June 21, 2012

Twins Notes: Liriano, Benson, Rosario, Slama, Bard, Doyle, and Marquis

Francisco Liriano had a 9.45 ERA, .346 opponents' average, and 21-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings over six starts when the Twins demoted him to the bullpen in May. Since rejoining the rotation he has a 2.67 ERA, .155 opponents' average, and 35-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 innings over five starts. It's hard to imagine the Twins re-signing the impending free agent, in which case he has another half-dozen starts to build trade value.

• As if the Twins' farm system wasn't weak enough already now four of their top 10 prospects in my preseason rankings are on the minor-league disabled list. No. 7 prospect Kyle Gibson is still making his way back from last year's Tommy John surgery, No. 9 prospect Alex Wimmers is trying to rehab an elbow injury of his own to avoid the same fate, and now No. 2 prospect Joe Benson and No. 4 prospect Eddie Rosario are both sidelined for extended periods.

Benson fractured his left wrist and surgery will keep him out until mid-July. Rosario was struck in the face by a teammate's line drive and is expected to miss six weeks after surgery to insert a metal plate above his lip. Benson had already been demoted from Triple-A to Double-A and wrist problems often linger, so his injury is the bigger long-term concern. Rosario's injury is also a shame, because it sounds gruesome and he was hitting .293/.363/.473 at low Single-A.

• Sadly the "Free Anthony Slama" movement has been put on ice, and not because the Twins finally called him up after years of dominating in the minors. Slama is slated to miss six weeks after a line drive broke his leg, potentially ending his season with a 0.40 ERA, .175 opponents' average, and 37-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 innings at Triple-A. He'll be 29 years old before next season and has a 2.24 ERA with 172 strikeouts in 141 career Triple-A innings.

• No. 42 pick Luke Bard was the last remaining holdout among the Twins' top 11 draft picks and the Georgia Tech right-hander agreed to a deal yesterday, meaning just two weeks after the draft they've signed every player selected within the first 250 overall picks. No. 2 pick Byron Buxton is expected to make his rookie-ball debut within a week, so the earlier signing deadline as part of the new collective bargaining agreement has worked well for the Twins.

Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that in preparing scenarios for the No. 2 pick the Twins narrowed their list to Buxton, Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and Kyle Zimmer. Most pre-draft speculation had them choosing whichever one of Buxton or Appel didn't go No. 1, but in reading between the lines it seems like they were set to take Correa if the Astros had taken Buxton. And there was lots of organizational disagreement about the best player.

• In examining the Twins' draft it was obvious that they went out of their way to get power arms, even if they came in the less-than-ideal form of college relievers. Sure enough vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff admitted that was the plan going in, saying: "Pitchability and playability, maybe we overemphasized that. Maybe we emphasized that for too long. It added up. This year, we went for the more presentable qualities."

• Going into the draft Mitch Brown seemed destined for the Twins, as they had six picks in the top 100 and the local right-hander from Rochester Century high school was regarded as a consensus top-100 player. General manager Terry Ryan even scouted him in person multiple times, but then the Twins passed on him at 32, 42, 63, and 72. Brown wound up with the Indians at 79 and signed for an above-slot bonus of $800,000.

• They also repeatedly passed on Gophers right-hander T.J. Oakes, who was selected by the Rockies in the 11th round and signed for $100,000. Oakes is considered a marginal prospect, placing 292nd in Baseball America's pre-draft rankings, but the Twins liked the 6-foot-5 starter enough to draft him in the 41st round last year as a sophomore and have a history of picking Gophers. Oakes had a 2.31 ERA and 78-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 97 innings as a junior.

Released by the Twins with an 8.47 ERA and more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) in seven starts, Jason Marquis signed a minor-league deal with the Padres and made one Double-A start before returning to the majors. Marquis and his agent were smart to choose an NL team with MLB's most-pitcher friendly park, but this is crazy: Through three starts he has a 1.86 ERA and 20/8 K/BB ratio in 19 innings, including his first double-digit strikeout game since 2001.

• Waiver claim Erik Komatsu became expendable once the Twins decided to recall Ben Revere from Triple-A a month ago, so the Rule 5 pick was designated for assignment and predictably the Nationals accepted his return. Komatsu had more upside than the guy he replaced as fourth outfielder, Clete Thomas, but there wasn't much fit for him on a roster that includes both Revere and Denard Span. He's back at Triple-A for the Nationals.

• Speaking of the Rule 5 draft, Terry Doyle is headed to Japan after the Twins selected him with the No. 2 pick only to send him back to the White Sox in spring training. Doyle rejoined the White Sox at Triple-A with a 2.83 ERA and 71-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76 innings, including a near no-hitter against Rochester, but they agreed to release the 26-year-old right-hander so he could sign with a Japanese team. A fitting end to an all-around weird story.

Phil Dumatrait, who was pitching in Rochester's bullpen after spending much of last season with the Twins, announced his retirement at age 30. He spent parts of 10 years in the minors and finishes with a 6.20 ERA in 151 career innings as a big leaguer, but the 2000 first-round pick had enough smoke and mirrors to post a 3.92 ERA in 45 appearances for the Twins last season despite an ugly 29-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 innings.

Kevin Mulvey also called it quits, becoming the first player from the Johan Santana trade to retire. At the time of the Santana deal Mulvey was 23 years old and the former second-round pick looked like a potential mid-rotation starter who was billed as close to MLB-ready, but he posted a 7.90 ERA in 27 innings as a big leaguer. He was a bust, but the Twins managed to get some value out of Mulvey by trading him to the Diamondbacks for Jon Rauch in mid-2009.

Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors crunched the numbers on every team's payroll commitments for next season and the Twins have the 13th-most money already spent at $65 million. This year's payroll is around $94 million, which represents a 17 percent drop from last year's $113 million.

Trevor Plouffe isn't the only Twins hitter putting up big numbers since May 15. Through that date the Twins' lineup scored an average of just 3.3 runs in 36 games, but in 31 games since then they've averaged 5.2 runs.

Alex Burnett has a great-looking 2.16 ERA, but he's gotten it done with a ton of smoke and mirrors while posting a horrid 13-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 innings. Burnett's strikeouts per nine innings have plummeted from 7.0 in 2010 to 5.9 in 2011 to 3.5 this season, which is the lowest mark by any reliever in baseball.

Jim Thome has hit .315 with 61 homers and a .640 slugging percentage in 194 career games against the Twins. He hit .266 with 37 homers and a .562 slugging percentage in 179 games for the Twins, producing the highest Isolated Power in team history.

Paul Konerko (.431) and Joe Mauer (.415) are the only hitters in the American League with an on-base percentage above .400.

Justin Morneau is hitting .310 with a .595 slugging percentage against right-handers and .091 with a .197 slugging percentage against left-handers.

Lew Ford, who last played in the majors for the Twins in 2007 and is now 35 years old, has hit .383/.450/.626 with five homers and four steals in 28 games at Triple-A for the Orioles.

John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com took a trip to Beloit to see the Twins' low Single-A team and had some interesting thoughts on a variety of prospects, including a pre-injury Rosario.

• ESPN.com ranked the 25 best single-game performances in postseason history and two of the top three spots belong to Twins.

• I was a guest on the Bucs Dugout podcast, talking about the Twins and my decade blogging about them with host Charlie Wilmoth.

• And if you haven't listened to this week's Gleeman and The Geek episode yet, the show was a good one as my guest co-hosts Parker Hageman and Joe Nelson subbed for Wally Pipp.

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May 8, 2012

Morneau’s latest injury leads to Dozier’s arrival and roster shakeup

Justin Morneau exited last Monday's game with soreness in his surgically repaired left wrist, immediately flying from California to Minnesota to be examined by team doctors and admitting that the injury had been bothering him for several days. At the time I wondered why the Twins wouldn't just put him on the disabled list for two weeks if the situation was serious enough for a cross-country flight and an MRI exam for a chronically injured player.

Instead, as they've done far too many times with far too many injured players during the past few seasons, they kept Morneau on the active roster for a week despite his being unavailable to actually play and then, only after completing an entire West Coast road trip with a one- or two-man bench, finally put him on the DL. Sadly when it comes to both Morneau's health and the Twins' handling of injuries, it turns out not much has changed.

When the Twins finally decided to shut down Morneau it set in motion a series of moves that reshaped the roster following an MLB-worst 7-20 start. Brian Dozier was called up from Triple-A and handed the starting job at shortstop, shifting Jamey Carroll into a utility man role that will also involve pushing second baseman Alexi Casilla and third baseman Danny Valencia for playing time.

Scott Diamond joined Dozier in being promoted from Triple-A and will step into the rotation for Liam Hendriks, who allowed 18 runs in 18 innings replacing the injured Scott Baker. And then just for good measure the Twins swapped backup outfielders too, designating Clete Thomas for assignment three weeks after claiming him off waivers from the Tigers and replacing him by claiming Erik Komatsu off waivers from the Cardinals.

Dozier arrives with inflated expectations thanks to assorted fans who don't know any better and media members who should know better touting him as a top prospect. In reality Dozier is 25 years old with limited upside and was at Single-A as of the middle of last season. He can certainly be a valuable player and ranked 10th on my annual list of Twins prospects coming into the season, but he hit just .276/.339/.371 in 28 games at Triple-A before the call-up.

There are also plenty of questions about Dozier's defense, with many prospect analysts believing he's better suited for second base than shortstop. Ron Gardenhire has been publicly clamoring for Dozier since last season, so it's not surprising that the manager would anoint him the starting shortstop upon arrival, but it's worth noting that Carroll was perfectly solid defensively even if he wasn't hitting.

Whenever a 38-year-old hits .208 through 27 games it's natural to wonder if he's simply washed up, particularly since Carroll was never exactly a star-caliber player to begin with, but drawing 13 walks with just 14 strikeouts in 116 plate appearances are positive signs at the plate and while he's in no danger of reminding anyone of Ozzie Smith range-wise his defense was hardly a major weakness at shortstop.

By signing Carroll to a two-year, $6.5 million contract the Twins committed to him as more than just a short-term stop gap, as he's both in their plans for next season and being paid way too much for a typical backup role. In other words, expect to see Carroll in the lineup plenty even if Dozier sticks at shortstop and expect to see plenty of speculation about the Twins parting ways with Casilla and/or Valencia in the near future.

Hendriks' struggles are more a confirmation that he wasn't ready to thrive in the majors than an indictment of his future value. He remains a potential mid-rotation starter, perhaps as soon as later this season, but at 23 years old and with just nine starts at Triple-A pushing him to the big leagues was always an iffy idea. Diamond is 25 and a lesser prospect with 39 starts at Triple-A, so turning to him while giving Hendriks a chance to develop further makes sense.

Last year the Twins selected Diamond in the Rule 5 draft, decided they couldn't keep him in the majors all season, and traded former second-round pick Billy Bullock to the Braves for the ability to stash him in the minors. That move made no sense to me at the time and was even weirder when they called up Diamond in July anyway. He didn't pitch well at Triple-A last year and struggled in seven starts for the Twins, but did some nice work in Rochester this season.

Diamond was my 35th-ranked Twins prospect coming into the season and projects as a potential back-of-the-rotation starter who'll hopefully make up for modest velocity and poor strikeout totals by inducing lots of ground balls. He posted a 2.60 ERA and 26-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35 innings for Rochester before the call-up, but that only improved his career Triple-A numbers to a 4.50 ERA with just 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

Three weeks ago the Twins claimed Thomas off waivers from the Tigers because they decided he was much better suited for a little-used bench role than Ben Revere, who at 24 years old deserved a chance to continue developing by playing regularly at Triple-A. Thomas homered in his second at-bat for the Twins and they proceeded to give him more starts than Revere was getting, but when he followed the homer by going 3-for-26 with 16 strikeouts they cut bait.

Thomas isn't as bad as he looked for the Twins, mostly because it's nearly impossible to actually be that bad, but as I noted at the time of the waiver claim he's a 28-year-old with a mediocre track record in the minors and majors who rates as essentially a replacement-level outfielder. In designating Thomas for assignment they removed him from the 40-man roster and exposed him to waivers again, assigning him to Rochester after he went unclaimed.

They filled his spot by claiming Komatsu, who's now with his fourth team in 10 months after the Nationals acquired him from the Brewers for Jerry Hairston last July only to lose him in the Rule 5 draft when they opted not to protect him with a 40-man roster spot. Rule 5 picks must remain in the majors all season or be offered back to their original team, which means the Twins won't be able to send Komatsu to the minors if they sour on him like they did Thomas.

It's also worth noting that the Twins picked second in the Rule 5 draft and passed on Komatsu to select Terry Doyle, whom they returned to the White Sox. None of which means Komatsu isn't a useful player. He lacks Thomas' power, but is four years younger with much better plate discipline. Because he skipped Triple-A it's tough to get a feel for Komatsu's readiness, but he plays all three outfield spots and hit .302 with a .389 on-base percentage in the minors.

Much of that was in the low minors and isn't particularly relevant now, but Komatsu spent all of last season at Double-A as a 23-year-old and hit .277/.367/.382 with 21 steals and nearly as many walks (64) as strikeouts (66). Commanding the strike zone that well is impressive for a hitter with just seven homers in 124 games, as pitchers certainly weren't afraid to throw him strikes. He doesn't project as a regular, but Komatsu's skill set fits the backup outfielder role.

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