November 22, 2011

Joe Nathan leaves Twins, signs two-year, $14.5 million deal with Rangers

Joe Nathan became a free agent last month when the Twins declined his $12.5 million option for 2012, buying him out for $2 million instead, and yesterday the 37-year-old reliever signed a two-year, $14.5 million contract with the Rangers. Nathan was born in Texas and repeatedly talked about wanting to finish his career as the closer on a winning team, so the Rangers are an ideal fit coming off back-to-back AL titles with plans to move Neftali Feliz into the rotation.

Making a multi-year commitment to pay a 37-year-old relief pitcher $7.25 million per season for 65 innings is questionable enough for a nearly guaranteed contender like the Rangers with an otherwise stacked roster, but from the Twins' point of view it would've been extremely difficult to justify. There are too many other issues to address and too little money to spend thanks to a shrinking payroll. And he may not have trusted the Twins to turn things around anyway.

Nathan missed all of 2010 following elbow surgery and initially struggled in his return this year, showing decreased velocity and allowing 15 runs in 15.1 innings before a disabled list stint for more elbow problems in late May. He spent a month on the shelf and then looked like a new man for the final three months of the season, throwing 29 innings with a 3.38 ERA and 28-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .193 batting average.

His velocity was still down a couple miles per hour compared to his pre-surgery dominance, but Nathan's control and off-speed pitches looked very sharp and he's certainly capable of thriving with a low-90s fastball. If he stays healthy and performs like he did down the stretch Nathan will rack up tons of saves in Texas, but counting on that at age 37 and one year removed from Tommy John surgery is a big risk and the Twins shouldn't be paying a premium for saves now.

Nathan went to a better team, likely for more money, and the Twins put themselves in position to spend half of their remaining payroll space on something more vital than 65 innings of relief pitching. Whether or not they will actually accomplish that wiser spending obviously remains to be seen, but in the meantime they made the right decision (or at least had the right decision made for them) and Nathan's just-completed contract paid him $47 million for 181 innings.

None of which should take anything away from how amazing Nathan was in seven seasons for the Twins. He was a 29-year-old with zero closing experience and just one season of bullpen experience when the Twins acquired him from the Giants along with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser in a November of 2003 deal for A.J. Pierzynski, but Nathan quickly emerged as Eddie Guardado's ninth-inning replacement and leaves as the greatest closer in team history.

And even that might be selling Nathan short. From joining the Twins in 2004 through 2009 he saved 246 games with a 1.87 ERA and 518 strikeouts in 419.1 innings. During that six-season stretch his 1.87 ERA was the lowest in baseball and his 246 saves were the most in baseball, topping second-place Mariano Rivera (1.90 ERA, 243 saves) in both categories. Nathan wasn't merely great, he had one of the greatest six-year runs by any closer in baseball history.

Nathan going down in 2010 led to the Twins overpaying for a so-called "proven closer" in Matt Capps and my hope is that the incredibly costly mistake at least taught them a valuable lesson about the role. Closers are created, not born, and Nathan, Guardado, and Rick Aguilera going on to become the three best closers in Twins history after beginning their careers as starters and setup men should make that point just as clearly as Capps' failures did.

Their challenge now should be to identify the next pitcher capable of stepping into the role like Nathan in 2004 or Aguilera in 1990 or Guardado in 2001. Find a very good reliever and let him become a very good closer, and in the process avoid the temptation to once again overpay for the "closer" label that can only be earned through opportunity in the first place. That doesn't mean it'll be easy, but focusing on ability rather than saves worked before and will work again.

October 31, 2011

Twins Notes: Nathan’s option, Thome’s options, releases, and single ladies

• As expected, the Twins declined their $12.5 million option on Joe Nathan and instead paid a $2 million buyout, making the 36-year-old a free agent. General manager Bill Smith has said repeatedly that they're interested in re-signing Nathan for a lesser salary, but doing so may require a two-year deal and there's no shortage of closers available this offseason. Declining the option was a no-brainer, but the wisdom of bringing Nathan back depends on the price.

Nathan looked nothing like his old self upon returning from Tommy John surgery and ended up going back on the disabled list with more elbow problems in late May. He came off the shelf a month later and reclaimed closer duties within a few weeks, posting a 3.38 ERA and 28-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final 29 innings. Those numbers aren't quite pre-surgery Nathan and his velocity remained several ticks below his peak, but he looked very good.

With about $30 million to spend and at least a handful of holes to address coming off a 99-loss season the Twins would be smart not to commit tons of money to a 70-inning pitcher, let alone a 70-inning pitcher who'll soon be 37 years old and has just 29 innings of success since elbow surgery that cost him miles per hour. Nathan's price tag rising any higher than one year and $7 million or so should push the Twins to strongly consider cheaper, younger bullpen options.

• Smith has indicated that the Twins are unlikely to pursue Jim Thome as a free agent, citing their desire to have a more flexible roster that doesn't include a 41-year-old designated hitter who can't run or field. All things being equal that makes sense, particularly since they already limit the bench options by carrying 12 pitchers, but if Thome is available for $1 million it would be silly to rule him out completely.

There's a lot he can't do, but Thome still hit .256/.361/.477 with power and patience this year and slotting him into the DH spot for a minimal investment would give them a much-needed big bat while leaving most of their money to patch other holes. Roster flexibility is nice, especially given the Twins' many health issues, but if you can add an .800-OPS hitter for $500,000 more than the minimum salary it's probably worth living with some bench limitations.

Matt Eddy of Baseball America notes that the Twins released 12 minor leaguers: Kyle Wahl, Nick Alloway, Marcus Limon, Bobby O'Neill, Nick Cicio, Justin Parker, Sam Spangler, Matt Tone, Jamaal Hawkins, Nick Romero, Brandon Henderson, Derek McCallum. Most of those guys were late-round picks and organizational depth, but Romero was the Twins' fifth-round pick in 2008 and McCallum was their fifth rounder in 2009.

McCallum was the first Gophers hitter with a .400 batting average since Brent Gates in 1994, broke Robb Quinlan's single-season school RBI record, and led the Big Ten in hits, home runs, slugging percentage, and RBIs during his final season, but struggled with injuries as a pro and simply never hit. McCallum was never considered a good defender at second base and hit just .215/.295/.302 with 179 strikeouts in 201 games while failing to advance beyond Single-A.

• I'm still holding out some hope that Alex Burnett can develop into a solid setup man despite a 5.40 ERA through his first 107 appearances, but Parker Hageman of Over The Baggy passed along a discouraging stat: This season Burnett got a swinging strike on just 5.4 percent of his pitches, which is the lowest rate of any reliever in baseball. By comparison Jonathan Papelbon led baseball at 16.8 percent and Glen Perkins led the Twins at 11.2 percent.

• Last winter the Twins reportedly finished runner-up in the bidding for Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, who ultimately failed to sign with the A's after they bid $19 million for his exclusive negotiating rights. Oakland got a refund and Iwakuma went back to Japan, where he posted a 2.42 ERA and 90/19 K/BB ratio in 117 innings at age 30. Iwakuma is now an outright free agent and requires no bidding, so it'll be interesting to see if the Twins try again.

• Last but certainly not least, here's Ben Revere singing (sort of) "Single Ladies" by Beyonce:

Apparently a bunch of Rochester players showed off their pipes, because there's also YouTube evidence of Brian Dinkelman singing "Wanted Dead Or Alive" by Bon Jovi and Andy Baldwin singing "Rock With You" by Michael Jackson.

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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August 29, 2011

Twins Notes: Waivers, trades, types, reinforcements, and Bernardo Brito

• Cleveland claimed Jim Thome off revocable waivers to facilitate last week's trade, but Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the Indians were also the team that claimed Jason Kubel. No deal was struck and the Twins pulled Kubel back off waivers, in part because their asking price for him was much higher than for Thome and in part because the Indians ceased needing a left-handed bat after acquiring Thome.

Ron Gardenhire revealed during his weekly radio show that Thome and his agent asked the Twins to place him on waivers "to see what happened." There's speculation that Thome ideally wanted to land back in Philadelphia, where a playoff appearance is guaranteed, but he would have been merely a pinch-hitter for the Phillies. Cleveland's playoff hopes are slim, but Thome is playing every day for the Indians and homered Saturday on his 41st birthday.

Joe Nathan explained that he "would consider" waiving his no-trade clause for a Thome-like trade to a contender, but his contract complicates things. He's owed around $2 million for the rest of this season and has a $12.5 million option or $2.5 million buyout for 2012. To get even a mid-level prospect in return for Nathan the Twins would presumably have to eat nearly that entire $4.5 million and any move would have to be made by Wednesday.

Michael Cuddyer moving to first base has helped the Twins during Justin Morneau's lengthy absences, but it also appears to have hurt his free agent ranking. MLB and Elias Sports Bureau keep their official rankings secret until the offseason, but MLB Trade Rumors reverse-engineers the data and posts frequent updates. Cuddyer was projected as a Type A free agent until last week, when his listed position changed from outfield to first base and he dropped to Type B.

• Based on MLB Trade Rumors' latest projection Cuddyer and Kubel are both slightly below the Type A cutoff, but a lot can still change. It's an important distinction in terms of compensation the Twins would receive if they sign elsewhere, but also in terms of how many teams figure to pursue them. Carl Pavano was an example of Type A status hurting a free agent's market, as many potentially interested teams didn't want to forfeit a first-round pick to sign him.

• There are seven AL pitchers who qualify for the ERA title with an opponents' batting average above .290 and the Twins have three of them (Pavano, Brian Duensing, and Nick Blackburn). In throwing 181 innings this season Pavano has allowed the most runs (103), hits (214), and baserunners (264) among AL pitchers and also has the league's second-lowest strikeout rate at 3.98 per nine innings. He'll be 36 years old next season and is owed $8.5 million.

Scott Diamond coughed up 10 hits in Friday's spot start versus the Tigers, becoming the fifth Twins pitcher to allow double-digit hits in a game this year. Diamond, Duensing, and Francisco Liriano have done it once apiece, Pavano has done it four times, and Blackburn has done it seven times in 26 total starts. Overall a Twins pitcher has allowed double-digit hits 14 times, which leads MLB. Not coincidentally their rotation has MLB's third-lowest strikeout rate.

• So far the Twins have used 16 players who weren't on the Opening Day roster and the only one of those 16 call-ups with an OPS or ERA better than league average is Anthony Swarzak. Seven are hitters and they've combined for 20 percent of the lineup's playing time while hitting .232/.281/.323 in 1,018 plate appearances. Nine are pitchers and they've logged 18 percent of the staff's batters faced while posting a 4.57 ERA in 187 innings (5.09 ERA without Swarzak).

Trevor Plouffe air-mailed a throw to first base over the weekend, but for the most part he's looked much improved at shortstop while subbing for the injured Tsuyoshi Nishioka. However, the destruction of Triple-A pitching that got him recalled to Minnesota hasn't shown up yet, as Plouffe has batted just .250/.293/.411 with an ugly 30-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34 games since rejoining the Twins in mid-July.

Ben Revere swiped his 25th base yesterday, moving into second place on the Twins' all-time list for rookies. That sounds impressive, except the person atop the leaderboard is Luis Rivas, who stole 31 bases as a rookie in 2001. Not only did Rivas bat just .266/.319/.362 in stealing those 31 bases, he went on to steal a grand total of just 48 bases in his next 479 games. Of course, even .266/.319/.362 is quite a bit better than Revere's current .255/.301/.294 mark.

Luke Hughes went deep twice yesterday in his 73rd career game, becoming the first Twins hitter with multiple homers in one of his first 75 games since Morneau and Joe Mauer both did it in 2004. Before then the last Twins to do that were Corey Koskie in 1999 and Ron Coomer in 1996. Oh, and Bernardo Brito in 1993. Brito, who spent seven years at Triple-A for the Twins and totaled 164 homers there, managed just five homers in the majors.

• Mauer came off the disabled list on June 17. Since then he's played 61 games and Cuddyer has played 55 games. Since the All-Star break Mauer leads the Twins in batting average (.320) and on-base percentage (.380) while playing more games than anyone but Revere and Danny Valencia. Not everything must fit the pre-established narrative. Speaking of which, this is one of the rare times when Patrick Reusse and I are in complete agreement.

Dr. David Altcheck, who performed Tommy John elbow surgery on Nathan in March of 2010, provided a second opinion on Kyle Gibson's partially torn elbow ligament and agreed with the Twins' recommendation that he attempt to rest and rehab the injury before going under the knife. Gibson will miss all of 2012 whether he undergoes surgery now or in two months, so the delayed decision won't necessarily impact his return timetable much.

• Gardenhire finished ninth in a Sports Illustrated poll asking players which manager they'd like to play for, with Joe Maddon of the Rays holding the top spot at 14 percent.

• One big Thome is back in Cleveland, but 10,000 little Thomes are still in Minnesota.

Charley Walters wrote the most St. Paul article in the history of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

• Old friend Pat Neshek learned the hard way that there's a considerable difference between "designated for assignment" and "optioned."

Delmon Young has zero walks in 58 plate appearances since being traded to the Tigers.

• Since the All-Star break the Twins are hitting .247 with a .305 on-base percentage and .366 slugging percentage compared to their opponents hitting .297 with a .353 on-base percentage and .467 slugging percentage.

• Overall this year the Twins have been out-scored by 144 runs for the worst run differential in the league and the second-worst mark in baseball ahead of only the Astros at -157. Last year the Twins out-scored their opponents by 110 runs.

• Dating back to 2010 and including the playoffs, the Twins are 58-88 in their last 146 games.

• Here's how the race for the top draft picks in 2012 looks:

              W      L       GB
Astros       44     90     ----
Orioles      53     78     10.5
Royals       55     79     11.0
TWINS        56     77     12.5
Mariners     56     76     13.0
Cubs         57     77     13.0

They may have to call up Mark Madsen to shoot some three-pointers in late September.

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August 15, 2011

Twins Notes: “Psst. It’s Over.”

• To put the Twins' current 11.5-game AL Central deficit into context consider that they're 15.0 games ahead of the Astros for the worst record in baseball. They're also just 3.0 games ahead of the Royals for last place in the AL Central and 5.5 games ahead of the Orioles for the worst record in the AL. There are 43 games remaining and the Twins would have to go 29-14 just to finish .500. In their last 43 games the Twins are 20-23.

Alexi Casilla spent two weeks on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring and then aggravated the injury in the seventh inning of his first game back Friday, immediately returning to the DL. Trevor Plouffe, who was optioned to Triple-A to clear a roster spot for Casilla, was called right back up and will hopefully get more of an opportunity than last time, when he often found himself on the bench in favor of Matt Tolbert.

Plouffe has plenty of flaws and is hardly guaranteed to become a solid big leaguer, but if ever there was a time for the Twins to find out it's when the division title is out of reach and their primary alternative is a 29-year-old career .235/.291/.326 hitter. Using the final six weeks to see if Plouffe can be a part of the team's plans in 2012 and beyond is far more valuable than giving Tolbert more time to cement his status as the definition of a replacement-level player.

Kevin Slowey's long-awaited return to the Twins' rotation technically never happened, as he allowed one run in two innings yesterday before the game was washed away by rain.

Denard Span is 2-for-35 (.057) with nine strikeouts versus three walks since spending two months on the disabled list, telling LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he's still having post-concussion symptoms and is struggling with new medication. Not good.

Justin Morneau returned to the lineup six weeks after surgery to remove a herniated disk fragment from his neck, but told Neal that he still doesn't have feeling in his left index finger because of nerve damage. Despite that Morneau went 11-for-30 (.367) with a homer and four doubles in seven games rehabbing at Triple-A.

Joe Nathan became the Twins' all-time saves leader Wednesday with his 255th since joining the team in 2004, moving past Rick Aguilera. Nathan is definitely the most dominant closer in Twins history--and one of the most dominant in baseball history, for that matter--but his save total and Aguilera's save total isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. Here's an explanation of the differences from my write-up of Aguilera as the 18th-best player in Twins history:

It's important to note that Tom Kelly used Aguilera much differently than Ron Gardenhire has used Nathan. Nathan has inherited a grand total of 54 runners in seven-plus seasons with the Twins, which works out to one per eight innings. Aguilera inherited 38 runners in his first year as closer, and then saw 37 and 40 more in the next two years. In all, Aguilera inherited 207 runners during his time in Minnesota, which works out to one every 2.5 relief innings.

The vast majority of Nathan's saves involved starting an inning with a clean slate, but Aguilera often saved games he entered with runners on base. That goes a long way toward explaining his seemingly mediocre save percentage and Aguilera also deserves credit for stranding more than three-fourths of the runners he inherited.

In addition to being more difficult than Nathan's saves, on average, Aguilera's saves were also longer, as he recorded 55 more outs in his 254 saves than Nathan has in his 255 saves.

Glen Perkins might be wearing down in his first full season as a reliever. He allowed eight runs in 43 innings through August 5, including 37 scoreless appearances in 45 total outings, and never gave up more than one run in a game. And now Perkins has allowed six runs in his last four innings, including four straight outings with a run and multiple runs in two of them. David Ortiz's homer was the first served up by Perkins in 178 plate appearances this year.

Amelia Rayno of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote an interesting article about the pitcher-catcher relationship and specifically Carl Pavano picking Drew Butera as his personal catcher. Near the end of the article she noted Pavano's respective ERA with different catchers, but it's worth repeating: Pavano has a 4.26 ERA in 35 starts with his preferred catcher, Butera, and a 4.09 ERA in 31 starts with Joe Mauer. And this year's numbers skew further in Mauer's favor.

• MLB suspended Twins minor leaguer Kennys Vargas for 50 games after he violated the drug prevention and treatment program by reportedly testing positive for phentermine, which can be used to speed metabolism for weight loss. Vargas is 6-foot-5 and Seth Stohs notes that his weight has been an issue. Vargas, a 20-year-old first baseman who was signed out of Puerto Rico in 2009, was hitting .322/.377/.489 in 44 games at rookie-level Elizabethton.

Ted Uhlaender is the only outfielder in Twins history to get 200-plus plate appearances in a season with an on-base percentage below .300 and a slugging percentage below .300, hitting .226/.280/.286 in 403 plate appearances in 1966. Ben Revere is hitting .245/.294/.285 in 298 plate appearances. And his noodle arm was in right field Wednesday because Ron Gardenhire refuses to move Delmon Young there. Don't mess with success. Or something. How silly.

Jim Thome has faced three pitchers at least 70 times in his career. One is Tim Wakefield, whom he faced last week, and the other two are Roger Clemens and Brad Radke. Thome has hit just .185 off Wakefield and .225 (with good power) off Radke, but crushed Clemens to the tune of .355/.438/.855 with eight homers and seven doubles in 62 at-bats. Among all hitters Clemens faced at least 50 times Thome is the only one to top a 1.000 OPS. And he's at 1.293.

• Tonight is the deadline for MLB teams to sign draft picks and the Twins' first-rounder, North Carolina junior shortstop Levi Michael, remains unsigned, as do supplemental first-round picks Travis Harrison and Hudson Boyd. Their next six picks are all signed.

• While watching Tom Kelly fill in for Bert Blyleven during one of the recent FSN broadcasts I looked up his old minor-league numbers and the former manager hit .272/.406/.436 with more walks (538) than strikeouts (429) in 782 games at Triple-A. Of course, he was a first baseman, which is why Kelly spent 13 seasons in the minors and 47 games in the majors. Offensively at least he was a poor man's Doug Mientkiewicz.

• Why was Chuck Knoblauch a no-show at the 1991 team's reunion last week? Because "he's considerably out of shape," according to Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Which is smart, because Kent Hrbek would have really goofed on him.

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