March 29, 2010

Casilla Beats Tolbert, Jones For Final Bench Spot

Nothing is official yet, but the Twins basically finalized the position player portion of their roster over the weekend by optioning Matt Tolbert to Triple-A and announcing that Jacque Jones will also begin the year in Rochester. Tolbert and Jones were both competing with Alexi Casilla for the final bench spot, but Casilla had a big advantage in that he's out of minor-league options and would have to pass through waivers unclaimed before going to the minors.

I've all but given up on Casilla developing into an impact player. He'll turn 26 years old in June, doesn't have a great glove, and has hit just .244/.301/.314 in 903 plate appearances in the majors along with .278/.352/.350 in 703 plate appearances at Triple-A. Yes, he had a very nice half-season for the Twins in 2008, but he's too old to be a prospect, doesn't bring a ton to the table defensively, and has now been an awful hitter for the past 1,600 plate appearances.

With that said, choosing to keep Casilla around as a utility man rather than risk losing him for nothing on waivers makes sense when the alternative is a similarly flawed non-prospect with a minor-league option remaining in Tolbert. Barring injury the last man on the bench will rarely see the field anyway, so this way the Twins keep both guys in the organization while delaying an inevitable decision on Casilla's future.

Jones actually out-performed Casilla and Tolbert during spring training, but decisions shouldn't be based on a dozen exhibition games against inconsistent levels of competition and he hasn't been a productive big-league hitter since 2007. Beyond that he isn't on the 40-man roster, so the Twins would've had to dump someone like Casilla to create a spot for him. Instead they'll stash Jones at Triple-A and see if he plays well enough to be a potential in-season call-up.

Barring a last-minute change, here are the Opening Day position players:

   STARTERS                 BENCH
C  Joe Mauer             C  Drew Butera
1B Justin Morneau        IF Brendan Harris
2B Orlando Hudson        IF Alexi Casilla
SS J.J. Hardy            DH Jim Thome
3B Nick Punto
LF Delmon Young             DISABLED LIST
CF Denard Span           C  Jose Morales
RF Michael Cuddyer
DH Jason Kubel

The combination of a 12-man pitching staff and Jim Thome's inability to serve as more than an emergency first baseman defensively already limited the Twins to essentially a 3.5-man bench. Compounding that issue even further is Jose Morales starting the season on the disabled list and the final spot going to Casilla rather than an outfielder. However, while that's certainly far from an ideal setup it shouldn't hurt the Twins much in the short term.

Drew Butera will have an argument for being the majors' worst hitter, but Morales is aiming to return by the end of April and in the meantime he hopefully won't be called on for more than 1-2 starts each week. On days when Thome starts at DH the Twins will have an outfielder on the bench and presumably Casilla, Nick Punto, or Michael Cuddyer can handle center field for a few innings if necessary. Plus, beyond Punto the Twins won't do much pinch-hitting anyway.

Sure, a healthy Morales would be preferable to Butera and an experienced outfielder would be more useful than Casilla, but ultimately Thome and Brendan Harris will take care of whatever mixing and matching Ron Gardenhire figures to do with the lineup. It doesn't make sense to rush Wilson Ramos' development just so he can back up Joe Mauer for a couple weeks and it doesn't make sense to ditch Casilla before getting further proof that Jones isn't washed-up.

March 2, 2010

Twins Notes: Slowey, Casilla, Jimerson, and Man Strength

  • Kevin Slowey missed the final three months of last season after wrist surgery to, as he describes it, "cut down some tendons and pull out some tissue and bones that were no longer necessary and just kind of floating around in there." His recovery process included around four months of rehab, but even now Slowey told David Dorsey of the Fort Myers News Press that the two screws surgically inserted into his wrist may keep him from ever feeling the same:

    I don't know that I'm going to ever feel the same like I did before. But that's OK. You know, I've got two screws in my wrist. So I shouldn't expect to feel like I felt before. ... I hope that things go well. I expect to go out and compete. If things don't go the way I want them to, it won't be because of any lack of preparation or lack of effort.

    Prior to the wrist injury Slowey went 26-15 with a 4.36 ERA and 239-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 312 innings spread over 54 career starts to emerge as a crucial long-term part of the Twins' rotation at age 25, so obviously that quote is kind of a buzz kill. Slowey tends to be relatively blunt when interviewed, so hopefully he was painting an overly pessimistic picture of his status, but even late last season there were rumblings about the screws hurting his range of motion. For a control pitcher, that sounds scary.

  • Aaron Hicks is 19th on Baseball America's annual top 100 prospects list, with Wilson Ramos (58), Kyle Gibson (61), and Miguel Angel Sano (94) also cracking the list. That sounds about right to me, as they were the first four names on my list of the Twins' top 40 prospects and in reviewing the system as a whole on Monday I called them "four of the top 75 or so prospects in all of baseball." If you're curious, Braves outfielder Jason Heyward and Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg topped BA's list.
  • David Brown of Yahoo! Sports spent some time at Twins camp last week and as always came away from it with some amusing stories, including Ron Gardenhire heckling Justin Morneau about Olympic hockey, Delmon Young joking that he shed 30 pounds this offseason "to be able to catch the balls hit to the warning track" off Carl Pavano, and standing 6-foot-11 making Jon Rauch just the second-tallest right-handed relief pitcher in the clubhouse. Too much good stuff for me to quote it all, so check it out.
  • John Shipley of the St. Paul Pioneer Press notes that Alexi Casilla surrendered his jersey No. 25 to Jim Thome in exchange for "a very nice" Rolex watch. Thome may have been better off just waiting out Casilla, because he's out of minor-league options and seemingly doesn't have a place on the Opening Day roster. Casilla will try to increase his versatility by getting some spring reps in the outfield, but Nick Punto will be around as the backup infielder and actually has a little MLB experience in center field too.
  • After losing Jason Pridie via waivers the Twins inked Jacque Jones and now Charlton Jimerson to minor-league deals, presumably as outfield options for Rochester. Two years ago I talked to a Triple-A pitcher who called Jimerson "the best player I've ever played with" and then repeated it after I stopped laughing long enough to realize he was being serious. I can sort of see how someone could form that opinion just by watching Jimerson, who looks good and has tons of athleticism, speed, and power.Jimerson is a good center fielder and has averaged 25 homers and 40 steals per 150 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Unfortunately he also has perhaps the worst approach at the plate in all of pro baseball, averaging 203 strikeouts versus 29 non-intentional walks per 150 games. In his last stint at Triple-A, two years ago, Jimerson had an absurd 80-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games. Seriously, in 219 plate appearances for Seattle's affiliate in Tacoma he whiffed 80 times and drew three walks.

    Not surprisingly Jimerson also batted just .233 with a ghastly .250 on-base percentage and .688 OPS, although if you're not into sweating that small stuff he did go deep 11 times and swipe 14 bases. All of which is a long way of saying that Jimerson is a 30-year-old with a .258/.312/.456 career mark in the minors who swings at everything and would be laughably overmatched in the majors. However, as Bob Matthews of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle points out, Jimerson is also worth rooting for.

  • Perhaps joining Jimerson in Rochester is Mike Maroth, who got an invite to spring training as part of his minor-league deal. Maroth was once a decent back-of-the-rotation starter for the Tigers, but is most famous for being MLB's last 20-game loser and hasn't pitched in the majors since posting a 6.89 ERA in 2007. He caught the Twins' eye by going 3-0 with a 2.60 ERA in the Puerto Rican winter league, but even that included a poor 15-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35 innings. He's just filler at age 32.
  • Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Twins were also close to inking Brett Tomko to a minor-league contract, but he opted to re-sign with the A's. Tomko put together a half-dozen good second-half starts for the A's last season, but then suffered an arm injury that he's still recovering from and was 6-19 with a 5.81 ERA over the previous two seasons. He's also 37 years old, so it wasn't much of a loss.
  • Last but definitely not least, John Sickels' lengthy interview with Howard Norsetter is a must-read, if only because the Twins' international scouting coordinator uses the phrase "man strength" in referring to skinny shortstop prospect James Beresford. They not only covered a wide range of topics, Norsetter gave really interesting, thoughtful responses. Whether you want to learn more about specific prospects or the international scouting process as a whole, the interview is a fantastic read.

  • Once you're done here, check out my blog and Twitter updates.

    February 9, 2010

    Twins Waive Jason Pridie, Sign Jacque Jones

    Forced to clear a spot on the 40-man roster after signing Orlando Hudson last week, the Twins waived Jason Pridie and lost him to a claim by the Mets yesterday. Someone in the front office was a big Pridie fan because the Twins actually acquired him twice, first as a Rule 5 pick in December of 2005 and then as part of the Matt Garza-for-Delmon Young swap with Tampa Bay in November of 2007. Unfortunately, for all his supposed tools Pridie just never showed that he could hit even Double-A or Triple-A pitching.

    He hit .248/.297/.360 in 231 games at Double-A and .277/.315/.434 in 322 games at Triple-A, including an abysmal .265/.295/.382 with an 85-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 121 games at Rochester last year. Pridie logged over 2,300 plate appearances between the two levels, and per 150 games struck out 122 times compared to just 31 non-intentional walks. Toss in modest power and he just wasn't going to be a valuable big leaguer despite having good speed and a strong glove.

    Pridie had been atop the Twins' list of possible fifth outfielders, but that was almost by default and guys with his basic skill set and utility will be available on waivers or minor-league contracts from now until Opening Day (and perhaps from now until the end of time). In fact, as soon as Pridie was claimed off waivers by the Mets yesterday the Twins announced that they'd signed another potential fifth outfielder to a minor-league deal: Jacque Jones. Yes, that Jacque Jones.

    Two months ago Jones personally attended the winter meetings in the hopes of talking someone into giving him a comeback opportunity at age 35, but he predictably found that to be a tough sell. Jones left the Twins as a free agent after the 2005 season and was last a reasonably productive player in 2007, batting .285/.335/.400 for the Cubs. He fell off a cliff in 2008, hitting .147 in 42 games for the Tigers and Marlins, and spent last season playing for the independent league Newark Bears.

    While the Twins could certainly use a fifth outfielder capable of backing up Denard Span in center field, the odds of a 35-year-old Jones fitting that bill seem slim given that he's three seasons removed from playing the position regularly or holding his own versus big-league pitching. Toss in the fact that Jones was nearly useless against left-handed pitching even in his prime and it's tough to see him fitting into an outfield/designated hitter mix that already includes lefty bats Span, Jason Kubel, and Jim Thome.

    Jones' contract includes an invitation to spring training, but the Twins have indicated that he's unlikely to make the team and has already agreed to report to Triple-A if not on the Opening Day roster. There's no real harm in letting him come to camp and giving Jones one last chance to salvage his career with a stint at Rochester may not even be such a bad idea depending on how the minor-league depth chart shakes out, but they can do better in even the most rudimentary search for a fifth outfielder.

    In terms of best fitting the roster ideally the job calls for a right-handed bat (or switch-hitter) with a good glove and plus speed, experience in all three outfield spots, and some semblance of either power or on-base skills. Pridie and Jones fail that description on multiple levels, but there's no urgency to find a better fit and in fact waiting until the end of spring training could yield the best results once teams start trying to slip guys through waivers. Or they could just trust Nick Punto to handle center field in a pinch.

    Once you're done here, check out my blog and Twitter updates.

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