April 6, 2012

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"

• Reminder: I'll be watching the Twins' opener against the Orioles this afternoon at Wild Boar in Hopkins with my "Gleeman and The Geek" co-host John Bonnes and some other familiar names. First pitch is scheduled for 2:05, so I'd encourage everyone to leave work early and join us for some baseball and beer. Click here for more details.

• Here's the Twins' lineup for Game 1 versus right-hander Jake Arrieta:

1. Denard Span, L        CF
2. Jamey Carroll, R      SS
3. Joe Mauer, L          C
4. Justin Morneau, L     DH
5. Josh Willingham, R    LF
6. Ryan Doumit, S        RF
7. Danny Valencia, R     3B
8. Chris Parmelee, L     1B
9. Alexi Casilla, S      2B

I'd have sent Chris Parmelee to Triple-A to begin the season, but if you assume that those nine players must start on Opening Day that's exactly what my batting order would look like. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's something.

• I wrote all the season previews for AL Central teams at HardballTalk and concluded that the Tigers are clear front-runners, perhaps more so than any other team in any other division, while the Indians, White Sox, Royals, and Twins are each very capable of finishing anywhere from second place to last place. If everything breaks right for the Twins staying in contention deep into the season is possible, but my guess is that they finish right around .500.

• While a .500 record may not sound very optimistic, Las Vegas has the over/under for Twins wins around 73, which is higher than only the Astros and Orioles, and ESPN.com's season simulation based on Baseball Think Factory's excellent ZiPS projection system has the Twins going 70-92. They were so awful last season that improving by 15 games would still leave them at 78-84, so .500 would be quite an accomplishment.

Jason Marquis needs to build up his arm strength after leaving spring training to be with his family following his daughter's bicycling accident, so he's agreed to an assignment to Double-A and will have his turn in the rotation skipped at least once. And thankfully his daughter is making good progress in her recovery.

Scott Baker exited yesterday's minor-league start after just 11 pitches, so it doesn't sound like he'll be returning from elbow problems any time soon.

• As if the Twins didn't have enough question marks, Buster Olney of ESPN.com crunched the numbers and found that they have the toughest early season schedule in the league based on 2011 records.

• In addition to being an excellent guest on this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press also wrote a lengthy, even-handed, and interesting article about all things Joe Mauer. Once you're done reading it follow Goessling on Twitter and bookmark his blog. Good writer, good guy, and good addition to the local Twins media.

• As someone who loves the Twins and The Big Lebowski this commercial is pretty great:

"The Big Hrbowski" is the role Kent Hrbek was born to play.

• For months Terry Ryan insisted that Trevor Plouffe would be used exclusively in the outfield after his disastrous rookie showing at shortstop, but now that the Twins don't have a true backup shortstop on the roster suddenly Plouffe is in the infield mix again. Plans changing was the theme of this spring, but giving Plouffe some chances at second base or third base is a worthwhile idea while they try to figure out where he fits offensively and defensively.

Seth Stohs has a complete rundown of all the minor-league rosters over at Twins Daily. Of my top 10 prospects, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario will be at low Single-A Beloit, Oswaldo Arcia and Levi Michael will be at high Single-A Fort Myers, Aaron Hicks and Alex Wimmers will be at Double-A New Britain, Joe Benson and Brian Dozier will be at Triple-A Rochester, Kyle Gibson will be rehabbing Tommy John surgery, and Liam Hendriks will be in the majors.

• Parmelee working his way on to the Opening Day roster left the Twins short a Triple-A first baseman, so they acquired Matt Rizzotti from the Phillies for cash considerations. As a 26-year-old career minor leaguer available for basically nothing Rizzotti is hardly a prospect, but he's consistently had very impressive numbers that include a .295/.392/.511 line with 24 homers, 34 doubles, and 79 walks in 139 games at Double-A last season.

Matt Bashore starred at Indiana University and was the Twins' supplemental first-round pick in 2009, but arm problems have limited him to just 19 career innings and he was released last week. They also released 2009 third-round pick Ben Tootle, a hard-throwing right-hander whose career was similarly ruined by injuries, and Dustin Martin, an outfielder acquired from the Mets along with Drew Butera in the mid-2007 trade for Luis Castillo.

Joel Zumaya underwent Tommy John elbow surgery last week and instead of putting him on the 60-day disabled list all season the Twins released him. And despite his one-year contract supposedly being "non-guaranteed" they're apparently on the hook for his entire $850,000 base salary rather than the initially reported $400,000.

• Back in December the Twins traded Kevin Slowey to the Rockies for marginal prospect Daniel Turpen and then six weeks later the Rockies traded him to the Indians, who were looking for rotation help following Fausto Carmona's arrest on false identity charges. Cleveland gave up a better prospect for Slowey than Colorado did, yet even with Carmona still out of the picture the Indians decided to send Slowey and his $2.8 million salary to Triple-A.

Pat Neshek had a 0.00 ERA with eight strikeouts and zero walks in nine innings this spring after signing a minor-league deal with the Orioles, but they sent him to Triple-A anyway.

Matt Tolbert, did not make the Cubs on a minor-league deal and will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa.

Cristian Guzman, who was attempting a comeback at age 33 after sitting out all of last season for personal reasons, was released by the Indians.

Johan Santana returned from shoulder surgery to throw five scoreless innings in his first start since 2010.

Jason Bulger and Steve Pearce both signed minor-league contracts with the Yankees after being released by the Twins in the middle of spring training.

• If you're interested in keeping tabs on Twins prospects this season Twins Fan From Afar is a blog you should definitely check out, as Andrew Walter will attending games in New Britain, Connecticut and writing about the Double-A team that includes top-40 prospects Hicks, Wimmers, Chris Herrmann, David Bromberg, Deolis Guerra, and James Beresford.

• For anyone who plays Hardball Dynasty on WhatIfSports.com my league is looking for a couple new owners and our next season begins soon. Before contacting me, click here.

• If you impersonate Bert Blyleven on Twitter he will tell you to "get a life a-hole."

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped here 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, but I'm ready to talk about actual games again and look forward to my 11th season of blogging. Thanks for reading AG.com, thanks for following me on Twitter, thanks for listening to the podcast, and thanks for supporting my work at NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.

And in what has become an Opening Day tradition, this is Richie Havens singing my favorite version of "Here Comes The Sun":

February 27, 2012

Twins Notes: Zumaya, Morneau, Span, three catchers, and old friends

• It took 13 batting practice throws for Joel Zumaya to show why he was available to the Twins for a non-guaranteed, incentive-laden deal and why they were foolish not to add another setup man in a buyer's market flooded with veterans willing to sign cheaply. Zumaya felt elbow pain during Saturday's mound session, walked off with a trainer, headed to his too-familiar place in an MRI machine, and was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

He'll miss the entire season, his Twins career is over before it even started, and Zumaya may call it quits at age 27 following what would be his seventh surgery in five years. And it's a shame, because throughout all the injuries Zumaya never lost the ability to throw gas--he reportedly showed mid-90s velocity in the abbreviated session Saturday--and signing him to a one-year deal worth just $400,000 in guaranteed money was a smart gamble by the Twins.

Not so smart was their decision to view Zumaya as something more than a lottery ticket, but by passing on cheap, decent bullpen options like Todd Coffey, Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, and Takashi Saito in favor of overpaying Matt Capps and counting on Zumaya they're left with a right-handed setup man void and only in-house arms like Anthony Swarzak, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Jeff Gray, Lester Oliveros, and Carlos Gutierrez to fill it.

Justin Morneau created a big stir last week when he showed up to spring training and gave a less than encouraging update on his now two-year-long concussion comeback. Morneau noted that he hasn't had concussion symptoms "since January." He meant that in a positive way, but that only dates back a month, and five weeks ago Morneau told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he hadn't experienced symptoms "since December."

Asked what he'll do if the symptoms return this spring, Morneau said:

I don't think there will be a career if it's something I'm dealing with. That's the reality of the whole thing. I've kind of come to grips with that. I'm obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem. There comes a point when you can only torture yourself so long. It's something I love to do, but you keep preparing and keep being let down, that's something that nobody wants to go through, obviously.

In other words, his baseball career may very well be determined by the next six weeks.

Denard Span's own comeback from a season-ruining concussion has flown under the radar a bit compared to Morneau, but Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com reports that "he still is bothered by an occasional bad day" nine months after the initial brain injury. This offseason Span changed his diet, took up yoga, and started seeing a chiropractor, but much like with Morneau there isn't a lot he can do now besides wait and see how his brain responds to increased activities.

• As much as injuries wrecked the Twins last season, it could have been worse. Well, sort of. Jeff Zimmerman of Fan Graphs crunched the numbers and the Twins were close to the middle of the pack when it comes to total days spent on the disabled list in 2011, ranking 13th. They did, however, lead baseball in disabled list stints with 28. By comparison, no other team had more than 24 disabled list stints and the Royals only used the disabled list nine times.

• Because they didn't make any changes to the training and medical staff it's unclear how the Twins plan to achieve their oft-stated goal of keeping players on the field and off the DL more this year, but what we do know is that injury information will be disseminated differently. Last season Ron Gardenhire was often tasked with giving medical updates to reporters, which was no fun for the manager and frequently led to confusing or misleading details.

This time around general manager Terry Ryan and assistant general manager Rob Antony will take responsibility for giving those day-to-day injury updates. Ryan explained that the change is in part to "streamline the process" and in part to let Gardenhire focusing on managing. Asked if he was in favor of the change, Gardenhire said: "When he announced that, I wanted to give him a man hug. I'm happy. Yeah, that's the last thing I want to talk about is injuries."

• Bollinger reports that "the Twins are widely expected to carry three catchers to start the season." While perhaps not ideal, particularly when one of those three catchers will almost surely be Drew Butera, no one should be surprised. In fact, in projecting the Opening Day roster back in mid-December my assumption was that they'd carry Butera along with Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit. At this point I'd be surprised if they didn't.

Mauer's durability plays a big factor, as does Doumit being counted on to be the starting designated hitter. Toss in Gardenhire's longstanding fear of having to forfeit the DH role in the middle of a game if the DH is needed behind the plate and Butera's spot seems fairly safe despite his ghastly .178/.220/.261 career line in 142 games. Elias Sports Bureau found that the Twins have lost the DH spot mid-game just eight times in 10 years under Gardenhire.

• Old friend Cristian Guzman, who sat out last season, will attempt to get back into the AL Central after agreeing to a minor-league contract with the Indians. Cleveland manager Manny Acta managed Guzman in Washington and apparently talked the 33-year-old into making a comeback as a potential utility man. Guzman has hit .279/.314/.384 in 565 games since leaving the Twins as a free agent following the 2005 season, including .266/.311/.337 in 2010.

• Another old friend, Juan Rincon, signed a minor-league deal with the Angels. Rincon's four-year run as a dominant setup man tends to be overlooked--he posted a 2.93 ERA with 318 strikeouts in 319 innings from 2003-2006--but he was pretty much washed up at age 29 when the Twins released him in mid-2008 and since then has logged a total of just 66 innings with a 6.27 ERA for three different teams.

• Just a reminder: John Bonnes and I are hosting a get-together/meet-up/viewing party next Monday night, March 5 at Wild Boar in Hopkins, where we'll watch the Twins-Red Sox spring training game on television, record a "Gleeman and The Geek" podcast episode, drink beer, and talk baseball. It should be fun and if the turnout is decent we'll probably do a lot more events during the season, so come hang out.

February 6, 2012

Twins Notes: Relievers, starters, outfielders, draftees, and signing an MVP

Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com has the details of Joel Zumaya's one-year deal with the Twins. He's guaranteed $400,000 even if they cut him during spring training and that would turn into $850,000 if Zumaya is on the Opening Day roster, with another $900,000 in potential bonuses based on appearances. If he were to stay healthy and effective for the entire season Zumaya could earn a total of $1.75 million.

Of course, Zumaya hasn't stayed healthy and effective since he was a 21-year-old rookie in 2006, so when he signed my assumption was that the Twins would still look to add another veteran right-hander for the bullpen. At this point, however, that looks increasingly unlikely, as capable relievers continue to sign elsewhere for modest one-year contracts and minor-league deals with no indication that the Twins will snatch one up.

I wrote about the bullpen last week, noting that the Twins' impatience led to overpaying Matt Capps in an obvious buyer's market and is extra frustrating when combined with the apparent unwillingness to spend even $1 million more to address a clear weakness. Since then Todd Coffey signed with the Dodgers for $1.3 million and Chad Qualls signed with the Phillies for $1.15 million. They had plenty of chances to cheaply add a decent setup man and refused.

Terry Ryan said that he views the rotation as a strength, which might be true relative to the rest of the team but certainly isn't true relative to the rest of baseball. Last year Twins starters combined for MLB's fifth-worst ERA and while they might be healthier this time around the front four of Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, and Nick Blackburn made 104 starts in 2011. Jason Marquis replacing Brian Duensing is the only real change and he had a 4.43 ERA.

Clearly the rotation is capable of being better and healthier, but when Pavano is your Opening Day starter and both Blackburn and Marquis are taking the mound every fifth day it's tough to see the group as anything but below average even if you're optimistic about Baker staying healthy and Liriano being way closer to the 2010 version than the 2011 version. My blog-mate Matthew Pouliot projected numbers for all 30 rotations and has the Twins in the bottom five.

• Ryan and Ron Gardenhire have both made it very clear that the starting outfield will be Ben Revere in left field, Denard Span in center field, and Josh Willingham in right field. Assuming that Span is healthy after missing much of last year following a concussion, obviously. Trevor Plouffe is no longer viewed as an infield option and platooning his right-handed bat with the left-handed Revere in left field would make sense, but as usual with Gardenhire that's unlikely.

• With the No. 2 overall pick in June's draft and seven of the first 100 picks the Twins will have MLB's highest signing bonus allotment at around $12 million, according to Jim Callis of Baseball America. February speculation is mostly silly, but Baseball America's early ranking has Stanford pitcher Mark Appel first, followed by high school pitcher Lucas Giolito, high school outfielder Byron Buxton, Arizona State shortstop Devin Marrero, and Florida catcher Mike Zunino.

Camilo Pascual will be this year's inductee into the Twins' team Hall of Fame, which should please Patrick Reusse and the other local media members who've stumped for him in recent years. Pascual, who pitched in Minnesota from 1961-1966, ranked 20th on my list of the best players in Twins history.

Tom Kelly will also have his numbered retired by the Twins, which rendered the normally stoic former manager speechless during the Diamond Awards banquet last week. "Tom Kelly Day" at Target Field is scheduled for September 8, when he'll join Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Kent Hrbek, and Bert Blyleven as retired numbers.

Chris Colabello is one of the more intriguing minor-league signings in an offseason filled with them, as the 28-year-old first baseman joins the Twins after winning MVP of the independent Canadian-American Association. Colabello has hit .317/.390/.541 in seven years in the CAMA, including .348/.410/.600 with 20 homers in 92 games last year. Not only was he MVP of the CAMA, he was Baseball America's choice as player of the year in all independent leagues.

Luke Hughes injured his shoulder while playing back home in the Australian Baseball League and the Twins have pulled him from the Perth Heat's roster for the championship series.

Justin Morneau denied Nick Nelson's report that his wrist surgery stemmed from an injury that occurred during a clubhouse incident.

• Old friend Pat Neshek, who split last year between the majors and Triple-A for the Padres, signed a minor-league deal with the Orioles.

• Because the Twins are seemingly done adding players this offseason, it's worth noting that their current roster doesn't fare very well based on early projections.

• Finally, just a heads up: My annual series ranking and profiling the Twins' top 40 prospects will begin either later this week or early next week. I'm putting the finishing touches on it now.

January 16, 2012

Twins add hard-throwing, oft-injured Joel Zumaya to bullpen mix

Joel Zumaya hasn't appeared in a major-league game since gruesomely fracturing his elbow while throwing a pitch to Delmon Young at Target Field on June 28, 2010, but the oft-injured reliever was healthy enough to impress the dozens of scouts attending his workout last month and yesterday the Twins signed him. Assuming that Zumaya passes a physical exam, Jason Beck of MLB.com reports that the one-year deal is for $800,000, with $900,000 in incentives.

According to Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune the contract is a big-league deal that includes a spot on the 40-man roster, but is not fully guaranteed and "the Twins would be able to cut Zumaya in spring training and not be on the hook for all of the guaranteed money if something doesn't look right." All of which means the signing falls somewhere between no-risk and low-risk, with the upside of a late-inning reliever who does anything but pitch to contact.

Of course, given his incredibly lengthy injury history the far more likely scenario is that Zumaya spends most of the year on the disabled list or perhaps doesn't even make it through spring training. Zumaya was a 21-year-old rookie phenom for the Tigers in 2006, posting a 1.91 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 83 innings while holding opponents' to a .187 batting average, but in the five years since then he's thrown a grand total of 126 innings while undergoing six surgeries.

Zumaya ruptured a tendon in his finger in early 2007, separated his shoulder while helping his father move boxes prior to the California wild fires in late 2007, underwent a second shoulder surgery for a stress fracture in late 2008, needed a third shoulder surgery after aggravating the injury in mid-2009, and has been under the knife twice since his elbow exploded in June of 2010. And sprinkled in with all the operations have been several other brief disabled list stints.

What makes Zumaya worth taking a flier after all the injuries is that he's still just 27 years old and has never lost his high-90s fastball. Most pitchers see velocity vanish as the arm problems pile up, but Zumaya actually threw slightly harder in 2010 than he did as a rookie in 2006. For his career Zumaya's fastball has averaged 98.5 miles per hour, which is the highest in baseball among all pitchers with at least 50 innings since 2006:

                      MPH
JOEL ZUMAYA          98.5
Henry Rodriguez      98.3
Aroldis Chapman      98.2
Jordan Walden        97.8
Daniel Bard          97.5
Stephen Strasburg    97.0

He had MLB's fastest fastball in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 before narrowly finishing second to Aroldis Chapman in 2010 and wasn't simply lighting up radar guns. Zumaya also remained effective after the surgeries with a 2.58 ERA and 34-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings before his elbow snapped in 2010. None of that guarantees the recent elbow surgeries won't sap his velocity, but Zumaya was reportedly clocked in the mid-90s at last month's workout.

Odds are Zumaya won't stay healthy, so if the Twins are viewing him as the final piece of their bullpen and the guy to fill the vacant right-handed setup man role that's a mistake. However, assuming that they're still in the market for a low-cost veteran right-hander like Todd Coffey or Dan Wheeler or Chad Qualls or Michael Wuertz the addition of Zumaya on a low-risk deal makes all kinds of sense. He still has plenty of upside and the contract has no real downside.