April 7, 2011

Tsuyoshi Nishioka fractures fibula in collision at second base

Tsuyoshi Nishioka's rough first week with the Twins got considerably worse this afternoon, as he suffered a fractured fibula when Nick Swisher slid very hard into second base to break up a potential double play. There's no official timetable yet for his return, but Nishioka will be out for at least a month and Luke Hughes has been called up from Triple-A to replace him on the roster. It's a good opportunity for Hughes to show he belongs, but what a shame for Nishioka.

August 23, 2010

Kevin Slowey’s injury opens rotation spot for Nick Blackburn’s return

There was no shortage of at-the-ballpark booing and talk radio-inspired emoting, but I didn't hear many coherent, logical arguments against the Twins pulling Kevin Slowey despite seven no-hit innings last week. And whatever cases that were made have probably gone silent now that Slowey has been placed on the disabled list with further arm problems following his poor follow-up outing Saturday.

It wasn't so much that the Twins wouldn't let him go from the 106 pitches he'd thrown through seven no-hit innings to the 130 or so pitches it likely would've taken to complete the no-hitter, it was that because Slowey had missed his previous start with elbow pain they never really wanted him throwing even 106 pitches in the first place. And now it looks like they were right. Or maybe Slowey would have aggravated the injury throwing 75 pitches anyway. Who knows.

Whatever the case, he's on the DL with an arm injury for the third time in three years and Nick Blackburn is back in the rotation following a month-long demotion to Triple-A. Blackburn fared well in four starts at Rochester, posting a 2.49 ERA and .229 opponents' batting average in 22 innings while inducing 65 percent ground balls, but his 13-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 4.12 FIP were significantly less confidence-inspiring.

Blackburn also rejoins the rotation with a very difficult matchup against the first-place Rangers and their top-five offense in hitter-friendly Texas. In terms of offense at home, the Yankees are the only team in the league with a higher OPS or more runs than the Rangers, so it's hardly an ideal way to ease someone back into the rotation. In addition to Blackburn's return the Twins recalled Anthony Slama, who's needed after Ron Mahay hurt his shoulder on a fielding play.

Dating back to last season Mahay has quietly done some nice work for the Twins with a 3.14 ERA, .244 opponents' batting average, and 33-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings, and while losing a situational left-hander certainly isn't going to wreck the bullpen it does hurt a bit more with fellow lefty Jose Mijares already out for a month after knee surgery. Glen Perkins is now the bullpen's sole southpaw and he's actually worse against left-handed hitters.

Obviously the circumstances are unfortunate, but I'm happy to see Slama getting another shot so quickly. He was anything but impressive in his first taste of the majors, but struggling in five innings to begin a career means almost nothing and his track record in the minors is certainly dominant enough to warrant an extended opportunity. He doesn't address the lack of lefties, but Ron Gardenhire did some of his best bullpen managing when not focused on handedness.

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Here are the starting pitching matchups for the four-game series in Texas that begins tonight:

Monday: Blackburn (104 IP, 5.09 xFIP) vs. Rich Harden (74 IP, 5.83 xFIP)

Tuesday: Carl Pavano (174 IP, 3.91 xFIP) vs. Colby Lewis (155 IP, 3.86 xFIP)

Wednesday: Brian Duensing (84 IP, 3.99 xFIP) vs. C.J. Wilson (158 IP, 4.29 xFIP)

Thursday: Francisco Liriano (151 IP, 3.00 xFIP) vs. Cliff Lee (175 IP, 3.27 xFIP)

Remarkably similar matchups in terms of the pitchers' effectiveness and handedness. Righties versus righties, lefties versus lefties. Aces against aces, No. 2 starters against No. 2 starters, guys just back from Triple-A against guys just back from Triple-A. And the Thursday night bout is a doozy, with (according to xFIP, at least) the two best starters in the league facing off. And hopefully Liriano is over the "tired arm" period that got him pushed back to Thursday.

May 3, 2010

Injuries Cast Cloud Over Twins’ Great Start

Twenty-five games into the season and the Twins have the second-best record in the league at 16-9, but the Tigers refuse to fade away in the AL Central and injuries are chipping away at the team's depth. Joe Nathan, Jose Morales, and Clay Condrey all began the season on the disabled list, with Nathan out for all of 2010 following Tommy John elbow surgery, and shortly after that Jose Mijares and Nick Punto joined them on the DL.

Punto came off the shelf Saturday, but now Pat Neshek has taken his place on the DL with a finger injury that sidetracked his own comeback from Tommy John surgery. Four of the Twins' top eight relievers and their backup catcher are currently out, but suddenly all of that seems unimportant with Joe Mauer's status up in the air because of a heel injury. So far Mauer hasn't been put on the DL, but Ron Gardenhire indicated it could be more than a day-to-day issue.

In the meantime, Wilson Ramos was called up from Triple-A and will draw most of the starts over Drew Butera for however long Mauer is out. For all of the people (Gardenhire included) pushing for Ramos to make the Opening Day roster as Mauer's backup, it's worth noting that he was hitting just .179 with a 15-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Triple-A. So, naturally he went 4-for-5 yesterday, becoming the first Twin with four hits in his MLB debut since Kirby Puckett.

Of course, Ramos getting off to a terrible start at Triple-A matters little when the reigning MVP goes down and his initial backup is already on the DL. Ramos and Butera are the only healthy catchers on the 40-man roster and so will play for as long as Mauer can't, with Ramos at least getting consistent starts as opposed to the sporadic playing time he would've gotten opening the season as Morales' fill-in and Mauer's caddy.

Ramos has a very bright future, ranked No. 3 on my annual list of Twins prospects, and looked like a Hall of Famer against the Indians yesterday, but I'm still somewhat skeptical of his ability to thrive as a starting catcher in the majors right now, at age 22 and with a grand total of 70 career games above Single-A. Throw in Butera's non-existent offensive ability and the catching situation may not be particularly pretty if Mauer needs an extended stint on the DL

Fortunately even if Ramos proves human the lineup is deep enough to handle being without Mauer relatively well--at least for a little while--especially if Jason Kubel gets on track following an awful April and the absence of Mauer's left-handed bat convinces Gardenhire to start Jim Thome more versus righties. Ramos taking the AL by storm would be nice, but I'd settle for the Ramos-Butera duo holding their own defensively and hitting .225 with the occasional gapper.

This admittedly sounds silly after Ramos' big debut, but Ramos/Butera replacing Mauer figures to cost the Twins about three runs per week. Not a ton within the context of a few games on the bench or even a 15-day stay on the DL, but with the general rule of thumb that each 10 runs added or subtracted equals one win the three runs per week will begin to add up quickly and have a clear impact on the standings if Mauer's heel injury proves any more serious.

On paper the Twins were an elite team going into spring training, but now they're without one of baseball's premier relievers, half of his setup men, and the reigning MVP and his backup. All those injuries combined with the Tigers starting 16-10 has made life a lot more difficult, but the Twins are on a 100-win pace, remain the class of the division if Mauer returns relatively soon, and perhaps some of young fill-ins stepping up will even make them better off in the long run.

March 24, 2010

Nathan Officially Opts For Surgery

As expected Joe Nathan will have season-ending Tommy John elbow surgery to fix a torn ulnar collateral ligament, officially making that decision Sunday morning after feeling soreness during a highly anticipated game of catch with pitching coach Rick Anderson (only to have the news overshadowed by Joe Mauer signing hours later). Nathan and the Twins had hoped that a few weeks off would allow him to pitch through the pain, but that was always a massive long shot.

Now the optimism is aimed at Nathan making a full recovery for next season, but as Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek have shown recently Tommy John patients can have a true recovery timetable that stretches beyond the oft-quoted 8-12 months. Liriano underwent the surgery in November of 2006 and has a 5.12 ERA in 212.2 innings since returning, while Neshek took the mound again about 14 months after surgery and may not be 100 percent yet at 16 months.

For every Liriano and Neshek there are also examples of pitchers who returned to the mound sooner than 12 months and didn't miss a beat, but at 35 years old Nathan seems an unlikely candidate to be one of them. He'll miss all of this season, there's a good chance he'll miss at least some of 2011, and his career is very much in jeopardy following a seven-season run as arguably the best reliever in baseball.

As part of a four-year, $47 million extension signed in March of 2008 he's owed $11.25 million in both 2010 and 2011, with the Twins holding a $12.5 million option or $2 million buyout for 2012. Add it all up and the Twins have another $24.5 million committed to Nathan, which is a harsh reminder of the risks involved in handing out long-term contracts to even the very best players. However, insurance will reportedly cover as much as half of his salary for this season.

There's no doubt that losing Nathan is a big blow to the Twins' playoff chances, but my hope is that they don't overreact by paying a premium for an "established closer" via trade. Closer is the most overrated "position" in baseball, as many people attach some sort of mythical value to the role despite the fact that the MLB average for converting ninth-inning saves is typically around 85 percent and elite closers like Nathan top out at around 90 percent.

Beyond that, Nathan himself is an example of how most successful closers are failed starters, former setup men, or both. In fact, Nathan, Rick Aguilera, and Eddie Guardado all fall into the "both" category and rank 1-2-3 on the Twins' all-time saves list. Prior to thriving as closers for the Twins that trio had accumulated a grand total of just 26 career saves in 17 seasons as big leaguers, which coincidentally is the exact number of saves Jon Rauch has in seven seasons.

Heath Bell of the Padres saved 42 games with a 2.71 ERA last season and is now being linked to the Twins as a possible Nathan replacement, but at this time last year he was a 30-year-old setup man with just two career saves. That he's now viewed as an "established closer" whose experience in the role is touted as evidence that the Twins should pay a premium for him via trade shows just how silly the whole notion is in the first place.

Certainly there are some scenarios in which trading for a quality reliever could make sense for the Twins and depending on the cost involved Bell might even be a worthwhile target, but to overpay for that same quality reliever largely because he has "closing experience" that their in-house options lack would be a mistake in logic. Bell only has experience at closer precisely because the Padres focused on his ability rather than his save total one year ago.

Truly replacing Nathan is impossible because he's a great reliever, but for closers the dropoff from "great" and "mediocre" is typically 3-5 blown saves, some of which still end up as wins anyway. Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, and a post-surgery Neshek don't fit the description of an ideal closer, but the same is true for many pitchers who have success in the role. Hell, last year the best save percentage in baseball belonged to Fernando Rodney.

Once you set aside the inflated, often hyperbolic importance placed on the closer role there's no reason to think that group can't produce someone capable of converting save opportunities at an 80 percent clip, which all but the disasters tend to manage each season with or without "closing experience." Bell is better than Rauch or Guerrier or Crain, but if the price tag involves Aaron Hicks, Wilson Ramos, or Ben Revere they're better off trusting the in-house options.