July 10, 2013

Old friends in new places: Catching up with former Twins pitchers

nathan liriano crain

I've been getting lots of e-mails, comments, and tweets about seven former Twins being named All-Stars and ex-Twins in general thriving for other teams, so let's examine that notion. Like all teams the Twins cycle through tons of players every season, making it impossible to keep close tabs on everyone, but I've tried to narrow things down a bit by focusing on relatively prominent and/or oft-discussed players who departed the organization within the past handful of seasons.

Even then the list is a very long one, so today let's stick to the ex-Twins pitchers ...

Joe Nathan: By declining a $12.5 million option the Twins made Nathan a free agent after 2011 and he signed a two-year, $14.5 million contract with the Rangers. At the time it would have been tough to justify a big two-year deal for a 37-year-old reliever still rounding back into shape after elbow surgery and his departure led to Glen Perkins emerging as closer, but Nathan has been amazing in Texas with a 2.25 ERA and 120/23 K/BB ratio in 104 innings.

Francisco Liriano: Traded to the White Sox in mid-2012 for Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez as an impending free agent, Liriano wasn't much good down the stretch and then signed a two-year deal with the Pirates that was later reworked due to an offseason injury. He's been brilliant for the Pirates with a 2.20 ERA and 74/27 K/BB ratio in 70 innings, relying on his fastball less than ever before.

R.A. Dickey: Dickey spent a thoroughly unmemorable 2009 season in Minnesota, serving as a mop-up reliever for 64 innings before refusing an assignment to the minors and leaving as a free agent. There was nothing promising about his performance, which included a 4.62 ERA and 40/32 K/BB ratio, and the Twins were hesitant to even use the knuckleballer with men on base. He inked a minor-league deal with the Mets at age 35 ... and turned into a Cy Young winner.

Matt Guerrier: Guerrier exited as a free agent following the 2010 season for a three-year $12 million deal with the Dodgers after seven seasons in Minnesota. At the time Guerrier was 32 years old and showing obvious signs of decline, so the decision to let him walk was a sound one. He's struggled with injuries while posting a 4.20 ERA and was recently designated for assignment with a half-season left on the three-year deal, going to the Cubs in a swap of unwanted contracts.

Jesse Crain: Crain followed Guerrier out the door after 2010, signing a three-year, $13 million deal with the White Sox. Despite a modest strikeout rate of 6.2 per nine innings he threw 382 innings with a 3.42 ERA in seven seasons in Minnesota, but Crain has racked up 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings while posting a 2.10 ERA in 150 innings for the White Sox. At the time I'd have re-signed Crain over Guerrier, but didn't blame the Twins for avoiding a three-year deal.

Scott Baker: Baker missed all of 2012 following elbow surgery and then became a free agent when the Twins declined his $9.25 million option. They wanted to re-sign him to a cheaper deal, but balked when Baker refused to include a team option for 2014. He ended up signing with the Cubs for $5.5 million plus some incentives and has yet to pitch. Meanwhile, the Twins spent $4 million on a different pitcher coming off elbow surgery and Mike Pelfrey has a 5.63 ERA.

Matt Capps: Capps went from making a combined $12 million as the Twins' closer in 2011 and 2012 to not even being able to get an MLB contract this offseason, settling for a minor-league deal with the Indians. Overall in two-and-a-half seasons in Minnesota he threw 122 innings with a 3.61 ERA and 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings, for which the Twins parted with the Nationals' starting catcher, Wilson Ramos, and $14 million while also forfeiting a compensatory draft pick.

Kevin Slowey: Slowey's status a solid mid-rotation starter from 2007-2010 unraveled when he got pushed out of the rotation in 2011. Slowey didn't want to be in the bullpen, pitching horribly and getting injured, and the Twins did their best to tear him down while the local media was all too willing to lend a hand. He was traded to the Rockies for a non-prospect, missed most of 2012, and has returned the majors with a 3.99 ERA and 72/18 K/BB ratio for the Marlins.

Jose Mijares: Cut loose after 2011 because the Twins decided a 27-year-old reliever with a 3.16 career ERA wasn't worth paying $750,000 via arbitration, Mijares wound up signing with the Royals for more money and then moved on to the Giants. Since leaving the Twins he has a 2.51 ERA and 88/30 K/BB ratio in 86 innings and still hasn't made more than $1.8 million in a season. Dropping him made little sense to me then and is certainly even more regrettable now.

Jason Marquis: Marquis was as awful as a pitcher can be after signing a one-year, $3 million deal with the Twins last offseason, starting seven games with an 8.47 ERA and more walks than strikeouts while allowing opponents to hit .371 before they released him in late May. He quickly latched on with San Diego, where he pitched well and then re-signed for this season at $3 million. Overall for the Padres he's thrown 201 innings with a 3.90 ERA.

Carl Pavano: Pavano had a good two-and-a-half season run for the Twins, but fell apart last year while unsuccessfully trying to pitch through a shoulder injury. He was finally shut down in June with a 6.00 ERA and didn't throw another pitch, leaving as a free agent. Pavano was looking for work as a back-of-the-rotation starter this offseason when he fell while shoveling snow and ruptured his spleen. He won't pitch this season and at age 37 might be done.

Pat Neshek: Waived by the Twins in the spring of 2011 after struggling to come back from elbow surgery, Neshek was claimed by the Padres and split that season between Triple-A and San Diego with mediocre results. Last year he toiled away at Triple-A for Baltimore before a trade to Oakland, where Neshek has thrived again with a 1.91 ERA in 47 innings. There was really no good reason for the Twins to cut bait on Neshek, who now has a 2.91 career ERA in seven seasons.

Craig Breslow: Breslow was a shrewd waiver wire pickup by the Twins in mid-2008, but after pitching well for 39 innings that season he struggled in early 2009 and they waived him. Not only was it an overreaction to a small sample of bad work, Breslow was cut loose so the Twins could call up a different left-handed reliever, Sean Henn, who lasted all of 11 innings for them. Since being lost on waivers Breslow has thrown 280 innings with a 2.93 ERA.

Jon Rauch: Rauch was briefly the Twins' closer in 2010, filling in fairly well for a rehabbing Nathan by converting 21 of 25 saves with a 3.05 ERA. He lost the job when the Twins decided they had to overpay for a so-called "proven closer" in Capps and then left as a free agent that offseason, signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Rauch was decent in 2011 and 2012, posting a 4.12 ERA in 110 innings, but struggled this season and was recently released by two teams.

Billy Bullock: Back in 2011 the Twins picked Scott Diamond in the Rule 5 draft, didn't want to keep him in the majors all year, and traded Bullock to the Braves for the right to send Diamond to the minors. I hated the deal at the time, because Bullock was a hard-throwing second-round pick and the Twins could have just kept Diamond as a mop-up man for nothing in return, but Bullock never harnessed his raw stuff and got released this month. Diamond has a 4.32 career ERA.

Alex Burnett: For three seasons the Twins stuck with Burnett in their bullpen despite an increasingly poor performance, only to waive him this spring for no pressing reason. In the four months since then Burnett has been claimed three times off waivers, going from the Twins to the Blue Jays to the Orioles to the Cubs. Most recently he passed through waivers unclaimed and is now at Triple-A for the Cubs.

Philip Humber: Acquired from the Mets as part of the Johan Santana trade, Humber never made a start for the Twins and appeared in just 13 total games before leaving as a minor league free agent. He had a good run for the White Sox in 2011 and threw a perfect game in April of 2012, but overall since leaving the Twins he has a 5.28 ERA in 322 innings. Humber is currently at Triple-A for the Astros after passing through waivers unclaimed.

Jeff Gray: Gray won a spot in the Opening Day bullpen last year despite a lengthy track record of mediocrity and remained there for most of the season despite a 5.71 ERA and 26/22 K/BB ratio in 52 innings. When the Twins finally came to their senses and waived Gray he went unclaimed by the other 29 teams, became a free agent, and signed a minor-league deal with the White Sox. He's spent all of this season at Triple-A.

Jim Hoey: Back in 2010 the Twins traded Carlos Gomez for J.J. Hardy and then a year later they traded Hardy for Hoey and Brett Jacobson. Whatever you thought of the Gomez-for-Hardy swap the Hardy-for-Hoey trade was a terrible, misguided idea that looks even worse now. Hoey threw 25 awful innings for the Twins, who lost him for nothing on waivers a year after the trade, and Jacobson was released from Double-A. Hoey is now playing independent ball.


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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.

September 5, 2011

Twins Notes: Bad news, good news, call-ups, vetoes, and symptoms

• Unfortunately in a season ruined by injuries not even the Twins' minor leaguers are safe, as Kyle Gibson will undergo Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. On the Twins' advice Gibson tried to avoid surgery with rest and rehab, but the odds were always in favor of his eventually going under the knife. In the past telling pitchers to put off surgery hasn't worked well for the Twins, but in this case the delay likely won't matter.

Because the typical recovery timetable for Tommy John surgery is 12-18 months Gibson would have missed most and perhaps all of 2012 whether he had the operation now or a month ago when the partially torn ligament was identified. All things being equal sooner is better, but there are some examples of pitchers with similar injuries avoiding Tommy John surgery and the chance of that, however slim, was probably worth the month-long delay for a 23-year-old.

Stephen Strasburg is back in the majors and throwing mid-90s fastballs again almost exactly 12 months after his Tommy John surgery, so it's possible that Gibson could see game action by late next year. Either way, his timetable for joining the Twins' rotation has now been pushed back until at least mid-2013 and the 2009 first-round pick has gone from the organization's top prospect to a major question mark. What a shame.

Alex Wimmers walked the first six hitters he faced this year, was immediately removed from the rotation at high Single-A, and spent three months trying to avoid going further down the scary Steve Blass/Rick Ankiel path. He rejoined Fort Myers as a reliever and then moved back into the rotation last month, pitching very well while avoiding any serious control issues. And on Saturday night he threw a seven-inning no-hitter in his final outing of the season.

Perhaps more importantly than not allowing any hits Wimmers issued just two walks and faced the minimum 21 batters in a 1-0 victory, with Aaron Hicks knocking in the lone run. Since his disastrous season debut and lengthy stay in extended spring training Wimmers has thrown 41 innings with a 3.32 ERA and 39-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio while limiting opponents to a .189 batting average. He's not out of the woods yet, but the 2010 first-round pick is back on track.

• Rosters expanded from 25 to 40 players on September 1 and the Twins called up Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Brian Dinkelman as their first batch of reinforcements. Hoey was acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy deal and flopped earlier this season, allowing 18 runs in 15 innings. He still has high-90s velocity, but Hoey is 28 years old and didn't even fare particularly well at Triple-A with a 3.83 ERA and 38-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 42 innings.

Waldrop was similarly underwhelming in Rochester's bullpen, striking out just 44 batters in 79 innings while opponents to hit .276 with seven homers. He was far better in 2010, tossing 88 innings with a 2.57 ERA and 25 percent more strikeouts, but the Twins left him off the 40-man roster during the offseason and Waldrop went unpicked in the Rule 5 draft. Finally adding him now is odd timing, but Waldrop gets enough ground balls to possibly be a useful reliever.

When the Twins called up Dinkelman in June it was surprising, but two weeks later they put him through waivers unclaimed and sent the 27-year-old career minor leaguer back to Triple-A, removing him from the 40-man roster in the process. All of which makes it even more surprising that they've now re-added Dinkelman to the 40-man roster and called him up again. He must be one hell of a guy, because he hit .243/.316/.324 in 127 games at Triple-A.

UPDATE: Fittingly the Twins spelled Dinkelman's name wrong on the official lineup card today.

Liam Hendriks is also slated to come up from Triple-A tomorrow and make his debut against the White Sox. Hendriks ranked No. 8 on my preseason list of Twins prospects and has upped his stock since then by throwing 139 innings with a 3.36 ERA and 111-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Double-A and Triple-A. He projects as a mid-rotation starter, but with Gibson out and Wimmers a worry the 22-year-old Australian is arguably the Twins' top pitching prospect.

Jim Thome's departure opened one spot on the 40-man roster and the Twins created another opening by transferring Nick Blackburn to the 60-day disabled list, ruling him out for the rest of the year because of a forearm injury. They'll need to clear one more space for Hendriks and Ron Gardenhire indicated that shifting Francisco Liriano to the 60-day DL could be the move despite his wanting to "throw at least a couple innings" before the end of the season.

• Leading up to the August 31 waiver trade deadline Joe Nathan told reporters that he "would consider" waiving his no-trade clause for a Thome-like deal to a contender, but when it came time to actually make a decision he vetoed any potential deals. In order to move Nathan the Twins would have had to eat his remaining $2 million salary for this season plus a $2 million buyout for 2012, and even then the best they might have hoped for was a marginal prospect.

Still, considering the Twins paid him $11.25 million not to pitch in 2010 and $11.25 million for a 5.02 ERA this year giving them a shot to swing a deal would have been nice. Nathan told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that next year's $12.5 million option played a part in the decision, but there's virtually zero chance of the Twins bringing him back at that price and even after being traded he could have returned next season a la Rick Aguilera in 1996.

Justin Morneau going on the disabled list with a wrist problem and then having neck surgery took the focus off last year's concussion, but now he's sidelined again with further symptoms stemming from the initial injury 14 months ago. His current symptoms were deemed "mild," but it's tough to think of anything concussion-related as "mild" given Morneau's ongoing struggles and Denard Span's similarly troubling attempts to come back from his own concussion.

Even after missing two months Span mistakenly came back before he was ready and Morneau still has headaches, dizziness, and fogginess 14 months later, making them both big question marks heading into 2012. Morneau has played just 150 of the past 327 games dating back to late 2009, undergoing back and neck surgeries in addition to the concussion, and was nothing like his usual self in 69 games this season. Scary times for two of the Twins' building blocks.

• Perception versus reality: Joe Mauer has driven in 16.1 percent of all runners on base for his plate appearances this season. Michael Cuddyer has driven in 13.8 percent. Mauer also had a higher RBI percentage than Cuddyer in 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

Jim Mandelaro, who covers the Triple-A team for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, notes that they've lost 90 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1903 and 1904.

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July 18, 2011

Twins Notes: Closer changes, monster homers, regrets, and somersaults

Matt Capps blew a 1-0 lead and took the loss Friday, serving up a mammoth two-run homer to Royals rookie Eric Hosmer for his league-leading seventh blown save of the year, at which point Ron Gardenhire finally made a change at closer. Gardenhire turned back to former closer Joe Nathan rather than give the bullpen's most effective reliever, Glen Perkins, his first shot in the role, which I agreed last week makes the most sense as a short-term solution.

Perkins may eventually prove to be an elite closer, but he's been so valuable in part because of Gardenhire's willingness to use him in crucial spots whenever the need arises, whereas the manager's closer usage has always been far more rigid. For now at least I'd rather see Perkins throw 80 innings in a variety of tight situations than 65 innings with a lead of 1-3 runs in the ninth inning and Nathan's past closer experience makes the move even more of a no-brainer.

Nathan hasn't looked quite like his pre-surgery self, but he's still been impressive since coming off the disabled list in mid-June. His velocity is up compared to earlier this season, he pitched on three straight days over the weekend for the first time since 2009, and Nathan has allowed just one run in 9.1 innings since the month-long DL trip, with seven strikeouts versus one walk and a .125 opponents' batting average. As for Capps, there isn't much left to say at this point.

By focusing on save totals and supposed "proven closer" status the Twins overvalued a setup-caliber pitcher, paying a premium in players and money. It was a huge mistake then and looks even bigger now, but Capps has also fallen apart. He's managed just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is 30 percent below his career rate, and command issues have hitters teeing off on what's always been a nearly all-fastball repertoire. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• Fortunately even with Capps turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 loss Friday night the Twins began the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figures to define the season by taking three of four from the Royals. They're now just five games below .500 for the first time since April and sit five games back in the AL Central with the first-place Indians and second-place Tigers coming to town for back-to-back four-game series. Giddy up.

Scott Baker was scheduled to start Game 1 of today's doubleheader versus the Indians, but was scratched from that outing yesterday and placed on the disabled list with the elbow injury that prematurely ended his last start on July 5. Scott Diamond will start in Baker's spot, as the Twins bypassed No. 1 prospect and Triple-A rotation-mate Kyle Gibson. Kevin Slowey wasn't an option because he last started Friday at Rochester.

Diamond hasn't impressed at Triple-A, posting a 4.70 ERA and 68-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 innings while allowing opponents to hit .291 off him, but he's fared better of late and the Twins clearly think very highly of him. They picked Diamond in the Rule 5 draft and then, when it was clear there wouldn't be an Opening Day spot for him on the pitching staff, they overpaid to keep him by giving the Braves hard-throwing reliever prospect Billy Bullock.

Under normal circumstances the Twins likely would've replaced the injured Baker with Anthony Swarzak and avoided calling up Diamond (or even adding him to the 40-man roster), but with Swarzak already set to start Game 2 of the doubleheader they needed another stretched-out arm and promoting Gibson for a one-and-done start didn't make sense. And instead of taking Baker's spot tomorrow Gibson started yesterday at Triple-A, coughing up nine runs.

• In addition to sticking Baker on the DL and calling up Diamond the Twins also optioned Matt Tolbert to Triple-A so they could add another pitcher for the doubleheader, increasing the staff to a ridiculous 13 arms. Chuck James never should have been sent back to Triple-A in the first place when the Twins chose to keep Phil Dumatrait over him last month and has continued to dominate with a 2.25 ERA, .197 opponents' batting average, and 48 strikeouts in 40 innings.

Jim Thome's monstrous three-run homer yesterday was the 596th of his Hall of Fame career and came in his 150th game for the Twins. Thome, who earned around $2 million last season and will make about $3 million this year, has hit .264/.392/.573 in those 150 games, with 31 homers and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances. That works out to a .965 OPS, which is by far the best OPS and adjusted OPS+ in Twins history among all hitters with 150 or more games:

                       G      OPS                                 G     OPS+
JIM THOME            150     .965          JIM THOME            150     160
Harmon Killebrew    1939     .901          Harmon Killebrew    1939     148
Joe Mauer            871     .878          Rod Carew           1635     137
Chili Davis          291     .862          Chili Davis          291     135
Justin Morneau      1003     .855          Joe Mauer            871     134

Thome is also the only hitter in Twins history with a slugging percentage above .550 (.573) or an Isolated Power above .300 (.309), topping Harmon Killebrew in each category. My favorite part of Thome's homer may have been Delmon Young's reaction to it from the on-deck circle:

Thome has 31 home runs and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances for the Twins. Young has 45 home runs and 83 walks in 1,884 plate appearances for the Twins.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune talked to a source who says "the Twins have no plans to trade Michael Cuddyer even if they fall from contention" and in fact "an effort will be made to re-sign Cuddyer this fall." Among impending free agents Cuddyer would bring back the most in a trade, but considering his extreme popularity it's certainly not surprising that the Twins aren't shopping him despite various reported interest from contending teams.

As a good but not great 32-year-old making $10.5 million on the verge of free agency Cuddyer is exactly the type of player most sub-.500 teams should be looking to cash in for future value at the trade deadline, but because the division is so weak the Twins aren't like most sub-.500 teams. With that said, not trading Cuddyer for long-term help could be a missed opportunity if they fall out of contention and re-signing him for similar money would be very dangerous.

• Trading away J.J. Hardy, much like trading for Capps, was a poor move at the time that now looks considerably worse. Hardy has hit .278/.335/.490 through 65 games for the Orioles after hitting .302/.356/.436 in his final 65 games for the Twins, and passed up free agency by inking a three-year, $22.5 million extension over the weekend. He surely would have been cheaper for the Twins to sign, but instead they spent $15 million for three years of Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Meanwhile, neither player acquired for Hardy has impressed. Jim Hoey is faring well enough at Triple-A to think he may still provide some value, but he flopped with the Twins by allowing 17 runs in 12 innings as opponents hit .344 with nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (9). Brett Jacobson has split time between the rotation and bullpen at Double-A, posting a 4.24 ERA and ugly 60-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 innings. From the Baltimore Sun extension story:

Hardy, who came over this offseason in a trade with the Minnesota Twins for two minor-league pitchers, is a free agent at season's end and was looking for more stability after being with three teams since 2009. The Orioles have been pleased with his offense, defense, and leadership in the clubhouse.

Funny how that works. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• I've already written plenty about Slowey, so I won't delve back into that situation other than to say for as much harsh criticism as he's taken from fans, media members, and the Twins their handling of him fits on the same list of terrible decisions as the Capps and Hardy trades. He's currently in the rotation at Triple-A, trying to build back arm strength, and Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Pirates and Rockies have expressed interest in Slowey.

Slowey's value has likely never been lower and he's under team control for 2012, so there's no major urgency to move him. On the other hand, that 2012 team control would come with a salary of around $3 million and he's deep enough in the doghouse that it's awfully difficult to imagine digging out, in which case salvaging some kind of value for Slowey might make sense. He's the most likely player to be traded by July 31 whether the Twins are buyers or sellers.

• One offseason move that definitely worked out was not bringing back Nick Punto. Declining his $5 million option and instead giving him a $500,000 buyout was a no-brainer, but given the Twins' lack of quality middle infield depth I thought re-signing him for $1 million would've made sense. He ended up signing a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Cardinals, but missed much of April following hernia surgery and now may need season-ending elbow surgery.

• After taking three months off from game action following his disastrous season debut 2010 first-round pick Alex Wimmers has finally taken a big step in his recovery from extreme control problems. He returned to the mound last week at rookie-ball with just one walk in a scoreless inning, after which the Twins assigned him back to high Single-A. He's nowhere near out of the woods yet, but hopefully Wimmers can get somewhat back on track heading into 2012.

• I've written a few times that Ben Revere runs so fast that it often looks like his feet almost can't keep up as he flies around the bases. He took that to another level Friday night, losing his balance rounding second base and falling into a somersault before ending up on third base with a triple. Revere's long-term upside is still very much in question, but there's no doubt that he's been as fun to watch as a player could possibly be while hitting just .278/.314/.320.

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May 31, 2011

Twins Notes: Nathan, James, Plouffe, Liriano, Swarzak, and Slama

Joe Nathan's comeback from Tommy John surgery went from bad to worse, as the Twins put him on the disabled list with more elbow pain. The good news is that an MRI exam revealed only inflammation. The bad news is that there's no return timetable and Nathan is "prepared" to be out as long as a month. Tommy John surgery recovery is often said to be 12 months, but as we've seen with Francisco Liriano and now Nathan unfortunately that often isn't the case.

Nathan gradually added velocity after arriving at spring training throwing in the mid-80s, but never approached his pre-surgery stuff and the missing miles per hour also came attached to far worse command. Along with his ERA rising from 2.10 in 2009 to 7.63 this season, Nathan's strikeouts are down 38 percent, his walks are up 50 percent, and his average fastball fell from 93.6 to 91.4 mph. He hasn't been as bad as the 7.63 ERA, but he hasn't been Joe Nathan.

• To replace Nathan in the bullpen the Twins called up Chuck James, for whom the bloggers I read and tweeters I follow have been pining. I'm far from convinced that James can make a big impact, but unlike Dusty Hughes or Phil Dumatrait or Eric Hacker there's at least a chance of James proving to be more than just the latest replacement-level bullpen stopgap. James, like Nathan, is an example of how long the road back from arm surgery can be.

Once upon a time James was a top prospect in the Braves' system, posting great numbers in the minors before debuting in September of 2005. He joined Atlanta's rotation the next season at age 24 and posted a 4.05 ERA with a 207-to-105 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 280 innings over two years before blowing out his shoulder. He missed most of 2008 and all of 2009 following rotator cuff and labrum surgery, returning as a Triple-A reliever for the Nationals last season.

He pitched well with a 2.32 ERA and 69/11 K/BB ratio in 66 innings, signed with the Twins this winter, and forced them to call him up by throwing 29 innings with a 1.57 ERA and 37/9 K/BB ratio out of Rochester's bullpen. James' raw stuff doesn't match those numbers, but even while succeeding as a mid-rotation starter in Atlanta his average fastball was just 88 mph and with 106 strikeouts in 95 innings since returning he's missed bats without overpowering hitters.

Sad as it may be, at this point the Twins' main goals should be to get healthy, play respectable baseball, make some smart trades, and sort out who can help them in 2012. Cycling through more guys like Hughes or Dumatrait accomplishes none of that, but James may still have some upside at age 29. Before surgery he was a young mid-rotation starter with a 4.00 ERA and in coming back he's been a very effective Double-A and Triple-A reliever with great K/BB ratios.

Trevor Plouffe got off to a fantastic start after being called up from Triple-A to replace Alexi Casilla at shortstop, but the flaws that made him just the 32nd-best Twins prospect heading into the season have since been exposed. Plouffe has 15-homer power and a very strong arm, but that's about it. Or as I wrote in ranking him No. 32 back in February: "A career as a utility man looks like his most realistic upside." Unfortunately the other options aren't any better.

• Liriano's no-hitter got everyone's hopes up and he's sprinkled in a couple of strong outings, but his overall struggles along with decreased velocity suggested something wasn't quite right physically and yesterday the Twins placed him on the DL with shoulder inflammation. For now the official word is that the Twins are hopeful he can return when eligible next week, but then again they initially hoped he'd miss just one start and avoid the DL in the first place.

Compared to last year Liriano's strikeouts are down 36 percent, his walks are up 107 percent, and he's missing 1.7 mph on his average fastball, which is how his ERA has gone from 3.62 to 5.73 and his xFIP has gone from 2.95 to 5.01. Even while posting an impressive-looking 2.52 ERA in four starts this month Liriano also had a sub par 16-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings, succeeding because of a ridiculously fortunate .154 batting average on balls in play.

Anthony Swarzak took a no-hitter into the eighth inning Saturday while starting in Liriano's place against the Angels, so naturally he'll stay in the rotation during the DL stint. However, much like Plouffe the longer Swarzak remains in a prominent role the more obvious his faults will become. He also started very strong as a rookie in 2009, tossing seven shutout innings in his debut and sporting a 3.90 ERA after five starts, only to finish with a 6.25 ERA in 59 innings.

And since then Swarzak has a 5.67 ERA and 94-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 144 innings at Triple-A, although he was pitching reasonably well prior to the latest call-up. Swarzak may do a nice job filling in for Liriano and may even prove to be a capable back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever, but don't let the great first impressions fool you into thinking he's more than a marginal prospect at age 25.

• To replace Liriano on the roster the Twins called up reliever Anthony Slama, who's similar to James this year in that his outstanding minor-league numbers have always screamed out for an extended opportunity. Slama has a 2.11 ERA and 369 strikeouts in 273 total innings in the minors, including a 2.73 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 105 innings at Triple-A, yet he's 27 years old and has just five appearances in the big leagues.

Slama isn't destined to become an elite reliever, but like James there's at least some reason to think he could be useful to the Twins this year and beyond. Obviously having the worst record in baseball at the end of May is a nightmare scenario for the Twins, but hopefully they can find small positives within the huge negative by giving legitimate opportunities to guys like Slama, who deserves 50 innings to sink or swim even if they've never trusted his minor-league stats.

Danny Valencia batting around .350 for much of his half-season debut last year had many people willing to dismiss his underwhelming minor-league numbers, but he's now played 136 games in the big leagues while hitting .280/.329/.412. He played 120 games at Triple-A and hit .289/.322/.421. Funny how that tends to work. Valencia's defense, however, has been much better than advertised and makes him a solid regular despite a mediocre bat.

• For a while the Twins kept saying Tsuyoshi Nishioka was ahead of schedule in his recovery from a fractured fibula, but he was initially given a 4-6 week timetable on April 7. Monday will be two months since the injury and Nishioka hasn't even started a minor-league rehab stint. When it comes to the Twins and injuries, there's no such thing as "ahead of schedule."

• Orioles manager Buck Showalter was full of praise for Wilson Ramos after an interleague series versus the Nationals, saying: "I love that Ramos kid. He's about as good a young player as I've seen this year. The kid they got from Minnesota. He's really impressive." Ramos has slumped recently, but the 23-year-old's .731 OPS still ranks 14th among the 32 catchers with at least 100 plate appearances and he's the youngest starting catcher in baseball.

• Old friend Brian Fuentes hasn't made many new friends in Oakland, although in fairness it sounds like he's not the first late-inning reliever to have a problem with manager Bob Geren's communication methods.

• Speaking of old friends in Oakland, the A's dealt former Twins minor leaguer Steven Tolleson to the Padres for a player to be named later. Tolleson was never a particularly good prospect, but he looked like a potentially useful role player and ranked 37th on my list last year only to be claimed off waivers by the A's literally the day the rankings were posted in January.

• Dusty Hughes has been a horrendous pickup, but at least Rob Delaney hasn't thrived for the Rays after being waived to make room for Hughes on the Twins' roster. Tampa Bay designated Delaney for assignment, meaning the Twins could potentially use their No. 1 waiver priority to claim him back. Don't count on it, though. He's still my second-favorite Rob Delaney.

Martire Garcia ranked 31st on my list of the Twins' top prospects after throwing 73 innings with a 3.31 ERA and 93-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio between rookie-ball and low Single-A as a 20-year-old. Sent back to Beloit to begin this season, Garcia posted a 5.57 ERA and 22/25 K/BB ratio in 21 innings ... and the Twins released him. Those are ugly numbers, for sure, but there must be a little more to the story too.

• As a team the Twins have an adjusted ERA+ of 84 through 52 games. Among all the pitchers in team history with at least 300 innings Pat Mahomes is the only one with a worse adjusted ERA+ at 81. In other words, after about one-third of the season the Twins have pitched like an entire staff full of Pat Mahomes. And their hitting has been even worse.

Jim Hoey has a 10.45 ERA in 10 innings. The last Twins pitcher with a higher ERA than Hoey in at least 10 innings was Mike Lincoln, who had a 10.89 ERA in 21 innings in 2000. He went on to post a 2.96 ERA in 113 innings for the Pirates in 2001 and 2002, so perhaps there's still some hope for Hoey yet.

• Last season the Twins allowed 67 runs in the eighth inning. This season they've allowed 51 runs in the eighth inning. And there are still 112 games to go.

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