September 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Mauer shut down, rotation spending, and no platooning

joe mauer catching mask

Joe Mauer continues to have post-concussion symptoms more than a month after suffering a brain injury, so Monday the Twins shut him down for the final week of the season. Mauer hasn't played since taking a foul ball off the mask on August 19 and experienced setbacks when he tried to ramp up workouts during the past few weeks, with Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writing that he "still feels sensitivity to light and noises, and has trouble outside confined spaces."

Shutting him down is absolutely the correct decision and by the time spring training rolls around Mauer will be six months removed from the concussion, but sadly as the Twins and so many other teams have learned in recent years there are no guarantees with brain injuries. And now, much like with Justin Morneau and Denard Span, the only thing the Twins can really do is wait and hold their breath hoping that time and rest do the trick.

In making Monday's announcement both Mauer and general manager Terry Ryan stressed that they expect him to remain at catcher next season, but whereas that seemed like a questionable stance at the time of the concussion last month it now seems borderline crazy to me. I've spent a decade writing about how much of Mauer's value comes from catching and have always argued against a position switch, but the question has changed and the old answers cease to apply.

There's no way to stop a catcher from taking foul balls off the mask on a regular basis, along with all the other physical dangers that come with the position, and if he were to suffer another brain injury it might be too late to avoid major long-term consequences on and off the field. As a first baseman Mauer's odds of remaining an elite player into his mid-30s are much lower, but he'd still provide plenty of value there and Josmil Pinto is a potential replacement with upside.

(Note: I went into a lot more depth analyzing the Mauer position switch decision last month.)

• There seems to be considerable disagreement within the organization about how much focus to put on acquiring pitching via free agency. Nick Nelson of Twins Daily wrote a breakdown of the situation, with the short version being that Ron Gardenhire is basically begging for rotation help and owner Jim Pohlad says he's willing to spend big for reinforcements, all while Ryan downplays free agency much like he did last winter before settling for Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey.

Every team would love to build a rotation full of young, cheap pitchers and for many years the Twins did that well enough to avoid having to swim into the deep end of the free agency pool. And generally speaking free agent pitching is typically overpriced and requires making risky long-term commitments to players on the wrong side of 30. However, their current lack of MLB-ready arms with more than back-of-the-rotation upside makes Ryan's usual approach a tough one to pull off.

Despite his rookie struggles Kyle Gibson still has a chance to develop into more than a fourth or fifth starter and Alex Meyer remains a potential top-of-the-rotation starter if he can stay healthy, but neither can be counted on to make a huge 2014 impact and even if they do surrounding them with the likes of Correia, Scott Diamond, Vance Worley, and Samuel Deduno is going to leave the rotation well short of decent.

Last season Twins starters had the second-worst ERA in baseball at 5.40 and this season Twins starters have the worst ERA in baseball at 5.26. Based on those numbers and the in-house options who can realistically be rotation members in 2014 there's little chance of building even an average rotation without bringing in outside help. Ryan would surely prefer trades to free agency, but my fear is that his real plan involves a third straight season with a terrible rotation on the cheap.

• One of my frequent complaints about Gardenhire is his unwillingness to platoon hitters, which he's basically never done. Most prominently Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel played no matter the pitcher, but versus lefties Jones hit .231/.286/.355 and Kubel hit .239/.313/.365. For a more recent example on the other side of the plate, Trevor Plouffe plays no matter the pitcher despite hitting .223/.280/.381 off righties. And there are no shortage of maddening day-to-day examples.

Many of the best managers in baseball history regularly employed platoons and current examples in Gardenhire's own league include former Manager of the Year winners Joe Maddon of the Rays, Bob Melvin of the A's, and Buck Showalter of the Orioles. It's hardly a new-school approach and it's hardly a complicated thing to make sense of, yet Gardenhire has never budged and said the following when asked about it by Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

I don't recall ever having a platoon. I'm not against it. I'll tell you that. I wouldn't have a problem having a platoon if it fits. If it makes sense numbers-wise and it works, then you go with it.

"I don't recall ever having a platoon" and "I'm not against it" are statements that don't fit together coming from a manager in his 12th season on the job. Gardenhire may not be against it in theory, but his actions over nearly 2,000 games have certainly shown that he's very much against it in practice despite having plenty of opportunities to improve the lineup via platooning. And for his part, Ryan told Berardino that he's fine with the manager's lack of platooning:

I don't think he likes to platoon players at all. I don't either. Put guys out there that are everyday players, then you don't have to platoon. You're always looking for players that can play 162 games, right? That's what I'm looking for. I don't go out looking for platoon players.

Obviously every team would love to find nine everyday players and trot them out there 162 times, but that's an impossible goal and instead leads to so-called "everyday players" like Jones, Kubel, and Plouffe flailing away against same-sided pitchers they have no business facing. Over the past three seasons the Twins have scored the fewest runs in the league, making "I don't go out looking for platoon players" sound awfully tone deaf coming from the GM. It's nothing new, though.

• Mauer hasn't played since August 19, but according to Win Above Replacement and Fan Graphs' valuation system he's still been worth more than his salary this season.

• This year the Twins have been out-scored by 158 runs, which is the second-worst run differential in baseball. The worst run differential in Twins history belongs to the 1995 team at -186.

• Since taking over for Matt Capps as Twins closer Glen Perkins has converted 90 percent of his save chances (52-for-58) with a 2.31 ERA.

LaTroy Hawkins left the Twins for a two-year, $8 million deal with the Cubs as a 31-year-old free agent and a decade later he's still rolling along.

Francisco Liriano is lined up to start the Wild Card playoff game for the Pirates.

• For a lot more about Mauer's future and the Twins' roster options for next season check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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May 11, 2012

Twins Notes: Birthday boys, pimping, demoting, neglecting, and mocking

• Reminder: Gleeman and The Geek airs live on KFAN at 4:00 on Sunday. I can neither confirm nor deny that this week's show will just be me sighing into the microphone for an hour.

• Happy birthday to No. 1 prospect Miguel Sano, who turned 19 years old today and is hitting .303/.417/.655 with 10 homers and 20 walks in 33 games at low Single-A. Last week Sano hit a game-winning homer against the Angels' affiliate and the benches cleared because, as Cedar Rapids manager Jamie Burke put it: "I think he kind of pimped that home run a little bit." Here's more from Jeff Johnson of the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

Sano stood in the batter's box awhile to watch his homer against relief pitcher Carmine Giardiana. He trotted the bases, but virtually stopped a few feet before touching the plate, taking off his batting helmet as Kernels catcher Abel Baker barked at him.

Sano glared at the Kernels dugout after finally touching the plate, with Kernels players continuing to give him significant grief. He took a step toward Baker, and the dugouts began to empty, with umpires Fernando Rodriguez and Paul Clemons, as well as both teams' coaching staffs, doing a good job of squelching what could have been an ugly scene.

Also worth noting is that being annoyed by Sano's actions following the homer didn't stop Burke from effusively praising him as a player:

He's young, but he's one heck of a player, man. He's unbelievable. That's the best player I've seen here, by far.

Twins fans may remember Burke as the White Sox catcher who got destroyed by Torii Hunter in a home plate collision back in 2004.

Anthony Slama has never gotten an extended shot with the Twins despite dominating every level of the minors and was dropped from the 40-man roster after injuring his elbow late last season. He's healthy again, posting a 0.57 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 16 innings as Rochester's closer, which gives him a 2.35 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 133 career innings at Triple-A. Slama is 28 years old and has shaky control, but there's no excuse for ignoring him at this point.

Remember when the Twins signed Jason Marquis and Terry Ryan said "he throws the ball over the plate" despite the fact that his career walk rate of 3.5 per nine innings was the exact same as Francisco Liriano's? Through five starts Marquis has more walks (11) than strikeouts (10) in 27 innings and has thrown the same percentage of his pitches for strikes as Liriano, who's been banished to the bullpen.

Sean Burroughs and Clete Thomas cleared waivers after being designated for assignment by the Twins, meaning they'll both remain in the organization at Triple-A but no longer reside on the 40-man roster. Stockpiling that type of depth is a good thing, but in making room for Thomas in Rochester's outfield the Twins demoted No. 2 prospect Joe Benson from Triple-A to Double-A despite the fact that he'd already spent two seasons there.

Benson was off to a rough start, hitting .179 with 27 strikeouts in 28 games, but was hitting for power and drawing walks. At the time of the demotion Benson had a .584 OPS and Ben Revere had a .592 OPS. Demoting a 24-year-old back to Double-A for a third straight season because he struggled in 28 games seems odd, particularly when Chris Parmelee is struggling in the majors after skipping Triple-A following far worse Double-A production than Benson.

• Parmelee sticking in the majors because the Twins trusted September and March instead of a mediocre track record was misguided enough, but now he's not even playing consistently. Parmelee is a left-handed hitter, yet he's been on the bench for three straight games against right-handed pitchers. It'll be buried beneath the mountain of problems, but the handling of prospects Parmelee, Benson, Revere, and Liam Hendriks leaves a lot to be desired.

Dan Osterbrock was the Twins' seventh-round pick out of the University of Cincinnati in 2008 and spent four seasons in the farm system before injuring his shoulder and getting released this spring. Since then he's been extremely outspoken about the Twins' handling of his injury and other pitcher injuries. For instance, when it was announced that Scott Baker needed Tommy John surgery after the Twins initially said he could pitch Osterbrock tweeted:

Wait, the Twins allowed an injury to linger longer than a year without taking care of it?! Shocker.

Then in responding to various questions about his own health status, Osterbrock wrote:

Twins released me. My shoulder was hurting so instead of helping me out, they got rid of me.

I really enjoyed my time with the Twins, but I'm none too pleased with the way it ended and how it was handled.

Shoulder surgery Round 2 tomorrow morning. Looking forward to finally getting this fixed properly.

Surgery went well. Should be throwing soon. Special thanks to the Twins for completely neglecting the obvious injury I had.

Osterbrock also said in an interview with the University of Cincinnati's website that "they kept telling me that I was going to be all right and that I should try to play through it and I did for as long as I could." Because of the increasing number of questions about the competency of the team's medical staff Osterbrock's comments got some attention and the Twins were forced to respond. Not surprisingly they denied any wrongdoing.

• Tommy John surgery has already derailed the career of 2009 first-round pick Kyle Gibson and now 2010 first-round pick Alex Wimmers may be facing the same fate. Wimmers came back from extreme control problems last season to re-establish himself as one of the Twins' better prospects, but he's been shut down with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. Predictably the Twins are saying he can avoid surgery and will try rest and rehab. Good luck.

• Twins owner Jim Pohlad gave votes of confidence to Ryan and Ron Gardenhire, dismissing the notion that either man's job could be in jeopardy. That's certainly not surprising, but it's also worth noting that Pohlad gave Bill Smith a public vote of confidence in October ... and then fired him five weeks later.

Jared Burton served up two homers in his Twins debut and gave up a run two appearances later, but he's been unhittable since then. Literally. Burton has thrown 10.2 consecutive no-hit innings dating back to April 13. During that time batters are 0-for-32 with 11 strikeouts off him, getting on base only via two walks and two plunkings.

• Minnesota native Michael Wuertz held an open tryout for teams in mid-March and the Twins were in attendance, but six weeks later the once-dominant and oft-injured reliever signed a minor-league deal with the Reds.

• Since the Twins traded him to the Orioles last offseason J.J. Hardy has 38 homers in 709 plate appearances. During that same time the Twins' entire infield has combined for 52 homers in 3,828 plate appearances. This season Hardy is out-homering the Twins' infield 8-to-3.

• In starting the season with an MLB-worst 8-23 record the Twins have been outscored by 67 runs in 31 games while no other team has been outscored by more than 32 runs.

• How did Dan Haren lose to the Twins? He was hurt. At this point I'll assume that every Twins victory will be followed by the opposing pitcher revealing an injury within 48 hours.

Jim Callis of Baseball America published his first mock draft and it has the Twins selecting Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton with the No. 2 pick.

• Last and least, I guess now we know that Robby Incmikoski checks Twitter while he's working the game for FSN.

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November 8, 2011

Twins fire general manager Bill Smith, name Terry Ryan interim GM

Five weeks ago Twins owner Jim Pohlad gave Bill Smith a public vote of confidence, making it very clear that he'd remain the general manager following a 99-loss season because "he's had a very tough situation" and "we're not a knee-jerk organization." Apparently something major changed between then and now, as yesterday the Twins fired Smith after four years and two months on the job, repeatedly citing "philosophical differences" that they refused to discuss.

To replace Smith the Twins turned back the clock, with longtime general manager Terry Ryan returning to the job on an interim basis after serving as an advisor to the front office since his resignation and Ryan's former right-hand man, Wayne Krivsky, returning to his old assistant role after leaving the organization in 2006 to take over as the Reds' general manager. They're getting the band back together, for a while at least.

Ryan stepped down as GM on September 14, 2007, citing burnout after 13 years at the helm, and in returning to the job at age 58 he expressed uncertainty about whether it would be "for one year or ten years." Clearly the Twins weren't expecting to fire Smith until very recently and Ryan seemingly indicated that he was stepping back into the job as much out of his feeling of responsibility to the organization as his desire to actually be the GM again.

Ryan left Smith in a difficult spot in 2007, with Torii Hunter leaving as a free agent and Johan Santana on the trade block. Similarly, injuries wrecking the entire roster this year made many of Smith's decisions moot, good or bad. However, that doesn't excuse the series of bad moves Smith orchestrated, from getting little in return for Santana and trading Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young to dealing Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps and dumping J.J. Hardy.

Smith also made a number of shrewd trades and signings, but for the most part they were on a small scale. Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson were smart, cheap free agent pickups, trades for Carl Pavano and Jon Rauch worked out well, and the original deal to acquire Hardy from the Brewers was an excellent one even if it involved admitting that Carlos Gomez was a bust as a centerpiece of the Santana blockbuster.

Smith did reasonably well at the margins, but failed on the franchise-altering moves and that's not a recipe for long-term success. By contrast, Ryan thrived with big-picture moves like adding star-caliber building blocks outside of free agency and squeezing unseen value out of veteran-for-prospect trades, but struggled with small stuff like surrounding those building blocks with washed-up veterans. Ryan's weakness was annoying. Smith's weakness was crippling.

Eventually we'll learn more about the "philosophical differences" that led to Smith's firing and based on the odd timing those details are probably pretty damn interesting, but ultimately it comes down to the fact that he performed poorly and the more successful person he replaced was available and willing to resume the job. This is a crucial offseason, for 2012 and beyond, and you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't trust Ryan more than Smith.

None of which is to say Ryan has an easy task ahead of him. For one thing, he revealed during yesterday's press conference that the Twins' payroll will decline in 2012, saying it will likely be "somewhere around $100 million." If true that would represent a $15 million drop and leave little room to re-sign Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Joe Nathan, let alone add other free agents. Based on the current roster they already have about $82 million committed for 2012.

Beyond that, Smith was hardly the only person involved in the Twins' decision-making during the past four years. Ryan was an advisor during Smith's various poor moves, assistant general manager Rob Antony and vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff remain in the same roles, and even Krivsky comes with a mixed track record in Minnesota and Cincinnati. Smith took the fall because he was sitting in the biggest chair, but his departure alone fixes nothing.

Smith was a relative unknown when he took over for Ryan in 2007 and proved overmatched, making large-scale blunders that vastly outweighed his small-scale successes while seemingly epitomizing the Peter Principle. That doesn't make him a bad person or even an incompetent employee, it just means he was a poor fit as the GM of a major-league team. Ryan may not be able to climb out of this hole either, but I certainly feel more optimistic handing him the rope.

October 3, 2011

Twins Notes: Pohlad, payroll, surgeries, power arms, and naked parties

• During a lengthy interview with LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune owner Jim Pohlad predictably confirmed that manager Ron Gardenhire and general manager Bill Smith will be back in 2012, saying: "We're not a knee-jerk organization." When asked about holding people accountable following one of the worst years in Twins history, Pohlad cited "the perfect storm of injuries and players not performing":

We need to address how can we keep the players healthy. We need to address how can we encourage the players during the offseason to get to a point where they're going to play up to their capabilities. I'm not saying that the medical staff or the training staff has done anything wrong. I'm just saying let's look at the injuries and see how they can be prevented in the future.

Pohlad told Neal that the Twins "are very pleased with the job [Gardenhire] has done" under "very difficult conditions." He stopped short of praising Smith, saying instead that "he also has had a very tough situation" and then citing his 15 years in the organization. Neal brought up Smith saying he's more administrator than talent evaluator and asked if he's "the right man to turn things around." Pohlad initially replied with "what's Billy's title?" and then said:

General manager, so he's in charge of managing the baseball operation. I mean those are his words, like you said. I don't remember reading that, but if those are his words that's really his job, to manage the baseball department. We don't look to Billy solely--I don't know if any organization does, maybe they do at some place--we don't look solely at him as the premier judge of talent. He has a whole bunch of people that he gets input from on the judgment of talent.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Smith, but Pohlad is absolutely right that the Twins' front office decision-making involves a lot more voices than just the general manager. When asked how much money Smith and the front office will have available this offseason, Pohlad indicated that the payroll "is going to come down naturally because it exceeded where we wanted it" for this season "but it's not going to be slashed." Hmm. Check out the full interview for more.

Ben Revere, Justin Morneau, and Nick Blackburn each underwent surgeries within days of the final game. Revere's surgery was considered a minor knee "cleanup," as Neal reports that he was "seen with ice on his left knee after games" down the stretch. For a guy whose entire game is built on speed knee problems at age 23 are worrisome, but Revere never missed time and hit .368 with seven steals in his final 15 games.

Morneau underwent surgery to stabilize a tendon in the back of his left wrist, which is actually the injury that initially forced him to the disabled list in mid-June before neck surgery and more concussion issues followed. Morneau also recently had knee and foot surgeries, which means he'll be rehabbing four different operations this offseason along with trying to recover from the concussion that occurred 16 months ago. At age 30 he's clearly at a career crossroads.

Blackburn, who had elbow surgery last fall, underwent an operation to remove pressure from an entrapped nerve in his forearm as part of a radial tunnel syndrome diagnosis. He'll be in a splint for six weeks and can't throw for two months, which makes the timing curious. Blackburn hasn't pitched since August 21 and was shut down on September 4, yet waited until Friday to have the surgery. He's under contract for $4.75 million in 2012 and $5.5 million in 2013.

Denard Span appears to have avoided a major setback in his concussion recovery despite a scary looking collision with the center field wall in Game 161. Span came back too early from his concussion initially, looking lost for nine games and heading back to the disabled list with more symptoms, but he finished the season with some reason for optimism by going 5-for-18 (.278) with four extra-base hits in five games after returning on September 21.

That may not seem like much, but before stringing together those hits late Span went through a brutal 2-for-42 (.048) stretch following the concussion. Span was hitting .300/.367/.392 in 55 games before colliding with Royals catcher Brayan Pena on June 3, yet finished the year with a .264/.328/.359 mark in 70 total games. Hopefully a full winter of rest is better for Span than it was for Morneau, because there's not much the Twins can do besides wait.

Even if the Twins wanted to revisit their July trade talks with the Nationals for Span it's hard to imagine Washington general manager Mike Rizzo being comfortable enough with his status to pull the trigger. If he gets over the concussion symptoms the Twins shouldn't be willing to deal Span for a reliever--even a very good, young one like Drew Storen--and if he doesn't get over the concussion symptoms no team is going to give them anything worthwhile for him anyway.

• Dating back to the end of last year the Twins have talked about adding more "power arms" to the organization rather than continuing to stock the minors and majors with low-90s control artists. Generally speaking that's an excellent idea, but so far that plan has mostly just led to acquiring hard-throwing middle relievers with massive control problems, like getting Jim Hoey from the Orioles for J.J. Hardy and Lester Oliveros from the Tigers for Delmon Young.

Esmerling Vasquez is the latest pickup to fit that mold, as the Twins claimed the 27-year-old right-hander off waivers after he was designated for assignment by Arizona. Vasquez throws hard, averaging 93.7 miles per hour with his fastball, but has managed just 120 strikeouts in 137 innings to go along with 80 walks. And those numbers are actually great compared to his time at Triple-A, where Vasquez had more walks (97) than strikeouts (93) in 121 innings.

Vasquez has been reasonably tough to hit whenever he throws the ball over the plate and his changeup has been much more effective than his mid-90s fastball, so there's some semblance of upside to be unlocked. However, if the Twins are serious about changing the organizational approach to acquiring and developing pitchers they'll need to dig a lot deeper than plucking a few hard-throwing middle relievers with awful walk rates from other teams.

• Even with his strong finish Revere posted a .309 slugging percentage and .619 OPS in 117 games, which are both the lowest marks in Twins history from an outfielder with at least 450 plate appearances. He managed zero homers and just 14 extra-base hits in 481 trips to the plate, and two of those extra-base hits were actually outs as Revere unsuccessfully (but very excitingly) tried to turn triples into an inside-the-park homers.

Revere also stole 34 bases at a solid 79 percent clip. If you add an extra base to his hitting for each steal and erase one time on base for each unsuccessful steal his overall line morphs into .267/.291/.384. I'm not sure if that's more or less encouraging than his actual .267/.310/.309 line, but it does show that all the running didn't make up for the poor hitting. Of course, given his speed and defense Revere merely needs to be not-horrible at the plate to have nice value.

• Not surprisingly Revere led the Twins with 26 infield hits, which is a function of both his elite speed and a 68.5 percent ground-ball rate that was the highest in baseball by a wide margin. As a team the Twins also had MLB's highest ground-ball rate, yet even with Revere boosting the total they were just ninth in infield hits. On the flip side Twins pitchers allowed an AL-high 198 infield hits despite ranking 20th in ground balls, which speaks to the awful infield defense.

Carl Pavano is a prime example of why judging pitchers on their win-loss record or even ERA can be extremely misleading. Last season he went 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA and this season he went 9-13 with a 4.30 ERA. Big dropoff in his performance, right? Well, maybe not:

YEAR      IP      SO     BB     HR      GB%      FIP
2010     221     117     37     24     51.2     4.02
2011     222     102     40     23     50.6     4.10

Pavano pitched slightly worse this year because his already poor strikeout rate fell further, but most of the difference between his 2010 numbers and 2011 numbers can be traced to bad run support and the terrible infield defense behind him. Pitchers who don't miss bats are always at the mercy of their defense and it doesn't necessarily mean the Twins should be happy to have Pavano under contract for $8.5 million in 2012, but his record and ERA overstate the decline.

Rick Knapp left his job as the Twins' longtime minor-league pitching coordinator in 2008 to become the Tigers' big-league pitching coach, but was fired midway through this season. He'll stay in the AL Central, joining the Royals last week as their minor-league pitching coordinator. Knapp got a lot of credit for the Twins' strike-throwing philosophy throughout the organization, so it'll be interesting to see what he can do working with the Royals' stockpile of young arms.

• Hardy finished his first season in Baltimore with 30 home runs and an .801 OPS in 567 plate appearances (which is more than everyone on the Twins this year except Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer). In the entire history of the Twins no shortstop has hit more than 24 home runs and only Cristian Guzman in 2001 topped an .800 OPS.

• In ranking second-to-last among AL teams in scoring this season the Twins hit a combined .247/.306/.360. For comparison, Nick Punto is a career .247/.325/.327 hitter.

• One of the Twins' rare September wins apparently came because Gardenhire scratching his chin got confused for the manager giving the steal sign. Seriously.

• Based on this tweet Brian Duensing has already had an eventful offseason:

Probably for the best considering the collective state of the team's immune system this year.