August 3, 2011

Twins Notes: Familiar names, logjams, ugly OBPs, and rotation issues

• It's always difficult to dig through all the rumors and speculation at the trade deadline to get a sense for what actually happened with deals that fell apart, but when it comes to the Twins' talks with the Nationals about Denard Span the various reports form something resembling a consensus. It sounds like the Twins were willing to build a deal for Span around Drew Storen, but the Nationals balked when asked to include infield prospect Stephen Lombardozzi as well.

There are other stray details that appeared in some reports but not others, such as the Twins' interest in outfielder Roger Bernadina or the Nationals trying to substitute Tyler Clippard for Storen as the reliever centerpiece, but ultimately the starting point of the talks was Storen for Span, with Lombardozzi's inclusion proving to be the hurdle that tripped everything up. And if that's true, it should be scary for Twins fans.

Trading a 27-year-old center fielder with good on-base skills, plus defense, and a team-friendly contract that runs through 2015 for a 70-inning reliever is a fundamental mistake in logic--not to mention player evaluation--that you'd think the Twins would've learned to avoid at all costs after last year's Wilson Ramos-for-Matt Capps swap with those same Nationals. Lombardozzi would've tipped the scales a bit back in the Twins' direction, but not that much.

His father, Steve Lombardozzi, played four years with the Twins, hitting .233/.307/.345 in 423 games from 1985-1988. Father and son are both second basemen and occasional shortstops with good strike-zone control, plus speed, and modest power. Stephen has advanced through the minors more quickly than Steve and his numbers project slightly better, but he didn't crack Baseball America's top 10 Nationals prospects and is no sure thing to become a solid regular.

Lombardozzi's performance in the minors is good but not great and built around a .300 batting average. That's obviously a positive thing, but he's managed just 16 homers in 417 games and averaged only 55 walks per 600 plate appearances, including just 28 free passes in 473 trips to the plate between Double-A and Triple-A this season. With minimal power and iffy patience it's tough to project a big impact in the majors from a .298/.370/.412 hitter in the minors.

Storen is a very good, young, and cheap reliever and Lombarozzi is a decent enough prospect who should settle in somewhere between nice utility man and mediocre starter. Together they have plenty of long-term value, but not enough to part with a good, young, and cheap center fielder with a .366 career on-base percentage. I'm relieved the Twins passed on the deal, but also worried the Nationals merely temporarily saved them from again overpaying for saves.

• I'm very curious to see how Ron Gardenhire handles the outfield logjam now that Span has returned from a two-month stint on the disabled list following his June 3 concussion. Last night against a right-handed pitcher Span started in center field and Ben Revere was on the bench, but presumably the Twins won't keep the 23-year-old Revere around in the big leagues unless he's starting at least somewhat regularly.

That could be accomplished pretty easily by platooning Revere and Delmon Young in left field, but Gardenhire has never seen the value of platooning and has yet to see the value of sitting Young versus right-handed pitching, against whom he's hit just .263/.298/.340 this year and .283/.315/.405 for his career. Either way, Span will provide some much-needed on-base skills atop the lineup after Revere got on base at a measly .301 clip in 52 leadoff starts.

Apparently the Twins wanted Span to see some action as a corner outfielder in Rochester, but he refused (or maybe declined, depending on your preferred wording choice). Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com reports that "Span didn't want to play in any games in left or right field during his rehab stint." Or as Gardenhire phrased it: "We talked before, about doing that in the minor leagues, but we didn't get that done. So he's in the big leagues, in center field."

I'm not yet convinced Revere in center field and Span in left field is better than Span in center field and Revere in left field anyway, but it's an interesting situation given how much criticism Joe Mauer took during his rehab assignment for insisting on playing catcher. Young has never played right field for the Twins despite a strong arm being his only asset defensively, so unless Gardenhire changes his mind on that issue we'll see Span or Revere in right field soon enough.

• So far this year 16 hitters have gotten at least 100 plate appearances for the Twins and 10 of them have an on-base percentage of .300 or lower (the AL average is .322):

                     PA      OBP
Danny Valencia      425     .289
Delmon Young        295     .295
Ben Revere          269     .300
Justin Morneau      231     .281
Luke Hughes         198     .296
Drew Butera         168     .210
Tsuyoshi Nishioka   171     .259
Matt Tolbert        159     .250
Trevor Plouffe      117     .291
Jason Repko         111     .287

No other team in Twins history had more than seven position players notch 100 or more plate appearances and a .300 or lower OBP. We're seeing some historic ineptitude when it comes to getting on base. As a whole the current team's .309 on-base percentage is the Twins' lowest since 1981 and their first sub-.320 mark since 1984.

• According to general manager Bill Smith the Twins finished runner-up in the winter bidding for Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, as the A's easily topped them $19 million to $7.7 million. Contentious negotiations followed and the two sides couldn't agree on a deal, so the A's were refunded and Iwakuma headed back to Japan. And now Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com reports that Iwakuma has hired a new agent with an eye toward coming to MLB in 2012.

Crasnick notes that because Iwakuma has now played 10 seasons in Japan he can become an outright free agent without the need for bidding, posting fees, or exclusive negotiating rights. He'll simply hit the open market in November alongside other free agent pitchers, which likely takes the Twins out of the running even if Tsuyoshi Nishioka's extreme struggles following a $15 million investment haven't already soured them on pursuing other Japanese players.

• Last spring I criticized the Twins for handing Nick Blackburn a four-year, $14 million deal, as they already had him under team control via arbitration and minuscule strikeout rates meant it would be hard to sustain his status as a mid-rotation starter. Sure enough, since the signing his 4.2 strikeouts per nine innings is MLB's lowest rate and Blackburn has a 5.00 ERA and .302 opponents' average in 291 innings. He's owed $4.75 million in 2012 and $5.5 million in 2013.

In his last seven starts Blackburn has given up 39 runs on 58 hits and 13 walks in 33 innings, allowing opponents to hit .387 with a .607 slugging percentage. Brian Duensing hasn't been nearly that awful, but his rough patch dates back much further. After last night's loss Duensing has a 5.14 ERA in 92 innings spread over 16 starts since May 1, allowing opponents to hit .290 and slug .458. And just a reminder: Kevin Slowey has a 4.42 career ERA as a starter.

• Capps has quietly strung together seven straight scoreless outings since being stripped of closer duties in mid-July, although recording just two strikeouts in 21 plate appearances during that stretch doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Overall this season Capps has struck out just 12.1 percent of the batters he's faced, compared to 19.3 percent last season and 18.7 percent for his career. He's also allowed more homers (eight) than walks (six). Brad Radke approves.

This week's content is sponsored by Minnesota's leading variable frequency drive company, IDEAL Service, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your industrial electronic needs.

August 1, 2011

Stranded at the intersection of buyer and seller, Twins stay put

In the end, it turns out the answer was "neither."

For weeks the big debate among fans, media members, and perhaps even the team itself has been whether the Twins would be buyers or sellers (or maybe a little bit of both) at the trade deadline. Yet as the Tigers, Indians, White Sox, and nearly every other team joined the trading frenzy that came to an end yesterday the Twins did nothing, hanging on to various impending free agents, choosing not to empty the doghouse, and failing to secure any stretch-run help.

And it wasn't for a lack of rumors, as the Twins were linked to all kinds of on-the-block players and said to be shopping plenty of their own despite no one being certain whether to consider them buyers or sellers. They were deep in talks with the Nationals over Denard Span, several teams scouted Kevin Slowey at Triple-A, contenders looking to add a bat came after Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Jim Thome, and the Twins had calls in on numerous relievers.

"We had a lot of activity, we had a lot of calls, we made progress on a number of possibilities, but we just couldn't get to the finish line," general manager Bill Smith explained to reporters shortly after the deadline came and went without a move. Smith made it clear that the Twins saw themselves as buyers looking for "more ammunition" and noted how disappointing it was to walk away empty-handed "because we had an awful lot of people do an awful lot of work."

Much of that work apparently involved negotiating with the Nationals over Span, with national reporters joining Minnesota and Washington sources to provide constant updates throughout the past week on a trade that would have brought the Twins significant bullpen help. Initially the Nationals were said to be offering a Tyler Clippard-led package until it became clear that the Twins' focus was on Drew Storen, with the two sides haggling over secondary pieces.

Not only did the reports about Span come out of nowhere and escalate quickly, the talks with the Nationals provided a glimpse into why the Twins ended up doing nothing at the deadline. They viewed themselves as buyers by virtue of contending in the incredibly weak AL Central, but a 50-56 record and six-game deficit made fully committing to that approach tough and they tried to do that buying without delving into the farm system.

Instead of following the typical buyer path of using their highest-ranked prospects to acquire an impact player for the major-league team the Twins offered up their 27-year-old leadoff man and center fielder. Instead of parting with mid-level prospects to bring in big-league depth the Twins tried turning a banished 27-year-old starting pitcher into veteran relief help. They tried to buy with some of the same assets they would have used to sell and instead did neither.

If the Twins were a typical 50-56 team they would have had no problem identifying themselves as sellers, likely cashing in some combination of Cuddyer, Kubel, Slowey, Thome, Joe Nathan, Matt Capps, and Delmon Young for future value. However, because the weak division meant 50-56 wasn't out of the race on July 31 selling those pieces became a much more difficult road to go down. They talked themselves out of being sellers, but not quite enough to be buyers.

It's hard to blame the Twins too much for not selling, because giving up on a season with two months remaining isn't easy when the team climbed out of a 17-37 hole and into respectability while turning a seemingly insurmountable 16.5-game deficit into a margin that inspires hope for a comeback. With that said, Smith and company are responsible for making the toughest of tough decisions and hope or not their postseason chances are as slim as the roster is flawed.

Losing to the A's after the deadline passed puts them at 50-57 and seven games back in the AL Central with just 54 games to play. Detroit has emerged as division favorites, second-place Cleveland leads the Twins by 4.5 games and made arguably the biggest deadline splash by parting with four prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez, and even third-place Chicago leads the Twins by three games. By comparison, the Twins are four games ahead of last-place Kansas City.

I'm willing to believe that the Twins' playoff odds should be higher than the two percent figure shown in most projections, but that still means bumping them up to just five percent or maybe eight percent if you're feeling wildly optimistic. Latching on to that hope is understandable, but they were smart not to deal Span for Storen or swing other big trades in an effort to maximize those modest odds and I'd have been awfully tempted to sell that small now for a bigger later.

This week's content is sponsored by Minnesota's leading variable frequency drive company, IDEAL Service, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your industrial electronic needs.

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.