April 2, 2012

Drew Butera loses his scholarship as Twins set Opening Day roster

"No scholarships." That's how Terry Ryan stressed not handing players jobs this year simply because they had jobs last year. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was the first casualty and now Drew Butera joins him in Rochester after two years in Minnesota. Butera's job was in jeopardy as soon as Ryan Doumit signed, but Ron Gardenhire's fear of catching emergencies and the Twins' aversion to ditching marginal guys for whom they develop an affinity had me skeptical.

Actually replacing replacement-level players is a step in the right direction, although Butera remains on the 40-man roster and, considering Joe Mauer's injury history and Doumit's shaky defense, there's a good chance he'll be back. Butera stuck around despite the lowest OPS of any non-pitcher with 300 plate appearances since 1990 because the Twins loved his defense, liked him as a person, and believed he had a big influence as Carl Pavano's personal catcher.

There's no doubt that Butera did a good job controlling the running game despite Pavano barely paying attention to runners, so the pairing may have been a good fit and may have even helped Pavano. However, evaluating catcher defense is very complicated and assuming something is true because a pitcher thinks it's true doesn't always show itself in the results. In terms of preventing runs Butera catching Pavano was the same as Mauer catching Pavano:

Pavano with Butera catching: 294 innings, 4.14 ERA.
Pavano with Mauer catching: 201 innings, 4.08 ERA.

Butera is a good catcher who can't hit. And not just "can't hit" like most bench players "can't hit." He's historically awful, hitting .178/.220/.261 for the Twins after hitting .214/.296/.317 in the minors. There are plenty of good-glove, no-hit players in the majors, and rightfully so in many cases, but good defenders with absolutely zero hitting ability belong in the minors and by sending Butera there the Twins set the position player side of the Opening Day roster:

   LINEUP                     BENCH
 C Joe Mauer               IF Luke Hughes
1B Chris Parmelee          IF Sean Burroughs
2B Alexi Casilla           OF Ben Revere
SS Jamey Carroll           OF Trevor Plouffe
3B Danny Valencia
LF Josh Willingham
CF Denard Span
RF Ryan Doumit
DH Justin Morneau

My assumption is that Doumit will be the primary right fielder because he's one of the team's best hitters, has experience there, and presumably wasn't signed to mostly sit on the bench regardless of his position. However, if demoting Butera means that Gardenhire will use Doumit as more of a true backup catcher then Trevor Plouffe would seemingly be in line for most of the starts in right field or at least a time-share with Ben Revere.

Chris Parmelee parlayed a big September call-up and strong spring training into the starting first base job, with the Twins deciding that the best chance of keeping Justin Morneau in the lineup is at designated hitter. Morneau may prove healthy enough to return to first base and Parmelee may show that his mediocre track record is more telling than his most recent 100 at-bats, in which case the Twins could shift Doumit to DH and use Plouffe/Revere in right field.

They certainly have no shortage of first base/designated hitter/corner outfield options, which should be good for an offense that scored the second-fewest runs in the league last season, but they're also lacking a true backup middle infielder should 38-year-old shortstop Jamey Carroll or oft-injured second baseman Alexi Casilla need time off and it's unclear to me what role there is for Sean Burroughs unless he eats into Danny Valencia's starts at third base.

On an individual basis this is far stronger than the typical Twins bench during the past decade, although that admittedly isn't saying much. Burroughs, Plouffe, and Luke Hughes are each useful hitters and Revere is at the very least a useful fourth outfielder, but in terms of actually putting that collection of individuals into practice as a functioning bench the lack of a quality defensive middle infielder could get tricky. And speaking of tricky, here's the pitching staff:

   ROTATION                   BULLPEN
SP Carl Pavano             RH Matt Capps
SP Francisco Liriano       LH Glen Perkins
SP Liam Hendriks           LH Brian Duensing
SP Nick Blackburn          RH Anthony Swarzak
                           RH Jared Burton
   DISABLED LIST           LH Matt Maloney
SP Scott Baker             RH Alex Burnett
SP Jason Marquis           RH Jeff Gray
RP Kyle Waldrop

Injuries are keeping the Twins from beginning the season with their preferred 12-man pitching staff. Scott Baker is on the disabled list with an elbow injury, so 23-year-old Liam Hendriks will step into his rotation spot. Jason Marquis has been away from the team following his daughter's bicycling accident and the Twins will take advantage of an early off day on the schedule to skip his first turn in the rotation, which means they'll have eight relievers initially.

Kyle Waldrop would have been one of those eight relievers, but he's on the DL with an elbow injury of his own, leaving space in the bullpen for a pair of early offseason waiver claims (Matt Maloney and Jeff Gray), a non-roster invitee on a minor-league contract (Jared Burton), and a 2011 holdover with a 5.40 ERA in 98 career innings (Alex Burnett). Once everyone is healthy one or two of those guys will lose their spot, but that's a very shaky middle relief corps.

And the presumed late-inning options don't inspire a whole lot more confidence aside from Glen Perkins as the primary setup man. Matt Capps has plenty of questions to answer at closer coming off a disastrous season, Anthony Swarzak seemingly lacks the raw stuff and bat-missing ability for a high-leverage role, and Brian Duensing still needs to show that he can consistently get right-handed hitters out after flopping as a starter.

Aside from overpaying Capps it's a bullpen built on the cheap with failed starters, waiver wire pickups, former mid-level prospects, and injury comebacks. Odds are at least one solid reliever will emerge from that group because that's just how relievers work--my money would be on Burton, assuming he's healthy--but in the meantime things could get pretty ugly as Gardenhire searches for someone dependable beyond Perkins.

February 16, 2012

Twins Notes: Mastroianni, waivers, options, and avoiding arbitration

Darin Mastroianni is the Twins' latest waiver claim, as they snagged the 26-year-old outfielder after the Blue Jays designated him for assignment to make 40-man roster room for Francisco Cordero. Mastroianni is too old to be a prospect and lacks the skill set to have big upside, but he's potentially a useful role player and could be a solid fit on the Twins' roster as a right-handed hitter with speed and on-base skills who can play all three outfield spots.

Mastroianni's patience and strike-zone control are great for a player with almost zero power, as he's drawn 82 walks per 150 games in the minors despite pitchers never being afraid to throw him strikes. He managed just four homers and a measly .379 slugging percentage in 325 games between Double-A and Triple-A, but also hit .283 with a .368 on-base percentage and nearly as many walks as strikeouts while averaging 54 steals per 150 games.

Ultimately most of his value depends on defense and in asking around about Mastroianni's range I've gotten mixed reviews, which along with about half of his action last season coming as a left fielder suggests he's probably not an elite center fielder. However, even if he's merely average in center field and above average in the corners Mastroianni looks capable of being a worthwhile backup behind two lefty-swinging outfielders in Denard Span and Ben Revere.

• To make room for Mastroianni on the 40-man roster the Twins designated reliever Esmerling Vasquez for assignment after claiming him off waivers from the Diamondbacks in early October. Vasquez has a mid-90s fastball, but it comes with awful control and not surprisingly he passed through waivers unclaimed. That means the Twins were able outright him to Triple-A, keeping the 28-year-old right-hander in the organization without taking up a 40-man roster spot.

Alexi Casilla and the Twins avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $1.38 million deal. He filed for $1.75 million and they countered at $1.065 million, settling just below the midpoint. Casilla will be arbitration eligible again in 2013, but keeping him around for a decent-sized raise would be tough to justify unless he can finally stay healthy and consistently productive. He's never played 100 games in a season and is a 27-year-old career .252/.310/.327 hitter.

• MLB Trade Rumors put together a list of players on 40-man rosters with less than five years of MLB experience and no minor-league options, and the Twins' contingent is Casilla, Glen Perkins, Anthony Swarzak, Trevor Plouffe, Luke Hughes, Matt Maloney, and Jeff Gray. Perkins, Casilla, Swarzak, and Plouffe are locks to make the team and Hughes is a near-lock if the sprained shoulder he suffered playing winter ball in Australia doesn't ruin his chances.

Gray and Maloney lacking options is part of why the Twins claiming them off waivers back in October never made sense to me, with the other reason being that they simply aren't much good. Both pitchers are marginal big leaguers without any sort of real upside, so if the Twins need to trim any more players from the 40-man roster they'd seemingly be atop the list. And if not expect to see them both placed on waivers at some point between now and Opening Day.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports calculates MLB's average payroll at $98 million, which is exactly where the Twins stand after choosing not to spend $1 million on one of many decent relievers available. Obviously having an average payroll is much better than the Twins' spending during the Metrodome years, but if they're already merely average in Target Field's third year and have shed $15 million from last season's payroll falling below average soon seems inevitable.

Keith Law of ESPN.com ranked the Twins' farm system 14th among all MLB teams, pegging the strengths as "interesting high school bats and high-impact Latin American prospects."

• I answered some questions about the Twins over at Razzball.

• On this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode John Bonnes and I went through the roster for a player-by-player look at each hitter, from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau to Drew Butera and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, discussing where they each stand heading into 2012.

November 1, 2011

Twins Notes: Maloney, Gray, roster spots, and free agent rankings

• Last week I commended the Twins for trimming a half-dozen replacement-level players from the 40-man roster, but yesterday they filled two of the newly created spots with others teams' replacement-level players. By virtue of a 63-99 record the Twins have the No. 2 waiver position and it makes sense for them to take advantage of that as teams remove players from 40-man rosters and pass them through waivers in bunches to prepare for the offseason.

Unfortunately neither Matt Maloney nor Jeff Gray possesses any kind of significant upside or has a particularly intriguing track record, and for the Twins to give 40-man roster spots to the caliber of talent they could simply sign to minor-league contracts is strange. Last offseason they made similar moves to add Eric Hacker and Dusty Hughes to the 40-man roster and the results were predictably poor based on their underwhelming resumes.

Maloney, who was claimed off waivers from Cincinnati, is a former third-round pick whom the Reds acquired from the Phillies for Kyle Lohse in mid-2007. He's a 27-year-old left-hander with a 5.40 ERA in 80 career innings as a major leaguer and averaged just 87.1 miles per hour with his fastball. Maloney has very good control and some nice-looking ERAs in the minors, but he's an extreme fly-ball pitcher and doesn't miss many bats.

Maloney served up 18 homers through his first 80 innings in the big leagues, which works out to 2.0 homers per nine innings and would be the highest homer rate in Twins history. He also gave up 19 homers per 200 innings at Triple-A, which is a lot for an experienced pitcher in the power-deflating International League. Along with all those homers Maloney also managed just 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings in the majors and 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings at Triple-A.

Gray is a 29-year-old reliever joining his fifth team in two years. He was originally picked by the A's in the 32nd round of the 2004 draft and they traded him to the Cubs in a 2009 deal for Aaron Miles and Jake Fox. He left the Cubs as a minor-league free agent and signed with the White Sox last offseason, only to be claimed off waivers by the Mariners in May of this season. Bouncing around doesn't preclude Gray from having upside, but his track record isn't pretty.

Gray has spent at least some time in the majors during each of the past four seasons, logging 89 total innings with a 4.57 ERA, 50-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .286 opponents' batting average. In theory averaging 93.5 miles per hour with his fastball and 86.7 miles per hour with his slider should allow Gray to miss more bats than Maloney, yet that hasn't been the case in the majors so far and he had just 142 strikeouts in 199 innings at Triple-A (with a 3.94 ERA).

Maloney and Gray aren't totally without value and certainly every team needs pitching depth, but for the Twins to choose them as waiver targets and give them each 40-man roster spots is hard to understand. Maloney is a 27-year-old fly-ball starter with a high-80s fastball and Gray is a 29-year-old journeyman reliever with iffy control and few strikeouts. Every winter dozens of pitchers just like them are available for minor-league deals that don't require 40-man spots.

• MLB Trade Rumors got its hands on the free agent compensation ratings ahead of the official release and the Twins' free agents are ranked as expected. Michael Cuddyer and Matt Capps qualified as Type A and Jason Kubel qualified as Type B. Capps' rating is irrelevant, because in order for the Twins to receive compensation for him leaving they'd have to offer him arbitration first. And if they did that he'd simply accept and force them into a one-year, $8 million deal.

Obviously the Twins would welcome both Cuddyer and Kubel back on one-year deals, so they'll be offered arbitration and will each decline. Any team signing Cuddyer would have to give their first-round pick (or second-round pick, if their first rounder is in the top 15) to the Twins, who'd also receive a supplemental pick between the first and second rounds. Teams are able to sign Kubel without losing a draft pick, but the Twins would receive a supplemental pick if he leaves.

MLB's compensation system has always vastly overrated relievers, which is why Capps is rated Type A while superior players like Kubel, Mark Buehrle, Aramis Ramirez, and Hiroki Kuroda are Type B. Because of the disconnect between ratings and actual value some Type A players have their free agent options limited when teams don't want to forfeit a pick to sign them, but in Cuddyer's case contenders are likely willing to surrender a pick as part of a multi-year deal.

• We're recording this week's episode of "Gleeman and The Geek" a day later than usual, so if you have any questions, comments, or topic ideas for us to cover on the show feel free to post them in the comments section or send them to me via Twitter.

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