September 26, 2011

Why can’t the Twins find any infielders who can hit?

One of the constants throughout my 10 seasons of blogging about the Twins is their inability to develop or acquire middle infielders who can hit. I started blogging in 2002, when the Twins hadn't been to the postseason in a decade, Ron Gardenhire was a rookie manager, and the double-play duo was Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas. In the 10 years since then they've had 10 different players start at least 100 games at shortstop or second base:

                      G      OPS
Nick Punto          430     .652
Cristian Guzman     423     .684
Luis Rivas          359     .686
Alexi Casilla       335     .643
Jason Bartlett      301     .706
Luis Castillo       227     .720
Brendan Harris      160     .666
Orlando Hudson      124     .712
Juan Castro         117     .599
Matt Tolbert        113     .570

Yuck.

During that 10-season span the average American League middle infielder has posted a .730 OPS, yet all 10 of the middle infielders to start at least 100 games for the Twins posted an OPS below .730. In fact, each of the Twins' four most-used middle infielders had an OPS below .690 and the 10-player group combined for a .670 OPS that's 60 points below the league average, with the high-water mark being Luis Castillo's mediocre .720 OPS from 2006 to mid-2007.

Here's how Twins shortstops have ranked in OPS for the 14-team league each year:

YEAR     RANK     SHORTSTOPS
2002     12th     Guzman, Hocking
2003      8th     Guzman, Hocking, Gomez
2004     11th     Guzman, Punto
2005     14th     Bartlett, Castro, Punto
2006      8th     Bartlett, Castro, Punto
2007     10th     Bartlett, Punto
2008     12th     Punto, Harris, Everett
2009      9th     Cabrera, Punto, Harris
2010      6th     Hardy, Punto, Casilla
2011     13th     Nishioka, Casilla, Plouffe, Tolbert

On average during the past 10 seasons Twins shortstops have ranked 10th among AL teams in OPS and the only time they've finished higher than the middle of the pack was last season, when J.J. Hardy's decent .714 OPS helped them rise to sixth and they immediately jettisoned him. Twins shortstops have been above average offensively once in 10 years and even then it was just barely, whereas they've been 10th or worse six times and 12th or worse four times.

And now here's the same list, but with Twins second basemen:

YEAR     RANK     SECOND BASEMEN
2002      9th     Rivas, Hocking, Canizaro
2003     12th     Rivas, Hocking, Gomez
2004      7th     Rivas, Cuddyer
2005     12th     Punto, Rivas, Rodriguez, Boone
2006      9th     Castillo, Punto
2007     13th     Castillo, Casilla, Punto
2008     10th     Casilla, Harris, Punto
2009     14th     Casilla, Punto, Tolbert
2010      9th     Hudson, Casilla, Tolbert
2011     13th     Casilla, Hughes, Tolbert, Cuddyer

Believe it or not the Twins' second basemen have actually been slightly worse than the woeful shortstops, ranking 11th among AL teams in OPS on average during the past 10 seasons and never placing higher than seventh. In those 10 years they've been ninth or worse nine times and 12th or worse five times. And this year both the Twins' shortstops and second basemen are second-to-last among AL teams in OPS.

It's also worth noting that they haven't been any better at finding productive third basemen, at least since Corey Koskie left as a free agent. Koskie was the Twins' starting third baseman from 2000-2004 and on average during those five seasons their OPS at third base ranked fifth in the league. Koskie signed with the Blue Jays after the 2004 season and since then here's how Twins third basemen have ranked in OPS among AL teams:

YEAR     RANK     THIRD BASEMEN
2005     10th     Cuddyer, Rodriguez, Tiffee, Castro
2006     13th     Punto, Batista, Rodriguez
2007     14th     Punto, Rodriguez, Buscher
2008     11th     Buscher, Lamb, Harris
2009     11th     Crede, Harris, Buscher, Tolbert
2010     10th     Valencia, Punto, Tolbert
2011      9th     Valencia, Hughes

Actually that's even uglier than the middle-infield picture. This year is the first time since Koskie left that Twins third basemen have ranked better than 10th in the league in OPS and they're still below average in ninth place. Koskie started 762 total games at third base for the Twins, producing an .839 OPS. In the seven seasons since his departure they've started six different players at least 75 times at third base and none of them have cracked a .750 OPS:

                      G      OPS
Nick Punto          246     .653
Danny Valencia      222     .724
Michael Cuddyer     107     .741
Brian Buscher       106     .702
Brendan Harris       86     .688
Joe Crede            84     .729

If you combine their shortstops from 2002-2011, second basemen from 2002-2011, and third basemen from 2005-2011 that's 27 total years of infielders. And in those 27 positional years the Twins have had an above average OPS twice (shortstops in 2010 and second basemen in 2004) and have never finished higher than sixth in the league while ranking 10th or worse 18 times. All of which is a very long way of saying they can't find any infielders who can hit.

As for why they can't find any infielders who can hit ... well, there are a few theories that seem to make sense. First and foremost is that the Twins clearly focus on speed and defense more than most teams. Whether they do so successfully is up for debate, but when Nick Punto has the team's most middle-infield starts since 2002 and most third base starts since 2005 glove work and running fast are obviously priorities.

There are some exceptions, of course, particularly at third base, but even in the cases where the Twins attempted to sacrifice defense for offense they did so with non-sluggers. Third base has long been a power-hitting position and during the past 15-20 years more and more teams have viewed second base and to a lesser extent shortstop as a spot for guys with the power for 20-plus homers, but the Twins have never really come around to that approach.

Their shortstops and second basemen have almost always been diminutive players with a low strikeout rate, above-average speed, and below-average power, and that skill set rarely adds up to strong offensive production. They've been more willing to stray from that player type at third base in guys like Tony Batista, Mike Lamb, Joe Crede, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, and now Danny Valencia, but in none of those cases was there upside beyond solid regular.

As a tall, slow shortstop with 25-homer power Hardy is perhaps the most obvious example of the Twins going against their usual infield focus and not surprisingly they tired of him after just one year despite the highest OPS by a Twins shortstop since Guzman in 2001. Hardy's injuries were a big factor, but so was Gardenhire's desire to add speed to the infield. And now Hardy has 30 homers and an .800 OPS for the Orioles while Twins shortstops are back to not hitting.

Hardy and his .750 career OPS were sent packing because of injuries and lack of speed, while Valencia and his .735 career OPS are entrenched in the doghouse because of shaky defense and a general lack of awareness. Valencia is hardly a long-term building block, but he's a solid all-around player with a better bat than most Twins third basemen since Koskie and has plenty of value while earning the minimum salary.

It'll be interesting to see if the Twins ditch Valencia a year after ditching Hardy because neither player fits the organization's preferred infield mold and there's little indication they've realized how ineffective that mold is at finding competent hitters. Trevor Plouffe might be another test case, because in addition to possessing 20-homer power he's bigger, slower, and considerably less reliable defensively than the Twins like.

Trading away Hardy and replacing him with Tsuyoshi Nishioka showed a discouraging inability to properly evaluate those two players, but it also speaks to an overall approach to acquiring and developing infielders that's resulted in a decade of consistently awful offensive production from second base, shortstop, and third base. It's long past time to find infielders who can hit, but it remains to be seen if the Twins are capable of learning from mistakes and adapting.

August 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Thome, Oliveros, Blackburn, Swarzak, Neshek, and Hardy

Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the Twins placed Jason Kubel and Jim Thome on revocable waivers yesterday, which is no surprise and doesn't necessarily mean anything. Both impending free agents will likely be claimed, at which point the Twins can either work out a trade with the claiming team or pull them back for the rest of 2011. They won't have options or leverage, but trading Thome and to a lesser extent Kubel could still be worthwhile.

• It took the Twins about 72 hours to choose Lester Oliveros as the player to be named later in the Delmon Young trade and then less than a week to call him up, adding the 23-year-old to the bullpen while placing Nick Blackburn on the disabled list with a forearm strain. Oliveros' fastball velocity and minor-league strikeout rates make him intriguing, but his awful control is a big hurdle to get over if he's going to become a useful late-inning option.

• For the second straight season Blackburn has pitched horribly before revealing an arm injury. Last year he earned a late-July demotion to Triple-A by throwing 104 innings with a 6.66 ERA, returned a month later to pitch well down the stretch, and then had elbow surgery. This year he was very good through mid-June, posted a 7.01 ERA and .366 opponents' batting average in his next 11 starts, and exited Sunday's game with "sharp pain" in his forearm.

Anthony Swarzak will step into the rotation for Blackburn, which is a perfect opportunity for Swarzak to convince the Twins that he's more than just a long reliever. His miniscule strikeout rate and mediocre minor-league track record suggest he's been pitching over his head and will be overmatched as a full-time starter, but Swarzak has certainly earned the chance to prove the numbers are wrong with a rubber-armed 3.12 ERA in 66 innings.

J.J. Hardy going deep last night might have been the most inevitable homer of all time or at least the most inevitable homer since Young's first post-trade swing last week. Hardy now has 24 homers for the Orioles, which is the most by an AL East shortstop since Miguel Tejada back in 2006. Hardy has 24 homers in 383 at-bats while the Twins' entire infield, including everyone to play first base, second base, shortstop, or third base, has 37 homers in 2,328 at-bats.

• Gardenhire claimed yesterday that Hardy "was probably going to be non-tendered" by the Twins if they hadn't traded him to Baltimore, except they actually tendered Hardy a contract on December 2 and didn't trade him until December 9. Perhaps they already had the framework of a deal in place, in which case Gardenhire is telling the truth about their misguided plan to cut Hardy for nothing. Ultimately the only difference is the degree of the Twins' ineptitude.

• On other hand, Gardenhire saying that the Twins planned to non-tender Young this winter if they hadn't traded him to the Tigers is totally believable and equally justified. Much like with Hardy they got whatever modest return they could for Young rather than simply cut him loose for nothing, but the fact that they apparently viewed Hardy then and Young now in the same light is pretty discouraging from a player evaluation standpoint.

• Also discouraging was Hardy strongly hinting that the Orioles' training staff has done a much better job than the Twins' training staff, which unfortunately isn't difficult to believe given the Twins' incredible number of injuries and failures to meet recovery timetables this year.

• Old friend Pat Neshek has been designated for assignment by the Padres after throwing 25 innings with a 4.02 ERA and more walks (22) than strikeouts (20). Neshek has been hard to hit with a .216 opponents' batting average, but between the hideous strikeout-to-walk ratio and an average fastball velocity of 86.4 miles per hour he hasn't made the Twins regret letting him go for nothing during spring training.

Jim Callis of Baseball America crunched the numbers for the past five drafts and reports that the Pirates and Nationals led all MLB teams in spending at $52 million and $51 million while the White Sox were last in spending at $18 million. During the five-year span the Twins were 25th in spending at $24 million, which is largely due to having just one top-20 pick and zero top-10 picks from 2007 to 2011.

• Speaking of the draft, after last night's loss the Twins are in line for the No. 5 pick next year. Last time they picked higher than 14th was in 2001, when they took Joe Mauer first overall.

Jeff Sullivan of SB Nation reviewed Mauer's first career appearance in the outfield and found that playing right field seems pretty damn easy most of the time.

Ron Gardenhire's history with umpire Hunter Wendelstedt trumped his history with Danny Valencia last night, so hopefully the manager and his third baseman at least cracked a couple beers together in the clubhouse after their dual ejections.

Ben Revere's iffy routes, weak arm, and six errors in just 60 games in center field have been frustrating, but last night he made one of the best, most spectacular catches I've ever seen.

John Bonnes and I are slated to record the second episode of our "Gleeman and The Geek" podcast tonight, so hopefully you'll be able to download it here or on iTunes in the morning. If you'd like to ask us questions to be answered on the show or want podcast-related updates, follow @GleemanAndGeek on Twitter.

This week's content is sponsored by PosterBurner.com, where you can turn your photographs into high-quality custom posters.

July 18, 2011

Twins Notes: Closer changes, monster homers, regrets, and somersaults

Matt Capps blew a 1-0 lead and took the loss Friday, serving up a mammoth two-run homer to Royals rookie Eric Hosmer for his league-leading seventh blown save of the year, at which point Ron Gardenhire finally made a change at closer. Gardenhire turned back to former closer Joe Nathan rather than give the bullpen's most effective reliever, Glen Perkins, his first shot in the role, which I agreed last week makes the most sense as a short-term solution.

Perkins may eventually prove to be an elite closer, but he's been so valuable in part because of Gardenhire's willingness to use him in crucial spots whenever the need arises, whereas the manager's closer usage has always been far more rigid. For now at least I'd rather see Perkins throw 80 innings in a variety of tight situations than 65 innings with a lead of 1-3 runs in the ninth inning and Nathan's past closer experience makes the move even more of a no-brainer.

Nathan hasn't looked quite like his pre-surgery self, but he's still been impressive since coming off the disabled list in mid-June. His velocity is up compared to earlier this season, he pitched on three straight days over the weekend for the first time since 2009, and Nathan has allowed just one run in 9.1 innings since the month-long DL trip, with seven strikeouts versus one walk and a .125 opponents' batting average. As for Capps, there isn't much left to say at this point.

By focusing on save totals and supposed "proven closer" status the Twins overvalued a setup-caliber pitcher, paying a premium in players and money. It was a huge mistake then and looks even bigger now, but Capps has also fallen apart. He's managed just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is 30 percent below his career rate, and command issues have hitters teeing off on what's always been a nearly all-fastball repertoire. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• Fortunately even with Capps turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 loss Friday night the Twins began the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figures to define the season by taking three of four from the Royals. They're now just five games below .500 for the first time since April and sit five games back in the AL Central with the first-place Indians and second-place Tigers coming to town for back-to-back four-game series. Giddy up.

Scott Baker was scheduled to start Game 1 of today's doubleheader versus the Indians, but was scratched from that outing yesterday and placed on the disabled list with the elbow injury that prematurely ended his last start on July 5. Scott Diamond will start in Baker's spot, as the Twins bypassed No. 1 prospect and Triple-A rotation-mate Kyle Gibson. Kevin Slowey wasn't an option because he last started Friday at Rochester.

Diamond hasn't impressed at Triple-A, posting a 4.70 ERA and 68-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 innings while allowing opponents to hit .291 off him, but he's fared better of late and the Twins clearly think very highly of him. They picked Diamond in the Rule 5 draft and then, when it was clear there wouldn't be an Opening Day spot for him on the pitching staff, they overpaid to keep him by giving the Braves hard-throwing reliever prospect Billy Bullock.

Under normal circumstances the Twins likely would've replaced the injured Baker with Anthony Swarzak and avoided calling up Diamond (or even adding him to the 40-man roster), but with Swarzak already set to start Game 2 of the doubleheader they needed another stretched-out arm and promoting Gibson for a one-and-done start didn't make sense. And instead of taking Baker's spot tomorrow Gibson started yesterday at Triple-A, coughing up nine runs.

• In addition to sticking Baker on the DL and calling up Diamond the Twins also optioned Matt Tolbert to Triple-A so they could add another pitcher for the doubleheader, increasing the staff to a ridiculous 13 arms. Chuck James never should have been sent back to Triple-A in the first place when the Twins chose to keep Phil Dumatrait over him last month and has continued to dominate with a 2.25 ERA, .197 opponents' batting average, and 48 strikeouts in 40 innings.

Jim Thome's monstrous three-run homer yesterday was the 596th of his Hall of Fame career and came in his 150th game for the Twins. Thome, who earned around $2 million last season and will make about $3 million this year, has hit .264/.392/.573 in those 150 games, with 31 homers and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances. That works out to a .965 OPS, which is by far the best OPS and adjusted OPS+ in Twins history among all hitters with 150 or more games:

                       G      OPS                                 G     OPS+
JIM THOME            150     .965          JIM THOME            150     160
Harmon Killebrew    1939     .901          Harmon Killebrew    1939     148
Joe Mauer            871     .878          Rod Carew           1635     137
Chili Davis          291     .862          Chili Davis          291     135
Justin Morneau      1003     .855          Joe Mauer            871     134

Thome is also the only hitter in Twins history with a slugging percentage above .550 (.573) or an Isolated Power above .300 (.309), topping Harmon Killebrew in each category. My favorite part of Thome's homer may have been Delmon Young's reaction to it from the on-deck circle:

Thome has 31 home runs and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances for the Twins. Young has 45 home runs and 83 walks in 1,884 plate appearances for the Twins.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune talked to a source who says "the Twins have no plans to trade Michael Cuddyer even if they fall from contention" and in fact "an effort will be made to re-sign Cuddyer this fall." Among impending free agents Cuddyer would bring back the most in a trade, but considering his extreme popularity it's certainly not surprising that the Twins aren't shopping him despite various reported interest from contending teams.

As a good but not great 32-year-old making $10.5 million on the verge of free agency Cuddyer is exactly the type of player most sub-.500 teams should be looking to cash in for future value at the trade deadline, but because the division is so weak the Twins aren't like most sub-.500 teams. With that said, not trading Cuddyer for long-term help could be a missed opportunity if they fall out of contention and re-signing him for similar money would be very dangerous.

• Trading away J.J. Hardy, much like trading for Capps, was a poor move at the time that now looks considerably worse. Hardy has hit .278/.335/.490 through 65 games for the Orioles after hitting .302/.356/.436 in his final 65 games for the Twins, and passed up free agency by inking a three-year, $22.5 million extension over the weekend. He surely would have been cheaper for the Twins to sign, but instead they spent $15 million for three years of Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Meanwhile, neither player acquired for Hardy has impressed. Jim Hoey is faring well enough at Triple-A to think he may still provide some value, but he flopped with the Twins by allowing 17 runs in 12 innings as opponents hit .344 with nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (9). Brett Jacobson has split time between the rotation and bullpen at Double-A, posting a 4.24 ERA and ugly 60-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 innings. From the Baltimore Sun extension story:

Hardy, who came over this offseason in a trade with the Minnesota Twins for two minor-league pitchers, is a free agent at season's end and was looking for more stability after being with three teams since 2009. The Orioles have been pleased with his offense, defense, and leadership in the clubhouse.

Funny how that works. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• I've already written plenty about Slowey, so I won't delve back into that situation other than to say for as much harsh criticism as he's taken from fans, media members, and the Twins their handling of him fits on the same list of terrible decisions as the Capps and Hardy trades. He's currently in the rotation at Triple-A, trying to build back arm strength, and Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Pirates and Rockies have expressed interest in Slowey.

Slowey's value has likely never been lower and he's under team control for 2012, so there's no major urgency to move him. On the other hand, that 2012 team control would come with a salary of around $3 million and he's deep enough in the doghouse that it's awfully difficult to imagine digging out, in which case salvaging some kind of value for Slowey might make sense. He's the most likely player to be traded by July 31 whether the Twins are buyers or sellers.

• One offseason move that definitely worked out was not bringing back Nick Punto. Declining his $5 million option and instead giving him a $500,000 buyout was a no-brainer, but given the Twins' lack of quality middle infield depth I thought re-signing him for $1 million would've made sense. He ended up signing a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Cardinals, but missed much of April following hernia surgery and now may need season-ending elbow surgery.

• After taking three months off from game action following his disastrous season debut 2010 first-round pick Alex Wimmers has finally taken a big step in his recovery from extreme control problems. He returned to the mound last week at rookie-ball with just one walk in a scoreless inning, after which the Twins assigned him back to high Single-A. He's nowhere near out of the woods yet, but hopefully Wimmers can get somewhat back on track heading into 2012.

• I've written a few times that Ben Revere runs so fast that it often looks like his feet almost can't keep up as he flies around the bases. He took that to another level Friday night, losing his balance rounding second base and falling into a somersault before ending up on third base with a triple. Revere's long-term upside is still very much in question, but there's no doubt that he's been as fun to watch as a player could possibly be while hitting just .278/.314/.320.

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June 30, 2011

Twins Notes: The Good, The Bad, and The Hairy

Scott Baker was excellent again yesterday afternoon, allowing zero or one run for the third time in four starts by shutting out the Dodgers for 7.1 innings. Baker racked up nine strikeouts without a walk until issuing a free pass to the final batter he faced, finishing June with a 1.46 ERA in six starts. And not only does his 3.15 ERA overall this season lead the team by a wide margin, Johan Santana is the only Twins starter with a lower ERA since Kevin Tapani in 1991.

Here are the best single-season ERAs posted by Twins starters during that 20-year span:

                   ERA     YEAR
Johan Santana     2.61     2004
Johan Santana     2.77     2006
Johan Santana     2.87     2005
SCOTT BAKER       3.15     2011
Joe Mays          3.16     2001
John Smiley       3.21     1992
Johan Santana     3.33     2007
Scott Erickson    3.40     1992
Carlos Silva      3.44     2005
SCOTT BAKER       3.45     2008

Two things stand out on the above list. One is that Santana was really amazing, posting four of their top seven marks since 1991. Two is that Baker is really underrated, joining Santana as the only starters to crack the top 10 twice. And unlike, say, Joe Mays in 2001, he isn't doing it with smoke and mirrors, as Baker ranks eighth among AL starters with 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings and seventh in the league with a 101-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106 frames.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been considerably less impressive, struggling so much on both sides of the ball that e-mails and comments are beginning to pile up from people wondering exactly what the Twins saw in him that was worth a $14 million investment. Nishioka has batted just .197/.254/.252 in 19 games, showing little power with zero homers and three total extra-base hits in 66 at-bats and terrible strike-zone control with a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And as awful as Nishioka's hitting has been his defense might be even worse or at least more discouraging given his reputation as a standout defender with Gold Glove awards at shortstop and second base in Japan. Kaz Matsui showed previously that defensive accolades in Japan don't necessarily transfer to America, proving to be a sub par shortstop despite winning a total of four Gold Glove awards there before signing with the Mets in 2004.

I'm certainly not ready to conclude that Nishioka will follow that same fate after just 19 games, but his arm strength and hands haven't looked nearly reliable enough to be a significant asset at shortstop and moving back to second base would be a scary proposition after breaking his fibula in part due to his lack of comfort with hard-sliding runners around the bag. Joe Mauer is struggling on both sides of the ball too, but he also has a long track record of MVP-level play.

Nishioka had a strong career in Japan, but his MLB projections based on that track record were anything but jaw-dropping. I pegged him for .275/.335/.375 while noting the combination of a high strikeout rate and less power than any previous Japanese imports. He's certainly capable of adjusting and improving at the plate with experience, but it worries me that his glove might not be good enough to make him a big asset even if he reaches the .275/.335/.375 projection.

J.J. Hardy is hitting .307/.369/.547 with 11 homers, 13 doubles, and one error in 50 games for the Orioles and has started contract extension talks to stay in Baltimore.

• Twins top prospect Kyle Gibson has been named to the United States' roster for the Futures Game during the All-Star break, while preseason No. 8 prospect Liam Hendriks was picked for the World team. I'm always more interested in the Futures Game than the actual All-Star game and alumni of the prospect showcase include Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Francisco Liriano, Delmon Young, Ben Revere, Rene Tosoni, and Luke Hughes.

Gibson has an ugly win-loss record thanks to terrible run support, but he's pitched very well at Triple-A as a 23-year-old with a 3.87 ERA and 83-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 81 innings. He has the International League's third-highest ground-ball rate at 57 percent and ranks sixth in both strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio, which adds up to a 3.25 FIP that's fourth-best in the league. He continues to look like a future No. 2 starter and is nearly ready.

Hendriks has followed a breakout 2010 performance between two levels of Single-A by proving it was no fluke with a 2.71 ERA and 74-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 innings at Double-A as a 22-year-old. He's allowed just four homers and has the third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Eastern League, posting a 2.77 FIP that also ranks third-best. If there was a midseason version of my top 40 prospect list the Australian right-hander would join Gibson in the top five.

• Speaking of prospects, Trevor Plouffe has been destroying Triple-A pitching since being sent back down to Rochester four weeks ago and is now hitting .295/.365/.610 with 11 homers in 38 games overall. The bad news is that he's still a career .259/.312/.443 hitter in 323 games at Triple-A and the Twins were so put off by his defense at shortstop that they've been giving him starts in right field. I'm skeptical, but when the alternative is Matt Tolbert, why not?

LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune did a nice job mixing reporting and stats for an article about Glen Perkins' success in the bullpen, examining his increased velocity and adjustment to a role change spurred by injuries and struggles as a starter. Perkins has never thrown this well before regardless of role and struck out right-handed-hitting MVP front-runner Matt Kemp in a dominant outing yesterday. He has a 1.93 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 28 innings.

• Old friend Matthew LeCroy managed the All-Star game at high Single-A last week.

• Against all odds, the man in this picture is not me:

As far as you know, at least.

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June 15, 2011

Twins Notes: Immobilized, underrated, grated, deteriorated, and elevated

• Just when the Twins are finally getting key players healthy Justin Morneau has been put on the disabled list. And not with symptoms from last year's concussion or the neck pain that led to cortisone injections last month, but because of a wrist injury the origin of which was never really explained. Answers given last night were oddly vague, but Nick Nelson had a source tell him that "Morneau's wrist injury was the result of a locker room tirade after a strikeout."

Whatever the case, the Twins announced last night that Morneau's wrist will be "immobilized" for 10 days. General manager Bill Smith explained that "we're looking at this as a short-term event," but nearly every recovery timetable the Twins have issued this season has proven to be wildly optimistic. Morneau being shut down with Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka on the verge of rejoining the lineup is unfortunate, but Morneau hasn't looked like himself anyway.

He showed some flashes at various points, but was never able to string together any kind of hot streak and went 2-for-27 following a two-homer game on May 31. Morneau was batting .345 with 18 homers and a 1.055 OPS in 81 games at the time of his concussion last July. After nine months on the sidelines he's hit just .225 with four homers and a .619 OPS in 55 games this season. At this point some more time on the DL might be the best thing for Morneau.

• With the Twins now playing well enough to get people thinking about winning the thoroughly mediocre division MinnPost boss Joel Kramer passed along 2007 analysis from Nate Silver at Baseball Prospectus examining the largest comebacks of all time. Baseball Prospectus recently made its archives free and the article is worth checking out, as you can see where the Twins overcoming their current deficit would rank and where their amazing 2006 comeback fits.

Carson Cistulli at Fan Graphs crunched the numbers and concluded that Denard Span might be the most underrated player in baseball. I wouldn't go quite that far, but twice in the past week I've written that Span has been the Twins' most valuable all-around player this year and both times multiple comments and e-mails strongly disagreed. His performance has definitely flown under the radar, so hopefully the concussion doesn't derail Span's season.

• Speaking of Span being underrated ... I couldn't care less about the All-Star game, but given what I wrote here last month about the local media's treatment of Michael Cuddyer (and the reaction I got from some members of the local media) it was amusing to see Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune devote an entire column to Cuddyer being deserving of an All-Star spot with a .273/.339/.423 hitting line and versatile but poor defense.

• With every Matt Capps blown save giving up Wilson Ramos for a "proven closer" looks even worse. Capps is 24-for-31 (78 percent) converting saves since the deal, whereas Jon Rauch was 21-for-25 (84 percent) prior to being replaced and is now 7-for-9 (78 percent) in Toronto while earning half as much as Capps. Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently wrote that Rauch "might have been a keeper if his personality hadn't grated on the Twins."

Flawed logic regarding the closer role led to mistakenly thinking Capps was a big upgrade over Rauch, poor decision-making led to paying a premium for that non-existent upgrade in the form of a top catching prospect, and the Twins compounded the problem by evaluating Rauch based more on personality than performance or cost. Ramos' current OPS is 30 points above average for a catcher and he's thrown out an MLB-high 50 percent of steal attempts at age 23.

• Christensen also penned a lengthy article about something that has been a frequent topic in this space, which is that the oft-repeated notion of "playing the right way" and "doing the little things" being "the Twins way" has become more perception and less reality with each season. National media members and people who mostly pay attention to other teams haven't caught on yet, but I'm glad to see someone with a mainstream audience busting the myth.

• My grandpa has said for years now that Toby Gardenhire will eventually be the Twins' utility infielder, which I've always laughed off because ... well, he's a career .230/.293/.268 hitter in the minors and nepotism can only go so far, right? Maybe. Tyler Mason wrote a lengthy profile of the manager's 28-year-old son for FSN's website, and between the "Toby Gardenhire moves closer to MLB debut" title and article's content it no longer seems so far fetched. An excerpt:

Gardenhire, now with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, is closer than ever to his dream. A call to the majors, however, would mean something more for him: the chance to be coached by his father, Ron, the Minnesota Twins' manager. "Having my dad up there, it would probably just be an added bonus," said Toby Gardenhire, 28, who is primarily a shortstop but has been a jack-of-all-trades in the minor leagues.

"If somebody told me Toby's the guy, we think he deserves a shot to come up here, I don't know how I'd handle it, to tell you the truth," said his dad. "I'd have to regroup. But I know he's worked really, really hard and he's played very well. If that ever happens, it would be a really, really cool thing."

Gardenhire is hitting .254 with a .291 on-base percentage and .349 slugging percentage in 39 games at Rochester for a .640 OPS that's dead last on the team. Yet his dad says "he's played very well" and "has actually swung the bat very, very well." Triple-A manager Tom Nieto says "he's really progressed." Mason notes his "elevated play." Meanwhile, even Drew Butera beat Gardenhire's career OPS by 70 points in the minors. I'm starting to think my grandpa is right.

Anthony Slama's latest "opportunity" lasted all of two games, as the Twins didn't even see fit to give him a chance when they had the league's worst record and a bullpen in flux. He has a 2.10 ERA and 370 strikeouts in 274 innings as a minor leaguer, including a 2.71 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 106 innings at Triple-A, yet is 27 years old with a grand total of seven games in the majors. Slama isn't going to be great, but he might be useful and they'll never know.

• If the Twins opt to move Mauer to another position in 2012 they ought to call the Reds. John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote recently that catcher prospect Devin Mesoraco "killing it in Triple-A" may soon force the Reds to call him up, at which point "a lot of teams would likely be interested in Ramon Hernandez or Ryan Hanigan." Hernandez is 35 years old, but Hanigan is a 30-year-old career .275/.375/.365 hitter with a good arm under team control through 2014.

• Old friend J.J. Hardy hasn't been injury free in Baltimore, missing a month with a strained oblique muscle, but he's yet to make an error in 37 games while hitting .299/.371/.493 for an .864 OPS that ranks third among all MLB shortstops. He's played so well that Orioles president and former Twins general manager Andy MacPhail wants to keep Hardy from becoming a free agent after the season by signing him to a contract extension before the All-Star break. Sigh.

• Earlier this week Nick Nelson and I had a Twitter discussion about Francisco Liriano and all this "pitch to contact" stuff, which Sean Schulte at Hitting The Foul Pole pieced together along with his own take.

• To preview the (now rain-shortened) Chicago series marvelously named White Sox blogger J.J. Stankevitz asked me some questions over at Beerleaguer.

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