May 19, 2011

Twins Notes: Perkins, Mauer, Swarzak, Dumatrait, Morneau, and Wimmers

• When the Twins let half of last season's bullpen leave via free agency and chose to replace them with in-house options the hope was that several young relievers would step up to claim long-term roles. That not happening has played a big part in the team's overall struggles, but the Twins have had one reliever step up in Glen Perkins. He fell out of favor due to injuries and poor work as a starter, spending last year at Triple-A, but now looks like a new man.

Getting healthy and moving to the bullpen full time has allowed Perkins to add velocity, with his average fastball clocking in at 92.7 miles per hour compared to 90.6 mph prior to this year, and the results are similarly encouraging. After impressively getting four key outs against the A's in last night's 4-3 win Perkins now has a 0.82 ERA and 22-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 innings, holding opponents to a .230 average and zero homers. He's been a rare bright spot.

• There's still no timetable for Joe Mauer's return, but he took a significant step in his recovery by heading to extended spring training to rehab alongside Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune interviewed Mauer recently for a column and speculates that what has "kept him from providing more clarity" about his ongoing health status "is that he doesn't want to blame anyone else for his lack of progress." Here's a little more from Souhan:

My guess is that he feels he didn't receive proper guidance or advice at some point during his surgery/rehab process, but he's too polite to call anyone out. That would explain why he took an extra visit to the Mayo Clinic to get checked out even after the Twins gave him medical clearance to play.

What I took away from my talks with Mauer is that he hates being portrayed as a slacker, and is desperate to get back on the field, but fears that if he rushes the process he'll be lost for the season or do himself permanent harm.

All of which seems to fit with Mauer and team trainer Rick McWane both admitting that he was not physically ready to begin the season on the active roster following knee surgery.

• They'll still be nowhere near full strength, but the Twins will get a little healthier Monday with Jim Thome and Jason Repko expected to return from the disabled list. Both players will need to avoid setbacks while playing minor-league rehab games until then, as Repko has been out since May 2 with a strained right quadriceps and Thome has been hampered by a strained left oblique since April 24.

• Repko's return will push Ben Revere back to Triple-A, while Thome's return forces the Twins to trim the pitching staff from 12 to 11 or demote Luke Hughes, Alexi Casilla, or Matt Tolbert from the infield mix. Casilla is out of minor-league options and appears to have secured the second base job with four straight starts there. Hughes has more starts than Tolbert recently, but just like in spring training Tolbert's ability to play shortstop likely gives him the edge.

Delmon Young missed back-to-back starts to "clear his head" after coming off the DL with 10 strikeouts in 16 at-bats and pathetic effort defensively, which allowed Revere to show off his range last night with a sprinting catch in Oakland's expansive foul territory on a fly ball that would've landed 10 feet from Young. Revere's arm is awful and his upside is limited offensively, but using him in left field next season would completely change the Twins' outfield defense.

Jose Mijares heading to the disabled list with a strained elbow might explain his 11 walks in 12 innings after issuing a total of 32 walks in his first 105 innings. In addition to placing Mijares on the shelf the Twins also optioned Jim Hoey back to Triple-A after a month-long bullpen stint in which his mid-90s fastball and poor control were both as advertised and opponents batted .375/.432/.725 off him in 10 games. Oddly, six of his 10 outings came in high-leverage spots.

• To replace Mijares and Hoey on the roster and in the bullpen the Twins brought up Anthony Swarzak and Phil Dumatrait from Triple-A. This is Swarzak's second stint with the Twins this year and he's been on the 40-man roster since 2009, but Dumatrait's call-up required clearing a spot first and they did so by designating Steve Holm for assignment. As a replacement-level catcher Holm will likely pass through waivers unclaimed and the Twins soured on him anyway.

• At first glace Dumatrait might look like an intriguing call-up based on his 1.15 ERA at Triple-A, but don't be fooled. His shiny ERA is the result of just 16 innings and came along with an awful 12-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He had a 6.13 ERA with more walks (55) than strikeouts (46) in 104 innings as a starter at Triple-A last year and has a 7.06 ERA with almost as many walks (65) as strikeouts (68) in 110 innings in the majors. Oh, and he's 29 years old.

• Swarzak once ranked among the Twins' top pitching prospects, but got knocked around in 12 starts as a 23-year-old rookie in 2009 and then went 5-12 with a 6.21 ERA in 22 starts back at Triple-A last year. He's been much better at Rochester this year with a 3.90 ERA and 25/7 K/BB ratio in 32 innings, but as a 25-year-old with a 4.32 ERA and 165/80 K/BB ratio in 269 innings spread over parts of four seasons at Triple-A he projects as a marginal big leaguer.

• There hasn't been any talk of Justin Morneau's post-concussion symptoms returning, but Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writes: "I believe [Morneau] is playing daily despite being more injured than some of the Twins players on the disabled list." Whether or not that's accurate, Morneau has yet to get on track offensively and Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy broke down his swing mechanics to find that they've changed for the worse.

• Sadly the Twins' injuries aren't limited to the big-league roster. Oswaldo Arcia, who ranked 12th on my list of the Twins' top prospects coming into the year and was off to a tremendous start at low Single-A, is expected to miss two months following elbow surgery.

Alex Wimmers isn't hurt, but what ails him may be even worse. He had a disastrous season debut at high Single-A, walking all six batters he faced and uncorking several wild pitches, at which point the Twins removed Wimmers from Fort Myers' rotation and sent him to extended spring training. Seth Stohs reports that Wimmers walked five batters over three innings in his first start there, so the 2010 first-round pick is going down the Rick Ankiel/Steve Blass path.

Carl Pavano turned in a solid start against the A's last night, allowing just one earned run in seven innings, but once again struggled to miss bats and has now managed to strike out just three of the last 105 batters he's faced. Not a very encouraging sign for a 35-year-old pitcher under contract for $8.5 million next season.

Darren Rovell of CNBC notes that Francisco Liriano's no-hitter earned him at least $22,000 thanks to an autograph-signing deal. Meanwhile, his nine-strikeout, one-walk outing Tuesday night against the Mariners was more impressive than the two-strikeout, six-walk no-hitter.

• Ultimately the Twins will probably be far enough out of contention come July to actively shop as many as a dozen veteran players, but even if they avoid going into full-scale seller mode for the first time in a decade I'm now convinced Kevin Slowey will be traded.

• Friend of AG.com and baseball historian Chris Jaffe wrote a pair of worthwhile articles about Harmon Killebrew at The Hardball Times, recapping his Hall of Famer career in an interesting way and then examining his game-by-game highlights.

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 31, 2011

Twins Notes: The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right

- "Here Comes The Sun"

• Since the Twins open the season on the road against the Blue Jays tomorrow night I'm going to do a "live chat" here during the game. I realize Friday night isn't the ideal time for everyone to get on their computers and type things to each other while watching a baseball game, but if I'm willing to cancel my exciting plans with various supermodels hopefully at least some of you will stay in for some chat action. Carl Pavano versus Ricky Romero, chat doors open at 6:00.

• I wrote the season previews for all the AL Central teams over at Hardball Talk and concluded that the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers should basically be considered co-favorites in the range of 88-92 victories. RLYW's annual simulation of 100,000 seasons based on multiple projection systems thinks I'm a bit high on those win totals, but also has all three AL Central contenders within two games of each other. You can see my predictions for all the divisions here.

Joe Mauer's incredible popularity in Minnesota is no secret, but I was surprised to learn that he had the second-best selling jersey in all of baseball last season behind only Derek Jeter. Justin Morneau was also in the top 20 and as a team the Twins ranked No. 9 in merchandise sales. And according to Forbes magazine the Twins have the 12th-most valuable MLB franchise at $490 million, which is up 21 percent from last year. Pretty remarkable.

• There were several key statistical reasons for Denard Span's disappointing offense last year and the Twins have also talked about his struggling with some mechanical issues, but Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy combined stats and scouting for a truly unique analysis of Span's hitting that's a must-read and makes Patrick Reusse's recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column seem all the more silly for pitting stats versus scouting. As always, the best answer is "both."

• As part of my series ranking the Twins' top 40 prospects I called the farm system as a whole "solidly above average" but "not elite." Baseball America agrees, as their "organizational talent rankings" released last week have the Twins at No. 12. Kansas City ranks No. 1 with perhaps the best farm systems of the past several decades and the Indians are at No. 7, but the Tigers are No. 25 and the White Sox are No. 27.

Ron Gardenhire didn't pull any punches when asked why Jim Hoey was sent to Triple-A:

Hoey needs to slow the ball down. All he can do is throw hard, hard, harder. And on our level, hard, hard, harder normally gets hit, hit, hit.

Kind of an interesting quote considering the main criticism of the Twins' approach to pitching is that collecting strike-throwers with low-90s fastballs makes them too easy to hit when facing strong lineups. Acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy trade, Hoey has without question the fastest fastball in the entire organization now that Billy Bullock is regrettably gone.

Brendan Harris, whose $1.7 million contract the Twins dumped on the Orioles as part of the Hardy deal, has been assigned to Triple-A after failing to win a bench job in Baltimore.

• If the Twins ever change their minds about signing Francisco Liriano to a long-term contract extension, Chad Billingsley's new deal with the Dodgers may provide a template. Their service time is equal, but Billingsley avoided arbitration in his second year of eligibility for $6.3 million, whereas Liriano settled for $4.3 million. Los Angeles bought out his final arbitration year and first two free agent years for $32 million plus a $14 million option or $3 million buyout for 2015.

• I'm unsure if yesterday afternoon's game against the Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta counts as the spring training finale or a preseason exhibition, but it was nice to see Minnesota native, good guy, and friend of my family Andy Baldwin close out the win with a scoreless inning. He'll be assigned to Triple-A, where the combination of top prospects moving up the ladder and the Twins signing lots of minor-league veterans has Rochester looking strong after a terrible 2010.

• Most of the focus is obviously on the competition for spots on the Twins' roster, but this time of year also means making cuts in the minors and Seth Stohs notes that the Twins released a dozen players. No surprises or big names, but Michael McCardell twice cracked my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects, not so long ago some people thought Juan Portes had a shot to be a useful player, and once upon a time Justin Huber was a top prospect for the Royals.

• 1500ESPN.com has a mouth-watering collection of pictures showing all the new food choices available at Target Field. I'm planning to just stare at the pictures all season because I'm back on another diet, although as longtime AG.com readers unfortunately know by now that's highly unlikely to last until the All-Star break, let alone for 162 games. My (wildly unrealistic) goal is to lose more pounds than the Twins' win total. So far I'm really kicking their ass.

• I'd love to have overheard this conversation. I prefer to imagine they talked neck tattoos.

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped by here on a regular basis during the too-long offseason. My goal each winter is to find enough interesting stuff to write about that most of you keep showing up here, but I'm definitely ready to start talking about actual games again and look forward to my 10th season of blogging. Thanks for reading AG.com, thanks for following me on Twitter, and thanks for supporting my work at NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.

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.

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