August 28, 2013

Does a concussion mean it’s time to move Joe Mauer away from catcher?

joe mauer first base

Talk of moving Joe Mauer from catcher to another position has been common since 2004 when his rookie season was ruined by knee surgery and got loudest when he spent half of 2011 on the disabled list, but recently he's been so healthy and productive that it's become little more than a whisper. Unfortunately the volume is rising again because Mauer is on the DL and out indefinitely after suffering a concussion while catching last week. It's a very complicated question.

Since coming back from his injury wrecked 2011 season Mauer has hit .321 with a .410 on-base percentage and .460 slugging percentage in 1,149 plate appearances. Among all catchers with at least 600 plate appearances during that two-year span Mauer leads MLB in on-base percentage, ranks second in batting average a few points behind Yadier Molina, and is tied with Molina for second in adjusted OPS+ behind Buster Posey.

However you slice it Mauer has been one of the three best-hitting catchers in baseball over the past two years and his combined .321/.410/.460 mark during that time is nearly identical to his .323/.405/.468 career line. And looking at his career totals paints Mauer in an even better light, because he's maintained his level of excellence for a decade. Here are the hitting leaders among active catchers with at least 1,000 career plate appearances:

JOE MAUER         .323     JOE MAUER         .405     Buster Posey      .497
Buster Posey      .312     Buster Posey      .379     Brian McCann      .477
Yadier Molina     .285     Carlos Santana    .365     JOE MAUER         .468
A.J. Pierzynski   .284     John Jaso         .364     Carlos Santana    .446
Jonathan Lucroy   .281     Ryan Hanigan      .364     David Ross        .442

Mauer has the best batting average by 11 points over Posey and at least 38 points over everyone else. Mauer has the best on-base percentage by 26 points over Posey and at least 40 points over everyone else. And he ranks third in slugging percentage behind Posey and Brian McCann. Add it all up and here are the active catching leaders in overall offensive production according to OPS, adjusted OPS+, and weighted on-base average:

OPS                        ADJUSTED OPS+              WEIGHTED ON-BASE
Buster Posey      .876     Buster Posey       146     JOE MAUER         .377
JOE MAUER         .873     JOE MAUER          135     Buster Posey      .376
Brian McCann      .827     Carlos Santana     128     Brian McCann      .355
Carlos Santana    .811     Brian McCann       118     Carlos Santana    .353
Miguel Montero    .780     John Jaso          114     Miguel Montero    .340

In terms of career-long production Mauer and Posey are the players with an argument for being the best-hitting catcher in baseball and Molina enters the mix if the most recent two seasons are given more weight. Mauer has also been an asset defensively, throwing out 43 percent of steal attempts this season and 33 percent for his career compared to the MLB average of 25 percent. And for whatever value you choose to place in Gold Glove awards Mauer has three of them.

Whether you focus on recent performances or career-long track records Mauer stands out as one of the two or three best catchers in all of baseball and certainly has a strong argument for being the best catcher considering he's maintained elite status for much longer than Posey or Molina. However, if you take his 2012/2013 numbers and make those same comparisons to first basemen (and designated hitters) instead of catchers Mauer slides down the rankings a bit:

Joey Votto        .324     Joey Votto        .451     David Ortiz       .589
JOE MAUER         .321     JOE MAUER         .410     Chris Davis       .585
David Ortiz       .318     David Ortiz       .406     Edwin Encarnacion .546
Allen Craig       .310     Prince Fielder    .383     Joey Votto        .533
Billy Butler      .303     Paul Goldschmidt  .378     Paul Goldschmidt  .518
                                                      JOE MAUER         .460

If you compare Mauer to first basemen rather than catchers he falls behind Joey Votto as his position's king of batting average and on-base percentage, although Mauer still ranks second in both categories for 2012/2013. However, the big change is that while slugging .460 gets Mauer ranked among the top half-dozen catchers for 2012/2013 it would place just 20th among first basemen and designated hitters during that same time. Here's a look at overall production:

OPS                        ADJUSTED OPS+              WEIGHTED ON-BASE
David Ortiz       .995     David Ortiz        166     Joey Votto        .419
Joey Votto        .985     Joey Votto         163     David Ortiz       .415
Chris Davis       .941     Chris Davis        151     Chris Davis       .396
Edwin Encarnacion .922     Edwin Encarnacion  148     Edwin Encarnacion .391
Paul Goldschmidt  .896     Paul Goldschmidt   141     Paul Goldschmidt  .382
...                        ...                        ...
JOE MAUER         .870     JOE MAUER          140     JOE MAUER         .379

Mauer narrowly misses cracking the top-five first basemen in OPS, adjusted OPS+, and weighted on-base average for 2012/2013, ranking sixth in all three categories. Beyond focusing on where he'd stand relative to the truly elite players at each position, his place relative to the average at each position would also fall. Mauer has an .870 OPS for 2012/2013, which is 22 percent above average for a catcher versus 12 percent above average for a first baseman.

As a catcher Mauer is arguably the best at his position and no worse than the top three, producing 20-25 percent more offense than an average player. As a first baseman he'd have zero claim to being the best at his position and realistically slot somewhere in the 5-10 range, producing 10-15 percent more offense than an average player. Or, put another way: By moving from catcher to first base he'd go from elite to merely very good and All-Star spots might be hard to come by.

Of course, it's not as simple as looking at where his production would rank at a new position. By moving away from catcher and avoiding the daily physical toll Mauer should in theory be able to stay healthier, play more games, and increase his offensive output. So perhaps instead of being a top-three catcher for 135 games he'd be a top-eight first baseman for 155 games. And maybe he'd go from a top-eight first baseman to a top-five first baseman by not wearing down as much.

None of that is set in stone, however. For one thing simply playing first base or even designated hitter doesn't make someone immune to injuries and wearing down, as Justin Morneau has sadly demonstrated. There's also no guarantee that moving out from behind the plate will automatically increase Mauer's output at the plate. Mauer's odds of staying healthy and upping his production should be better at a position other than catcher, but it's impossible to know for certain.

Having a great-hitting catcher impacts a lineup a few ways, because in addition to being a strong bat his presence also keeps the team from having to use a weak-hitting catcher and leaves a spot open for another strong bat who doesn't have to be much of a defender at first base, an outfield corner, or designated hitter. If the Twins move Mauer they'd have to find a new catcher who'd be a sizable downgrade offensively and they'd have one less spot for a defensively challenged bat.

In terms of in-house options to replace Mauer at catcher Ryan Doumit is under contract for 2014, Chris Herrmann is holding his own as a rookie, and Josmil Pinto is a step away from the majors at Triple-A. Of course, Doumit catches like a designated hitter, Pinto might end up at designated hitter, and Herrmann is a 25-year-old with a .372 career slugging percentage in the minors. It's not a terrible set of options, but that mostly just speaks to the overall weakness of the position.

Another potential issue with a position switch is that assuming Mauer's production declines as he gets deeper into his thirties like the standard aging curve he'd remain an above-average catcher for much longer because the bar is so low at the position. First base is a much different story, as a decline-phase Mauer hitting, say, .285 with 10 homers and a .750 OPS, would drop to the bottom of the positional pile pretty quickly. He's signed through age 35, in 2018.

Ultimately, though, here's why the speculation about Mauer changing positions has started up again after being dormant for a while: Catching puts players at much higher risk for concussions and none of the above numbers will mean anything if Mauer's career is derailed by brain injuries like Morneau and Corey Koskie before him. Mauer is a great catcher and might "only" be a good first baseman, but a good first baseman is more valuable than a catcher disabled by brain trauma.

This is an impossible question to answer definitively, because brain injuries are so unpredictable that even MLB organizations with $100 million payrolls and doctors with high levels of expertise and decades of experience struggle to effectively diagnosis and treat concussions. In general the amount of Mauer's value that comes from being a catcher and in turn his all-around value are often undersold, but the "should Mauer change positions?" question is no longer just about value.

For a lengthy discussion about a potential Mauer position switch, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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February 21, 2013

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2013: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

20. Chris Herrmann | Catcher | DOB: 10/87 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2009-6

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     A+     408     .219     .310     .301      2     22     41     74
2011     A+     106     .310     .404     .425      1      7     15      6
         AA     406     .258     .380     .392      7     26     64     68
2012     AA     558     .276     .350     .392     10     36     58     89

Chris Herrmann arrived in the majors ahead of schedule because the Twins briefly needed some emergency catching help in September, getting the call-up after repeating Double-A. His numbers for New Britain were nearly identical to 2011, as Herrmann showed his usual good plate discipline and strike zone control with minimal power. His production was nothing special, particularly for a 24-year-old in his second go-around at the level, but he's an intriguing player.

Herrmann was an outfielder at the University of Miami before moving to catcher at high Single-A in 2010 and last season he played 83 games at catcher compared to 43 games between left field and designated hitter. His defense behind the plate gets mixed reviews, but Herrmann threw out 44 percent of steal attempts last year and 38 percent in 2011. As an outfielder his bat is below par, but as a catcher/outfielder he'd have a whole lot more use.

Another issue for Herrmann is that he's a left-handed hitter hoping to become the third catcher behind a left-handed hitter in Joe Mauer and a switch-hitter who swings better from the left side in Ryan Doumit. That makes him less than an ideal fit, although his ability to play elsewhere is handy and it's not as if Drew Butera's offensive ineptitude coming from the right side helps anyway. Herrmann is likely Triple-A bound this year, but he's shooting for Butera's job.

19. Levi Michael | Second Base | DOB: 2/91 | Bats: Switch | Draft: 2011-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2012     A+     512     .246     .339     .311      2     20     56     82

Levi Michael was supposed to be one of the more MLB-ready position players available in the 2011 draft after three years in the University of North Carolina lineup and the Twins jumped him directly to high Single-A for his pro debut, but the 30th overall pick struggled. His good patience and strike zone control from college were evident, but Michael hit just .246 with two homers, failed to show even gap power, and attempted only six steals in 117 games.

He was much better in the second half than the first half, but even that amounted to a modest .272 batting average with zero homers and a .328 slugging percentage in 63 post-break games. Also worrisome is that Michael played more second base (65 games) than shortstop (53 games) for Fort Myers, which jibes with the pre-draft questions about his ability to be a quality shortstop in the majors.

It's too early to write off Michael as a bust, but it's unfortunate that the Twins finally went away from their usual draft strategy to take a college middle infielder in the first round for the first time since 1994 only to see him stumble out of the gates. He's still just 22 years old and has the solid plate discipline as a good foundation, but if he's not going to stick at shortstop Michael really needs to show that he's capable of doing more than drawing walks.

18. Hudson Boyd | Starter | DOB: 10/92 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2011-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     RK+    13     13     2.95      58.0      63      7      36     23

Touted as a big, hard-throwing right-hander with potentially dominant raw stuff when the Twins made him their supplemental first-round pick in the 2011 draft, Hudson Boyd was anything but dominant in his pro debut. He posted a nice-looking 2.95 ERA in 58 innings for rookie-level Elizabethton, but allowed 5.12 total runs per nine innings and Boyd was forced to rely on the shoddy defense behind him because he managed just 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

He also struggled with his control, walking 3.6 per nine innings, and allowed opponents to hit .270 with seven homers in 263 plate appearances in a league where batters collectively hit .254 with a .382 slugging percentage. In fairness to Boyd plenty of high school pitchers struggle in their first taste of the minors and the Twins had him skip the lower level of rookie-ball to face Appalachian League hitters at age 19.

Still, for a 55th overall pick who was supposed to be all about overpowering hitters it wasn't a promising debut and did nothing to quiet pre-draft questions about whether Boyd will eventually wind up in the bullpen. It's worth noting that Boyd is several years younger than the various hard-throwing college relievers the Twins drafted in June and are now trying to convert into starters, so there's no rush to find out yet.

17. Niko Goodrum | Shortstop | DOB: 2/92 | Bats: Switch | Draft: 2010-2

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     RK-    128     .161     .219     .195      0      4      9     34
2011     RK+    230     .275     .352     .382      2     15     21     56
2012     RK+    269     .242     .349     .419      4     24     38     56

Niko Goodrum had a brutal debut in 2010, but the second-round pick bounced back with a nice 2011 at rookie-level Elizabethton and then built on that further while repeating the level last year. His batting average fell from .275 to .242, but Goodrum upped his power by 65 percent, drew 54 percent more walks, and cut his strikeouts by 14 percent. His overall production as a pro isn't pretty, but the individual skills are more promising.

Goodrum was drafted for his physical tools and considered very raw coming out of a Georgia high school, so the fact that he's walked 68 times in 627 plate appearances is a pleasant surprise. He's managed just six homers through 153 games, but Goodrum has shown decent pop with 26 doubles and 11 triples. As his 6-foot-3 frame fills out he should convert some of those gappers into homers, although that same maturation may keep him from sticking at shortstop.

There are mixed opinions on where Goodrum's long-term home will be defensively, but it's worth noting that along with the improved power, walk rate, and strikeout rate as a hitter last season he also committed significantly fewer errors at shortstop. Whatever the case, as a switch-hitter and up-the-middle defender with good speed and a nice foundation on which to build offensively he's an intriguing 21-year-old.

16. J.T. Chargois | Reliever | DOB: 12/90 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2012-2

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     RK+    12      0     1.69      16.0      10      0      22      5

With the second of two compensatory draft picks for losing Michael Cuddyer to free agency the Twins selected Rice reliever J.T. Chargois, who prior to the draft Baseball America rated 77th and rated 64th. As a junior the right-handed Chargois threw 38 innings with a 2.15 ERA and 38-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio, teaming with Twins fifth-round pick Tyler Duffey to form an exceptional bullpen duo.

Chargois also played first base for Rice and hit .323 with a .411 on-base percentage, but he failed to homer in 51 games and there was never any doubt that his future was on the mound. ESPN's scouting report noted his mid-90s fastball, sharp-breaking slider, and high-effort delivery "that virtually demands he get to the majors as quickly as possible" and makes him "someone to sign and send right out to Double-A."

And yet because the Twins are incredibly conservative when it comes to pushing prospects they sent Chargois to rookie-ball for his pro debut at age 21. He predictably dominated Appalachian League hitters with a 1.69 ERA and 22-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16 innings. Hopefully the Twins actually test Chargois with some decent competition this year, because while he's far from a sure thing letting him destroy inexperienced hitters seems like a waste of time.

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September 19, 2012

Twins Notes: Herrmann, Mauer, Florimon, Dozier, and Cedar Rapids

• As part of September roster expansion the Twins called up just two players, Luis Perdomo and Eduardo Escobar, but injuries to Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit left Drew Butera as the team's only healthy catcher and led to Chris Herrmann being added to the 40-man roster as a third call-up. Herrmann ranked 20th on my list of Twins prospects coming into this season and should hold a similar spot for next year after a solid Double-A campaign.

Herrmann hit .276/.350/.392 in 127 games for New Britain, nearly matching his .264/.357/.382 career line and showing his usual on-base skills, good strike-zone control, and modest power with 58 walks versus 89 strikeouts and 10 homers in 558 plate appearances. His performance at Double-A was nothing special, particularly for a 24-year-old repeating the level after playing 97 games there in 2011, but Herrmann likely has a big-league future beyond this month.

How long and in which role that future will be depends largely on his defense behind the plate, as Herrmann was an outfielder at the University of Miami before moving to catcher at high Single-A in 2010. This season he played 83 games at catcher compared to 43 games between left field and designated hitter. His defense gets mixed reviews, but Herrmann threw out 44 percent of steal attempts this year and 38 percent in 2011.

Another issue for Herrmann is that he's a left-handed hitter hoping to become the third catcher behind a left-handed hitter in Mauer and a switch-hitter who swings better from the left side in Doumit. That makes Herrmann less than an ideal fit, although his ability to play other positions should be handy and it's not as if Butera's offensive ineptitude coming from the right side helps anyway. Herrmann is likely Triple-A bound next year, but he's shooting for Butera's job.

Rene Rivera, a journeyman catcher who played 45 games for the Twins last year, indicated via Twitter that he was upset about being passed over for the call-up in favor of Herrmann:

I guess I should not expect promises to be kept. Best of luck to everyone. #Disappointed #Lies

Rivera later tried to put that toothpaste back in the tube, tweeting that he never mentioned the Twins and various other damage control, but there seemingly isn't a whole lot of nuance or need for interpretation in his original words. I have no idea what was or wasn't promised, but based on performance alone Rivera didn't warrant more time in the majors. He's a 29-year-old career .193 hitter in the majors and hit .226/.307/.385 at Triple-A this year.

• After going 3-for-4 with two walks last night Mauer is now hitting .325 with a league-leading .419 on-base percentage, which is remarkable considering he was hitting .265 on May 18. Here's a list of all the players in Twins history with an on-base percentage of .410 or higher:

                    YEAR      OBP
Joe Mauer           2012     .419
Joe Mauer           2009     .444
Joe Mauer           2008     .413
Joe Mauer           2006     .429
Chuck Knoblauch     1996     .448
Chuck Knoblauch     1995     .424
Rod Carew           1978     .411
Rod Carew           1977     .449
Rod Carew           1975     .421
Rod Carew           1974     .433
Rod Carew           1973     .411
Harmon Killebrew    1970     .411
Harmon Killebrew    1969     .427

And then there's also this: Mauer's current OPS? .877. Mauer's career OPS? .874.

Pedro Florimon looks good defensively at shortstop and can't hit, so Ron Gardenhire has predictably taking a liking to him immediately:

I'm very comfortable with him out there. We're not going to name a starting lineup [for 2013] or anything like right now, or even later, but I really like him out there. I think there are things he can get better at ... but I like him. I like the way he moves, I like the way he watches. He pays attention. He's got great hands.

Assistant general manager Rob Antony agreed about Florimon and also indicated that Brian Dozier's future may no longer be at shortstop:

Florimon has kind of made the plays and shown some of the range that you really like from a shortstop, that Dozier didn't necessarily do. So it might be a situation where we still think Dozier can be a good player, but he may end up being a second baseman instead of a shortstop.

While perhaps a surprise to the people who didn't know any better and bought into the misguided hype surrounding Dozier's arrival, his defense at shortstop has always been in question. Of course, for as bad as Dozier was offensively this year there's at least some reason to believe he's capable of being a decent hitter. The same is not really true of Florimon, who has hit .228/.284/.327 in the majors and .250/.318/.352 between Double-A and Triple-A.

According to the Twins' attendance is down 4,967 fans per game, which is a drop of 372,000 total fans compared to this same point last season. And that represents tickets sold rather than actual attendance, of course. Only the Astros have seen their attendance drop more than the Twins this year, no other team is down more than 3,400 fans per game, and across baseball overall attendance is up nearly 1,000 fans per game.

• In their last 324 games (two full 162-game seasons, basically) the Twins are 127-197 for a .392 winning percentage.

Josh Willingham became the fourth player in Twins history with 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs in a season, joining Harmon Killebrew (seven times), Justin Morneau (three), and Gary Gaetti (two). Overall the Twins now have 13 of the 665 total instances of a hitter reaching 30-100 since 1961. By comparison, Alex Rodriguez has 14 seasons with 30-100 all by himself.

• After eight years with Beloit as their low Single-A affiliate the Twins have switched their Midwest League team to Cedar Rapids, which offers better facilities in addition to being closer to Minnesota.

Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune does Twins updates for Baseball America and got an interesting quote on Tsuyoshi Nishioka from vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff:

The player we all saw was not the player we scouted in Japan. For whatever reason, we haven't seen that guy. I mean, none of us believed that he wouldn't hit.

When the Twins spent $15 million to acquire Nishioka in December of 2010 he was coming off a batting title in Japan, but a deeper look at his numbers showed that the .346 average was due to unsustainable success on balls in play. However, even projections adjusting for that had Nishioka as a decent all-around hitter. Instead he's hit .215/.267/.236 for the Twins and .260/.318/.327 for Rochester. Radcliff is right, but sadly the Twins were very wrong.

• Twins prospects Miguel Sano and Oswaldo Arcia were both selected for Baseball America's minor league all-star team, which includes a total of 30 players.

• This year eight American League pitchers with at least 50 innings have posted an Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) worse than 5.00. Three of them are Twins: Jeff Gray, Nick Blackburn, Alex Burnett.

• Perdomo, who the Twins called up while leaving Anthony Slama and his consistently great numbers to rot in the minors, now has a 5.06 ERA and 10 walks in 10.2 innings this season.

• Complete list of players in Twins history with more plate appearances and a lower OPS than Alexi Casilla: Al Newman, Danny Thompson.

• Old friend Pat Neshek, who spent most of the past three seasons at Triple-A before being called up by Oakland three weeks ago, now has a 0.63 ERA in 17 appearances for the A's.

• Regarding the Twins' offseason plans John Shipley of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote that the free agent starting pitcher market "isn't deep." That jibes with some comments general manager Terry Ryan made previously, but on this week's Gleeman and The Geek episode we spent about 45 minutes breaking down the various free agent starters and found that to be anything but true. It's plenty deep, especially in the type of pitchers the Twins usually go after.

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March 15, 2012

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2012: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

20. Chris Herrmann | Catcher | DOB: 10/87 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2009-6

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2009     RK+    277     .297     .391     .453      7     22     33     40
2010     A+     408     .219     .310     .301      2     22     41     74
2011     A+     106     .310     .404     .425      1      7     15      6
         AA     406     .258     .380     .392      7     26     64     68

Chris Herrmann played mostly left field at the University of Miami and stayed in the outfield to begin his professional career, but the 2009 sixth-round pick has since moved behind the plate while showing enough to possibly stick at catcher long term. He's still rough around the edges defensively at age 24, totaling 11 errors and seven passed balls in 108 games, but Herrmann has also thrown out 37 percent of steal attempts.

He's not quite a full-time catcher, seeing about half of his action last year as a corner outfielder and designated hitter, but even as a part-time catcher with some question marks defensively Herrmann is the closest thing the Twins have to a decent prospect at the position. Offensively his primary skill is fantastic plate discipline, as Herrmann tied for the system lead with 79 walks in 121 games between high Single-A and Double-A last year while striking out only 74 times.

Unfortunately he also batted just .269 and is a career .258 hitter with just 17 home runs and a .377 slugging percentage in 287 games. As a full-time catcher with sound defensive skills the walk-drawing alone could be enough to make him a starting-caliber all-around player, but if instead Herrmann ends up as a defensively challenged part-time catcher and part-time corner outfielder the bar will be raised enough offensively that he'll need to add some power.

19. Corey Williams | Reliever | DOB: 7/90 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2011-3

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2011     RK+     7      0     3.86      11.2      12      0      11      5

As a Vanderbilt freshman Corey Williams made a name for himself on YouTube with a clip that's been viewed a half-million times showing him taking a line drive off the leg and recovering to get the out at first base before writhing in pain with what turned out to be a shattered kneecap. And if watching someone's kneecap explode on the field isn't enough, the X-rays are equally cringe-inducing.

Williams recovered from the gruesome injury but wasn't effective as a sophomore, throwing 38 innings with a 4.49 ERA and 37-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a reliever, but the Twins picked the left-hander in the third-round on the basis of his mid-90s fastball. And according to Baseball America he may have gone even earlier if not for the assumption he'd be a tough sign, which is why the Twins had to spend double the recommended slot amount with a $575,000 bonus.

He debuted at rookie-level Elizabethton with a 3.86 ERA and 11-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12 innings. Between college and the minors he's thrown just 67 innings during the past three years, so staying healthy and getting some consistent work should be the primary goal for Williams in 2012. He has the raw stuff to move pretty quickly through the system if the Twins keep him as a reliever.

18. Angel Morales | Left Field | DOB: 11/89 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2007-3

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2009     A-     418     .266     .329     .455     13     40     30    104
2010     A-     247     .289     .381     .474      4     24     24     65
         A+     301     .272     .347     .349      1     15     28     75
2011     A+     138     .264     .326     .388      3      9     13     36

Angel Morales was the Twins' third-round pick out of Puerto Rico in 2007 and emerged as one of their top prospects by showing an impressive power-speed combo in the low minors. He was a rookie-ball monster in 2008, hitting .301/.413/.623 in 54 games, and then slugged .455 at low Single-A as a 19-year-old. His power disappeared in 2010, but Morales hit .280 with a .362 on-base percentage while improving his plate discipline between two levels of Single-A.

Even while he was thriving as a young center fielder in the low minors Morales' high strikeout rates stood out as a potential red flag, but it was injuries that did him in last season. He repeated high Single-A and missed all but 37 games with an elbow injury, struggling when in Fort Myers' lineup and then going unpicked in the Rule 5 draft when the Twins opted against protecting him with a 40-man roster spot.

Morales is still just 22 years old, so if healthy he's capable of re-emerging as a top prospect this season, but five years into his pro career he's yet to advance past Single-A and his upside remains more about physical tools than actual production. Staying in the lineup will be the biggest key for Morales in 2012, but he also needs to either cut down on the strikeouts or rediscover the power he displayed early on.

17. Max Kepler | Left Field | DOB: 2/93 | Bats: Left | Sign: Germany

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     RK-    153     .286     .346     .343      0      7     13     27
2011     RK+    221     .262     .347     .366      1     15     23     54

Signed out of Germany as a 16-year-old in 2009 and given an $800,000 bonus that ranks as the highest ever for a European position player, Max Kepler's first two pro seasons have been encouraging despite modest raw numbers. He's hit a combined .272/.347/.356 in 87 games between two levels of rookie-ball, upping his power from non-existent to sub par last season at Elizabethton while maintaining a solid walk rate.

Kepler is years from potentially entering the Twins' plans and at this point it's tough to even get a feel for what type of player he might become, but for a raw teenager to hold his own right away is certainly a positive sign. His physical tools include above-average speed and athleticism, leaving center field as a possible long-term home, and at 6-foot-4 he should add significant strength along the way.

In addition to being an intriguing prospect Kepler also has a very interesting back-story, as his American-born mother and Polish-born father met while starring together in the Berlin ballet. Kepler should provide a clearer picture of his upside if the Twins let him take a crack at full-season competition for the first time in 2012, but it's important to remember that he didn't turn 19 years old until last month.

16. Niko Goodrum | Shortstop | DOB: 2/92 | Bats: Switch | Draft: 2010-2

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     RK-    128     .161     .219     .195      0      4      9     34
2011     RK+    230     .275     .352     .382      2     15     21     56

Niko Goodrum had one of the worst debuts you'll ever see from a second-round pick, batting .161 with 34 strikeouts in 36 games at rookie-ball after the Twins selected him 71st overall out of a Georgia high school in 2010. Those struggles weren't overly alarming because Goodrum was considered very raw at the time of the draft and last season the switch-hitting shortstop's impressive physical tools were on full display.

He moved up one level of rookie-ball and hit .275/.352/.382 with 15 extra-base hits and eight steals in 59 games for a star-studded Elizabethton lineup that also included Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario. Goodrum still had trouble making consistent contact, whiffing 56 times in 230 plate appearances, but he also drew 21 walks and finished the Appalachian League season on a very strong note by hitting .341/.438/.489 in 26 games during the final month.

Like most teenage shortstops he made a ton of miscues, committing 24 errors in 54 starts, but Goodrum's arm is shortstop-caliber and depending on how his 6-foot-3 frame fills out there's a shot he could play the position long term. Goodrum also saw some action at second base and seemingly has the skills to be a center fielder if moving away from the infield proves necessary. He's a long way from the majors, but ranks among the Twins' most intriguing prospects.

September 6, 2011

Twins Notes: Two games, one run, no wins, and last place

• It might have been the low point of the Twins' season had they been no-hit by Zach Stewart last night, but ... well, I've lost count of low points by now. Instead they merely lost both ends of a doubleheader to their biggest rival while scoring one total run, losing to Johan Santana trade castoff Phil Humber and a rookie with a 5.48 ERA. Not only are the Twins 8-27 in their last 35 games, they've now plummeted past the Royals into last place in the AL Central.

Overall this season the Twins have scored zero or one run in 26 percent of their games, which is tied with the Mariners for worst in the league. And as bad as that sounds they've been far worse recently, scoring zero or one run in 17 of 33 games since August 1. To put that in some context, consider that the Yankees (13), Diamondbacks (15), Tigers (16), and Orioles (16) have scored zero or one run fewer than 17 times all season. What a mess.

Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Brian Dinkelman were the first batch of reinforcements after September 1 roster expansion, Liam Hendriks joins the team for his debut tonight against the White Sox, and the Twins have also promoted Joe Benson and Chris Parmelee to the majors. On my preseason list of the Twins' top 40 prospects Benson ranked No. 6 and Parmelee was No. 19, and they've both improved their stock since then.

Benson in particular has emerged as arguably the team's best prospect among players who're close to MLB-ready, hitting .285/.387/.491 with 16 homers in 114 games at Double-A after the Twins had the 2006 second-round pick repeat the level despite batting .251/.336/.527 with 23 homers in 104 games there last year. He doesn't project as a star and high strikeout rates are a potential red flag, but Benson does a lot of things well and looks like a solid regular.

He's played primarily center field at Double-A, but figures to be a right fielder in the majors and should combine plus range with a strong arm. Offensively he'll hopefully make up for mediocre batting averages with 20-homer power, solid plate discipline, and good speed, although so far Benson hasn't been an effective basestealer. At age 23 and with zero Triple-A experience he may not be quite ready for the majors, but Benson is close enough to take a long look.

Parmelee was the first-round pick in that same 2006 draft and initially looked like a rare Twins prospect with big-time pop and excellent plate discipline, but instead he's worked to cut down on his strikeouts while trading power for a higher batting average. He hit just .250 with a .200 Isolated Power through four pro seasons, but has hit .286 with a .134 Isolated Power during the past two years. To put that in some context, Joe Mauer has a .148 career Isolated Power.

Whether that trade-off was smart for Parmelee's chances of becoming an impact bat, a higher batting average and fewer strikeouts definitely makes him more likely to factor into the Twins' plans. Parmelee, like Benson, spent two seasons at Double-A, hitting .282/.355/.415 with 21 homers in 262 games. Parmelee's upside is tough to evaluate because he's changed so much, but obviously slugging .415 at Double-A isn't a great sign for a first baseman.

Matt Tolbert will also be rejoining the Twins as part of roster expansion despite hitting .145 during a 16-game demotion to Triple-A. Tolbert is 29 years old and will be out of minor-league options in 2012, so hopefully the Twins are willing to cut him loose after four seasons and 658 plate appearances of .232/.289/.323 hitting. Here's a list of all the players in Twins history with more than 658 plate appearances and a lower OPS than Tolbert's career .611 mark:

                      PA      OPS
Jerry Zimmerman      896     .514
Frank Quilici        768     .569
Matt Walbeck        1008     .571
Al Newman           1876     .581
Danny Thompson      2195     .605
Jerry Terrell       1561     .606

Considering he didn't reach the majors until age 26 and was never even much good at Triple-A it's remarkable that Tolbert has hung around this long. He epitomizes "replacement level."

• Arizona Fall League rosters were announced and the Twins are sending Aaron Hicks, Brian Dozier, Chris Herrmann, Cole DeVries, Scott Diamond, Dakota Watts, Brett Jacobson, and Bruce Pugh. AFL participation isn't necessarily meaningful in terms of where someone stands in the immediate plans. Last year they sent seven players to Arizona and only Ben Revere has seen major time with the Twins, although the others included Benson, Parmelee, and Waldrop.

Hicks is the only top-10 prospect in the bunch and he's coming off a disappointing year, but it's still an intriguing mix. Diamond is already in the majors after the Twins gave up hard-throwing reliever Billy Bullock to the keep the Rule 5 pick. Dozier has forced himself onto the prospect radar and is suddenly a Ron Gardenhire favorite. Jacobson was part of the J.J. Hardy trade. Herrmann led the organization in walks. DeVries, Pugh, and Watts are future bullpen options.

Trevor Plouffe is now 2-for-5 stealing bases for the Twins after going 12-for-25 in four years at Triple-A. He's batted .264/.315/.431 with 15 extra-base hits in 156 plate appearances since returning from the minors in July and has even looked somewhat improved defensively when he doesn't forget how many outs there are, but there's no need for Plouffe to do any running. Only in Gardenhire's fantasies is every middle infielder automatically an effective basestealer.

Michael Cuddyer continues to receive seemingly endless praise for playing through injuries even though he's missed 12 of the past 24 games and is hitting .171 with zero homers and 16 strikeouts in his last 20 games. Shocking as it may seem, sometimes even tough guys who're beloved by the local media still have to sit out games and sometimes playing through injuries just means playing poorly.

Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario did some historic mashing for rookie-level Elizabethton, with Sano homering 20 times in 66 games and Rosario homering 21 times in 67 games. That type of power is obviously extremely impressive no matter the context, but in this case it's unheard of, as only two Appalachian League hitters had reached 20 homers in the past 20 years. Historic or not rookie-ball numbers should be taken with huge grains of salt, but that's pretty amazing.

• Back in August of 2008 the Twins sent Mark Hamburger to the Rangers for Eddie Guardado, who was a bust in his second go-around in Minnesota and appeared in just nine games. At the time Hamburger was an undrafted reliever in rookie-ball, which is exactly the type of prospect teams part with for washed-up 37-year-olds, but in the three years since then he's developed into a reasonably promising low-leverage bullpen arm and Texas called him up last week.

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