April 18, 2012

Twins Notes: Baker, Liriano, Perkins, Sano, Willingham, and Casilla

• As expected Scott Baker underwent surgery yesterday to repair the flexor pronator tendon in his elbow, but while he was under the knife Dr. David Altchek discovered ulnar collateral ligament damage and performed Tommy John surgery as well. Apparently the torn UCL didn't show up on the initial MRI exam or last week's follow-up version, so instead of a six-month recovery timetable Baker will likely be out for 12 months.

So in the span of two weeks Baker went from having an MRI exam that the Twins described as "good news" to needing "cleanup" surgery to undergoing Tommy John surgery. I'm of the opinion that there was never any chance of the Twins exercising his $9.25 million option for 2013, but now that isn't even a consideration. And at this point any injured Twins player who doesn't seek a second opinion from someone outside the organization is an idiot.

Francisco Liriano turned in his third straight clunker last night, failing to make it out of the third inning. Through three starts he has an 11.91 ERA and .407 opponents' batting average while throwing 138 strikes and 103 balls. It's become increasingly popular to say that Liriano's struggles are mental and I'm sure there's plenty of truth to that narrative, but it's also worth noting that his raw stuff is simply nowhere near as good as it was in 2010, let alone in 2006.

As a rookie Liriano's average fastball was 94.7 miles per hour and in 2010 it was 93.7 mph, but since the start of last season it's 91.6 mph. It certainly isn't shocking that a one-time power pitcher would lose confidence as his velocity vanishes and his fastball becomes far more hittable. Perhaps it's a chicken-or-egg scenario and there's no doubt that he's failed to make adjustments, but to suggest that his collapse is entirely mental seems way too simplistic.

Glen Perkins hopefully won't follow Baker's progression from optimistic diagnosis to career-altering surgery, but he underwent an MRI exam on his forearm after coughing up the lead Sunday. No structural damage was found and he's avoided the disabled list ... so far. Dating back to his final 20 appearances of last season Perkins has a 5.56 ERA in his last 23 innings, although that includes 24 strikeouts and his velocity hasn't dipped.

Miguel Sano is off to a huge start at low Single-A, homering yesterday for the fifth time in 12 games. Despite being the sixth-youngest player in the entire Midwest League and not turning 19 years old until next month Sano is hitting .256/.408/.692 and has already drawn nine walks after a total of just 23 walks in 66 games last season. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus recently got a first-hand look at Sano and came away very impressed.

Baseball Prospectus subscribers can read the full scouting report, but the short version is that Goldstein was surprised by the vastly improved patience Sano showed at the plate and was awed by the exceptional power as "his bat goes through the zone violently with plenty of explosion from his mid-section and hips." Goldstein even described Sano's defense at third base as better than expected, although that meant "merely bad" instead of "laughably awful."

Josh Willingham, like Sano, also hit his fifth homer yesterday, taking over the AL lead and joining Kirby Puckett in 1987, Kent Hrbek in 1982, and Bobby Darwin in 1972 as the only Twins hitters with five homers through the first 11 games of a season. So far at least the Willingham signing looks every bit as good as it did at the time, although as a left fielder he makes a good designated hitter.

Alexi Casilla is off to another slow start, which is an annual tradition at this point, and while looking over his career numbers with the Twins this comparison to a similarly disappointing middle infielder popped into my head:

                         G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     SB
Casilla with Twins     418     .251     .309     .336     .645     51
Player X with Twins    565     .262     .307     .383     .690     78

Longtime readers of AG.com may recognize "Player X" as Luis Rivas, who was without question the player who received the most criticism during the first four years of this blog's existence. Rivas was released by the Twins at age 25 and was out of the majors for good at age 28, which is how old Casilla will be in two months. It's time to stop treating him like some sort of prospect with impressive upside.

Trevor Plouffe has now committed 13 errors in 465 innings as a big-league shortstop, which is the equivalent of around 40 errors per full season and a startling number for someone who was a shortstop for 680 games in the minors. That includes 242 games as a Triple-A shortstop, during which time Plouffe made 47 errors. In other words, at this point Plouffe is a shortstop like Michael Cuddyer was a second baseman. He needs to start mashing left-handers.

• Last season Twins pitchers ranked dead last among MLB teams in strikeouts by a wide margin and they're back in 30th place again this season with just 54 strikeouts through 11 games. By comparison, Nationals pitchers lead baseball with 117 strikeouts in 12 games. And not surprisingly the combination of the fewest strikeouts in baseball and a sub par defense has added up to MLB's fourth-worst ERA.

• In addition to his hitting .293/.383/.415 through 11 games another positive sign for Joe Mauer is that he stole a base Monday night after a grand total of one steal in 219 games during the past two seasons. On the other hand nearly 60 percent of his balls in play have been on the ground, which is a disturbingly high total even considering he's always been a ground-ball hitter.

• Mauer isn't alone in his worm-killing, as Twins hitters collectively lead baseball with a ground-ball rate of 55.1 percent. No other team is above 51.6 percent and only two other teams are above 50 percent. And because it's really hard to hit a ground ball over the fence everyone not named Willingham has combined for four homers in 358 plate appearances.

Matthew Bashore, the 2009 first-round pick who was released by the Twins last month after injuries derailed his career, has signed with the Yankees.

"Gleeman and The Geek" made its radio debut this week with 70 minutes of non-stop Twins talk, so give it a listen if you haven't already. We'll be live on KFAN again Sunday at 4:00.

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.

April 6, 2012

Twins Notes: The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right

- "Here Comes The Sun"

• Reminder: I'll be watching the Twins' opener against the Orioles this afternoon at Wild Boar in Hopkins with my "Gleeman and The Geek" co-host John Bonnes and some other familiar names. First pitch is scheduled for 2:05, so I'd encourage everyone to leave work early and join us for some baseball and beer. Click here for more details.

• Here's the Twins' lineup for Game 1 versus right-hander Jake Arrieta:

1. Denard Span, L        CF
2. Jamey Carroll, R      SS
3. Joe Mauer, L          C
4. Justin Morneau, L     DH
5. Josh Willingham, R    LF
6. Ryan Doumit, S        RF
7. Danny Valencia, R     3B
8. Chris Parmelee, L     1B
9. Alexi Casilla, S      2B

I'd have sent Chris Parmelee to Triple-A to begin the season, but if you assume that those nine players must start on Opening Day that's exactly what my batting order would look like. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's something.

• I wrote all the season previews for AL Central teams at HardballTalk and concluded that the Tigers are clear front-runners, perhaps more so than any other team in any other division, while the Indians, White Sox, Royals, and Twins are each very capable of finishing anywhere from second place to last place. If everything breaks right for the Twins staying in contention deep into the season is possible, but my guess is that they finish right around .500.

• While a .500 record may not sound very optimistic, Las Vegas has the over/under for Twins wins around 73, which is higher than only the Astros and Orioles, and ESPN.com's season simulation based on Baseball Think Factory's excellent ZiPS projection system has the Twins going 70-92. They were so awful last season that improving by 15 games would still leave them at 78-84, so .500 would be quite an accomplishment.

Jason Marquis needs to build up his arm strength after leaving spring training to be with his family following his daughter's bicycling accident, so he's agreed to an assignment to Double-A and will have his turn in the rotation skipped at least once. And thankfully his daughter is making good progress in her recovery.

Scott Baker exited yesterday's minor-league start after just 11 pitches, so it doesn't sound like he'll be returning from elbow problems any time soon.

• As if the Twins didn't have enough question marks, Buster Olney of ESPN.com crunched the numbers and found that they have the toughest early season schedule in the league based on 2011 records.

• In addition to being an excellent guest on this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press also wrote a lengthy, even-handed, and interesting article about all things Joe Mauer. Once you're done reading it follow Goessling on Twitter and bookmark his blog. Good writer, good guy, and good addition to the local Twins media.

• As someone who loves the Twins and The Big Lebowski this commercial is pretty great:

"The Big Hrbowski" is the role Kent Hrbek was born to play.

• For months Terry Ryan insisted that Trevor Plouffe would be used exclusively in the outfield after his disastrous rookie showing at shortstop, but now that the Twins don't have a true backup shortstop on the roster suddenly Plouffe is in the infield mix again. Plans changing was the theme of this spring, but giving Plouffe some chances at second base or third base is a worthwhile idea while they try to figure out where he fits offensively and defensively.

Seth Stohs has a complete rundown of all the minor-league rosters over at Twins Daily. Of my top 10 prospects, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario will be at low Single-A Beloit, Oswaldo Arcia and Levi Michael will be at high Single-A Fort Myers, Aaron Hicks and Alex Wimmers will be at Double-A New Britain, Joe Benson and Brian Dozier will be at Triple-A Rochester, Kyle Gibson will be rehabbing Tommy John surgery, and Liam Hendriks will be in the majors.

• Parmelee working his way on to the Opening Day roster left the Twins short a Triple-A first baseman, so they acquired Matt Rizzotti from the Phillies for cash considerations. As a 26-year-old career minor leaguer available for basically nothing Rizzotti is hardly a prospect, but he's consistently had very impressive numbers that include a .295/.392/.511 line with 24 homers, 34 doubles, and 79 walks in 139 games at Double-A last season.

Matt Bashore starred at Indiana University and was the Twins' supplemental first-round pick in 2009, but arm problems have limited him to just 19 career innings and he was released last week. They also released 2009 third-round pick Ben Tootle, a hard-throwing right-hander whose career was similarly ruined by injuries, and Dustin Martin, an outfielder acquired from the Mets along with Drew Butera in the mid-2007 trade for Luis Castillo.

Joel Zumaya underwent Tommy John elbow surgery last week and instead of putting him on the 60-day disabled list all season the Twins released him. And despite his one-year contract supposedly being "non-guaranteed" they're apparently on the hook for his entire $850,000 base salary rather than the initially reported $400,000.

• Back in December the Twins traded Kevin Slowey to the Rockies for marginal prospect Daniel Turpen and then six weeks later the Rockies traded him to the Indians, who were looking for rotation help following Fausto Carmona's arrest on false identity charges. Cleveland gave up a better prospect for Slowey than Colorado did, yet even with Carmona still out of the picture the Indians decided to send Slowey and his $2.8 million salary to Triple-A.

Pat Neshek had a 0.00 ERA with eight strikeouts and zero walks in nine innings this spring after signing a minor-league deal with the Orioles, but they sent him to Triple-A anyway.

Matt Tolbert, did not make the Cubs on a minor-league deal and will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa.

Cristian Guzman, who was attempting a comeback at age 33 after sitting out all of last season for personal reasons, was released by the Indians.

Johan Santana returned from shoulder surgery to throw five scoreless innings in his first start since 2010.

Jason Bulger and Steve Pearce both signed minor-league contracts with the Yankees after being released by the Twins in the middle of spring training.

• If you're interested in keeping tabs on Twins prospects this season Twins Fan From Afar is a blog you should definitely check out, as Andrew Walter will attending games in New Britain, Connecticut and writing about the Double-A team that includes top-40 prospects Hicks, Wimmers, Chris Herrmann, David Bromberg, Deolis Guerra, and James Beresford.

• For anyone who plays Hardball Dynasty on WhatIfSports.com my league is looking for a couple new owners and our next season begins soon. Before contacting me, click here.

• If you impersonate Bert Blyleven on Twitter he will tell you to "get a life a-hole."

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped here during the too-long offseason. My goal each winter is to find enough interesting stuff to write about that most of you keep showing up, but I'm ready to talk about actual games again and look forward to my 11th season of blogging. Thanks for reading AG.com, thanks for following me on Twitter, thanks for listening to the podcast, and thanks for supporting my work at NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.

And in what has become an Opening Day tradition, this is Richie Havens singing my favorite version of "Here Comes The Sun":

February 1, 2011

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2011: 40, 39, 38, 37, 36

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35.

40. Matthew Bashore | Starter | DOB: 4/88 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2009-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2009     RK+     1      0     0.00       2.0       3      0       2      0

Matthew Bashore has appeared in just one pro game two years after the Twins made him the 46th overall pick in the 2009 draft. He signed for $750,000, tossed two innings at rookie-level Elizabethton, and was shut down with an elbow injury. He underwent surgery to remove bone chips and was supposed to be ready for the beginning of last season, but instead never threw a pitch in 2010 and is a question mark for this year following Tommy John surgery.

My decision to include Bashore on this list despite his uncertain status stems from the fact that he'd no doubt have cracked the top 40 after struggling mightily in his first taste of pro ball by virtue of being a top-50 pick. Obviously needing his elbow rebuilt is far worse than simply not performing well, but Tommy John surgery is hardly a death sentence for pitchers and at age 23 he still has plenty of time to get back on track before falling off the prospect map.

Bashore is a 6-foot-3 lefty who spent three years in Indiana University's rotation, finishing his career tied for the school strikeout record. He worked in the low-90s with his fastball before going under the knife and fits the Twins' mold as a control-and-command guy. This season will be crucial for Bashore, as he can't afford another setback if the Twins are to get any value out of the compensatory draft pick received for letting Dennys Reyes walk as a free agent.

39. Lance Ray | Right Field | DOB: 9/89 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2010-8

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     RK+     76     .314     .360     .414      0      6      3     10
         A-     199     .279     .377     .418      3     17     28     28

After two seasons playing for a Nevada junior college Lance Ray transferred to the University of Kentucky last year and got off to a slow start following offseason wrist surgery, but quickly got on track and ended up leading the Wildcats in batting average (.356), on-base percentage (.458), and slugging percentage (.720) while walking as many times (20) as he struck out (21) against high-level competition in the Southeastern Conference.

He finished his junior season on a 21-game hitting streak, during which he batted .418 with 18 extra-base hits and 16 walks, and was picked by the Twins in the eighth round. He signed for $125,000 and spent just a few weeks in rookie-ball before quickly moving up to low Single-A, combining to bat .289/.372/.417 with three homers, 23 total extra-base hits, and a 38-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 total games.

Ray looks like a good bet to control the strike zone, grind out walks, and post strong on-base percentages, but as a first baseman or corner outfielder his power development will be crucial. He showed plenty of pop wielding the metal in college, but didn't do much damage shifting to wood bats in his professional debut and pre-draft reports pegged Ray as more of a line-drive hitter than a slugger.

38. Tyler Robertson | Starter | DOB: 12/87 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2006-3

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A+     15     15     2.72      82.2      78      3      73     31
2009     A+     26     26     3.33     143.1     139      7     103     51
2010     AA     27     27     5.41     144.2     181     17      91     57

Tyler Robertson was the Twins' third rounder in 2006 and fared very well in the low minors to emerge as one of the team's top pitching prospects, but his performance has deteriorated so steadily since missing half of 2008 with shoulder problems that the Twins announced plans to move him to the bullpen this season. Even when Robertson was thriving there were questions about his stiff, unorthodox delivery, so an injury isn't the only possibly factor in his decline.

During the past four years Robertson's strikeouts per nine innings have gone from 10.8 to 7.9 to 6.5 to 5.8, and last season at Double-A he had a sub par 91-to-57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 145 innings while opponents hit .308 with 17 homers. However, even while struggling overall the 23-year-old southpaw maintained a ground-ball rate around 50 percent and previously did very well limiting long balls.

Ultimately shifting to the bullpen is likely best for Robertson, as he's had difficulty keeping his velocity steady throughout a full season in the rotation and has a strong enough track record versus left-handed hitters to settle into a lefty specialist role if setup duties prove above him. He's definitely at a career crossroads this season, as the Twins left him off the 40-man roster and unprotected for the Rule 5 draft knowing he wouldn't be selected.

37. Danny Rams | Catcher | DOB: 12/88 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2007-2

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     RK     166     .228     .301     .428      5     16     15     71
2009     RK      72     .355     .444     .790      6     14      8     22
         A-     195     .229     .308     .429      7     21     18     77
2010     A-     450     .243     .310     .450     16     48     31    145

It's been four years since the Twins picked Danny Rams in the second round of the 2007 draft and he really hasn't developed one bit. He still swings at everything, still strikes out a ton, and still has lots of people questioning whether he can remain a catcher long term. And yet Rams also still has enough raw power and arm strength to keep him on the prospect map at age 22, albeit just barely.

Ugly as they were last season's .243 batting average and 145-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio at low Single-A are right in line with Rams' career marks, but he also smacked 16 homers and 48 total extra-base hits in 407 at-bats playing in Beloit's pitcher-friendly environment and threw out 47 percent of steal attempts. Among all the hitters in the Twins' system with at least 300 plate appearances last season only Joe Benson had a higher Isolated Power.

His flaws are prominent enough to possibly derail his development, but because the standard for "decent" among major-league catchers is so low simply hitting some homers and controlling the running game can make Rams a valuable player along the lines of, say, John Buck, Miguel Olivo, and Rod Barajas. Of course, those guys weren't already quite so flawed and limited in the minors, which means they represent optimistic scenarios for Rams at this point.

36. Scott Diamond | Starter | DOB: 7/86 | Throws: Left | Rule 5: Braves

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A-      9      9     3.08      52.2      47      2      38     11
         A+     17     15     2.79     100.0      95      6      85     28
2009     AA     23     23     3.50     131.0     152      5     111     53
2010     AA     17     17     3.52     102.1     113      4      90     39
         AAA    10     10     3.36      56.1      53      2      33     15

Scott Diamond went undrafted out of a Canadian high school in 2007 and signed with Atlanta for $50,000, which is the same price the Twins paid in December to nab him in the Rule 5 draft. Despite being undrafted Diamond moved pretty quickly through the Braves' system, reaching Triple-A in his third year as a pro. He's had success at every level, posting ERAs of 3.08 at low Single-A, 2.79 at high Single-A, 3.51 at Double-A, and 3.36 at Triple-A.

Last season he made 17 starts at Double-A and 10 starts at Triple-A, posting a 3.46 ERA and 123-to-54 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 159 total innings. His strikeout and walk rates have been mediocre, with 7.3 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per nine innings, but Diamond has served up just 19 homers in 442 career innings, including 11 long balls in 290 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, and has also had a ground-ball rate above 50 percent at every level.

In order for the Twins to keep Diamond he must remain on the 25-man roster (or disabled list) for the entire season or he'll be offered back to the Braves. Unlike most Rule 5 picks Diamond has a chance to stick, in part because he projects as a potentially useful pitcher and in part because the Twins have plenty of spots to settle in the bullpen. He could begin 2011 in a long relief role and perhaps get a chance to be a situational left-hander if things go well.

June 23, 2010

Twins Notes: Mauer, Lowell, Bonser, Neshek, Plouffe, and prospects

• A few weeks ago after Ken Griffey Jr. retired friend of AG.com Jay Jaffe wrote a good article at Baseball Prospectus focusing on his place in baseball history, which also included this list of the best No. 1 overall picks of all time based on Wins Above Replacement Position (WARP):

NO. 1 PICK           YEAR     WARP
Alex Rodriguez       1993    101.0
Ken Griffey Jr.      1987     79.7
Chipper Jones        1990     72.4
Harold Baines        1977     48.4
Darryl Strawberry    1980     46.9
Joe Mauer            2001     34.5

I was surprised to see that only six No. 1 overall picks in baseball history have accumulated as many as 30 career WARP. To put that in some Twins-related context, Corey Koskie and Greg Gagne had 26.0 and 24.6 career WARP, respectively. Joe Mauer is already the sixth-best No. 1 pick ever despite being in the middle of his age-27 season. He won't top Alex Rodriguez and may be a long shot to pass Griffey, but should give Chipper Jones a run for the third spot.

• Last week I examined whether the Twins should trade for Mike Lowell after Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reported they were talking to the Red Sox about the veteran third baseman. Rosenthal has since followed up his initial report, adding that the Red Sox are in a "stalemate" with the Twins and Rangers regarding Lowell because they're willing to pay the rest of his $12 million salary, but only if they get a decent player in return.

In other words the Red Sox want to save money or get a decent player. If the Twins are willing to absorb most of Lowell's remaining salary they can likely get him for a low-level prospect. If the Twins are willing to part with a mid-level prospect the Red Sox will likely pay the rest of his salary. Either way, the price is right. Lowell makes sense as a third baseman or DH platoon partner for Jason Kubel, who has a Jacque Jones-like .235/.317/.352 career line off lefties.

• Traded to the Red Sox in December after missing all of last year following shoulder surgery, Boof Bonser spent the first two months of this season on the disabled list, allowed four runs without recording an out in his first big-league appearance in 21 months, and was designated for assignment a week later. Meanwhile, the prospect the Twins got in return, Chris Province, has a 5.66 ERA in 41 innings as a 25-year-old reliever at Double-A. Seems like a fair trade.

• After angering the team by writing publicly about his injury status, Pat Neshek was activated from the disabled list and optioned to Triple-A earlier this month, with Ron Gardenhire saying:

He's just like everyone else in the minor leagues now. He's got to pitch his way back up. When there's a need, he'll get an opportunity ... if he's the one throwing the ball good.

Neshek has pitched in four Triple-A games with a 2.00 ERA, .152 opponents' batting average, and 7-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine innings. So far so good, although I doubt he's gotten much closer to rejoining the Twins and even a 2.00 ERA ranks just third-best in the Rochester bullpen behind Kyle Waldrop at 1.16 and Anthony Slama at 1.60 ERA. Despite that, Rochester is 28-41 and has the worst team ERA in the International League at 5.03.

Jayson Stark of ESPN.com reported recently that the Orioles have been "sniffing around for a shortstop" and Trevor Plouffe "is rumored to have piqued their interest." Plouffe was oddly the only shortstop Stark mentioned by name and that seems like some awfully random smoke if there's zero fire behind it. Over the weekend Plouffe was sent back to Triple-A, where he's hit a career-best .278/.340/.449 in 54 games.

• Last week B.J. Hermsen was four outs from a no-hitter at low Single-A, settling for a one-hit shutout. Friend of AG.com and former part-time MLB.com Twins beat writer Thor Nystrom was in attendance and told me Hermsen was "very solid looking" and "goes after guys." However, he was surprised that Hermsen "doesn't throw hard for his size" and "doesn't have dominant stuff," which matches reports I got before ranking him as this year's 18th-best Twins prospect.

• After signing in September for $3.15 million, Miguel Sano homered on the first pitch he saw in the Dominican Summer League and is hitting .341/.444/.636 in 14 games. What makes that even more impressive is the DSL as a whole hitting .234 with a .315 slugging percentage this year, so his OPS is 427 points higher than the league average. Also worth noting is that Sano has played primarily third base, so any notion of him as a long-term shortstop is already over.

• In less positive prospect news, last year's supplemental first-round pick Matthew Bashore is out for the season following Tommy John elbow surgery and third-round pick Ben Tootle is out indefinitely after shoulder surgery. Bashore signed for $750,000 shortly after the draft, but got into just one game before being shut down and never pitched this year. Tootle looked good in his debut last year, but gave up 17 runs in 18 innings before going under the knife this year.

• Outfield prospect Rene Tosoni is also out for the season following shoulder surgery, which is a shame because he was off to a good start at Double-A after ranking 11th on my preseason list and could have factored into the Twins' plans at some point next season.