July 10, 2013

Old friends in new places: Catching up with former Twins pitchers

nathan liriano crain

I've been getting lots of e-mails, comments, and tweets about seven former Twins being named All-Stars and ex-Twins in general thriving for other teams, so let's examine that notion. Like all teams the Twins cycle through tons of players every season, making it impossible to keep close tabs on everyone, but I've tried to narrow things down a bit by focusing on relatively prominent and/or oft-discussed players who departed the organization within the past handful of seasons.

Even then the list is a very long one, so today let's stick to the ex-Twins pitchers ...

Joe Nathan: By declining a $12.5 million option the Twins made Nathan a free agent after 2011 and he signed a two-year, $14.5 million contract with the Rangers. At the time it would have been tough to justify a big two-year deal for a 37-year-old reliever still rounding back into shape after elbow surgery and his departure led to Glen Perkins emerging as closer, but Nathan has been amazing in Texas with a 2.25 ERA and 120/23 K/BB ratio in 104 innings.

Francisco Liriano: Traded to the White Sox in mid-2012 for Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez as an impending free agent, Liriano wasn't much good down the stretch and then signed a two-year deal with the Pirates that was later reworked due to an offseason injury. He's been brilliant for the Pirates with a 2.20 ERA and 74/27 K/BB ratio in 70 innings, relying on his fastball less than ever before.

R.A. Dickey: Dickey spent a thoroughly unmemorable 2009 season in Minnesota, serving as a mop-up reliever for 64 innings before refusing an assignment to the minors and leaving as a free agent. There was nothing promising about his performance, which included a 4.62 ERA and 40/32 K/BB ratio, and the Twins were hesitant to even use the knuckleballer with men on base. He inked a minor-league deal with the Mets at age 35 ... and turned into a Cy Young winner.

Matt Guerrier: Guerrier exited as a free agent following the 2010 season for a three-year $12 million deal with the Dodgers after seven seasons in Minnesota. At the time Guerrier was 32 years old and showing obvious signs of decline, so the decision to let him walk was a sound one. He's struggled with injuries while posting a 4.20 ERA and was recently designated for assignment with a half-season left on the three-year deal, going to the Cubs in a swap of unwanted contracts.

Jesse Crain: Crain followed Guerrier out the door after 2010, signing a three-year, $13 million deal with the White Sox. Despite a modest strikeout rate of 6.2 per nine innings he threw 382 innings with a 3.42 ERA in seven seasons in Minnesota, but Crain has racked up 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings while posting a 2.10 ERA in 150 innings for the White Sox. At the time I'd have re-signed Crain over Guerrier, but didn't blame the Twins for avoiding a three-year deal.

Scott Baker: Baker missed all of 2012 following elbow surgery and then became a free agent when the Twins declined his $9.25 million option. They wanted to re-sign him to a cheaper deal, but balked when Baker refused to include a team option for 2014. He ended up signing with the Cubs for $5.5 million plus some incentives and has yet to pitch. Meanwhile, the Twins spent $4 million on a different pitcher coming off elbow surgery and Mike Pelfrey has a 5.63 ERA.

Matt Capps: Capps went from making a combined $12 million as the Twins' closer in 2011 and 2012 to not even being able to get an MLB contract this offseason, settling for a minor-league deal with the Indians. Overall in two-and-a-half seasons in Minnesota he threw 122 innings with a 3.61 ERA and 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings, for which the Twins parted with the Nationals' starting catcher, Wilson Ramos, and $14 million while also forfeiting a compensatory draft pick.

Kevin Slowey: Slowey's status a solid mid-rotation starter from 2007-2010 unraveled when he got pushed out of the rotation in 2011. Slowey didn't want to be in the bullpen, pitching horribly and getting injured, and the Twins did their best to tear him down while the local media was all too willing to lend a hand. He was traded to the Rockies for a non-prospect, missed most of 2012, and has returned the majors with a 3.99 ERA and 72/18 K/BB ratio for the Marlins.

Jose Mijares: Cut loose after 2011 because the Twins decided a 27-year-old reliever with a 3.16 career ERA wasn't worth paying $750,000 via arbitration, Mijares wound up signing with the Royals for more money and then moved on to the Giants. Since leaving the Twins he has a 2.51 ERA and 88/30 K/BB ratio in 86 innings and still hasn't made more than $1.8 million in a season. Dropping him made little sense to me then and is certainly even more regrettable now.

Jason Marquis: Marquis was as awful as a pitcher can be after signing a one-year, $3 million deal with the Twins last offseason, starting seven games with an 8.47 ERA and more walks than strikeouts while allowing opponents to hit .371 before they released him in late May. He quickly latched on with San Diego, where he pitched well and then re-signed for this season at $3 million. Overall for the Padres he's thrown 201 innings with a 3.90 ERA.

Carl Pavano: Pavano had a good two-and-a-half season run for the Twins, but fell apart last year while unsuccessfully trying to pitch through a shoulder injury. He was finally shut down in June with a 6.00 ERA and didn't throw another pitch, leaving as a free agent. Pavano was looking for work as a back-of-the-rotation starter this offseason when he fell while shoveling snow and ruptured his spleen. He won't pitch this season and at age 37 might be done.

Pat Neshek: Waived by the Twins in the spring of 2011 after struggling to come back from elbow surgery, Neshek was claimed by the Padres and split that season between Triple-A and San Diego with mediocre results. Last year he toiled away at Triple-A for Baltimore before a trade to Oakland, where Neshek has thrived again with a 1.91 ERA in 47 innings. There was really no good reason for the Twins to cut bait on Neshek, who now has a 2.91 career ERA in seven seasons.

Craig Breslow: Breslow was a shrewd waiver wire pickup by the Twins in mid-2008, but after pitching well for 39 innings that season he struggled in early 2009 and they waived him. Not only was it an overreaction to a small sample of bad work, Breslow was cut loose so the Twins could call up a different left-handed reliever, Sean Henn, who lasted all of 11 innings for them. Since being lost on waivers Breslow has thrown 280 innings with a 2.93 ERA.

Jon Rauch: Rauch was briefly the Twins' closer in 2010, filling in fairly well for a rehabbing Nathan by converting 21 of 25 saves with a 3.05 ERA. He lost the job when the Twins decided they had to overpay for a so-called "proven closer" in Capps and then left as a free agent that offseason, signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Rauch was decent in 2011 and 2012, posting a 4.12 ERA in 110 innings, but struggled this season and was recently released by two teams.

Billy Bullock: Back in 2011 the Twins picked Scott Diamond in the Rule 5 draft, didn't want to keep him in the majors all year, and traded Bullock to the Braves for the right to send Diamond to the minors. I hated the deal at the time, because Bullock was a hard-throwing second-round pick and the Twins could have just kept Diamond as a mop-up man for nothing in return, but Bullock never harnessed his raw stuff and got released this month. Diamond has a 4.32 career ERA.

Alex Burnett: For three seasons the Twins stuck with Burnett in their bullpen despite an increasingly poor performance, only to waive him this spring for no pressing reason. In the four months since then Burnett has been claimed three times off waivers, going from the Twins to the Blue Jays to the Orioles to the Cubs. Most recently he passed through waivers unclaimed and is now at Triple-A for the Cubs.

Philip Humber: Acquired from the Mets as part of the Johan Santana trade, Humber never made a start for the Twins and appeared in just 13 total games before leaving as a minor league free agent. He had a good run for the White Sox in 2011 and threw a perfect game in April of 2012, but overall since leaving the Twins he has a 5.28 ERA in 322 innings. Humber is currently at Triple-A for the Astros after passing through waivers unclaimed.

Jeff Gray: Gray won a spot in the Opening Day bullpen last year despite a lengthy track record of mediocrity and remained there for most of the season despite a 5.71 ERA and 26/22 K/BB ratio in 52 innings. When the Twins finally came to their senses and waived Gray he went unclaimed by the other 29 teams, became a free agent, and signed a minor-league deal with the White Sox. He's spent all of this season at Triple-A.

Jim Hoey: Back in 2010 the Twins traded Carlos Gomez for J.J. Hardy and then a year later they traded Hardy for Hoey and Brett Jacobson. Whatever you thought of the Gomez-for-Hardy swap the Hardy-for-Hoey trade was a terrible, misguided idea that looks even worse now. Hoey threw 25 awful innings for the Twins, who lost him for nothing on waivers a year after the trade, and Jacobson was released from Double-A. Hoey is now playing independent ball.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Curt's Salsa, a locally owned salsa company that believes in fresh ingredients and rooting for the little guy. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

May 8, 2013

Revisiting the best Twins prospects of the 2000s

mauer and morneau rookie

Coming into the season the Twins were universally regarded as having one of the truly elite farm systems in baseball, boasting plenty of star-level talent and impressive depth. I called it the best crop of Twins prospects in my decade-plus writing about the team and nothing has changed since then, as consensus top-25 prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are off to amazing starts and most of system's other significant prospects have played well.

I've written plenty about the Twins' prospects as part of my annual rankings, so there's no sense in revisiting everything a month into the season, but I thought it would be interesting to examine the recent history of Twins prospects. This year the Twins had six prospects in Baseball America's top 100 list, including Sano and Buxton in the top 10 and Oswaldo Arcia in the top 50, but what exactly has it meant to be a Twins prospect in the Baseball America top 100?

I wanted to focus on how prospects were perceived nationally at the time, rather than local hype or how I personally viewed them or how they actually turned out--no Johan Santana, in other words--so I relied on BA's list. On a season-to-season basis prospect crops vary wildly, so not all rankings are created equal, but below you'll find my best estimate of the highest-rated and/or most-hyped Twins prospects since 2000 (minus current prospects) and where they stand now.


1. Joe Mauer: #7 in 2002, #4 in 2003, #1 in 2004, #1 in 2005

Joe Mauer was basically as good as prospects get. He was a multi-sport superstar in high school, got drafted No. 1 overall, had immediate success hitting .400 at rookie-ball, thrived at every stop in the minors despite being young for the level of competition, was named Baseball America minor league player of the year, and reached the majors two weeks before his 21st birthday. Mauer was arguably the best MLB prospect of the 2000s and has obviously lived up to the hype.


2. Francisco Liriano: #83 in 2003, #6 in 2006

When the Giants traded Francisco Liriano to the Twins he was a former top 100 prospect who'd fallen off the list due to arm problems in the low minors, but two years later he re-emerged as the best pitching prospect in baseball. He showed why with one of the most dominant rookie seasons ever, but that was cut short by elbow surgery. Liriano has found some post-surgery success, but he was never the same and is a prime example of the volatile nature of pitching prospects.


3. Justin Morneau: #21 in 2002, #14 in 2003, #16 in 2004

Coming up in the same farm system at the same time as Mauer made Justin Morneau somewhat overshadowed, but he was definitely an elite prospect. Not only did Morneau rank among Baseball America's top 25 prospects in three straight seasons, he put up big numbers at every level in the minors and debuted in the majors a month after his 22nd birthday. Injuries have unfortunately kept Morneau from realizing his full potential, but he obviously lived up to the hype.


4. Michael Cuddyer: #36 in 1999, #18 in 2000, #55 in 2001, #27 in 2002, #17 in 2003

Michael Cuddyer was the ninth overall pick out of high school and cracked Baseball America's top 50 a remarkable five times, peaking at No. 17 the same year Mauer was No. 4 and Morneau was No. 14. He doesn't have an MVP, but Cuddyer has played 13 seasons as an above-average corner outfielder and occasional infielder, hitting .272/.342/.457. Everyone should be thrilled if similarly hyped prospects turned out as well as Cuddyer.


5. Jason Kubel: #17 in 2005, #58 in 2006

Oh, what could have been. Jason Kubel hit .352/.414/.590 with 16 steals between Double-A and Triple-A at age 22, hit .300 in a 23-game September debut, and ranked 17th on BA's list. Then a gruesome collision destroyed his knee, knocked him out for an entire year, and turned Kubel from an athletic, high-average hitter with good speed to a plodding slugger. And yet Kubel has still managed a decade-long career as an above-average corner outfielder not far off from Cuddyer.


6. Matt Garza: #21 in 2007

Matt Garza made just one Baseball America top 100, but that's because he went from first-round pick to the big leagues in one year. After some initial struggles Garza made 15 starts with a 3.69 ERA as a 23-year-old, at which point the Twins traded him for Delmon Young. Young is one of the biggest prospect busts of the 2000s whereas Garza had a five-season run as a solid No. 2 starter, but injuries have derailed him at age 29.


7. Michael Restovich: #50 in 1999, #26 in 2000, #63 in 2002, #37 in 2003

Drafted in the second round out of a Minnesota high school, Michael Restovich was a 6-foot-6 slugger who put up big power numbers in the minors and ranked among Baseball America's top 100 prospects four times. He debuted with the Twins at age 23 after hitting .286/.353/.542 at Triple-A, but never got an extended chance despite generally faring pretty well. He was lost on waivers in 2005, bounced around a ton, and ended up with just 297 career plate appearances.


8. Carlos Gomez: #60 in 2007, #52 in 2008

Carlos Gomez twice cracked Baseball America's top 100 in the Mets' system and was arguably the centerpiece of the Twins' haul for Santana. He debuted at age 21 and was the Twins' starting center fielder at 22, but rushing Gomez through the minors left him as mostly a mess offensively. Traded to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy after the 2009 season and now 27, he's finally becoming an impact hitter to go along with what was always excellent defense.


9. Adam Johnson: #41 in 2002, #85 in 2002

Adam Johnson was the No. 2 pick in 2000 draft out of Cal-State Fullerton, but Baseball America projected him as a mid-first rounder and the Twins were criticized for making a "signability pick." Johnson predictably fared well in the low minors against less experienced competition and cracked the top 50 in 2002, but things fell apart once he advanced past Single-A. He posted a 10.25 ERA in 26 innings as a major leaguer, washing out at age 23.


10. Luis Rivas: #70 in 1997, #55 in 1998, #63 in 1999, #86 in 2000, #93 in 2001

Luis Rivas ranked as a top 100 prospect in five straight seasons, but in the early days of this blog I wrote often about how his actual performance never matched the hype. He never hit well in the minors, yet the Twins made him their starting second baseman at age 21 and stuck with him as a regular for five seasons despite a .262/.307/.383 mark and iffy defense. He played 565 games for the Twins through age 25, but totaled just 83 more games after they finally let him go.


11. Wilson Ramos: #71 in 2009, #58 in 2010, #96 in 2011

While never quite an elite prospect Wilson Ramos typically ranked among the top five catchers and was a good enough prospect for long enough to create questions about how the Twins could make room for him and Mauer in their long-term plans. Ramos was a top 100 prospect three times and debuted with the Twins at age 22, but was traded to the Nationals for Matt Capps later that season. He's still just 25, but looks headed for a lengthy career as an above-average catcher.


12. Glen Perkins: #91 in 2006, #66 in 2007

Glen Perkins starred for the Gophers, made the top 100 twice, and debuted for the Twins two years after they made him a first-round pick. He was billed as a mid-rotation starter and looked the part as a 25-year-old rookie, but then struggled for two seasons as injuries derailed him. Perkins was demoted to the minors at age 27 and returned as a reliever, throwing harder than ever and quickly moving into the closer role.


13. J.D Durbin: #66 in 2004, #70 in 2005

J.D. Durbin threw hard and talked a good game, nicknaming himself "The Real Deal." He debuted in 2004 with all kinds of promise at age 22, but didn't make it back to the majors until 2007 and all that prospect shine had worn off by then. His strikeout rates and overall numbers in the minors never quite matched his hype and once he got to Triple-A poor control further did him in. Last year Durbin spent his 13th season in the minors, compared to 73 total innings in the majors.


14. Deolis Guerra: #35 in 2008

Deolis Guerra is technically still a prospect in that he's only 24 years old and hasn't reached the majors, but between his on-field struggles and recent health problems he's looking like a long shot to have a big-league career. Once upon a time many people felt that Guerra, not Gomez, was the best prospect in the Santana package, but like Gomez he wasn't helped by being rushed through the minors in the Mets' system and has had little success above Single-A.


15. Matthew LeCroy: #44 in 2000

Matthew LeCroy was a first-round pick out of college and crushed minor-league pitching while moving quickly through the Twins' system, debuting as their Opening Day catcher in his third pro season. He struggled offensively and proved to be a liability behind the plate, but after a demotion back to the minors he returned as a good platoon bat versus left-handed pitching at designated hitter, first base, and occasionally catcher.


16. Kevin Slowey: #71 in 2007

Kevin Slowey was an oft-debated prospect because his ridiculously great numbers in the minors didn't match his underwhelming raw stuff. Baseball America tends to skew heavily toward stuff over stats, so the fact that Slowey still made the top 100 shows just how silly his numbers were. He debuted at age 23 after posting a 2.28 ERA and 159-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Double-A and Triple-A, and split the difference by becoming a decent mid-rotation starter.


17. Ben Revere: #59 in 2009

Ben Revere was viewed as a reach in the first round of the 2007 draft, but started to get some prospect hype after he hit .379 at low Single-A in 2008. That was his only year appearing in the top 100, which isn't surprising considering prospect rankings are all about upside and Revere's complete lack of power and arm strength limited that even in optimistic scenarios. He's more or less become the flawed but useful player his minor-league track record suggested.


18. Jesse Crain: #89 in 2004, #63 in 2005

Jesse Crain was a college reliever and second-round pick who moved quickly through the Twins' system, debuting at age 23 after 162 innings in the minors. While the shape of his performance has changed over the years, Crain was a good setup man immediately and has remained so for a decade with a 3.18 ERA that includes just two seasons above 3.60. Relievers are rarely considered elite prospects, but Crain's career has gone almost exactly as hoped.


19. Matt Moses: #81 in 2004, #75 in 2006

Billed as a "pure hitter" coming out of high school as a first-round pick, Matt Moses got by on that reputation for quite a while before everyone finally realized that he couldn't actually hit. He cracked Baseball America's top 100 twice, peaking at No. 75 on a 2006 list that had Jay Bruce, Dustin Pedroia, and Kendry Morales in the next three spots, but never advanced beyond Double-A and hit just .249/.304/.374 in the minors overall before washing out at age 24.


20. Nick Blackburn: #56 in 2008

I disagreed so much with Baseball America ranking Nick Blackburn as the Twins' top prospect in 2008 that I made a bet with the magazine's editor, John Manuel, that Blackburn wouldn't get 70 career wins. I'm feeling pretty safe about the bet now with Blackburn stuck on 43 wins and his career at a crossroads, although in retrospect he did turn out better than I expected even if 819 innings of a 4.85 ERA is nothing special.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Curt's Salsa, a locally owned salsa company that believes in fresh ingredients and rooting for the little guy. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

March 29, 2013

Link-O-Rama

Sad news about Johan Santana, who's probably my favorite Twin of all time and was such a huge part of this blog, beginning with the "Free Johan!" days and extending to his time as the best pitcher in baseball. AG.com began in 2002, from 2002-2010 a total of 121 pitchers started at least 125 games, and Santana was the only one with an ERA below 3.00. And I'll never stop being upset that he was robbed of three straight Cy Young awards by win-obsessed voters.

• Congrats to everyone involved for what is probably the best moment in journalism history. And the follow-up might be even better if you pay close attention to the photo credit.

• Crazy, sad story about catfishing, blackmail, suicide, and a Minnesota native.

• Turning an old ballpark into an apartment complex is absolutely brilliant. I want to live there.

Headline of the week/weak: "Police called over man singing 'Free Falling.'"

• If you were house-sitting a mansion and found $100,000 worth of 100-year-old whiskey, what else could you possibly do?

• As a big "Parenthood" fan I already liked Dax Shepard, but his excellent, emotional story about saying goodbye to his father makes me a fan for life.

• On this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode we talked Aaron Hicks and Drew Butera, recapped Saturday's big Twins Daily meet-up, and discussed why getting to second base without passing out can be difficult.

Alison Agosti is one of my favorite Twitter follows and podcast guests, and this video of her, Kyle Kinane, and Nick Rutherford telling jokes to avoid drinking "toilet wine" is funny:

After watching that I'm more convinced than ever that we need to do a "drinking game" episode of "Gleeman and The Geek." You know, as opposed to the usual "just drinking" episodes.

• Baltimore reassigned 36-year-old Lew Ford to the minors, where he could be Triple-A teammates with Danny Valencia.

• First-year manager Mike Redmond picked Kevin Slowey for a spot in the Marlins' starting rotation. Redmond caught Slowey for 11 games as Twins teammates.

• What does the Twins' season-opening roster look like? I'm glad you asked.

• I made my triumphant return to Paul Allen's show on KFAN and after 20 minutes of Twins talk he called me out for not following him on Twitter as I warned: "I don't like where this is going."

Rob Dibble was fired as a high school baseball coach after 10 games.

• Addiction-wise I'm exactly like Buzz Bissinger, except for eating Chinese food and queuing movies I'll never watch on Netflix.

• Shouldn't the goal be to spend as little time as possible in public bathrooms?

• As someone who writes about baseball for a living I'm not qualified for much else, but "full-time barbeque editor" seems like a job I could thrive at.

• If what Tilda Swinton did qualifies as performance art then I'm ... actually, I don't know of any famous performance artists.

• Important question from my childhood: Why did Uncle Jesse and Aunt Becky never hook up?

• RIP Gus Triandos, who was a very good catcher and a very memorable part of "The Wire":

Most underrated part of that whole thing? Officer Dozerman is a stat-head.

Norm MacDonald launched a new video podcast and his first guest was Bob Einstein, who you may also know as Super Dave Osborne and/or Marty Funkhouser. It was great.

• "Aaron Gleeman loves him more than Mila Kunis and Julie Klausner combined" is big talk.

Close enough, I guess.

• My super-cheery Twins season preview on NBCSports.com.

• I defy you to find a better picture of DMX.

George Clooney, late bloomer.

• As someone who legitimately likes Pizza Hut's chicken wings I don't have much room to talk, but Mike Trout has terrible taste in chicken wings.

• If you love listening to Al Green's music as much as I do you'll also enjoy listening to Oliver Wang talk about his music and the greatness of "I'm Still In Love With You."

• Congrats to friend of AG.com Ray Henson for winning a World Series of Poker circuit event.

Ron Swanson fans should listen to this, if only to hear how great/goofy Nick Offerman's real-life laugh is.

• Netflix instant recommendation: "Bachelorette" is pretty mediocre overall, but there was plenty of fuel for my longtime Lizzy Caplan crush.

• Some of this week's weird and random search engine queries that brought people here:

- "Aaron Hicks girlfriend"
- "My nose cartilage grow is it normal?"
- "Delmon crab stick"
- "How much does Boof Bonser make?"
- "Pronounce Trevor Plouffe"
- "Nick Blackburn awful"
- "Does Kate Mara wear braces?"
- "Is Darren Wolfson married?"
- "Wild boar watching"

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is the aforementioned "I'm Still In Love With You" by Al Green:


This week's blog content is sponsored by Territory Train, which takes the heavy lifting out of planning and executing Twins road trips. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

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":

March 26, 2012

Twins Notes: Outfield realignments, Rule 5 returns, and drugs of abuse

• In signing Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract in mid-December the Twins indicated that he'd be their everyday right fielder despite playing just 264 career innings there compared to 5,524 innings in left field. Getting a first-hand look at Willingham and the various other outfield options in camp apparently changed those plans, as Ron Gardenhire announced yesterday that Willingham will be the starting left fielder.

Gardenhire also made official what was expected by naming Denard Span the starting center fielder, which leaves right field for ... well, everyone. Depending on how often and at which positions Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are in the lineup right field could potentially be manned by Ben Revere, Trevor Plouffe, Chris Parmelee, or Ryan Doumit, none of whom have ever played the position on more than a semi-regular basis in the majors or minors.

For years the Twins stressed how valuable Michael Cuddyer's arm was in right field, so their willingness to use Revere there when he might have the majors' worst arm and his range is of better use in the more spacious left field is surprising to say the least. If nothing else it signals that Revere is headed for a part-time role, which along with Gardenhire's stubbornness could lead to his biggest strength being diminished and his biggest weakness being magnified.

If the manager were more willing to make daily shifts he could platoon Revere and Plouffe by using Revere in left field with Willingham in right field against right-handed pitching and Plouffe in right field with Willingham in left field against left-handed pitching. That's something plenty of managers do regularly, but it's something Gardenhire has always avoided with occasionally laughable results. Runners going first-to-third at will with Revere in right field would fit that bill.

Whatever the case, based on Terry Ryan's offseason comments and Gardenhire's outfield announcement yesterday it seems clear that the Twins are less sold on Revere than commonly believed. They're certainly right to be skeptical, as I've been making that case since Revere was in the low minors, but the less he plays the less chance their defense has of being above average and I'm similarly skeptical about Parmelee being ready to thrive offensively.

Terry Doyle seemed like an odd choice for the Twins with the No. 2 pick in the Rule 5 draft. Despite being 26 years old he had just 15 starts above Single-A, including zero at Triple-A, and nothing about his raw stuff or track record suggested more than back-of-the-rotation starter potential. At no point has the Rule 5 draft been a sure-fire way to add useful big leaguers, but when picking so high it seemingly made sense to at least target someone with more upside.

In explaining their reasoning for the pick the Twins talked about how impressed they were by Doyle's performance in the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a 1.98 ERA. However, that consisted of just eight starts and was fueled by an incredibly low batting average on balls in play that screamed fluke. My assumption was that they wouldn't have chosen Doyle if they weren't at least convinced he could stick in the majors as a mop-up man, but apparently not.

Doyle coughed up 10 runs in 5.1 innings this spring and the Twins didn't even keep him around until the end of camp, sending him back to the White Sox. Ultimately it's not a huge deal, as they're out $25,000 and the opportunity to add a higher-upside arm, but it's discouraging for a supposedly scouting-heavy team to take someone atop the Rule 5 draft while citing his fluky, small sample size performance in the AFL as a big factor and then cut him five innings later.

Aaron Thompson, a 25-year-old left-hander the Twins signed to a minor-league contract in December, has been suspended 50 games after violating MLB's drug policy for a "drug of abuse." His track record in the minors is mediocre at best, but Thompson is a former first-round pick and apparently the Twins will keep him in the organization despite the suspension. Once activated he'll likely be a fifth starter or long reliever at Triple-A.

• I'll have a lot more on this subject once my annual series ranking the Twins' top 40 prospects concludes later this week, but Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus recently released their annual organizational talent rankings and the Twins placed 20th and 22nd.

• On a related note, Baseball America crunched the numbers to find that the Twins ranked 15th in international spending last season after ranking 12th in 2010. Miguel Sano alone got a record $3.15 million signing bonus from the Twins in 2009, but in the two years since then they've spent a total of $4.85 million internationally.

• This offseason the Twins sliced $15 million from their payroll, but according to Forbes magazine in 2011 they had baseball's 13th-highest revenue at $213 million and an operating income of $16.6 million, causing the franchise's value to rise four percent to $510 million.

Nick Punto is getting the same treatment from the media in Boston that he got from the media in Minnesota. For instance:

In a game where talent can be measured by precise statistical metrics, Punto is a player whose value is harder to calculate but can’t be denied.

Punto played for $750,000 last year and will make $1.5 million both this season and next season, so teams seem to be in agreement that his value is fairly limited. Then again, I've not experienced his charm in person.

Seth Stohs of Twins Daily reports that the Twins released six minor leaguers: Michael Tarsi, Dan Osterbrock, Kane Holbrooks, Blayne Weller, Matt Schuld, and Derek Christensen. Osterbrock, Tarsi, and Holbrooks each cracked my annual top-40 prospects list at one point, but none were ever considered more than marginal prospects. Christensen was a 2010 draft pick and dominated the low minors, so cutting the 22-year-old right-hander loose seems odd.

• In late 2010 the Twins acquired reliever Brian Fuentes from the Angels for Loek Van Mil, a marginal pitching prospect whose claim to fame was being baseball's tallest player at 7-foot-1. He spent last year at Double-A, throwing 66 innings with a 2.04 ERA and 46-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but the righty from the Netherlands failed to make the Angels this spring and manager Mike Scioscia explained that "he's certainly searching for an out pitch" at age 27.

• Last season the local mainstream media often mocked Kevin Slowey for his intelligence, using it as a way to portray him in a negative light, but a fresh start in Cleveland means the narrative has changed. Jordan Bastian, who covers the Indians for MLB.com, wrote last week:

Always nice as a writer when you find ballplayers who are avid readers on the side ... two in Cleveland's clubhouse include Lonnie Chisenhall and Kevin Slowey.

Funny how that works.

• Last and least, with Opening Day right around the corner I'm restarting the AG.com "sponsor of the week" program. For details about advertising and to reserve your week, click here.

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