April 25, 2011

Nevermind, I’ll find someone like you

Catching up with old friends in new places ...

Matt Guerrier signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers and got off to a great start in Los Angeles with 11 straight scoreless innings before coughing up five runs Saturday. Guerrier has filled largely the same role with the Dodgers that he did with the Twins, working the seventh and eighth innings setting up closer Jonathan Broxton while recording more than three outs in five of his first 10 appearances.

Brian Fuentes has been filling in for the injured Andrew Bailey as the A's closer, converting six of seven save chances with a 4.09 ERA and 10-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 innings. He was unable to find a full-time closing opportunity as a free agent and settled for a two-year, $10.5 million deal at age 35. Bailey is due back early next month, at which point Fuentes will slide into a setup role alongside former Twin and original AG.com favorite, Grant Balfour.

Jon Rauch also stumbled into a brief stint filling in as Toronto's closer with Frank Francisco sidelined to begin the season. Just as he did for the Twins last year Rauch did a perfectly solid job in the role, converting all three save chances before Francico returned 18 games in, and he has a 2.25 ERA and 6-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine innings overall. Dating back to last year Rauch has converted 24-of-28 saves with a 2.98 ERA and 52/18 K/BB ratio in 66 innings.

• Obviously the three-year, $13 million contract helped, but Jesse Crain also talked about the opportunity to be in the mix for saves as one of the reasons for signing with the White Sox. Chicago's bullpen has been a mess, with closer Matt Thornton blowing four saves already and manager Ozzie Guillen trying all kinds of different combinations late, but Crain has yet to get a crack at closing duties despite a 1.93 ERA and 11-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine innings.

Orlando Hudson got off to strong start in San Diego while oddly batting third in the Padres' lineup, but a recent slump has knocked his overall line down to .229/.349/.271 in 21 games. Of course, even that .620 OPS is still much higher than the Twins have gotten from Alexi Casilla (.485), Matt Tolbert (.469), Luke Hughes (.448), and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (.519) in the middle infield and Hudson is playing half his games in the majors' most pitcher-friendly ballpark.

• I didn't like the Twins' decision to trade J.J. Hardy after he was above par offensively among shortstops and outstanding defensively in the 101 games he was healthy enough to be in the lineup, but they have to be smiling after he lasted just six games with the Orioles before being placed on the disabled list. Hardy is out until mid-May with a strained oblique and one of the two minor-league relievers the Twins got for him, Jim Hoey, has been thrust into a setup role.

Brendan Harris was also traded to Baltimore in the Hardy swap or more accurately dumping $1.25 million of his $1.75 million salary on the Orioles was part of the Twins' side of the deal. No one will ever be able to explain why the Twins handed Harris a two-year, $3.2 million deal last January, but after spending most of last season at Triple-A he failed to make the Orioles out of spring training and is once again struggling in the International League.

Wilson Ramos has overtaken Ivan Rodriguez as Washington's starting catcher and all of a sudden articles have popped up explaining how the Twins don't regret trading a 22-year-old top catching prospect for the right to pay $10 million for one-and-a-half years of Matt Capps. I'm sure the timing is purely coincidental. Ramos is hitting .351 with surprisingly decent plate discipline early on, giving him a .302/.347/.414 career line through 34 games.

Dealt for Single-A reliever Paul Bargas in December after the Twins settled on Drew Butera as their preferred backup catcher, Jose Morales is now backing up Chris Iannetta in Colorado and playing sparingly in the early going. He owns a career line of .295/.374/.358 in 81 games, but the Twins never trusted his glove. Bargas unfortunately has been hospitalized due to a neurological condition, with general manager Bill Smith describing him as "very sick."

Nick Punto's one-year, $750,000 contract with St. Louis got off to a rough start when he underwent hernia surgery within days of reporting to spring training, but he's healthy now and already starting regularly in place of injured second baseman Skip Schumaker. I thought the Twins should have re-signed Punto as long as the money was no more than $1 million and the projected role was minor. For all his faults, he'd be their best middle infielder right now.

Pat Neshek not only won a spot in the Padres' bullpen out of spring training after being lost on waivers for nothing by the Twins, he threw eight innings with a 2.25 ERA and .222 batting average against. However, while I'm happy to see Neshek doing well and didn't understand cutting him loose, his 7-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio is anything but impressive, his average fastball has clocked in at just 85.6 miles per hour, and now he's been optioned to Triple-A.

• Traded to the Braves for Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond last month in one of the most confusing Twins moves in a long time, Billy Bullock has struggled at Double-A with a 12.15 ERA through 6.2 innings. He thrived at Double-A in the second half of last season, but his shaky control has been a big problem with six walks. Diamond, meanwhile, has a 3.48 ERA and 13-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three starts at Rochester.

Rob Delaney was lost on waivers to Tampa Bay in late January when they Twins dropped him from the 40-man roster to make room for Dusty Hughes. Delaney failed to make the Rays out of spring training, but has a 2.45 ERA and 14-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 innings at Triple-A and will likely get a chance in Tampa Bay at some point this season. Hughes has been a mess so far, living up to his mediocre track record by allowing seven runs in seven innings.

Ron Mahay left the Twins as a free agent, signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers only to be released in the final week of spring training, and has latched on with the Diamondbacks at Triple-A, continuing a career-long pattern of having to prove himself anew seemingly every season despite consistently solid numbers. He might finally just be out of gas at age 40, but Mahay has a career ERA of 3.83 that includes a 3.49 mark in the previous five seasons.

Dennys Reyes beat out Hideki Okajima for the left-handed specialist role in the Red Sox's bullpen coming out of spring training, turning a minor-league deal into $900,000 in guaranteed money, and then got demoted to Triple-A one week into the season after four shaky outings. Reyes cleared waivers and accepted an assignment to Pawtucket, but the $900,000 salary is locked in whether "Big Sweat" gets called back up to Boston or not.

Yohan Pino, a right-hander the Twins swapped to the Indians for Carl Pavano in mid-2009, was traded to the Blue Jays last week for cash considerations. Pino was a mid-level prospect when the Twins dealt him, posting standout numbers in the minors despite mediocre raw stuff, and now he's organizational filler at age 28. Pavano was an impending free agent back then, but went on to re-sign with the Twins twice and has a 4.09 ERA in 326 innings since the trade.

December 17, 2010

Coming to America: Twins sign Tsuyoshi Nishioka to three-year deal

By trading J.J. Hardy to the Orioles last week the Twins signaled that they were all but certain to sign Tsuyoshi Nishioka after bidding $5.3 million last month to secure the Japanese middle infielder's exclusive negotiating rights. And sure enough the 26-year-old switch-hitter arrived in Minnesota yesterday to undergo a physical exam in preparation for signing what's expected to be a three-year, $9 million deal with a $4 million team option or $250,000 buyout for 2014.

General manager Bill Smith has made it clear that the Twins targeted Nishioka largely due to Ron Gardenhire wanting more speed in the lineup, and despite his excellent range defensively Hardy is among the slowest shortstops in baseball. Whether that focus makes sense following the team's most successful three-year stretch offensively since the early '90s is questionable, but there's no doubt that going from Hardy to Nishioka is a huge speed upgrade.

Nishioka averaged 28 steals per season in Japan, including 22 this year, but his career success rate on the bases is a poor 72 percent, which is below the standard break-even point where attempting steals is actually beneficial. His raw speed, while far superior to Hardy, is generally considered very good rather than elite. As for the rest of Nishioka's game, like past Japanese players coming to America projecting his performance requires a lot of educated guesswork.

Nishioka is coming off a career-year, winning the batting title with a .346 average and notching 206 hits in a 144-game season for the most since Ichiro Suzuki in 1994. However, he entered 2010 as a career .280 hitter in six seasons and batted just .260 in 2009. His breakout season was fueled by a .395 batting average on balls in play, which simply isn't sustainable. His career average on balls in play is .327 and no MLB hitter this decade has a career mark above .360.

Based on his track record the Twins should be happy if Nishioka can manage a batting average around .275, which should lead to a solid on-base percentage assuming he's able to maintain some of the plate discipline he displayed in Japan. He drew 79 walks this year and 67 walks in 120 games last year while posting a fairly low strikeout rate. Based on previous hitters going from Japan to MLB his walks will fall and his strikeouts will rise, but a .330 OBP seems doable.

Power hitting in Japan hasn't translated well to MLB, as only Hideki Matsui has been able to maintain any kind of significant pop following the move and even he went from 36 homers per 150 games there to 23 homers per 150 games here. Guys like Kaz Matsui, Akinori Iwamura, and Kosuke Fukudome went from sluggers there to singles hitters here, and even Suzuki was good for 17 homers per season in Japan.

Projecting a similar power dropoff for Nishioka makes sense, except he never actually showed much power even in Japan, with a career-high of 14 homers and just 11 homers in 596 at-bats this year. In fact, among the nine prominent Japanese hitters to come to MLB thus far only So Taguchi did it after showing Nishioka-like power over there, and he went on to smack a total of just 19 long balls in 1,369 at-bats for the Cardinals, Phillies, and Cubs.

Nishioka will be hard-pressed to reach double-digit homers for the Twins and a .400 slugging percentage probably represents his realistic upside, with a mark in the .360-.375 range more likely. Add it all up and an optimistic but reasonable projection would look something along the lines of .275/.335/.375, which is very close to the .268/.338/.372 mark by Orlando Hudson this year and similar to the .281/.345/.385 career mark of another familiar name, Jason Bartlett.

Of course, Kaz Matui's career MLB mark of .267/.321/.380 also puts him squarely in that same company and he was vastly more productive than Nishioka in Japan. Nishioka has a .790 OPS for his career, including .905 in his batting title-winning breakout. Matsui averaged a .920 OPS during his final five seasons in Japan, batting .320 with 25 homers and 25 steals per year. And then he hit .267 with a .701 OPS in MLB, so even .275/.335/.375 by Nishioka is far from certain.

Matsui also provides a cautionary tale when it comes to expectations for Nishioka defensively. Nishioka has won the Japanese equivalent of a Gold Glove award three times, winning as both a shortstop and a second baseman, but Matsui was a four-time Gold Glove shortstop in Japan and proved to be awful at the position in MLB, very quickly getting moved to second base and posting an Ultimate Zone Rating of 12.6 runs below average in 968 total innings at shortstop.

In an effort to learn more about Nishioka following the Twins' winning bid last month I talked to several people who frequently saw him play in Japan, including a pitcher who faced him on multiple occasions, a scout who filed reports on him to an MLB team, and a writer who tracked him closely. They all had doubts about Nishioka's ability to thrive as an MLB shortstop due to his arm strength and the difficult transition Japanese fielders face going from turf to grass.

In signing him the Twins seem to recognize those potential issues, indicating that they'll take a look at Nishioka alongside Alexi Casilla in spring training before deciding who plays shortstop and who plays second base. Since he doesn't project as an impact hitter defense will go a long way toward determining Nishioka's overall value, and for their $15 million investment to be a good one the Twins likely need him to be capable at shortstop or a standout at second base.

If he can hit .275 or so with a solid on-base percentage and be an asset on defense the Twins will have added a nice all-around player at a premium position smack in the middle of his prime years and under team control at reasonable salaries through 2014. Nishioka definitely appears capable of that if his transition to MLB goes smoothly, but his gaudy 2010 totals dramatically overstate his upside and his arrival brings at least as much uncertainty as excitement.

December 10, 2010

Twins trade J.J. Hardy to Orioles for James Hoey and Brett Jacobson

Speculation about trading J.J. Hardy steadily increased after the Twins placed the high bid for exclusive negotiating rights to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka last month and yesterday they pulled the trigger, sending Hardy, Brendan Harris, and $500,000 to the Orioles for minor-league relievers James Hoey and Brett Jacobson. Nishioka and the Twins are negotiating, but moving Hardy shows they're very confident in signing him before the December 26 deadline.

However, even with Nishioka expected to sign shortly the decision to part with Hardy is a very questionable one for several reasons. First and foremost is that Hardy is simply a good player at a key position and tends to be underrated by those who don't recognize the full value of his defense, don't appreciate the lack of offensive production generally found in shortstops across baseball, or focus solely on the time he missed with a wrist injury.

Hardy is certainly not without flaws and some of them are prominent, but a deeper look at his performance clearly shows an above-average shortstop the Twins could have retained without having to make a multi-year commitment. He hit .268/.320/.394, which may not look like much but is actually better than the MLB average for shortstops of .262/.319/.371. And after coming back from the wrist injury Hardy hit .302/.356/.436 in 64 games.

Among the 28 shortstops to play at least 100 games this season Hardy ranked 11th in batting average, 13th in on-base percentage, 10th in slugging percentage, and 11th in OPS, making him above average for the position offensively no matter how you slice it. Toss in outstanding defense that Ultimate Zone Rating pegged as MLB's best at 12.8 runs above average per 150 games and Hardy was one of the top 12 shortstops in baseball even while missing 60 games.

Beyond underrating Hardy relative to other shortstops the trade also shows a level of faith in both Nishioka and Alexi Casilla that makes me nervous. Investing about $15 million for three years of Nishioka is a sound move, but like previous Japanese imports he's a question mark at the plate and is also coming off a career-year above his track record. And while he won a Gold Glove at shortstop in Japan, opinions are mixed at best on if he can thrive there in the majors.

Casilla is also an option at shortstop after faring well there in limited action subbing for Hardy, but he hasn't played the position regularly since 2007 at Triple-A and has never even graded out strongly at second base. He's also far from reliable offensively, or at least far from reliably good offensively. Casilla has hit well at times, but owns a career line of .249/.306/.327 in 1,073 plate appearances. To put that in some context, Nick Punto is a career .247/.321/.322 hitter.

Turning over the middle infield to Nishioka and Casilla has the potential for disaster, especially given that the primary backup options at this moment are Matt Tolbert and Trevor Plouffe. It doesn't shock me that the Twins have undervalued Hardy, but unless there's another move up their sleeve it does surprise me that they're so willing to go into 2011 with a pair of question marks atop the depth chart and a pair of replacement-level players as fallback options.

In speaking about the trade yesterday general manager Bill Smith made it very clear that the move was made largely because Ron Gardenhire wants to add more speed to the lineup and Hardy, despite his excellent range defensively, is one of the slowest shortstops in baseball. In a vacuum adding more speed is obviously a good thing, but in this case adding the speed may come with getting worse on both sides of the ball and being faster isn't that vital to winning.

Of course, the deal wasn't just about dumping Hardy and in fact the Twins chose to tender him an arbitration offer last week specifically because they felt confident about getting something in return for him via trade. Smith admitted to discussing Hardy with at least six teams and the decision to settle on the Orioles' offer of Hoey and Jacobson makes the Twins' targets in those talks crystal clear. They wanted bullpen help for 2011 and beyond in the form of power arms.

For the most part the Twins' longstanding, organization-wide focus on drafting and developing pitchers with better control and command than raw stuff has served them well, but at times it has also left them short on the flame-throwing relievers many other teams prefer to rely on in late-inning roles. Neither pitcher acquired from Baltimore fits the Twins' typical mold, as Hoey and Jacobson are both big guys with power fastballs and shaky command.

Jacobson was the Tigers' fourth-round pick in 2008 and was traded to the Orioles for Aubrey Huff in mid-2009. He spent this season repeating high Single-A at age 23, making his 2.79 ERA and 67-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 71 innings less impressive than it looks. His first crack at high Single-A included a 4.13 ERA and 55/26 K/BB ratio in 65 innings, so while being 6-foot-6 with mid-90s velocity gives Jacobson some upside his performance so far hasn't been special.

I'll need to study up on Jacobson before determining a ranking, but if he cracks my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects it'll likely be just barely. Hoey has fewer than 50 career innings in the majors and has spent the past two seasons exclusively in the minors, so technically he meets my qualification for "prospect" status too, but he also turns 28 years old in a few weeks and made his big-league debut way back in 2006. He's more of a project than a prospect.

Hoey was selected by the Orioles in the 13th round of the 2003 draft and emerged as a top relief prospect after putting up some incredible minor-league numbers in 2006 and 2007, but then blew out his shoulder and missed all of 2008 following surgery. He initially struggled so much after coming back in 2009 that the Orioles dropped Hoey from the 40-man roster and he passed through waivers unclaimed.

He remained in the Orioles' organization at Double-A and put together a decent 2009 despite struggling to throw strikes, but was left off the 40-man roster last offseason and wasn't picked in the Rule 5 draft. Hoey began this year back at Double-A, but earned a midseason promotion to Triple-A and combined for a 3.25 ERA, .196 opponents' batting average, and 70 strikeouts in 53 innings between the two levels.

His control was awful with 34 walks in 53 innings and the great numbers aren't much different than what Anthony Slama has done in the high minors, but Hoey's velocity has bounced back enough post-surgery that his raw stuff is superior to Slama's. As a 28-year-old "prospect" with a surgically repaired arm he's by definition a long shot, but Hoey's numbers this year show the potential for dominance and unlike Slama he has the mid-90s heat and power slider to match.

Hardy and Nishioka starting with Casilla as a backup would've been the best chance to win in 2011. Instead they focused on Hardy's flaws, trading an above-average shortstop under team control at a palatable one-year price and turning to two question marks in the name of getting faster. It makes them worse in the short term, perhaps by a lot, and the haul from Baltimore isn't impressive, but clearing Harris' salary off the books is nice and at least Hoey is intriguing.

December 7, 2010

Winter meetings rumblings: Nishioka, Hardy, Uehara, Thome, and Pavano

I'm not at the winter meetings this year, but my blog-mate Craig Calcaterra is on the scene in Orlando writing lots of good stuff on Hardball Talk and after Day 1 there are even some Twins-related rumblings worth noting ...

Bill Smith met yesterday afternoon with Tsuyoshi Nishioka's agent for the first time and Ed Price of AOL Fanhouse reports that the Twins have offered the Japanese infielder a three-year deal worth $9-$10 million. Last week I crunched some numbers on previous Japanese players signing with MLB teams and concluded: "Based on those precedents ... a three-year deal for around $9 million seems likely." Not bad. Now he just needs to accept the offer.

J.J. Hardy's status remains up in the air, but I expect his situation to come into focus quickly once Nishioka signs. My hope is still that the Twins keep both players and use Alexi Casilla in a utility role, but as many as six teams have reportedly expressed interest in trading for Hardy and if the Twins are going to move him they'll want to do so before the shortstop market gets settled. Right now I'd probably bet on Hardy being traded for bullpen help.

• Speaking of which, according to Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun the Twins are among six teams to express interest in free agent reliever Koji Uehara. A month ago I examined low-cost bullpen options and put Uehara atop the list of my recommended targets, suggesting that he'd "make an ideal setup man" if "available for a reasonable one-year contract." With at least five other teams bidding that may prove difficult, but it's nice to hear the Twins like him too.

• Last week Jim Thome's agent reiterated that he planned to play in 2011 at age 40 and now the future Hall of Famer told Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com that he wants to play two more seasons. Thome called the Twins "an awesome organization" and "a wonderful place to play," but stopped short of saying he planned to re-sign. According to Rosenthal, agent Pat Rooney "has received calls from multiple teams expressing interest."

• Smith told ESPN1500.com's Phil Mackey that he hasn't ruled out re-signing Carl Pavano, but given various reports of heavy interest from several teams and speculation about three-year offers his returning to Minnesota seems highly unlikely. Making a three-season commitment to Pavano would be a mistake, so hopefully the Twins will be content to let the 34-year-old right-hander walk and take the compensatory draft picks.

Brian Fuentes is drawing interest from multiple teams, including the Red Sox, and is said to be seeking $6-$8 million per season in a multi-year deal. There's no indication that the Twins are in the mix to re-sign him and by not offering Fuentes arbitration they forfeit compensation for the Type B free agent signing elsewhere.

• After sitting out this season following his third back surgery in three years Joe Crede is now attempting a comeback.

Ron Mahay is reportedly drawing interest from the Red Sox and Mets.

• I'm slated to be the guest on Seth Stohs' podcast tonight, starting at 10:00 p.m.

December 3, 2010

Twins tender contracts to all nine arbitration-eligible players

Prior to yesterday's deadline the Twins tendered 2011 contracts to all nine of their arbitration-eligible players: Francisco Liriano, Delmon Young, Matt Capps, J.J. Hardy, Alexi Casilla, Pat Neshek, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, and Jason Repko. Arbitration has already been avoided by Neshek and Repko, who ensured they wouldn't be non-tendered by signing one-year deals for $625,000 and $600,000 respectively.

The other seven players tendered contracts are now under the Twins' control for 2011 and will either have their salaries determined through an arbitration hearing or agree to deals at some point beforehand. They're eligible to be traded in the meantime and there's lots of speculation that the Twins tendered Hardy a contract despite his no longer being in their plans since doing so retains his rights and they can trade him rather than simply cutting him loose for nothing.

I'm still holding out some increasingly slim hopes that the Twins will keep Hardy as the starting shortstop and pair him with Tsuyoshi Nishioka at second base while using Casilla as the utility infielder, but at the very least there's apparently a strong enough trade market for Hardy that they'll get something in return for letting him go. Arbitration salary figures are exchanged next month and the hearings aren't until February, so Hardy's status may be in limbo for a while.

Repko signing a pre-deadline deal for $600,000 means he'll return as a backup outfielder after filling that role following his June call-up from Triple-A. Ideally even a reserve outfielder would have a little more offensive upside than a 30-year-old with a .227/.304/.365 career line in the majors and modest totals at Triple-A, but Repko is a great defender and hitting right-handed makes him a decent fit as a complement to lefty batters Denard Span and Jason Kubel.

A rough return from Tommy John surgery and public spat with the team over the handling of an in-season hand injury seemingly made Neshek a non-tender option, but instead he re-signed for his 2010 salary. Neshek's velocity and command were off from his pre-surgery norms in 11 games for the Twins and just 25 strikeouts compared to 40 hits in 37 innings at Triple-A wasn't encouraging, but the bullpen has plenty of holes and hopefully his arm strength will return.

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