price figures to be right.

Will Ohman: I first advised going after Ohman two offseasons ago only to see him miss most of 2009 following shoulder surgery, but he bounced back with a 3.21 ERA and 43/23 K/BB ratio in 42 innings this season. He's been used primarily as a left-handed specialist and struggled versus right-handed hitters this season, but Ohman did a solid enough job against righties in previous years to be more than a one-batter-per-appearance guy.

And he's been death on lefty bats, of course, holding them to .229/.323/.313 this season and .208/.298/.348 for his career. Ohman makes sense as a second lefty alongside Mijares, but if the Twins are looking for more of a true southpaw specialist side-armer Randy Choate may be a better target. Choate led the AL in appearances with 85 yet logged a total of just 45 innings. He can't be trusted versus righties, but has held lefties to .217/.297/.301 for his career.