September 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Mauer shut down, rotation spending, and no platooning

joe mauer catching mask

Joe Mauer continues to have post-concussion symptoms more than a month after suffering a brain injury, so Monday the Twins shut him down for the final week of the season. Mauer hasn't played since taking a foul ball off the mask on August 19 and experienced setbacks when he tried to ramp up workouts during the past few weeks, with Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writing that he "still feels sensitivity to light and noises, and has trouble outside confined spaces."

Shutting him down is absolutely the correct decision and by the time spring training rolls around Mauer will be six months removed from the concussion, but sadly as the Twins and so many other teams have learned in recent years there are no guarantees with brain injuries. And now, much like with Justin Morneau and Denard Span, the only thing the Twins can really do is wait and hold their breath hoping that time and rest do the trick.

In making Monday's announcement both Mauer and general manager Terry Ryan stressed that they expect him to remain at catcher next season, but whereas that seemed like a questionable stance at the time of the concussion last month it now seems borderline crazy to me. I've spent a decade writing about how much of Mauer's value comes from catching and have always argued against a position switch, but the question has changed and the old answers cease to apply.

There's no way to stop a catcher from taking foul balls off the mask on a regular basis, along with all the other physical dangers that come with the position, and if he were to suffer another brain injury it might be too late to avoid major long-term consequences on and off the field. As a first baseman Mauer's odds of remaining an elite player into his mid-30s are much lower, but he'd still provide plenty of value there and Josmil Pinto is a potential replacement with upside.

(Note: I went into a lot more depth analyzing the Mauer position switch decision last month.)

• There seems to be considerable disagreement within the organization about how much focus to put on acquiring pitching via free agency. Nick Nelson of Twins Daily wrote a breakdown of the situation, with the short version being that Ron Gardenhire is basically begging for rotation help and owner Jim Pohlad says he's willing to spend big for reinforcements, all while Ryan downplays free agency much like he did last winter before settling for Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey.

Every team would love to build a rotation full of young, cheap pitchers and for many years the Twins did that well enough to avoid having to swim into the deep end of the free agency pool. And generally speaking free agent pitching is typically overpriced and requires making risky long-term commitments to players on the wrong side of 30. However, their current lack of MLB-ready arms with more than back-of-the-rotation upside makes Ryan's usual approach a tough one to pull off.

Despite his rookie struggles Kyle Gibson still has a chance to develop into more than a fourth or fifth starter and Alex Meyer remains a potential top-of-the-rotation starter if he can stay healthy, but neither can be counted on to make a huge 2014 impact and even if they do surrounding them with the likes of Correia, Scott Diamond, Vance Worley, and Samuel Deduno is going to leave the rotation well short of decent.

Last season Twins starters had the second-worst ERA in baseball at 5.40 and this season Twins starters have the worst ERA in baseball at 5.26. Based on those numbers and the in-house options who can realistically be rotation members in 2014 there's little chance of building even an average rotation without bringing in outside help. Ryan would surely prefer trades to free agency, but my fear is that his real plan involves a third straight season with a terrible rotation on the cheap.

• One of my frequent complaints about Gardenhire is his unwillingness to platoon hitters, which he's basically never done. Most prominently Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel played no matter the pitcher, but versus lefties Jones hit .231/.286/.355 and Kubel hit .239/.313/.365. For a more recent example on the other side of the plate, Trevor Plouffe plays no matter the pitcher despite hitting .223/.280/.381 off righties. And there are no shortage of maddening day-to-day examples.

Many of the best managers in baseball history regularly employed platoons and current examples in Gardenhire's own league include former Manager of the Year winners Joe Maddon of the Rays, Bob Melvin of the A's, and Buck Showalter of the Orioles. It's hardly a new-school approach and it's hardly a complicated thing to make sense of, yet Gardenhire has never budged and said the following when asked about it by Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

I don't recall ever having a platoon. I'm not against it. I'll tell you that. I wouldn't have a problem having a platoon if it fits. If it makes sense numbers-wise and it works, then you go with it.

"I don't recall ever having a platoon" and "I'm not against it" are statements that don't fit together coming from a manager in his 12th season on the job. Gardenhire may not be against it in theory, but his actions over nearly 2,000 games have certainly shown that he's very much against it in practice despite having plenty of opportunities to improve the lineup via platooning. And for his part, Ryan told Berardino that he's fine with the manager's lack of platooning:

I don't think he likes to platoon players at all. I don't either. Put guys out there that are everyday players, then you don't have to platoon. You're always looking for players that can play 162 games, right? That's what I'm looking for. I don't go out looking for platoon players.

Obviously every team would love to find nine everyday players and trot them out there 162 times, but that's an impossible goal and instead leads to so-called "everyday players" like Jones, Kubel, and Plouffe flailing away against same-sided pitchers they have no business facing. Over the past three seasons the Twins have scored the fewest runs in the league, making "I don't go out looking for platoon players" sound awfully tone deaf coming from the GM. It's nothing new, though.

• Mauer hasn't played since August 19, but according to Win Above Replacement and Fan Graphs' valuation system he's still been worth more than his salary this season.

• This year the Twins have been out-scored by 158 runs, which is the second-worst run differential in baseball. The worst run differential in Twins history belongs to the 1995 team at -186.

• Since taking over for Matt Capps as Twins closer Glen Perkins has converted 90 percent of his save chances (52-for-58) with a 2.31 ERA.

LaTroy Hawkins left the Twins for a two-year, $8 million deal with the Cubs as a 31-year-old free agent and a decade later he's still rolling along.

Francisco Liriano is lined up to start the Wild Card playoff game for the Pirates.

• For a lot more about Mauer's future and the Twins' roster options for next season check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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August 21, 2013

Twins Notes: Gibson, Morneau, Butera, Carroll, Mientkiewicz, and Liriano

kyle gibson final start of 2013

Kyle Gibson's first taste of the majors likely came to an end Monday, as the Twins demoted him back to Triple-A immediately following his poor outing against the Mets. Gibson pitched well in his Twins debut on June 29, but was mostly a mess after that and returns to Rochester sporting an ugly 6.53 ERA in 10 starts. His secondary numbers are only slightly more encouraging, including just 29 strikeouts in 51 innings and a .327 opponents' batting average with seven homers allowed.

Gibson got knocked around by big-league hitters and looked worn out at times, so considering the expected workload limit in his first full season since elbow surgery shutting him down soon made sense. He's thrown 144 total innings between the majors and minors and by shutting Gibson down after optioning him to Triple-A the Twins keep him from accumulating MLB service time while not pitching, although certainly the demotion could be purely based on performance.

There are some positives to be taken from Gibson's first 10 starts, including an average fastball of 92.2 miles per hour and a ground-ball rate around 50 percent, but the questions about his ability to generate strikeouts remain and overall he looked like anything but a top prospect. Hopefully he can come back strong next season, because Gibson will be 26 years old in a couple months and the Twins desperately need someone to emerge as more than a back-of-the-rotation starter.

• When the Twins traded Drew Butera to the Dodgers on July 31 for a player to be named later or cash considerations my assumption was that their return would be cash and the considerations would be approximately the cost of a bucket of baseballs. Instead they ended up getting Miguel Sulbaran, a diminutive 19-year-old left-hander with a solid track record in the low minors since signing out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old.

As one of the youngest pitchers in the Midwest League this season Sulbaran has a 3.26 ERA and 86-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 97 innings. For comparison, J.O. Berrios has a 3.45 ERA and 92-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 94 innings facing the same low Single-A hitters at the same age. Last year the Twins drafted Berrios with the 32nd pick and he has much better raw stuff, so they're hardly prospect equals, but to get any sort of useful player for Butera is shocking.

Sulbaran hasn't cracked any Baseball America or ESPN rankings, but Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com recently rated him as the No. 14 prospect in the Dodgers' farm system. Mayo wrote that Sulbaran "has a good feel for his low-90s fastball" and "his curveball is his best offspeed pitch and both his slider and changeup show promise." Butera is arguably the worst hitter of the past three decades, so any deal would get the "great trade ... who'd we get?" treatment, but this is a nice haul.

• Parting with Butera is the only move the Twins made before the July 31 deadline, but trades can also happen in August via the waiver wire system and they swung another deal by sending Jamey Carroll to the Royals for the familiar player to be named later or cash considerations. If the Twins get anything decent in return for Carroll that would be even more shocking than the Butera deal, because as a 39-year-old impending free agent he had zero value to them beyond this season.

Carroll didn't work out quite as well as the Twins hoped when they signed him as a free agent in November of 2011, but the reasoning behind the two-year, $6.5 million contract made sense. As usual the Twins' infield options were severely lacking and Carroll was a good, versatile defender with strong on-base skills. He did what he was supposed to do in 2012, drawing the third-most walks on the team to get on base at a .343 clip and starting 30-plus games at three positions.

When signing a 37-year-old to a multi-year deal rapid decline is always a risk and unfortunately this season Carroll's usually outstanding strike-zone control vanished and the Twins no longer trusted him to play shortstop at age 39. He was a worthwhile pickup who couldn't hold off father time long enough to provide a great return on a fairly modest investment. And yet among all the middle infielders in Twins history to appear in 150 games only 10 had a better OBP than Carroll.

• As expected, Justin Morneau passed through waivers unclaimed because he's a 32-year-old impending free agent first baseman with a $14 million salary and a .430 slugging percentage. At this point it's unclear if any contending teams are interested in Morneau, but at the very least no teams were interested in Morneau and the possibility of being stuck with the remaining $4 million on his contract.

Clearing waivers means Morneau can be traded to any team, with August 31 as the deadline for postseason eligibility. However, don't expect much if he's moved. Despite a confusing number of fans and media members continuing to act as if Morneau is an impact player he's been a below-average first baseman since the 2010 concussion, batting .257/.317/.409 in 320 games. This year there are 216 major leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances and he ranks 115th in OPS.

Josh Willingham returning from knee surgery followed by Ryan Doumit coming back from a concussion left the Twins with a roster crunch and they decided to make room by demoting Chris Colabello back to the minors. It's a shame, because Colabello's monstrous Triple-A production warranted an extended opportunity at age 29 and he was just starting to show some promise by hitting .286/.397/.551 with four homers and nine walks in his last 16 games.

Most of the talk surrounding a possible Morneau trade centers on what the Twins might get in return and whether they should try to keep him past this season, but one side effect is that not trading him takes at-bats away from guys like Colabello who could prove useful on a minimum salary for 2014 and beyond if given a chance. Instead, after hitting .354/.432/.652 at Triple-A he got a grand total of 96 plate appearances in the majors.

UPDATE: Well, the good news is that Colabello has already been called back up. Unfortunately it's because Joe Mauer was placed on the concussion disabled list after taking multiple foul tips to the mask Monday. Mauer was dizzy during batting practice Tuesday, which is an awfully scary thing to write following several paragraphs about Morneau being a shell of his former self since a concussion. Brain injuries are impossible to predict, so it's breath-holding time.

• Fort Myers manager Doug Mientkiewicz got into a brawl with the opposing manager Saturday, video of which you can see below courtesy of the Fort Myers News Press:

Because the beginning of the brawl wasn't captured on video it's tough to tell exactly what went on, but by all accounts Mientkiewicz escalated the situation in a huge way by running out of the dugout to tackle the other manager. Twins minor league director Brad Steil issued a statement saying "that's not the example we want him to set for our players" and "he realizes that's not how we want him to represent the Minnesota Twins."

However, general manager Terry Ryan explained that the Twins left any discipline to the Florida State League, saying: "Doug was apologetic. I think it's taken care of." And the FSL merely fined him, providing quite a contrast to the Twins allowing Double-A manager Jeff Smith to bench Miguel Sano four games for showboating on a homer and reacting poorly to being scolded. It's obviously apples and oranges, but imagine Sano tackling another player and only being fined.

Francisco Liriano is 14-5 with a 2.53 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 121 innings for the first place Pirates, allowing two or fewer runs in 15 of 19 starts while throwing fastballs far less often than he ever did with the Twins. Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote a lengthy, quote-filled article about Liriano's post-Twins turnaround, including this comment from Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage:

Because that's Frankie. If I try to make Frankie pitch like [someone else], we wouldn't have what we got. That's force-feeding him to do something that he's not comfortable doing. Frankie does pitch the way he pitches. So just let him be him. That's what we did.

Maybe he simply needed a fresh start somewhere else, but "just let him be him" certainly isn't something Twins coaches said often about Liriano and his improvement can be linked to a clear change in approach that runs counter to what the Twins preached regarding fastball usage. He's averaged 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings for the Pirates, whereas the Twins have used 10 different starters this year and none have averaged more than 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

• Whatever slim chance Nick Blackburn had of pitching for the Twins again is over following season-ending knee surgery. Blackburn's contract still includes an $8 million team option for next season, but that will obviously be declined. In signing Blackburn to a misguided long-term deal in March of 2010 the Twins ended up paying $14 million for 408 innings of a 5.56 ERA from a guy who would have been under team control through 2013 even without the guaranteed contract.

Darin Mastroianni wound up spending four months on the disabled list with an ankle injury that was initially deemed so minor that the Twins let him play through the pain for several weeks. He eventually underwent surgery, but now that Mastroianni is healthy again the Twins activated him from the disabled list and optioned him to Triple-A. In other words, Mastroianni lost his job because of the injury. And his 40-man roster spot might be in danger this offseason.

• For a lot more about Morneau going unclaimed on waivers and a look at the Twins' options for improving the rotation in 2014, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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July 18, 2013

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Pitchers

glen perkins and joe mauer

Last year Twins starters ranked dead last in the league with a 5.40 ERA, but after big talk of fixing the rotation the actual additions were inexpensive and uninspired. This year Twins starters have a 5.23 ERA that ranks dead last in either league and even with surprisingly good work from a largely makeshift bullpen the pitching staff has the league's worst ERA and fewest strikeouts. Before the second half gets underway here's a pitcher-by-pitcher look at the individual performances ...

Kevin Correia: .296/.336/.472 in 472 plate appearances

Signed to a two-year, $10 million contract that didn't make much sense this offseason, Kevin Correia posted a 2.23 ERA in April that had people coming up with all sorts of theories about why he'd turned a corner at age 32. Since the calendar flipped to May he's made 15 starts with a 5.21 ERA, allowing opponents to hit .321 with 15 homers in 74 innings. Since completing at least seven innings in each of his five April starts Correia has done so just once in his last 15 outings.

Overall he has a 4.23 ERA compared to the AL average of 4.08 and across baseball Correia ranks 85th among 89 qualified starters in both strikeout rate and swinging strike percentage, which is some serious pitching to contact. He's been slightly less ineffective than expected thanks to the fast start, but Correia has shown why the multi-year commitment was misguided and if the Twins can trade him before the ERA rises any further they should.

Scott Diamond: .313/.355/.514 in 394 plate appearances

Scott Diamond's miniscule strikeout rate suggested that last year's success would be short-lived and sure enough he unraveled in the first half. His strikeout rate fell even further to 4.2 per nine innings, which is the worst in baseball, and his walk and ground-ball rates declined from excellent to merely good. Toss in a 30-point uptick in Diamond's batting average on balls in play and you end up with an ERA that jumps from 3.54 to 5.32.

Diamond wasn't as good as he looked last season and isn't as bad as he's looked this season, but overall he's a whole lot closer to a left-handed Nick Blackburn than a long-term building block. In fact, through three seasons the comparison between Diamond and Blackburn is eerily close. Diamond has a 4.27 ERA and rates of 4.5 strikeouts, 2.1 walks, and 1.0 homers per nine innings. Blackburn had a 4.14 ERA and rates of 4.4 strikeouts, 1.8 walks, and 1.1 homers per nine innings.

Mike Pelfrey: .313/.359/.478 in 363 plate appearances

All the offseason and early spring training talk of Mike Pelfrey being vastly ahead of schedule in his recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery gave way to his actually having to pitch and it was ugly. Pelfrey had a 6.66 ERA through 11 starts, including a .332 opponents' batting average and 26-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51 innings. He then likely saved his rotation spot with a decent five-start stretch to finish the first half, with a two-week disabled list stint mixed in.

Pelfrey wasn't particularly effective before the surgery, serving mostly as an innings-eater for the Mets, and going under the knife didn't fix his inability to miss bats. He relies almost exclusively on a low-90s fastball, which is why Pelfrey is averaging fewer than 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings for the eighth time in eight seasons. That pitch used to at least generate lots of ground balls, but his current rate of 43.8 percent is a career-low and actually qualifies Pelfrey as a fly-ball pitcher.

Samuel Deduno: .262/.327/.371 in 264 plate appearances

Last season Samuel Deduno was relatively successful with a 4.44 ERA in 15 starts despite nearly as many walks (57) as strikeouts (53) in 79 innings. Even that modest success won't work long term with those secondary numbers and somewhere along the way pitching coach Rick Anderson appears to have hammered that point home to Deduno. Prior to this year Deduno had walk rates of 6.1 per nine innings in the majors and 5.0 per nine innings at Triple-A. This year he's at 2.9.

It's a sample size of 10 starts, but Deduno has three or fewer walks in all 10 of them after doing so just half the time last year. His strikeout rate has actually fallen to 4.5 per nine innings, which is among MLB's worst, but he's made up for the lack of missed bats by nibbling less and letting the movement of his pitches induce an AL-high 61 percent ground balls. Or, put another way: Pitching to contact actually works for Deduno. There's more reason to believe in him now than last year.

Anthony Swarzak: .281/.314/.412 in 237 plate appearances

After three sub par years split between the rotation and bullpen Anthony Swarzak has taken a step forward as full-time long reliever. Compared to his first three seasons Swarzak has upped his strikeouts by 28 percent, reduced his walks by 26 percent, and become less fly-ball prone. He's been one of the most effective pitchers on the entire staff, although that's admittedly not saying much and because most of his work comes in long-relief spots his impact has been minimal.

In fact, the Twins are 6-21 when Swarzak pitches. That should be blamed on his role rather than his performance, which includes a 3.55 ERA and 41-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 58 innings. So far they've resisted the urge to put Swarzak back into the rotation and they've also yet to really move him up the bullpen hierarchy. Considering the overall state of the pitching staff if Swarzak keeps pitching this well in the second half he'd warrant some kind of higher-leverage gig.

Vance Worley: .381/.427/.577 in 234 plate appearances

When the Twins acquired 25-year-old Vance Worley from the Phillies in the Ben Revere trade he was supposed to step in as a long-term mid-rotation starter. Worley had thrown 278 innings with a 3.50 ERA for the Phillies and while there were questions about his many called strikeouts being sustainable there was little reason to expect a collapse. And then he went from Opening Day starter to Triple-A in less than two months, allowing 43 runs in 49 innings.

He generated just 15 strikeouts in 10 starts, got a swinging strike on an abysmal 4.5 percent of his pitches, and allowed a .381 opponents' batting average. Worley has been much better since the demotion to Rochester, but it's hard to be very encouraged by a 3.88 ERA at Triple-A when it comes with 34 strikeouts in 58 innings. He'll be back with the Twins at some point, but Worley hasn't been right since last year's elbow issues and was never a high-upside arm to begin with.

Ryan Pressly: .255/.321/.345 in 185 plate appearances

As far as Rule 5 picks go Ryan Pressly has been a big success. Used mostly for mopping up and long relief, he threw 44 innings with a 3.09 ERA and averaged 93 miles per hour with his fastball. Far less impressive than the shiny ERA is a 30-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio and Pressly is unlikely to be as stingy with homers going forward considering his high fly-ball rate, but he's been a useful member of the bullpen and has definitely shown some long-term upside.

Jared Burton: .247/.333/.377 in 184 plate appearances

Jared Burton picked up right where he left off following a fantastic 2012 season with a 2.10 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 26 innings through the end of May. Then he went through a rough patch while dealing with a groin injury, allowing 12 runs in 10 appearances as his ERA ballooned to 4.29 and he was removed from setup duties. Burton recovered to end the first half with six shutout outings in a row, although his usual swing-and-miss stuff still wasn't there.

Last year's .220 batting average on balls in play was always unsustainable and his overall stats remain decent with a 3.67 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 42 innings, but Burton has already walked more batters than all of last year and both his velocity and swinging strike rate are down slightly. Hopefully it's just a blip on the radar, because a healthy Burton can be light outs and he's signed through 2015 at salaries that make him a reasonably priced setup man or good trade bait.

P.J. Walters: .311/.383/.494 in 183 plate appearances

For the second time in two seasons the Twins called up P.J. Walters when their rotation was a mess, got a handful of decent outings from him before things fell apart, and then passed him through waivers unclaimed to keep the 28-year-old right-hander in the organization as Triple-A depth. Meanwhile, he has a 5.79 ERA in 20 starts for the Twins after posting a 4.60 ERA in 133 starts at Triple-A, making Walters the epitome of a replacement-level starter.

Pedro Hernandez: .311/.373/.517 in 169 plate appearances

Acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade, Pedro Hernandez is a soft-tossing, strike-throwing lefty who struggled against right-handed hitters in the minors and not surprisingly big-league righties have crushed him to the tune of .353/.423/.639 with eight homers in 137 plate appearances. He had two first-half stints with the Twins as a rotation fill-in, posting a 6.17 ERA in seven starts, and it's tough to see Hernandez having long-term success as a starter.

Josh Roenicke: .238/.331/.420 in 167 plate appearances

When the Twins claimed Josh Roenicke off waivers in November the story of his career was a big fastball and not much else, including a modest strikeout rate and poor control. His average fastball dipped to 91.2 miles per hour in the first half, but the rest of the story stayed the same with an awful 25-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings. And after some initial success he gave up 14 runs in his final 24 innings with as many walks (15) as strikeouts (15).

Brian Duensing: .300/.373/.393 in 159 plate appearances

Brian Duensing flopped as a starter, but has yet to rediscover his previous success as a reliever. Slated to be the primary left-handed setup man, Duensing struggled against lefties and righties while posting a 4.67 ERA and 30-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35 innings and spent the final month or so of the first half working mostly in a mop-up role. His inability to handle righties will forever limit Duensing, but the good news is that his trouble with lefties looks like a fluke.

Lefties hit .307 off Duensing in the first half, but that was due to a ridiculously high .408 batting average on balls in play. Delving a little deeper, he posted a great 20-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio versus lefties and held them to just one homer in 82 plate appearances. Despite the rough first half not much has really changed with Duensing, but unfortunately that just means he's still a decent middle reliever who's a bad bet facing righties and a good bet facing lefties.

Casey Fien: .179/.217/.284 in 146 plate appearances

Burton and Duensing struggling as the main setup men pushed Casey Fien into a more prominent late-inning role and he responded by continuing to thrive. Not only did he have a 3.03 ERA and 42-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 first-half innings, dating back to his debut with the Twins last season Fien has a 2.57 ERA and 74-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 frames. Not bad for a guy who joined the Twins as a minor-league free agent last offseason at age 28.

He's probably due to come back down to earth at least a little bit and if that does happen it'll likely stem from serving up too many homers, as Fien was an extreme fly-ball pitcher in the minors and has one of the 10 lowest ground-ball rates in the majors since last season. However, his overall track record in the minors showed someone capable of being a quality middle reliever and so far he's allowed just seven homers in 287 plate appearances.

Glen Perkins: .172/.221/.262 in 131 plate appearances

Glen Perkins' first full season as the Twins' closer has been an overwhelming success except for the part about the team failing to find him consistent work. Perkins converted 21 of 23 saves with a 1.82 ERA and 47-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34.2 innings, holding opponents to a .172 batting average. That's about as dominant as a pitcher can be and Perkins was rewarded with his first All-Star selection, yet the Twins used their All-Star closer for just 131 batters in 92 games.

Some of that stems from their lack of late leads, but Ron Gardenhire's refusal to use Perkins in non-save situations is the real culprit. Not only have 100 different relievers thrown more innings than Perkins, six Twins relievers have worked more. It's gotten so bad that Perkins requested more action, but Gardenhire continues to manage the bullpen around the save statistic while calling on lesser relievers in game-changing spots. Perkins is great, but his usage is terrible.

Kyle Gibson: .315/.392/.393 in 102 plate appearances

In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery Kyle Gibson entered spring training in the mix for a rotation spot, but pitched his way out of the immediate plans and then the Twins decided to keep him at Triple-A for three months. He was one of the International League's best pitchers, posting a 3.01 ERA with tons of ground balls and a 79-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings, and after going through eight other starters the Twins finally called him up three weeks ago.

Gibson had a very nice debut followed by three mostly poor outings, but looking beyond the ugly 6.45 ERA he induced 51 percent ground balls, generated a decent number of swinging strikes, and averaged 92.3 miles per hour with his fastball. Ultimately the key for Gibson is whether he can get enough strikeouts to be more than a mid-rotation starter who throws strikes and kills worms. At this point the jury is still very much out and his second-half workload may be limited.

Caleb Thielbar: .103/.205/.221 in 78 plate appearances

Twenty straight scoreless innings is an amazing start to anyone's career, let alone a 26-year-old rookie signed out of independent ball in 2011. Caleb Thielbar turned what looked likely to be a short-term call-up into a two-month gig, and while his secondary numbers and inherited runners allowed paint a much less impressive picture than his sparkling ERA he's shown more than enough to stick around with 21 strikeouts in 21 innings and 11 percent swinging strikes.

Note: For a similar first-half review of the Twins' hitters, click here.


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July 11, 2013

Twins Notes: Gardenhire, Gibson, Tonkin, Perkins, Morneau, and Colabello

ron gardenhire ejected

• With the Twins free-falling toward a third straight 90-loss season and Ron Gardenhire's job security becoming a popular topic locally I wondered how many managers in baseball history have avoided being fired after three consecutive 90-loss seasons. I knew there was at least one in Tom Kelly, but Jacob Pomrenke of SABR looked up the data for me and found that it's happened a total of eight times since 1945:

Larry Rothschild     Rays       1998-2000
Felipe Alou          Expos      1998-2000
Tom Kelly            Twins      1997-2000
Joe Torre            Mets       1978-1980
Darrell Johnson      Mariners   1977-1979
Preston Gomez        Padres     1969-1971
Casey Stengel        Mets       1962-1964
Zack Taylor          Browns     1948-1951

Four of the eight managers who kept their jobs after three consecutive 90-loss seasons were from expansion teams, so tons of losing was expected/accepted. And five of the eight managers who stuck around after three straight 90-loss seasons were fired by the middle of the next year. Kelly managed the Twins to four 90-loss seasons in a row from 1997-2000 and then went 85-77 in 2001, at which point he stepped down from the job at age 50 and was replaced by Gardenhire.

• After a solid debut Kyle Gibson has struggled in back-to-back starts, leaving him with a 7.27 ERA and 10-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 innings. Among all pitchers in Twins history through three career starts Gibson allowed the most hits (23) and second-most earned runs (14). LaTroy Hawkins is the only Twins pitcher to allow more earned runs in his first three starts and he's had a 19-year career, although all of his success came after shifting to the bullpen.

It's silly to analyze three starts too much, but Gibson has been done in by a .377 batting average on balls in play and nearly half the runners he's put on base coming around to score. Fortunately neither of those rates are sustainable and the good news is that he's averaged 92.5 miles per hour with his fastball while inducing 54 percent ground balls and has yet to allow a homer. And despite a modest strikeout total his swinging strike percentage is slightly above average.

Caleb Thielbar going on bereavement leave means Michael Tonkin will be getting his first taste of the majors at age 23. Early on Tonkin's biggest claim to fame was being Jason Kubel's brother-in-law, but since shifting to the bullpen in 2011 the 6-foot-7 right-hander has emerged as a high-upside reliever with dominant numbers to match his mid-90s fastball. Dating back to last season Tonkin has a 2.17 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 99 innings.

That includes a 1.85 ERA with zero homers allowed and a 46-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 innings between Double-A and Triple-A this year, so if Tonkin makes a good first impression the Twins may decide to keep him around at the expense of someone else in the bullpen. Either way, Tonkin is one of the most promising reliever prospects the Twins have had in a long time and it's easy to imagine him setting up for Glen Perkins at some point next season.

• As a follow-up to Perkins encouraging the Twins to use him more often in non-save situations, just 40 percent of his batters faced this season have come in "high leverage" situations compared to 43 percent in "low leverage" situations. By holding him back for save situations that often never materialize the Twins limit Perkins' overall workload, forcing lesser relievers into crucial spots, and end up using him in unimportant spots just to keep him from getting rusty.

But apparently they haven't started listening to Perkins yet. Last night the Twins lost a 13-inning game to the Rays in which they used six different relievers, but not their All-Star closer. Rule 5 pick Ryan Pressly, who's served as a mop-up man for most of the season, took the loss while Perkins went unused because it wasn't a so-called "save situation." Of the seven relievers who've been with the Twins all season Perkins has thrown the fewest innings. Saves are a helluva drug.

Justin Morneau has finally started to show a little power with four homers in 11 games after totaling six homers in his previous 115 games dating back to last year, but his overall production hasn't improved. It's hard to imagine there being much of a trade market for the impending free agent, but getting a compensatory draft pick if he signs elsewhere this winter is also no longer really an option for the Twins because he'd probably just accept the $15 million qualifying offer.

It's possible that Morneau would be willing to take a major pay cut to remain in Minnesota beyond this season, but do the Twins really want to block various young, cheap hitters with a 32-year-old first baseman who's hit just .259 with a .321 on-base percentage and .405 slugging percentage in 285 games since 2011? That's a harsh reality considering his decline began with a concussion, but even at half of his current $14 million salary Morneau just doesn't make much sense to retain.

• If the Twins do trade Morneau before he walks as a free agent Chris Colabello deserves a long look in his place. After a so-so season at Double-A last year Colabello has crushed Triple-A this season, hitting .357/.435/.656 with 23 homers, 22 doubles, and 41 walks in 81 games. Colabello is 29 years old and was signed out of an independent league, so he's hardly a top prospect, but he leads the International League in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and homers.

Maybe that won't translate to the big leagues, but one of the only benefits to being a bad team is that the Twins are in a position to find out. At worst Colabello struggles and gets written off as a Triple-A player as the Twins continue their march toward another 90-loss season, but he might also prove to be a decent stop-gap first baseman while making just $500,000. And if nothing else he'd give them a right-handed bat to help balance a very left-handed lineup.

Josh Willingham limped around on a bum knee for a month before finally being placed on the disabled list amid reports that he planned to avoid surgery and return after the minimum 15 days. Instead literally the next day it was announced that he'd undergo surgery and miss 4-6 weeks, which is definitely on the optimistic side for a torn meniscus. And sadly all of that has become a pretty standard injury progression for the Twins during the past three seasons.

Willingham hit just .250/.337/.325 in June with even worse defense than usual, making him one of the worst all-around players in baseball. Allowing him to play at what was clearly less than full strength hurt the team, hurt Willingham, and now leaves the Twins with little chance to trade him. We may never know what they could have gotten in exchange for him last July or this offseason, but as someone who implored the Twins to shop Willingham around it's a question that looms.

Aaron Hicks' season totals still look awful, but that's what happens when you start 2-for-48. Since then he's hit .249/.301/.462 with seven homers in 50 games, which is actually pretty damn impressive for a 23-year-old center fielder. He continues to strike out a ton and Hicks has stopped walking, but here's a list of all the 23-year-old center fielders to slug .450 or higher in the last 10 years: Colby Rasmus, Adam Jones, Matt Kemp, Chris Young, Grady Sizemore.

I still think it was a mistake to hand Hicks the Opening Day job without any experience at Triple-A and it's a shame that he's going to burn through an entire season of service time when that wasn't necessary, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that he's turned things around following one of the most brutal starts to a career you'll ever see. Even his defense has graded out much better recently and he's done some nice work as a baserunner.

P.J. Walters is a 28-year-old with a 6.28 ERA in the big leagues and a 4.45 ERA at Triple-A, so he predictably passed through waivers unclaimed after being designated for assignment to make room for Gibson's arrival and Mike Pelfrey's return. Walters accepted the assignment, so he'll stay with the Twins at Triple-A while no longer being on the 40-man roster. This is the second time in two years none of the other 29 teams claimed Walters off waivers.

• Since being called up from Triple-A in July of last year Casey Fien has thrown 71 innings with a 2.67 ERA and 71-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .187 batting average. Last offseason the Twins signed Fien to a minor-league deal and based on his track record in the minors he looked like a potentially useful middle reliever, but the 29-year-old right-hander been a whole lot more than that so far.

• After last night's loss the Twins are 37-51, which puts them on pace to go 68-94. At this same point in the season they were 36-52 in 2012 and 40-48 in 2011, so not much has changed.

Brian Dozier since June 1: .264/.386/.500 with six homers, eight doubles and as many walks (19) as strikeouts (19) in 35 games. Six weeks are six weeks, but it's a sign of life.

• Twins Daily blogger and "Gleeman and The Geek" regular Parker Hageman wrote a good guest column for Baseball Prospectus about how the Twins develop their prospects.

• For a lot more about Willingham's injury situation, Walters' exit, Dozier's nice run, and the many former Twins on the All-Star team check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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.

June 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Gibson’s debut, Buxton’s promotion, and Slama’s release

kyle gibson rochester

• It took Mike Pelfrey going on the disabled list with a back injury, but the Twins finally called up Kyle Gibson from Triple-A. Gibson will start Saturday at Target Field against the Royals, making his debut four months before his 26th birthday and nearly 22 months after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in 2011. He'll be the ninth different pitcher to start a game for the Twins this season, which shows the lengths they went to avoid calling up Gibson.

He leaves Rochester having thrown at least six innings in seven consecutive starts, posting a 2.20 ERA and 41-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 49 innings over that span. Overall in 15 starts there Gibson had a 3.01 ERA and 79-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings, holding opponents to a .229 batting average and four homers in 371 plate appearances. His age and modest strikeout rate keep Gibson from being an elite pitching prospect, but he's plenty good and very ready.

Gibson has never missed a ton of bats, but the 6-foot-6 right-hander throws harder than a typical Twins starting pitcher and has a chance to post an above-average strikeout rate in the majors. His main strength is keeping the ball out of the air, with 57 percent ground balls and just 16 homers in 210 career innings at Triple-A. To put that in some context, only four MLB starting pitchers have a ground-ball rate above 55 percent this season. If things go well he has No. 2 starter upside.

• Gibson is presumably in Minnesota to stay, which could get tricky because of a team-imposed innings limit in his first full season back from surgery. It's been tough to nail down specifics on Gibson's workload cap, but it's likely somewhere around 130-150 innings and he's already thrown 93 innings at Triple-A. If he started every fifth day for the rest of the season he'd be in line for 17 starts and even at just five innings per outing that's 85 innings. He'd fly past any limit.

Gibson sticking around for good would also require dumping someone from the rotation whenever Pelfrey returns from the DL. Pelfrey could be that someone considering he's signed to a one-year deal and has a 6.11 ERA in 14 starts, but P.J. Walters would also be an obvious candidate to dump. Walters imploded Saturday against the Indians, failing to make it out of the first inning, and now has a 5.42 ERA in 18 starts for the Twins.

Walters has a 6.06 ERA in 144 total innings as a major leaguer, which is about what you'd expect from a 28-year-old with a 4.45 ERA in 597 innings at Triple-A. There's little in his lengthy track record to suggest more than a replacement-level starter. He was acquired on a minor-league deal last offseason, passed through waivers unclaimed shortly after the season, and then re-signed on another minor-league contract.

• Two weeks after promoting Miguel Sano from high Single-A to Double-A the Twins promoted Byron Buxton from low Single-A to high Single-A. Buxton wound up playing 68 games for Cedar Rapids and stuffed the stat sheet by hitting .341/.431/.559 with eight homers, 33 total extra-base hits, 32 stolen bases, and a 56-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is incredible production from a 19-year-old center fielder in a league where the average player is 22.

As of the promotion Buxton led the Midwest League in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, triples, and runs. He also ranked second in batting average and third in walks, steals, and RBIs. It doesn't get any better for a stud prospect's first exposure to full-season competition and as Jeff Johnson of the Cedar Rapids Gazette pointed out Buxton's performance looks a lot like what Angels superstar Mike Trout did as Cedar Rapids' center fielder back in 2010:

            PA     AVG     OBP     SLG    HR   XBH    BB    SO    SB
Trout      388    .358    .452    .514     6    32    45    76    45
Buxton     320    .341    .431    .559     8    33    44    56    32

It's worth noting that Trout was 18 when he played for Cedar Rapids and Buxton is 19, but those numbers are close enough to make me grin from ear to ear. Trout got promoted to high Single-A for the second half of 2010, crushed Double-A to begin 2011, and made his MLB debut that July at 19. And now he's the best player in baseball. None of which means Buxton is destined to become the next Trout, but so far at least he's walking in Trout's footsteps.

• Here's a complete list of all the teenagers with an OPS of .975 or higher in the Midwest League during the past 30 years:

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

Six total players in 30 seasons. Buxton, Oscar Taveras, and Javier Baez are currently among the top 20 prospects in baseball, Trout is the best player in baseball at age 21, Alex Rodriguez is a three-time MVP with 647 career homers, and Larry Walker is a three-time batting champ with an MVP. Buxton has a long way to go, but doing what he just did as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League is special.

• For years I wrote about how frustrating it was that the Twins refused to give Anthony Slama an extended opportunity in the majors despite extraordinary numbers in the minors and now it's too late. Slama is nearly 30 years old and injuries have started to pile up, causing him to struggle for the first time this season at Triple-A and leading to the Twins releasing him. Not exactly how I envisioned the whole "Free Anthony Slama" campaign ending.

Prior to this year Slama had a 1.99 ERA and 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings in six seasons as a minor leaguer, including a 2.27 ERA and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings at Triple-A. And yet for all that dominance in the minors the Twins saw fit to give him a grand total of just seven innings in the majors, relegating him to Triple-A for parts of five seasons before finally cutting him loose as a shell of his former self.

It's a real shame, not because Slama was capable of being an elite reliever but because he was certainly deserving of a chance to show that he was at least capable of being a useful part of a major-league bullpen. His raw stuff didn't match his incredible numbers, but Slama threw in the low-90s just like plenty of other successful relievers and the Twins have given bullpen jobs to all sorts of awful pitchers over the years. I'll never understand why they ignored him.

• In the past week Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff and St. Paul Pioneer Press beat reporter Mike Berardino have separately compared Oswaldo Arcia to Bobby Abreu. Both players are relatively short and stocky left-handed-hitting corner outfielders from Venezuela, which may be where a lot of the comparison stems from, but in terms of actual skill sets Arcia and Abreu are very different.

Abreu was among the most disciplined hitters of his era, drawing 100 walks eight seasons in a row, at least 70 walks every year from 1998 to 2011, and the 22nd-most walks of all time. He even averaged 80 walks per 150 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Meanwhile, if Arcia has one clear weakness as a hitter it's his lack of strike zone control. He has 40 strikeouts versus 12 walks in the majors after posting a 92-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Double-A and Triple-A.

Abreu was also a good base-stealer, with at least 20 steals in 13 straight seasons and 399 career steals at a 76 percent success rate. Arcia has 29 steals in 449 pro games and has been caught 22 times. There's no doubt that Arcia has huge long-term upside and Twins fans should be thrilled if he's anywhere near as valuable as Abreu, who played 17 seasons and hit .292/.396/.477 with 300 homers, 400 steals, and 4,000 times on base. But stylistically any comparison seems forced.

• Just like Buxton last year, No. 4 pick Kohl Stewart signed with the Twins just two weeks after the draft. He agreed to the exact slot bonus recommendation of $4,544,400 and will begin his pro career in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Of the Twins' top 15 picks only second-rounder Ryan Eades, fifth-rounder Aaron Slegers, and eighth-rounder Dustin DeMuth are unsigned and all three are expected to agree to deals eventually.

• Two weeks ago I wrote about Triple-A center fielder/on-base machine Antoan Richardson and he hasn't slowed down. Richardson is now hitting .317/.454/.413 with 58 walks and 29 steals in 71 games between Double-A and Triple-A, raising his career on-base percentage to .404. As a 29-year-old journeyman with little power he's not exactly a hot prospect, but a switch-hitter with good speed and a .450 OBP seems worth giving an opportunity to at some point.

• Nearing the midway point of the season the Twins are 10-2 against the Brewers and White Sox compared to 24-36 versus every other team, which is probably the most fun way to be 34-38.

Joe Mauer has scored 53 percent more runs than anyone else on the Twins. He's on pace for 103 runs. No one else is on pace for more than 68.

• Pitching staff walks: Twins 193, Tigers 197. Pitching staff strikeouts: Twins 424, Tigers 701.

• MLB.com headline: "Phillies remaining patient with Delmon Young."

• For a lot more about Gibson's call-up, Arcia's upside, and Richardson's on-base skills check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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.

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