August 29, 2012

Twins Notes: Morneau, Hendriks, Pavano, Sano, Liriano, Mauer, and Battey

• Within the Los Angeles Times' story about the Dodgers-Red Sox blockbuster trade was this tidbit from beat reporter Dylan Hernandez:

A four-time All-Star first baseman, [Adrian] Gonzalez was the prize in the deal. The Dodgers inquired about him leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and approached the Red Sox again after a failed attempt to land Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau last week.

Not shocking, as the Dodgers were also linked to Justin Morneau in July, but the notion of the Twins turning them down multiple times is certainly interesting. Morneau has been excellent since the All-Star break, hitting .320/.365/.523 in 39 games, but his overall production this season still qualifies as good but not great and his health remains an issue. Toss in the fact that he has one year and $14 million left on his contract and Morneau's trade value isn't great.

Or at least it shouldn't be, which makes me wonder if they should've jumped at the Dodgers' offer assuming it included any kind of decent prospect. Simply clearing Morneau's salary off the books for 2013 has value to the Twins, especially with Chris Parmelee waiting in the wings as a minimum-salaried replacement, and the Dodgers ended up sending a surprisingly strong package of players to the Red Sox for the right to take on $275 million in mostly bad contracts.

Given how the Dodgers are throwing around money it's not safe to assume their interest in Morneau and his contract guarantees similar interest from other teams, and now Los Angeles is no longer an option for a future deal. Obviously every Twins fan would love to see Morneau resume being an elite hitter, but $14 million would come in handy and letting him walk for nothing as a free agent in 15 months would be a missed opportunity.

Liam Hendriks came into Monday with an 0-8 record and 6.75 ERA in 13 career starts, threw a one-run complete game while allowing just three hits ... and lost 1-0 to Felix Hernandez. Setting aside the silliness of "wins" and "losses" for pitchers it was a very encouraging outing and it's nice to see the Twins giving Hendriks an opportunity to start every fifth day down the stretch following another good stint at Triple-A. At age 23 he maintains mid-rotation potential.

Carl Pavano has been ruled out for the season and--you may want to sit down for this--the Twins' medical staff apparently failed to properly diagnose his injury for three months before a second opinion found the source of the problem:

It's too bad it took three months diagnose that. I could have been resting. The good news is, it doesn't require surgery. I've had this in the past and gotten through it, and obviously I've pitched a lot since then. But as far as I'm concerned, this whole season has been a failure on many levels, for myself, for the team. It's just kind of lousy that it took this long.

Pavano went on to blame himself, rather than the Twins, but it's tough not to connect those dots after reading John Shipley's article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Keith Law of ESPN.com recently stopped by Beloit to watch the Twins' low Single-A team and had some interesting observations about Miguel Sano. First, the good:

Sano has incredibly easy power, with a clean, rotational swing that generates most of its power from his hips and legs, a textbook example of how to make hard contact and drive the ball to all fields. His home run on Friday night went over the batter's eye in Beloit, which is 380 feet from home plate, and he drove two more balls to left without even squaring either up fully.

And now, the bad:

Sano's biggest drawback is his obvious disdain for the defensive side of the game. ... So while he has the arm and hands for [third base] now, the question of whether he'll outgrow the position is secondary to the question of whether he'll work enough to make third base a possibility.

Law also wrote up reports on Eddie Rosario, Kennys Vargas, and Taylor Rogers.

• Monday night Lew Ford started at designated hitter and batted fifth for the Orioles, going deep off White Sox starter Francisco Liriano for his first homer since 2007. What a world.

• Speaking of Liriano, since being traded to the White Sox he's started six games with a 4.26 ERA and 33-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 innings. Liriano has allowed two or fewer runs in five of those six starts and dating back to rejoining the Twins' rotation in May he's started 17 games with a 3.87 ERA, .211 opponents' batting average, and 112 strikeouts in 98 innings.

Joe Mauer passed Earl Battey for the most games caught in Twins history, which provides a good reason to remind everyone that Battey was a helluva player.

• While researching a future article about prospect development, I stumbled across this:

Mauer in the minors: .330 batting average, .406 on-base percentage, 1.2 walks per strikeout
Mauer in the majors: .322 batting average, .404 on-base percentage, 1.2 walks per strikeout

It's probably also worth noting that Mauer was done playing in the minors at age 20, played only 73 games above Single-A, and skipped Triple-A altogether.

Joe Benson's nightmare season now includes left knee surgery, along with a demotion from Triple-A to Double-A and a broken wrist. Coming into the year he looked just about ready to claim a starting job in the majors at age 24, but instead he hit .202/.288/.336 while missing half the season with injuries and never even got to Minnesota.

• Twins' record in their last 300 games: 117-183.

Chris Jaffe of The Hardball Times depressingly notes that all the recent losing has dropped the Twins' all-time record since moving to Minnesota below .500.

• Hundreds of players are placed on revocable waivers every August. Mauer is reportedly one of them. Probably isn't the first time. Probably won't be the last time. The end.

• I'm not sure what exactly is going on here with Mauer, but I watched it about 50 times.

• I went to last night's Twins-Mariners game (the weather was nice, at least), which means I was part of the smallest crowd in Target Field history.

• For a lot more about Morneau and Hendriks, check out this week's Gleeman and The Geek.

August 21, 2012

Twins Notes: Blackburn, Nishioka, Tosoni, Carson, Parmelee, and Slama

Nick Blackburn's latest start came against the AL's lowest-scoring lineup in one of MLB's most pitcher-friendly ballparks, yet he still allowed five runs in five innings and served up two homers among 11 total hits. Among all MLB pitchers to start more than 15 games this season Blackburn ranks dead last with a 7.39 ERA (no one else is worse than 6.36) and a .340 opponents' batting average (no one else is worse than .316).

And as Twins fans know all too well, Blackburn's extreme struggles date back much further. Since the beginning of 2010 he's now started 71 games and thrown 408 innings with a 5.56 ERA while opponents have hit .313/.359/.507 off him. To put that in some context: Justin Morneau is a career .281/.351/.497 hitter. So for the past three seasons and 408 innings Blackburn has essentially turned every batter he's faced into a better version of Morneau.

Among all MLB pitchers to start more than 60 games since 2010 he ranks dead last in:

- ERA (5.56)
- Opponents' batting average (.313)
- Opponents' on-base percentage (.359)
- Opponents' slugging percentage (.507)
- Homers per nine innings (1.5)
- Baserunners per nine innings (14.1)
- Strikeouts per nine innings (4.1)
- Strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.55)

Quite simply: Blackburn has been the worst pitcher in baseball for the past three seasons and it's not particularly close. If not for the Twins giving him a misguided and totally unnecessary contract extension in March of 2010 he'd have been cut a long time ago, but instead they're paying him $4.75 million this season and owe him another $5.5 million in 2013. They also hold an $8 million team option on Blackburn for 2014, which would be funny if it weren't so sad.

And yet when asked recently about Blackburn's status for 2013, Ron Gardenhire said:

He's going to be one of our pitchers. He'll be one of our pitchers again next year, and we need good outings from him. He's the veteran of this staff now. Hopefully we'll let him finish out here and he'll get on a bit of a roll and get some wins underneath his belt and get him more confidence.

Gardenhire's stance apparently wasn't shared by the front office, because yesterday Blackburn was sent outright to Triple-A. That means he was removed from the 40-man roster and passed through waivers unclaimed, as predictably none of the other 29 teams wanted anything to do with his contract. Blackburn remains in the organization and can be recalled to the majors at any time, but first the Twins would have to re-add him to the 40-man roster.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka was also sent outright to Triple-A after the Twins initially optioned him to Rochester last week. Nishioka, like Blackburn, is no longer on the 40-man roster after passing through waivers unclaimed and will continue to play at Triple-A. I'm not sure why they avoided dropping Nishioka from the 40-man roster immediately last week or when they first sent him to the minors during spring training, but there's obviously no need to waste a spot on him.

• In further 40-man roster housecleaning Rene Tosoni was sent outright to Triple-A to make room for Matt Carson's arrival. Tosoni was once a solid prospect who projected as a potential starting corner outfielder, but he's 26 years old now and has been brutal in the minors for the past two seasons. Not surprisingly he passed through waivers unclaimed, so the Twins were able to retain him in the organization without the 40-man roster spot.

• By calling up Carson as a fill-in for the banged-up outfield the Twins showed they'd rather have Chris Parmelee playing in Rochester than collecting dust on the bench in Minnesota again and perhaps don't view him as a viable outfield option defensively. Based on his great Triple-A performance Parmelee is obviously deserving of another opportunity in the majors, but as I wrote last week there's nowhere for to consistently play him barring a trade or injury.

Carson is a 31-year-old journeyman who joined the organization in November on a minor-league deal. He previously had brief stints in the majors with the A's in 2009 and 2010, but was never a top prospect and has spent 11 seasons in the minors. Carson hit .277/.339/.447 in 110 games for Rochester, which is both nothing special for a corner outfielder and nearly identical to his career .264/.325/.447 line in 4,649 plate appearances as a minor leaguer.

• April elbow surgery knocked Scott Baker out for the year and the Twins will decline his $9.25 million option for next season, making him a free agent. However, with the 2013 rotation wide open and Baker looking for a place to get his career back on track a reunion is possible. Baker is scheduled to begin throwing off a mound in October and indicated to Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that all things being equal he'd like to remain in Minnesota.

• After missing two months with a broken leg Anthony Slama is back to closing out games for Rochester, where he's logged 26 innings with a 0.70 ERA, .183 opponents' batting average, and 44 strikeouts. Slama isn't on the 40-man roster, but as noted above they created multiple new openings and there's no excuse for the Twins not to give a September call-up to the 28-year-old with a 2.25 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 144 innings at Triple-A.

• There are 10 pitchers in the Twins' farm system to throw 100 or more innings this year and all 10 have a strikeout rate below 7.0 per nine innings. Blackburn's likely replacement, Liam Hendriks, has the highest strikeout rate among those 10, whiffing 82 batters in 106 innings at Triple-A for a rate of 6.9 per nine innings that's actually below the International League average of 7.4 per nine innings. Pitching to contact still dominates the farm system.

• Back in 2003 the Twins moved their Triple-A team from Edmonton of the Pacific Coast League to Rochester of the International League, where they've been since. There were some rumblings that Rochester could try to ditch the Twins when their contract expired after this season, which would have left the Twins scrambling for a new Triple-A home and might have even led to returning to the PCL, but the two sides have agreed to a two-year extension.

• Twins rookie-ball catcher Michael Quesada was suspended 50 games for violating the minor league drug prevention and treatment program by testing positive for Methylhexaneamine, a stimulant and dietary supplement. Quesada was a 10th-round draft pick out of Sierra College in 2010, but has hit just .213/.314/.333 with three homers in 62 career games while remaining in rookie-ball as a 22-year-old.

Denard Span injured his shoulder on August 12. Nine days later he remains "day-to-day" and on the active roster despite being unavailable to play for that entire time and finally underwent an MRI exam yesterday. At this point I'm not even sure what to say about the Twins' ongoing pattern of "day-to-day" injuries and disabled list avoidance, other than maybe "sigh."

• Only two MLB hitters with more than 375 plate appearances this season have zero homers: Jamey Carroll and Ben Revere.

• Four hitters in the Twins' entire organization, majors and minors, have drawn 60 or more walks this season: Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham, Miguel Sano, Aaron Hicks.

• Since becoming the primary closer Glen Perkins has converted 7-of-8 save chances with a 2.66 ERA and 24-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 innings. Before that he had two career saves.

• For a whole lot more about Blackburn and Hendriks, plus a pretty good puking-in-public story and comparing Sam Deduno to a UFO, check out this week's Gleeman and The Geek episode.

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July 5, 2012

Twins Notes: Doumit, Blackburn, Hendriks, Minier, Mauer, and Plouffe

• Assuming the Twins decide to become sellers at the trade deadline Ryan Doumit likely would have drawn a decent amount of interest from contending teams, but instead they took him off the market with a two-year, $7 million extension that will pay the catcher/designated hitter $3.5 million in both 2013 and 2014. Handing out multi-year deals to 31-year-old non-stars isn't usually a great plan for a rebuilding team, but the price is right and Doumit is a good fit.

I liked adding Doumit on a one-year, $3 million deal this offseason because he essentially replaced Jason Kubel as a quality left-handed bat for a fraction of the price and was also a much-needed alternative to Drew Butera behind the plate in case Joe Mauer struggled to stay healthy again. Doumit has a good enough bat to be useful at DH and a good enough glove to be useful at catcher, and that's the kind of versatility the Twins needed.

He's been exactly what they hoped, hitting .282/.344/.449 versus a .271/.334/.442 career line and proving to be a more palatable defensive catcher than his awful reputation. His defense in the outfield and at first base is a different story, as Ron Gardenhire soured on Doumit there almost immediately and has used him for all of 52 non-catcher innings in the field, but the ability to basically have Mauer and Doumit alternate between catcher and DH has been ideal.

Doumit for $3 million this year was a nice pickup, so Doumit for $3.5 million in 2013 represents the same solid value and paying him $3.5 million in 2014 will hardly cripple the Twins even if he declines at age 33. Jason Marquis got $3 million for seven awful starts and Nick Blackburn is owed $5.5 million next year, so $3.5 million for a .750-.800 OPS hitter who can catch is enough of a bargain to be worth the risk of a multi-year commitment. And they can trade him later too.

• Speaking of Blackburn, yesterday he was dumped from the rotation and demoted to Triple-A for the second time since the Twins misguidedly gave him a four-year contract extension in March of 2010. I hated that signing at the time, noting that the Twins already had Blackburn under team control through 2013 via arbitration and his miniscule strikeout rate limited his upside and made him far more likely to decline than improve.

Sure enough since the Twins guaranteed him $14 million instead of going year-to-year he's got a 5.51 ERA and among all pitchers with 50-plus starts he has the fewest strikeouts per nine innings (4.2) and the highest opponents' batting average (.309) and slugging percentage (.500). Some of that can certainly be blamed on injuries, but that's one of the reasons to avoid making unnecessary commitments to mediocre pitchers you already control for years to come.

Had the Twins smartly chosen to go year-to-year with Blackburn via arbitration they'd have presumably already cut him, if not after his 5.42 ERA and demotion to Triple-A in 2010 than at least after his 4.49 ERA and forearm injury in 2011. Instead they're paying him $4.75 million this season and owe him $5.5 million next season, which would have been his final year under team control via arbitration anyway.

Liam Hendriks will be joining Blackburn in Rochester after struggling for the third time in three chances with the Twins. Hendriks came into the season as the team's top pitching prospect, but that was mostly by default and despite being the Twins' reigning minor league pitcher of the year his long-term upside has always been mid-rotation starter. He was rushed to the majors, much like Chris Parmelee, and is still 23 years old with 16 starts at Triple-A.

Obviously his 6.71 ERA through 12 career starts is ugly, but a 39-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 62 innings isn't far off from what you'd expect based on Hendriks' track record. He'll need to show better control because mediocre raw stuff and modest strikeout rates in the minors make it hard to imagine many missed bats, but his biggest problem was serving up 13 homers in 62 innings after allowing three homers in 94 innings at Triple-A. Don't give up on him yet.

• This season's international prospects became eligible to sign Monday and the Twins spent $1.4 million for one of the top-rated hitters in 16-year-old Dominican infielder Amaurys Minier. Ben Badler of Baseball America ranked Minier as the 12th-best international prospect available, saying the 6-foot-2 switch-hitter will likely shift from shortstop to third base and "has drawn attention for his bat speed and plus power from both sides of the plate." Here's a bit more:

He has some noise in his setup, but he has a smooth stroke with good balance and whips the bat head through the zone. With his power, he can put on a good show in batting practice. Scouts have reservations about his ability to hit in games, so his pitch recognition skills will have to improve. Many players with Minier's body type--thick lower half and below-average speed--are already at third base. ... He has a strong arm but will have to work on his infield actions to avoid a move further down the defensive spectrum.

In addition to Minier the Twins also spent $500,000 on 16-year-old Australian southpaw Lewis Thorpe, who Baseball America called the country's top prospect. As part of the new collective bargaining agreement they have $1 million left to potentially spend on international signings.

• Mauer has played 72 of 80 games while hitting .332 with a league-leading .420 on-base percentage and his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) total of 2.8 leads the Twins while ranking 10th among the league's position players. If your reaction to his being selected for the All-Star team at baseball's thinnest position was anything other than "of course he made the All-Star team" then you're likely better off booing him at Target Field than reading this blog.

• Parmelee was recalled from Triple-A because he responded to a mid-May demotion by hitting .375/.500/.708 in three weeks there. Since rejoining the Twins he's started a total of four times in 26 games. How that helps him or the Twins in the short or long term is beyond me.

Danny Valencia had 23 homers in 266 games for the Twins. Trevor Plouffe has 18 homers in 39 games since replacing him on May 15. Plouffe has shown no signs of turning back into a pumpkin and Valencia is hitting .245/.286/.410 in 49 games at Triple-A.

• I somehow neglected to include this in my SABR convention recap, but I was at Target Field last Friday night to witness one of the better "security guards chasing an idiot who ran onto the field" moments in recent memory. Shockingly he wasn't part of the SABR group.

• Since the Twins changed catchers nine seasons ago Mauer has been on base 306 more times than A.J. Pierzynski while making 534 fewer outs.

Paul Bargas, the pitching prospect the Twins acquired from the Rockies for catcher Jose Morales in 2010, has died from brain cancer. He was just 23 years old.

Miguel Sano's high error total at third base has the Twins concerned about his defense at low Single-A, but his odds of sticking at third base have never been very high anyway.

• Pitcher wins are hilarious, part infinity: Jeff Gray is 5-0. He's thrown 35 innings with a 4.08 ERA and 18-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

• If you missed it last week, Dave Beal of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a good article about the Twins' involvement with sabermetrics.

Michael Cuddyer is hitting .233 away from Coors Field for a 31-50 team while earning $10.5 million, but some things never change.

• When he's not riding elevators with me Jose Mijares has a 1.69 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 32 innings for the Royals, which is why cutting him loose for $750,000 never made much sense.

Frank Viola's daughter, Brittany Viola, made the Olympic diving team.

• Along with being one of MLB's best relievers Glen Perkins also has great taste in podcasts.

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June 27, 2012

Down on the farm: Checking in on the Twins’ top 10 prospects

Each winter I rank and profile the Twins' top 40 prospects, so with the minor-league season reaching the halfway point let's check in on the top 10 prospects to see how they're faring:

No. 1 prospect Miguel Sano got off to a huge start at low Single-A, hitting .276/.422/.586 in April, but then showed that for all the incredible long-term upside he's still a teenager with shaky strike-zone control facing full-season competition for the first time. Sano went into a prolonged slump right around his 19th birthday and has hit just .220 with 58 strikeouts in 48 games since May 1, putting on hold any talk of a first-half promotion to high Single-A.

Sano also struck out 137 times in 127 games of rookie-ball, so the lack of consistent contact is nothing new and remains a potential red flag. On the other hand 19-year-olds with massive raw power are supposed to be strikeout prone and Sano has made major strides in plate discipline by drawing 42 walks in 73 games for Beloit after totaling 47 walks in 127 games at rookie-ball. And even while struggling overall recently he's continued to hit for huge power.

Sano leads the Midwest League with 15 homers and ranks fourth slugging percentage, fifth in walks, and seventh in OPS despite being the sixth-youngest player in the league. His low batting average and high strikeout total are certainly worrisome and make it impossible to project him as a future .300 hitter, but in terms of being a middle-of-the-order monster Sano remains right on track with a .240/.355/.483 line at the same age as a college sophomore.

No. 2 prospect Joe Benson has had a miserable season that started bad and got much worse. Finally promoted to Triple-A for the first time at age 24 he hit .179 in 28 games for Rochester, at which point the Twins decided to send him back down to Double-A for a third straight year. He got off to a slow start there before breaking his wrist on a swing in his eighth game, requiring surgery and a two-month recovery timetable.

Wrist injuries often prove tricky for hitters to bounce back from and when combined with hitting .173 in 36 games between Double-A and Triple-A his stock has clearly plummeted this season. Reacting to 28 bad games at Triple-A by demoting Benson back to a level he'd already mastered for two seasons was an odd, seemingly panicky move by the Twins, but that's mostly a moot point now as he simply needs to get healthy and start hitting again somewhere.

No. 3 prospect Aaron Hicks made the jump to Double-A and hit well enough early on to create some optimism that he was finally ready to tap into his offensive potential after underwhelming power and batting averages in the low minors. Instead he's basically back to where he's always been, showing excellent plate discipline and good speed while hitting just .248 with seven homers in 63 games for New Britain.

He's still 22 years old and it would be silly to brush aside 33 walks and 16 steals in 63 games from a strong-armed center fielder, but at this point his long-term upside needs recalibrating. His defense, speed, and on-base skills are still more than enough to make Hicks a potential quality regular in the majors, but any thoughts of stardom can wait until his average or power rise and his switch-hitting actually leads to good production from both sides of the plate.

No. 4 prospect Eddie Rosario was one of the few Twins minor leaguers having a standout year, hitting .293/.362/.473 with seven homers, 20 doubles, and 27 walks in 62 games at low Single-A as a 20-year-old. Then a batting practice line drive off the bat of a Beloit teammate struck him in the face on June 12 and surgery to insert a metal plate above his lip followed, putting his season on hold for at least six weeks.

Halting his strong hitting isn't ideal, but the bigger issue is that Rosario had been transitioning from center fielder to second baseman and all the missed repetitions will further complicate an already difficult proposition. Also worth noting is that while hitting well overall before the facial injury his power was down substantially from last year, which is what many people expected to happen considering Rosario is more of a line-drive hitter than a slugger.

No. 5 prospect Liam Hendriks was the Twins' choice to replace the injured Scott Baker in the Opening Day rotation despite being 23 years old with just nine starts at Triple-A. He predictably struggled and was sent back to Rochester three weeks later, but then put together an impressive seven-start stretch there in which he threw 46 innings with a 1.94 ERA, .180 opponents' batting average, and 42-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

That and more injuries to the rotation earned Hendriks a return to the majors two weeks ago and he promptly served up three homers in his first start back after allowing a total of three homers in 16 starts at Triple-A. Learning to keep the ball in the ballpark will be crucial, because Hendriks' raw stuff is mediocre and his bat-missing ability is in question. Hendriks was the top pitching prospect by default and his upside as a mid-rotation starter hasn't changed.

No. 6 prospect Oswaldo Arcia has moved past the slumping Sano to own the highest OPS by any Twins minor leaguer and while his long-term upside can't compete with Sano he's in the mix as one of MLB's best young outfield prospects. Arcia began the year at high Single-A and hit .309/.376/.517 with seven homers, 16 doubles, and an improved strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games to earn a promotion to Double-A and a spot in the Futures Game next month.

At just 21 years old Arcia is one of the half-dozen youngest hitters in the Eastern League and it's noteworthy that the Twins have gone away from their usual deliberate development by aggressively promoting him for a second straight season. In general testing good prospects is smart, although in Arcia's case his plate discipline and strike-zone control are shaky enough that constantly facing new, tougher competition makes improving those skills on the fly tough.

No. 7 prospect Kyle Gibson has been sidelined since undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery last September, but the 2009 first-round pick recently started a throwing program and is ahead of schedule in his recovery. He won't be an option for the Twins this season, whereas before the surgery he was on track to be in the majors by now, but getting back on the mound for some minor-league game action at some point in July would be great news.

No. 8 prospect Levi Michael was supposed to advance through the farm system quickly after starring in college at North Carolina, giving the Twins some much-needed middle infield depth. Jumping directly to high Single-A was part of that plan, but the switch-hitting first-round pick has struggled there by hitting .219 with two homers and 49 strikeouts in 61 games while splitting time between shortstop and second base.

Michael had excellent strike-zone control in college, totaling more walks (93) than strikeouts (73) in 2010-2011. So far the plate discipline side of that equation has remained with 31 walks despite a .295 slugging percentage not scaring pitchers, but the 49 strikeouts are a concern attached to such little power. Hopefully he simply wasn't as advanced as believed, since it'd be a shame if the Twins finally addressed their infield issues with a college pick who went bust.

No. 9 prospect Alex Wimmers recovered from extreme control problems to get back on track by the end of last season and the Twins were confident enough to assign the 2010 first-round pick to Double-A this year. Unfortunately he went down with an elbow injury after just one start there and was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, which typically leads to Tommy John surgery. For now he's attempting rest and rehab instead of surgery.

No. 10 prospect Brian Dozier began the year at Triple-A for the first time at age 25 and didn't play particularly well, but the Twins called him up in mid-May anyway and he arrived with some misguidedly inflated expectations among many fans and media members. Talk of him being "the next big thing" seems even sillier now, as Dozier has struggled both offensively and defensively while playing shortstop every day for the past six weeks.

He's hit .225/.249/.306 in 44 games with predictably little pop and a surprisingly ugly 33-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio after walking nearly as often as he struck out in the minors. Defensively he's shown iffy range and arm strength while also being less sure-handed than expected. He realistically never projected as anything close to a star, but struggling so much to control the strike zone and consistently make plays at shortstop is worrisome for 25-year-old.

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May 10, 2012

Twins’ latest shakeup sends Valencia to Triple-A and Liriano to bullpen

Minutes after the final out of last night's loss the Twins shook up the roster for the second time this week, demoting Danny Valencia to Triple-A and designating Matt Maloney for assignment while calling up utility man Darin Mastroianni and right-hander P.J. Walters from Rochester. They also announced that Francisco Liriano has been shifted to the bullpen, with Walters taking his spot in the starting rotation beginning Saturday against the Blue Jays.

Less than 48 hours earlier Ron Gardenhire insisted that the Twins would stick with Liriano as a starter, but now they're apparently hoping to get him back on track for an eventual return to the rotation with some low-leverage relief work. Liriano has taken some very small steps forward in his last two starts, but has been mostly terrible since the beginning of last season and it would be worth seeing what he can do in a one-inning role before free agency beckons.

Unfortunately his rotation replacement is a 27-year-old soft-tosser, so while watching Walters get knocked around may not be quite as frustrating as watching Liriano struggle to find the strike zone the end result figures to be largely the same. Walters has a 7.24 ERA with 12 homers allowed in 51 innings as a big leaguer, averaged just 88.0 miles per hour with his fastball during that time, and has a 4.51 ERA in 91 career starts at Triple-A.

As soon as the Twins called up Brian Dozier to start at shortstop and shifted Jamey Carroll into a utility man role it was clear that Valencia and Alexi Casilla were on some very thin ice. Carroll has started each of the past three games at second base, but apparently that was due mostly to Casilla being limited by a shoulder injury and instead Valencia is the one on the chopping block after serving as the starting third baseman since mid-2010.

Valencia was never a top prospect and a modest minor-league track record made it obvious that his strong half-season debut was largely a fluke, but he's declined even further than expected since then both offensively and defensively. He's played 266 games in the majors and hit just .262/.304/.395, which would be poor production from a shortstop or a catcher and is downright awful for a third baseman who's mediocre defensively on a good day.

On the other hand he's 27 years old with more than 1,000 plate appearances in the majors, so a demotion to Triple-A furthering his development seems like wishful thinking. Valencia is what he is at this point, and that's simply not a quality regular because he can't hit right-handed pitching. With that said, he's a career .325/.374/.485 hitter against left-handers and that type of production certainly has a place on a major-league roster if used correctly.

Mastroianni is technically replacing Valencia on the roster, but don't count on him making much of an impact. Claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays in February and assigned to Double-A to begin the season despite being 26 years old, he moved up to Triple-A because of injuries in Rochester and took advantage by hitting .365 in 19 games. That obviously got the Twins' attention, but Mastroianni hit just .279/.358/.389 in 79 games at Triple-A last season.

Mastroianni's lack of power has limited him to a .372 slugging percentage as a minor leaguer and makes him unlikely to be more than a useful bench player, but he has good on-base skills, spectacular speed, and can play all three outfield spots along with some second base. It'll be interesting to see if Mastroianni gets any action as an infielder or if Gardenhire will stick with Carroll, Casilla, and Trevor Plouffe in some combination at second base and third base.

Maloney was claimed off waivers from the Reds in October and there's a good chance he'll clear waivers this time around, in which case the Twins can stash him at Triple-A sans 40-man roster spot. He's the latest in a long line of examples showing the folly of putting any kind of faith in spring training performances, as Maloney was one of the most impressive players in camp and then predictably reverted back to the marginal big leaguer he's always been.

It was easy to see that the first roster shakeup was done to facilitate immediate improvement, as Liam Hendriks simply not being ready to thrive in the majors at age 23 made it reasonable to prefer Scott Diamond in the short term and the Twins have high hopes for Dozier. It's not so easy to see how the second roster shakeup really improves much, save for perhaps the fans' viewing experience and Gardenhire's mental state.

For as awful as Valencia has been, giving his starts to Casilla or Plouffe or Mastroianni isn't likely to be much of an upgrade and if nothing else he provided a right-handed bat capable of knocking around left-handed pitching. Liriano has been bad enough for long enough that trying to salvage some value out of him with a move to the bullpen is perfectly reasonable, but replacing him with Walters isn't likely to actually keep more runs off the board.

Of course, making changes mostly for changes sake may not be such a terrible thing at this point considering the Twins are now 73-132 since the final 10 games of the 2010 regular season. It'd be nice if they had better options to call up than Mastroianni and Walters, but they've already rushed non-elite prospects like Hendriks, Chris Parmelee, and Ben Revere to the majors with poor results and the rest of the upper-minors cupboard is mostly bare.

Beyond that, Liriano is at a career crossroads five months from free agency and Valencia may beat him out the door if the Twins can find a taker willing to trade even a mid-level prospect for him. Casilla is next in line for the guillotine if they go into full-on housecleaning mode and unlike last season hopefully they'll commit to a rebuilding effort by ditching more dead weight and getting whatever they can for any veterans not in the plans for 2013 and beyond.

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