September 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Mauer shut down, rotation spending, and no platooning

joe mauer catching mask

Joe Mauer continues to have post-concussion symptoms more than a month after suffering a brain injury, so Monday the Twins shut him down for the final week of the season. Mauer hasn't played since taking a foul ball off the mask on August 19 and experienced setbacks when he tried to ramp up workouts during the past few weeks, with Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writing that he "still feels sensitivity to light and noises, and has trouble outside confined spaces."

Shutting him down is absolutely the correct decision and by the time spring training rolls around Mauer will be six months removed from the concussion, but sadly as the Twins and so many other teams have learned in recent years there are no guarantees with brain injuries. And now, much like with Justin Morneau and Denard Span, the only thing the Twins can really do is wait and hold their breath hoping that time and rest do the trick.

In making Monday's announcement both Mauer and general manager Terry Ryan stressed that they expect him to remain at catcher next season, but whereas that seemed like a questionable stance at the time of the concussion last month it now seems borderline crazy to me. I've spent a decade writing about how much of Mauer's value comes from catching and have always argued against a position switch, but the question has changed and the old answers cease to apply.

There's no way to stop a catcher from taking foul balls off the mask on a regular basis, along with all the other physical dangers that come with the position, and if he were to suffer another brain injury it might be too late to avoid major long-term consequences on and off the field. As a first baseman Mauer's odds of remaining an elite player into his mid-30s are much lower, but he'd still provide plenty of value there and Josmil Pinto is a potential replacement with upside.

(Note: I went into a lot more depth analyzing the Mauer position switch decision last month.)

• There seems to be considerable disagreement within the organization about how much focus to put on acquiring pitching via free agency. Nick Nelson of Twins Daily wrote a breakdown of the situation, with the short version being that Ron Gardenhire is basically begging for rotation help and owner Jim Pohlad says he's willing to spend big for reinforcements, all while Ryan downplays free agency much like he did last winter before settling for Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey.

Every team would love to build a rotation full of young, cheap pitchers and for many years the Twins did that well enough to avoid having to swim into the deep end of the free agency pool. And generally speaking free agent pitching is typically overpriced and requires making risky long-term commitments to players on the wrong side of 30. However, their current lack of MLB-ready arms with more than back-of-the-rotation upside makes Ryan's usual approach a tough one to pull off.

Despite his rookie struggles Kyle Gibson still has a chance to develop into more than a fourth or fifth starter and Alex Meyer remains a potential top-of-the-rotation starter if he can stay healthy, but neither can be counted on to make a huge 2014 impact and even if they do surrounding them with the likes of Correia, Scott Diamond, Vance Worley, and Samuel Deduno is going to leave the rotation well short of decent.

Last season Twins starters had the second-worst ERA in baseball at 5.40 and this season Twins starters have the worst ERA in baseball at 5.26. Based on those numbers and the in-house options who can realistically be rotation members in 2014 there's little chance of building even an average rotation without bringing in outside help. Ryan would surely prefer trades to free agency, but my fear is that his real plan involves a third straight season with a terrible rotation on the cheap.

• One of my frequent complaints about Gardenhire is his unwillingness to platoon hitters, which he's basically never done. Most prominently Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel played no matter the pitcher, but versus lefties Jones hit .231/.286/.355 and Kubel hit .239/.313/.365. For a more recent example on the other side of the plate, Trevor Plouffe plays no matter the pitcher despite hitting .223/.280/.381 off righties. And there are no shortage of maddening day-to-day examples.

Many of the best managers in baseball history regularly employed platoons and current examples in Gardenhire's own league include former Manager of the Year winners Joe Maddon of the Rays, Bob Melvin of the A's, and Buck Showalter of the Orioles. It's hardly a new-school approach and it's hardly a complicated thing to make sense of, yet Gardenhire has never budged and said the following when asked about it by Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

I don't recall ever having a platoon. I'm not against it. I'll tell you that. I wouldn't have a problem having a platoon if it fits. If it makes sense numbers-wise and it works, then you go with it.

"I don't recall ever having a platoon" and "I'm not against it" are statements that don't fit together coming from a manager in his 12th season on the job. Gardenhire may not be against it in theory, but his actions over nearly 2,000 games have certainly shown that he's very much against it in practice despite having plenty of opportunities to improve the lineup via platooning. And for his part, Ryan told Berardino that he's fine with the manager's lack of platooning:

I don't think he likes to platoon players at all. I don't either. Put guys out there that are everyday players, then you don't have to platoon. You're always looking for players that can play 162 games, right? That's what I'm looking for. I don't go out looking for platoon players.

Obviously every team would love to find nine everyday players and trot them out there 162 times, but that's an impossible goal and instead leads to so-called "everyday players" like Jones, Kubel, and Plouffe flailing away against same-sided pitchers they have no business facing. Over the past three seasons the Twins have scored the fewest runs in the league, making "I don't go out looking for platoon players" sound awfully tone deaf coming from the GM. It's nothing new, though.

• Mauer hasn't played since August 19, but according to Win Above Replacement and Fan Graphs' valuation system he's still been worth more than his salary this season.

• This year the Twins have been out-scored by 158 runs, which is the second-worst run differential in baseball. The worst run differential in Twins history belongs to the 1995 team at -186.

• Since taking over for Matt Capps as Twins closer Glen Perkins has converted 90 percent of his save chances (52-for-58) with a 2.31 ERA.

LaTroy Hawkins left the Twins for a two-year, $8 million deal with the Cubs as a 31-year-old free agent and a decade later he's still rolling along.

Francisco Liriano is lined up to start the Wild Card playoff game for the Pirates.

• For a lot more about Mauer's future and the Twins' roster options for next season check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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December 20, 2011

Jason Kubel leaves Twins for two-year, $15 million deal with Diamondbacks

Jason Kubel's expected departure became official yesterday, as he agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal with the Diamondbacks. Kubel has been a solid player and should thrive moving to the NL and Arizona's hitter-friendly ballpark, but he's also a 30-year-old should-be designated hitter with a modest .259/.327/.430 line during the past two seasons and the Diamondbacks already had a younger, cheaper, and arguably better all-around left fielder in Gerardo Parra.

Kubel had a standout 2009 season, hitting .300/.369/.539 with 28 homers at age 27, but was otherwise a pretty ordinary corner outfielder/designated hitter. He hit .271/.335/.459 overall in 753 games for the Twins, who refused to platoon Kubel and gave him more than 25 percent of his career plate appearances versus left-handed pitching despite a measly .239/.313/.365 line against southpaws.

Kubel's production (.271/.335/.459) is nearly identical to Jacque Jones, who hit .279/.327/.455 in 976 games for the Twins and also should have been platooned, with the difference being that Jones was an outstanding defensive corner outfielder who would've played center field if not for Torii Hunter's presence. Kubel was far from a butcher in the outfield and had a strong arm, but lacked the range to be anything but below average.

Of course, that wasn't always the case. Kubel was a very promising prospect, hitting .352 with 22 homers, 42 doubles, and nearly as many walks (53) as strikeouts (59) in 127 games split between Double-A and Triple-A as a 22-year-old in 2004. He even stole 16 bases, played some center field, and ranked 17th on Baseball America's annual list of MLB's top prospects. And then a brutal outfield collision while playing in the Arizona Fall League wrecked his left knee.

Kubel tore three ligaments, missed the entire 2005 season, and came back as a shell of his old self in 2006, hitting .241/.279/.386 in 73 games for the Twins while displaying below average speed. To his credit Kubel transitioned successfully from toolsy prospect with a blown out knee to lumbering designated hitter, batting .273/.339/.466 from 2007-2011, but much of his upside vanished that day in Arizona and sadly the Twins never got to see his full capabilities.

We'll never know what he would've done with a healthy knee and uninterrupted development, but the player Kubel became following the injury was much closer to average than a star. He certainly had plenty of value, but poor defensive corner outfielders who hit .275 with 20 home runs and an .775 OPS shouldn't be terribly difficult or expensive to find for teams willing to use a platoon or at least go year-to-year with the role.

And the Twins have basically done just that by replacing Kubel with Ryan Doumit, who'll make $3 million in 2012 and has a Kubel-like .271/.334/.442 career line with similar struggles versus lefties. Kubel perhaps has more upside than Doumit, but he also has less defensive versatility and would've required a multi-year commitment for more than twice as much money per year. Plus, by swapping Kubel for Doumit the Twins gain a supplemental first-round draft pick.

Much like with Michael Cuddyer it would've been nice to see Kubel start and finish his career in Minnesota, but also like Cuddyer the Twins were able to replace him with a similar, arguably superior player for a fraction of the price while adding value in a draft pick. Smart decisions are often tough decisions and while a segment of the fan base is no doubt upset about Cuddyer and Kubel leaving the Twins made the right move in both cases.

December 15, 2011

Twins Notes: Comings, goings, returns, and engagements

• Arbitration-eligible players Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, and Alexi Casilla were tendered contracts, but the Twins non-tendered Jose Mijares and made him a free agent. Terry Ryan's explanation for the move was odd, as he said the decision "gets up to how much he's going to make" and "we decided we didn't want to go there." Ryan also indicated that the Twins tried to work out a pre-deadline contract with Mijares to avoid non-tendering him, but he declined.

Non-tendering players rather than paying them undeserved arbitration raises is common, but that doesn't really apply in Mijares' case. He was paid $445,000 in 2011 and would've been in line for a raise to at most $750,000, which is only $270,000 more than the new MLB minimum salary and represents 0.75 percent of the payroll. If the Twins thought he was worth keeping around cutting Mijares loose over money when "money" is only $270,000 makes little sense.

Clearly they lost all faith in Mijares as his velocity dipped and he totaled as many walks (30) as strikeouts (30) in 49 innings, but he's still just 27 years old and prior to falling apart in 2011 he had a 2.49 ERA in 105 career innings. His secondary numbers have never been as good as his ERA, but given that the Twins aren't exactly overflowing with quality relievers and the cost to keep the hefty lefty around was little more than the minimum salary the move surprised me.

• Along with non-tendering Mijares the Twins also sliced Jim Hoey and Pedro Florimon from the 40-man roster. Hoey was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays, leaving only marginal relief prospect Brett Jacobson to show for last winter's misguided J.J. Hardy trade with the Orioles. Florimon, whom the Twins claimed off waivers from the Orioles last week, cleared waivers this time around and was assigned to Triple-A.

Claiming and waiving a player within the span of a week might seem silly, but Florimon has the potential to be a decent utility infielder and now the Twins can stash him in the minors without using up a 40-man roster spot. I've long felt the Twins should be more willing to shuffle guys through the fringes of the 40-man roster, so while Florimon is hardly a high-upside player the maneuvering surrounding him was nice to see.

Hoey perhaps deserved a longer opportunity based on his minor-league numbers and mid-90s fastball, but his complete lack of control and quality off-speed pitches weren't encouraging and at 29 years old he's far from a prospect. Hoey wasn't totally without potential when the Twins acquired him and he's exactly the type of reliever teams should take fliers on in minor trades, but the problem is that trading Hardy was anything but a minor mistake, then and now.

• Signing veteran minor leaguers to help Rochester be competitive after back-to-back 90-loss seasons is clearly a priority for the Twins and the latest batch is Rene Rivera, P.J. Walters, and Sean Burroughs. Rivera split this year between Rochester and Minnesota, helping to fill in for Joe Mauer behind the plate, but was trimmed from the 40-man roster in October. He's the epitome of a replacement-level catcher and handy enough to have around at Triple-A.

Walters was traded from the Cardinals to the Blue Jays in the seven-player swap headlined by Colby Rasmus and Edwin Jackson on July 27, but Toronto let him become a free agent three months later and his track record is pretty underwhelming. Walters briefly looked like a decent prospect back in 2007 and his strikeout rates are solid, but the 26-year-old right-hander has a high-80s fastball, mediocre control, and a 4.63 ERA in 484 innings at Triple-A.

Burroughs was the ninth overall pick in the 1998 draft and Baseball America ranked him as one of the game's top 10 prospects in 2000, 2001, and 2002. His big-league career started off well enough, as Burroughs debuted for the Padres as a 21-year-old and hit .289/.345/364 through his first 339 games, but he never developed any power, regressed in other areas, struggled with substance abuse, and was finished at age 25. Or so it seemed.

After three seasons out of baseball Burroughs signed a minor-league deal with Arizona, whose general manager Kevin Towers was the GM in San Diego who drafted him. He worked his way back to the majors by hitting .412 in 34 games at Triple-A and then struggled in 78 games as a bench bat, hitting .273/.289/.336 with an ugly strikeout-to-walk ratio. Burroughs is one of the biggest prospect busts of the 2000s, but at age 30 still qualifies as intriguing Triple-A depth.

• Just five weeks after Bill Smith was fired as general manager Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com reports that he's close to returning to the organization in a "special assistant" role that would involve running the Twins' efforts in Latin America and their spring training complex in Florida. Smith was overmatched and then some as a GM, but handled the firing amazingly well publicly and has been with the Twins since the mid-1980s, so their showing him loyalty isn't surprising.

Nick Punto signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the Red Sox to replace Jed Lowrie, who was traded to the Astros for Mark Melancon. As always, in a bench role with a modest salary Punto is an excellent fit on just about any team. Unfortunately the Twins played him too much and paid him $4 million in both 2009 and 2010 (plus a $500,000 buyout to avoid paying him $5 million in 2011). He'll now be paid a total of $4 million for his first three post-Twins seasons.

Kevin Slowey avoided arbitration with the Rockies, agreeing to a one-year, $2.7 million deal.

Jacque Jones, whom I rated as the 30th-best player in Twins history, has been hired by his hometown Padres as a Single-A hitting coach. He last played at Triple-A for the Twins in 2010.

• Mauer got engaged to fellow Cretin-Derham Hall graduate Maddie Bisanz.

November 29, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #30 Jacque Jones

Jacque Dewayne Jones | LF/CF/RF | 1999-2005 | Career Stats

Jacque Jones starred at USC and was a member of the bronze medal-winning Olympic team in 1996 before the Twins picked him in the second round of the 1996 draft. He hit .297/.342/.464 with 15 homers, 24 steals, and a 110-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 131 games at Single-A in 1997 and nearly duplicated that by hitting .299/.350/.508 with 21 homers, 18 steals, and a 134-to-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 134 games at Double-A the next year.

Jones started 1999 at Triple-A and hit .298/.333/.444 in 52 games before the Twins called him up in June. He debuted with an 0-for-4 against the Reds on June 9, 1999 and the rest of the story has been told and re-told here many times. Many of Jones' totals--132 homers, 476 RBIs, 189 doubles, 974 hits, 1,589 total bases--rank among the top 15 in team history, which might make it seem as though I've been overly critical of him over the years.

And that may be true, but there are some other factors to consider. For instance, it's important to remember that Jones played for the Twins in a high-offense era and played a key position for offense. All of which makes his raw totals look better than they really are when compared to hitters from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s or guys from various eras who hit well and played premium defensive positions.

Another factor in my past criticisms of Jones is that because of the weaknesses in his game he would've been more valuable for the Twins if only he'd have been utilized differently in two key areas. Jones' strength was always his ability to hit right-handed pitching, but Ron Gardenhire wiped away much of that value by refusing to platoon him against lefties. The end result was a relatively mediocre line of .279/.327/.455 in seven Twins seasons that breaks down as follows:

             AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
vs RHP      .294     .341     .488     .830
vs LHP      .227     .277     .339     .616

Not only was Jones a totally different hitter against righties and lefties, he was unable to put together even one good year versus southpaws in seven years in Minnesota. Because of that it would've been easy to squeeze the maximum value out of Jones as a hitter, letting him tee off on righties while shielding him versus most lefties. Gardenhire instead got the good hitting against righties and then let Jones erase many of those gains with his horrible work off lefties.

Jones' time in Minnesota is a prime example of how not to get the most out of your players by not putting them in a position to succeed and maximize their talent. And while Gardenhire is at fault for refusing to platoon him, the other major circumstance that could have added to Jones' value for the Twins really can't be pinned on anyone. Well, maybe Torii Hunter and whichever scout recommended that the Twins draft him back in 1993.

In most organizations Jones would have spent seven seasons patrolling center field, where his defense would have been more important and his offense would have been more valuable. However, with Hunter around Jones shifted first to left field and then to right field. His defense in both places was excellent, but his offense was really nothing special for a corner outfielder. Interestingly, his hitting and Hunter's hitting were very similar while with the Twins:

              PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Hunter      4894     .271     .324     .469     .793
Jones       3783     .279     .327     .455     .776

Almost identical overall numbers--albeit in different amounts of playing time--yet Hunter was a more valuable offensive player because his hitting was above average for center fielders while Jones' hitting was slightly below average for corner outfielders. In fact, according to the Runs Created Above Position metric, Jones was 43 runs worse than an average corner outfielder on offense while with the Twins.

If he were drafted by a team that didn't have a elite center fielder and played for a manager who knew the value of platooning Jones would've been a superior player to the one the Twins got. Of course, in ranking his place in Twins history those points are little more than sidebars. Instead of being a platoon center fielder in a fantasy world, he was a strong defensive corner outfielder with a slugging percentage-heavy bat that made him about average for the position.

Multiple all that by nearly 1,000 games spread over seven seasons and what you get is a very solid player. In fact, I might go so far as to say that if Jones played in an earlier era I wasn't around to see I'd view his Twins career in a more positive light. In other words, if I didn't have such vivid memories of Jones' flaws and the ways in which the Twins failed to ideally utilize him what I'd be left with is a decent hitter and quality defender who was durable and productive.

Instead, I see is the wild swings and helplessness versus lefties, the throws from the outfield that were either air-mailed past the catcher or launched directly into the turf, the struggles in the postseason and short peak, and an overall lack of improvement that seemed to symbolize Twins hitters at the time. I still see what could've been with Jones, rather than what actually was. And what actually was ... well, it was pretty good for quite a while.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
Homers                132    10th
Extra-Base Hits       336    11th
RBIs                  476    12th
Doubles               189    13th
Total Bases          1589    14th
Isolated Power       .176    14th
Plate Appearances    3783    15th
Hits                  974    15th
Runs Created          502    15th
Games                 976    16th
Runs                  492    16th
Slugging Percentage  .455    17th
Times On Base        1233    17th
Steals                 67    18th
Batting Average      .279    24th
OPS                  .782    25th

October 18, 2010

Twins Notes: Gardenhire, Hudson, Ryan, Cuddyer, and Gomez

• Twins chief executive officer Jim Pohlad said shortly after the final playoff game that signing Ron Gardenhire to an extension is "a no-brainer." Gardenhire is under contract through 2011, but teams generally try to avoid going year-to-year with managers they intend to keep around and he's signed five different two-year deals with the Twins since taking over the job in 2002. Expect another two-year pact to be announced at some point this offseason.

I've been blogging about the Twins since 2002 and during that time I've often been accused of being overly critical of Gardenhire, in part because many of his lineup decisions and in-game strategies frustrate me and in part because I believe his regular season success has been somewhat overstated by virtue of playing in a traditionally weak division. On the other hand, I've never even come close to calling for him to be fired and certainly wouldn't do so now.

In nine years under Gardenhire the Twins have a miserable 18-57 record against the Yankees, including nine straight postseason losses to New York. However, he also has six division titles in nine years after the team had one winning season in the nine years before he took over for Tom Kelly and there's a strong chance Gardenhire will be named Manager of the Year shortly. I don't think Gardenhire is a great manager, but he's good enough and better than most.

John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus reported last week that "the Twins have no plans to re-sign Orlando Hudson," which jibes with what I've been told from various people who know about such things. Outwardly he has a reputation for being a chatty jokester who lightens up a clubhouse, but I'm told he rubbed some people the wrong way and is highly unlikely to be back in 2011 despite giving the Twins more or less the production they should have expected.

Signed to a one-year, $5 million contract in early February, he hit .284/.358/.402 through the end of August before putting together a horrible September. Hudson hit .268/.338/.372 in 126 games overall, which along with solid defense at second base made him a very nice pickup for $5 million, but the Twins may feel they can get 90 percent of the production for 10 percent of the cost in Alexi Casilla. I'm skeptical of Casilla as a full-time player, but it makes some sense.

Hudson projects as a Type B free agent, so it'll be interesting to see if the Twins offer him the arbitration necessary to receive a compensatory draft pick and also risk him forcing them into another one-year contract by accepting. If he ends up instead ranking as a Type A free agent, Hudson's deal prohibits the Twins from offering him arbitration. I'd risk him accepting since the draft pick is valuable and the downside of him taking another one-year deal isn't so bad.

Terry Ryan was said to be on the Mets' list of candidates to replace general manager Omar Minaya, but Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports that Ryan "has no interest in going to New York." However, according to Nightengale he "will take a look" if a GM job for a "Midwest" team opens up, which is somewhat surprising. Any number of teams would be smart to go after the 57-year-old Ryan as their new GM, but it seems unlikely that he'd be interested.

Ryan stepped down as GM of the Twins just three years ago and indicated at the time that he was tired of the day-to-day grind of the position that involved so many responsibilities beyond his preferred focus on simply evaluating players. In the three years since then he's remained very involved with the Twins as a "special assistant" to Bill Smith, so I'd hate to lose him. And not just because he was friendly to me at the winter meetings and admitted to liking AG.com.

Michael Cuddyer underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Wednesday after apparently playing through the injury for much of the year. Fans and media members love the notion of athletes playing through pain, but in Cuddyer's case he hit just .259/.322/.382 in the final two months and struggled defensively at first base. I'm certainly not suggesting that he should have had the surgery during the season, but perhaps starting 78 of the final 80 games was a mistake.

Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that "the Twins are leaning toward not offering Jacque Jones a contract for 2011." I'm sure that makes a certain segment of the fan base sad, but Jones is 35 years old and hit just .280/.319/.389 with a ghastly 84/18 K/BB ratio in 96 games at Triple-A. He hasn't been a productive hitter versus MLB pitching since 2007 and wasn't called up in September because the Twins didn't want to clear a 40-man roster spot.

Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com crunched the numbers on the Twins losing five straight ALDS matchups dating back to 2003 and found that the lineup produced a cumulative .244/.297/.359 line in 650 plate appearances and 17 games. Mackey also points out that .244/.297/.359 looks awfully similar to .246/.293/.349, which is Carlos Gomez's career mark. In other words, while going 2-15 in their last five playoff series the Twins' lineup has combined hit just like Gomez.

• And last but not least: Gardenhire in pixel form.

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