August 29, 2011

Twins Notes: Waivers, trades, types, reinforcements, and Bernardo Brito

• Cleveland claimed Jim Thome off revocable waivers to facilitate last week's trade, but Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the Indians were also the team that claimed Jason Kubel. No deal was struck and the Twins pulled Kubel back off waivers, in part because their asking price for him was much higher than for Thome and in part because the Indians ceased needing a left-handed bat after acquiring Thome.

Ron Gardenhire revealed during his weekly radio show that Thome and his agent asked the Twins to place him on waivers "to see what happened." There's speculation that Thome ideally wanted to land back in Philadelphia, where a playoff appearance is guaranteed, but he would have been merely a pinch-hitter for the Phillies. Cleveland's playoff hopes are slim, but Thome is playing every day for the Indians and homered Saturday on his 41st birthday.

Joe Nathan explained that he "would consider" waiving his no-trade clause for a Thome-like trade to a contender, but his contract complicates things. He's owed around $2 million for the rest of this season and has a $12.5 million option or $2.5 million buyout for 2012. To get even a mid-level prospect in return for Nathan the Twins would presumably have to eat nearly that entire $4.5 million and any move would have to be made by Wednesday.

Michael Cuddyer moving to first base has helped the Twins during Justin Morneau's lengthy absences, but it also appears to have hurt his free agent ranking. MLB and Elias Sports Bureau keep their official rankings secret until the offseason, but MLB Trade Rumors reverse-engineers the data and posts frequent updates. Cuddyer was projected as a Type A free agent until last week, when his listed position changed from outfield to first base and he dropped to Type B.

• Based on MLB Trade Rumors' latest projection Cuddyer and Kubel are both slightly below the Type A cutoff, but a lot can still change. It's an important distinction in terms of compensation the Twins would receive if they sign elsewhere, but also in terms of how many teams figure to pursue them. Carl Pavano was an example of Type A status hurting a free agent's market, as many potentially interested teams didn't want to forfeit a first-round pick to sign him.

• There are seven AL pitchers who qualify for the ERA title with an opponents' batting average above .290 and the Twins have three of them (Pavano, Brian Duensing, and Nick Blackburn). In throwing 181 innings this season Pavano has allowed the most runs (103), hits (214), and baserunners (264) among AL pitchers and also has the league's second-lowest strikeout rate at 3.98 per nine innings. He'll be 36 years old next season and is owed $8.5 million.

Scott Diamond coughed up 10 hits in Friday's spot start versus the Tigers, becoming the fifth Twins pitcher to allow double-digit hits in a game this year. Diamond, Duensing, and Francisco Liriano have done it once apiece, Pavano has done it four times, and Blackburn has done it seven times in 26 total starts. Overall a Twins pitcher has allowed double-digit hits 14 times, which leads MLB. Not coincidentally their rotation has MLB's third-lowest strikeout rate.

• So far the Twins have used 16 players who weren't on the Opening Day roster and the only one of those 16 call-ups with an OPS or ERA better than league average is Anthony Swarzak. Seven are hitters and they've combined for 20 percent of the lineup's playing time while hitting .232/.281/.323 in 1,018 plate appearances. Nine are pitchers and they've logged 18 percent of the staff's batters faced while posting a 4.57 ERA in 187 innings (5.09 ERA without Swarzak).

Trevor Plouffe air-mailed a throw to first base over the weekend, but for the most part he's looked much improved at shortstop while subbing for the injured Tsuyoshi Nishioka. However, the destruction of Triple-A pitching that got him recalled to Minnesota hasn't shown up yet, as Plouffe has batted just .250/.293/.411 with an ugly 30-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34 games since rejoining the Twins in mid-July.

Ben Revere swiped his 25th base yesterday, moving into second place on the Twins' all-time list for rookies. That sounds impressive, except the person atop the leaderboard is Luis Rivas, who stole 31 bases as a rookie in 2001. Not only did Rivas bat just .266/.319/.362 in stealing those 31 bases, he went on to steal a grand total of just 48 bases in his next 479 games. Of course, even .266/.319/.362 is quite a bit better than Revere's current .255/.301/.294 mark.

Luke Hughes went deep twice yesterday in his 73rd career game, becoming the first Twins hitter with multiple homers in one of his first 75 games since Morneau and Joe Mauer both did it in 2004. Before then the last Twins to do that were Corey Koskie in 1999 and Ron Coomer in 1996. Oh, and Bernardo Brito in 1993. Brito, who spent seven years at Triple-A for the Twins and totaled 164 homers there, managed just five homers in the majors.

• Mauer came off the disabled list on June 17. Since then he's played 61 games and Cuddyer has played 55 games. Since the All-Star break Mauer leads the Twins in batting average (.320) and on-base percentage (.380) while playing more games than anyone but Revere and Danny Valencia. Not everything must fit the pre-established narrative. Speaking of which, this is one of the rare times when Patrick Reusse and I are in complete agreement.

Dr. David Altcheck, who performed Tommy John elbow surgery on Nathan in March of 2010, provided a second opinion on Kyle Gibson's partially torn elbow ligament and agreed with the Twins' recommendation that he attempt to rest and rehab the injury before going under the knife. Gibson will miss all of 2012 whether he undergoes surgery now or in two months, so the delayed decision won't necessarily impact his return timetable much.

• Gardenhire finished ninth in a Sports Illustrated poll asking players which manager they'd like to play for, with Joe Maddon of the Rays holding the top spot at 14 percent.

• One big Thome is back in Cleveland, but 10,000 little Thomes are still in Minnesota.

Charley Walters wrote the most St. Paul article in the history of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

• Old friend Pat Neshek learned the hard way that there's a considerable difference between "designated for assignment" and "optioned."

Delmon Young has zero walks in 58 plate appearances since being traded to the Tigers.

• Since the All-Star break the Twins are hitting .247 with a .305 on-base percentage and .366 slugging percentage compared to their opponents hitting .297 with a .353 on-base percentage and .467 slugging percentage.

• Overall this year the Twins have been out-scored by 144 runs for the worst run differential in the league and the second-worst mark in baseball ahead of only the Astros at -157. Last year the Twins out-scored their opponents by 110 runs.

• Dating back to 2010 and including the playoffs, the Twins are 58-88 in their last 146 games.

• Here's how the race for the top draft picks in 2012 looks:

              W      L       GB
Astros       44     90     ----
Orioles      53     78     10.5
Royals       55     79     11.0
TWINS        56     77     12.5
Mariners     56     76     13.0
Cubs         57     77     13.0

They may have to call up Mark Madsen to shoot some three-pointers in late September.

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August 19, 2011

Twins Notes: 600, concussions, missed flights, debuts, and naming later

Jim Thome ruined the Twins' plans to have him reach 600 career home runs at Target Field by being too damn good, hitting his 599th and 600th homers Monday night in Detroit and then delivering No. 601 against the Tigers two nights later. Thome has been deserving of the Hall of Fame for years already, but hopefully becoming the eighth member of the 600-homer club will ensure his place in Cooperstown. With the way he's hitting, though, that can probably wait.

Thome hasn't been able to duplicate his ridiculous 2010 numbers, but he's having one of the greatest seasons in baseball history by a 40-year-old. In fact, last season his .283/.412/.627 line added up to the fourth-highest adjusted OPS+ of all time by a 39-year-old and this season his .259/.365/.513 line would be tied for the fourth-highest adjusted OPS+ from a 40-year-old. Here are the age-39 and age-40 leaderboards for adjusted OPS+:

AGE 39           YEAR     PA    OPS+        AGE 40           YEAR     PA    OPS+
Barry Bonds      2004    617    263         Willie Mays      1971    537    158
Ted Williams     1958    517    179         Carlton Fisk     1988    298    155
Hank Aaron       1973    465    177         Edgar Martinez   2003    603    141
JIM THOME        2010    279    161         JIM THOME        2011    226    139
Babe Ruth        1934    471    161         Dave Winfield    1992    670    137

If you're curious, here's the adjusted OPS+ leaderboard among 41-year-olds:

AGE 41           YEAR     PA    OPS+
Ted Williams     1960    390    190
Barry Bonds      2006    493    156
Brian Downing    1992    391    138
Stan Musial      1962    505    137
Carlton Fisk     1989    419    136

I'd love to see Thome take a run at that list in 2012 for the Twins and even in a part-time role he'd move past Sammy Sosa for seventh place on the homer list. My favorite stat: Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds are the only hitters with more homers and more walks than Thome.

• Two weeks ago Denard Span came off the disabled list despite admitting that he wasn't fully recovered from a June 3 concussion, saying that he felt it was time to simply play through the symptoms after spending two months on the sidelines. He struggled on a rehab assignment at Triple-A and that continued with the Twins, as Span went 2-for-35 (.057) with three times as many strikeouts as walks before being shut down again with migraines and dizziness.

According to trainer Rick McWane "this is something very similar" to his 2009 bout with vertigo and "the concussion stirred up a previous existing condition." Various medications failed and left Span with side effects, making it likely that he'll miss the remainder of the season. Worse, much like Justin Morneau coming into this season, Span may enter 2012 as a major question mark. Unfortunately for Span and Morneau being tough won't help you get over a brain injury.

Luke Hughes was recalled from Rochester to take Span's roster spot and the short-handed Twins would've started him last night versus left-hander CC Sabathia and the Yankees, except Hughes missed his flight to Minneapolis because he was at the wrong gate. Seriously. Michael Cuddyer and Matt Tolbert were on the active roster but injured and Jason Kubel wasn't with the team due to a personal matter, which forced Ron Gardenhire to get creative.

Gardenhire had exactly nine healthy players at his disposal, including a 40-year-old designated hitter and a pair of catchers, so he wrote out a lineup that included Joe Mauer in the outfield for the first time since high school. Mauer will surely never get the same type of endless praise that the local media gives Cuddyer for his willingness to play other positions, but he's looked good at first base since returning from the disabled list and was decent in right field too.

• It turns out the "later" in player to be named later was around 48 hours, as the Tigers sent 23-year-old right-hander Lester Oliveros to the Twins to complete the Delmon Young trade. At the time of the deal a source told me the PTBNL would be "nobody special" and Oliveros fits the description, but he's not without promise. His fastball averaged 94.5 miles per hour in nine games for the Tigers and he's got 93 strikeouts in 72 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.

Oliveros' mid-90s velocity and outstanding strikeout rate also comes with poor control, as he's walked 43 batters in those 72 frames. Tons of strikeouts, tons of walks, and a big-time fastball make Oliveros appear similar to a younger version of Jim Hoey, which is intended as a positive thing despite the actual Hoey flopping with the Twins earlier this year. Oliveros may eventually do the same, but he also has a chance to be a quality reliever as soon as next season.

• It went down to the wire, but the Twins got first-round pick Levi Michael and supplemental first-round picks Hudson Boyd and Travis Harrison signed before Monday's deadline. Michael received $1.175 million, which is right about the MLB-recommend "slot" bonus for a 30th pick, but Boyd and Harrison each signed for around $1 million when the slot amounts for their picks were $700,000 and $650,000. As always, it's good to see the Twins spending on the draft.

Kevin Mulvey, who the Twins acquired from the Mets as part of the Johan Santana deal and then traded to the Diamondbacks for Jon Rauch in mid-2009, was designated for assignment by Arizona. He's allowed 24 runs in 27 innings as a major leaguer and the 26-year-old former second-round pick has posted increasingly poor results at Triple-A, including a 6.98 ERA and 44-to-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 80 innings there this year.

• Gardenhire was asked about the 2012 middle infield during a recent interview on 1500-ESPN and specifically mentioned Brian Dozier, a 2008 eighth-round pick who began this season as a 24-year-old at high Single-A and is now playing at Double-A. Dozier is having a very nice year, hitting .317/.397/.465 with nearly as many walks (46) as strikeouts (55) in 108 games, but has just four homers and batted just .275/.350/.349 between two levels of Single-A last season.

• No decision has been made yet on Kyle Gibson's possible Tommy John surgery, as the 2009 first-round pick has decided to get a second opinion next week from the doctor who performed Joe Nathan's elbow surgery in March of 2010.

Ben Revere has made too many outs atop the lineup, but at least some are exciting outs.

• Last night's game against the Yankees wasn't much fun, but this MLB.com headline made me laugh: "Long balls trip up Duensing." In related news, I'm a 28-year-old child.

• Thanks to everyone who listened to the first episode of my "Gleeman and The Geek" podcast with John Bonnes. We weren't sure what to expect, but the download count and the feedback have been extremely encouraging and our plan is to record one new episode a week. You can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or download it via the website, so please help spread the word. And if anyone with some design skills has an idea for a good logo, let me know.

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July 25, 2011

Twins Notes: Time’s a wastin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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June 13, 2011

Twins Notes: Hotness, to and from contact, dizziness, and tough decisions

• They still have the worst record in the league at 26-39, still are on pace to go 65-97, and still would need to go 59-38 from here on out to finish with even 85 wins, but by going 9-3 to start June the Twins have at the very least put off a potential fire sale for a while and made their games fun to watch again. Baby steps, sure, but 26-39 looks a whole lot prettier than 17-37 and as usual the thoroughly mediocre AL Central makes much bigger steps seem possible.

Francisco Liriano had a panic-inducing April, posting a 9.13 ERA with as many walks (18) as strikeouts (18) as the Twins tried to convince him to "pitch to contact" with terrible results. His first May start was a no-hitter versus the White Sox and Liriano flirted with a second no-hitter yesterday against the Rangers, giving him a 1.89 ERA in six starts since May 1. And as Liriano explained after racking up nine strikeouts, his success has come from not following advice:

I've always been the power pitcher, trying to strike out people. I feel more comfortable pitching like that. I'm trying to be me, [the way] I used to pitch last year and the year before. I'm not thinking about contact at all.

Good. It never made much sense that the Twins would try to force Liriano into the same strike-throwing, contact-inducing mold they use for pitchers with inferior raw stuff and less ability to overpower hitters, so thankfully he stayed with the approach that led to so much success last season.  Liriano has allowed two runs or fewer in five of six starts, with the lone outlier coming after throwing 123 pitches in the no-hitter, so hopefully they'll stop trying to fix him for a while.

Carl Pavano has also put together a strong six-start stretch since beginning the season 2-4 with a 6.64 ERA, logging 43 innings with a 2.49 ERA and just two homers allowed. However, his lack of missed bats continues to be worrisome from a 35-year-old pitcher set to earn $8.5 million in 2012. Pavano has just 16 strikeouts in those 43 innings, which is a minuscule rate of 3.3 per nine innings and even lower than his 3.6 per nine innings through seven bad starts.

Pavano can still be effective by limiting walks and homers, but it'll be tough for the Twins to get their money's worth over the next season-and-a-half if he can't get back to at least 5-6 whiffs per nine innings like 2009 and 2010. Not only are his 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings this year the lowest rate in baseball, no other pitcher is below 4.0 and the last pitcher to qualify for the ERA title with a lower strikeout rate was Livan Hernandez at 3.4 in 2008 ... for the Twins.

Denard Span's collision with Royals catcher Brayan Pena didn't look like much at the time. In fact, I was watching on television alongside a handful of other Twins bloggers and a few beat reporters, and no one seemed to think much of it beyond Span not turning Pena into Buster Posey with a bigger collision. Span stayed in the game and even played a few days later, but then complained of dizziness and was put on the new seven-day disabled list for concussions.

Span told reporters that he's "definitely scared" about the situation and it's easy to see why. One reason is that Justin Morneau missed the final three-plus months of last season and was sidelined for a total of nine months following a concussion last July and still hasn't gotten back on track 11 months later. Beyond that, Span described what he's currently going through as "a familiar feeling" to when he missed time with vertigo in 2009:

I feel a little like somebody's kind of pushing me from the back a little bit. I'm not going to fall over, but it's the same exact feeling. I want to get this checked out. I'm frustrated, all those things. There's something wrong. I don't know what it is, so I want to get it taken care of.

Span, who'd bounced back from a disappointing 2010 to be the Twins' best all-around player through 60 games, also revealed that he still experiences symptoms related to the vertigo two years later, saying: "It's calmed down a lot and it's manageable, but it's been something I've dealt with since then." That's news to me and is a glimpse into the type of health information players and teams tend to keep to themselves whenever possible.

Alexi Casilla continues to play very well since escaping from the doghouse thanks to Trevor Plouffe's mistake-filled attempt to replace him and is now batting .337/.401/.421 in 27 games since mid-May. His defense is also improved and Casilla is finally using his elite speed. Despite great stolen base percentages Casilla attempted just 21.5 steals per 600 plate appearances prior to this year. This season Casilla has already tried 12 steals in 198 plate appearances.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka is finally on the verge of returning 10 weeks after an injury expected to last 4-6 weeks and once that happens Casilla seems destined for second base despite starting 10 straight games at shortstop. Nishioka looked shaky at second base before fracturing his fibula thanks in part to incorrect double play positioning, so the Twins presumably wouldn't have him playing shortstop while rehabbing if they planned to bring him back as a second baseman.

Ron Gardenhire has dropped some strong hints recently about being unhappy with Danny Valencia and Nishioka returning provides an opportunity for the Twins to keep Matt Tolbert as the utility man and Luke Hughes as the starting third baseman while demoting Valencia back to Triple-A. Hughes has hit well in a part-time role of late, but hasn't been impressive overall with a .270/.311/.360 mark and 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 games.

What's funny about Valencia's situation is that his power and plate discipline have been fine, but whereas an unsustainably high .345 batting average on balls in play fueled his better than expected rookie season an unsustainably low .239 batting average on balls in play has him fighting for his job now. Ultimately the "real" Valencia is somewhere in between and his career line of .270/.321/.397 is close to both his minor-league track record and Hughes' likely upside.

• Barring a setback it looks like Joe Mauer will come off the disabled list Thursday, returning to the lineup after missing 57 games with complications following offseason knee surgery. In his absence the Twins have gotten the worst production in baseball from their catchers, as Drew Butera and Rene Rivera (and Steve Holm, briefly) have combined to hit .178 with a .497 OPS. To put that in some context, Al Newman has the lowest OPS in Twins history at .581.

They've both done a good job defensively, particularly when it comes to controlling the running game, but Butera has hit .174/.207/.261 in 40 games and Rivera has hit .196/.262/.304 in 20 games. So naturally in discussing Mauer's impending return yesterday Gardenhire talked about what a "tough decision" it will be choosing which replacement-level catcher gets to avoid a trip back to Triple-A and stick around as the backup:

Oh, absolutely. You want tough decisions though. I don't like it when it's carved out, "this is going to happen." You want tough decisions. That means both of them are doing OK, and when Joe comes back, sure, we're going to have to make a tough decision. And both of them have done their parts and they continue to. But it's not going to be easy no matter which way we go.

"Both of them are doing OK" and "both of them have done their parts" is an interesting way to describe two players who've literally combined for the worst production in baseball. How much worse than a .497 OPS could they get before it no longer qualified as "doing OK"? In reality it's only a "tough decision" because neither Butera nor Rivera have played well enough to warrant sticking around, in which case "stub your toe or get a paper cut?" is also a "tough decision."

• Speaking of Rivera, last night he tweeted this charming picture of Ben Revere at Morneau's annual casino night charity fundraiser:

Is that a better or worse look for Revere than this little number from his rookie hazing?

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May 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Perkins, James, Hughes, Thome, Revere, Capps, and Mauer

Glen Perkins emerged as one of the few bright spots for the Twins in this miserable season, escaping the doghouse with a 1.59 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23 innings, so naturally he injured his oblique muscle Saturday night and is expected to miss at least three weeks. Normally that would give Jose Mijares an opportunity to step forward and prove himself in a higher leverage role, except he's already on the disabled list with an elbow injury.

You'd think that losing their two main left-handed relievers would motivate the Twins to call up Chuck James, a former Braves top prospect signed as a minor-league free agent after injuries derailed his career. James has thrived in the Triple-A bullpen with a 1.75 ERA, .177 opponents' batting average, and 35-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26 innings, but because he's not on the 40-man roster the Twins opted instead to bring back Dusty Hughes.

Hughes was demoted to Triple-A just two weeks ago after allowing 12 runs in 11 innings as opponents hit .356/.434/.622 off him and didn't even fare particularly well in five appearances at Rochester. From a roster management perspective turning to Hughes again is much easier than giving James a shot, but from a trying to actually win some games perspective it looks like the Twins are content to just shuffle through the same replacement-level players.

Ron Gardenhire's left-handed relief options are now Hughes, who never deserved an Opening Day job to begin with and pitched his way to Triple-A just 15 days ago, and Phil Dumatrait, a 29-year-old journeyman owning a 6.95 ERA in 113 innings. And three of his five right-handed options are Alex Burnett and Anthony Swarzak, who shouldn't be trusted in anything close to an important spot, and Kevin Slowey, a career-long starter struggling to adjust to relief work.

At this point the seven-man bullpen consists of one mediocre closer, one formerly great closer coming back from elbow surgery, one mid-rotation starter not well suited for relieving, and four guys who should be at Triple-A. There's no "risk" to losing replacement-level arms like Hughes, Dumatrait, and Eric Hacker on waivers, but the Twins predictably avoid 40-man changes and no one in Rochester's bullpen besides James is pitching well enough to really force the issue.

Heading into the season the Twins' two biggest non-injury question marks were the bullpen and middle infield, as guys like me wondered all offseason why they did so little to address the lack of depth in both areas. Injuries have magnified that lack of depth while also wrecking the Twins in other areas, but through 45 games they rank dead last among AL teams in bullpen ERA and middle infield OPS. Sometimes big question marks turn into big problems.

• As expected, after yesterday's game the Twins activated Jim Thome and Jason Repko from the disabled list and sent Luke Hughes and Ben Revere back to Triple-A. Matt Tolbert sticks around instead of Hughes for the same reason he beat out Hughes for an Opening Day roster spot, which is his ability to play shortstop. Hughes struggled in his first extended taste of the majors, hitting .211/.253/.296 with a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 75 plate appearances.

Revere was on the roster for 17 games, but started just six times and made his lone start in center field yesterday afternoon, misplaying a double into a triple ahead of what proved to be the game-winning run for Arizona. Revere also hauled in a fantastic over-the-shoulder catch in the same inning and made several impressive grabs while playing left field, but his lack of arm strength and limited offensive potential were both on full display.

Gardenhire hinted that he may have pushed the front office to keep Revere instead of bringing back Repko, saying he "really enjoyed Ben" and "told Billy [Smith] ... Rep hasn't swung the bat great down there." Repko "hasn't swung the bat great" anywhere, really, and the fact that he's a right-handed hitter backing up the left-handed-hitting Denard Span and Jason Kubel is rendered nearly meaningless by Gardenhire's refusal to platoon anyone.

Because he rarely starts, even versus lefties, Repko's main duties are coming in as a defensive replacement and pinch-running, both of which Revere could handle. Of course, it doesn't make much sense to keep Revere in the majors as a bench player and with Thome returning to the lineup the outfield playing time will be even harder to come by. Repko is very expendable, but Revere will benefit more from starting at Triple-A than sitting on the Twins' bench.

• I've written plenty about how closing is a role rather than a skill and about how closers are made rather than born. Matt Capps showing that the "proven closer" label is silly while Wilson Ramos thrives with the Nationals has brought the topic to the forefront, but posting the Rick Aguilera installment of my ongoing "Top 40 Minnesota Twins" series caused me to think about the issue in terms of Twins history.

Prior to becoming the Twins' all-time leader in saves Aguilera wasn't a closer. In fact, he didn't even want to be a reliever. Yet the Twins thought he had the raw stuff for the job and gave him a role he'd never filled before rather than give up assets to acquire an experienced closer. Nathan joins Aguilera as the only pitchers with more than 150 saves in a Minnesota uniform, yet when the Twins acquired him from the Giants he was a 29-year-old with one career save.

Eddie Guardado has the third-most saves in Twins history, but he was given the job almost by default in mid-2001 and at the time had a grand total of 18 career saves in eight seasons. Not every successful Twins closer lacked prior experience, as Ron Perranoski and Jeff Reardon racked up saves elsewhere before arriving in Minnesota. And not every good reliever pans out at closer, as Guardado only got his chance to close after LaTroy Hawkins flopped in the role.

Players can sink or swim at closer just like every other role, but logic, history, and specifically Twins history all show that paying a premium for experience accumulating saves is misguided. Judging from the bullpen's current state the Twins may have to go outside the organization for their next closer, but my hope is that they learn a lesson from Ramos-for-Capps and focus on ability instead of previous save totals. Aim for the next Aguilera or Nathan, not the next Capps.

• During his weekly radio show on 1500-ESPN yesterday Gardenhire explained that the plan is for Joe Mauer's first game action since April 12 to come today or tomorrow at extended spring training. That doesn't necessarily mean Mauer is close to returning from the DL, as he'll likely start out as a designated hitter and work his way back into playing shape, but at least there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Tsuyoshi Nishioka may also get into a game there this week.

Justin Morneau revealed that he got cortisone injections for neck and shoulder pain on May 12. Obviously after missing nine months with a concussion Morneau had enough on his plate without new health problems, but those injuries perhaps help explain his early struggles and altered hitting mechanics. His season totals are still ugly, but since getting the shots Morneau is 12-for-40 (.300) with one homer and three doubles.

• Each season when the Twins travel to National League ballparks for interleague games Dick Bremer asks Bert Blyleven about his career batting average and the FSN announcing crew jokes about his hitting. Blyleven hit more or less like most pitchers do, batting .131 with a .290 OPS in 514 career plate appearances. So far this year Drew Butera is hitting .110 with a .288 OPS in 85 plate appearances. Not quite as funny without the Hall of Fame pitching attached.

• I've seen some confusion about whether Michael Cuddyer has the ability to veto trades as a 10-and-5 player. That requires 10 full seasons of MLB service time, including five seasons with the same team. Cuddyer has the latter and this is his 11th year in the majors, but they aren't full seasons. He got merely a September call-up in 2001 and spent much of 2002 and 2003 in the minors, totaling just 76 games with the Twins in those two seasons. He can be traded.

• Perkins' injury left the Twins in a bind Saturday and put Capps into a two-inning save chance that he blew before recording two outs, but Edward Thoma of the Mankato Free Press explains why Gardenhire not making a double-switch while playing under NL rules cost the Twins twice.

Tom Brunansky's son, Terry Ryan's son, Mickey Hatcher's nephew, and Tyler Robertson's brother are among the 2011 draft prospects with relatives in baseball.

• Between the injuries and bullpen shuffling the Twins have already used 36 different players through 45 games. In the previous five seasons they used 42, 42, 40, 42, and 39 players, and that includes September call-ups.

• Since winning two of three games from the first-place Indians in mid-April the Twins are 6-18, with a pair of three-game winning streaks surrounded by losing streaks of nine, six, and now three games. Overall they're 15-30, which is the worst record in baseball and puts the Twins on pace to go 54-108 for the worst record in team history. Their current winning percentage is .333 and the only sub-.400 seasons so far (1981, 1982, 1995, 1999) were all above .370.

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