March 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Hicks, Butera, Gibson, Diamond, Benson, and 612 Brew

aaron hicks three homers

• Making official what was pretty clearly the plan as soon as they followed up the Denard Span trade by also trading Ben Revere, the Twins named Aaron Hicks the Opening Day center fielder. Perhaps if Hicks had a terrible spring training Darin Mastroianni could have worked his way into the gig as a place-holder, but Hicks made that a moot point by hitting .350/.397/.650 with three steals in 18 games, including a headline-making three-homer game.

Hicks is a very good prospect with an all-around skill set that could make him a long-term building block, so I'm extremely excited to see him play. However, by jumping him from Double-A to the big leagues at age 23 the Twins may be rushing his development a bit and are definitely sacrificing their ability to delay his eventual free agency for the maximum amount of time. If he never goes back to the minors Hicks will be a free agent following the 2018 season, at age 29.

Based on service time rules they could've pushed back his free agency by an entire year, gaining an extra season and 162 games of team control, by sending Hicks to Triple-A for as little as four weeks. In that scenario if the Twins called him up in late April or early May and Hicks never went back to the minors he'd be a free agent following 2019, at age 30. Short-term gratification is hard to ignore, but stretching a prospect's pre-free agency years is done regularly by many teams.

Instead of having Hicks for 135 games this year and 162 games in 2019 they'll have him for 162 games this year and zero games in 2019. That math seems straightforward enough, especially considering Hicks is likely to be better as a 29-year-old veteran than as a 23-year-old rookie and the Twins might actually be contending in 2019. It's not about being cheap, it's about maximizing a player's value before he can leave. But it apparently never factored into the Twins' decision.

• One thing that has always made Hicks an intriguing prospect is excellent plate discipline, which he displayed immediately as an 18-year-old at rookie-ball in 2008 and has maintained ever since. He's averaged 98 walks per 150 games as a pro, including 79 walks in 129 games at Double-A last season, which is not a skill set you typically find in speedy, athletic, up-the-middle defenders. Joe Mauer, who knows a little something about plate discipline, took notice of Hicks' approach:

I've been real impressed by him. For a young guy to take pitches and work at-bats is pretty impressive. Even today, I talked to him and told him taking pitches is going to help the guys behind him. He has a pretty good grasp on how to approach an at-bat.

Ron Gardenhire tends to use speedy center fielders and middle infielders atop the lineup even if they lack strong on-base skills, so it's nice that Hicks is actually a patient hitter. By comparison, Revere drew a grand total of 57 walks in 254 games for the Twins. Hicks' high walk rate has also come with lots of strikeouts and mediocre batting averages, so it'll be interesting to see how he adjusts to facing pitchers with better control and no fear of throwing him strikes.

• Back in December the Twins tendered Drew Butera a contract for 2013 and then in January the two sides avoided arbitration with a one-year, $700,000 deal, but he'll be making that money in Rochester after being optioned to the minors. On one hand it's encouraging that the Twins finally realized a career .183/.232/.265 hitter probably shouldn't be in the majors. On the other hand it would have been nice to come to that conclusion before signing him to a $700,000 contract.

One-year deals to avoid arbitration aren't fully guaranteed until certain dates this month, so even after signing Butera they could've saved five-sixths or three-fourths of the money by releasing him. Detroit recently did that with Brennan Boesch, saving $1.9 million of a $2.3 million deal, but those deadlines have passed. Gardenhire talked of wanting a stronger bench and removing Butera fits that, but he also talked of wanting Jim Thome and that apparently isn't happening.

Kyle Gibson won't be joining Hicks on the Opening Day roster, as initial reports of him looking great coming back from Tommy John elbow surgery gave way to struggles in actual games and the Twins sent him to Triple-A. He'll be limited to 130 innings this season, so there's an argument for not wasting them at Triple-A, but the problem with that line of thinking is assuming Gibson is ready to succeed against big-league hitters when he hadn't even done that yet before surgery.

• What was supposed to be minor surgery to remove a bone chip from Scott Diamond's elbow in December has become a season-opening stint on the disabled list for the would-be Opening Day starter. For now the plan is for Diamond to make his season debut in mid-April, missing the Game 1 matchup versus Justin Verlander and a couple more starts, but the Twins' injury timetables haven't been worth a whole lot in recent years and worrying about elbow issues tends to loom.

• Diamond on the DL and Gibson at Triple-A means Samuel Deduno or Cole DeVries is likely to be in the Opening Day rotation and both of them could get a spot if the Twins decide to send Liam Hendriks back to Triple-A. At the beginning of the offseason Terry Ryan spoke of big plans for fixing the awful rotation, yet the Twins are already turning to the same career minor leaguers who were thrown against the wall to see if they stuck last season as emergency options.

Joe Benson was sent to Triple-A after a lackluster spring training, but even if he'd played well there wasn't much room for him on a roster with Hicks and Mastroianni. Benson is coming off a terrible, injury wrecked season, so he needs to get back on track or risk falling off the prospect radar, but he'd seemingly be the obvious call-up if Hicks struggles or if any of Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau, Chris Parmelee, or Ryan Doumit gets injured.

Danny Rams and Cole Nelson were among a handful of minor leaguers released by the Twins. Rams was a 2007 second-round pick with lots of power, but couldn't turn himself into a quality defensive catcher and hit .241 with 543 strikeouts in 406 games while failing to get past Single-A. Nelson and Lester Oliveros were acquired from the Tigers for Delmon Young in 2011--the same day "Gleeman and The Geek" debuted--but the big left-hander from Edina stalled at Single-A.

Anthony Swarzak will join Diamond in beginning the season on the disabled list as he recovers from the fractured ribs suffered in the "horseplay" incident during Twins Fest.

Tim Wood, who was a candidate for the Twins' bullpen and out of minor-league options, has been shut down with a strained rotator cuff.

Matt Capps failed to make the Indians on a minor-league deal and may accept an assignment to Triple-A one year after beginning the season as the Twins' closer.

Scott Baker's comeback from Tommy John surgery has been derailed by a strained elbow and he'll be shut down for at least a month.

• Thanks to everyone who came to the Twins Daily meet-up Saturday at 612 Brew. It was a great turnout and we're definitely planning to host semi-regular events throughout the season. Between the beer and laid-back space 612 Brew is an ideal venue, with the added bonus that the owners are Twins fans and the head brewer is a "Gleeman and The Geek" listener. I'm sure we'll be back there at some point, but in the meantime I highly recommended checking out 612 Brew.

• I didn't think to take any pictures until after the crowd had already thinned out a bit, but ...

twins daily 612 meetup2

twins daily 612 meetup1

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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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