April 27, 2011

Twins Notes: Cuddyer, Mauer, Nishioka, Casilla, Perkins, and Gibson

Michael Cuddyer has hit just .160 in six starts at second base since Tsuyoshi Nishioka went down with a fractured fibula, but Ron Gardenhire announced that Cuddyer will be the primary second baseman until Nishioka returns from the disabled list next month. Gardenhire explained the decision by saying that using Cuddyer at second base allows him to get both Jason Kubel and Jim Thome into the lineup together, but that sounds far more valuable than it actually is.

Against right-handed pitchers having Kubel and Thome in the lineup together is great, but that could just as easily be accomplished by simply benching Cuddyer versus righties, off whom he has a measly .379 slugging percentage since the beginning of 2010. And against left-handed pitchers Kubel and Thome both struggle anyway, so using Cuddyer at second base to get their left-handed bats into the lineup accomplishes little except weakening the defense.

Cuddyer isn't potent versus righties and neither Kubel nor Thome are potent versus lefties, so Gardenhire making the move to get all three bats into the lineup suggests that he doesn't fully grasp the importance of platoon splits or is vastly overrating the player Cuddyer has become at age 32. Or maybe both. Either way, the Twins would likely be better off starting a superior defender at second base while benching Cuddyer for righties and Kubel or Thome for lefties.

• General manager Bill Smith announced yesterday that Joe Mauer will not be ready to come off the disabled list when eligible Thursday, which is no surprise. Smith told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Mauer is over the viral infection that caused him to lose 15 pounds and further complicated his bilateral leg weakness, but there's no official timetable for his return and a minor-league rehab assignment will be required before rejoining the Twins.

Drew Butera has started eight of 11 games in Mauer's absence, with Steve Holm drawing the other three assignments. Butera continues to do a fantastic job controlling the running game, but the endless praise for his pitch-calling has continued despite Twins pitchers posting a 5.18 ERA with him behind the plate and he's hitting .147 to bring his career line to .188/.225/.278 in 190 plate appearances. Brandon Wood is MLB's only active hitter with a lower career OPS.

• Smith also told Christensen that Nishioka "is on schedule, if not ahead of schedule" with his recovery that was initially expected to take 4-6 weeks from an April 7 injury, so that seemingly means he could be ready to come off the disabled list within a couple weeks. Gardenhire has obviously become increasingly comfortable with Cuddyer at second base, so I'm curious to see what happens if Alexi Casilla is still struggling by the time Nishioka is ready to return.

• Speaking of Casilla, despite being a little-known role player two prominent national writers recently had notes about him in their columns that featured scouts giving unflattering reports. One scout told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com that Casilla "is too out of control for me" and "he's more of a backup.'' Another scout told Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com that "you see his lack of instincts when he plays every day." Tough to argue with either assessment, unfortunately.

• I'm highly skeptical of Glen Perkins' early success given his 5.87 ERA in the majors and 5.49 ERA in the minors over the previous two seasons, but the combination of getting healthy and moving to the bullpen full time appear to have increased his velocity. He's averaged 92.4 miles per hour on his fastball compared to a career mark of 90.5. Perkins was never well-suited for a situational left-hander role, but being better versus righties can be a positive as a setup man.

• It sounds like Kevin Slowey is on the verge of being ready to return from his shoulder injury, but because of the rainouts the Twins will likely need a spot starter Sunday against the Royals and between the injury and beginning the year in the bullpen Slowey's arm isn't stretched out for more than 50-60 pitches. Among pitchers already on the 25-man roster recent call-up Eric Hacker is the most obvious candidate to start. He has a 4.36 ERA in 311 innings at Triple-A.

Top prospect Kyle Gibson is actually in line to start Sunday at Triple-A, but calling him up to face the Royals that day is unlikely, to say the least. Gibson has certainly pitched well enough to warrant the call-up, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his first start last week and striking out eight batters in six innings of one-run ball yesterday, but the Twins can delay his future free agency for an entire season by keeping him in the minors until at least June.

Justin Morneau missed six games with the same flu bug that got Mauer and Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com reports that he also needed a cortisone shot in his neck before finally returning to the lineup. Morneau is closer to breaking out than his bad numbers suggest, but his getting on track was tough enough without a week-long flu and neck issues. Delmon Young has also missed five straight games (and counting) with a rib injury, leading to some ugly lineups.

• Swapping the much-maligned Scott Ullger for Steve Liddle as third base coach hasn't led to fewer head-scratching outs at the plate. In terms of MLB-wide criticism third base coaches may trail only umpires, as both jobs involve successes going largely unnoticed and failures being obvious. With that said, it sure seems like the Twins have had a particularly awful run with Al Newman followed by Ullger and now Liddle. Some friendly advice: Don't test Shin-Soo Choo.

• Tommy John elbow surgery is much more common for pitchers, as the Twins have learned the hard way recently, but LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that outfield prospect Angel Morales and shortstop prospect Estarlin De Los Santos both have ligament injuries that may require the well-known surgery. Position players generally recovery far more quickly, but the Twins have had enough trouble rehabbing pitchers to make me nervous.

Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus took a much different approach than I did last week in examining the "pitch to contact" advice the Twins gave to Francisco Liriano, but still came to essentially the same conclusion: "Rather than making him more of a pitcher, it would probably just make him a more ordinary pitcher."

Sergio Santos was a former first-round pick turned minor-league journeyman who spent half of 2008 playing shortstop at Triple-A for the Twins. Now he's the White Sox's closer.

• Something to keep in mind as the Twins climb to .500: If you assume the Indians and Royals aren't going to actually win the AL Central then the Twins are just two games out of first place.

• I stumbled across these two pictures from last week that are basically Casilla in a nutshell:

December 1, 2010

Twins Notes: Pavano, Crain, Hudson, Hardy, Nishioka, and Pimentel

• As expected Carl Pavano, Jesse Crain, and Orlando Hudson each declined arbitration offers from the Twins ahead of last night's deadline. Pavano and Crain had no-brainer decisions, as they're both drawing significant interest as free agents and should have no trouble securing multi-year deals, and Hudson was only offered arbitration in the first place because he agreed ahead of time to decline.

Assuming all three sign elsewhere the Twins will get a total of four compensatory draft picks. Pavano is a Type A free agent, so he'd fetch a first rounder and a supplemental pick between the first and second rounds. Crain and Hudson are both Type B free agents, so they'd fetch one supplemental pick apiece. Brian Fuentes, Matt Guerrier, and Jon Rauch weren't offered arbitration and Jim Thome didn't qualify as Type A or B, so there's no compensation attached.

• In reporting on Hudson officially declining arbitration yesterday Jon Heyman of SI.com called him a "fine player who could help any clubhouse." Heyman is basically just parroting the same national media perception of Hudson that ESPN, FOX, and TBS announcers repeated whenever they broadcast Twins games, but in reality little or no effort is being made to re-sign Hudson in part because the team specifically didn't like his presence in the clubhouse.

None of which is to suggest that Hudson is a terrible person or anything, but multiple sources affiliated with the Twins told me throughout the season that his outspoken jokester persona grew tiresome even though national media members like Heyman continue to constantly tout it as a positive trait treated as fact. Hudson will soon be playing for his fourth team in four years despite consistently solid performances on the field, so you can probably do the math there.

• The next key deadline for the Twins arrives tomorrow night, when they must decide whether to tender a 2011 contract to J.J. Hardy. Doing so would essentially guarantee him a one-year deal worth at least $6 million via the arbitration process. Because the Twins have seemingly soured on Hardy despite his above-average performance this season and are now negotiating with Tsuyoshi Nishioka to possibly replace him at shortstop non-tendering him is an option.

However, based on various reports there are multiple teams interested in trading for Hardy. That means even if the Twins are no longer interested in keeping him for 2011 they can tender him a contract and later deal him for some value rather than just cutting him loose and making him a free agent with a non-tender. Of course, I'm still holding out a slim hope that they keep Hardy at shortstop, sign Nishioka to play second base, and use Alexi Casilla as a utility man.

• Speaking of Nishioka, here's a lengthy highlight video that his representatives at the Beverly Hills Sports Complex put together:

Like many Japanese hitters Nishioka has a pronounced leg kick that precedes his swing, so it'll be interesting to see if the Twins would ask him to ditch it. Also of note after years of watching Nick Punto is that Nishioka appears to always slide first first.

• Last year the Twins spent a ton of cash in the international prospect market, landing Miguel Sano and several other high-upside players, and they've followed that up this year by possibly spending around $15 million on Nishioka. Ben Badler of Baseball America reports that they also recently signed 17-year-old Dominican shortstop Javier Pimentel for $575,000. Here's part of BA's scouting report on Pimentel:

Pimentel is a skinny shortstop with a projectable body who has shown good hands and arm in the field. He's a solid-average runner. He isn't a huge threat at the plate right now, but he could grow into more power as he fills out his lanky body.

I'm a big fan of investing heavily in international prospects. They're younger and typically less advanced than American high school and college prospects, but that added risk is mitigated by a lower cost to sign them and the value of draft picks. For instance, Pimentel signed for what is basically second-round money and the Twins were able to acquire him without actually using a second-round pick that, by itself, is worth several hundred thousand dollars.

• Not adding Kyle Waldrop to the 40-man roster and exposing him to next week's Rule 5 draft struck me as an error, but I'm pleased that the Twins did also clear a spot by dropping Estarlin De Los Santos. De Los Santos was a questionable 40-man addition last offseason and ranked just 30th on my annual list of the Twins' prospects. Since then he's hit .225/.294/.295 in 123 games between high Single-A and Double-A, so he had no business being protected.

Mike Redmond left the Twins as a free agent last offseason after five years as Joe Mauer's backup, spent a half-season with the Indians while hitting .206/.242/.270, and announced his retirement. Throughout his time in Minnesota he was regularly mentioned as manager material and sure enough Redmond has been hired to manage the Blue Jays' low Single-A affiliate that plays in the Midwest League with the Twins' team in Beloit.

• Thome being drafted as a shortstop is a known, albeit nearly unbelievable fact, but here's an even harder-to-believe fact discovered while poking around Baseball-Reference.com: Through his first 247 games in the minors Thome stole 24 bases at a 71 percent success rate. In his 2,559 games since then between the minors and majors Thome has stolen a total of 20 bases while being thrown out 25 times, including no more than one steal in any season after 1996.

• While the Twins decide what to do with Hardy, this should be good for a chuckle.