June 22, 2011

Twins Notes: Sad Mad Bum, Alexi power, first rounders, and imagination

• San Francisco's starter last night, Madison Bumgarner, came into the game with a 3.03 ERA in 205 career innings, including a 3.21 ERA this year. He allowed eight runs on nine hits before getting yanked with just one out in the first inning. And then the Twins were held scoreless for 4.2 innings by Guillermo Mota, a 37-year-old reliever who'd never thrown that many innings in 13 seasons in the majors. Funny game, that baseball (but we knew that already).

• Not to be overlooked in last night's insanity: Alexi Casilla has now homered in back-to-back games after homering once in his previous 221 games.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com reports that the Phillies "made inquiries" about Michael Cuddyer. Presumably given the way he's hitting and the way the Twins are playing they were rebuffed. In the span of two weeks Cuddyer has gone from .260/.321/.370 to .281/.345/.454, raising his OPS by 109 points in 16 games. And the Twins have cut their deficit in the AL Central from 16.5 games to 6.5 games by going 15-3 in June, including eight straight wins, all after a 17-36 start.

Joe Nathan has thrown two scoreless innings while rehabbing at Triple-A and could be back in the Twins' bullpen as soon as this weekend.

Joe Mauer and Bill Smith addressed the media before his return to the lineup last week and what struck me is how much different the perception of his injury would've been had everyone involved simply called it complications from offseason knee surgery. Instead the Twins called it bilateral leg weakness, which raised eyebrows and never seemed to sit right with Mauer, and the odd diagnosis being shrouded in mystery magnified the criticism ten-fold.

Alex Wimmers was removed from the Fort Myers rotation after his season debut when the 2010 first-round pick walked all six hitters he faced and LaVelle E. Neal of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that two months in extended spring training hasn't solved his control issues. Wimmers has visited a psychotherapist and Neal writes that "the Twins are baffled" by how he went from starring at Ohio State with excellent control to following Shooter Hunt's footsteps.

Hunt was one of the top college arms in the 2008 draft coming out of Tulane and had a strong pro debut after the Twins picked him 31st overall, but in three seasons since then he's walked 181 batters in 129 innings and now looks unlikely to get past Single-A. Hunt went from being one of the highest upside pitchers in the system to a bust overnight and Wimmers is in danger of the same fate just a year after being touted as one of the draft's most polished pitchers.

• Speaking of Neal, he dipped his toe in the sabermetric pool yesterday. What a nerd.

This year's first-round pick, Levi Michael, isn't able to sign because he's still playing for North Carolina in the College World Series, but he was dropped from second to seventh in the lineup because of a recent slump that dragged his once-lofty batting average below .300. I've been watching most of North Carolina's games to get a look at Michael, but he's struggled so much that forming an opinion on his skill set is tough. His defense has looked decent at shortstop.

• Just in case you thought the media taking pot shots at Kevin Slowey stopped when he was placed on the disabled list and banished to extended spring training, Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan wrote this on Twitter during last night's game:

My imagination or did Twins turn it around after Slowey's plane landed in Fort Myers?

It's his imagination. In the days following Slowey being put on the DL the Twins went 1-6. And if you're going to attach their recent success to specific roster moves, the current 15-2 stretch started the same day they placed Jason Kubel and Jim Thome on the DL. That storyline isn't quite as convenient, though.

Dusty Hughes was removed from the 40-man roster and outrighted to Triple-A after clearing waivers. When the Twins claimed Hughes off waivers from the Royals in January they talked up his 3.83 ERA and how left-handed hitters like Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Denard Span gave glowing scouting reports after facing him. Hughes' track record suggested otherwise and sure enough he allowed 14 runs in 13 innings while opponents hit .365/.452/.673 off him.

Brian Dinkelman was also removed from the 40-man roster and sent back to Triple-A, which is no surprise given that his call-up early this month came out of nowhere. Dinkelman has been in the organization since 2006 and there wasn't much harm in giving him a cup of coffee in the majors when injuries left the Twins with few other options, but realistically he's a marginal role player at best and at age 27 seems unlikely to make it back to the big leagues.

Chuck James kept his spot on the 40-man roster, but the Twins optioned him back to the minors to make room for Glen Perkins' return from the disabled list. While not surprising, the decision to demote James rather than fellow left-hander Phil Dumatrait is unfortunate. Before shoulder surgery James was a solid young mid-rotation starter for the Braves and he deserves more of an opportunity after dominating as a reliever at Triple-A.

I'm sure the Twins based their decision on Dumatrait's sparkling ERA between Rochester and Minnesota, but his success has involved all of 25 innings and comes with more walks (17) than strikeouts (14). Dumatrait's track record includes a 6.67 ERA in 119 innings as a major leaguer and a 6.13 ERA with more walks (55) than strikeouts (46) in 104 innings at Triple-A last year. He's a bad pitcher having a fluky run, whereas James has the potential to actually be useful.

Pat Neshek returned to Minnesota as a member of the Padres over the weekend, throwing a scoreless inning Friday, and also shared some interesting thoughts about his departure with Phil Mackey of 1500-ESPN:

The best word is probably bittersweet I'd say. For that week before [I was waived], I knew everybody passed me up there. I didn't know why. I mean, I got the opportunity, but I didn't feel like anybody was really taking me serious. ... It was sad leaving behind the fan base, all the stuff I worked towards, all the stuff I did in my community, for my hometown. I was sad, but I knew it had to happen.

There comes a time when you're not getting that opportunity. Minnesota, that's my ideal place. I never would have left. I mean, I wish I would have stayed healthy, never had that Tommy John and stuff like that. My family's all decked out in Twins stuff. I don't know what to do with that stuff anymore. What do you do? My car's got a Twins emblem. I didn't expect it to happen. I thought as long as I pitched well I'd stay, but that's how the game works.

I'm very glad to see Neshek having success in San Diego with a 3.60 ERA and .222 opponents' batting average in 20 innings, although it comes with a horrendous 18-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He struggled to bounce back from elbow surgery and then upset the Twins by speaking publicly about the medical staff, but instead of just stashing him at Triple-A they cut him loose for nothing in a spring training move that didn't make much sense to me then or now.

• Rochester's search for players to fill out a roster plucked over by the Twins led them to sign right-hander Thomas Diamond, who was the No. 10 pick in the 2004 draft and twice cracked Baseball America's top 100 prospects while with the Rangers. Tommy John surgery derailed his career before Diamond bounced back enough to get a call-up to the Cubs last year, but they released the 28-year-old last week after he posted an 8.66 ERA in 45 innings at Triple-A.

• I'm giving serious thought to purchasing Toby Gardenhire's game-used Triple-A jersey in the name of both charity and irony.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota salsa company Curt's Salsa, which I've enjoyed on several occasions and personally recommend.

May 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Perkins, James, Hughes, Thome, Revere, Capps, and Mauer

Glen Perkins emerged as one of the few bright spots for the Twins in this miserable season, escaping the doghouse with a 1.59 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23 innings, so naturally he injured his oblique muscle Saturday night and is expected to miss at least three weeks. Normally that would give Jose Mijares an opportunity to step forward and prove himself in a higher leverage role, except he's already on the disabled list with an elbow injury.

You'd think that losing their two main left-handed relievers would motivate the Twins to call up Chuck James, a former Braves top prospect signed as a minor-league free agent after injuries derailed his career. James has thrived in the Triple-A bullpen with a 1.75 ERA, .177 opponents' batting average, and 35-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26 innings, but because he's not on the 40-man roster the Twins opted instead to bring back Dusty Hughes.

Hughes was demoted to Triple-A just two weeks ago after allowing 12 runs in 11 innings as opponents hit .356/.434/.622 off him and didn't even fare particularly well in five appearances at Rochester. From a roster management perspective turning to Hughes again is much easier than giving James a shot, but from a trying to actually win some games perspective it looks like the Twins are content to just shuffle through the same replacement-level players.

Ron Gardenhire's left-handed relief options are now Hughes, who never deserved an Opening Day job to begin with and pitched his way to Triple-A just 15 days ago, and Phil Dumatrait, a 29-year-old journeyman owning a 6.95 ERA in 113 innings. And three of his five right-handed options are Alex Burnett and Anthony Swarzak, who shouldn't be trusted in anything close to an important spot, and Kevin Slowey, a career-long starter struggling to adjust to relief work.

At this point the seven-man bullpen consists of one mediocre closer, one formerly great closer coming back from elbow surgery, one mid-rotation starter not well suited for relieving, and four guys who should be at Triple-A. There's no "risk" to losing replacement-level arms like Hughes, Dumatrait, and Eric Hacker on waivers, but the Twins predictably avoid 40-man changes and no one in Rochester's bullpen besides James is pitching well enough to really force the issue.

Heading into the season the Twins' two biggest non-injury question marks were the bullpen and middle infield, as guys like me wondered all offseason why they did so little to address the lack of depth in both areas. Injuries have magnified that lack of depth while also wrecking the Twins in other areas, but through 45 games they rank dead last among AL teams in bullpen ERA and middle infield OPS. Sometimes big question marks turn into big problems.

• As expected, after yesterday's game the Twins activated Jim Thome and Jason Repko from the disabled list and sent Luke Hughes and Ben Revere back to Triple-A. Matt Tolbert sticks around instead of Hughes for the same reason he beat out Hughes for an Opening Day roster spot, which is his ability to play shortstop. Hughes struggled in his first extended taste of the majors, hitting .211/.253/.296 with a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 75 plate appearances.

Revere was on the roster for 17 games, but started just six times and made his lone start in center field yesterday afternoon, misplaying a double into a triple ahead of what proved to be the game-winning run for Arizona. Revere also hauled in a fantastic over-the-shoulder catch in the same inning and made several impressive grabs while playing left field, but his lack of arm strength and limited offensive potential were both on full display.

Gardenhire hinted that he may have pushed the front office to keep Revere instead of bringing back Repko, saying he "really enjoyed Ben" and "told Billy [Smith] ... Rep hasn't swung the bat great down there." Repko "hasn't swung the bat great" anywhere, really, and the fact that he's a right-handed hitter backing up the left-handed-hitting Denard Span and Jason Kubel is rendered nearly meaningless by Gardenhire's refusal to platoon anyone.

Because he rarely starts, even versus lefties, Repko's main duties are coming in as a defensive replacement and pinch-running, both of which Revere could handle. Of course, it doesn't make much sense to keep Revere in the majors as a bench player and with Thome returning to the lineup the outfield playing time will be even harder to come by. Repko is very expendable, but Revere will benefit more from starting at Triple-A than sitting on the Twins' bench.

• I've written plenty about how closing is a role rather than a skill and about how closers are made rather than born. Matt Capps showing that the "proven closer" label is silly while Wilson Ramos thrives with the Nationals has brought the topic to the forefront, but posting the Rick Aguilera installment of my ongoing "Top 40 Minnesota Twins" series caused me to think about the issue in terms of Twins history.

Prior to becoming the Twins' all-time leader in saves Aguilera wasn't a closer. In fact, he didn't even want to be a reliever. Yet the Twins thought he had the raw stuff for the job and gave him a role he'd never filled before rather than give up assets to acquire an experienced closer. Nathan joins Aguilera as the only pitchers with more than 150 saves in a Minnesota uniform, yet when the Twins acquired him from the Giants he was a 29-year-old with one career save.

Eddie Guardado has the third-most saves in Twins history, but he was given the job almost by default in mid-2001 and at the time had a grand total of 18 career saves in eight seasons. Not every successful Twins closer lacked prior experience, as Ron Perranoski and Jeff Reardon racked up saves elsewhere before arriving in Minnesota. And not every good reliever pans out at closer, as Guardado only got his chance to close after LaTroy Hawkins flopped in the role.

Players can sink or swim at closer just like every other role, but logic, history, and specifically Twins history all show that paying a premium for experience accumulating saves is misguided. Judging from the bullpen's current state the Twins may have to go outside the organization for their next closer, but my hope is that they learn a lesson from Ramos-for-Capps and focus on ability instead of previous save totals. Aim for the next Aguilera or Nathan, not the next Capps.

• During his weekly radio show on 1500-ESPN yesterday Gardenhire explained that the plan is for Joe Mauer's first game action since April 12 to come today or tomorrow at extended spring training. That doesn't necessarily mean Mauer is close to returning from the DL, as he'll likely start out as a designated hitter and work his way back into playing shape, but at least there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Tsuyoshi Nishioka may also get into a game there this week.

Justin Morneau revealed that he got cortisone injections for neck and shoulder pain on May 12. Obviously after missing nine months with a concussion Morneau had enough on his plate without new health problems, but those injuries perhaps help explain his early struggles and altered hitting mechanics. His season totals are still ugly, but since getting the shots Morneau is 12-for-40 (.300) with one homer and three doubles.

• Each season when the Twins travel to National League ballparks for interleague games Dick Bremer asks Bert Blyleven about his career batting average and the FSN announcing crew jokes about his hitting. Blyleven hit more or less like most pitchers do, batting .131 with a .290 OPS in 514 career plate appearances. So far this year Drew Butera is hitting .110 with a .288 OPS in 85 plate appearances. Not quite as funny without the Hall of Fame pitching attached.

• I've seen some confusion about whether Michael Cuddyer has the ability to veto trades as a 10-and-5 player. That requires 10 full seasons of MLB service time, including five seasons with the same team. Cuddyer has the latter and this is his 11th year in the majors, but they aren't full seasons. He got merely a September call-up in 2001 and spent much of 2002 and 2003 in the minors, totaling just 76 games with the Twins in those two seasons. He can be traded.

• Perkins' injury left the Twins in a bind Saturday and put Capps into a two-inning save chance that he blew before recording two outs, but Edward Thoma of the Mankato Free Press explains why Gardenhire not making a double-switch while playing under NL rules cost the Twins twice.

Tom Brunansky's son, Terry Ryan's son, Mickey Hatcher's nephew, and Tyler Robertson's brother are among the 2011 draft prospects with relatives in baseball.

• Between the injuries and bullpen shuffling the Twins have already used 36 different players through 45 games. In the previous five seasons they used 42, 42, 40, 42, and 39 players, and that includes September call-ups.

• Since winning two of three games from the first-place Indians in mid-April the Twins are 6-18, with a pair of three-game winning streaks surrounded by losing streaks of nine, six, and now three games. Overall they're 15-30, which is the worst record in baseball and puts the Twins on pace to go 54-108 for the worst record in team history. Their current winning percentage is .333 and the only sub-.400 seasons so far (1981, 1982, 1995, 1999) were all above .370.

May 9, 2011

Promotions, demotions, and disabled list stints

Catching up on the Twins' recent roster moves ...

Alexi Casilla's ill-conceived reign as the Twins' starting shortstop lasted all of a month, as he played his way out of the job by hitting just .190/.257/.286 with predictably spotty defense at a position where he lacked both the skills and experience to succeed. Trevor Plouffe has now taken over at shortstop, earning a call-up by shaking off a dreadful spring training to start well at Triple-A. That leaves Casilla as the primary second baseman, with Ron Gardenhire saying:

I talked with Alexi about it. I asked him about second base and he said it's easier. We'll see if it's easier. I know he's always more comfortable over there too. I think he's trying to do a whole heck of a lot. At second base maybe he'll be able to relax a little bit more and not rush things.

Casilla needing to relax and get comfortable has been repeated like a manta since his debut in 2006, along with talk of supposed upside. At this point, however, it might be time to conclude that Casilla just isn't very good. He'll be 27 years old in July and has 1,200 plate appearances in the majors, so Casilla is neither young nor inexperienced. Defensively he's overmatched at shortstop and merely decent at second base, and he's a career .244/.301/.321 hitter.

Even his best raw tools more often than not go to waste. Casilla has a strong arm, but the big windup and shaky accuracy mean he can't be counted on to make routine plays. He has great speed and is a remarkably efficient base-stealer, yet has a grand total of just 37 steals in 338 games. Casilla is out of minor-league options and can't be sent to Triple-A without first passing through waivers, but the risk of losing him should no longer be part of the decision-making.

• There's no immediate reason to cut bait on Casilla, but if Plouffe is performing well enough to keep a starting job by the time Tsuyoshi Nishioka is ready to return from his fractured fibula in a couple weeks keeping Casilla around would likely mean demoting Matt Tolbert to Triple-A or reducing the pitching staff from 12 to 11. It's difficult to imagine Ron Gardenhire being in favor of either option, so Casilla may truly be playing for his Twins future right now.

Of course, Plouffe having a strong grip on the job in 2-3 weeks is hardly assured. According to Gardenhire the coaching staff at Rochester praised Plouffe's defense and he hit .282/.344/.590 in 21 games there, but that brings his career mark at Triple-A up to just .255/.306/.430 in 307 games and his shortstop defense received mixed reviews long before the error-filled showing this spring. He ranked 32nd on my list of the Twins' top prospects coming into the season.

Plouffe's flaws may be different and less familiar than Casilla's flaws, but aren't necessarily any less abundant and a 25-year-old with a non-elite glove and .306 on-base percentage in 1,300 plate appearances at Triple-A isn't significantly more likely to impress as an everyday shortstop than Casilla or Tolbert. Plouffe is worth a look at shortstop and so is Nishioka once he returns, but this may not be a problem that can be solved by shuffling a deck full of the same cards.

• On the other hand, injuries to Delmon Young and Jim Thome forced the Twins to call up Ben Revere and Rene Tosoni, both of whom project as more likely long-term starters than Plouffe. Tosoni got the nod with Young out by virtue of his better start at Triple-A, but then Revere was called up anyway once Thome and Jason Repko went on the shelf last week and now they're splitting time in left field despite the two left-handed hitters not forming a natural platoon.

Thome, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer are impending free agents, so it's possible Revere and Tosoni will be two-thirds of the starting outfield next season along with Denard Span. For now they're just keeping the roster spots warm with Young seemingly close to returning and both Thome and Repko also due back before the end of the month. Revere seems more likely to stick once Young returns because he fills Repko's role as the backup center fielder.

• When the Twins claimed Dusty Hughes off waivers from the Royals in January they talked up his nice-looking ERA and the fact that left-handed hitters like Mauer and Span raved about his stuff after facing him. Ignored in all that were mediocre secondary numbers last season and an underwhelming track record in the minors, and sure enough Hughes was demoted to Triple-A after posting a 10.13 ERA in 12 appearances while opponents batted .356/.434/.622 off him.

Meanwhile, the player dropped from the 40-man roster to make room for Hughes three months ago, Rob Delaney, was called up by the Rays yesterday after posting a 1.50 ERA and 19-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 innings at Triple-A. Delaney won't necessarily stick in Tampa Bay and Hughes might thrive if given another shot in Minnesota, but so far the reliever swap based on ERA and hitter reviews rather than secondary stats and track records looks like a mistake.

• Last month when Joe Mauer was placed on the disabled list the Twins called up Steve Holm from Triple-A to serve as Drew Butera's backup and Gardenhire said things like "he can swing it" and "we liked him in spring training." Holm's track record said otherwise, as the 31-year-old career minor leaguer had hit just .250/.334/.379 at Triple-A. Holm predictably struggled, going 2-for-17 at the plate and 0-for-5 throwing out runners before being demoted back to Triple-A.

Holm is the definition of a replacement-level catcher, so there's no reason to fault the Twins for dropping him, but the process by which he so quickly fell out of favor is curious given that the Rochester call-up taking his job, Rene Rivera, is every bit as much a replacement-level catcher with a decade in the minors and an even less impressive track record. Why make that switch just weeks after calling up Holm over Rivera in the first place? Here's what Gardenhire said:

Just trying to mix it up. Don't want to sit here and get complacent. I hope these guys understand we're not afraid to move people around. It's just a change. Holm hadn't been swinging great. They told me Rivera was hitting balls right on the button. Terry Ryan had been watching him the last few days. He can run into a ball, and we need somebody who can run into the ball.

Presumably the Twins scouted both players before signing them as free agents this winter and then formed further opinions about them during spring training. Last month that meant calling up Holm over Rivera, yet three weeks and just 18 plate appearances later they reversed that decision because Holm "hadn't been swinging great" and Gardenhire got a report that Rivera "was hitting balls right on the button." Sounds a lot like his quotes about Holm last month.

Terry Ryan must have watched Rivera on a rare good day, because he hit just .200/.250/.333 at Rochester before the call-up. Beyond that, the notion that Rivera "can run into a ball and we need somebody who can run into the ball" is being awfully kind to a career .245 hitter with a .405 slugging percentage in parts of seven years at Triple-A. Decisions don't get less important than "Holm or Rivera?" but the decision-making process in this case fascinates me.

• As if that wasn't already too much talk about replacement-level backup catchers ... When the Holm-for-Rivera swap was announced quite a few people e-mailed and tweeted me wondering why 2007 eighth-round pick Danny Lehmann didn't get the nod instead. My assumption is that those people looked at his .325 batting average in a dozen games this season rather than his ugly .239/.318/.312 career line in five seasons. Lehmann is homegrown, but that's about it.

Francisco Liriano's no-hitter obviously quieted Gardenhire's talk of Kevin Slowey coming off the disabled list to replace him in the rotation, so instead Slowey rejoined the bullpen with a start-length relief outing after Saturday's rain delay. Slowey began the season in a secondary setup role, but with the bullpen hierarchy changing dramatically in the month he missed it'll be interesting to see if he reclaims the high-leverage role that he's capable of thriving in.

April 25, 2011

Nevermind, I’ll find someone like you

Catching up with old friends in new places ...

Matt Guerrier signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers and got off to a great start in Los Angeles with 11 straight scoreless innings before coughing up five runs Saturday. Guerrier has filled largely the same role with the Dodgers that he did with the Twins, working the seventh and eighth innings setting up closer Jonathan Broxton while recording more than three outs in five of his first 10 appearances.

Brian Fuentes has been filling in for the injured Andrew Bailey as the A's closer, converting six of seven save chances with a 4.09 ERA and 10-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 innings. He was unable to find a full-time closing opportunity as a free agent and settled for a two-year, $10.5 million deal at age 35. Bailey is due back early next month, at which point Fuentes will slide into a setup role alongside former Twin and original AG.com favorite, Grant Balfour.

Jon Rauch also stumbled into a brief stint filling in as Toronto's closer with Frank Francisco sidelined to begin the season. Just as he did for the Twins last year Rauch did a perfectly solid job in the role, converting all three save chances before Francico returned 18 games in, and he has a 2.25 ERA and 6-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine innings overall. Dating back to last year Rauch has converted 24-of-28 saves with a 2.98 ERA and 52/18 K/BB ratio in 66 innings.

• Obviously the three-year, $13 million contract helped, but Jesse Crain also talked about the opportunity to be in the mix for saves as one of the reasons for signing with the White Sox. Chicago's bullpen has been a mess, with closer Matt Thornton blowing four saves already and manager Ozzie Guillen trying all kinds of different combinations late, but Crain has yet to get a crack at closing duties despite a 1.93 ERA and 11-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine innings.

Orlando Hudson got off to strong start in San Diego while oddly batting third in the Padres' lineup, but a recent slump has knocked his overall line down to .229/.349/.271 in 21 games. Of course, even that .620 OPS is still much higher than the Twins have gotten from Alexi Casilla (.485), Matt Tolbert (.469), Luke Hughes (.448), and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (.519) in the middle infield and Hudson is playing half his games in the majors' most pitcher-friendly ballpark.

• I didn't like the Twins' decision to trade J.J. Hardy after he was above par offensively among shortstops and outstanding defensively in the 101 games he was healthy enough to be in the lineup, but they have to be smiling after he lasted just six games with the Orioles before being placed on the disabled list. Hardy is out until mid-May with a strained oblique and one of the two minor-league relievers the Twins got for him, Jim Hoey, has been thrust into a setup role.

Brendan Harris was also traded to Baltimore in the Hardy swap or more accurately dumping $1.25 million of his $1.75 million salary on the Orioles was part of the Twins' side of the deal. No one will ever be able to explain why the Twins handed Harris a two-year, $3.2 million deal last January, but after spending most of last season at Triple-A he failed to make the Orioles out of spring training and is once again struggling in the International League.

Wilson Ramos has overtaken Ivan Rodriguez as Washington's starting catcher and all of a sudden articles have popped up explaining how the Twins don't regret trading a 22-year-old top catching prospect for the right to pay $10 million for one-and-a-half years of Matt Capps. I'm sure the timing is purely coincidental. Ramos is hitting .351 with surprisingly decent plate discipline early on, giving him a .302/.347/.414 career line through 34 games.

Dealt for Single-A reliever Paul Bargas in December after the Twins settled on Drew Butera as their preferred backup catcher, Jose Morales is now backing up Chris Iannetta in Colorado and playing sparingly in the early going. He owns a career line of .295/.374/.358 in 81 games, but the Twins never trusted his glove. Bargas unfortunately has been hospitalized due to a neurological condition, with general manager Bill Smith describing him as "very sick."

Nick Punto's one-year, $750,000 contract with St. Louis got off to a rough start when he underwent hernia surgery within days of reporting to spring training, but he's healthy now and already starting regularly in place of injured second baseman Skip Schumaker. I thought the Twins should have re-signed Punto as long as the money was no more than $1 million and the projected role was minor. For all his faults, he'd be their best middle infielder right now.

Pat Neshek not only won a spot in the Padres' bullpen out of spring training after being lost on waivers for nothing by the Twins, he threw eight innings with a 2.25 ERA and .222 batting average against. However, while I'm happy to see Neshek doing well and didn't understand cutting him loose, his 7-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio is anything but impressive, his average fastball has clocked in at just 85.6 miles per hour, and now he's been optioned to Triple-A.

• Traded to the Braves for Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond last month in one of the most confusing Twins moves in a long time, Billy Bullock has struggled at Double-A with a 12.15 ERA through 6.2 innings. He thrived at Double-A in the second half of last season, but his shaky control has been a big problem with six walks. Diamond, meanwhile, has a 3.48 ERA and 13-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three starts at Rochester.

Rob Delaney was lost on waivers to Tampa Bay in late January when they Twins dropped him from the 40-man roster to make room for Dusty Hughes. Delaney failed to make the Rays out of spring training, but has a 2.45 ERA and 14-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 innings at Triple-A and will likely get a chance in Tampa Bay at some point this season. Hughes has been a mess so far, living up to his mediocre track record by allowing seven runs in seven innings.

Ron Mahay left the Twins as a free agent, signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers only to be released in the final week of spring training, and has latched on with the Diamondbacks at Triple-A, continuing a career-long pattern of having to prove himself anew seemingly every season despite consistently solid numbers. He might finally just be out of gas at age 40, but Mahay has a career ERA of 3.83 that includes a 3.49 mark in the previous five seasons.

Dennys Reyes beat out Hideki Okajima for the left-handed specialist role in the Red Sox's bullpen coming out of spring training, turning a minor-league deal into $900,000 in guaranteed money, and then got demoted to Triple-A one week into the season after four shaky outings. Reyes cleared waivers and accepted an assignment to Pawtucket, but the $900,000 salary is locked in whether "Big Sweat" gets called back up to Boston or not.

Yohan Pino, a right-hander the Twins swapped to the Indians for Carl Pavano in mid-2009, was traded to the Blue Jays last week for cash considerations. Pino was a mid-level prospect when the Twins dealt him, posting standout numbers in the minors despite mediocre raw stuff, and now he's organizational filler at age 28. Pavano was an impending free agent back then, but went on to re-sign with the Twins twice and has a 4.09 ERA in 326 innings since the trade.

March 28, 2011

Twins set 25-man roster, name Nathan closer, send Hughes to Triple-A

Things could change before April 1, but yesterday the Twins set the 25-man roster by sending Luke Hughes and Jim Hoey to Triple-A. That means Matt Tolbert beat Hughes for the utility man job and Jeff Manship beat Hoey for the final bullpen spot, with Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond still in roster limbo. Rule 5 picks must be offered back to their original teams if not kept in the majors all year, but the Twins are trying to avoid that by working out a trade with the Braves.

In the meantime, here's what the Opening Day roster looks like barring a last-minute change:

LINEUP:                            ROTATION:
C  Joe Mauer                       SP Carl Pavano
1B Justin Morneau                  SP Francisco Liriano
2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka               SP Nick Blackburn
SS Alexi Casilla                   SP Scott Baker
3B Danny Valencia                  SP Brian Duensing
LF Delmon Young
CF Denard Span                     BULLPEN:
RF Michael Cuddyer                 CL Joe Nathan
DH Jason Kubel                     SU Matt Capps
                                   SU Jose Mijares
BENCH:                             RH Kevin Slowey
C  Drew Butera                     RH Jeff Manship
IF Matt Tolbert                    LH Glen Perkins
OF Jason Repko                     LH Dusty Hughes
DH Jim Thome

Hughes homered six times and slugged .569 in 65 at-bats this spring, but he also hit .246 with a .265 on-base percentage and 17-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And despite Ron Gardenhire saying last week that the ability to play shortstop would not be the deciding factor in the utility man competition, general manager Bill Smith cited Tolbert's ability to play shortstop as one of the reasons he got the job over Hughes, saying: "We need a shortstop."

With a 12-man pitching staff Tolbert or Hughes was the only decision to make on the position player side once Trevor Plouffe played his way out of the mix, but multiple bullpen spots were up for grabs. In theory at least. Joe Nathan, Matt Capps, Jose Mijares, and the sixth starter (Kevin Slowey) were always locks, and very early on it seemed pretty clear that Glen Perkins and Dusty Hughes would make the team as the second and third left-handers.

That essentially left a single middle relief opening for a right-hander, with Manship, Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Carlos Gutierrez in the mix. However, neither Waldrop nor Gutierrez are on the 40-man roster and the coaching staff's familiarity with Manship gave him the upper hand over Hoey. There was certainly competition going on, but aside from carrying Hughes as a third lefty and dumping Pat Neshek this is the 25-man roster I'd have predicted entering spring training.

Nathan reclamining his old closer role was equally predictable as long as he avoided any major setbacks returning from Tommy John elbow surgery and sure enough Gardenhire made that all but official yesterday during an interview on 1500-ESPN, saying:

I would imagine we'll start out probably something like that. We like what he's doing. I think the big thing is to see how he does early in the season and go from there. We're going to use them both right away. I just don't think Nathan is ready to go three-four days in a row.

At no point did Nathan report any physical problems and he allowed zero runs in six of eight appearances, but an ugly outing last week caused him to end the spring with a bloated 11.05 ERA overall and his velocity is still lagging behind where it was pre-surgery. Ultimately though, unless the Twins were going to start Nathan off in a low-leverage role or on the disabled list there isn't a huge difference between pitching the eighth inning and pitching the ninth inning.

In most tight games the closer and primary setup man are both going to make an appearance anyway and both roles almost always involve starting an inning fresh and being asked to get three outs, so if the Twins believe Nathan is ready for a late-inning role they might as well just give him ninth-inning duties. Whether he's actually ready for a late-inning role is up for debate, of course, and plenty of people who watched him in Fort Myers were skeptical.

I'm curious to see how Dusty Hughes fares after the Twins used a 40-man roster spot to claim him off waivers in January and quickly made it pretty obvious that he'd crack the Opening Day bullpen. His being let go by the Royals doesn't necessarily mean anything, since they've made plenty of awful decisions with the major-league roster recently, but there's really nothing in his multi-year track record to suggest Hughes is much more than a replacement-level reliever.

Beyond that, Hughes doesn't even seem particularly well-suited for the left-handed specialist role that he'll likely fill as long as Mijares is the main southpaw setup man. Through his first 70 career innings Hughes has a poor 20-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio versus lefties and they've hit .261 off him, albeit with minimal power. Perkins is an even worse fit for the lefty specialist role, as he's actually been better against righties (.801 OPS) than against lefties (.840 OPS).

Assuming that he can rediscover something resembling his old effectiveness a healthy Nathan combined with Capps from the right side and Mijares from the left side is potentially a strong late-inning trio and I'm relatively optimistic about Slowey as a bullpen asset, but Hughes and Perkins trying to shut down big left-handed bats in the middle innings scares me and so far at least Manship looks more like the next Brian Bass than the next Matt Guerrier.

Nathan's setback-free spring training and Slowey's switch have me slightly less worried about the bullpen now than six weeks ago, but Nathan remains a big question mark and there could be enough middle relief ugliness to cause some early changes. Hoey, Waldrop, Gutierrez, Alex Burnett, and Anthony Slama give the Twins plenty of right-handed reinforcements at Triple-A and lefty Chuck James could emerge as an interesting alternative to Perkins or Hughes.

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