November 20, 2013

Twins Notes: Bartlett, Welker, Johnson, Ibarra, Rosario, and Fryer

jason bartlett twins

• After being injured and ineffective in 2012 and sitting out all of this season Jason Bartlett is making a comeback, signing a minor-league deal with the Twins. During his first stint as general manager Terry Ryan traded Brian Buchanan to the Padres in mid-2002 for Bartlett, who was a 22-year-old non-prospect at Single-A. He later became the Twins' starting shortstop, although not before being stuck at Triple-A for far too long so they could play Juan Castro instead.

Bartlett has the third-highest OPS among all shortstops in Twins history, but at age 27 he was traded to the Rays as part of the Matt Garza-for-Delmon Young disaster. Bartlett played well in Tampa Bay for three years, including an All-Star season in 2009, but hasn't been the same since being traded to San Diego. He's now 34 years old and hasn't been healthy and productive since 2010, but considering the other infield options it won't be shocking if Bartlett snags a bench job.

• Back in August the Twins traded Justin Morneau to the Pirates for outfielder Alex Presley and reliever Duke Welker, except they couldn't officially announce Welker's inclusion at the time and instead insisted that they would be choosing a player to be named later from a predetermined list. Six weeks later it became official, as the Twins acquired Welker as the PTBNL. And then yesterday, less than three months after the initial trade, the Twins sent Welker back to the Pirates.

In a move totally separate from the Morneau swap the Twins traded Welker back to Pittsburgh for left-hander Kris Johnson, a 29-year-old career minor leaguer who finally got to the big leagues in August. Welker never appeared in a game as a member of the Twins organization and the oddness of the trade extends beyond that because he's a mid-90s thrower with strong strikeout rates and Johnson has a low-90s fastball with a 4.76 ERA in 431 career innings at Triple-A.

That includes a shiny 2.39 ERA at Triple-A this year, but Johnson managed just 94 strikeouts in 136 innings and had a sub par walk rate. For his Triple-A career Johnson has 5.9 strikeouts and 3.4 walks per nine innings, which is terrible. It's possible that he'll be able to stick for a while as a fifth starter or middle reliever and odds are Welker won't have much of a career anyway, but I'd have taken my chances on the hard-throwing pitcher who hasn't been awful at Triple-A.

• Speaking of left-handers with nice-looking ERAs and poor secondary numbers, the Twins added 24-year-old reliever Edgar Ibarra to the 40-man roster. He posted a 1.93 ERA this year between Double-A and Triple-A to convince the Twins he needed protecting from the Rule 5 draft, but he's not a hard-thrower and a 54-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 innings was unimpressive. Ibarra also had a 4.69 ERA with poor control and just 69 strikeouts in 79 innings last season.

• There's been no confirmation from the Twins yet, but based on this Spanish-language report it sounds like second base prospect Eddie Rosario is facing a 50-game suspension. Rosario ranked seventh on my list of Twins prospects coming into the year and hit .302/.350/.460 in 122 games between high Single-A and Double-A as a 21-year-old, likely rising even higher on the 2014 list and putting himself in position to reach Minnesota in the second half.

• When the Twins called up Eric Fryer for September catching depth my assumption was that he'd be dropped from the 40-man roster as soon as the season ended, yet two months later he remains. Fryer isn't quite the new Drew Butera, but he's a 28-year-old career .208/.312/.313 hitter at Triple-A who has no real business on a 40-man roster regardless of how worried the Twins are about their catching situation with Joe Mauer moving to first base.

• In preparation for the Rule 5 draft the Twins added Max Kepler, Logan Darnell, Jorge Polanco, and Kennys Vargas to the 40-man roster and dropped B.J. Hermsen. No surprises.

Clete Thomas, who started 79 of the Twins' final 105 games this year before being removed from the 40-man roster last month, signed a minor-league contract with the Phillies.

Pedro Hernandez, the soft-tossing left-hander acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade, was also dropped from the 40-man roster and signed with the Rockies.

Antoan Richardson, a journeyman outfielder who never got a chance with the Twins this year despite hitting .285 with a .404 on-base percentage in the minors, signed with the Yankees.

• For a lengthy discussion of Mauer switching positions and an attempt to figure out the Twins' odds of signing a big-money pitcher, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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October 16, 2013

Twins Notes: Roster cuts, post-trade Morneau, attendance, and Big Papi

josh roenicke twins

• Three weeks ago I listed 16 players in danger of being removed from the 40-man roster and so far the Twins have dropped five of them: Josh Roenicke, Clete Thomas, Doug Bernier, Cole De Vries, Shairon Martis. I'd expect at least another 3-4 cuts by the end of the World Series, but in the meantime the Twins already re-signed Bernier to a minor-league contract that keeps the 33-year-old journeyman in the organization without a 40-man roster spot.

Roenicke being cut might have surprised some people simply because he spent the entire season in the Twins' bullpen and logged the same number of innings as Glen Perkins, but he posted a 4.35 ERA compared to the league average of 3.69 for relievers and his secondary numbers were actually even worse with a 45-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His stats for the Rockies last season were similarly underwhelming and at age 31 he was due for a raise via arbitration.

Thomas started 79 games for the Twins, including 48 in center field, but hit .214/.290/.307 with 92 strikeouts in 322 plate appearances to finish with the same exact .597 OPS as Aaron Hicks. He was a bit better defensively than I expected, but Thomas is hardly a great center fielder and doesn't hit enough to be more than a backup. That player type is always available on waivers or minor-league deals, and Alex Presley's arrival made Thomas especially superfluous.

Bernier, De Vries, and Martis are exactly who baseball analysts are talking about when they refer to "replacement-level players" being readily available. It's important to have them stockpiled at Triple-A heading into every season, but it's also important to bring in a fresh batch every winter without clogging up the 40-man roster and as the Twins have shown recently things get ugly in a hurry when more than a few of them are pressed into extended action.

• Making official what was reported at the time of the trade, the Twins acquired Duke Welker from the Pirates as the player to be named later in the Justin Morneau deal. I wrote quite a bit about Welker as part of my overall analysis of the trade on August 31, but the quick version is that he's a big right-handed reliever with a mid-90s fastball, good strikeout totals, and terrible control. Not a bad flier to get along with Presley, but Welker is already 27 years old.

Including the postseason Morneau ended up hitting .267 with zero homers and a .317 slugging percentage in 31 games for the Pirates. Overall this season between Minnesota and Pittsburgh he hit .260/.325/.413 in 158 games and combined for the past three seasons he hit .256/.329/.406 in 361 games. There are still local media members stumping for Morneau's return to the Twins as a 33-year-old free agent, but it's awfully hard to understand why.

David Ortiz's dramatic grand slam for the Red Sox led to all the usual grousing about why the Twins let him go back in 2003 and it's important to note that it wasn't for a lack of hitting. Ortiz has the fifth-highest OPS in Twins history among all hitters with at least 1,500 plate appearances through age 26, which is when he left. The only Twins with a higher OPS through 26?  Joe Mauer, Kent Hrbek, Morneau, and Lyman Bostock. Ortiz could always hit. And look at that punim.

Speaking of Ortiz's time in Minnesota, here's an interesting Associated Press story from 2001:

Minnesota Twins designated hitter David Ortiz was placed on the disabled list Saturday, a day after breaking his right wrist diving into home plate.

Ortiz was injured Friday night in the fourth inning of Minnesota's 6-2 victory over Kansas City. One inning later, he homered into the right-field bullpen, but rounding the bases he knew the pain was more than discomfort. He then went to a hospital for X-rays. Ortiz is expected to miss six to eight weeks. ...

Twins' trainers at first thought Ortiz hurt a thumb. "We asked David maybe 90 times or 100, I'm not sure, I lost track: Are you all right?" manager Tom Kelly said. "He said he was, so we let him hit. After he hit, the trainers said his wrist was starting to swell, so we got him out of there."

Kelly seemed to take the injury in stride. "We don't cry about injuries," he said. "We never have and we're not going to start now. I had a man go blind one day, a Hall of Fame player. We just move along. Injuries are part of the game."

Ortiz might be out of place in the Twins' lineup these days, but the injury stuff sounds familiar.

• Twins attendance fell by 3,688 fans per game this season, which was the fifth-largest drop in baseball. In their first two seasons at Target Field the Twins averaged 39,000 fans per game, but that dropped to 34,000 last year and 31,000 this year. And those are tickets sold figures rather than actual fans in the seats. In their final season at the Metrodome the Twins averaged 29,446 fans per game, which seems fairly likely to top next year's totals at Target Field.

• Over the years I've criticized Ron Gardenhire and the Twins for their unwillingness to platoon hitters, which is something Gardenhire and general manager Terry Ryan talked openly about last month in a series of somewhat maddening quotes. Jack Moore of Sports On Earth wrote a very interesting article about how the A's among the teams to take the opposite approach to platooning with lots of success.

• In addition to Bernier the Twins also re-signed Triple-A players James Beresford, Jermaine Mitchell, Lester Oliveros, and Virgil Vasquez to minor-league contracts. Beresford could get a look as a potential utility infielder next season and Oliveros was in the majors before missing this season following Tommy John elbow surgery.

Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors took a lengthy look at some of the key roster issues facing the Twins heading into the offseason.

• MLB Productions released some old video this week that involved a bit of Twins history.

• For more on Morneau's post-trade performance, plus Twins payroll projections and reviewing over/under picks, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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August 31, 2013

Twins trade Justin Morneau to Pirates for Alex Presley and Duke Welker

justin morneau trade

Waiting until the last moment just hours before the August 31 deadline for postseason eligibility, the Twins traded Justin Morneau to the Pirates for Alex Presley and a player to be named later believed to be Duke Welker, saying goodbye to one of the best hitters in team history after 11 years. Morneau passed through waivers unclaimed two weeks ago, meaning the Twins were able to trade him to any team, but interest in the 32-year-old impending free agent was minimal.

Picked by the Twins in the third round of the 1999 draft out of a Canadian high school, Morneau emerged as a stud prospect in 2001, made his MLB debut in 2003 at age 22, and replaced Doug Mientkiewicz as the starting first baseman in mid-2004. After some initial growing pains he was one of the elite left-handed bats in baseball, hitting for both average and power with low strikeout rates while racking up huge RBI totals behind on-base machine Joe Mauer.

He was named AL MVP in 2006, finished runner-up for the award in 2008, and hit .298/.372/.528 with an average of 30 homers, 40 doubles, and 120 RBIs per 150 games from 2006-2010. That includes hitting .345/.437/.618 with 18 homers through 81 games in what was shaping up to be a career-year in 2010, until Morneau slid into second base trying to break up a double play against the Blue Jays on July 7 in Toronto and took a knee to the helmet.

Morneau suffered a concussion, missed the final three months of the season, and has never been the same, hitting just .256/.316/.412 in 330 games since returning from the brain injury in 2011. It's a damn shame, because Morneau was an exceptional all-around hitter at the absolute peak of his skills and formed a near-perfect pairing with Mauer in the middle of the lineup. Mauer got on base, Morneau knocked him in, and the Twins boasted two of baseball's top dozen hitters.

Unfortunately it's been three years since Morneau was even an above average first baseman, let alone an impact bat, and watching him hit .230/.282/.467 with a 36-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 games since the All-Star break provided little reason to believe that's going to change. He still has some value, particularly if the Pirates shield him from left-handed pitching, but Morneau simply hasn't produced enough at an offense-driven position to remain in the Twins' plans.

Rather than watching him leave for nothing a month from now as a free agent the Twins picked up potentially useful players in Presley and Welker, saved some money, and sent Morneau to a team with a chance to make a deep playoff run. Just in case you weren't already rooting for a team that hasn't had a winning record since 1992, the Pirates have Morneau as their starting first baseman and Francisco Liriano as the No. 1 starter.

alex presley trade

Presley and Welker are a modest return for a big name, but accurately represent the type of diminished value Morneau has at this point thanks to his remaining salary, mediocre production, and impending free agency. Presley turned 28 years old in July and was drafted in the eighth round out of the University of Mississippi in 2006, so he's a non-prospect whose most likely fit is a fourth outfielder with plus speed and experience in all three spots defensively.

Presley had a nice 52-game stretch for the Pirates as a 25-year-old rookie in 2011, but struggled in an expanded role last season and has spent most of this year at Triple-A. Overall he's played 285 games at Triple-A in parts of four seasons there, hitting .309/.377/.460 while averaging 13 homers and 28 steals per 150 games. He draws a decent number of walks, doesn't strike out much, and shows a fairly typical platoon split for a left-handed hitter.

In his various stints with the Pirates totaling 204 games Presley hit .261/.299/.419 with an ugly 138-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 699 plate appearances. He'll need to control the strike zone much better to have any kind of sustained success in the majors, but he showed decent power and while the on-base percentage isn't pretty a .718 OPS isn't that far below the .750 average for MLB outfielders. Given the current state of the Twins, he could be a regular for a little while.

Welker is a 6-foot-7 reliever with a mid-90s fastball and was the Pirates' second-round pick in 2007 out of the University of Arkansas, but he's already 27 years old and has all of one career appearance in the majors. During the past two years Welker struck out 94 batters in 93 innings at Triple-A, which is good but not great for a hard-throwing reliever, and his control is terrible with 4.6 walks per nine innings.

He also has a 2.91 ERA and .219 opponents' batting average with just three homers allowed in 385 plate appearances at Triple-A, so it's easy to see why the Twins would take a flier on the big, hard-throwing right-hander, but for now Welker is merely a bullpen lottery ticket. He could fill a middle relief role next year, although the Twins were already pretty deep in right-handed bullpen options and will soon need to find room for Michael Tonkin too.

Because of how things ended with Morneau in Minnesota and because the concussion (and other injuries) robbed him of a typical decline phase it's somewhat difficult to evaluate his place in team history. It's natural to wonder what could have been if Morneau hadn't suffered a brain injury, but what actually was ... well, it was pretty damn good for a long time. Here are the Twins' all-time leaders in adjusted OPS+ among hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances:

                     PA     OPS+
Harmon Killebrew   8018     148
Rod Carew          6980     137
Joe Mauer          5060     135
Tony Oliva         6880     131
Bob Allison        4643     131
Kent Hrbek         7137     128
Kirby Puckett      7831     124
JUSTIN MORNEAU     5350     121
Corey Koskie       3257     116
Chuck Knoblauch    4573     114

Even with the concussion cutting his peak very short and hastening his decline Morneau's adjusted OPS+ ranks eighth in Twins history at 121. His adjusted OPS+ was 128 before the concussion and 99 after it. His other all-time Twins ranks include second in slugging percentage, third in homers, fifth in doubles, extra-base hits, and RBIs, sixth in total bases, seventh in games and hits, eighth in walks, and ninth in runs.

I'll always imagine what could have been had Morneau stayed healthy, but I'll also remember his incredible raw power, his ability to do damage spraying line drives from foul pole to foul pole, the little inhale he took in the moment just before bat met ball, and the corkscrew follow-through that ended with the bat raised above his head. Morneau was a helluva player for the Twins, but it was time for both sides to move on. Here's hoping he gets some big hits for the Pirates.


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