July 18, 2012

Twins Notes: Liriano, Santana, Mauer, Blackburn, Capps, and Pavano

• How dominant was Francisco Liriano against the A's on Friday night? Not only were his 15 strikeouts the second-most in Twins history behind Johan Santana with 17 on August 19, 2007, his 30 swings and misses induced were the most by any MLB pitcher since ... Santana had 32 on August 19, 2007. I went back through the AG.com archives to find what I wrote about his incredible performance that day and shockingly it included a Jessica Alba comparison.

Liriano's first start following his brief demotion to the bullpen also came against Oakland and he overpowered the A's then too, giving him a ridiculous 24-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14 innings against them since May 30. And it was good timing, as at least a half-dozen teams reportedly sent scouts to evaluate Liriano for a potential trade. Since rejoining the rotation he's thrown 57 innings with a 2.83 ERA, .170 opponents' batting average, and 67 strikeouts.

• Some fun facts from that Santana start on August 19, 2007: He struck out 17 in eight innings and then closer Joe Nathan struck out two more in the ninth inning, as they combined for 19 strikeouts, zero walks, and two hits allowed in a 1-0 shutout of the Rangers. Michael Cuddyer homered for the game's only run, C.J. Wilson pitched in relief for Texas, and the Rangers had a 38-year-old Sammy Sosa batting cleanup. And here was the Twins' lineup:

1. Alexi Casilla, 2B
2. Joe Mauer, DH
3. Torii Hunter, CF
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
6. Mike Redmond, C
7. Rondell White, LF
8. Tommy Watkins, 3B
9. Nick Punto, SS

Oh, and Jason Tyner came in defensively for Rondell White late in the game. One not-so-fun fact about the game: Santana made just seven more starts in a Twins uniform.

• Friday's deadline to sign draft picks came and went without much drama for the Twins, who'd already agreed to deals with their first 11 picks weeks ago. Or so everyone thought. It turns out sixth-round pick Andre Martinez, a high school pitcher from Florida who originally agreed to an over-slot $260,000 bonus, ended up reworking his deal after a pre-signing physical exam revealed shoulder issues. He signed Friday for $80,000 compared to the $200,000 slot.

Another last-minute signing was 20th-round pick Zach Larson, a high school outfielder from Florida who agreed to a $190,000 deal that's nearly twice the slot value for picks after the 10th round. By saving money elsewhere compared to the slot values for various picks the Twins had plenty of extra money to throw Larson's way and in fact overall they spent about $300,000 less than their MLB-high $12.3 million allotment.

Ninth-rounder L.J. Mazzilli is the earliest Twins pick not to sign, as the Connecticut second baseman and son of longtime big leaguer Lee Mazzilli presumably turned down close to the $130,000 slot amount for the No. 280 overall pick. Mazzilli hit .339/.404/.548 with 16 steals in 58 games as a junior, but also committed 20 errors and was no sure thing to stick at second base defensively as a pro. In all the Twins signed 27 of 43 picks, including 14 of their first 15.

Mark Appel, the Stanford pitcher represented by Scott Boras who fell to No. 8 after being an oft-projected No. 1 pick and possible Twins choice at No. 2, ended up as the only first-rounder not to sign. He turned down $3.8 million, which is $900,000 more than slot and the most the Pirates could offer without forfeiting next year's pick. Appel can return to college for his senior year and be drafted again, while the Pirates get the No. 9 pick in 2013 as compensation.

• After going 3-for-4 with a walk (and a great diving catch) last night Joe Mauer is now hitting .333/.420/.462, which is nearly identical to his .324/.404/.470 career line despite offense being down across baseball. He leads the league in on-base percentage and ranks second in batting average, has hit .385 in his last 45 games, and is projected to be worth $26 million this year according to Fan Graphs. He's being paid $23 million.

Nick Blackburn is already back with the Twins after allowing one earned run in two starts at Triple-A following his demotion, but the bad news is that he managed just five strikeouts in 15 innings. He succeeded there by keeping the ball in the ballpark, but his ground-ball rate wasn't exceptional and as usual there's little reason to think pitching to that extreme level of contact is going to get the job done against big-league hitters.

Matt Capps' return from the disabled list lasted all of five days, as he showed decreased velocity and was shut down again with more shoulder problems. That ruins whatever chance the Twins had of trading Capps before July 31, which is a shame because reportedly at least one team was actually showing interest. Suffice it to say that the Twins' decision to forfeit a draft pick in order to re-sign Capps for $5 million has gone about as well as expected.

Carl Pavano isn't close to returning from his own shoulder injury, so the even slimmer odds the Twins had of trading him before the July 31 deadline is officially gone. It's possible that he could return in time to make a few starts before the August 31 waiver trade deadline, but even that's no sure thing and obviously counting on Pavano to be effective enough to draw interest at that point would be wildly optimistic.

David Laurila of Fan Graphs interviewed Terry Ryan and the lengthy transcript is definitely worth reading, but here's one particularly interesting excerpt about the team's oft-questioned involvement with statistical analysis:

We never messed with that too much back in the '70s, but we did in the '80s and the '90s and the 2000s. We've been looking at that forever. ... People don't want to hear that out of the Minnesota Twins. But we've been looking at that forever. Way before some. We're not as deep as some, but we do believe in certainly doing our work, and that stat page is one big piece to the puzzle of putting players together.

Our scouts, and our people, will tell you if I'm looking at a player, and I go down and look at his line, and it doesn't add up, I've got to give him a call quick. I tell him, "This doesn't make any sense." His role, his skills and his statistical history, and you're going to tell me this? How do you get there? I believe in that.

All forms of information are good. I've drilled that into our people. Bring it on. All forms, let me sort it out. ... I read all that stuff, and sometimes it's so much information that I do get paralyzed reading it and taking it all in. You can spend as much time as you want on everything that is available. It's almost mind-boggling how much stuff is out there.

Ryan and other Twins decision-makers have adopted "we're into that even if you don't know it" as their response to those questions. And that's fine, although it's worth noting that, for instance, assistant general manager Rob Antony lacked familiarity with basic aspects of statistical analysis as recently as two years ago and even in the above excerpt Ryan talking about looking at stats isn't really what anyone would consider a new-school approach.

When people wonder if the Twins are involved with statistical analysis the questions aren't about literally looking at a player's stats--that much is assumed, no matter a team's public stance--but rather taking full advantage of new technology and the increasingly in-depth data available. They've recently hired some stat-heads and clearly want to keep things secretive, but what little Ryan and others do say about the issue leaves plenty of room for skepticism.

• Midseason prospect rankings are out and Baseball America moved Miguel Sano from No. 18 to No. 22, whereas ESPN.com moved Sano from No. 28 to No. 26. In other words Sano remains a top-30 talent as an all-around prospect and among hitters who don't play up-the-middle positions only Wil Myers of the Royals, Oscar Taveras of the Cardinals, and Nick Castellanos of the Tigers rank ahead of Sano on both lists.

• As part of their minor-league roster shuffling the Twins released Jairo Perez, who ranked 34th on my preseason list of the team's prospects. He hit .337/.413/.580 at low Single-A last year and .265/.350/.403 at high Single-A this year, which makes cutting Perez in July an odd move. On the other hand at age 24 he was very old for Single-A and didn't really have a clear defensive home. And now he's playing in an independent league.

Matt Maloney parlayed a good spring training into an Opening Day bullpen spot after the Twins claimed him off waivers from the Reds in October, but the soft-tossing left-hander coughed up 10 runs in 11 innings and not surprisingly passed through waivers unclaimed in May. He was even worse at Triple-A, allowing 33 runs in 24 innings, and now he'll be out until mid-2013 following Tommy John elbow surgery.

• Twins castoff Luke Hughes was released by the A's after hitting .223/.316/.338 in 42 games between Double-A and Triple-A.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Ballplayer: Pelotero, a controversial new documentary about baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic starring Miguel Sano as a 16-year-old.

May 2, 2012

Twins Notes: Butera, Burroughs, Mauer, Morneau, Pavano, and Guerra

• I was on KFAN this morning, sitting in for a couple segments on Paul Allen's show to talk Twins and blogging and all sorts of other stuff. You can listen to my full appearance here.

• After playing every inning of the first 21 games Joe Mauer took a foul ball off his knee and sat out Monday. He returned last night as designated hitter, but the Twins felt the need to add Drew Butera as a third catcher while designating Sean Burroughs for assignment to make room on the roster. Butera was hitting .279/.319/.419 in 15 games for Rochester, which is simultaneously terrible for a 28-year-old at Triple-A and the best numbers of his career.

Burroughs was signed to a minor-league deal in December and the 30-year-old former top prospect impressed the Twins during spring training, winning an Opening Day bench spot. In theory he was a nice fit, offering a left-handed bat and solid glove at third base to complement and perhaps even push Danny Valencia, but in practice he got three starts and 17 at-bats in a month. He's barely played since 2005, let alone had any success, so he may clear waivers.

Justin Morneau gave everyone a scare when he exited Monday's game with soreness in his surgically repaired left wrist and immediately flew from California to Minnesota to be examined by team doctors. Now he's on the way back to the West Coast after an MRI exam showed no structural damage, but Morneau revealed that the wrist was bothering him before Monday and the Twins have said that Friday is the best-case scenario for being back in the lineup.

Thursday is a scheduled off day, so that absence isn't quite as long as it sounds, but giving him 15 days to heal up on the disabled list would seemingly be worthwhile. Instead the Twins will keep Morneau on the active roster, which is something they've done too often with injured players in recent years and becomes particularly problematic when combined with a 13-man pitching staff and Butera. Last night's bench was literally only Butera and Trevor Plouffe.

Carl Pavano managed zero strikeouts Friday for the third time in his last 33 starts and his average fastball has clocked in at just 86.6 miles per hour this season, down from 89.0 mph in 2011 and 90.1 mph in 2010. Pavano signed a two-year, $16.5 million contract with the Twins after throwing 221 innings with a 3.75 ERA in 2010, but since then he's logged 255 innings with a 4.38 ERA and just 4.2 strikeouts per nine innings. At age 36 he's running on fumes.

Deolis Guerra's overall numbers at Double-A last year were ugly, but his success shifting to the bullpen in the second half earned him the No. 27 spot in my Twins prospect rankings. He picked up where he left off at New Britain with a 0.71 ERA and 15-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 innings, at which point the Twins promoted the last remaining piece of the Johan Santana trade to Rochester and he debuted there with three scoreless innings Saturday.

• Another potential bullpen option, Kyle Waldrop, is on the comeback trail after an elbow injury cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster. I'm skeptical of Waldrop's ability to be more than a decent middle reliever because he's already 26 years old and his strong ground-ball rate comes along with underwhelming velocity and few strikeouts, but he certainly warrants more of an extended opportunity than Jeff Gray.

• As has too often been the case recently Twins management subtlety cast some doubt on the legitimacy of Scott Baker's elbow injury before a second opinion from outside the organization led to Tommy John surgery. In speaking to the local media following surgery Baker addressed what Jon Krawcynski of the Associated Press described as "whispers both inside and outside Target Field":

I knew I wasn't crazy. I knew there was some speculation that maybe I was babying it or taking it easy, but good grief. I did everything I possibly could to get better and to try to pitch with it. But that just wasn't going to happen.

When an injured player has to defend himself amid speculation that his injury isn't as serious as he claims and that speculation is fueled at least in part by the team that's obviously not a good situation. Toss in the ongoing questions about the competency of the Twins' medical staff and it gets even worse. On the other hand, Baker also admitted injured pitchers "are not always completely forthright with the staff" and made it clear that he doesn't hold a grudge.

• As expected Ben Revere's return to Minnesota was brief, with the end of Josh Willingham's paternity leave sending him back to Triple-A. Revere is still better off playing in Rochester than mostly sitting in Minnesota, although Sunday being "Ben Revere bat day" at Target Field perhaps wasn't the best timing (or planning) by the Twins.

• In an effort to beef up the Double-A and Triple-A teams the Twins signed a bunch of veteran minor leaguers during the offseason, yet some reinforcements were still needed a month into the season. Joe Thurston is the latest veteran to join Rochester, although once upon a time he was a promising prospect in the Dodgers' system. Now he's 32 years old with 184 games in the majors and 1,485 games in the minors, including 5,000 plate appearances at Triple-A.

Ron Gardenhire will be away from the team for this weekend's Mariners series, missing all three games to attend his daughter's college graduation from Southwest Minnesota State. Bench coach Scott Ullger will fill in as manager, as he's done on a few other occasions.

Luke Hughes' time as Oakland's starting third baseman was short-lived, as he went 1-for-13 with three errors in four games and the A's signed a washed-up, recently released Brandon Inge to replace him. Hughes was designated for assignment, so he's back on the waiver wire.

• Congratulations to Delmon Young for making the front page of the New York Post. MLB suspended Young for seven days following his arrest on assault and hate crime charges, presumably because an eight-day suspension would have made Hanukkah jokes too easy.

• Willingham was a smart free agent signing and has been amazing at the plate so far, but his defense in left field has been just short of Delmon-esque.

Interesting note from Twins media communications manager Dustin Morse: Saturday was the ninth time weather caused a delay or postponement in 174 total games at Target Field.

• Compared to this same time last year MLB-wide attendance is up 1,700 fans per game overall, but the Twins' attendance is down an MLB-worst 5,000 fans per game.

• For his career Valencia has hit .328/.378/.491 versus left-handers and .243/.282/.369 versus right-handers, which is one of the more extreme platoon splits you'll see and along with iffy defense makes him a poor fit in an everyday role. By the way, that play was ruled a "double."

• After last night Denard Span has 76 career steals and has been picked off 26 times.

No. 11 prospect Adrian Salcedo was hit in the face by a comebacker while pitching Monday at high Single-A and suffered a broken nose.

This week's blog content is sponsored by One Stop Insurance, which helps Minnesotans find the best value and protection in an insurance company. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

April 25, 2012

Twins Notes: Hughes, Liriano, Revere, Ortiz, Kelly, Capps, and Sano

• Last year after 18 games the Twins were 6-12 and had been outscored 88-54. This year they're 5-13 and have been outscored 102-65 for MLB's worst run differential. And dating back to the final 10 games of the 2010 regular season the Twins are now 70-123 (.363).

Designated for assignment by the Twins last week, Luke Hughes was claimed off waivers by the A's and is getting an opportunity for regular playing time at third base. Hughes manned third base in just 14 of his 74 total starts for the Twins, but actually played there more than any other position in the minors. That didn't stop him from committing three errors in his first 10 innings at third base for the A's and his bat remains iffy for the position.

• On this week's Gleeman and The Geek episode we wondered what the Twins would do with Francisco Liriano following his latest ugly outing and their answer, for now at least, is to use an off day on the schedule to skip his turn in the rotation. Liriano will basically take a week off from game action, with bullpen sessions scheduled for Thursday and Saturday, and then will start May 1 versus the Angels. And if that goes poorly, things could get interesting in a hurry.

• Since the beginning of last year the Twins are 12-16 (.429) when Liriano starts and 56-96 (.368) when anyone else starts. He's clearly a problem, but he's not exactly the problem. In fact, Twins starters not named Liriano have a 5.83 ERA and just 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings while allowing 17 homers and a .307 opponents' batting average in 78.2 innings. Is it against the rules for a team to skip every member of the rotation for the entire season?

Josh Willingham is taking a paternity leave for a few days and to fill his roster spot the Twins have recalled Ben Revere from Triple-A, where he went 6-for-27 (.222) with zero extra-base hits and zero walks in six games. His initial replacement, Clete Thomas, is 4-for-21 (.182) with 13 strikeouts while oddly seeing far more playing time than Revere was getting before the demotion.

David Ortiz launching a massive homer off a Twins pitcher last night while Tom Kelly looked on from the broadcast booth brought back memories of this 2006 article by Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

David Ortiz has his own theories about the Twins' struggle for home run power. Mostly, he blames Tom Kelly. And when Ortiz speaks, he packs the punch of a one-time Twins discard who blossomed into a home run-hitting star with the Boston Red Sox. So, why haven't the Twins had a player hit 30 home runs since 1987?

"Because they're stupid," Ortiz said. "You take a hard swing, and the manager [Kelly] was screaming at you from the dugout, 'Hey! Hey!' Then you finish the season with 10 homers. They ask you what happened, why you don't hit for power?"

There's a lot more to it than that, of course, but six years later Ortiz is hitting .444/.486/.714 and "the Twins' struggle for home run power" is still a thing.

• Friend of AG.com and former Gleeman and The Geek guest Lindsay Guentzel won a spot in the MLB Fan Cave and recently wrote an MLB.com article about her experience there, including a visit from Joe Mauer, Matt Capps, Brian Duensing, and Liam Hendriks when the Twins were in New York last week.

Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press used to cover the Nationals when Capps was their closer and wrote a good article about how things have changed for the worse. Capps has now served up 12 homers in his last 66 innings dating back to last season.

• Liriano, Hughes, Nick Blackburn, Matt Maloney, Chris Parmelee, and Danny Valencia had the Twins' most impressive spring training performances. Something to remember next March.

Justin Morneau is 0-for-16 against lefties and 13-for-42 (.310) with four homers and a 1.100 OPS against righties.

• Mauer started the season 1-for-10. Since then he's hitting .351 with a .440 on-base percentage and has yet to sit out a game.

Jared Burton has been one of the few bright spots for the Twins' pitching staff and Mike Axisa of Fan Graphs took an interesting look at his changeup-splitter hybrid pitch.

No. 9 prospect Alex Wimmers battled back from extreme control problems to finish last season on a high note, but now he's on the disabled list at Double-A with a strained elbow.

No. 1 prospect Miguel Sano, two weeks shy of his 19th birthday, has hit .292/.432/.662 with six homers, four doubles, and 15 walks through 19 games at low Single-A, where he's the sixth-youngest player in the entire Midwest League.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Snap Fitness in Uptown, which offers convenient and affordable workouts with industry best equipment. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

April 19, 2012

Sorry, mate: Twins designate Luke Hughes for assignment

Jason Marquis' return forced the Twins to open a roster spot and rather than drop a pitcher, cut loose Sean Burroughs, or option Chris Parmelee to Triple-A they designated an out-of-options Luke Hughes for assignment. I'm no fan of a 13-man pitching staff and Parmelee, like Ben Revere, would be better off playing regularly in Rochester if he's going to continue sitting often in Minnesota, but it's tough to imagine Hughes coming back to haunt the Twins.

For one thing he's largely superfluous with Trevor Plouffe around, as Hughes offers a similar skill set with less upside and bigger flaws. And beyond that he simply isn't very good. Hughes was never a top prospect, peaking at No. 17 on my annual Twins farm system ranking in 2009 before falling to No. 23 in 2010 and No. 33 last year. He hit .224/.285/.342 in 102 games for the Twins and .257/.319/.440 in 118 games at Triple-A, and turns 28 years old in August.

Hughes is capable of being a useful bench bat or platoon starter versus left-handers, but he's a tweener in that his second base and third base defense is sub par and the higher offensive standard for that role at first base or an outfield corner is likely over his head. He strikes out too much, doesn't walk enough, had poor batting averages in Rochester and Minnesota, and his good but not great power is nothing special for part-timers at offense-driven positions.

Keeping him around would have been fine and the Twins had several other reasonable choices that would've allowed them to do so, but ultimately Hughes is a marginal major leaguer who seems finished developing and those are the types of players teams designate for assignment all the time. He might clear waivers, in which case the Twins could stash him at Triple-A minus the 40-man roster spot, but even if Hughes gets claimed the loss is minimal.

This week's blog content is sponsored by PickPointz, where you can make predictions, pick games, and win prizes for free. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

February 6, 2012

Twins Notes: Relievers, starters, outfielders, draftees, and signing an MVP

Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com has the details of Joel Zumaya's one-year deal with the Twins. He's guaranteed $400,000 even if they cut him during spring training and that would turn into $850,000 if Zumaya is on the Opening Day roster, with another $900,000 in potential bonuses based on appearances. If he were to stay healthy and effective for the entire season Zumaya could earn a total of $1.75 million.

Of course, Zumaya hasn't stayed healthy and effective since he was a 21-year-old rookie in 2006, so when he signed my assumption was that the Twins would still look to add another veteran right-hander for the bullpen. At this point, however, that looks increasingly unlikely, as capable relievers continue to sign elsewhere for modest one-year contracts and minor-league deals with no indication that the Twins will snatch one up.

I wrote about the bullpen last week, noting that the Twins' impatience led to overpaying Matt Capps in an obvious buyer's market and is extra frustrating when combined with the apparent unwillingness to spend even $1 million more to address a clear weakness. Since then Todd Coffey signed with the Dodgers for $1.3 million and Chad Qualls signed with the Phillies for $1.15 million. They had plenty of chances to cheaply add a decent setup man and refused.

Terry Ryan said that he views the rotation as a strength, which might be true relative to the rest of the team but certainly isn't true relative to the rest of baseball. Last year Twins starters combined for MLB's fifth-worst ERA and while they might be healthier this time around the front four of Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, and Nick Blackburn made 104 starts in 2011. Jason Marquis replacing Brian Duensing is the only real change and he had a 4.43 ERA.

Clearly the rotation is capable of being better and healthier, but when Pavano is your Opening Day starter and both Blackburn and Marquis are taking the mound every fifth day it's tough to see the group as anything but below average even if you're optimistic about Baker staying healthy and Liriano being way closer to the 2010 version than the 2011 version. My blog-mate Matthew Pouliot projected numbers for all 30 rotations and has the Twins in the bottom five.

• Ryan and Ron Gardenhire have both made it very clear that the starting outfield will be Ben Revere in left field, Denard Span in center field, and Josh Willingham in right field. Assuming that Span is healthy after missing much of last year following a concussion, obviously. Trevor Plouffe is no longer viewed as an infield option and platooning his right-handed bat with the left-handed Revere in left field would make sense, but as usual with Gardenhire that's unlikely.

• With the No. 2 overall pick in June's draft and seven of the first 100 picks the Twins will have MLB's highest signing bonus allotment at around $12 million, according to Jim Callis of Baseball America. February speculation is mostly silly, but Baseball America's early ranking has Stanford pitcher Mark Appel first, followed by high school pitcher Lucas Giolito, high school outfielder Byron Buxton, Arizona State shortstop Devin Marrero, and Florida catcher Mike Zunino.

Camilo Pascual will be this year's inductee into the Twins' team Hall of Fame, which should please Patrick Reusse and the other local media members who've stumped for him in recent years. Pascual, who pitched in Minnesota from 1961-1966, ranked 20th on my list of the best players in Twins history.

Tom Kelly will also have his numbered retired by the Twins, which rendered the normally stoic former manager speechless during the Diamond Awards banquet last week. "Tom Kelly Day" at Target Field is scheduled for September 8, when he'll join Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Kent Hrbek, and Bert Blyleven as retired numbers.

Chris Colabello is one of the more intriguing minor-league signings in an offseason filled with them, as the 28-year-old first baseman joins the Twins after winning MVP of the independent Canadian-American Association. Colabello has hit .317/.390/.541 in seven years in the CAMA, including .348/.410/.600 with 20 homers in 92 games last year. Not only was he MVP of the CAMA, he was Baseball America's choice as player of the year in all independent leagues.

Luke Hughes injured his shoulder while playing back home in the Australian Baseball League and the Twins have pulled him from the Perth Heat's roster for the championship series.

Justin Morneau denied Nick Nelson's report that his wrist surgery stemmed from an injury that occurred during a clubhouse incident.

• Old friend Pat Neshek, who split last year between the majors and Triple-A for the Padres, signed a minor-league deal with the Orioles.

• Because the Twins are seemingly done adding players this offseason, it's worth noting that their current roster doesn't fare very well based on early projections.

• Finally, just a heads up: My annual series ranking and profiling the Twins' top 40 prospects will begin either later this week or early next week. I'm putting the finishing touches on it now.

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