September 26, 2012

What happened to the Twins’ pitching?

Rick Anderson took over for Dick Such as the Twins' pitching coach when Ron Gardenhire replaced Tom Kelly as manager in 2002 and since then the staff has issued the fewest walks in baseball, leading the league in walk rate six times. However, one common misconception about Twins pitching under Anderson is that their fantastic control has always come attached to terrible strikeout rates.

In reality Anderson's early pitching staffs were often able to combine excellent control with solid strikeout rates, and in fact Twins pitchers led the league in strikeouts as recently as 2006. That was Johan Santana's second-to-last season in Minnesota and his third straight year leading the league in strikeouts, and the Twins also got a ton of missed bats from Francisco Liriano before the 22-year-old rookie blew out his elbow.

They were joined in the 2006 rotation by Brad Radke and Scott Baker, who produced above-average strikeout rates, and the late-inning bullpen trio of Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, and Juan Rincon combined for 220 strikeouts in 219 innings. Overall the pitching staff had a league-high 1,164 strikeouts and a league-low 356 walks in 1,439 innings, and not surprisingly they also had the AL's second-best ERA.

That season marked the fifth time in five years under Anderson that Twins pitchers had an above-average strikeout total and the next year they extended that streak to six consecutive seasons by ranking fourth in the league. Suddenly that all changed in 2008 as the staff's strikeout total plummeted to 10th in the league without Santana or Radke around, and Twins pitchers haven't had an above-average strikeout rate since.

They ranked 10th among the league's 14 teams in 2008, 2009, and 2010 before finishing dead last among all 30 major-league teams last season, producing just 940 strikeouts when every other team had at least 1,000. As bad as that was their strikeout rate has amazingly fallen even further this year, going from 6.0 to 5.9 per nine innings as they once again rank dead last among all 30 major-league teams. And it's not even close.

Twins pitchers have 890 strikeouts in 154 games, which is 14 percent fewer than any other team and 23 percent below the MLB average. Once upon a time Anderson-led staffs threw strikes and missed bats, boasting several starters and relievers with good raw stuff and strong whiff rates. And now? Well, they still throw strikes with a better-than-average walk rate ... and the AL's fewest strikeouts, second-most homers allowed, and second-highest ERA.

Santana was MLB's best, most dominant starting pitcher for Anderson's first six seasons as pitching coach, posting a 2.92 ERA with the most strikeouts and highest strikeout rate in all of baseball. During that same time Nathan racked up a remarkable 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings to go with a 1.94 ERA and five other Twins relievers who saw regular action had at least 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

When you have the best starting pitcher in baseball racking up league-leading strikeout totals, one of the best closers in baseball piling up whiffs at an even higher rate, and multiple setup men capable of missing bats then surrounding them with low-strikeout control artists is a sound strategy. But when you no longer have those elite, high-strikeout pitchers to anchor the staff the same strategy fails.

Santana going from unknown Rule 5 pick to MLB's best pitcher is one of the more remarkable journeys in modern history and Nathan emerging as MLB's best non-Mariano Rivera reliever is similarly astounding, so counting on Anderson and the Twins to duplicate those feats would be silly. Beyond that, considering the Twins' longtime aversion to acquiring hard-throwing pitchers it's unclear how much blame to assign Anderson as opposed to the front office.

With that said, it's very clear that something needs to change. They've failed to develop a front-line starter since Santana left five years ago and there are few power arms in the farm system aside from some 2012 draftees. Talk of succeeding by pitching to contact--or throwing strikes and playing defense--is a nice story with some truth behind it, but that approach doesn't work so well without elite bat-missers like Santana and Nathan leading the way.

In the absence of that front-line talent the Twins have essentially built entire staffs out of the guys who're supposed to be the surrounding pieces. In the five seasons since Santana's departure 37 different Twins pitchers have thrown more than 25 innings and three of them--Nathan, Liriano, and newcomer Casey Fien--have topped 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings. Of those 37 pitchers 27 had a strikeout rate below 7.0 and eight had a strikeout rate below 5.0.

How much stems from Anderson's well-established preferred pitching mold and teaching methods versus the front office simply not targeting hard-throwing, high-strikeout arms is up for debate, but whatever the case it needs to change and they need to adapt. In addition to having the fewest strikeouts and highest ERA in the AL since the beginning of last season Twins pitchers also have the league's lowest average fastball velocity at 90.9 miles per hour.

At the opposite end of the pitching spectrum are the Nationals, who this season lead the NL in both ERA and average fastball velocity while totaling a remarkable 42 percent more strikeouts than the Twins. Not surprisingly the Nationals have MLB's best record despite an offense that has scored 692 runs compared to 676 runs for the Twins. And when asked why he built a staff of hard-throwing strikeout pitchers, general manager Mike Rizzo replied:

We used to have sinker, pitch-to-contact guys. That's who you get when you're not elite.

Injuries to highly paid veterans like Baker, Carl Pavano, and Matt Capps took a big toll on this year's staff and injuries to prospects like Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers sapped the Twins of reinforcements, but none of those guys are hard-throwing, high-strikeout arms anyway. In fact, the last pitcher they've developed who fits that description is Matt Garza ... and the Twins traded him away for Delmon Young in 2007 at age 23 and after 24 career starts.

At this point even Crash Davis himself would advise the Twins to go looking for a few fascists.

July 18, 2012

Twins Notes: Liriano, Santana, Mauer, Blackburn, Capps, and Pavano

• How dominant was Francisco Liriano against the A's on Friday night? Not only were his 15 strikeouts the second-most in Twins history behind Johan Santana with 17 on August 19, 2007, his 30 swings and misses induced were the most by any MLB pitcher since ... Santana had 32 on August 19, 2007. I went back through the AG.com archives to find what I wrote about his incredible performance that day and shockingly it included a Jessica Alba comparison.

Liriano's first start following his brief demotion to the bullpen also came against Oakland and he overpowered the A's then too, giving him a ridiculous 24-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14 innings against them since May 30. And it was good timing, as at least a half-dozen teams reportedly sent scouts to evaluate Liriano for a potential trade. Since rejoining the rotation he's thrown 57 innings with a 2.83 ERA, .170 opponents' batting average, and 67 strikeouts.

• Some fun facts from that Santana start on August 19, 2007: He struck out 17 in eight innings and then closer Joe Nathan struck out two more in the ninth inning, as they combined for 19 strikeouts, zero walks, and two hits allowed in a 1-0 shutout of the Rangers. Michael Cuddyer homered for the game's only run, C.J. Wilson pitched in relief for Texas, and the Rangers had a 38-year-old Sammy Sosa batting cleanup. And here was the Twins' lineup:

1. Alexi Casilla, 2B
2. Joe Mauer, DH
3. Torii Hunter, CF
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
6. Mike Redmond, C
7. Rondell White, LF
8. Tommy Watkins, 3B
9. Nick Punto, SS

Oh, and Jason Tyner came in defensively for Rondell White late in the game. One not-so-fun fact about the game: Santana made just seven more starts in a Twins uniform.

• Friday's deadline to sign draft picks came and went without much drama for the Twins, who'd already agreed to deals with their first 11 picks weeks ago. Or so everyone thought. It turns out sixth-round pick Andre Martinez, a high school pitcher from Florida who originally agreed to an over-slot $260,000 bonus, ended up reworking his deal after a pre-signing physical exam revealed shoulder issues. He signed Friday for $80,000 compared to the $200,000 slot.

Another last-minute signing was 20th-round pick Zach Larson, a high school outfielder from Florida who agreed to a $190,000 deal that's nearly twice the slot value for picks after the 10th round. By saving money elsewhere compared to the slot values for various picks the Twins had plenty of extra money to throw Larson's way and in fact overall they spent about $300,000 less than their MLB-high $12.3 million allotment.

Ninth-rounder L.J. Mazzilli is the earliest Twins pick not to sign, as the Connecticut second baseman and son of longtime big leaguer Lee Mazzilli presumably turned down close to the $130,000 slot amount for the No. 280 overall pick. Mazzilli hit .339/.404/.548 with 16 steals in 58 games as a junior, but also committed 20 errors and was no sure thing to stick at second base defensively as a pro. In all the Twins signed 27 of 43 picks, including 14 of their first 15.

Mark Appel, the Stanford pitcher represented by Scott Boras who fell to No. 8 after being an oft-projected No. 1 pick and possible Twins choice at No. 2, ended up as the only first-rounder not to sign. He turned down $3.8 million, which is $900,000 more than slot and the most the Pirates could offer without forfeiting next year's pick. Appel can return to college for his senior year and be drafted again, while the Pirates get the No. 9 pick in 2013 as compensation.

• After going 3-for-4 with a walk (and a great diving catch) last night Joe Mauer is now hitting .333/.420/.462, which is nearly identical to his .324/.404/.470 career line despite offense being down across baseball. He leads the league in on-base percentage and ranks second in batting average, has hit .385 in his last 45 games, and is projected to be worth $26 million this year according to Fan Graphs. He's being paid $23 million.

Nick Blackburn is already back with the Twins after allowing one earned run in two starts at Triple-A following his demotion, but the bad news is that he managed just five strikeouts in 15 innings. He succeeded there by keeping the ball in the ballpark, but his ground-ball rate wasn't exceptional and as usual there's little reason to think pitching to that extreme level of contact is going to get the job done against big-league hitters.

Matt Capps' return from the disabled list lasted all of five days, as he showed decreased velocity and was shut down again with more shoulder problems. That ruins whatever chance the Twins had of trading Capps before July 31, which is a shame because reportedly at least one team was actually showing interest. Suffice it to say that the Twins' decision to forfeit a draft pick in order to re-sign Capps for $5 million has gone about as well as expected.

Carl Pavano isn't close to returning from his own shoulder injury, so the even slimmer odds the Twins had of trading him before the July 31 deadline is officially gone. It's possible that he could return in time to make a few starts before the August 31 waiver trade deadline, but even that's no sure thing and obviously counting on Pavano to be effective enough to draw interest at that point would be wildly optimistic.

David Laurila of Fan Graphs interviewed Terry Ryan and the lengthy transcript is definitely worth reading, but here's one particularly interesting excerpt about the team's oft-questioned involvement with statistical analysis:

We never messed with that too much back in the '70s, but we did in the '80s and the '90s and the 2000s. We've been looking at that forever. ... People don't want to hear that out of the Minnesota Twins. But we've been looking at that forever. Way before some. We're not as deep as some, but we do believe in certainly doing our work, and that stat page is one big piece to the puzzle of putting players together.

Our scouts, and our people, will tell you if I'm looking at a player, and I go down and look at his line, and it doesn't add up, I've got to give him a call quick. I tell him, "This doesn't make any sense." His role, his skills and his statistical history, and you're going to tell me this? How do you get there? I believe in that.

All forms of information are good. I've drilled that into our people. Bring it on. All forms, let me sort it out. ... I read all that stuff, and sometimes it's so much information that I do get paralyzed reading it and taking it all in. You can spend as much time as you want on everything that is available. It's almost mind-boggling how much stuff is out there.

Ryan and other Twins decision-makers have adopted "we're into that even if you don't know it" as their response to those questions. And that's fine, although it's worth noting that, for instance, assistant general manager Rob Antony lacked familiarity with basic aspects of statistical analysis as recently as two years ago and even in the above excerpt Ryan talking about looking at stats isn't really what anyone would consider a new-school approach.

When people wonder if the Twins are involved with statistical analysis the questions aren't about literally looking at a player's stats--that much is assumed, no matter a team's public stance--but rather taking full advantage of new technology and the increasingly in-depth data available. They've recently hired some stat-heads and clearly want to keep things secretive, but what little Ryan and others do say about the issue leaves plenty of room for skepticism.

• Midseason prospect rankings are out and Baseball America moved Miguel Sano from No. 18 to No. 22, whereas ESPN.com moved Sano from No. 28 to No. 26. In other words Sano remains a top-30 talent as an all-around prospect and among hitters who don't play up-the-middle positions only Wil Myers of the Royals, Oscar Taveras of the Cardinals, and Nick Castellanos of the Tigers rank ahead of Sano on both lists.

• As part of their minor-league roster shuffling the Twins released Jairo Perez, who ranked 34th on my preseason list of the team's prospects. He hit .337/.413/.580 at low Single-A last year and .265/.350/.403 at high Single-A this year, which makes cutting Perez in July an odd move. On the other hand at age 24 he was very old for Single-A and didn't really have a clear defensive home. And now he's playing in an independent league.

Matt Maloney parlayed a good spring training into an Opening Day bullpen spot after the Twins claimed him off waivers from the Reds in October, but the soft-tossing left-hander coughed up 10 runs in 11 innings and not surprisingly passed through waivers unclaimed in May. He was even worse at Triple-A, allowing 33 runs in 24 innings, and now he'll be out until mid-2013 following Tommy John elbow surgery.

• Twins castoff Luke Hughes was released by the A's after hitting .223/.316/.338 in 42 games between Double-A and Triple-A.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Ballplayer: Pelotero, a controversial new documentary about baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic starring Miguel Sano as a 16-year-old.

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":

January 20, 2012

Twins Notes: Arbitration, invitations, compensation, and reconsideration

• Tuesday night was the deadline for players and teams to submit salary figures for arbitration hearings to be held next month, but the Twins avoided that with Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins by signing them to one-year deals. Liriano got $5.5 million for his third and final year of arbitration eligibility, which is exactly what I projected as his salary last month. Perkins got $1.55 million for his second arbitration year, which is slightly less than my $2 million projection.

Alexi Casilla did not agree to a pre-deadline deal in his second arbitration year, filing for $1.75 million while the Twins countered at $1.065 million. If the two sides fail to reach a compromise they'll go to a hearing, present their cases, and have someone choose which salary he'll get for 2012, but given that the Twins haven't actually gone to arbitration with a player since Kyle Lohse in 2005 and 2006 odds are they'll split the difference on a one-year deal before then.

• Last month the Twins non-tendered Jose Mijares rather than retain him via the arbitration process, with general manager Terry Ryan explaining that "we didn't want to go there" with a salary bump. That struck me as very odd, because Mijares was paid $445,000 last season and projected to make about $725,000 in 2012, whereas the new minimum salary is $480,000. No team cuts a player they think has any sort of value over $250,000. Or at least they shouldn't.

Mijares didn't spend much time as a free agent and ended up with more money than he would have gotten from the Twins, quickly signing with the Royals for $925,000. He was bad enough last season that bouncing back is certainly no sure thing, but considering Mijares' modest cost and the fact that he's 27 years old with a 3.16 ERA and .243/.310/.381 opponents' line in 154 career innings makes letting him go for nothing a questionable move.

Mijares was an easy target for criticism because of his weight and supposed poor work ethic, but the oft-repeated notion that he was an ineffective pitcher who failed in key situations isn't supported by facts. In addition to his 3.16 ERA in 154 innings Mijares held opponents to a .219 batting average and .590 OPS in high-leverage situations and had a positive Win Probability Added, which measures performance in context to reward doing well in crucial spots.

• Fort Myers will be crowded after the Twins signed 25 players to minor-league contracts with invitations to spring training. I've written about most of those players, but neglected to cover J.R. Towles, Steve Pearce, and Aaron Thompson when they signed last month. Towles is the most interesting of that trio, both because he was once a top-ranked catcher prospect and because a decent alternative to Drew Butera as the Twins' third catcher would be nice.

After hitting well in the minors Towles hit .375 in a 14-game debut with the Astros in 2007 and was No. 53 on Baseball America's prospect list going into 2008. He flopped as a rookie, hitting .137 in 54 games, and has repeatedly failed in other brief chances with the Astros, hitting .187 in 155 career games spread over parts of five seasons. However, he's still just 27 years old and never ceased producing in the minors, batting .286/.389/.443 in 152 games at Triple-A.

Pearce was also once a top prospect, albeit briefly, ranking 89th on that same Baseball America list for 2008 after a monster 2007 season in which he hit .333/.394/.622 with 31 homers and 40 doubles in 134 games between three levels. He was already 24 years old at the time, his OPS dropped 300 points the next season, and Pearce hit just .232/.302/.366 in 185 games for the Pirates, but his Triple-A numbers remained strong and he's useful first base/outfield depth.

Thompson was the 22nd overall pick in the 2005 draft by the Marlins, but the left-hander's career never got enough traction to crack any top prospect lists. He pitched well in the low minors, but struggled some with injuries and has a 4.91 ERA in 473 career innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Thompson made his MLB debut last season, appearing in four games for the Pirates, but got knocked around and seems like a poor bet to make it back to the majors.

Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com did some digging and found that the Twins recently extended their television contract with FOX Sports North, signing a new deal worth approximately $29 million per season. That may sound like a lot and it's certainly a big improvement compared to their previous television revenue, but relative to many other teams it actually puts them at a significant disadvantage.

For instance, the Angels were able to hand out massive long-term contracts to Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson this offseason because their new television deal pays around $150 million per season and that pales in comparison to the estimated $400 million in revenue the Yankees get per season from their own network. Even the Rangers, who weren't previously viewed as a big-market powerhouse, inked a new television deal worth a reported $80 million per season.

• Speaking of which, Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune spit some truth about the Twins' television broadcast as it relates to an overall trend in local announcers:

It was uncomfortable listening to Twins telecasts last season as Dick Bremer and, to a lesser extent, Bert Blyleven spent most of the three hours nightly trying to explain away the 99 losses as something other than a disaster wrought upon the public by the front office.

Apparently, they did have permission slips to denigrate Kevin Slowey. Injuries and Slowey's attitude--those were about the only factors that could be identified by the long-serving duo for this fine baseball organization to have fielded the worst team in the American League.

And we can't forget that a Bremer-Blyleven telecast is always rich with the fable that there's a Twins Way of playing baseball: exceptional fielding, being smart and aggressive on the bases, and throwing strikes. No matter that you have to go back to 2006 to find a Twins team that stuck to those principles.

Amen. I'd guess that my television was muted for about 90 percent of Twins games last year.

• Cutting payroll by $15 million luckily hasn't stopped the Twins from spending on prospects, as they signed 16-year-old pitcher Mauricio Silva out of the Dominican Republic for $370,000. Ben Badler of Baseball America praised Silva's fastball-curveball combo and calls the 6-foot-2 right-hander "one of the more promising Latin American pitching prospects" eligible to sign in 2011. And this will make you feel really old: Silva was born in Brad Radke's rookie year, 1995.

• They'll also be spending big in the draft, because in addition to having the No. 2 overall pick by virtue of their 63-99 record the Twins are projected to receive the No. 32 and No. 67 picks as compensation for losing Michael Cuddyer and the No. 41 pick as compensation for losing Jason Kubel. Toss in their own second-rounder and the Twins will likely have five of the top 70 picks in June's draft, which makes for one incredibly important day in their rebuilding process.

• Back in early 2008, when the Twins were in the process of trading Johan Santana, various reports had them seeking Fernando Martinez from the Mets as the centerpiece of a deal. At the time Martinez was a 19-year-old center fielder who twice ranked among Baseball America's top-20 prospects, so the Mets balked at including him and eventually the Twins settled instead for a four-player package of Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey, and Philip Humber.

Four years later none of those four prospects panned out as hoped and Guerra is the only one who remains in the Twins organization, but it turns out they wouldn't have been any better off with Martinez. Chronic knee issues and mediocre hitting caused his stock to plummet and last week the Mets placed him on waivers, giving up on Martinez for nothing. He didn't make it far, as the Astros used their No. 1 waiver priority to claim Martinez ... directly in front of the Twins.

• Of course, the Santana trade didn't work out particularly well for the Mets either. He missed all of last season following shoulder surgery, remains a question mark for the beginning of this season, and is owed $55 million over the next two years. Santana did at least give them 600 innings of a 2.85 ERA prior to going down in late 2010, which is even better than his 3.22 ERA in 1,309 innings with the Twins.

Ron Gardenhire's son, Toby Gardenhire, has retired after playing seven years in the minors for the Twins and the former 41st-round pick is the University of Wisconson-Stout's new coach.

Seth Stohs' annual Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook is now available and as always I can't recommend it highly enough. Well worth the price, for the 180 pages of content and to support all the free blogging Stohs has provided over the years. Go buy it, you'll be glad you did.

• For a lot more on how the whole arbitration process works, plus analysis of the Joel Zumaya signing and talk about what moves the Twins have left to make this offseason, check out this week's podcast with special guests Nick Nelson and John Bonnes' horrible beard.

June 30, 2011

Twins Notes: The Good, The Bad, and The Hairy

Scott Baker was excellent again yesterday afternoon, allowing zero or one run for the third time in four starts by shutting out the Dodgers for 7.1 innings. Baker racked up nine strikeouts without a walk until issuing a free pass to the final batter he faced, finishing June with a 1.46 ERA in six starts. And not only does his 3.15 ERA overall this season lead the team by a wide margin, Johan Santana is the only Twins starter with a lower ERA since Kevin Tapani in 1991.

Here are the best single-season ERAs posted by Twins starters during that 20-year span:

                   ERA     YEAR
Johan Santana     2.61     2004
Johan Santana     2.77     2006
Johan Santana     2.87     2005
SCOTT BAKER       3.15     2011
Joe Mays          3.16     2001
John Smiley       3.21     1992
Johan Santana     3.33     2007
Scott Erickson    3.40     1992
Carlos Silva      3.44     2005
SCOTT BAKER       3.45     2008

Two things stand out on the above list. One is that Santana was really amazing, posting four of their top seven marks since 1991. Two is that Baker is really underrated, joining Santana as the only starters to crack the top 10 twice. And unlike, say, Joe Mays in 2001, he isn't doing it with smoke and mirrors, as Baker ranks eighth among AL starters with 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings and seventh in the league with a 101-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106 frames.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been considerably less impressive, struggling so much on both sides of the ball that e-mails and comments are beginning to pile up from people wondering exactly what the Twins saw in him that was worth a $14 million investment. Nishioka has batted just .197/.254/.252 in 19 games, showing little power with zero homers and three total extra-base hits in 66 at-bats and terrible strike-zone control with a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And as awful as Nishioka's hitting has been his defense might be even worse or at least more discouraging given his reputation as a standout defender with Gold Glove awards at shortstop and second base in Japan. Kaz Matsui showed previously that defensive accolades in Japan don't necessarily transfer to America, proving to be a sub par shortstop despite winning a total of four Gold Glove awards there before signing with the Mets in 2004.

I'm certainly not ready to conclude that Nishioka will follow that same fate after just 19 games, but his arm strength and hands haven't looked nearly reliable enough to be a significant asset at shortstop and moving back to second base would be a scary proposition after breaking his fibula in part due to his lack of comfort with hard-sliding runners around the bag. Joe Mauer is struggling on both sides of the ball too, but he also has a long track record of MVP-level play.

Nishioka had a strong career in Japan, but his MLB projections based on that track record were anything but jaw-dropping. I pegged him for .275/.335/.375 while noting the combination of a high strikeout rate and less power than any previous Japanese imports. He's certainly capable of adjusting and improving at the plate with experience, but it worries me that his glove might not be good enough to make him a big asset even if he reaches the .275/.335/.375 projection.

J.J. Hardy is hitting .307/.369/.547 with 11 homers, 13 doubles, and one error in 50 games for the Orioles and has started contract extension talks to stay in Baltimore.

• Twins top prospect Kyle Gibson has been named to the United States' roster for the Futures Game during the All-Star break, while preseason No. 8 prospect Liam Hendriks was picked for the World team. I'm always more interested in the Futures Game than the actual All-Star game and alumni of the prospect showcase include Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Francisco Liriano, Delmon Young, Ben Revere, Rene Tosoni, and Luke Hughes.

Gibson has an ugly win-loss record thanks to terrible run support, but he's pitched very well at Triple-A as a 23-year-old with a 3.87 ERA and 83-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 81 innings. He has the International League's third-highest ground-ball rate at 57 percent and ranks sixth in both strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio, which adds up to a 3.25 FIP that's fourth-best in the league. He continues to look like a future No. 2 starter and is nearly ready.

Hendriks has followed a breakout 2010 performance between two levels of Single-A by proving it was no fluke with a 2.71 ERA and 74-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 innings at Double-A as a 22-year-old. He's allowed just four homers and has the third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Eastern League, posting a 2.77 FIP that also ranks third-best. If there was a midseason version of my top 40 prospect list the Australian right-hander would join Gibson in the top five.

• Speaking of prospects, Trevor Plouffe has been destroying Triple-A pitching since being sent back down to Rochester four weeks ago and is now hitting .295/.365/.610 with 11 homers in 38 games overall. The bad news is that he's still a career .259/.312/.443 hitter in 323 games at Triple-A and the Twins were so put off by his defense at shortstop that they've been giving him starts in right field. I'm skeptical, but when the alternative is Matt Tolbert, why not?

LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune did a nice job mixing reporting and stats for an article about Glen Perkins' success in the bullpen, examining his increased velocity and adjustment to a role change spurred by injuries and struggles as a starter. Perkins has never thrown this well before regardless of role and struck out right-handed-hitting MVP front-runner Matt Kemp in a dominant outing yesterday. He has a 1.93 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 28 innings.

• Old friend Matthew LeCroy managed the All-Star game at high Single-A last week.

• Against all odds, the man in this picture is not me:

As far as you know, at least.

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