July 25, 2011

Twins Notes: Time’s a wastin

• Yesterday marked the two-thirds point of the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figured to define the Twins' season leading right up to the July 31 trade deadline. So far they're 6-6 and seven games out of first place, which is a half-game further back than the start of the stretch and the same deficit as a month ago. For all their getting healthy and turning things around the Twins have basically tread water for a month, leaving only 61 games to close a seven-game gap.

At this stage various playoff odds put the Twins less than five percent to win the division, but a) they're presumably better than the overall record shows, b) the rest of the AL Central is far worse than an average division, and c) memories of what happened down the stretch in 2006 make many people reject the idea of becoming sellers regardless of the odds. Tough decisions need to be made this week, the impact of which extends well beyond August and September.

Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun reports that the Twins are "eyeing" Orioles reliever Koji Uehara, who's quietly been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball since moving to the bullpen full time last season. Uehara was a solid but injury prone mid-rotation starter, but as a reliever he has a 2.35 ERA and ridiculous 113-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 88 innings while holding opponents to a .187 batting average.

It doesn't get much better than that and sure enough his 2.51 xFIP since the beginning of last season ranks third among all relievers with at least 80 innings. Uehara isn't a household name and as a 36-year-old with injury baggage he'd come with some risk, but if healthy he's an elite reliever and has a reasonable $4 million option for 2012. Connolly writes that the Orioles "are looking for major league-ready starting pitching," which makes Kevin Slowey a possible fit.

• Slowey has actually been linked to quite a few teams as rumors swirl leading up to Sunday's trade deadline. Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Blue Jays scouted him at Triple-A, which makes sense given that they showed interest in Slowey during spring training. Toronto is believed to be shopping various veteran relievers, including old friend Jon Rauch, so that seems like a natural fit. At this point I'd be very surprised if Slowey isn't traded.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last week that the Twins won't deal impending free agent Michael Cuddyer, but apparently that didn't stop at least one team from trying to change their mind. According to Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News the Giants expressed interest in Cuddyer with the intention of using him at second base, but were rebuffed and quickly moved on to acquire Jeff Keppinger from the Astros for two prospects.

Danny Valencia is putting together one of the most polarizing seasons by any hitter in Twins history, piling up memorable hits and RBIs while hitting terribly overall. Valencia is hitting just .236/.286/.391 overall, yet leads the team with 53 RBIs and many of them have come in key spots. Talk of Valencia's ability to come through in the "clutch" has already become prevalent, but he's actually been awful in situations normally associated with that concept.

With runners on base Valencia has hit .253/.303/.374. With runners in scoring position he's hit .247/.308/.381. And in "close and late" situations he's hit .206/.260/.235. So if he's not thriving with runners on base or in key late-inning spots, how does Valencia have so many RBIs and big hits? Because he's come to the plate with 269 runners on base, which leads the Twins and ranks 10th in the league. RBIs are a function of opportunity as much as performance.

Glen Perkins has shown no sign of slowing down, allowing one run in his last 15 games with a 17-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 innings. His overall ERA is down to 1.63, with zero home runs and 43 strikeouts in 39 innings. Vic Albury is the only Twins pitcher to allow zero homers in more than 39 innings, tossing 50 homer-less frames in 1976, and Joe Nathan (four times) is the only Twins pitcher with a sub-2.00 ERA and more strikeouts than innings. Perkins is unreal.

Scott Baker looked good in his return from the disabled list Saturday, shutting out the Tigers for five innings. He was on a pitch count after missing two weeks with a sore elbow, but Baker had good velocity and recorded five strikeouts while allowing just three singles and one walk. In beating Detroit he sliced his ERA to 2.88, which is ninth in the American League and would be the lowest mark posted by any Twins starter other than Johan Santana since 1991.

Brian Duensing struggled Friday against the Tigers' right-handed-heavy lineup, coughing up seven runs in 4.2 innings. He's allowed right-handed hitters to bat .306 with a .486 slugging percentage off him, which is one of the reasons why I thought the Twins should have left him in the bullpen to begin the season. Early on the decision to pick Duensing over Slowey looked smart, but since May 1 he has a 5.22 ERA and 56-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 79 innings.

Luke Hughes got an unexpected demotion to Triple-A over the weekend as the Twins opted to stick with 13 pitchers and 12 position players for a while. Finding enough consistent work to go around is very difficult with a 12-man staff, so carrying 13 pitchers is absurd. With that said, Hughes didn't exactly make himself indispensable by hitting .237/.293/.322 with 46 strikeouts in 193 plate appearances. At best he's a 26-year-old platoon bat with limited defensive value.

• Assuming the Twins don't trade an outfielder it's tough to imagine Ben Revere staying in the lineup or perhaps even the majors once Denard Span returns from his concussion. Revere has looked very good tracking down fly balls in center field, but the initial excitement created by his singles and speed has predictably faded at the plate. His overall line is down to .249/.287/.284 in 62 games as the obvious limitations shown by his track record have been on full display.

Kelsie Smith covered her final game as the Twins beat reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press yesterday, announcing that she's leaving the newspaper to move to Canada and have a baby next month. Smith doesn't like me much--which puts her in some pretty good company--but I always thought she did quality work and linked to her stuff often here despite the perpetual difficulties of navigating the Pioneer Press website. Her coverage will definitely be missed.

Steve Singleton quickly signed a minor-league deal with the Phillies after the Twins released him from Triple-A last week due to reported "off-the-field issues."

• And last but not least: Bert Blyleven took his rightful place in the Hall of Fame yesterday.

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

March 16, 2011

Twins Notes: Utilities, options, t-shirts, blends, OBPs, and sausages

• My assumption all offseason was that Matt Tolbert would get the utility infielder job backing up middle infield starters Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, as the only other player on the 40-man roster with significant shortstop experience is Trevor Plouffe. That may still prove to be the case, but Ron Gardenhire revealed that the backup infielder doesn't necessarily need to be a shortstop because he can shift Nishioka from second base to shortstop if needed.

That's something I wrote about after Gardenhire announced that Casilla would be the starting shortstop and it certainly makes a lot of sense, but it's surprising given his longtime love affair with Nick Punto in the utility man role. After all, Gardenhire is the same guy who carried three catchers on the roster for long stretches because he was afraid of losing the designated hitter for a few innings in a scenario that might occur once every 100 games.

So, why the sudden change of heart regarding the need to have a legitimate shortstop on the bench at all times? Nishioka's shortstop experience in Japan obviously plays a part, but this is also a very strong indication that Gardenhire doesn't view Tolbert as being in the same league as Punto defensively. And rightfully so. However, the biggest factor is no doubt prospect Luke Hughes hitting .361 with four homers, three doubles, and 13 RBIs in 13 spring training games.

Basing decisions of how someone fares in some small sample of at-bats during spring training is mostly silly, but Hughes' minor-league track record suggests he can be a useful bench player or platoon starter and the Twins could certainly use another capable right-handed bat. I'm not convinced Gardenhire would actually bench any of the lineup's lefty-hitting regulars for Hughes versus southpaws, but either way he brings more potential "utility" to the role than Tolbert.

Hughes actually got a little action at shortstop in Monday's game, which seemed to catch even Hughes off guard. He hasn't played there regularly since 2003, when he was an 18-year-old in rookie-ball, and hasn't played an inning there since 2006 at Single-A. Hughes doesn't even get strong reviews for his glove at second base and only an emergency would force him into action at shortstop in a regular season game, but Gardenhire is obviously giving him a thorough look.

• On a related note, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Tolbert has one minor-league optioning remaining, which means the Twins can send him to the minors all year. Not having to risk losing a replacement-level player like Tolbert on waivers normally isn't a big factor, but if Casilla or Nishioka were to land on the disabled list the Twins wouldn't be put in a tough spot with Plouffe as the only shortstop reinforcement on the 40-man roster.

Among players potentially on the roster bubble Glen Perkins is the only one out of options, so the Twins would have to pass him through waivers unclaimed before sending him to Triple-A. Perkins has fallen out of favor in a big way and pitched horribly in both the minors and majors last year, but as a relatively young lefty with some track record of success there's a good shot some team would claim him. It sounds like he'll have a spot in the Opening Day bullpen.

My plea for someone to stick Gardenhire's "just fire it through the internet" quote on a t-shirt has already been answered, which I suppose shouldn't be surprising. After all, as Gardenhire will tell you the internet moves very fast. It's not a bad looking shirt, either:

As one of several portly Twins bloggers, I strongly suggest they add some sizes above XXL.

Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press did a terrific job incorporating advanced defensive metrics into an article about Delmon Young, noting that the 30 pounds he lost last offseason didn't actually lead to major improvement in his fielding numbers and then using her access to get comments from Gardenhire and outfield coach Jerry White. For all the silliness trying to pit new-school versus old-school, I'm hoping to see more mainstream writers blend the two.

My favorite excerpt is this Gardenhire quote: "We thought he was running faster, but that just meant he was chasing the balls he missed faster." It'd be even funnier if it weren't so true. On the other hand White said Young "is actually a good outfielder" and "knows how to play guys." I find it almost impossible to believe White thinks Young "is actually a good outfielder," but the guy in charge of coaching outfield defense doesn't have much to gain by saying otherwise.

• While on Baseball-Reference.com recently researching Indians catcher Carlos Santana for an upcoming Hardball Talk article I stumbled across some interesting numbers. Here are the best career on-base percentages among all players with two-thirds of their games as a catcher and at least 2,500 plate appearances during the past 50 years:

Joe Mauer         .407
Mike Piazza       .377
Jorge Posada      .376
Victor Martinez   .369
Jason Kendall     .366

Not only is Joe Mauer the only catcher in the past 50 years with an on-base percentage above .380, at .407 he's 30 points ahead of the next-closest guy, who just happens to be arguably the best-hitting catcher in baseball history. Something to think about the next time someone says Mauer is overrated because he doesn't hit enough homers.

• For those interested in a glimpse at how the sausage gets made, a spring training attendee who goes by "TCAnelle" on Twitter snapped a photo of Star Tribune writer Patrick Reusse and pitching coach Rick Anderson chatting away from the fray at a picnic table Monday. Reusse's column the next day? All about the bullpen, with lots of quotes from Anderson.

• Who has the best facial hair in Twins history? An important question that the boys over at The Platoon Advantage are attempting to answer, NCAA tournament-style.

September 22, 2010

Twins Notes: AL Central champs (they gone!)

• About two hours after the Twins completed their eighth-inning comeback against the Indians last night the White Sox lost their eighth consecutive game versus the A's, which means the AL Central race is officially over. Kind of anti-climactic with two weeks left, but I'll certainly take it. And it was funny to see Paul Konerko close out Chicago's playoff hopes by grounding out with the bases loaded against Craig Breslow, who was waived by the Twins in mid-2008.

• Obviously securing homefield advantage throughout the playoffs is always a very good thing, but Cliff Corcoran of SI.com crunched the numbers and found that it's likely not as important as conventional wisdom would have you believe. Since the current playoff schedule format was adopted in 1998, teams with homefield advantage have a 45-39 record in series, which isn't all that impressive when you consider that they're usually the superior team anyway.

Of course, not represented in those numbers are both the economic and "holy shit this is fun" impacts of having extra games at Target Field. No matter who the Twins play in the first round, they'll have homefield advantage when the ALDS begins October 6 at Target Field.

• The good news on Joe Mauer's sore left knee is that an MRI exam taken yesterday revealed no structural damage. The bad news is that Mauer does have inflammation and is expected to miss at least 4-5 days after receiving a cortisone injection. Thanks to the White Sox's collapse, he has plenty of time to rest up.

• Last week Mauer became just the fifth catcher in baseball history to reach 1,000 career hits at age 27. Here are the all-time leaders in hits by a catcher through age 27:

Ivan Rodriguez      1333
Ted Simmons         1279
Johnny Bench        1246
Joe Torre           1087
JOE MAUER           1009

Mauer's hit total is hurt by missing most of his rookie year following surgery on the same knee that has him out of action right now, but also by his being so patient at the plate and passing up hits for walks. Here are the all-time leaders in walks by a catcher through age 27:

Johnny Bench         516
Darrell Porter       510
Butch Wynegar        450
JOE MAUER            433
Ted Simmons          427

Butch Wynegar ranked 31st on my list of the best players in Twins history.

Ozzie Guillen had a particularly amusing quote when talking about Danny Valencia coming out of nowhere to hit .340, noting that Valencia played in the same high school conference as his son Ozzie Guillen Jr.:

They go and get this kid Valencia. When you play against Ozzie Guillen Jr. in the same division in high school, you're very horseshit because Ozzie Guillen Jr. is not going to choose any good conference to play baseball. And [Valencia] is a superstar [for the Twins].

As usual, Guillen had all kinds of praise for the Twins after they dispatched with the White Sox.

• Something to consider when debating who should get the Game 1 and Game 5 starts in the ALDS: Francisco Liriano has allowed zero or one run in 11 starts this season, compared to six from Carl Pavano. And they've both allowed three runs or fewer in 22 starts.

UPDATE: Liriano has officially been named the Game 1/5 starter for the ALDS. Good call.

• Last week I mentioned discovering a podcast called "Jesse, Jordan, Go!" hosted by Jordan Morris and Jesse Thorn, the latter of which is a big baseball fan. Over the weekend I listened to various episodes from their archives and stumbled across a show from 2007 in which they had a lengthy discussion centered around the question: "Shia LaBeouf or Boof Bonser?" As if that weren't enough, they interviewed Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press about Bonser.

For literally five minutes she answered very serious-sounding questions about Bonser's name, Bonser's personality, Bonser's weight, and other pressing matters. It was pretty hilarious, and it was long enough ago that Smith a) described herself as "the backup Twins beat writer," and b) had never even heard of LaBeouf. If you want to hear the Boof-related hilarity for yourself, the segment occurs about three-fourths of the way through this episode.

Jim Thome and Target Field are on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, with a feature article written by the great Joe Posnanski and this spectacular looking photo:

That scaled-down version doesn't even begin to do it justice, so click on the photo and then hit zoom to see the full-sized masterpiece.

• Speaking of the Twins getting some national attention, Tyler Kepner of the New York Times wrote a good article about pitching coach Rick Anderson and his strike-throwing machines.

• I stepped in for an on-vacation John Gordon as the Monday afternoon guest on 1500-ESPN, talking Twins with Patrick Reusse and Phil Mackey. Surprisingly, during the 15-minute chat I was the only one to bring up a pitcher's win total. And the pitcher was Tony Fiore. You can get the segment here. I'm on about halfway through the clip. I'll also be co-hosting "Twins Wrap" on 1500-ESPN again with Darren Wolfson Friday night, starting 30 minutes after the final out.

• And finally: Woo!