April 30, 2014

Twins Notes: Meyer, Pelfrey, Fuld, Mastroianni, Wilson, Pinto, and Morneau

alex meyer twins

Alex Meyer was already the Twins' top pitching prospect and one of the top dozen or so pitching prospects in all of baseball, but now there's some reason to think his upside might be capable of rising a little further. Meyer has abandoned his old changeup grip for a new grip taught to him by Triple-A teammate Deolis Guerra, who was once a top prospect acquired from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade and has always received tons of praise for his changeup.

Meyer got off to a slow start this year, but he's racked up double-digit strikeouts in back-to-back games while throwing 12.2 innings of shutout ball. He's now made 21 total starts as a member of the Twins organization, posting a 2.97 ERA with 135 strikeouts in 103 innings. His control could still use plenty of work, but Meyer is 24 years old and seemingly very close to being MLB ready, assuming the Twins are willing to dump a veteran from their rotation at some point.

• On a related note, dropping Mike Pelfrey from the rotation would be an easy call except for the fact that the Twins re-signed him to a two-year, $11 million contract four months ago. It made little sense then and looks even worse now that Pelfrey has a 7.32 ERA with nearly twice as many walks (15) as strikeouts (8) through four starts. He's now 5-15 with a 5.43 ERA in 33 total starts for the Twins, who got a long look at him in 2013 and decided they needed to see a lot more.

• They had to play short-handed without a true backup center fielder for a while after losing Alex Presley for nothing to the Astros on waivers, but the Twins essentially replaced him by claiming Sam Fuld off waivers from the A's. Presley is a better hitter than Fuld and he's also four years younger, but Fuld is a better defender even if his range has slipped a bit at age 32. Aaron Hicks should be playing just about every day, but it won't be surprising if Fuld steals some starts.

• In adding Fuld to the roster the Twins designated for assignment Darin Mastroianni, who was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays. And then in adding Mastroianni to their roster the Blue Jays designated for assignment Kenny Wilson, who was claimed off waivers by the Twins. Oh, and here's the kicker: Back in 2012 the Twins originally acquired Mastroianni by claiming him off waivers from the Blue Jays.

Mastroianni had a solid 2012 in a part-time role, but injuries wrecked his 2013 and because he's not really an up-the-middle defender despite elite speed his weak bat makes him a marginal bench option. Wilson has an even weaker bat and in fact might be one of the worst hitters on any team's 40-man roster, but he does have 50-steal speed and is a much better center field option than Mastroianni in addition to being four years younger.

Josmil Pinto through 40 career games: .292/.401/.533 with nine homers and 23 walks. Those are basically the same numbers he posted at Double-A and Triple-A, but with more power. It took injuries to Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia for Ron Gardenhire to play Pinto regularly, but hopefully his spot in the lineup is now secure. It might be time to get very excited about what the Twins have in Pinto, whether or not he can be passable enough defensively to catch regularly.

• Twins starting pitchers have a combined 6.04 ERA, which is the worst in the league by more than a full run. They also have a combined strikeout rate of 5.1 per nine innings and no other team in baseball has averaged fewer than 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

Justin Morneau hit .256/.319/.406 in 355 games from 2011-2013, so naturally now he's hitting .357/.381/.643 in 26 games for the Rockies. And so far at least it's not all Coors Field-driven.

David Cameron of Fan Graphs wrote a very interesting analysis of how the Twins are scoring tons of runs by not swinging the bat.

• For a lot more about the Twins' no-swing approach and what they should do about the starting rotation, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

December 5, 2013

Twins Notes: Morneau, Nathan, Kazmir, Pierzynski, and Saltalamacchia

joe nathan and justin morneau twins

Justin Morneau is joining Michael Cuddyer and LaTroy Hawkins in Colorado, agreeing to a two-year, $13 million deal with the Rockies. Morneau is smart to try to resurrect his career in the majors' most hitter-friendly ballpark and calling Coors Field home for half his games should lead to decent-looking raw numbers even if he doesn't actually improve any, but that's a whole lot more money than I'd feel comfortable investing in him at this point.

Joe Nathan is coming back to the AL Central, signing a two-year, $20 million contract with the Tigers that also includes a team option for 2016, when he'll be 41 years old. Nathan was brilliant in two years with the Rangers, saving 80 games with a 2.09 ERA, 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and a .198 opponents' batting average, and then shrewdly declined his $9 million player option for 2014 knowing that he could get a multi-year deal for similar annual money on the open market.

Scott Kazmir signed a two-year, $22 million contract with the A's, which is interesting within the context of Phil Hughes' three-year, $24 million contract with the Twins. Both signings seem reasonable to me, but as noted last month in my breakdown of free agent starters I think Kazmir has more upside than Hughes. Kazmir is perhaps also at considerably higher risk to provide zero value at some point, but there's only so much that can go wrong during a two-year commitment.

• There was quite a bit of buzz linking the Twins to free agents Jarrod Saltalamacchia and A.J. Pierzynski, but now both catchers are off the board. Pierzynski signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Red Sox and it sounds like he passed up multi-year offers to join the defending champs. Saltalamacchia got a three-year, $21 million deal from the Marlins, which is pretty reasonable and suggests he really wanted to play in Miami and/or the Twins' reported interest was overstated.

• As expected the Twins tendered contracts to all of their arbitration-eligible players: Anthony Swarzak, Trevor Plouffe, and Brian Duensing. All three are due for raises to around $1.5 million, so there were no monetary reasons to let any of them go. Last month the Twins parted ways with another arbitration-eligible player, Josh Roenicke, because they didn't think he was worth that type of money for a low-leverage middle relief role.

Caleb Thielbar, Andrew Albers, and Chris Colabello worked out well, so the Twins dipped back into independent ball to sign right-hander Jon Velasquez. He spent a couple seasons in the Phillies' farm system before moving on to the Canadian-American Association (where Colabello was MVP) and Atlantic League. Velasquez's track record was nothing special as a starter, but in shifting to the bullpen this year at age 27 he threw 74 innings with a 1.95 ERA and 82 strikeouts.

• They also signed career minor leaguers Brandon Waring, Chris Rahl, and Matt Hoffman to minor-league deals. Waring is a 27-year-old corner infielder with lots of power and strikeouts who hit .214/.317/.449 with 25 homers and 148 strikeouts in 109 games this year. Hoffman is a lefty reliever with just 117 strikeouts in 148 innings at Triple-A. Rahl is a 30-year-old outfielder who's hit .292/.328/.445 at Triple-A. Depth for Rochester, mostly.

Ron Coomer, who does television work for FOX Sports North during Twins games and co-hosts a daily radio show on K-TWIN, is one of two finalists for the Cubs' radio analyst gig.

Adam Platt interviewed Twins owner Jim Pohlad for Twin Cities Business magazine.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode might be the most baseball-focused show we've ever done, with an hour of non-stop talk about the Hughes and Ricky Nolasco signings.


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October 16, 2013

Twins Notes: Roster cuts, post-trade Morneau, attendance, and Big Papi

josh roenicke twins

• Three weeks ago I listed 16 players in danger of being removed from the 40-man roster and so far the Twins have dropped five of them: Josh Roenicke, Clete Thomas, Doug Bernier, Cole De Vries, Shairon Martis. I'd expect at least another 3-4 cuts by the end of the World Series, but in the meantime the Twins already re-signed Bernier to a minor-league contract that keeps the 33-year-old journeyman in the organization without a 40-man roster spot.

Roenicke being cut might have surprised some people simply because he spent the entire season in the Twins' bullpen and logged the same number of innings as Glen Perkins, but he posted a 4.35 ERA compared to the league average of 3.69 for relievers and his secondary numbers were actually even worse with a 45-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His stats for the Rockies last season were similarly underwhelming and at age 31 he was due for a raise via arbitration.

Thomas started 79 games for the Twins, including 48 in center field, but hit .214/.290/.307 with 92 strikeouts in 322 plate appearances to finish with the same exact .597 OPS as Aaron Hicks. He was a bit better defensively than I expected, but Thomas is hardly a great center fielder and doesn't hit enough to be more than a backup. That player type is always available on waivers or minor-league deals, and Alex Presley's arrival made Thomas especially superfluous.

Bernier, De Vries, and Martis are exactly who baseball analysts are talking about when they refer to "replacement-level players" being readily available. It's important to have them stockpiled at Triple-A heading into every season, but it's also important to bring in a fresh batch every winter without clogging up the 40-man roster and as the Twins have shown recently things get ugly in a hurry when more than a few of them are pressed into extended action.

• Making official what was reported at the time of the trade, the Twins acquired Duke Welker from the Pirates as the player to be named later in the Justin Morneau deal. I wrote quite a bit about Welker as part of my overall analysis of the trade on August 31, but the quick version is that he's a big right-handed reliever with a mid-90s fastball, good strikeout totals, and terrible control. Not a bad flier to get along with Presley, but Welker is already 27 years old.

Including the postseason Morneau ended up hitting .267 with zero homers and a .317 slugging percentage in 31 games for the Pirates. Overall this season between Minnesota and Pittsburgh he hit .260/.325/.413 in 158 games and combined for the past three seasons he hit .256/.329/.406 in 361 games. There are still local media members stumping for Morneau's return to the Twins as a 33-year-old free agent, but it's awfully hard to understand why.

David Ortiz's dramatic grand slam for the Red Sox led to all the usual grousing about why the Twins let him go back in 2003 and it's important to note that it wasn't for a lack of hitting. Ortiz has the fifth-highest OPS in Twins history among all hitters with at least 1,500 plate appearances through age 26, which is when he left. The only Twins with a higher OPS through 26?  Joe Mauer, Kent Hrbek, Morneau, and Lyman Bostock. Ortiz could always hit. And look at that punim.

Speaking of Ortiz's time in Minnesota, here's an interesting Associated Press story from 2001:

Minnesota Twins designated hitter David Ortiz was placed on the disabled list Saturday, a day after breaking his right wrist diving into home plate.

Ortiz was injured Friday night in the fourth inning of Minnesota's 6-2 victory over Kansas City. One inning later, he homered into the right-field bullpen, but rounding the bases he knew the pain was more than discomfort. He then went to a hospital for X-rays. Ortiz is expected to miss six to eight weeks. ...

Twins' trainers at first thought Ortiz hurt a thumb. "We asked David maybe 90 times or 100, I'm not sure, I lost track: Are you all right?" manager Tom Kelly said. "He said he was, so we let him hit. After he hit, the trainers said his wrist was starting to swell, so we got him out of there."

Kelly seemed to take the injury in stride. "We don't cry about injuries," he said. "We never have and we're not going to start now. I had a man go blind one day, a Hall of Fame player. We just move along. Injuries are part of the game."

Ortiz might be out of place in the Twins' lineup these days, but the injury stuff sounds familiar.

• Twins attendance fell by 3,688 fans per game this season, which was the fifth-largest drop in baseball. In their first two seasons at Target Field the Twins averaged 39,000 fans per game, but that dropped to 34,000 last year and 31,000 this year. And those are tickets sold figures rather than actual fans in the seats. In their final season at the Metrodome the Twins averaged 29,446 fans per game, which seems fairly likely to top next year's totals at Target Field.

• Over the years I've criticized Ron Gardenhire and the Twins for their unwillingness to platoon hitters, which is something Gardenhire and general manager Terry Ryan talked openly about last month in a series of somewhat maddening quotes. Jack Moore of Sports On Earth wrote a very interesting article about how the A's among the teams to take the opposite approach to platooning with lots of success.

• In addition to Bernier the Twins also re-signed Triple-A players James Beresford, Jermaine Mitchell, Lester Oliveros, and Virgil Vasquez to minor-league contracts. Beresford could get a look as a potential utility infielder next season and Oliveros was in the majors before missing this season following Tommy John elbow surgery.

Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors took a lengthy look at some of the key roster issues facing the Twins heading into the offseason.

• MLB Productions released some old video this week that involved a bit of Twins history.

• For more on Morneau's post-trade performance, plus Twins payroll projections and reviewing over/under picks, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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September 11, 2013

Twins Notes: September call-ups, bad Buxton, and cleaning up young

aaron hicks september1

• Rochester's playoff run ended Sunday at Triple-A, so the Twins made seven September call-ups after initially not adding reinforcements. Eduardo Escobar, Chris Parmelee, Scott Diamond, and Michael Tonkin return after playing for the Twins previously this season and Cole De Vries is back in Minnesota for the first time this year after spending much of last season in the Twins' rotation, leaving Shairon Martis and Eric Fryer as the surprising call-ups.

Fryer is a 28-year-old journeyman catcher with 2,081 plate appearances in the minors compared to 34 plate appearances in the majors. He hit just .219/.339/.365 in 65 games for Rochester and is a career .208/.312/.313 hitter at Triple-A, but with Joe Mauer on the disabled list recovering from a brain injury and the Twins apparently no longer as willing to use Ryan Doumit behind the plate they wanted another catcher around for the final three weeks.

Martis is a 26-year-old right-hander who spent most of last season and all of this season in the Twins' farm system after being signed to a minor-league deal. He was a full-time starter until this year, shifting to the bullpen in Rochester and throwing 80 innings with a 4.26 ERA and 65-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio. There is absolutely nothing about his performance that stands out, this season or in past seasons, so aside from "they just wanted an extra arm" his call-up is odd.

My assumption is that Fryer and Martis will be dropped from the 40-man roster immediately after the season, in which case adding them now has no real impact aside from not giving those same temporary spots to more deserving options this month. De Vries also seems likely to be dropped, along with a handful of other names as part of the annual season-ending purge. Tonkin is the only call-up in the group with big upside, although certainly some people still believe in Diamond.

• As for who the Twins didn't add, the healthy players on the 40-man roster who haven't joined the team are Aaron Hicks, Trevor May, Danny Santana, and B.J. Hermsen. Of that group only Hicks' lack of a call-up is at all surprising, because May, Santana, and Hermsen all spent the season at Double-A and Hermsen was bad enough to potentially be dropped from the roster soon. Hicks, meanwhile, was the Opening Day center fielder and spent four months in the majors.

Hicks was terrible following an August 1 demotion to Triple-A, hitting .221/.317/.333 with zero homers and a 21-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 games to continue a miserable season that began with the Twins shoving aside development and service time considerations by rushing him from Double-A to the majors at age 23. Of course, Parmelee hit just .231/.318/.370 in 45 games at Triple-A following his midseason demotion and still got a September call-up.

• I dug through the minor-league records back when the Twins promoted Byron Buxton from low Single-A to high Single-A in late June and found that he was one of just six teenagers in the past 30 years to post an OPS of .975 or higher in the Midwest League:

Byron Buxton       2013     .990
Javier Baez        2012     .979
Oscar Taveras      2011    1.028
Mike Trout         2010     .979
Alex Rodriguez     1994     .984
Larry Walker       1986    1.011

After the promotion to high Single-A he played 57 games for Fort Myers, hitting .326/.415/.472 with 23 steals. Here's a list of all the teenagers in the past 30 years to post an OPS of .875 or higher in the Florida State League:

Byron Buxton       2013     .887
Jesus Montero      2009     .989
Giancarlo Stanton  2009     .968
Joel Guzman        2004     .899
Nick Johnson       1998    1.004
Adrian Beltre      1997     .967

So during the first half of the season Buxton did something only five other players have done in the past 30 years and then during the second half of the season Buxton did a different thing only five other players have done in the past 30 years. Overall he hit .334/.424/.520 with 55 steals, 49 extra-base hits, and 76 walks in 125 games between two levels where the average pitchers were 23 years old. He doesn't turn 20 until mid-December. Buxton is a bad, bad man (or kid, I guess).

UPDATE: Right on cue, Baseball America just announced that Buxton is their minor league player of the year, joining Mauer in 2003 as the only Twins to win the award.

• Sunday afternoon Oswaldo Arcia batted fourth for the first time in his career, making his debut in the cleanup spot at 22 years and 122 days old. He's the youngest player to bat cleanup for the Twins since Mauer did it at 22 years and 88 days old in July of 2005 and Justin Morneau did it at 22 years and 26 days old in June of 2003. Here's the complete list of every Twins hitter to bat cleanup before turning 23:

Kent Hrbek        156
Butch Wynegar     101
David Ortiz        44
Justin Morneau     12
Tom Brunansky      12
Joe Mauer           6
Steve Brye          6
OSWALDO ARCIA       3
Don Mincher         1

Butch Wynegar, one of the biggest phenoms in team history, was the youngest Twins cleanup hitter at 20 years and 63 days old in May of 1976. In fact, the 90 youngest instances of a Twins hitter batting cleanup all belong Wynegar and then the 91st spot is Tom Brunansky at 21 years and 266 days old. Steve Brye is the odd man out on that list, batting cleanup six times for the Twins as a 22-year-old in 1971 despite going on to be a career .258/.309/.365 hitter.

• After missing all of last season and the first five months of this season following Tommy John elbow surgery Scott Baker finally made his 2013 debut Sunday for the Cubs. He'd been very ineffective while rehabbing in the minors, but Baker tossed five shutout innings against the Brewers in his first start since August 8, 2011. He'll be a free agent again this offseason.

• There was some talk of the Twins being in the mix for Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero, but he ended up signing with the Dodgers for $32 million.

• While looking up some stats I stumbled across this tidbit: In their respective Double-A careers Michael Jordan (.289) had a higher on-base percentage than Drew Butera (.287).

Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote an interesting column about Morneau's first two weeks with the Pirates and how he relates to Penguins star Sidney Crosby.

• For a lot more on Buxton's great season, plus talk about Mauer's concussion, Josmil Pinto's hot start, and Trevor Plouffe's future, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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September 5, 2013

Digging through the archives: Justin Morneau, the early days

justin morneau rookie card

In the wake of the Twins trading Justin Morneau to the Pirates last week I thought it would be interesting to search through the AG.com archives for the earliest things I wrote about Morneau. For instance, here's some of what I wrote on June 10, 2003 when the Twins called up Morneau for his MLB debut:

The Twins have not had a real, bona fide, scare-the-s***-out-of-the-other-team slugger in the middle of their lineup since ... well, since I've been on this earth. Even with the offensive explosion of the 1990s and the benefit of playing in the "Homer Dome" throughout the 1980s (it is no longer a great place to hit homers), the most home runs a Twin has hit since I was born in 1983 is 34. Over that same time span, there have been 273 instances when a non-Minnesota player has hit 34 or more home runs.

...

Twins fans, our long-awaited long ball savior may finally be here. Backup infielder Chris Gomez went on the disabled list with a serious knee injury over the weekend and, in his place, the Twins decided not to recall Todd Sears or Michael Cuddyer. Instead, they brought up 22-year-old first base prospect Justin Morneau, one of the best--if not the best--hitting prospects in all of baseball.

I was extremely shocked by this move. It has not been the Twins' style recently to give a young, unestablished player precedence over more established and mature players. But Justin Morneau appears to be a little different than the average Twins prospect. He is potentially a step above Corey Koskie and Jacque Jones and Doug Mientkiewicz and Bobby Kielty and even Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer. Morneau is potentially an elite offensive player, a major force in the middle of the lineup, a bona fide scare-the-s***-out-of-your-opponent slugger.

...

Morneau reminds me a lot of Fred McGriff at the plate. He's got a very compact batting stance for a big guy and his swing follow-through is the same one-handed, twirl-the-bat-above-the-head one that McGriff has been featuring for the last 20 years or so.

At the time I was 20 years old and Morneau was 22 years old. Sure enough he became the first Twins hitter since 1987 to reach 30 homers, going deep 34 times in 2006, and Morneau reached 30 homers again in 2007 and 2009. And a decade later that Fred McGriff-style follow-through is one of my latest memories of his Twins career.

Here's some of what I wrote on August 1, 2004 when the Twins traded Doug Mientkiewicz to the Red Sox to clear first base for Morneau:

Morneau is everything that Mientkiewicz is not. He is young, he is cheap, he is a highly thought of prospect, he has incredible potential, and he has big-time power and a lack of defensive skills. When Mientkiewicz is hitting .300, smacking doubles and getting on base, you can make the case that he shouldn't have been pushed aside for Morneau. But as his average dipped and his lack of power production was magnified, the Twins had little choice but to move on.

...

I'll miss Mientkiewicz, but if Twins fans let him Morneau will make them forget all about Mientkiewicz.

Mientkiewicz was never again an everyday player after leaving the Twins and hit a grand total of just 23 homers in five-and-a-half seasons following the trade. Morneau hit 19 homers in 74 games after replacing Mientkiewicz in mid-2004. And his defense even proved a lot better than expected.

Here's some of what I wrote on August 14, 2004, two weeks into Morneau's decade-long tenure as the Twins' starting first baseman:

Justin Morneau is a monster. He hits 'em out to right field, he hits 'em out to center field, and he hits 'em out to left field. Sure, he's got some flaws--he swings at anything high and inside and he doesn't draw any walks--but he's 23 years old and he's got more power than anyone the Twins have had in at least three decades.

In my dozen or so years as a Twins fan, Morneau is the first hitter whom I actually get excited to watch every time he comes to the plate. There's just always the threat that he might launch something 450 feet.

...

I was thinking about this the other day, about how young Mauer is and how young Morneau is, and I realized the Twins are in pretty good shape when it comes to their future. It could be argued that the team's three best players are Johan Santana, Mauer and Morneau. Those three are 25, 21, and 23 years old, respectively.

All those three turned into were a pair of MVP winners and a two-time Cy Young winner. And now I'm 30 years old and Morneau is 32 years old and the Twins are once again getting excited about their young future stars.


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