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.

June 16, 2010

Should the Twins trade for Mike Lowell?

Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reported recently that the Twins are involved "in trade talks" with the Red Sox for Mike Lowell, who has been relegated to bench duties after an offseason deal to the Rangers was nixed by thumb surgery. According to Rosenthal "the Twins' field staff is lobbying for Lowell" because "the need is obvious" but the "front office would need to work through money and durability concerns."

Rosenthal is my choice for the best, most plugged-in national reporter in baseball and on the surface at least the Twins being interested in Lowell makes sense. Twins third basemen have been awful this season, hitting .207/.275/.274 with just two homers in 64 games to rank dead last in the league in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, homers, extra-base hits, and RBIs while also ranking second-worst in on-base percentage and runs.

Lowell has barely played for the Red Sox thanks to the winter signing of third baseman Adrian Beltre and the resurgence of designated hitter David Ortiz, logging a grand total of 90 plate appearances in 65 team games. He hasn't fared well in the extremely limited action, batting just .215/.311/.354, but 90 trips to the plate spread over three months is hardly a significant sample size and his OPS still beats Twins third basemen by 117 points.

Lowell is 36 years old and has undergone hip and thumb surgeries within the past 20 months, so the risks are obvious. However, he's said to be reasonably healthy now and when given a chance to actually play last season batted .290/.337/.474 with 17 homers and 29 doubles in 119 games. In fact, his current poor production in sporadic action marks just the second time in 11 full seasons as a big leaguer that Lowell hasn't posted an OPS above .785.

If you're curious, the last time someone started at least 100 games at third base and posted an OPS above .785 for the Twins was Corey Koskie in 2004. Lowell's lack of consistent work this season makes it nearly impossible to say exactly what he's capable of offensively at age 36, but there's no doubt that he'd be an obvious upgrade over the horrendous production the Twins have gotten from third base so far and the improvement would likely be significant.

Lowell is also a right-handed hitter and has batted .287/.354/.493 versus left-handed pitching during his career, making him a good fit for a Twins lineup heavy in lefty bats. When healthy his overall production has essentially been identical to Michael Cuddyer, with Lowell batting .279/.342/.466 and Cuddyer batting .270/.343/.457. Cuddyer has obviously been a key cog in the Twins' lineup for a long time, so adding a similar right-handed bat would help a lot.

Defensively is another story, because while Lowell was once a Gold Glove-winning defender at third base age and injuries may have turned him into a liability there. He graded out very well in Ultimate Zone Rating all the way up to 2008, but had hip surgery that offseason and came back to rate 10.7 runs below average in 107 games there last season. He's started just four games at third base this season, which makes it impossible to say if his range has recovered.

I'd be confident calling him a worthwhile, sensible target if the Twins are comfortable pursuing Lowell after presumably having access to his health status and scouting some of his starts this year. He could provide a big offensive upgrade at third base while holding his own defensively and even if his range is gone for good the tradeoff may be worth making. Worst case, if Lowell proved to be a huge liability in the field they'd benefit from his righty bat in a platoon at DH.

Lowell will be a risky acquisition however you slice it, so the potential move comes down to what the Twins would have to trade the Red Sox to take that risk. Back in December they had a deal worked out to send Lowell and $9 million of his $12 million salary to the Rangers for an intriguing but ultimately mid-level catching prospect named Max Ramirez and obviously teams haven't been banging down their door since the trade was nixed.

Money isn't as much of a factor at this point in the season, but assuming the Twins have some room to add salary they presumably should be able to get Lowell for a prospect clearly outside their top 20. It's tough to speculate any more specifically than that in terms of which players the Red Sox would target, but if the Twins can get Lowell for a prospect in the 30 range (now, not based on preseason rankings) they should pull the trigger.

He's a risk, but if reasonably healthy and productive Lowell would fill a clear area of need with a massive offensive upgrade in the form of a right-handed bat with some pop and might even surprise some people with his glove. Old, injured players are scary and I'm as hesitant as the Twins when it comes to parting with even mid-level prospects, but if the price is right Lowell was good enough as recently as last season to potentially give the team a major boost.