May 31, 2011

Twins Notes: Nathan, James, Plouffe, Liriano, Swarzak, and Slama

Joe Nathan's comeback from Tommy John surgery went from bad to worse, as the Twins put him on the disabled list with more elbow pain. The good news is that an MRI exam revealed only inflammation. The bad news is that there's no return timetable and Nathan is "prepared" to be out as long as a month. Tommy John surgery recovery is often said to be 12 months, but as we've seen with Francisco Liriano and now Nathan unfortunately that often isn't the case.

Nathan gradually added velocity after arriving at spring training throwing in the mid-80s, but never approached his pre-surgery stuff and the missing miles per hour also came attached to far worse command. Along with his ERA rising from 2.10 in 2009 to 7.63 this season, Nathan's strikeouts are down 38 percent, his walks are up 50 percent, and his average fastball fell from 93.6 to 91.4 mph. He hasn't been as bad as the 7.63 ERA, but he hasn't been Joe Nathan.

• To replace Nathan in the bullpen the Twins called up Chuck James, for whom the bloggers I read and tweeters I follow have been pining. I'm far from convinced that James can make a big impact, but unlike Dusty Hughes or Phil Dumatrait or Eric Hacker there's at least a chance of James proving to be more than just the latest replacement-level bullpen stopgap. James, like Nathan, is an example of how long the road back from arm surgery can be.

Once upon a time James was a top prospect in the Braves' system, posting great numbers in the minors before debuting in September of 2005. He joined Atlanta's rotation the next season at age 24 and posted a 4.05 ERA with a 207-to-105 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 280 innings over two years before blowing out his shoulder. He missed most of 2008 and all of 2009 following rotator cuff and labrum surgery, returning as a Triple-A reliever for the Nationals last season.

He pitched well with a 2.32 ERA and 69/11 K/BB ratio in 66 innings, signed with the Twins this winter, and forced them to call him up by throwing 29 innings with a 1.57 ERA and 37/9 K/BB ratio out of Rochester's bullpen. James' raw stuff doesn't match those numbers, but even while succeeding as a mid-rotation starter in Atlanta his average fastball was just 88 mph and with 106 strikeouts in 95 innings since returning he's missed bats without overpowering hitters.

Sad as it may be, at this point the Twins' main goals should be to get healthy, play respectable baseball, make some smart trades, and sort out who can help them in 2012. Cycling through more guys like Hughes or Dumatrait accomplishes none of that, but James may still have some upside at age 29. Before surgery he was a young mid-rotation starter with a 4.00 ERA and in coming back he's been a very effective Double-A and Triple-A reliever with great K/BB ratios.

Trevor Plouffe got off to a fantastic start after being called up from Triple-A to replace Alexi Casilla at shortstop, but the flaws that made him just the 32nd-best Twins prospect heading into the season have since been exposed. Plouffe has 15-homer power and a very strong arm, but that's about it. Or as I wrote in ranking him No. 32 back in February: "A career as a utility man looks like his most realistic upside." Unfortunately the other options aren't any better.

• Liriano's no-hitter got everyone's hopes up and he's sprinkled in a couple of strong outings, but his overall struggles along with decreased velocity suggested something wasn't quite right physically and yesterday the Twins placed him on the DL with shoulder inflammation. For now the official word is that the Twins are hopeful he can return when eligible next week, but then again they initially hoped he'd miss just one start and avoid the DL in the first place.

Compared to last year Liriano's strikeouts are down 36 percent, his walks are up 107 percent, and he's missing 1.7 mph on his average fastball, which is how his ERA has gone from 3.62 to 5.73 and his xFIP has gone from 2.95 to 5.01. Even while posting an impressive-looking 2.52 ERA in four starts this month Liriano also had a sub par 16-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings, succeeding because of a ridiculously fortunate .154 batting average on balls in play.

Anthony Swarzak took a no-hitter into the eighth inning Saturday while starting in Liriano's place against the Angels, so naturally he'll stay in the rotation during the DL stint. However, much like Plouffe the longer Swarzak remains in a prominent role the more obvious his faults will become. He also started very strong as a rookie in 2009, tossing seven shutout innings in his debut and sporting a 3.90 ERA after five starts, only to finish with a 6.25 ERA in 59 innings.

And since then Swarzak has a 5.67 ERA and 94-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 144 innings at Triple-A, although he was pitching reasonably well prior to the latest call-up. Swarzak may do a nice job filling in for Liriano and may even prove to be a capable back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever, but don't let the great first impressions fool you into thinking he's more than a marginal prospect at age 25.

• To replace Liriano on the roster the Twins called up reliever Anthony Slama, who's similar to James this year in that his outstanding minor-league numbers have always screamed out for an extended opportunity. Slama has a 2.11 ERA and 369 strikeouts in 273 total innings in the minors, including a 2.73 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 105 innings at Triple-A, yet he's 27 years old and has just five appearances in the big leagues.

Slama isn't destined to become an elite reliever, but like James there's at least some reason to think he could be useful to the Twins this year and beyond. Obviously having the worst record in baseball at the end of May is a nightmare scenario for the Twins, but hopefully they can find small positives within the huge negative by giving legitimate opportunities to guys like Slama, who deserves 50 innings to sink or swim even if they've never trusted his minor-league stats.

Danny Valencia batting around .350 for much of his half-season debut last year had many people willing to dismiss his underwhelming minor-league numbers, but he's now played 136 games in the big leagues while hitting .280/.329/.412. He played 120 games at Triple-A and hit .289/.322/.421. Funny how that tends to work. Valencia's defense, however, has been much better than advertised and makes him a solid regular despite a mediocre bat.

• For a while the Twins kept saying Tsuyoshi Nishioka was ahead of schedule in his recovery from a fractured fibula, but he was initially given a 4-6 week timetable on April 7. Monday will be two months since the injury and Nishioka hasn't even started a minor-league rehab stint. When it comes to the Twins and injuries, there's no such thing as "ahead of schedule."

• Orioles manager Buck Showalter was full of praise for Wilson Ramos after an interleague series versus the Nationals, saying: "I love that Ramos kid. He's about as good a young player as I've seen this year. The kid they got from Minnesota. He's really impressive." Ramos has slumped recently, but the 23-year-old's .731 OPS still ranks 14th among the 32 catchers with at least 100 plate appearances and he's the youngest starting catcher in baseball.

• Old friend Brian Fuentes hasn't made many new friends in Oakland, although in fairness it sounds like he's not the first late-inning reliever to have a problem with manager Bob Geren's communication methods.

• Speaking of old friends in Oakland, the A's dealt former Twins minor leaguer Steven Tolleson to the Padres for a player to be named later. Tolleson was never a particularly good prospect, but he looked like a potentially useful role player and ranked 37th on my list last year only to be claimed off waivers by the A's literally the day the rankings were posted in January.

• Dusty Hughes has been a horrendous pickup, but at least Rob Delaney hasn't thrived for the Rays after being waived to make room for Hughes on the Twins' roster. Tampa Bay designated Delaney for assignment, meaning the Twins could potentially use their No. 1 waiver priority to claim him back. Don't count on it, though. He's still my second-favorite Rob Delaney.

Martire Garcia ranked 31st on my list of the Twins' top prospects after throwing 73 innings with a 3.31 ERA and 93-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio between rookie-ball and low Single-A as a 20-year-old. Sent back to Beloit to begin this season, Garcia posted a 5.57 ERA and 22/25 K/BB ratio in 21 innings ... and the Twins released him. Those are ugly numbers, for sure, but there must be a little more to the story too.

• As a team the Twins have an adjusted ERA+ of 84 through 52 games. Among all the pitchers in team history with at least 300 innings Pat Mahomes is the only one with a worse adjusted ERA+ at 81. In other words, after about one-third of the season the Twins have pitched like an entire staff full of Pat Mahomes. And their hitting has been even worse.

Jim Hoey has a 10.45 ERA in 10 innings. The last Twins pitcher with a higher ERA than Hoey in at least 10 innings was Mike Lincoln, who had a 10.89 ERA in 21 innings in 2000. He went on to post a 2.96 ERA in 113 innings for the Pirates in 2001 and 2002, so perhaps there's still some hope for Hoey yet.

• Last season the Twins allowed 67 runs in the eighth inning. This season they've allowed 51 runs in the eighth inning. And there are still 112 games to go.

February 3, 2011

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2011: 35, 34, 33, 32, 31

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 36-40.

35. Kyle Waldrop | Reliever | DOB: 10/85 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2004-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2009     A+     20      0     3.09      35.0      43      0      20      7
         AA     31      0     1.46      55.2      51      2      30     18
2010     AAA    59      0     2.57      87.2      89      5      60     20

Kyle Waldrop was a first-round pick in 2004 who looked less and less impressive as he moved up the minor-league ladder and then missed all of 2008 following shoulder surgery. He shifted to the bullpen full time upon returning in 2009 and has had back-to-back strong seasons as a reliever. Last year Waldrop had a 2.59 ERA and 60-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 88 innings at Triple-A, allowing just five homers while inducing 64 percent ground balls.

His lack of top-notch velocity and mediocre strikeout rates make it unlikely that Waldrop will be a force in the late innings, but the 25-year-old right-hander certainly looks capable of being a solid middle reliever thanks to good control and some serious worm-killing ability. He also looks to be just about MLB-ready, which is why it was surprising when the Twins declined to add him to the 40-man roster and left him unprotected for the Rule 5 draft in December.

Waldrop struggling down the stretch at Triple-A and getting knocked around in the Arizona Fall League may have scared teams off, as he went unpicked and the Twins lost no players in the draft. However, the fact that they were willing to lose him and his lack of a spot on the 40-man roster show the Twins' absence of faith in Waldrop despite his success as a reliever and could equal an uphill battle for a call-up in 2011.

34. Deolis Guerra | Starter | DOB: 4/89 | Throws: Right | Trade: Mets

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A+     26     25     5.47     130.0     138     12      71     71
2009     A+     16     15     4.69      86.1      95      6      57     25
         AA     12     11     5.17      62.2      62      4      49     17
2010     AA     19     19     6.24     102.1     127     14      67     37
        AAA      5      4     6.84      25.0      35      5      18      8

Believe it or not, many people considered Deolis Guerra the centerpiece of the four-prospect package the Twins received from the Mets for Johan Santana in February of 2008. At the time he was just 18 years old and had already logged 180 impressive innings at Single-A, and the combination of a 6-foot-5 frame, low-90s fastball, and oft-touted changeup earned Guerra the No. 35 spot in Baseball America's annual ranking. Three years later he barely made this list.

Because the Mets had Guerra pitching at high Single-A as an 18-year-old the Twins have been forced to promote him far more aggressively than his performance has warranted. Even now he's one of the youngest pitchers on this list and younger than the average player at Single-A, but had the Twins assigned and promoted him based strictly on age and performance he'd still be in the Florida State League five years after debuting there.

Instead he's been thrown into the fire at Double-A and in the second half of last year Triple-A, leading to some hideous numbers. Guerra is 8-16 with a 5.97 ERA in 190 innings between the two levels, allowing opponents to hit .300 while managing just 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Guerra's raw stuff has also declined since the deal, as he's struggled to maintain peak velocity and ceased being a ground-baller. He's still young, but that's about all he has left in his favor.

33. Luke Hughes | Third Base | DOB: 8/84 | Bats: Right | Sign: Australia

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     AA     319     .319     .385     .551     15     33     28     70
        AAA     117     .283     .325     .453      3     11      7     30
2009     AA     229     .250     .320     .445      6     24     19     38
        AAA     157     .259     .344     .481      6     16     18     38
2010    AAA      81     .257     .313     .405      1      9      5     18

Luke Hughes made his MLB debut on April 28 and went deep off Max Scherzer to become the 106th player in baseball history to homer in his first at-bat, but the rest of his season wasn't very memorable. Hughes' first taste of the majors lasted only two games and he was limited to just 22 games back at Triple-A because of a sports hernia and groin injury that both required surgery, almost surely costing him at least a September call-up.

Hughes has bounced around a ton defensively since the Twins signed him out of Australia as a teenager in 2002, seeing time at every position except pitcher and catcher. Most of his action has come at third base, where Hughes made his major-league debut, and second base, where he looms as a potential fallback option for the Twins this season should Alexi Casilla struggle after being handed a starting job.

While reviews of Hughes' defense vary a lot most seem to agree that he's unlikely to be more than passable as an infielder, so he'll have to hit his way into a job and is running out of time at age 26. He's hit .282/.348/.473 between Double-A and Triple-A, which isn't enough to cancel out a poor glove and projects to make him a bench bat who draws starts versus lefties. He'll likely be in Minnesota at some point this season and it could be a make-or-break year.

32. Trevor Plouffe | Shortstop | DOB: 6/86 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2004-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     AA     249     .269     .325     .410      3     23     16     43
        AAA     272     .256     .292     .420      6     26     14     47
2009    AAA     477     .260     .313     .407     10     38     34     68
2010    AAA     445     .244     .300     .430     15     41     27     90

Trevor Plouffe made his major-league debut in mid-May and was called up four different times during the season, but the 2004 first-round pick started a total of just seven games and went 6-for-41 (.146) with 14 strikeouts and zero walks in his first taste of the big leagues at age 24. His performance at Rochester was more encouraging, but only slightly, as Plouffe's third crack at Triple-A involved posting nearly the same poor numbers there as he did in 2008 and 2009.

Plouffe has spent the bulk of three straight seasons at Triple-A, posting batting averages of .256, .260, and .244, on-base percentages of .292, .313, and .300, and slugging percentages of .420, .407, and .430. His overall Triple-A line is .253/.303/.419 in 1,194 plate appearances and his career line in 3,318 total plate appearances in the minors is an equally underwhelming .254/.316/.391. At this point it's pretty safe to conclude that Plouffe simply can't hit.

He's shown 15-homer power, but that doesn't hold much value when it comes along with poor plate discipline, a relatively high strikeout rate, and the inability to hit even .275 at any level in any season since rookie-ball in 2004. Plouffe's value is almost entirely tied to his defense and opinions are mixed on whether he can be an asset at shortstop in the majors, so right now a career as a utility man looks like his most realistic upside.

31. Martire Garcia | Starter | DOB: 3/90 | Throws: Left | Sign: Dominican

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     RK-    11     11     3.25      52.2      45      3      53     22
2009     RK+    13     12     4.42      59.0      61      4      54     31
2010     RK+     8      8     1.75      46.1      42      2      63     15
         A-      6      6     6.00      27.0      27      2      30     23

Martire Garcia was signed by the Twins just before his 17th birthday in 2007 and the skinny, diminutive left-hander from the Dominican Republic spent most of his first three pro seasons in various levels of rookie-ball before a second-half promotion to low Single-A last year. He had a rough time in six starts at Beloit, with 23 walks in 27 innings, but also managed 30 strikeouts and held opponents to a .252 batting average.

Consistently throwing strikes was also an issue for Garcia at rookie-ball in 2008 and 2009, but he began last season by posting a 1.75 ERA and 63-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 46 innings at Elizabethton and aside from that six-start stretch at Beloit his control certainly hasn't been bad enough to stand out as a red flag for a 21-year-old with good raw stuff. He'll likely spend most of this year in Beloit's rotation, but the Twins will probably limit his workload somewhat.

Garcia might have to eat a big breakfast just to weigh in at 160 pounds, but he packs plenty of velocity into a 5-foot-11 frame and has 281 strikeouts in 263 innings. He's one of the leading candidates to make a big jump up this list for 2012 once we see how he handles full-season competition, but for now Garcia's ranking is on the conservative side and based more on his potential than actual performance.