October 25, 2012

Twins Notes: 40-man cuts, declining Capps, Baker talks, and 25 years ago

Yesterday in this space I listed 11 marginal players the Twins could designate for assignment to create space on the 40-man roster heading into the offseason and by the afternoon they'd done just that, dropping all but four of those players from the roster. Carlos Gutierrez was claimed off waivers by the Cubs while Jeff Manship, Luis Perdomo, Esmerling Vasquez, Kyle Waldrop, P.J. Walters, and Matt Carson all passed through waivers unclaimed.

Gutierrez was the 27th overall pick in the 2008 draft out of the University of Miami and for years was touted as a late-inning bullpen option, but he never actually pitched well beyond Single-A. He got ground balls with his sinker, but Gutierrez was basically a one-pitch reliever with poor control. He posted a 4.90 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A while managing just 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings and is currently recovering from shoulder surgery at age 26.

Manship once looked like a decent prospect as a starter in the minors, but he simply couldn't miss enough bats against experienced hitters and wasn't able to add much velocity in a move to the bullpen. He could resurface as a decent middle reliever at some point, but there's little in his track record to suggest an upside beyond that and Manship is 27 years old with mediocre raw stuff and a 6.20 ERA in 85 innings as a big leaguer.

Waldrop was drafted 25th overall in 2004, which is so long ago that the Twins took him with the compensatory pick they got for losing LaTroy Hawkins as a free agent. He was drafted as a starter out of high school, but shifted to the bullpen following shoulder surgery in 2008 and spent three years at Triple-A. Waldrop throws strikes and gets tons of ground balls, but had just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings in Rochester and missed even fewer bats in Minnesota.

Perdomo, Vasquez, Walters, and Carson were each acquired by the Twins via minor-league deals or waiver claims, so cutting them loose comes as no surprise. Perdomo is the reliever the Twins decided to promote in September instead of giving Anthony Slama an opportunity to show that his consistently amazing minor-league numbers are no fluke, which was maddening then and remains so now.

• Along with trimming the 40-man roster the Twins also declined their $6 million option on Matt Capps, buying him out for $250,000 instead. That doesn't preclude them from re-signing Capps for less, but hopefully the front office can talk themselves into a clean breakup after such an odd love affair. Capps threw 122 innings for the Twins with a 3.61 ERA and 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings, which cost them Wilson Ramos, one draft pick, and $13 million.

Capps is a perfectly decent setup man when healthy, but he's always been an example of the folly behind labeling someone a "proven closer" based on save totals and then paying a premium for that meaningless label. Doing it over and over again, as the Twins did, is one of the team's most obvious fundamental mistakes in recent memory. Closers are made, not born, as Rick Aguilera, Joe Nathan, Eddie Guardado, and now Glen Perkins have shown.

• They haven't officially declined the $9 million option on Scott Baker for 2013, but that's merely a formality after he missed the entire season following Tommy John elbow surgery. Two months ago Baker said he'd like to remain in Minnesota, this week general manager Terry Ryan said the Twins are interested in keeping him around, and yesterday Darren Wolfson of 1500ESPN.com reported that the two sides are "working now on a new deal."

Baker is no sure thing to be healthy by Opening Day and had durability issues even before the surgery, but getting him signed to an incentive-laden one-year deal before free agency begins would be a nice first step toward rebuilding the rotation. Baker logged 135 innings with a 3.14 ERA and 123-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2011 and among the 144 starters with 500-plus innings since 2007 he ranks 12th in K/BB ratio, 50th in xFIP, and 52nd in ERA.

• Last but not least, on this date 25 years ago ...

Twins 4, Cardinals 2.

February 16, 2012

Twins Notes: Mastroianni, waivers, options, and avoiding arbitration

Darin Mastroianni is the Twins' latest waiver claim, as they snagged the 26-year-old outfielder after the Blue Jays designated him for assignment to make 40-man roster room for Francisco Cordero. Mastroianni is too old to be a prospect and lacks the skill set to have big upside, but he's potentially a useful role player and could be a solid fit on the Twins' roster as a right-handed hitter with speed and on-base skills who can play all three outfield spots.

Mastroianni's patience and strike-zone control are great for a player with almost zero power, as he's drawn 82 walks per 150 games in the minors despite pitchers never being afraid to throw him strikes. He managed just four homers and a measly .379 slugging percentage in 325 games between Double-A and Triple-A, but also hit .283 with a .368 on-base percentage and nearly as many walks as strikeouts while averaging 54 steals per 150 games.

Ultimately most of his value depends on defense and in asking around about Mastroianni's range I've gotten mixed reviews, which along with about half of his action last season coming as a left fielder suggests he's probably not an elite center fielder. However, even if he's merely average in center field and above average in the corners Mastroianni looks capable of being a worthwhile backup behind two lefty-swinging outfielders in Denard Span and Ben Revere.

• To make room for Mastroianni on the 40-man roster the Twins designated reliever Esmerling Vasquez for assignment after claiming him off waivers from the Diamondbacks in early October. Vasquez has a mid-90s fastball, but it comes with awful control and not surprisingly he passed through waivers unclaimed. That means the Twins were able outright him to Triple-A, keeping the 28-year-old right-hander in the organization without taking up a 40-man roster spot.

Alexi Casilla and the Twins avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $1.38 million deal. He filed for $1.75 million and they countered at $1.065 million, settling just below the midpoint. Casilla will be arbitration eligible again in 2013, but keeping him around for a decent-sized raise would be tough to justify unless he can finally stay healthy and consistently productive. He's never played 100 games in a season and is a 27-year-old career .252/.310/.327 hitter.

• MLB Trade Rumors put together a list of players on 40-man rosters with less than five years of MLB experience and no minor-league options, and the Twins' contingent is Casilla, Glen Perkins, Anthony Swarzak, Trevor Plouffe, Luke Hughes, Matt Maloney, and Jeff Gray. Perkins, Casilla, Swarzak, and Plouffe are locks to make the team and Hughes is a near-lock if the sprained shoulder he suffered playing winter ball in Australia doesn't ruin his chances.

Gray and Maloney lacking options is part of why the Twins claiming them off waivers back in October never made sense to me, with the other reason being that they simply aren't much good. Both pitchers are marginal big leaguers without any sort of real upside, so if the Twins need to trim any more players from the 40-man roster they'd seemingly be atop the list. And if not expect to see them both placed on waivers at some point between now and Opening Day.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports calculates MLB's average payroll at $98 million, which is exactly where the Twins stand after choosing not to spend $1 million on one of many decent relievers available. Obviously having an average payroll is much better than the Twins' spending during the Metrodome years, but if they're already merely average in Target Field's third year and have shed $15 million from last season's payroll falling below average soon seems inevitable.

Keith Law of ESPN.com ranked the Twins' farm system 14th among all MLB teams, pegging the strengths as "interesting high school bats and high-impact Latin American prospects."

• I answered some questions about the Twins over at Razzball.

• On this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode John Bonnes and I went through the roster for a player-by-player look at each hitter, from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau to Drew Butera and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, discussing where they each stand heading into 2012.

October 3, 2011

Twins Notes: Pohlad, payroll, surgeries, power arms, and naked parties

• During a lengthy interview with LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune owner Jim Pohlad predictably confirmed that manager Ron Gardenhire and general manager Bill Smith will be back in 2012, saying: "We're not a knee-jerk organization." When asked about holding people accountable following one of the worst years in Twins history, Pohlad cited "the perfect storm of injuries and players not performing":

We need to address how can we keep the players healthy. We need to address how can we encourage the players during the offseason to get to a point where they're going to play up to their capabilities. I'm not saying that the medical staff or the training staff has done anything wrong. I'm just saying let's look at the injuries and see how they can be prevented in the future.

Pohlad told Neal that the Twins "are very pleased with the job [Gardenhire] has done" under "very difficult conditions." He stopped short of praising Smith, saying instead that "he also has had a very tough situation" and then citing his 15 years in the organization. Neal brought up Smith saying he's more administrator than talent evaluator and asked if he's "the right man to turn things around." Pohlad initially replied with "what's Billy's title?" and then said:

General manager, so he's in charge of managing the baseball operation. I mean those are his words, like you said. I don't remember reading that, but if those are his words that's really his job, to manage the baseball department. We don't look to Billy solely--I don't know if any organization does, maybe they do at some place--we don't look solely at him as the premier judge of talent. He has a whole bunch of people that he gets input from on the judgment of talent.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Smith, but Pohlad is absolutely right that the Twins' front office decision-making involves a lot more voices than just the general manager. When asked how much money Smith and the front office will have available this offseason, Pohlad indicated that the payroll "is going to come down naturally because it exceeded where we wanted it" for this season "but it's not going to be slashed." Hmm. Check out the full interview for more.

Ben Revere, Justin Morneau, and Nick Blackburn each underwent surgeries within days of the final game. Revere's surgery was considered a minor knee "cleanup," as Neal reports that he was "seen with ice on his left knee after games" down the stretch. For a guy whose entire game is built on speed knee problems at age 23 are worrisome, but Revere never missed time and hit .368 with seven steals in his final 15 games.

Morneau underwent surgery to stabilize a tendon in the back of his left wrist, which is actually the injury that initially forced him to the disabled list in mid-June before neck surgery and more concussion issues followed. Morneau also recently had knee and foot surgeries, which means he'll be rehabbing four different operations this offseason along with trying to recover from the concussion that occurred 16 months ago. At age 30 he's clearly at a career crossroads.

Blackburn, who had elbow surgery last fall, underwent an operation to remove pressure from an entrapped nerve in his forearm as part of a radial tunnel syndrome diagnosis. He'll be in a splint for six weeks and can't throw for two months, which makes the timing curious. Blackburn hasn't pitched since August 21 and was shut down on September 4, yet waited until Friday to have the surgery. He's under contract for $4.75 million in 2012 and $5.5 million in 2013.

Denard Span appears to have avoided a major setback in his concussion recovery despite a scary looking collision with the center field wall in Game 161. Span came back too early from his concussion initially, looking lost for nine games and heading back to the disabled list with more symptoms, but he finished the season with some reason for optimism by going 5-for-18 (.278) with four extra-base hits in five games after returning on September 21.

That may not seem like much, but before stringing together those hits late Span went through a brutal 2-for-42 (.048) stretch following the concussion. Span was hitting .300/.367/.392 in 55 games before colliding with Royals catcher Brayan Pena on June 3, yet finished the year with a .264/.328/.359 mark in 70 total games. Hopefully a full winter of rest is better for Span than it was for Morneau, because there's not much the Twins can do besides wait.

Even if the Twins wanted to revisit their July trade talks with the Nationals for Span it's hard to imagine Washington general manager Mike Rizzo being comfortable enough with his status to pull the trigger. If he gets over the concussion symptoms the Twins shouldn't be willing to deal Span for a reliever--even a very good, young one like Drew Storen--and if he doesn't get over the concussion symptoms no team is going to give them anything worthwhile for him anyway.

• Dating back to the end of last year the Twins have talked about adding more "power arms" to the organization rather than continuing to stock the minors and majors with low-90s control artists. Generally speaking that's an excellent idea, but so far that plan has mostly just led to acquiring hard-throwing middle relievers with massive control problems, like getting Jim Hoey from the Orioles for J.J. Hardy and Lester Oliveros from the Tigers for Delmon Young.

Esmerling Vasquez is the latest pickup to fit that mold, as the Twins claimed the 27-year-old right-hander off waivers after he was designated for assignment by Arizona. Vasquez throws hard, averaging 93.7 miles per hour with his fastball, but has managed just 120 strikeouts in 137 innings to go along with 80 walks. And those numbers are actually great compared to his time at Triple-A, where Vasquez had more walks (97) than strikeouts (93) in 121 innings.

Vasquez has been reasonably tough to hit whenever he throws the ball over the plate and his changeup has been much more effective than his mid-90s fastball, so there's some semblance of upside to be unlocked. However, if the Twins are serious about changing the organizational approach to acquiring and developing pitchers they'll need to dig a lot deeper than plucking a few hard-throwing middle relievers with awful walk rates from other teams.

• Even with his strong finish Revere posted a .309 slugging percentage and .619 OPS in 117 games, which are both the lowest marks in Twins history from an outfielder with at least 450 plate appearances. He managed zero homers and just 14 extra-base hits in 481 trips to the plate, and two of those extra-base hits were actually outs as Revere unsuccessfully (but very excitingly) tried to turn triples into an inside-the-park homers.

Revere also stole 34 bases at a solid 79 percent clip. If you add an extra base to his hitting for each steal and erase one time on base for each unsuccessful steal his overall line morphs into .267/.291/.384. I'm not sure if that's more or less encouraging than his actual .267/.310/.309 line, but it does show that all the running didn't make up for the poor hitting. Of course, given his speed and defense Revere merely needs to be not-horrible at the plate to have nice value.

• Not surprisingly Revere led the Twins with 26 infield hits, which is a function of both his elite speed and a 68.5 percent ground-ball rate that was the highest in baseball by a wide margin. As a team the Twins also had MLB's highest ground-ball rate, yet even with Revere boosting the total they were just ninth in infield hits. On the flip side Twins pitchers allowed an AL-high 198 infield hits despite ranking 20th in ground balls, which speaks to the awful infield defense.

Carl Pavano is a prime example of why judging pitchers on their win-loss record or even ERA can be extremely misleading. Last season he went 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA and this season he went 9-13 with a 4.30 ERA. Big dropoff in his performance, right? Well, maybe not:

YEAR      IP      SO     BB     HR      GB%      FIP
2010     221     117     37     24     51.2     4.02
2011     222     102     40     23     50.6     4.10

Pavano pitched slightly worse this year because his already poor strikeout rate fell further, but most of the difference between his 2010 numbers and 2011 numbers can be traced to bad run support and the terrible infield defense behind him. Pitchers who don't miss bats are always at the mercy of their defense and it doesn't necessarily mean the Twins should be happy to have Pavano under contract for $8.5 million in 2012, but his record and ERA overstate the decline.

Rick Knapp left his job as the Twins' longtime minor-league pitching coordinator in 2008 to become the Tigers' big-league pitching coach, but was fired midway through this season. He'll stay in the AL Central, joining the Royals last week as their minor-league pitching coordinator. Knapp got a lot of credit for the Twins' strike-throwing philosophy throughout the organization, so it'll be interesting to see what he can do working with the Royals' stockpile of young arms.

• Hardy finished his first season in Baltimore with 30 home runs and an .801 OPS in 567 plate appearances (which is more than everyone on the Twins this year except Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer). In the entire history of the Twins no shortstop has hit more than 24 home runs and only Cristian Guzman in 2001 topped an .800 OPS.

• In ranking second-to-last among AL teams in scoring this season the Twins hit a combined .247/.306/.360. For comparison, Nick Punto is a career .247/.325/.327 hitter.

• One of the Twins' rare September wins apparently came because Gardenhire scratching his chin got confused for the manager giving the steal sign. Seriously.

• Based on this tweet Brian Duensing has already had an eventful offseason:

Probably for the best considering the collective state of the team's immune system this year.