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 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.

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

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 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.

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.

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