November 27, 2012

Twins Notes: Pinto, Thielbar, Bromberg, Clement, Valencia, and Nishioka

• After clearing lots of the dead weight from the 40-man roster the Twins filled the empty spots by adding eight players: Aaron Hicks, Kyle Gibson, B.J. Hermsen, Michael Tonkin, Daniel Santana, Josmil Pinto, Tim Wood, Caler Thielbar. All eight players would have been eligible for the Rule 5 draft on December 6 if they hadn't been added and the first five names on the list were expected, as they rank among the Twins' better upper-minors prospects.

Pinto was somewhat surprising in that he's played just 12 games above Single-A through age 23, already spent about half of his time as a designated hitter, and failed to crack a .700 OPS in 2010 or 2011. He did bounce back with a strong season at high Single-A, hitting .295/.361/.473 in 93 games before a late promotion to Double-A, and the Twins apparently believe Pinto has a chance to be an impact bat.

When the Twins signed Wood to a minor-league contract on November 10 he didn't get a 40-man roster spot, but for some reason two weeks later they decided the 30-year-old reliever with just 58 career innings of big-league experience needed to be protected. He has a decent Triple-A track record and looks capable of being a useful middle reliever, but adding Wood to the 40-man roster weeks after signing him to a non-roster deal certainly seems odd.

Thielbar was cut by the Brewers two years after being an 18th-round draft pick and latched on with the independent league St. Paul Saints, where the left-handed reliever impressed the Twins enough to sign him in mid-2011. This year he pitched at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, faring very well overall, but his 3.57 ERA and 32/16 K/BB ratio in 40 innings for Rochester were nothing special for a 25-year-old. Helluva story, questionable 40-man addition.

• Most of the aforementioned dead weight that was previously trimmed from the 40-man roster have either found new homes or re-signed with the Twins on minor-league deals. Samuel Deduno, P.J. Walters, Esmerling Vasquez, and Luis Perdomo re-upped without 40-man roster spots, Jeff Manship signed a minor-league contract with the Rockies, and Matt Carson signed a minor-league deal with the Indians.

At the time Carlos Gutierrez was the only player claimed off waivers after being dropped from the 40-man roster by the Twins, but two weeks later the Cubs dropped him from their 40-man roster and sent him outright to Triple-A when no one claimed the former first-round pick. As of now the Twins have a full 40-man roster, but there's still no shortage of replacement-level talent that can safely be let go if/when they need spots for trades or signings.

David Bromberg was the Twins' minor league pitcher of the year in 2009, but he was dropped from the 40-man roster after missing most of 2011 with a broken forearm and became a minor-league free agent last month. It was somewhat surprising to see the Twins sour on Bromberg so quickly, but he was never considered a top prospect and struggled this year working mostly as a reliever at age 24. He signed a minor-league deal with the Pirates.

• If you're into misleading headlines "Twins sign former top prospect, No. 3 pick" is a good one, but Jeff Clement seems destined for Rochester after inking a minor-league deal. While in the Mariners' farm system Clement ranked among Baseball America's top 75 prospects in 2006, 2007, and 2008, but poor defense kept him from playing catcher regularly and his bat hasn't been good enough for first base/designated hitter. For now he's just intriguing Triple-A depth.

Tim Doherty and Marty Mason replaced Tom Brunansky and Bobby Cuellar on the Triple-A coaching staff. Doherty will be Rochester's hitting coach after serving as a Red Sox assistant hitting coach this year. Mason takes over as pitching coach and his resume includes 11 seasons as the Cardinals' bullpen coach under manager Tony La Russa. Brunansky and Cuellar were promoted to the Twins' coaching staff as part of last month's quasi-shakeup.

• Last month when Tsuyoshi Nishioka forfeited the remaining $3.25 million on his contract to part ways with the Twins it was portrayed as an act of charity on his part. There's no doubt he did the Twins a favor, but as I wrote at the time: "He'll likely recoup the $3.25 million and then some back in Japan, where he was a .346-hitting, Gold Glove-winning star before leaving." Sure enough, Nishioka signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal with the Hanshin Tigers.

Danny Valencia spent most of his time at Triple-A after the Twins traded him to the Red Sox for a non-prospect in early August and now Boston has cut him from the 40-man roster. Overall this year Valencia hit .188/.199/.299 in the majors and .259/.300/.404 in the minors, posting a combined 90/21 K/BB ratio in 126 games. At age 28 he might be nearing the end of the line, although Valencia re-emering as a right-handed bench bat wouldn't be shocking.

Torii Hunter is back in the AL Central, signing a two-year, $26 million contract with the Tigers. That's a big commitment to a 37-year-old and his 2012 production was built on an sustainably great ball-in-play batting average, but it's worth noting that Hunter has more or less been worth $20 million over every two-year period since establishing himself in 2001. He's aged remarkably well and moving from center field to right field resuscitated his defense.

• For a whole lot more about the 40-man roster additions, Nishioka's raise, and the state of the Twins' farm system check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

October 25, 2012

Twins Notes: 40-man cuts, declining Capps, Baker talks, and 25 years ago

Yesterday in this space I listed 11 marginal players the Twins could designate for assignment to create space on the 40-man roster heading into the offseason and by the afternoon they'd done just that, dropping all but four of those players from the roster. Carlos Gutierrez was claimed off waivers by the Cubs while Jeff Manship, Luis Perdomo, Esmerling Vasquez, Kyle Waldrop, P.J. Walters, and Matt Carson all passed through waivers unclaimed.

Gutierrez was the 27th overall pick in the 2008 draft out of the University of Miami and for years was touted as a late-inning bullpen option, but he never actually pitched well beyond Single-A. He got ground balls with his sinker, but Gutierrez was basically a one-pitch reliever with poor control. He posted a 4.90 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A while managing just 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings and is currently recovering from shoulder surgery at age 26.

Manship once looked like a decent prospect as a starter in the minors, but he simply couldn't miss enough bats against experienced hitters and wasn't able to add much velocity in a move to the bullpen. He could resurface as a decent middle reliever at some point, but there's little in his track record to suggest an upside beyond that and Manship is 27 years old with mediocre raw stuff and a 6.20 ERA in 85 innings as a big leaguer.

Waldrop was drafted 25th overall in 2004, which is so long ago that the Twins took him with the compensatory pick they got for losing LaTroy Hawkins as a free agent. He was drafted as a starter out of high school, but shifted to the bullpen following shoulder surgery in 2008 and spent three years at Triple-A. Waldrop throws strikes and gets tons of ground balls, but had just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings in Rochester and missed even fewer bats in Minnesota.

Perdomo, Vasquez, Walters, and Carson were each acquired by the Twins via minor-league deals or waiver claims, so cutting them loose comes as no surprise. Perdomo is the reliever the Twins decided to promote in September instead of giving Anthony Slama an opportunity to show that his consistently amazing minor-league numbers are no fluke, which was maddening then and remains so now.

• Along with trimming the 40-man roster the Twins also declined their $6 million option on Matt Capps, buying him out for $250,000 instead. That doesn't preclude them from re-signing Capps for less, but hopefully the front office can talk themselves into a clean breakup after such an odd love affair. Capps threw 122 innings for the Twins with a 3.61 ERA and 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings, which cost them Wilson Ramos, one draft pick, and $13 million.

Capps is a perfectly decent setup man when healthy, but he's always been an example of the folly behind labeling someone a "proven closer" based on save totals and then paying a premium for that meaningless label. Doing it over and over again, as the Twins did, is one of the team's most obvious fundamental mistakes in recent memory. Closers are made, not born, as Rick Aguilera, Joe Nathan, Eddie Guardado, and now Glen Perkins have shown.

• They haven't officially declined the $9 million option on Scott Baker for 2013, but that's merely a formality after he missed the entire season following Tommy John elbow surgery. Two months ago Baker said he'd like to remain in Minnesota, this week general manager Terry Ryan said the Twins are interested in keeping him around, and yesterday Darren Wolfson of 1500ESPN.com reported that the two sides are "working now on a new deal."

Baker is no sure thing to be healthy by Opening Day and had durability issues even before the surgery, but getting him signed to an incentive-laden one-year deal before free agency begins would be a nice first step toward rebuilding the rotation. Baker logged 135 innings with a 3.14 ERA and 123-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2011 and among the 144 starters with 500-plus innings since 2007 he ranks 12th in K/BB ratio, 50th in xFIP, and 52nd in ERA.

• Last but not least, on this date 25 years ago ...

Twins 4, Cardinals 2.

June 8, 2012

Link-O-Rama

• In fairness to new Vikings fullback Jerome Felton, who among us hasn't been arrested while in the drive-thru line at McDonald's?

• Craziest sentence I've read in a long time: "Police said that Carter then cut off pieces of his skin and intestines and threw them at officers." And the rest of the story is similarly insane.

• Nerds need to get their head out of a spreadsheet and watch a game read a dictionary.

• Up is down, black is white, and the Minnesota Twins are drafting power arms.

• Sure, going to 6,000 different Chinese restaurants is impressive, but what about me going to the same Chinese restaurant 6,000 different times?

• Renewing the Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com candidacy of Kelly Brook is like riding a bike.

• My weekly appearance on KFAN with Paul Allen involved some NBA chatter along with talk about the Twins' turnaround, what to make of Francisco Liriano, and how batting average on balls in play factors into analysis of hitters. You can listen to the entire appearance here.

Jeff Manship may not seem like a particularly tough name to spell, but facts say otherwise.

• My first thought after reading this story? Even that guy/chair had a live-in girlfriend.

Jamie Anne Royce's list of "things you should know before you date a writer" is funny/true.

• People: Still the worst.

• I'm willing to pitch in some of my salary if NBC makes a run at MLB broadcasting rights.

Jose Berrios, the high school pitcher from Puerto Rico drafted by the Twins with the 32nd pick they got as compensation for losing Michael Cuddyer, had a great reaction to the news:

 And that was before he looked up the slot signing bonus amount for his pick: $1.55 million.

• Rochester Century pitcher Mitch Brown was drafted 79th overall by the Indians after the Twins passed on the local right-hander at 32, 42, 63, and 72. Slot value for his pick: $640,000.

• Why did the Twins choose Byron Buxton over Mark Appel? I'm glad you asked.

• Some context for Buxton negotiations: No. 1 pick Carlos Correa has already signed for $4.8 million and No. 5 pick Kyle Zimmer signed for $3 million.

• This is like one of those "pick any three people to have dinner with" questions, come to life.

• Actually, in reading Maxim's oral history of The Wire it might be more interesting to see what they did after dinner. "We smoked a lot of good weed, did a lot of strip clubs. A lot of that."

• On a related note, Anthony Bourdain is leaving the Travel Channel for CNN, which seems like an odd fit but probably won't matter as long as he sticks with the No Reservations tone.

• Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is the new MC Skat Kat.

Terry Francona has ... well, let's just say remarkable self-esteem. And also a towel.

• I've been saying that Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija looks like the doll from the Saw movies, so a Twitter follow found proof.

• FX pairing Louis C.K. with Jim Jeffries is brilliant, assuming you like filthy, hilarious people.

Jamie Moyer quickly found a new home after being cut by the Rockies and the 49-year-old is now on the same team as J.C. Romero, Lew Ford, and Pat Neshek.

• The fastest man in baseball is on pace for 160 steals.

David Brauer of MinnPost reports that the St. Paul Pioneer Press "is offering buyouts across all departments" in what is another sad development for the local journalism scene.

• As someone who got good grades at the University of Minnesota despite frequently skipping classes, rarely doing any homework, and eventually dropping out this seems like old news.

Barry Zito is selling his $11.5 million house because he didn't like commuting to the ballpark.

Scott Aukerman, who runs the Earwolf podcast network and has a new television show on IFC that debuts tonight, got the New York Times profile treatment.

• We just passed 200,000 downloads for the Gleeman and The Geek podcast. To everyone who listens: Thank you so much ... and maybe leave an iTunes review?

Tiffany Simons is on vacation, so naturally I filled in on HBT Extra for yesterday and today.

• Within his interesting Trevor Plouffe analysis, Parker Hageman of Twins Daily suggests my weight as the new "Mendoza Line." Of course, even Mario Mendoza could hit above .175.

• According to Pew Research Center's study 15 percent of American adults with a computer use Twitter, which is nearly double the total from 18 months ago. I joined Twitter in mid-2009 and can't imagine life without it, as it's become essential for my job and time-wasting ability.

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is the studio version of "The Basement" off Eric Hutchinson's new album:

This week's blog content is sponsored by PickPointz, where you can make predictions, pick games, and win prizes for free. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

April 18, 2011

Twins replace Nathan with Capps as closer, call up Hoey from Triple-A

Joe Nathan reclaimed the closer role despite missing all of last season following elbow surgery and posting an 11.05 ERA with diminished velocity during spring training, but the Twins have now stripped him of ninth-inning duties after back-to-back blown saves against the Rays. Matt Capps, who joined Nathan in blowing a save Friday and also allowed a run in the eighth inning Saturday, will take over as closer.

Nathan has gradually increased his velocity after initially throwing in the high-80s during spring training, as his fastball clocked in at 88-91 miles per hour early on and has more often been at 91-93 miles per hour recently. That's still a significant dropoff from throwing 93-95 mph before surgery, but shaky command has contributed to Nathan's struggles every bit as much as lost velocity and both are to be expected from pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery.

While much of the fan and media focus is on whether Ron Gardenhire should have handed the closer job back to Nathan right away, realistically his choice was between a high-leverage role or a low-leverage role. He could have started Nathan off as a middle reliever, giving him mostly inconsequential work in a Jeff Manship/Alex Burnett-like role. However, once he opted to give Nathan meaningful work resuming closer duties made as much sense as anything.

Capps could have begun the season closing, with Nathan setting him up, but leads are just as easily blown in the eighth inning and the closer role allowed Nathan to start innings fresh and know exactly when he'd be pitching. Gardenhire uses his closer in such a way that it restricts their overall workload to 65-75 innings, whereas through three weeks as a setup man Capps was on a 95-inning pace that the Twins wouldn't have wanted Nathan duplicating anyway.

Believing he should be brought back gradually in a low-leverage role was perfectly reasonable, but believing a high-leverage role was fine while also quibbling over closing or setting up was mostly pointless. If you thought he was ready for meaningful work, closing was logical. And if you thought he wasn't ready for closing Nathan should have been in middle relief, because the fact that you can't get a "save" in the eighth inning doesn't make the three outs any easier.

Whatever the case, it's clear now that Nathan wasn't ready for a high-leverage role 12 months after surgery. He resembles his old self more than Francisco Liriano or Pat Neshek did at this same stage of their Tommy John recoveries, but getting outs in the late innings of tight games is a tall order with a low-90s fastball and shaky command. In his first 130 post-surgery pitches, his fastball and slider were down 2.4 and 0.9 mph, and batters made 32 percent more contact.

If he can stay healthy and avoid setbacks Nathan will continue to add velocity and improve his command, but whether that means he'll eventually be ready to thrive again in the late innings is much less certain. In the meantime Capps will fill the same role he did in the second half of last year for the Twins and the previous three-and-a-half years for the Nationals and Pirates. He's a perfectly solid closer, but Capps shifting roles again creates a big hole to fill.

Gardenhire was willing to deploy Capps in just about any situation as a setup man, using him in both the seventh and eighth innings, bringing him into spots with men on base, and asking him to get as many as six outs. That will change now that Capps is a closer, as he'll mostly be limited to coming into the ninth inning with the bases empty to get three outs. That means 20 percent fewer innings for Capps, with that work and those jams going to someone else.

Presumably by stripping Nathan of closer duties Gardenhire is also taking him out of the mix for other high-leverage roles, at least for now. Glen Perkins and Jose Mijares are seemingly the leading candidates to move up the bullpen ladder, as Perkins has escaped from the doghouse by beginning the year with 7.2 shutout innings and Mijares, despite joining Nathan and Capps with a poor outing Saturday, has a 2.38 ERA in 110 career innings.

Of course, Perkins' track record suggests he wouldn't be able to hang on to a late-inning role for long and Gardenhire has been reluctant to rely on Mijares as much more than a situational left-hander, with his 54 appearances since the beginning of last year totaling just 37.2 innings. All of which leaves the door wide open for Jim Hoey to grab hold of a setup man role after the Twins called him up from Triple-A to replace Manship following yesterday's game.

Acquired from Baltimore as part of the J.J. Hardy deal, Hoey spent all of 2009 and 2010 in the minors following shoulder surgery in 2008.  He failed to beat out Manship for the final bullpen spot during spring training because of control problems and the coaching staff's familiarity with Manship, but Hoey has the hardest fastball in the entire Twins organization and piled up eight strikeouts versus just one walk in 6.2 innings at Triple-A to earn the call-up.

Prior to surgery Hoey appeared in 35 games for the Orioles in 2006 and 2007, averaging 95.5 mph with his fastball, and four seasons later the 28-year-old right-hander has recovered all of that velocity and then some. Hoey had a 3.25 ERA, .196 opponents' batting average, and 70 strikeouts in 53 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year, but also walked 34 batters and uncorked seven wild pitches.

His mid-90s fastball and hard slider give Hoey the raw stuff to dominate in the late innings, but for that to matter he must throw strikes more consistently than he's been able to so far before or after surgery. Counting on improved control at age 28 is usually foolish, but pitching coach Rick Anderson is certainly the man for the job even if most of his staffs full of strike-throwers over the years have relied on fastballs as slow as Hoey's slider.

March 28, 2011

Twins set 25-man roster, name Nathan closer, send Hughes to Triple-A

Things could change before April 1, but yesterday the Twins set the 25-man roster by sending Luke Hughes and Jim Hoey to Triple-A. That means Matt Tolbert beat Hughes for the utility man job and Jeff Manship beat Hoey for the final bullpen spot, with Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond still in roster limbo. Rule 5 picks must be offered back to their original teams if not kept in the majors all year, but the Twins are trying to avoid that by working out a trade with the Braves.

In the meantime, here's what the Opening Day roster looks like barring a last-minute change:

LINEUP:                            ROTATION:
C  Joe Mauer                       SP Carl Pavano
1B Justin Morneau                  SP Francisco Liriano
2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka               SP Nick Blackburn
SS Alexi Casilla                   SP Scott Baker
3B Danny Valencia                  SP Brian Duensing
LF Delmon Young
CF Denard Span                     BULLPEN:
RF Michael Cuddyer                 CL Joe Nathan
DH Jason Kubel                     SU Matt Capps
                                   SU Jose Mijares
BENCH:                             RH Kevin Slowey
C  Drew Butera                     RH Jeff Manship
IF Matt Tolbert                    LH Glen Perkins
OF Jason Repko                     LH Dusty Hughes
DH Jim Thome

Hughes homered six times and slugged .569 in 65 at-bats this spring, but he also hit .246 with a .265 on-base percentage and 17-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And despite Ron Gardenhire saying last week that the ability to play shortstop would not be the deciding factor in the utility man competition, general manager Bill Smith cited Tolbert's ability to play shortstop as one of the reasons he got the job over Hughes, saying: "We need a shortstop."

With a 12-man pitching staff Tolbert or Hughes was the only decision to make on the position player side once Trevor Plouffe played his way out of the mix, but multiple bullpen spots were up for grabs. In theory at least. Joe Nathan, Matt Capps, Jose Mijares, and the sixth starter (Kevin Slowey) were always locks, and very early on it seemed pretty clear that Glen Perkins and Dusty Hughes would make the team as the second and third left-handers.

That essentially left a single middle relief opening for a right-hander, with Manship, Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Carlos Gutierrez in the mix. However, neither Waldrop nor Gutierrez are on the 40-man roster and the coaching staff's familiarity with Manship gave him the upper hand over Hoey. There was certainly competition going on, but aside from carrying Hughes as a third lefty and dumping Pat Neshek this is the 25-man roster I'd have predicted entering spring training.

Nathan reclamining his old closer role was equally predictable as long as he avoided any major setbacks returning from Tommy John elbow surgery and sure enough Gardenhire made that all but official yesterday during an interview on 1500-ESPN, saying:

I would imagine we'll start out probably something like that. We like what he's doing. I think the big thing is to see how he does early in the season and go from there. We're going to use them both right away. I just don't think Nathan is ready to go three-four days in a row.

At no point did Nathan report any physical problems and he allowed zero runs in six of eight appearances, but an ugly outing last week caused him to end the spring with a bloated 11.05 ERA overall and his velocity is still lagging behind where it was pre-surgery. Ultimately though, unless the Twins were going to start Nathan off in a low-leverage role or on the disabled list there isn't a huge difference between pitching the eighth inning and pitching the ninth inning.

In most tight games the closer and primary setup man are both going to make an appearance anyway and both roles almost always involve starting an inning fresh and being asked to get three outs, so if the Twins believe Nathan is ready for a late-inning role they might as well just give him ninth-inning duties. Whether he's actually ready for a late-inning role is up for debate, of course, and plenty of people who watched him in Fort Myers were skeptical.

I'm curious to see how Dusty Hughes fares after the Twins used a 40-man roster spot to claim him off waivers in January and quickly made it pretty obvious that he'd crack the Opening Day bullpen. His being let go by the Royals doesn't necessarily mean anything, since they've made plenty of awful decisions with the major-league roster recently, but there's really nothing in his multi-year track record to suggest Hughes is much more than a replacement-level reliever.

Beyond that, Hughes doesn't even seem particularly well-suited for the left-handed specialist role that he'll likely fill as long as Mijares is the main southpaw setup man. Through his first 70 career innings Hughes has a poor 20-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio versus lefties and they've hit .261 off him, albeit with minimal power. Perkins is an even worse fit for the lefty specialist role, as he's actually been better against righties (.801 OPS) than against lefties (.840 OPS).

Assuming that he can rediscover something resembling his old effectiveness a healthy Nathan combined with Capps from the right side and Mijares from the left side is potentially a strong late-inning trio and I'm relatively optimistic about Slowey as a bullpen asset, but Hughes and Perkins trying to shut down big left-handed bats in the middle innings scares me and so far at least Manship looks more like the next Brian Bass than the next Matt Guerrier.

Nathan's setback-free spring training and Slowey's switch have me slightly less worried about the bullpen now than six weeks ago, but Nathan remains a big question mark and there could be enough middle relief ugliness to cause some early changes. Hoey, Waldrop, Gutierrez, Alex Burnett, and Anthony Slama give the Twins plenty of right-handed reinforcements at Triple-A and lefty Chuck James could emerge as an interesting alternative to Perkins or Hughes.