September 12, 2011

Twins Notes: Worst season ever?

• If the Twins' season was a fight the corner would've thrown in the towel several rounds ago, as they've now lost 12 of the past 13 series, including seven in a row. Since climbing to 50-56 on July 29 to convince the front office not to become sellers at the trading deadline the Twins have gone 9-31, which is the second-worst 40-game stretch in team history ahead of only the miserable 1982 season.

That year the Twins lost 100 games for the first and only time, going 60-102 while trading both Roy Smalley and Butch Wynegar to the Yankees and breaking in rookies Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, Randy Bush, and Tim Laudner. In retrospect that mess was the start of a rebuilding process that led to a championship five years later and a second title four years after that, but it's hard to imagine 2011 in similar context.

There are 16 games remaining and the Twins must go just 4-12 to avoid the second 100-loss season in team history, which sounds fairly simple except for the fact that they're 4-12 in their last 16 games and also went 4-12 in the 16 games before that. They've already lost five more games than any other team in the Ron Gardenhire era and are a near-lock to finish with the fewest wins since the 1999 team went 63-97 under Tom Kelly.

I was born in 1983, so there's a good chance this will be the worst Twins team of my lifetime. They're now in last place, two games behind the Royals, and in a virtual tie with the Orioles for the AL's worst record. They won't be able to catch the Astros for baseball's worst record, but the Twins' run differential of -160 is within range of Houston at -163. Toss in the $115 million payroll with contender expectations and this might be the worst season in Twins history.

• As ugly as things are in Minnesota they weren't any prettier at Triple-A, where manager Tom Nieto and hitting coach Floyd Rayford got fired after Rochester had consecutive 90-loss years for the first time since 1903/1904. Wins and losses aren't the most important aspect of minor-league coaching, but the Twins have been critical of the job the Rochester staff did preparing prospects for the majors and recent talk of a "shakeup" in the farm system sealed Nieto's fate.

Nieto can't be blamed for nearly all of his best players being called up to Minnesota because of the Twins' never-ending injuries and the Triple-A roster was hardly filled with top-notch young talent to begin with, but that doesn't preclude Rochester's staff from also doing a sub par job. Minor league director Jim Rantz explained that "these changes in Rochester are just part of an overall directional change that's being implemented throughout the minor league system."

• After firing Nieto and Rayford general manager Bill Smith talked about how the Twins "aren't living up to our end of the affiliation" with Rochester, which he discussed much further during a lengthy interview with Jim Mandelaro of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Smith made it clear that the Twins want to continue their partnership with Rochester, but the affiliation deal ends after next season and they haven't had a winning record since going 74-70 in 2008.

Phil Mackey of 1500-ESPN wrote an interesting article about the Twins' training staff, which has come under fire in a big way this season after several years of occasional criticism. Mackey notes that they'd already added a part-time chiropractor and part-time deep-tissue massage therapist in addition to a third trainer who "stays behind at Target Field with injured players to do more one-on-one work."

Chuck James was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster space for September call-up Liam Hendriks and passed through waivers unclaimed, so he remains at Triple-A but is no longer on the 40-man roster. James was fantastic at Rochester, throwing 63 innings with a 2.30 ERA and 67-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he struggled in 10 innings for the Twins and they never seemed particularly interested in giving the 29-year-old lefty an extended chance.

• Tigers manager Jim Leyland is "thrilled" with what he's seen from Delmon Young so far:

We're thrilled with that acquisition. It's worked out pretty good so far, and when he steps in that batter's box he's a man. He's going to get his rips and has a pretty good idea how to hit and what pitchers do.

Obviously seeing Young play well elsewhere is frustrating for Twins fans, but his convincing the Tigers to keep him for $7 million next season and perhaps even give him a multi-year contract might not be such a bad thing over the long haul. Young is hitting .297 with a .465 slugging percentage in 25 games for Detroit, but also has just one walk and a .305 on-base percentage in 110 plate appearances.

Jim Thome hasn't fared nearly as well in Cleveland, batting just .239/.314/.348 in 13 games, and the Indians haven't been able to keep pace with the suddenly unbeatable Tigers. When the Indians acquired Thome they were 6.0 games out of first place with 35 games to play, yet despite going 9-8 since the trade they're now 11.0 games back with 18 games to play. Thome is in danger of finishing with an OPS below .800 for just the second time in his career.

Joe Mauer has played in 71 of 78 games since coming off the disabled list in mid-June and is batting .316/.388/.412 in his last 260 plate appearances, including .354 with two homers, four doubles, and seven walks in his last 14 games. Even in what has been an incredibly frustrating and disappointing season for Mauer he leads the Twins in batting average (.290) and on-base percentage (.358). His future defensively is unclear, but it's nice to know the bat still works.

Ben Revere has a .283 slugging percentage, which is the lowest mark by any MLB outfielder with at least 400 plate appearances since Gerald Young of the Astros slugged .276 in 1989. Revere also has a .295 on-base percentage and the last MLB outfielder to bat 400-plus times with a slugging percentage below .283 and an on-base percentage below .295 is Gary Pettis of the Tigers in 1988. Also in 1988? Revere was born in Atlanta, Georgia on May 3.

Drew Butera went 0-for-2 yesterday and is hitting .161/.198/.232 in 225 plate appearances overall. To put that in some context, NL pitchers are hitting .141/.177/.184 this season. Here's a list of all the players since 1920 to bat at least 225 times with an OPS of .430 or lower:

                  YEAR      PA      OPS
Brandon Wood      2010     243     .382
Tony Pena         2008     235     .398
Ray Oyler         1968     247     .399
John Vukovich     1971     233     .400
DREW BUTERA       2011     225     .430

Four players in the past 92 seasons have batted as many times as Butera with a lower OPS.

Brad Pitt plays A's general manager Billy Beane in the soon-to-be-released Moneyball movie, but who should play Gardenhire in the movie version of Gardyball? I vote for Jeff Bridges.

• Last but not least: This might qualify as "not safe for work" depending on where you work, but Michael Cuddyer posted a picture of the Twins' annual hazing ritual of rookies dressing up in costumes. It's a lot bigger group than usual this season because at this point half the roster is rookies, including Rene Tosoni dressing up as a trench coat-wearing flasher who appears to have gone to the same prosthetic maker as Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights:

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July 29, 2011

Twins Notes: “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in”

• I'm going to be on 1500-ESPN with Darren Wolfson before Saturday night's Twins-A's game, talking about potential trades and various other stuff from around 6:30 to 7:45. I'm sure we'll take plenty of questions and comments from listeners too, so tune in and/or give us a call.

• Rumors about the Nationals pursuing Denard Span continue to swirl, with Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reporting that they may make closer Drew Storen available after declaring him off limits in talks with the Twins initially. Of course, a short time later Bill Ladson, who covers the Nationals at MLB.com, reported that they're "not willing to trade Storen for Span." In which case the Nationals might save the Twins from themselves.

Whatever the case, it seems clear that the Twins are open to at least discussing Span trades and even that surprises me. Unless they're convinced his concussion is a long-term issue I'm not sure what's accomplished by dealing a 27-year-old center fielder with good on-base skills, solid defense, and a reasonable contract that runs through 2015. Storen is good, young, and cheap, but if they're going to trade Span the centerpiece shouldn't be a 70-inning pitcher.

Jayson Stark of ESPN.com reports that the Pirates have targeted Jason Kubel in their quest for a "professional hitter." Kubel is an impending free agent and shopping him makes sense, but the Twins will be in a position to either get a compensatory draft pick when he leaves or re-sign him to a one-year deal if he accepts arbitration. That same either/or scenario is riskier with Michael Cuddyer because of his $10.5 million salary, but Kubel is making $5.25 million.

LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Rockies are among teams interested in Kevin Slowey and speculates that the Twins might look to swap him for reliever Rafael Betancourt or infielder Ty Wigginton. Neither of them do much for me because they're old, mediocre, and relatively expensive for 2012, but in theory targeting a middle reliever or a right-handed hitter for Slowey isn't a bad plan under the circumstances.

Alexi Casilla injured his hamstring legging out a double Wednesday and has been placed on the disabled list with a Grade 1 strain, which the Twins expect will keep him out for 2-3 weeks. Given their history with return timetables this season, I'd expect to see him again in mid-2013. Casilla has hit just .248/.314/.390 in 37 games since moving from shortstop to second base in mid-June, but he's played better of late and as usual the Twins' middle infield depth is shaky.

My initial assumption was that Trevor Plouffe would be given the opportunity to play regularly at second base with Casilla sidelined and that may still prove true, but last night at least Matt Tolbert got the start. Tolbert was demoted to Triple-A last week after hitting .181 in 55 games for the Twins and went 7-for-36 (.194) during his brief stay at Rochester, but Ron Gardenhire got him right back into the lineup as soon as he rejoined the roster and that worries me.

There's zero upside to be had with Tolbert, who's a 29-year-old career .229/.289/.326 hitter in the majors, whereas Plouffe might actually end up being a decent hitter if given a shot. Plouffe lacks experience at second base, but he played 34 games there in the minors and has another 680 games at shortstop. And lack of experience at a position didn't keep the Twins from calling Plouffe up to man right field and first base, neither of which he'd played prior to last month.

• Not that Casilla is much of a table-setter himself with a .322 on-base percentage this season and a .310 career mark, but without him batting second the top of the Twins' lineup last night had the .249/.294/.283-hitting Ben Revere leading off and the .209/.264/.236-hitting Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the No. 2 spot. And the 7-9 spots were filled by OBPs of .288, .288, and .245. On a completely unrelated note, Scott Baker took a loss despite seven innings of two-run ball.

• Now that Casilla is injured Cuddyer, Tolbert, Danny Valencia, and Drew Butera are the only position players from the Opening Day roster to avoid the disabled list. Span, Kubel, Nishioka, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Delmon Young, Jim Thome, Jason Repko, and now Casilla have each spent time on the DL, along with half of the 12-man Opening Day pitching staff. And there are still more than two months left to play.

• In adding Tolbert and Luke Hughes as infield reinforcements the Twins went from 13 to 12 pitchers, which is good. Chuck James being the odd man out isn't as good, but he was among those knocked around in Monday's blowout loss and they never seemed particularly keen on calling him up in the first place. James has thrived at Triple-A and has a far better track record than Phil Dumatrait, who sticks around with a 14-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 innings.

Alex Wimmers thankfully seems to be back on track after sitting out three months following a disastrous season debut in which the 2010 first-round pick walked all six batters he faced at high Single-A. Pulled from the rotation and sent to extended spring training, Wimmers saw his first game action in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League last week and is now back at Fort Myers in the bullpen. Baby steps, but he's allowed three runs in nine innings with a 12/6 K/BB ratio.

• Cuddyer stayed hot last night with a pair of hits and is now 34-for-96 (.354) with five homers and 15 walks in 26 games this month. His overall OPS is up to .853, which leads the team by a wide margin and ranks 37th among all MLB hitters with enough playing time to qualify for the batting title. As usual Cuddyer is crushing left-handers, but he has a .407 slugging percentage against right-handers this season and a .435 slugging percentage off righties for his career.

• Mauer passed Tony Oliva for eighth place on the Twins' all-time walk list with 449 and did so in 3,119 fewer plate appearances than Oliva. To put that in context, consider that David Ortiz and A.J. Pierzynski combined for 3,233 plate appearances as Twins.

• After splitting four road games versus the first-place Rangers the Twins are now 27-39 (.409) against teams outside the AL Central, which is a 66-96 pace for a 162-game season. They're also now 22-42 (.344) against .500-or-better teams, which is a 56-106 pace.

Headline from The Onion: "Twins Shocked To Learn You Can Score Two Runs In Same Play."

• Last but not least, my video analysis of the Twins' season.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.

July 18, 2011

Twins Notes: Closer changes, monster homers, regrets, and somersaults

Matt Capps blew a 1-0 lead and took the loss Friday, serving up a mammoth two-run homer to Royals rookie Eric Hosmer for his league-leading seventh blown save of the year, at which point Ron Gardenhire finally made a change at closer. Gardenhire turned back to former closer Joe Nathan rather than give the bullpen's most effective reliever, Glen Perkins, his first shot in the role, which I agreed last week makes the most sense as a short-term solution.

Perkins may eventually prove to be an elite closer, but he's been so valuable in part because of Gardenhire's willingness to use him in crucial spots whenever the need arises, whereas the manager's closer usage has always been far more rigid. For now at least I'd rather see Perkins throw 80 innings in a variety of tight situations than 65 innings with a lead of 1-3 runs in the ninth inning and Nathan's past closer experience makes the move even more of a no-brainer.

Nathan hasn't looked quite like his pre-surgery self, but he's still been impressive since coming off the disabled list in mid-June. His velocity is up compared to earlier this season, he pitched on three straight days over the weekend for the first time since 2009, and Nathan has allowed just one run in 9.1 innings since the month-long DL trip, with seven strikeouts versus one walk and a .125 opponents' batting average. As for Capps, there isn't much left to say at this point.

By focusing on save totals and supposed "proven closer" status the Twins overvalued a setup-caliber pitcher, paying a premium in players and money. It was a huge mistake then and looks even bigger now, but Capps has also fallen apart. He's managed just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is 30 percent below his career rate, and command issues have hitters teeing off on what's always been a nearly all-fastball repertoire. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• Fortunately even with Capps turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 loss Friday night the Twins began the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figures to define the season by taking three of four from the Royals. They're now just five games below .500 for the first time since April and sit five games back in the AL Central with the first-place Indians and second-place Tigers coming to town for back-to-back four-game series. Giddy up.

Scott Baker was scheduled to start Game 1 of today's doubleheader versus the Indians, but was scratched from that outing yesterday and placed on the disabled list with the elbow injury that prematurely ended his last start on July 5. Scott Diamond will start in Baker's spot, as the Twins bypassed No. 1 prospect and Triple-A rotation-mate Kyle Gibson. Kevin Slowey wasn't an option because he last started Friday at Rochester.

Diamond hasn't impressed at Triple-A, posting a 4.70 ERA and 68-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 innings while allowing opponents to hit .291 off him, but he's fared better of late and the Twins clearly think very highly of him. They picked Diamond in the Rule 5 draft and then, when it was clear there wouldn't be an Opening Day spot for him on the pitching staff, they overpaid to keep him by giving the Braves hard-throwing reliever prospect Billy Bullock.

Under normal circumstances the Twins likely would've replaced the injured Baker with Anthony Swarzak and avoided calling up Diamond (or even adding him to the 40-man roster), but with Swarzak already set to start Game 2 of the doubleheader they needed another stretched-out arm and promoting Gibson for a one-and-done start didn't make sense. And instead of taking Baker's spot tomorrow Gibson started yesterday at Triple-A, coughing up nine runs.

• In addition to sticking Baker on the DL and calling up Diamond the Twins also optioned Matt Tolbert to Triple-A so they could add another pitcher for the doubleheader, increasing the staff to a ridiculous 13 arms. Chuck James never should have been sent back to Triple-A in the first place when the Twins chose to keep Phil Dumatrait over him last month and has continued to dominate with a 2.25 ERA, .197 opponents' batting average, and 48 strikeouts in 40 innings.

Jim Thome's monstrous three-run homer yesterday was the 596th of his Hall of Fame career and came in his 150th game for the Twins. Thome, who earned around $2 million last season and will make about $3 million this year, has hit .264/.392/.573 in those 150 games, with 31 homers and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances. That works out to a .965 OPS, which is by far the best OPS and adjusted OPS+ in Twins history among all hitters with 150 or more games:

                       G      OPS                                 G     OPS+
JIM THOME            150     .965          JIM THOME            150     160
Harmon Killebrew    1939     .901          Harmon Killebrew    1939     148
Joe Mauer            871     .878          Rod Carew           1635     137
Chili Davis          291     .862          Chili Davis          291     135
Justin Morneau      1003     .855          Joe Mauer            871     134

Thome is also the only hitter in Twins history with a slugging percentage above .550 (.573) or an Isolated Power above .300 (.309), topping Harmon Killebrew in each category. My favorite part of Thome's homer may have been Delmon Young's reaction to it from the on-deck circle:

Thome has 31 home runs and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances for the Twins. Young has 45 home runs and 83 walks in 1,884 plate appearances for the Twins.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune talked to a source who says "the Twins have no plans to trade Michael Cuddyer even if they fall from contention" and in fact "an effort will be made to re-sign Cuddyer this fall." Among impending free agents Cuddyer would bring back the most in a trade, but considering his extreme popularity it's certainly not surprising that the Twins aren't shopping him despite various reported interest from contending teams.

As a good but not great 32-year-old making $10.5 million on the verge of free agency Cuddyer is exactly the type of player most sub-.500 teams should be looking to cash in for future value at the trade deadline, but because the division is so weak the Twins aren't like most sub-.500 teams. With that said, not trading Cuddyer for long-term help could be a missed opportunity if they fall out of contention and re-signing him for similar money would be very dangerous.

• Trading away J.J. Hardy, much like trading for Capps, was a poor move at the time that now looks considerably worse. Hardy has hit .278/.335/.490 through 65 games for the Orioles after hitting .302/.356/.436 in his final 65 games for the Twins, and passed up free agency by inking a three-year, $22.5 million extension over the weekend. He surely would have been cheaper for the Twins to sign, but instead they spent $15 million for three years of Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Meanwhile, neither player acquired for Hardy has impressed. Jim Hoey is faring well enough at Triple-A to think he may still provide some value, but he flopped with the Twins by allowing 17 runs in 12 innings as opponents hit .344 with nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (9). Brett Jacobson has split time between the rotation and bullpen at Double-A, posting a 4.24 ERA and ugly 60-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 innings. From the Baltimore Sun extension story:

Hardy, who came over this offseason in a trade with the Minnesota Twins for two minor-league pitchers, is a free agent at season's end and was looking for more stability after being with three teams since 2009. The Orioles have been pleased with his offense, defense, and leadership in the clubhouse.

Funny how that works. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• I've already written plenty about Slowey, so I won't delve back into that situation other than to say for as much harsh criticism as he's taken from fans, media members, and the Twins their handling of him fits on the same list of terrible decisions as the Capps and Hardy trades. He's currently in the rotation at Triple-A, trying to build back arm strength, and Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Pirates and Rockies have expressed interest in Slowey.

Slowey's value has likely never been lower and he's under team control for 2012, so there's no major urgency to move him. On the other hand, that 2012 team control would come with a salary of around $3 million and he's deep enough in the doghouse that it's awfully difficult to imagine digging out, in which case salvaging some kind of value for Slowey might make sense. He's the most likely player to be traded by July 31 whether the Twins are buyers or sellers.

• One offseason move that definitely worked out was not bringing back Nick Punto. Declining his $5 million option and instead giving him a $500,000 buyout was a no-brainer, but given the Twins' lack of quality middle infield depth I thought re-signing him for $1 million would've made sense. He ended up signing a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Cardinals, but missed much of April following hernia surgery and now may need season-ending elbow surgery.

• After taking three months off from game action following his disastrous season debut 2010 first-round pick Alex Wimmers has finally taken a big step in his recovery from extreme control problems. He returned to the mound last week at rookie-ball with just one walk in a scoreless inning, after which the Twins assigned him back to high Single-A. He's nowhere near out of the woods yet, but hopefully Wimmers can get somewhat back on track heading into 2012.

• I've written a few times that Ben Revere runs so fast that it often looks like his feet almost can't keep up as he flies around the bases. He took that to another level Friday night, losing his balance rounding second base and falling into a somersault before ending up on third base with a triple. Revere's long-term upside is still very much in question, but there's no doubt that he's been as fun to watch as a player could possibly be while hitting just .278/.314/.320.

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June 22, 2011

Twins Notes: Sad Mad Bum, Alexi power, first rounders, and imagination

• San Francisco's starter last night, Madison Bumgarner, came into the game with a 3.03 ERA in 205 career innings, including a 3.21 ERA this year. He allowed eight runs on nine hits before getting yanked with just one out in the first inning. And then the Twins were held scoreless for 4.2 innings by Guillermo Mota, a 37-year-old reliever who'd never thrown that many innings in 13 seasons in the majors. Funny game, that baseball (but we knew that already).

• Not to be overlooked in last night's insanity: Alexi Casilla has now homered in back-to-back games after homering once in his previous 221 games.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com reports that the Phillies "made inquiries" about Michael Cuddyer. Presumably given the way he's hitting and the way the Twins are playing they were rebuffed. In the span of two weeks Cuddyer has gone from .260/.321/.370 to .281/.345/.454, raising his OPS by 109 points in 16 games. And the Twins have cut their deficit in the AL Central from 16.5 games to 6.5 games by going 15-3 in June, including eight straight wins, all after a 17-36 start.

Joe Nathan has thrown two scoreless innings while rehabbing at Triple-A and could be back in the Twins' bullpen as soon as this weekend.

Joe Mauer and Bill Smith addressed the media before his return to the lineup last week and what struck me is how much different the perception of his injury would've been had everyone involved simply called it complications from offseason knee surgery. Instead the Twins called it bilateral leg weakness, which raised eyebrows and never seemed to sit right with Mauer, and the odd diagnosis being shrouded in mystery magnified the criticism ten-fold.

Alex Wimmers was removed from the Fort Myers rotation after his season debut when the 2010 first-round pick walked all six hitters he faced and LaVelle E. Neal of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that two months in extended spring training hasn't solved his control issues. Wimmers has visited a psychotherapist and Neal writes that "the Twins are baffled" by how he went from starring at Ohio State with excellent control to following Shooter Hunt's footsteps.

Hunt was one of the top college arms in the 2008 draft coming out of Tulane and had a strong pro debut after the Twins picked him 31st overall, but in three seasons since then he's walked 181 batters in 129 innings and now looks unlikely to get past Single-A. Hunt went from being one of the highest upside pitchers in the system to a bust overnight and Wimmers is in danger of the same fate just a year after being touted as one of the draft's most polished pitchers.

• Speaking of Neal, he dipped his toe in the sabermetric pool yesterday. What a nerd.

This year's first-round pick, Levi Michael, isn't able to sign because he's still playing for North Carolina in the College World Series, but he was dropped from second to seventh in the lineup because of a recent slump that dragged his once-lofty batting average below .300. I've been watching most of North Carolina's games to get a look at Michael, but he's struggled so much that forming an opinion on his skill set is tough. His defense has looked decent at shortstop.

• Just in case you thought the media taking pot shots at Kevin Slowey stopped when he was placed on the disabled list and banished to extended spring training, Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan wrote this on Twitter during last night's game:

My imagination or did Twins turn it around after Slowey's plane landed in Fort Myers?

It's his imagination. In the days following Slowey being put on the DL the Twins went 1-6. And if you're going to attach their recent success to specific roster moves, the current 15-2 stretch started the same day they placed Jason Kubel and Jim Thome on the DL. That storyline isn't quite as convenient, though.

Dusty Hughes was removed from the 40-man roster and outrighted to Triple-A after clearing waivers. When the Twins claimed Hughes off waivers from the Royals in January they talked up his 3.83 ERA and how left-handed hitters like Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Denard Span gave glowing scouting reports after facing him. Hughes' track record suggested otherwise and sure enough he allowed 14 runs in 13 innings while opponents hit .365/.452/.673 off him.

Brian Dinkelman was also removed from the 40-man roster and sent back to Triple-A, which is no surprise given that his call-up early this month came out of nowhere. Dinkelman has been in the organization since 2006 and there wasn't much harm in giving him a cup of coffee in the majors when injuries left the Twins with few other options, but realistically he's a marginal role player at best and at age 27 seems unlikely to make it back to the big leagues.

Chuck James kept his spot on the 40-man roster, but the Twins optioned him back to the minors to make room for Glen Perkins' return from the disabled list. While not surprising, the decision to demote James rather than fellow left-hander Phil Dumatrait is unfortunate. Before shoulder surgery James was a solid young mid-rotation starter for the Braves and he deserves more of an opportunity after dominating as a reliever at Triple-A.

I'm sure the Twins based their decision on Dumatrait's sparkling ERA between Rochester and Minnesota, but his success has involved all of 25 innings and comes with more walks (17) than strikeouts (14). Dumatrait's track record includes a 6.67 ERA in 119 innings as a major leaguer and a 6.13 ERA with more walks (55) than strikeouts (46) in 104 innings at Triple-A last year. He's a bad pitcher having a fluky run, whereas James has the potential to actually be useful.

Pat Neshek returned to Minnesota as a member of the Padres over the weekend, throwing a scoreless inning Friday, and also shared some interesting thoughts about his departure with Phil Mackey of 1500-ESPN:

The best word is probably bittersweet I'd say. For that week before [I was waived], I knew everybody passed me up there. I didn't know why. I mean, I got the opportunity, but I didn't feel like anybody was really taking me serious. ... It was sad leaving behind the fan base, all the stuff I worked towards, all the stuff I did in my community, for my hometown. I was sad, but I knew it had to happen.

There comes a time when you're not getting that opportunity. Minnesota, that's my ideal place. I never would have left. I mean, I wish I would have stayed healthy, never had that Tommy John and stuff like that. My family's all decked out in Twins stuff. I don't know what to do with that stuff anymore. What do you do? My car's got a Twins emblem. I didn't expect it to happen. I thought as long as I pitched well I'd stay, but that's how the game works.

I'm very glad to see Neshek having success in San Diego with a 3.60 ERA and .222 opponents' batting average in 20 innings, although it comes with a horrendous 18-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He struggled to bounce back from elbow surgery and then upset the Twins by speaking publicly about the medical staff, but instead of just stashing him at Triple-A they cut him loose for nothing in a spring training move that didn't make much sense to me then or now.

• Rochester's search for players to fill out a roster plucked over by the Twins led them to sign right-hander Thomas Diamond, who was the No. 10 pick in the 2004 draft and twice cracked Baseball America's top 100 prospects while with the Rangers. Tommy John surgery derailed his career before Diamond bounced back enough to get a call-up to the Cubs last year, but they released the 28-year-old last week after he posted an 8.66 ERA in 45 innings at Triple-A.

• I'm giving serious thought to purchasing Toby Gardenhire's game-used Triple-A jersey in the name of both charity and irony.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota salsa company Curt's Salsa, which I've enjoyed on several occasions and personally recommend.

May 31, 2011

Twins Notes: Nathan, James, Plouffe, Liriano, Swarzak, and Slama

Joe Nathan's comeback from Tommy John surgery went from bad to worse, as the Twins put him on the disabled list with more elbow pain. The good news is that an MRI exam revealed only inflammation. The bad news is that there's no return timetable and Nathan is "prepared" to be out as long as a month. Tommy John surgery recovery is often said to be 12 months, but as we've seen with Francisco Liriano and now Nathan unfortunately that often isn't the case.

Nathan gradually added velocity after arriving at spring training throwing in the mid-80s, but never approached his pre-surgery stuff and the missing miles per hour also came attached to far worse command. Along with his ERA rising from 2.10 in 2009 to 7.63 this season, Nathan's strikeouts are down 38 percent, his walks are up 50 percent, and his average fastball fell from 93.6 to 91.4 mph. He hasn't been as bad as the 7.63 ERA, but he hasn't been Joe Nathan.

• To replace Nathan in the bullpen the Twins called up Chuck James, for whom the bloggers I read and tweeters I follow have been pining. I'm far from convinced that James can make a big impact, but unlike Dusty Hughes or Phil Dumatrait or Eric Hacker there's at least a chance of James proving to be more than just the latest replacement-level bullpen stopgap. James, like Nathan, is an example of how long the road back from arm surgery can be.

Once upon a time James was a top prospect in the Braves' system, posting great numbers in the minors before debuting in September of 2005. He joined Atlanta's rotation the next season at age 24 and posted a 4.05 ERA with a 207-to-105 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 280 innings over two years before blowing out his shoulder. He missed most of 2008 and all of 2009 following rotator cuff and labrum surgery, returning as a Triple-A reliever for the Nationals last season.

He pitched well with a 2.32 ERA and 69/11 K/BB ratio in 66 innings, signed with the Twins this winter, and forced them to call him up by throwing 29 innings with a 1.57 ERA and 37/9 K/BB ratio out of Rochester's bullpen. James' raw stuff doesn't match those numbers, but even while succeeding as a mid-rotation starter in Atlanta his average fastball was just 88 mph and with 106 strikeouts in 95 innings since returning he's missed bats without overpowering hitters.

Sad as it may be, at this point the Twins' main goals should be to get healthy, play respectable baseball, make some smart trades, and sort out who can help them in 2012. Cycling through more guys like Hughes or Dumatrait accomplishes none of that, but James may still have some upside at age 29. Before surgery he was a young mid-rotation starter with a 4.00 ERA and in coming back he's been a very effective Double-A and Triple-A reliever with great K/BB ratios.

Trevor Plouffe got off to a fantastic start after being called up from Triple-A to replace Alexi Casilla at shortstop, but the flaws that made him just the 32nd-best Twins prospect heading into the season have since been exposed. Plouffe has 15-homer power and a very strong arm, but that's about it. Or as I wrote in ranking him No. 32 back in February: "A career as a utility man looks like his most realistic upside." Unfortunately the other options aren't any better.

• Liriano's no-hitter got everyone's hopes up and he's sprinkled in a couple of strong outings, but his overall struggles along with decreased velocity suggested something wasn't quite right physically and yesterday the Twins placed him on the DL with shoulder inflammation. For now the official word is that the Twins are hopeful he can return when eligible next week, but then again they initially hoped he'd miss just one start and avoid the DL in the first place.

Compared to last year Liriano's strikeouts are down 36 percent, his walks are up 107 percent, and he's missing 1.7 mph on his average fastball, which is how his ERA has gone from 3.62 to 5.73 and his xFIP has gone from 2.95 to 5.01. Even while posting an impressive-looking 2.52 ERA in four starts this month Liriano also had a sub par 16-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings, succeeding because of a ridiculously fortunate .154 batting average on balls in play.

Anthony Swarzak took a no-hitter into the eighth inning Saturday while starting in Liriano's place against the Angels, so naturally he'll stay in the rotation during the DL stint. However, much like Plouffe the longer Swarzak remains in a prominent role the more obvious his faults will become. He also started very strong as a rookie in 2009, tossing seven shutout innings in his debut and sporting a 3.90 ERA after five starts, only to finish with a 6.25 ERA in 59 innings.

And since then Swarzak has a 5.67 ERA and 94-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 144 innings at Triple-A, although he was pitching reasonably well prior to the latest call-up. Swarzak may do a nice job filling in for Liriano and may even prove to be a capable back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever, but don't let the great first impressions fool you into thinking he's more than a marginal prospect at age 25.

• To replace Liriano on the roster the Twins called up reliever Anthony Slama, who's similar to James this year in that his outstanding minor-league numbers have always screamed out for an extended opportunity. Slama has a 2.11 ERA and 369 strikeouts in 273 total innings in the minors, including a 2.73 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 105 innings at Triple-A, yet he's 27 years old and has just five appearances in the big leagues.

Slama isn't destined to become an elite reliever, but like James there's at least some reason to think he could be useful to the Twins this year and beyond. Obviously having the worst record in baseball at the end of May is a nightmare scenario for the Twins, but hopefully they can find small positives within the huge negative by giving legitimate opportunities to guys like Slama, who deserves 50 innings to sink or swim even if they've never trusted his minor-league stats.

Danny Valencia batting around .350 for much of his half-season debut last year had many people willing to dismiss his underwhelming minor-league numbers, but he's now played 136 games in the big leagues while hitting .280/.329/.412. He played 120 games at Triple-A and hit .289/.322/.421. Funny how that tends to work. Valencia's defense, however, has been much better than advertised and makes him a solid regular despite a mediocre bat.

• For a while the Twins kept saying Tsuyoshi Nishioka was ahead of schedule in his recovery from a fractured fibula, but he was initially given a 4-6 week timetable on April 7. Monday will be two months since the injury and Nishioka hasn't even started a minor-league rehab stint. When it comes to the Twins and injuries, there's no such thing as "ahead of schedule."

• Orioles manager Buck Showalter was full of praise for Wilson Ramos after an interleague series versus the Nationals, saying: "I love that Ramos kid. He's about as good a young player as I've seen this year. The kid they got from Minnesota. He's really impressive." Ramos has slumped recently, but the 23-year-old's .731 OPS still ranks 14th among the 32 catchers with at least 100 plate appearances and he's the youngest starting catcher in baseball.

• Old friend Brian Fuentes hasn't made many new friends in Oakland, although in fairness it sounds like he's not the first late-inning reliever to have a problem with manager Bob Geren's communication methods.

• Speaking of old friends in Oakland, the A's dealt former Twins minor leaguer Steven Tolleson to the Padres for a player to be named later. Tolleson was never a particularly good prospect, but he looked like a potentially useful role player and ranked 37th on my list last year only to be claimed off waivers by the A's literally the day the rankings were posted in January.

• Dusty Hughes has been a horrendous pickup, but at least Rob Delaney hasn't thrived for the Rays after being waived to make room for Hughes on the Twins' roster. Tampa Bay designated Delaney for assignment, meaning the Twins could potentially use their No. 1 waiver priority to claim him back. Don't count on it, though. He's still my second-favorite Rob Delaney.

Martire Garcia ranked 31st on my list of the Twins' top prospects after throwing 73 innings with a 3.31 ERA and 93-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio between rookie-ball and low Single-A as a 20-year-old. Sent back to Beloit to begin this season, Garcia posted a 5.57 ERA and 22/25 K/BB ratio in 21 innings ... and the Twins released him. Those are ugly numbers, for sure, but there must be a little more to the story too.

• As a team the Twins have an adjusted ERA+ of 84 through 52 games. Among all the pitchers in team history with at least 300 innings Pat Mahomes is the only one with a worse adjusted ERA+ at 81. In other words, after about one-third of the season the Twins have pitched like an entire staff full of Pat Mahomes. And their hitting has been even worse.

Jim Hoey has a 10.45 ERA in 10 innings. The last Twins pitcher with a higher ERA than Hoey in at least 10 innings was Mike Lincoln, who had a 10.89 ERA in 21 innings in 2000. He went on to post a 2.96 ERA in 113 innings for the Pirates in 2001 and 2002, so perhaps there's still some hope for Hoey yet.

• Last season the Twins allowed 67 runs in the eighth inning. This season they've allowed 51 runs in the eighth inning. And there are still 112 games to go.

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