July 10, 2013

Old friends in new places: Catching up with former Twins pitchers

nathan liriano crain

I've been getting lots of e-mails, comments, and tweets about seven former Twins being named All-Stars and ex-Twins in general thriving for other teams, so let's examine that notion. Like all teams the Twins cycle through tons of players every season, making it impossible to keep close tabs on everyone, but I've tried to narrow things down a bit by focusing on relatively prominent and/or oft-discussed players who departed the organization within the past handful of seasons.

Even then the list is a very long one, so today let's stick to the ex-Twins pitchers ...

Joe Nathan: By declining a $12.5 million option the Twins made Nathan a free agent after 2011 and he signed a two-year, $14.5 million contract with the Rangers. At the time it would have been tough to justify a big two-year deal for a 37-year-old reliever still rounding back into shape after elbow surgery and his departure led to Glen Perkins emerging as closer, but Nathan has been amazing in Texas with a 2.25 ERA and 120/23 K/BB ratio in 104 innings.

Francisco Liriano: Traded to the White Sox in mid-2012 for Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez as an impending free agent, Liriano wasn't much good down the stretch and then signed a two-year deal with the Pirates that was later reworked due to an offseason injury. He's been brilliant for the Pirates with a 2.20 ERA and 74/27 K/BB ratio in 70 innings, relying on his fastball less than ever before.

R.A. Dickey: Dickey spent a thoroughly unmemorable 2009 season in Minnesota, serving as a mop-up reliever for 64 innings before refusing an assignment to the minors and leaving as a free agent. There was nothing promising about his performance, which included a 4.62 ERA and 40/32 K/BB ratio, and the Twins were hesitant to even use the knuckleballer with men on base. He inked a minor-league deal with the Mets at age 35 ... and turned into a Cy Young winner.

Matt Guerrier: Guerrier exited as a free agent following the 2010 season for a three-year $12 million deal with the Dodgers after seven seasons in Minnesota. At the time Guerrier was 32 years old and showing obvious signs of decline, so the decision to let him walk was a sound one. He's struggled with injuries while posting a 4.20 ERA and was recently designated for assignment with a half-season left on the three-year deal, going to the Cubs in a swap of unwanted contracts.

Jesse Crain: Crain followed Guerrier out the door after 2010, signing a three-year, $13 million deal with the White Sox. Despite a modest strikeout rate of 6.2 per nine innings he threw 382 innings with a 3.42 ERA in seven seasons in Minnesota, but Crain has racked up 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings while posting a 2.10 ERA in 150 innings for the White Sox. At the time I'd have re-signed Crain over Guerrier, but didn't blame the Twins for avoiding a three-year deal.

Scott Baker: Baker missed all of 2012 following elbow surgery and then became a free agent when the Twins declined his $9.25 million option. They wanted to re-sign him to a cheaper deal, but balked when Baker refused to include a team option for 2014. He ended up signing with the Cubs for $5.5 million plus some incentives and has yet to pitch. Meanwhile, the Twins spent $4 million on a different pitcher coming off elbow surgery and Mike Pelfrey has a 5.63 ERA.

Matt Capps: Capps went from making a combined $12 million as the Twins' closer in 2011 and 2012 to not even being able to get an MLB contract this offseason, settling for a minor-league deal with the Indians. Overall in two-and-a-half seasons in Minnesota he threw 122 innings with a 3.61 ERA and 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings, for which the Twins parted with the Nationals' starting catcher, Wilson Ramos, and $14 million while also forfeiting a compensatory draft pick.

Kevin Slowey: Slowey's status a solid mid-rotation starter from 2007-2010 unraveled when he got pushed out of the rotation in 2011. Slowey didn't want to be in the bullpen, pitching horribly and getting injured, and the Twins did their best to tear him down while the local media was all too willing to lend a hand. He was traded to the Rockies for a non-prospect, missed most of 2012, and has returned the majors with a 3.99 ERA and 72/18 K/BB ratio for the Marlins.

Jose Mijares: Cut loose after 2011 because the Twins decided a 27-year-old reliever with a 3.16 career ERA wasn't worth paying $750,000 via arbitration, Mijares wound up signing with the Royals for more money and then moved on to the Giants. Since leaving the Twins he has a 2.51 ERA and 88/30 K/BB ratio in 86 innings and still hasn't made more than $1.8 million in a season. Dropping him made little sense to me then and is certainly even more regrettable now.

Jason Marquis: Marquis was as awful as a pitcher can be after signing a one-year, $3 million deal with the Twins last offseason, starting seven games with an 8.47 ERA and more walks than strikeouts while allowing opponents to hit .371 before they released him in late May. He quickly latched on with San Diego, where he pitched well and then re-signed for this season at $3 million. Overall for the Padres he's thrown 201 innings with a 3.90 ERA.

Carl Pavano: Pavano had a good two-and-a-half season run for the Twins, but fell apart last year while unsuccessfully trying to pitch through a shoulder injury. He was finally shut down in June with a 6.00 ERA and didn't throw another pitch, leaving as a free agent. Pavano was looking for work as a back-of-the-rotation starter this offseason when he fell while shoveling snow and ruptured his spleen. He won't pitch this season and at age 37 might be done.

Pat Neshek: Waived by the Twins in the spring of 2011 after struggling to come back from elbow surgery, Neshek was claimed by the Padres and split that season between Triple-A and San Diego with mediocre results. Last year he toiled away at Triple-A for Baltimore before a trade to Oakland, where Neshek has thrived again with a 1.91 ERA in 47 innings. There was really no good reason for the Twins to cut bait on Neshek, who now has a 2.91 career ERA in seven seasons.

Craig Breslow: Breslow was a shrewd waiver wire pickup by the Twins in mid-2008, but after pitching well for 39 innings that season he struggled in early 2009 and they waived him. Not only was it an overreaction to a small sample of bad work, Breslow was cut loose so the Twins could call up a different left-handed reliever, Sean Henn, who lasted all of 11 innings for them. Since being lost on waivers Breslow has thrown 280 innings with a 2.93 ERA.

Jon Rauch: Rauch was briefly the Twins' closer in 2010, filling in fairly well for a rehabbing Nathan by converting 21 of 25 saves with a 3.05 ERA. He lost the job when the Twins decided they had to overpay for a so-called "proven closer" in Capps and then left as a free agent that offseason, signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Rauch was decent in 2011 and 2012, posting a 4.12 ERA in 110 innings, but struggled this season and was recently released by two teams.

Billy Bullock: Back in 2011 the Twins picked Scott Diamond in the Rule 5 draft, didn't want to keep him in the majors all year, and traded Bullock to the Braves for the right to send Diamond to the minors. I hated the deal at the time, because Bullock was a hard-throwing second-round pick and the Twins could have just kept Diamond as a mop-up man for nothing in return, but Bullock never harnessed his raw stuff and got released this month. Diamond has a 4.32 career ERA.

Alex Burnett: For three seasons the Twins stuck with Burnett in their bullpen despite an increasingly poor performance, only to waive him this spring for no pressing reason. In the four months since then Burnett has been claimed three times off waivers, going from the Twins to the Blue Jays to the Orioles to the Cubs. Most recently he passed through waivers unclaimed and is now at Triple-A for the Cubs.

Philip Humber: Acquired from the Mets as part of the Johan Santana trade, Humber never made a start for the Twins and appeared in just 13 total games before leaving as a minor league free agent. He had a good run for the White Sox in 2011 and threw a perfect game in April of 2012, but overall since leaving the Twins he has a 5.28 ERA in 322 innings. Humber is currently at Triple-A for the Astros after passing through waivers unclaimed.

Jeff Gray: Gray won a spot in the Opening Day bullpen last year despite a lengthy track record of mediocrity and remained there for most of the season despite a 5.71 ERA and 26/22 K/BB ratio in 52 innings. When the Twins finally came to their senses and waived Gray he went unclaimed by the other 29 teams, became a free agent, and signed a minor-league deal with the White Sox. He's spent all of this season at Triple-A.

Jim Hoey: Back in 2010 the Twins traded Carlos Gomez for J.J. Hardy and then a year later they traded Hardy for Hoey and Brett Jacobson. Whatever you thought of the Gomez-for-Hardy swap the Hardy-for-Hoey trade was a terrible, misguided idea that looks even worse now. Hoey threw 25 awful innings for the Twins, who lost him for nothing on waivers a year after the trade, and Jacobson was released from Double-A. Hoey is now playing independent ball.


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August 7, 2012

Twins Notes: Valencia, Nishioka, Wimmers, Gibson, Plouffe, and Morneau

Trevor Plouffe's thumb injury and the lack of other decent, healthy infielders on the 40-man roster convinced the Twins to turn back to Danny Valencia despite his hitting .250/.289/.399 with a 40-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 69 games at Triple-A following his mid-May demotion. Plouffe remains on the disabled list, but after one week with Valencia the Twins decided they'd seen enough and traded him to the Red Sox for rookie-ball outfielder Jeremias Pineda.

Pineda's lofty .421 batting average looks pretty, but a month of Gulf Coast League action doesn't mean much and his 22-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio isn't particularly impressive from a 21-year-old competing against teenagers. He's fast and might some day develop into a decent prospect, but Pineda is little more than a toss-in right now. Make no mistake about it: Valencia was essentially given away by the Twins. And it's hard to blame them.

Valencia hit .311 with good defense in an 85-game debut in 2010, but his track record showed he was playing over his head on both sides of the ball. He came crashing back down to earth last season and then completely fell apart this year, making him a career .260/.301/.393 hitter in 1,062 plate appearances. Jason Tyner had a higher OPS as a Twin. Toss in poor defense at third base from a soon-to-be 28-year-old and Valencia just isn't a starting-caliber player.

He does potentially have some value as a backup third baseman/first baseman or platoon guy versus left-handers, against whom he's hit .318/.363/.472. Of course, since Plouffe is also a right-handed bat and it's hard to imagine Ron Gardenhire platooning Justin Morneau or even Chris Parmelee with Valencia at first base there wasn't going to be much room for a part-time role in Minnesota. He's a marginal player who wore out his welcome on and off the field.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka was even worse than Valencia in Rochester, hitting .245/.309/.301 in 84 games, yet he was called up to fill the roster spot and immediately thrown into the lineup at second base last night. It took literally one play for the ball to find Nishioka and for Nishioka to commit a brutal error, and then later he made a second error just for good measure, although he did manage to successfully turn a double play without getting his leg broken. Baby steps.

Nishioka has no business being in the majors--he was terrible for the Twins and overmatched at Triple-A--but he's making $3 million this season and is owed another $3 million next season. At some point perhaps they'll decide he's simply a sunk cost and move on, but in the meantime he'll get a chance to show any sort of offensive or defensive ability. It probably won't be pretty, but it's not as if Nishioka is blocking any promising middle infielders from playing time.

• In early May former first-round pick Alex Wimmers was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral elbow ligament and the Twins, as they've often done with injured pitchers, advised him to rest and rehab in attempt to avoid surgery. Rarely, if ever, has that accomplished anything but delaying the inevitable and pushing back the eventual recovery timetable, and sure enough after resting for three months Wimmers had Tommy John surgery last week.

He'll be sidelined for 12 months and because he waited until now to undergo surgery that means Wimmers may not pitch at all next season. Wimmers was said to be one of the most MLB-ready pitchers available when the Twins drafted him out of Ohio State with the 21st pick in 2010, but the combination of last season's extreme control problems and this year's elbow injury means he'll likely see his next game action in 2014 as a 25-year-old with 62 pro innings.

• Wimmers' story is depressingly similar to Kyle Gibson's story, as the 2009 first-round pick injured his elbow last July, was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in August, and underwent Tommy John surgery in September. And because of the delayed surgery Gibson is just now seeing game action again in rookie-ball, where both his raw stuff and results have been very encouraging so far.

When back-to-back first-round picks touted as close to MLB-ready need Tommy John surgery that helps explain how the Twins' pitching situation became so dire. Neither projected as aces, but things would have been much different had Gibson joined the rotation as a No. 3 starter in the middle of last season and Wimmers got the call-up as a No. 4 starter this year. That's bad luck, but as has far too often been the case the Twins' medical staff didn't help matters.

• Speaking of the medical staff, the aforementioned Plouffe is the latest player to miss significant time with a supposed "day-to-day" injury that the Twins initially didn't deem worthy of a DL stint. Plouffe hurt his thumb on July 20, remained on the active roster for a week without actually being available to play, and then finally went on the DL. And now he'll remain on the DL well beyond the minimum 15 days, which is an all-too-familiar story.

To invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the MLB roster and seven-team farm system only to frequently have "day-to-day" injuries turn into month-long absences, terrible performances attributed after the fact to playing through injuries, and surgeries delayed by half a season has to be maddening for ownership and the front office. And yet just like after last season the question is how much more of that needs to take place before substantial changes are made?

• One month ago Morneau was hitting .238/.306/.431. Since then he's hit .368/.413/.611 with five homers and eight doubles in 24 games, including a pair of homers last night. During that time Morneau reduced his strikeout rate from 20 percent to 9 percent and went from hitting under .100 versus lefties to hitting nearly .500 against them. He's up to .275/.335/.481 on the season, which is very close to his .280/.351/.495 career mark.

• FSN showed this stat last night and I had to double-check to make sure it was true. Sure enough Josh Willingham now has the most homers in baseball since July 29 of last season:

JOSH WILLINGHAM       45
Curtis Granderson     42
Ryan Braun            41
Josh Hamilton         41
Jose Bautista         39
Albert Pujols         38

During that year-plus span Willingham has played 161 total games, hitting .260/.365/.555 with 45 homers, 33 doubles, 82 walks, and 129 RBIs. Mercy.

Lester Oliveros, who made one appearance for the Twins in mid-June, will miss the rest of the season following surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. Oliveros has a mid-90s fastball and logged 48 innings between Double-A and Triple-A with a 2.42 ERA and 51-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio, so if healthy the right-hander acquired from the Tigers in the Delmon Young trade could be an Opening Day bullpen option for 2013.

• I'm assuming anyone reading this blog understands Samuel Deduno's success isn't sustainable unless he makes major changes, but just in case: Pitchers with more walks than strikeouts don't stay in the majors for long, let alone maintain sub-3.00 ERAs, and as a 28-year-old journeyman with 5.1 walks per nine innings in the minors he's an unlikely candidate for sudden improvement. It sure is interesting to watch while it lasts, though.

• Thursday night Glen Perkins became the first Twins reliever since Craig Breslow in 2008 to pitch two or more innings while recording a save, which has happened a total of 11 times since Gardenhire took over as manager in 2002. On a related note Breslow, who pitched for the Red Sox against the Twins this weekend, has a 3.02 ERA in 235 innings since they misguidedly waived him in favor of Sean Henn in mid-2009.

Pat Neshek was traded from the Orioles to the A's and called up to Oakland after spending all season at Triple-A. Neshek struggled for the past two years following Tommy John surgery, but pitched like his old self in the minors with a 2.66 ERA and 49-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 44 innings and then struck out the side in his A's debut Friday. Oakland and Baltimore play in September, so a Neshek-Lew Ford matchup that would blow Twins fans' minds is possible.

Matthew Kory of Baseball Prospectus noticed that Francisco Liriano is all but certain to lead the Twins in strikeouts for the season with 109 despite being traded on July 28. Scott Diamond has the second-most with 62. In his 17 starts Liriano averaged 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings and the 10 other pitchers to start a game for the Twins this season have combined for 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings, including none above 6.3.

• While watching Friday night's game I wondered if Darin Mastroianni, Denard Span, and Ben Revere are the fastest (and maybe best defensive) outfield to start multiple games together in Twins history. Impossible to say for sure, but it's hard to imagine a group with more range. Other candidates from my lifetime include the "Soul Patrol" of Jacque Jones, Torii Hunter, and Matt Lawton or the World Series trio of Dan Gladden, Kirby Puckett, and Shane Mack.

Jamey Carroll, who's 38 years old and hitting .245 with zero home runs and a .292 slugging percentage, is five RBIs away from a new career-high.

• For a lot more (and some might even say too much) talk about Valencia, Nishioka, and the Twins' medical staff, listen to this week's Gleeman and The Geek episode.

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