March 14, 2011

Twins Notes: Whiffs, ladders, Polamalu, and “fire it through the internet”

Lucas Apostoleris of Beyond the Box Score broke down some numbers on which individual pitches produced the most swinging strikes last season. For instance, Cole Hamels' changeup led baseball by generating a whiff on 48.0 percent of swings, compared to the MLB average of 20.8 percent. Hamels' changeup was followed by Carlos Marmol's slider at 46.5 percent, Clay Buchholz's changeup at 46.2 percent, and Francisco Liriano's slider at 44.8 percent.

Liriano's stressful mechanics and reliance on his slider were primarily blamed for his past elbow problems and upon returning from Tommy John surgery in mid-2008 he altered his delivery and cut way back on his slider usage. However, after throwing his slider 26.9 percent of the time in 2009 while struggling with a 5.80 ERA he threw the pitch 33.8 percent of the time last season and thrived again.

Even last season's 33.8 percent sliders represents a 10.1 percent decrease compared to how often Liriano used the pitch prior to surgery, but only Ervin Santana (36.9 percent) and Ryan Dempster (35.1 percent) threw their sliders more often in 2010. Prior to surgery Liriano threw his slider more than anyone in baseball, whereas since surgery he's merely been among the leaders in slider usage.

I have no idea whether throwing 10 percent fewer sliders has a meaningful impact on Liriano's chances of staying healthy, but I do know that the pitch is dominant enough--and his fastball has been hittable enough since returning from surgery--that it's awfully tough to ask him to throw significantly fewer sliders. Not only is it Liriano's best pitch, it's one of the best pitches in baseball. His changeup is improved and his fastball is still pretty good, but the slider is special.

Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus did some very interesting research about how rapidly teams move their prospects up the minor-league ladder, finding huge differences between the slowest-moving teams and fastest-moving teams. For position player prospects the Twins are by far MLB's slowest-moving organization, allowing hitters to accumulate an average of 2,600 plate appearances in the minors before making their big-league debuts.

Not only is the Twins' average of 2,600 pre-debut plate appearances about 200 more than the next-slowest Angels, it's 1,000 more than the fastest-moving team, the Mets. That means the average Twins hitter debuts with two more full seasons' worth of plate appearances than the average Mets hitter. We saw that exact dichotomy in action with Carlos Gomez, as the Mets rushed him to the majors at age 21 and the Twins then kept him there at age 22.

For pitchers the Twins aren't quite as slow-moving, but still allow prospects to accumulate the third-most innings before their debuts behind only the Rays and Nationals. Again the Mets are the fastest-moving team with pitchers, which came in to play when the Twins acquired Deolis Guerra along with Gomez as part of the Johan Santana trade. Because the Mets had already pushed Guerra to high Single-A at age 18 he reached Triple-A as an overmatched 21-year-old.

All of which hammers home two points that everyone pretty much already understood, which are that Twins prospects generally have extremely conservative promotion timetables and the Mets were an organizational mess under former general manager Omar Minaya. Because of the Santana trade those two approaches collided and it certainly played a part in Gomez and Guerra (so far) failing to pan out as the Twins hoped. Conservative makes a lot more sense.

• If you've ever wondered what Steelers safety and reigning NFL defensive player of the year Troy Polamulu would look like wearing a Twins uniform, this is your lucky day:

Polamulu was apparently shooting a Head and Shoulders commercial with Joe Mauer.

Peter Gammons posted this note on Twitter last week:

Astros' first choice for a catcher to replace Jason Castro was Drew Butera, but Twins won't trade him. Outstanding catch-and-throw guy.

Drew Butera has such marginal value that the Twins should definitely be willing to trade him, but the odds of the Astros or any other team actually offering something of value in return are pretty slim and after trading both Wilson Ramos and Jose Morales the upper-minors catching cupboard is bare. Butera is a replacement-level player and ranks as perhaps the worst hitter in baseball, but the Twins love his defense and don't really have a better option behind Mauer.

• Speaking of Twitter, for some reason Ron Gardenhire is becoming increasingly annoyed with how quickly and efficiently reporters are able to relay his words to the Twins-loving public due to technology. Here's an amusing note from Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

When manager Ron Gardenhire announced Saturday that Nick Blackburn had made the rotation, it caused a mild stir in the Twins clubhouse.

"All you guys ... tweeted and blogged and all those things," Gardenhire told reporters Monday. "Before I could get back on the field, it was already back in here that we have a fourth starter.  So [the other pitchers] went right to [pitching coach Rick Anderson]. It's under control, Andy's talked to them. We knew going in that they were fighting for a job."

Gardenhire seems less than thrilled with how fast news travels these days, but he's keeping his sense of humor. When asked if Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes were on equal footing in their battle for a utility spot, the manager said: "Yes, equal footing. You can tweet that. Just tweet it. You don't even have to write it. Just fire it through the Internet."

Gardenhire also got angry when he told a room of people about Justin Morneau's doctor visit and the news was actually reported by reporters. It used to take a day for news to be printed in a newspaper. Then it took an hour for news to be posted on a blog. Now it takes a minute for news to be tweeted. Like many 53-year-olds Gardenhire isn't embracing Twitter, but media reporting what he says about the team they cover hasn't changed. It's just a new method.

With that said, "just fire it through the internet" is comedy gold. Put it on a t-shirt, someone.

Follow me on Twitter. Gardenhire would want it that way and I'm constantly just firing things through the internet on there.

Patrick Reusse of 1500ESPN.com wrote an interesting piece about whether the Twins know "the difference between an annoyance and a bad guy" as it relates to Kevin Slowey now and Matt Garza a few years ago (with plenty of other examples coming to mind as well).

Anthony Slama was already facing an uphill battle to claim an Opening Day bullpen spot, but elbow problems make it all but certain he'll begin the season back at Triple-A.

• Today the Twins are expected to trim the players on their spring training roster from 59 to 45 and No. 1 prospect Kyle Gibson will be included in the first batch of cuts. Gibson will begin the season at Triple-A, where he's made just three starts. Add another data point to the Twins not rushing prospects.

February 3, 2011

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2011: 35, 34, 33, 32, 31

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 36-40.

35. Kyle Waldrop | Reliever | DOB: 10/85 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2004-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2009     A+     20      0     3.09      35.0      43      0      20      7
         AA     31      0     1.46      55.2      51      2      30     18
2010     AAA    59      0     2.57      87.2      89      5      60     20

Kyle Waldrop was a first-round pick in 2004 who looked less and less impressive as he moved up the minor-league ladder and then missed all of 2008 following shoulder surgery. He shifted to the bullpen full time upon returning in 2009 and has had back-to-back strong seasons as a reliever. Last year Waldrop had a 2.59 ERA and 60-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 88 innings at Triple-A, allowing just five homers while inducing 64 percent ground balls.

His lack of top-notch velocity and mediocre strikeout rates make it unlikely that Waldrop will be a force in the late innings, but the 25-year-old right-hander certainly looks capable of being a solid middle reliever thanks to good control and some serious worm-killing ability. He also looks to be just about MLB-ready, which is why it was surprising when the Twins declined to add him to the 40-man roster and left him unprotected for the Rule 5 draft in December.

Waldrop struggling down the stretch at Triple-A and getting knocked around in the Arizona Fall League may have scared teams off, as he went unpicked and the Twins lost no players in the draft. However, the fact that they were willing to lose him and his lack of a spot on the 40-man roster show the Twins' absence of faith in Waldrop despite his success as a reliever and could equal an uphill battle for a call-up in 2011.

34. Deolis Guerra | Starter | DOB: 4/89 | Throws: Right | Trade: Mets

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A+     26     25     5.47     130.0     138     12      71     71
2009     A+     16     15     4.69      86.1      95      6      57     25
         AA     12     11     5.17      62.2      62      4      49     17
2010     AA     19     19     6.24     102.1     127     14      67     37
        AAA      5      4     6.84      25.0      35      5      18      8

Believe it or not, many people considered Deolis Guerra the centerpiece of the four-prospect package the Twins received from the Mets for Johan Santana in February of 2008. At the time he was just 18 years old and had already logged 180 impressive innings at Single-A, and the combination of a 6-foot-5 frame, low-90s fastball, and oft-touted changeup earned Guerra the No. 35 spot in Baseball America's annual ranking. Three years later he barely made this list.

Because the Mets had Guerra pitching at high Single-A as an 18-year-old the Twins have been forced to promote him far more aggressively than his performance has warranted. Even now he's one of the youngest pitchers on this list and younger than the average player at Single-A, but had the Twins assigned and promoted him based strictly on age and performance he'd still be in the Florida State League five years after debuting there.

Instead he's been thrown into the fire at Double-A and in the second half of last year Triple-A, leading to some hideous numbers. Guerra is 8-16 with a 5.97 ERA in 190 innings between the two levels, allowing opponents to hit .300 while managing just 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Guerra's raw stuff has also declined since the deal, as he's struggled to maintain peak velocity and ceased being a ground-baller. He's still young, but that's about all he has left in his favor.

33. Luke Hughes | Third Base | DOB: 8/84 | Bats: Right | Sign: Australia

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     AA     319     .319     .385     .551     15     33     28     70
        AAA     117     .283     .325     .453      3     11      7     30
2009     AA     229     .250     .320     .445      6     24     19     38
        AAA     157     .259     .344     .481      6     16     18     38
2010    AAA      81     .257     .313     .405      1      9      5     18

Luke Hughes made his MLB debut on April 28 and went deep off Max Scherzer to become the 106th player in baseball history to homer in his first at-bat, but the rest of his season wasn't very memorable. Hughes' first taste of the majors lasted only two games and he was limited to just 22 games back at Triple-A because of a sports hernia and groin injury that both required surgery, almost surely costing him at least a September call-up.

Hughes has bounced around a ton defensively since the Twins signed him out of Australia as a teenager in 2002, seeing time at every position except pitcher and catcher. Most of his action has come at third base, where Hughes made his major-league debut, and second base, where he looms as a potential fallback option for the Twins this season should Alexi Casilla struggle after being handed a starting job.

While reviews of Hughes' defense vary a lot most seem to agree that he's unlikely to be more than passable as an infielder, so he'll have to hit his way into a job and is running out of time at age 26. He's hit .282/.348/.473 between Double-A and Triple-A, which isn't enough to cancel out a poor glove and projects to make him a bench bat who draws starts versus lefties. He'll likely be in Minnesota at some point this season and it could be a make-or-break year.

32. Trevor Plouffe | Shortstop | DOB: 6/86 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2004-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     AA     249     .269     .325     .410      3     23     16     43
        AAA     272     .256     .292     .420      6     26     14     47
2009    AAA     477     .260     .313     .407     10     38     34     68
2010    AAA     445     .244     .300     .430     15     41     27     90

Trevor Plouffe made his major-league debut in mid-May and was called up four different times during the season, but the 2004 first-round pick started a total of just seven games and went 6-for-41 (.146) with 14 strikeouts and zero walks in his first taste of the big leagues at age 24. His performance at Rochester was more encouraging, but only slightly, as Plouffe's third crack at Triple-A involved posting nearly the same poor numbers there as he did in 2008 and 2009.

Plouffe has spent the bulk of three straight seasons at Triple-A, posting batting averages of .256, .260, and .244, on-base percentages of .292, .313, and .300, and slugging percentages of .420, .407, and .430. His overall Triple-A line is .253/.303/.419 in 1,194 plate appearances and his career line in 3,318 total plate appearances in the minors is an equally underwhelming .254/.316/.391. At this point it's pretty safe to conclude that Plouffe simply can't hit.

He's shown 15-homer power, but that doesn't hold much value when it comes along with poor plate discipline, a relatively high strikeout rate, and the inability to hit even .275 at any level in any season since rookie-ball in 2004. Plouffe's value is almost entirely tied to his defense and opinions are mixed on whether he can be an asset at shortstop in the majors, so right now a career as a utility man looks like his most realistic upside.

31. Martire Garcia | Starter | DOB: 3/90 | Throws: Left | Sign: Dominican

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     RK-    11     11     3.25      52.2      45      3      53     22
2009     RK+    13     12     4.42      59.0      61      4      54     31
2010     RK+     8      8     1.75      46.1      42      2      63     15
         A-      6      6     6.00      27.0      27      2      30     23

Martire Garcia was signed by the Twins just before his 17th birthday in 2007 and the skinny, diminutive left-hander from the Dominican Republic spent most of his first three pro seasons in various levels of rookie-ball before a second-half promotion to low Single-A last year. He had a rough time in six starts at Beloit, with 23 walks in 27 innings, but also managed 30 strikeouts and held opponents to a .252 batting average.

Consistently throwing strikes was also an issue for Garcia at rookie-ball in 2008 and 2009, but he began last season by posting a 1.75 ERA and 63-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 46 innings at Elizabethton and aside from that six-start stretch at Beloit his control certainly hasn't been bad enough to stand out as a red flag for a 21-year-old with good raw stuff. He'll likely spend most of this year in Beloit's rotation, but the Twins will probably limit his workload somewhat.

Garcia might have to eat a big breakfast just to weigh in at 160 pounds, but he packs plenty of velocity into a 5-foot-11 frame and has 281 strikeouts in 263 innings. He's one of the leading candidates to make a big jump up this list for 2012 once we see how he handles full-season competition, but for now Garcia's ranking is on the conservative side and based more on his potential than actual performance.

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