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 ...

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twins daily 612 meetup1

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February 1, 2011

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2011: 40, 39, 38, 37, 36

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35.

40. Matthew Bashore | Starter | DOB: 4/88 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2009-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2009     RK+     1      0     0.00       2.0       3      0       2      0

Matthew Bashore has appeared in just one pro game two years after the Twins made him the 46th overall pick in the 2009 draft. He signed for $750,000, tossed two innings at rookie-level Elizabethton, and was shut down with an elbow injury. He underwent surgery to remove bone chips and was supposed to be ready for the beginning of last season, but instead never threw a pitch in 2010 and is a question mark for this year following Tommy John surgery.

My decision to include Bashore on this list despite his uncertain status stems from the fact that he'd no doubt have cracked the top 40 after struggling mightily in his first taste of pro ball by virtue of being a top-50 pick. Obviously needing his elbow rebuilt is far worse than simply not performing well, but Tommy John surgery is hardly a death sentence for pitchers and at age 23 he still has plenty of time to get back on track before falling off the prospect map.

Bashore is a 6-foot-3 lefty who spent three years in Indiana University's rotation, finishing his career tied for the school strikeout record. He worked in the low-90s with his fastball before going under the knife and fits the Twins' mold as a control-and-command guy. This season will be crucial for Bashore, as he can't afford another setback if the Twins are to get any value out of the compensatory draft pick received for letting Dennys Reyes walk as a free agent.

39. Lance Ray | Right Field | DOB: 9/89 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2010-8

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     RK+     76     .314     .360     .414      0      6      3     10
         A-     199     .279     .377     .418      3     17     28     28

After two seasons playing for a Nevada junior college Lance Ray transferred to the University of Kentucky last year and got off to a slow start following offseason wrist surgery, but quickly got on track and ended up leading the Wildcats in batting average (.356), on-base percentage (.458), and slugging percentage (.720) while walking as many times (20) as he struck out (21) against high-level competition in the Southeastern Conference.

He finished his junior season on a 21-game hitting streak, during which he batted .418 with 18 extra-base hits and 16 walks, and was picked by the Twins in the eighth round. He signed for $125,000 and spent just a few weeks in rookie-ball before quickly moving up to low Single-A, combining to bat .289/.372/.417 with three homers, 23 total extra-base hits, and a 38-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 total games.

Ray looks like a good bet to control the strike zone, grind out walks, and post strong on-base percentages, but as a first baseman or corner outfielder his power development will be crucial. He showed plenty of pop wielding the metal in college, but didn't do much damage shifting to wood bats in his professional debut and pre-draft reports pegged Ray as more of a line-drive hitter than a slugger.

38. Tyler Robertson | Starter | DOB: 12/87 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2006-3

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A+     15     15     2.72      82.2      78      3      73     31
2009     A+     26     26     3.33     143.1     139      7     103     51
2010     AA     27     27     5.41     144.2     181     17      91     57

Tyler Robertson was the Twins' third rounder in 2006 and fared very well in the low minors to emerge as one of the team's top pitching prospects, but his performance has deteriorated so steadily since missing half of 2008 with shoulder problems that the Twins announced plans to move him to the bullpen this season. Even when Robertson was thriving there were questions about his stiff, unorthodox delivery, so an injury isn't the only possibly factor in his decline.

During the past four years Robertson's strikeouts per nine innings have gone from 10.8 to 7.9 to 6.5 to 5.8, and last season at Double-A he had a sub par 91-to-57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 145 innings while opponents hit .308 with 17 homers. However, even while struggling overall the 23-year-old southpaw maintained a ground-ball rate around 50 percent and previously did very well limiting long balls.

Ultimately shifting to the bullpen is likely best for Robertson, as he's had difficulty keeping his velocity steady throughout a full season in the rotation and has a strong enough track record versus left-handed hitters to settle into a lefty specialist role if setup duties prove above him. He's definitely at a career crossroads this season, as the Twins left him off the 40-man roster and unprotected for the Rule 5 draft knowing he wouldn't be selected.

37. Danny Rams | Catcher | DOB: 12/88 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2007-2

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     RK     166     .228     .301     .428      5     16     15     71
2009     RK      72     .355     .444     .790      6     14      8     22
         A-     195     .229     .308     .429      7     21     18     77
2010     A-     450     .243     .310     .450     16     48     31    145

It's been four years since the Twins picked Danny Rams in the second round of the 2007 draft and he really hasn't developed one bit. He still swings at everything, still strikes out a ton, and still has lots of people questioning whether he can remain a catcher long term. And yet Rams also still has enough raw power and arm strength to keep him on the prospect map at age 22, albeit just barely.

Ugly as they were last season's .243 batting average and 145-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio at low Single-A are right in line with Rams' career marks, but he also smacked 16 homers and 48 total extra-base hits in 407 at-bats playing in Beloit's pitcher-friendly environment and threw out 47 percent of steal attempts. Among all the hitters in the Twins' system with at least 300 plate appearances last season only Joe Benson had a higher Isolated Power.

His flaws are prominent enough to possibly derail his development, but because the standard for "decent" among major-league catchers is so low simply hitting some homers and controlling the running game can make Rams a valuable player along the lines of, say, John Buck, Miguel Olivo, and Rod Barajas. Of course, those guys weren't already quite so flawed and limited in the minors, which means they represent optimistic scenarios for Rams at this point.

36. Scott Diamond | Starter | DOB: 7/86 | Throws: Left | Rule 5: Braves

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A-      9      9     3.08      52.2      47      2      38     11
         A+     17     15     2.79     100.0      95      6      85     28
2009     AA     23     23     3.50     131.0     152      5     111     53
2010     AA     17     17     3.52     102.1     113      4      90     39
         AAA    10     10     3.36      56.1      53      2      33     15

Scott Diamond went undrafted out of a Canadian high school in 2007 and signed with Atlanta for $50,000, which is the same price the Twins paid in December to nab him in the Rule 5 draft. Despite being undrafted Diamond moved pretty quickly through the Braves' system, reaching Triple-A in his third year as a pro. He's had success at every level, posting ERAs of 3.08 at low Single-A, 2.79 at high Single-A, 3.51 at Double-A, and 3.36 at Triple-A.

Last season he made 17 starts at Double-A and 10 starts at Triple-A, posting a 3.46 ERA and 123-to-54 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 159 total innings. His strikeout and walk rates have been mediocre, with 7.3 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per nine innings, but Diamond has served up just 19 homers in 442 career innings, including 11 long balls in 290 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, and has also had a ground-ball rate above 50 percent at every level.

In order for the Twins to keep Diamond he must remain on the 25-man roster (or disabled list) for the entire season or he'll be offered back to the Braves. Unlike most Rule 5 picks Diamond has a chance to stick, in part because he projects as a potentially useful pitcher and in part because the Twins have plenty of spots to settle in the bullpen. He could begin 2011 in a long relief role and perhaps get a chance to be a situational left-hander if things go well.