December 15, 2011

Twins Notes: Comings, goings, returns, and engagements

• Arbitration-eligible players Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, and Alexi Casilla were tendered contracts, but the Twins non-tendered Jose Mijares and made him a free agent. Terry Ryan's explanation for the move was odd, as he said the decision "gets up to how much he's going to make" and "we decided we didn't want to go there." Ryan also indicated that the Twins tried to work out a pre-deadline contract with Mijares to avoid non-tendering him, but he declined.

Non-tendering players rather than paying them undeserved arbitration raises is common, but that doesn't really apply in Mijares' case. He was paid $445,000 in 2011 and would've been in line for a raise to at most $750,000, which is only $270,000 more than the new MLB minimum salary and represents 0.75 percent of the payroll. If the Twins thought he was worth keeping around cutting Mijares loose over money when "money" is only $270,000 makes little sense.

Clearly they lost all faith in Mijares as his velocity dipped and he totaled as many walks (30) as strikeouts (30) in 49 innings, but he's still just 27 years old and prior to falling apart in 2011 he had a 2.49 ERA in 105 career innings. His secondary numbers have never been as good as his ERA, but given that the Twins aren't exactly overflowing with quality relievers and the cost to keep the hefty lefty around was little more than the minimum salary the move surprised me.

• Along with non-tendering Mijares the Twins also sliced Jim Hoey and Pedro Florimon from the 40-man roster. Hoey was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays, leaving only marginal relief prospect Brett Jacobson to show for last winter's misguided J.J. Hardy trade with the Orioles. Florimon, whom the Twins claimed off waivers from the Orioles last week, cleared waivers this time around and was assigned to Triple-A.

Claiming and waiving a player within the span of a week might seem silly, but Florimon has the potential to be a decent utility infielder and now the Twins can stash him in the minors without using up a 40-man roster spot. I've long felt the Twins should be more willing to shuffle guys through the fringes of the 40-man roster, so while Florimon is hardly a high-upside player the maneuvering surrounding him was nice to see.

Hoey perhaps deserved a longer opportunity based on his minor-league numbers and mid-90s fastball, but his complete lack of control and quality off-speed pitches weren't encouraging and at 29 years old he's far from a prospect. Hoey wasn't totally without potential when the Twins acquired him and he's exactly the type of reliever teams should take fliers on in minor trades, but the problem is that trading Hardy was anything but a minor mistake, then and now.

• Signing veteran minor leaguers to help Rochester be competitive after back-to-back 90-loss seasons is clearly a priority for the Twins and the latest batch is Rene Rivera, P.J. Walters, and Sean Burroughs. Rivera split this year between Rochester and Minnesota, helping to fill in for Joe Mauer behind the plate, but was trimmed from the 40-man roster in October. He's the epitome of a replacement-level catcher and handy enough to have around at Triple-A.

Walters was traded from the Cardinals to the Blue Jays in the seven-player swap headlined by Colby Rasmus and Edwin Jackson on July 27, but Toronto let him become a free agent three months later and his track record is pretty underwhelming. Walters briefly looked like a decent prospect back in 2007 and his strikeout rates are solid, but the 26-year-old right-hander has a high-80s fastball, mediocre control, and a 4.63 ERA in 484 innings at Triple-A.

Burroughs was the ninth overall pick in the 1998 draft and Baseball America ranked him as one of the game's top 10 prospects in 2000, 2001, and 2002. His big-league career started off well enough, as Burroughs debuted for the Padres as a 21-year-old and hit .289/.345/364 through his first 339 games, but he never developed any power, regressed in other areas, struggled with substance abuse, and was finished at age 25. Or so it seemed.

After three seasons out of baseball Burroughs signed a minor-league deal with Arizona, whose general manager Kevin Towers was the GM in San Diego who drafted him. He worked his way back to the majors by hitting .412 in 34 games at Triple-A and then struggled in 78 games as a bench bat, hitting .273/.289/.336 with an ugly strikeout-to-walk ratio. Burroughs is one of the biggest prospect busts of the 2000s, but at age 30 still qualifies as intriguing Triple-A depth.

• Just five weeks after Bill Smith was fired as general manager Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com reports that he's close to returning to the organization in a "special assistant" role that would involve running the Twins' efforts in Latin America and their spring training complex in Florida. Smith was overmatched and then some as a GM, but handled the firing amazingly well publicly and has been with the Twins since the mid-1980s, so their showing him loyalty isn't surprising.

Nick Punto signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the Red Sox to replace Jed Lowrie, who was traded to the Astros for Mark Melancon. As always, in a bench role with a modest salary Punto is an excellent fit on just about any team. Unfortunately the Twins played him too much and paid him $4 million in both 2009 and 2010 (plus a $500,000 buyout to avoid paying him $5 million in 2011). He'll now be paid a total of $4 million for his first three post-Twins seasons.

Kevin Slowey avoided arbitration with the Rockies, agreeing to a one-year, $2.7 million deal.

Jacque Jones, whom I rated as the 30th-best player in Twins history, has been hired by his hometown Padres as a Single-A hitting coach. He last played at Triple-A for the Twins in 2010.

• Mauer got engaged to fellow Cretin-Derham Hall graduate Maddie Bisanz.

July 27, 2011

Twins Notes: Span, Mijares, Cuddyer, Nathan, Aguilera, and Gibson

Amanda Comak of the Washington Times writes that Denard Span "is high on the Nationals' list of targets" and Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the two sides "have talked." Whether that means the Twins actually engaged in negotiations is unclear, but the Nationals are looking for a long-term solution in center field and Rosenthal speculates that shortstop Ian Desmond and one of Washington's relievers could interest the Twins.

Rosenthal specifically mentions Tyler Clippard, who's been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball since moving to the bullpen full time in 2009, posting a 2.59 ERA and 251 strikeouts in 209 innings while holding opponents to a .184 batting average. However, he also says the Nationals are "reluctant" to trade the 26-year-old Clippard and "unwilling" to move 23-year-old closer Drew Storen, in which case the Twins shouldn't even be engaging in talks for Span.

As a 25-year-old shortstop Desmond fills a Twins need in theory, but aside from hitting .355 for two months at Triple-A in 2009 he simply hasn't been any good. Desmond hit .259/.326/.388 in 638 total games as a minor leaguer and has hit .254/.296/.377 in 269 games for the Nationals. He's also committed 54 errors with an Ultimate Zone Rating of -7.5 in 259 games at shortstop. Clippard is very intriguing, but Desmond as the centerpiece of a Span trade would be awful.

Of course, with Span still on the disabled list nearly two months after a concussion and taking back-to-back days off while rehabbing at Triple-A it's probably a moot point anyway.

• On a related note, can you imagine the look of pure joy on Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo's face when his phone rings and "Bill Smith" appears on the caller ID? Actually, after the Wilson Ramos-for-Matt Capps swap last year Rizzo is probably the one calling Smith.

According to ESPN.com's Buster Olney the Twins have "been looking to trade" Jose Mijares, so Monday's five-run appearance probably didn't do much for his value. Criticism of Mijares has never matched his 3.09 career ERA, but this year's performance clearly deserves to be ripped. He has a 5.47 ERA and 21 walks in 26 innings compared to 32 walks in 105 innings coming into the season. I can't imagine the Twins getting much for him, though, so I'd probably hold on.

• Local and national reporters continue to insist Michael Cuddyer won't be traded despite his being linked to just about every contending team looking for a right-handed hitter. There are also doubts about whether the Twins will look to sell anyone, although my guess is that Kevin Slowey will be moved whether they're in sell mode or buy mode going into Sunday's deadline and my hope is that they're shopping (in vain, perhaps) Capps and Delmon Young either way.

• No word yet on how many teams are interested in Cuddyer as a pitcher after Monday night's scoreless inning versus the Rangers, but he averaged 87.3 miles per hour with his fastball. By comparison, Carl Pavano has averaged 89.1 mph with his fastball this year. In addition to his mid-80s heat Cuddyer also threw an assortment of off-speed pitches, producing the following strike zone chart:

It wasn't pretty, but Cuddyer mopped up with a scoreless eighth inning after Nick Blackburn, Chuck James, Phil Dumatrait, Alex Burnett, and Mijares combined to allow 20 runs on 25 hits in the first seven frames. He's the first Twins position player to pitch since John Moses in 1990.

• Last night Joe Nathan tied Rick Aguilera for the Twins record with his 254th save and once again looked very good in the process, striking out two left-handed hitters to preserve a 9-8 win with a scoreless inning. Since coming off the disabled list in late June he's now thrown 12 innings with a 1.46 ERA and 10-to-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .159 batting average. And his overall ERA is finally under 5.00 for the first time since April 12.

• Prior to coming off the bench to deliver the game-winning double last night, Joe Mauer was 6-for-35 (.171) as a pinch-hitter in his career.

Kyle Gibson probably would've needed to dominate the International League for the Twins to have called him up already, but instead the 2009 first-round pick had a nice first two months at Triple-A and has struggled of late. Gibson was 0-4 with a 5.17 ERA in June and then took 17 days off before coughing up 13 runs in two July starts, including a career-high five walks last time out. And now Rochester will skip his next turn in the rotation because of elbow soreness.

Gibson's ugly win-loss record and mediocre ERA overstate how much he's struggled overall this season, as a 91-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 95 innings is plenty impressive and he's done a decent job keeping the ball in the ballpark. However, there's no getting around the fact that his recent performance and health are worrisome. Through the end of May he had a 3.60 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 55 innings, but in 40 innings since he has a 6.47 ERA and 32 strikeouts.

Between the Twins' rotation depth and tendency to move prospects along slowly thoughts of Gibson being in Minnesota by June were perhaps misguided to begin with, but expecting him to be knocking on the door to the majors by now was certainly reasonable. Instead he's taken a step backward and has looked a lot more like a future mid-rotation starter than the potential second-tier ace Twins fans were dreaming on following his strong pro debut.

Jim Callis of Baseball America reports that Twins signed Vanderbilt southpaw Corey Williams for $575,000, which is double the MLB-recommend "slot" bonus for a third-round pick. Always good to see the Twins spending in the draft and August 15 is the deadline to sign other picks.

Justin Morneau's lengthy list of health issues now includes migraine headaches, which could threaten his goal of returning from neck surgery in mid-August.

Tyler Mason of FOXSportsNorth.com did an enjoyable "where are they now?" piece on Marty Cordova, although he neglected to mention the former Rookie of the Year's frequent cameos in UFC president Dana White's travel videos.

• Last and least, just a reminder/plug: I'll obviously have analysis here of any moves the Twins make, but in the meantime you can read my thoughts on all the rumors and trades throughout baseball each day at Hardball Talk on NBCSports.com. It's good stuff, I promise.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.

May 19, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 11, 2011

Twins Notes: Hail Mary

Joe Mauer took batting practice prior to last night's game, but told reporters that there's still no timetable for his return despite "feeling a lot better." Here's more from Mauer on his status:

Today was kind of my first day getting on the field a little bit, moving around, and it was a good day. That [viral infection] really did push me back quite a bit. When it was all said and done, I lost around 15 pounds. I lost a lot of strength, so that probably pushed me back a week or a couple weeks.

I'm feeling a lot better now. I'm getting my strength back and my weight back, so hopefully I can get back on the field. You've got to get back into baseball shape. But yeah, I still got some work to do, and I wish I knew when I would be back, and I know everybody else wishes too, but you just got to keep going in the right direction.

Mauer and Twins trainer Rick McWane have both admitted that he wasn't physically ready for Opening Day due to offseason knee surgery, but unsuccessfully played anyway until shutting it down after nine games. In his absence Drew Butera, Steve Holm, and Rene Rivera have hit a combined .102 with zero homers and a .136 slugging percentage. For comparison, National League pitchers have hit .133 with a .167 slugging percentage this season.

• Last week I wrote about Carl Pavano's strikeout rate plummeting and then he whiffed zero of the 25 batters he faced Sunday against the Red Sox, marking his second straight start with zero strikeouts. Pavano now has just 17 strikeouts in 42 innings this season and a total of 29 strikeouts in his last 81 innings dating back to August of last year. Since the beginning of 2010 here's a list of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball among pitchers with at least 200 innings:

                    SO/9
NICK BLACKBURN      3.92
Mark Buehrle        4.23
Brad Bergesen       4.45
CARL PAVANO         4.59
Livan Hernandez     4.77

Having two-fifths of the rotation on the lowest strikeout rate list isn't a good thing, particularly with a poor defense trying to turn all those balls in play into outs behind them, and Pavano's inability to miss bats is very worrisome six weeks into a two-year, $16.5 million deal.

• Unfortunately throwing one of the least impressive no-hitters of all time didn't magically get Francisco Liriano back on track, as he allowed four runs before departing after three innings with the same illness that pushed the follow-up start back in the first place. Liriano now has a 7.07 ERA and more walks (27) than strikeouts (21) in 36 innings after posting a 3.62 ERA and 201-to-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 192 innings last year. What a mess. And then it hailed.

• Ranking dead last among AL teams in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homers, and walks is depressing enough, but Nick Nelson notes that the Twins have still managed to hit into the fourth-most double plays. Pretty hard to do with the fewest baserunners, but they've found a way. Overall they're on pace to score 505 runs after scoring 781 runs last season. Makes the removal of those trees in center field seem kind of silly, huh?

Jason Kubel deserves plenty of praise for continuing to thrive in the middle of an otherwise horrendous lineup. He hasn't driven in many runs because no one else can get on base, but Kubel is hitting .347/.400/.504 with three homers and 10 doubles in 34 games. Take out Kubel and the rest of the Twins' lineup has hit .216 with a .297 slugging percentage. Seriously.

Matt Tolbert has a .290 career on-base percentage, including .183 this year, yet yesterday was the 10th time in 34 games this season he's batted first or second in the Twins' lineup. And prior to Trevor Plouffe's hamstring injury Ron Gardenhire had him batting second despite a .306 career OBP in the minors. At this point I should be used to it, but Gardenhire ignoring OBP skills because he has it in his head that No. 2 hitters should be middle infielders is maddening.

Michael Cuddyer has hit just .267/.332/.406 in 189 games since the beginning of last year while earning around $12 million, yet when it comes to the local mainstream media you're far more likely to see him touted as team MVP than criticized for sub par production. Following the various Twins beat writers on Twitter provides an interesting glimpse into why Cuddyer rarely gets any heat from people who rely on him for quotes in an otherwise untalkative clubhouse.

For instance, here's a recent tweet from Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press:

Wanna know why the Twins kept Cuddyer? Because he's a leader. Because he stands up and faces the music when they're struggling. Sets an example.

And here's a similar tweet from John Shipley of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

How long can media go with just Cuddyer, Span, and the starting pitcher talking after games?

Personality and media friendliness definitely impact how a player's performance gets portrayed and with Cuddyer serving as everyone's go-to quote his on-field struggles tend to be ignored. I'm not necessarily blaming reporters for taking that approach, since it's somewhat natural and I'd surely be guilty of doing the same to some degree if put in that position, but it's one reason why being an outsider with no access can be a positive thing for objective analysis.

Delmon Young went 4-for-5 in an extended spring training game yesterday and is aiming to come off the disabled list Friday, which would mean missing 19 games with a strained oblique muscle. Obviously the lineup is desperate for some help, but hopefully Young is fully recovered because oblique strains tend to linger. My guess is that Rene Tosoni heads back to Triple-A to make room for Young, if only because Ben Revere can back up Denard Span in center field.

• Much has been made about the Twins' franchise-record $113 million payroll, which only adds to the frustration with their early struggles, but Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star Tribune points out that they've basically gotten zero positive value from their five highest-paid players earning a total of $67 million in Mauer ($23 million), Justin Morneau ($15 million), Joe Nathan ($11.25 million), Cuddyer ($10.5 million), and Pavano ($8 million).

• Third base coaches from successful teams are frequently linked to managerial openings each offseason, yet Scott Ullger was rarely even mentioned as a candidate during his mistake-filled five seasons as the Twins' third base coach. Ullger was moved (or perhaps demoted) to bench coach this season and now Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune names him as a potential Ozzie Guillen replacement if the White Sox continue to struggle, writing:

Few potential candidates are more intriguing than Scott Ullger, who has been on the Twins' coaching staff since 1998 and is currently Ron Gardenhire's top lieutenant. Would the Twins let Ullger talk to the White Sox? Would Ullger want to?

Yes, please. Talk about killing two birds with one stone.

• Every time Jose Mijares allows a hit, let alone a run, my Twitter feed fills with people calling him names and acting as if he's the worst pitcher in Twins history, so just a reminder: Mijares has a 2.56 career ERA and .225 opponents' batting average. I realize fat people make for easy targets, literally and figuratively, but being overweight doesn't preclude someone from being good at their job.

Matt Capps didn't pitch in Monday night's extra-inning loss because there was never a "save situation." Last night he closed out a 10-2 loss. Modern closer usage is hilarious sometimes.

Conor Glassey of Baseball America broke down the picks for next month's draft and the Twins have seven of the first 200 selections, including their own first rounder at No. 30 and a pair of compensatory picks at No. 50 and No. 55 for losing Type B free agents Orlando Hudson and Jesse Crain. They forfeited as many as four more compensatory picks for Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch by not offering them arbitration.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka fracturing his fibula when Nick Swisher slid hard into second base raised questions about whether he was fully prepared for American baserunners aggressively trying to break up double plays after not having to account for that threat in Japan. As part of his ongoing rehab Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Nishioka may start working on double-play technique with former second baseman Paul Molitor in Fort Myers.

J.J. Hardy returned from the disabled list last night and homered for the Orioles.

• All the Twins' injuries and subsequent call-ups from Triple-A have left Rochester with a very thin roster, so they signed 27-year-old Aaron Bates to a minor-league contract. Bates was the Red Sox's third-round pick in 2006 and briefly made it to the big leagues in 2009, but as a first baseman with a .230/.318/.344 line in 198 games at Triple-A he's little more than roster filler. Bates is, however, engaged to Lacey Wilson, the reigning Miss Massachusetts.

• They also signed Deinys Suarez, a 27-year-old right-hander who defected from Cuba along with Yuniesky Maya in 2009. Maya and Suarez both threw in front of scouts in the Dominican Republic after defecting, but Maya got a $7.4 million deal from the Nationals and Suarez had to settle for a minor-league deal from the Twins two years later despite solid numbers in Cuba.

• Pitching prospect David Bromberg underwent surgery to fix a broken forearm that involved inserting five screws to stabilize the injury suffered from a line drive. Bromberg ranked 13th on my list of Twins prospects coming into the year and prior to the injury he had a 3.63 ERA and 11-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 innings at Double-A.

• Sad news about Paul Bargas, the 21-year-old reliever acquired from the Rockies this winter for Jose Morales. He was sent home from spring training with what was called a neurological condition and LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Bargas has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

April 18, 2011

Twins replace Nathan with Capps as closer, call up Hoey from Triple-A

Joe Nathan reclaimed the closer role despite missing all of last season following elbow surgery and posting an 11.05 ERA with diminished velocity during spring training, but the Twins have now stripped him of ninth-inning duties after back-to-back blown saves against the Rays. Matt Capps, who joined Nathan in blowing a save Friday and also allowed a run in the eighth inning Saturday, will take over as closer.

Nathan has gradually increased his velocity after initially throwing in the high-80s during spring training, as his fastball clocked in at 88-91 miles per hour early on and has more often been at 91-93 miles per hour recently. That's still a significant dropoff from throwing 93-95 mph before surgery, but shaky command has contributed to Nathan's struggles every bit as much as lost velocity and both are to be expected from pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery.

While much of the fan and media focus is on whether Ron Gardenhire should have handed the closer job back to Nathan right away, realistically his choice was between a high-leverage role or a low-leverage role. He could have started Nathan off as a middle reliever, giving him mostly inconsequential work in a Jeff Manship/Alex Burnett-like role. However, once he opted to give Nathan meaningful work resuming closer duties made as much sense as anything.

Capps could have begun the season closing, with Nathan setting him up, but leads are just as easily blown in the eighth inning and the closer role allowed Nathan to start innings fresh and know exactly when he'd be pitching. Gardenhire uses his closer in such a way that it restricts their overall workload to 65-75 innings, whereas through three weeks as a setup man Capps was on a 95-inning pace that the Twins wouldn't have wanted Nathan duplicating anyway.

Believing he should be brought back gradually in a low-leverage role was perfectly reasonable, but believing a high-leverage role was fine while also quibbling over closing or setting up was mostly pointless. If you thought he was ready for meaningful work, closing was logical. And if you thought he wasn't ready for closing Nathan should have been in middle relief, because the fact that you can't get a "save" in the eighth inning doesn't make the three outs any easier.

Whatever the case, it's clear now that Nathan wasn't ready for a high-leverage role 12 months after surgery. He resembles his old self more than Francisco Liriano or Pat Neshek did at this same stage of their Tommy John recoveries, but getting outs in the late innings of tight games is a tall order with a low-90s fastball and shaky command. In his first 130 post-surgery pitches, his fastball and slider were down 2.4 and 0.9 mph, and batters made 32 percent more contact.

If he can stay healthy and avoid setbacks Nathan will continue to add velocity and improve his command, but whether that means he'll eventually be ready to thrive again in the late innings is much less certain. In the meantime Capps will fill the same role he did in the second half of last year for the Twins and the previous three-and-a-half years for the Nationals and Pirates. He's a perfectly solid closer, but Capps shifting roles again creates a big hole to fill.

Gardenhire was willing to deploy Capps in just about any situation as a setup man, using him in both the seventh and eighth innings, bringing him into spots with men on base, and asking him to get as many as six outs. That will change now that Capps is a closer, as he'll mostly be limited to coming into the ninth inning with the bases empty to get three outs. That means 20 percent fewer innings for Capps, with that work and those jams going to someone else.

Presumably by stripping Nathan of closer duties Gardenhire is also taking him out of the mix for other high-leverage roles, at least for now. Glen Perkins and Jose Mijares are seemingly the leading candidates to move up the bullpen ladder, as Perkins has escaped from the doghouse by beginning the year with 7.2 shutout innings and Mijares, despite joining Nathan and Capps with a poor outing Saturday, has a 2.38 ERA in 110 career innings.

Of course, Perkins' track record suggests he wouldn't be able to hang on to a late-inning role for long and Gardenhire has been reluctant to rely on Mijares as much more than a situational left-hander, with his 54 appearances since the beginning of last year totaling just 37.2 innings. All of which leaves the door wide open for Jim Hoey to grab hold of a setup man role after the Twins called him up from Triple-A to replace Manship following yesterday's game.

Acquired from Baltimore as part of the J.J. Hardy deal, Hoey spent all of 2009 and 2010 in the minors following shoulder surgery in 2008.  He failed to beat out Manship for the final bullpen spot during spring training because of control problems and the coaching staff's familiarity with Manship, but Hoey has the hardest fastball in the entire Twins organization and piled up eight strikeouts versus just one walk in 6.2 innings at Triple-A to earn the call-up.

Prior to surgery Hoey appeared in 35 games for the Orioles in 2006 and 2007, averaging 95.5 mph with his fastball, and four seasons later the 28-year-old right-hander has recovered all of that velocity and then some. Hoey had a 3.25 ERA, .196 opponents' batting average, and 70 strikeouts in 53 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year, but also walked 34 batters and uncorked seven wild pitches.

His mid-90s fastball and hard slider give Hoey the raw stuff to dominate in the late innings, but for that to matter he must throw strikes more consistently than he's been able to so far before or after surgery. Counting on improved control at age 28 is usually foolish, but pitching coach Rick Anderson is certainly the man for the job even if most of his staffs full of strike-throwers over the years have relied on fastballs as slow as Hoey's slider.

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