June 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Gibson’s debut, Buxton’s promotion, and Slama’s release

kyle gibson rochester

• It took Mike Pelfrey going on the disabled list with a back injury, but the Twins finally called up Kyle Gibson from Triple-A. Gibson will start Saturday at Target Field against the Royals, making his debut four months before his 26th birthday and nearly 22 months after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in 2011. He'll be the ninth different pitcher to start a game for the Twins this season, which shows the lengths they went to avoid calling up Gibson.

He leaves Rochester having thrown at least six innings in seven consecutive starts, posting a 2.20 ERA and 41-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 49 innings over that span. Overall in 15 starts there Gibson had a 3.01 ERA and 79-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings, holding opponents to a .229 batting average and four homers in 371 plate appearances. His age and modest strikeout rate keep Gibson from being an elite pitching prospect, but he's plenty good and very ready.

Gibson has never missed a ton of bats, but the 6-foot-6 right-hander throws harder than a typical Twins starting pitcher and has a chance to post an above-average strikeout rate in the majors. His main strength is keeping the ball out of the air, with 57 percent ground balls and just 16 homers in 210 career innings at Triple-A. To put that in some context, only four MLB starting pitchers have a ground-ball rate above 55 percent this season. If things go well he has No. 2 starter upside.

• Gibson is presumably in Minnesota to stay, which could get tricky because of a team-imposed innings limit in his first full season back from surgery. It's been tough to nail down specifics on Gibson's workload cap, but it's likely somewhere around 130-150 innings and he's already thrown 93 innings at Triple-A. If he started every fifth day for the rest of the season he'd be in line for 17 starts and even at just five innings per outing that's 85 innings. He'd fly past any limit.

Gibson sticking around for good would also require dumping someone from the rotation whenever Pelfrey returns from the DL. Pelfrey could be that someone considering he's signed to a one-year deal and has a 6.11 ERA in 14 starts, but P.J. Walters would also be an obvious candidate to dump. Walters imploded Saturday against the Indians, failing to make it out of the first inning, and now has a 5.42 ERA in 18 starts for the Twins.

Walters has a 6.06 ERA in 144 total innings as a major leaguer, which is about what you'd expect from a 28-year-old with a 4.45 ERA in 597 innings at Triple-A. There's little in his lengthy track record to suggest more than a replacement-level starter. He was acquired on a minor-league deal last offseason, passed through waivers unclaimed shortly after the season, and then re-signed on another minor-league contract.

• Two weeks after promoting Miguel Sano from high Single-A to Double-A the Twins promoted Byron Buxton from low Single-A to high Single-A. Buxton wound up playing 68 games for Cedar Rapids and stuffed the stat sheet by hitting .341/.431/.559 with eight homers, 33 total extra-base hits, 32 stolen bases, and a 56-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is incredible production from a 19-year-old center fielder in a league where the average player is 22.

As of the promotion Buxton led the Midwest League in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, triples, and runs. He also ranked second in batting average and third in walks, steals, and RBIs. It doesn't get any better for a stud prospect's first exposure to full-season competition and as Jeff Johnson of the Cedar Rapids Gazette pointed out Buxton's performance looks a lot like what Angels superstar Mike Trout did as Cedar Rapids' center fielder back in 2010:

            PA     AVG     OBP     SLG    HR   XBH    BB    SO    SB
Trout      388    .358    .452    .514     6    32    45    76    45
Buxton     320    .341    .431    .559     8    33    44    56    32

It's worth noting that Trout was 18 when he played for Cedar Rapids and Buxton is 19, but those numbers are close enough to make me grin from ear to ear. Trout got promoted to high Single-A for the second half of 2010, crushed Double-A to begin 2011, and made his MLB debut that July at 19. And now he's the best player in baseball. None of which means Buxton is destined to become the next Trout, but so far at least he's walking in Trout's footsteps.

• Here's a complete list of all the teenagers with an OPS of .975 or higher in the Midwest League during the past 30 years:

Byron Buxton      2013     .990
Javier Baez       2012     .979
Oscar Taveras     2011    1.028
Mike Trout        2010     .979
Alex Rodriguez    1994     .984
Larry Walker      1986    1.011

Six total players in 30 seasons. Buxton, Oscar Taveras, and Javier Baez are currently among the top 20 prospects in baseball, Trout is the best player in baseball at age 21, Alex Rodriguez is a three-time MVP with 647 career homers, and Larry Walker is a three-time batting champ with an MVP. Buxton has a long way to go, but doing what he just did as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League is special.

• For years I wrote about how frustrating it was that the Twins refused to give Anthony Slama an extended opportunity in the majors despite extraordinary numbers in the minors and now it's too late. Slama is nearly 30 years old and injuries have started to pile up, causing him to struggle for the first time this season at Triple-A and leading to the Twins releasing him. Not exactly how I envisioned the whole "Free Anthony Slama" campaign ending.

Prior to this year Slama had a 1.99 ERA and 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings in six seasons as a minor leaguer, including a 2.27 ERA and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings at Triple-A. And yet for all that dominance in the minors the Twins saw fit to give him a grand total of just seven innings in the majors, relegating him to Triple-A for parts of five seasons before finally cutting him loose as a shell of his former self.

It's a real shame, not because Slama was capable of being an elite reliever but because he was certainly deserving of a chance to show that he was at least capable of being a useful part of a major-league bullpen. His raw stuff didn't match his incredible numbers, but Slama threw in the low-90s just like plenty of other successful relievers and the Twins have given bullpen jobs to all sorts of awful pitchers over the years. I'll never understand why they ignored him.

• In the past week Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff and St. Paul Pioneer Press beat reporter Mike Berardino have separately compared Oswaldo Arcia to Bobby Abreu. Both players are relatively short and stocky left-handed-hitting corner outfielders from Venezuela, which may be where a lot of the comparison stems from, but in terms of actual skill sets Arcia and Abreu are very different.

Abreu was among the most disciplined hitters of his era, drawing 100 walks eight seasons in a row, at least 70 walks every year from 1998 to 2011, and the 22nd-most walks of all time. He even averaged 80 walks per 150 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Meanwhile, if Arcia has one clear weakness as a hitter it's his lack of strike zone control. He has 40 strikeouts versus 12 walks in the majors after posting a 92-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Double-A and Triple-A.

Abreu was also a good base-stealer, with at least 20 steals in 13 straight seasons and 399 career steals at a 76 percent success rate. Arcia has 29 steals in 449 pro games and has been caught 22 times. There's no doubt that Arcia has huge long-term upside and Twins fans should be thrilled if he's anywhere near as valuable as Abreu, who played 17 seasons and hit .292/.396/.477 with 300 homers, 400 steals, and 4,000 times on base. But stylistically any comparison seems forced.

• Just like Buxton last year, No. 4 pick Kohl Stewart signed with the Twins just two weeks after the draft. He agreed to the exact slot bonus recommendation of $4,544,400 and will begin his pro career in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Of the Twins' top 15 picks only second-rounder Ryan Eades, fifth-rounder Aaron Slegers, and eighth-rounder Dustin DeMuth are unsigned and all three are expected to agree to deals eventually.

• Two weeks ago I wrote about Triple-A center fielder/on-base machine Antoan Richardson and he hasn't slowed down. Richardson is now hitting .317/.454/.413 with 58 walks and 29 steals in 71 games between Double-A and Triple-A, raising his career on-base percentage to .404. As a 29-year-old journeyman with little power he's not exactly a hot prospect, but a switch-hitter with good speed and a .450 OBP seems worth giving an opportunity to at some point.

• Nearing the midway point of the season the Twins are 10-2 against the Brewers and White Sox compared to 24-36 versus every other team, which is probably the most fun way to be 34-38.

Joe Mauer has scored 53 percent more runs than anyone else on the Twins. He's on pace for 103 runs. No one else is on pace for more than 68.

• Pitching staff walks: Twins 193, Tigers 197. Pitching staff strikeouts: Twins 424, Tigers 701.

• MLB.com headline: "Phillies remaining patient with Delmon Young."

• For a lot more about Gibson's call-up, Arcia's upside, and Richardson's on-base skills check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Curt's Salsa, a locally owned salsa company that believes in fresh ingredients and rooting for the little guy. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

January 9, 2013

Twins Notes: Goin, Tosoni, Harden, Bullock, Diamond, and Liriano

Parker Hageman of Twins Daily interviewed Twins manager of major league administration and baseball research Jack Goin for a glimpse into the team's use of statistical analysis. Hageman co-hosted this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode and we discussed that topic quite a bit. Short version? While it's nice to see the Twins get more involved in statistical analysis my sense remains that they're merely dipping their toes in the water while other teams are swimming.

Rene Tosoni, who the Twins dropped from the 40-man roster in August, has signed with the Brewers on a minor-league contract. Tosoni cracked my annual ranking of Twins prospects at No. 11 in 2010 and No. 14 in 2011, but he was sidetracked by injuries and then basically just stopped hitting. Now he's a 26-year-old corner outfielder who struggled in 60 games for the Twins in 2011 and hit just .224/.293/.315 in 81 games between Double-A and Triple-A last season.

Clete Thomas, who briefly filled a bench spot while the Twins kept Ben Revere at Triple-A for a bit longer, has re-signed on a minor-league deal. Thomas struck out 16 times in 28 at-bats for the Twins and hit just .232/.281/.405 with a 109-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 109 games at Triple-A, so despite his big-league experience the 29-year-old outfielder now looks like little more than depth for Rochester.

• After appearing on "Gleeman and The Geek" two weeks ago Darren Wolfson of 1500ESPN.com did some digging and found that Rich Harden's minor-league contract with the Twins includes a July 31 opt-out clause. As far as opt-out clauses go that's a very late one, so if he doesn't look to be at full strength in spring training the Twins can stash Harden at Triple-A for a while and that makes what was already a worthwhile, low-risk flier look even better.

• Free agent Brett Myers was linked to the Twins by various sources throughout December, but ended up signing a one-year, $7 million deal with the Indians that includes an $8 million team option for 2014. And according to Wolfson the Twins never even made him an offer, which has become a familiar story this offseason and makes Kevin Correia's two-year, $10 million deal all the more confusing.

• And speaking of the Indians, they're the latest mid-market team to secure a new local television deal that significantly surpasses the Twins' current contract with FOX Sports North.

Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPN New York and had an interesting little note related to the Twins, reporting that they would have taken Jefry Marte from the Mets with the No. 4 pick in the Rule 5 draft had Ryan Pressly of the Red Sox not been available. Marte is a 21-year-old third baseman who hit just .251/.322/.366 at Double-A last season and was not selected by another team, with the Mets later trading him to the A's for Collin Cowgill.

Billy Bullock, the 2009 second-round pick traded to the Braves for the ability to stash Scott Diamond at Triple-A as a Rule 5 pick, was suspended 50 games for a "drug of abuse." He still throws hard with lots of strikeouts, but Bullock's control is awful and he's no longer a prospect at age 24. I hated that trade at the time and it's worked out very well for the Twins, although I still think they should have just kept Diamond as a long reliever and kept Bullock.

• On a related note, Diamond underwent minor elbow surgery to remove a bone chip and should be ready for spring training, but he won't pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic.

• In looking over Mike Pelfrey's career it struck me how amazing his draft class ended up being. Pelfrey was the No. 9 pick out of Wichita State and among the players selected ahead of him were Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, and Ryan Zimmerman. But wait, there's more. Other top-30 picks included Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Cameron Maybin, Jacoby Ellsbury, Colby Rasmus, and Matt Garza, who the Twins took No. 25. That's crazy.

Jeff Clement was the No. 3 pick in that same draft--between Gordon and Zimmerman--and after hitting just .218/.277/.371 in 152 games for the Mariners and Pirates he'll likely spend this season at Triple-A for the Twins.

• After spending nearly all of last season in the Twins' bullpen despite adding to his lengthy track record of mediocrity with a 5.71 ERA and 26-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 52 innings Jeff Gray was dropped from the 40-man roster in late August. He went unclaimed on waivers, became a free agent, and agreed to a minor-league deal with the White Sox.

Kiley McDaniel, who formerly worked for several MLB teams, recently watched Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton play instructional league games and wrote very detailed, interesting scouting reports for Fan Graphs.

Francisco Liriano's two-year, $12.75 million deal with the Pirates is in jeopardy because of an offseason injury to his non-throwing arm.

• An oral history of Nick Punto sliding into first base is the best thing you'll read today.

• Podcast listeners who enjoy when we're interrupted by a drunk person will absolutely love this week's episode, and there's also some good Twins talk about how the roster is shaping up.

December 18, 2012

Twins sign Mike Pelfrey to one-year, $4 million contract

For the past year the Twins have talked repeatedly about getting away from their longtime focus on low-strikeout, low-walk pitchers and add more power arms to the organization. And they put their money where their mouth was by drafting hard-throwing college relievers in June and acquiring high-upside prospects Alex Meyer and Trevor May in trades for Denard Span and Ben Revere, but when it comes to free agency it's the same old story.

Last week the Twins signed Kevin Correia to a two-year, $10 million deal following a three-year stretch in which he struck out 5.4 batters per nine innings to rank 81st among the 91 starters to throw 400-plus innings. And now they've followed that up by giving a one-year, $4 million deal to Mike Pelfrey, whose 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter during that time made him one of the 10 guys with a lower rate than Correia. Here's the whole list:

2010-2012           K/9
CARL PAVANO         4.5
Mark Buehrle        4.9
MIKE PELFREY        5.0
Joe Saunders        5.1
Rick Porcello       5.1
Roberto Hernandez   5.1
Kyle Kendrick       5.2
Bronson Arroyo      5.2
Jeremy Guthrie      5.3

So of the 11 starting pitchers with MLB's lowest strikeout rates since 2010 the Twins now employ three of them (Correia, Pelfrey, Nick Blackburn) and a fourth (Carl Pavano) is a free agent after spending three-and-a-half seasons in Minnesota. And the Twins' likely Opening Day starter, Scott Diamond, would rank third on that list with a career rate of 4.6 strikeouts per nine innings if he had enough innings to qualify.

When after two seasons of awful pitching a team stresses the need to end their stockpiling of low-strikeout pitchers and then signs veteran starters with two of the very worst strikeout rates in baseball it's tough not to get discouraged and question what exactly is going on, but at least in Pelfrey's case it's only a one-year commitment. Of course, there's good reason for that: Pelfrey is coming back from Tommy John surgery and may not be ready for Opening Day.

Before blowing out his elbow Pelfrey was very durable for the Mets, starting at least 30 games and throwing at least 180 innings in four straight seasons. However, during that time he let opponents hit .281 and his 4.27 ERA was much worse than it looks because Pelfrey called the NL and pitcher-friendly ballparks home. He has a 5.30 career ERA on the road and putting his overall numbers in context shows a below-average starter with bad strikeout and walk rates.

In fact, among the 91 starters with 400-plus innings since 2010 his strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked 89th, ahead of only Blackburn and Barry Zito. So how was he able to eat so many innings? Pelfrey did a nice job keeping the ball in the ballpark, posting the 14th-lowest home run rate among those 91 starters. He was not, however, an extreme ground-ball pitcher, inducing 47 percent grounders to rank 41st, and the league and parks suppressed homers.

Pelfrey looks like a strikeout pitcher at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds with a 93-mph fastball, but he's basically a one-pitch pitcher lacking in decent off-speed stuff. And so despite being huge with good velocity he's never managed even 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings in a season or held opponents to a batting average below .275, and since 2010 hitters have made contact on 87 percent of their swings off Pelfrey to rank second-highest in MLB behind only Blackburn.

At his best Pelfrey was a decent fourth starter whose main asset was durability, but now he's attempting to come back from a season lost due to elbow surgery and might not be ready until May even if he can avoid setbacks. Giving him a one-year deal worth $4 million in guaranteed money and another $1.5 million in potential incentives certainly beats giving Correia a two-year deal worth $10 million guaranteed, but that isn't saying much.

If the Twins wanted a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery why not re-sign Scott Baker? He agreed to a one-year contract with the Cubs after balking at the Twins' insistence on a 2014 team option being included in any deal, yet they don't get a 2014 option with Pelfrey anyway and the difference in price is minimal. Baker got $5.5 million guaranteed and $1.5 million in incentives. Pelfrey got $4 million guaranteed and $1.5 million in incentives.

Pelfrey has been more durable than Baker, but that's not certain to remain true after matching elbow surgeries and Baker has simply been the more effective pitcher. Compare their respective pre-surgery numbers from 2008-2011. Baker, in the AL, threw 677 innings with a 3.92 ERA, 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and 3.5 strikeouts per walk. Pelfrey, in the NL, threw 783 innings with a 4.27 ERA, 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings, and 1.7 strikeouts per walk.

Correia seemed like a bad signing to me mostly because he's just not a good pitcher, but beyond that if the Twins were handing out a multi-year contract why not at least target someone with some semblance of upside? Along those same lines, if they're taking a risk on a pitcher coming back from a major injury why not at least take that risk on someone who might be more than a decent fourth or fifth starter if everything goes well?

There's nothing wrong with a one-year, $4 million flier on Pelfrey and it's certainly a much better idea than giving $10 million over two years to Correia, but together the pair of moves for extreme low-strikeout starters doesn't inspire much confidence for a competitive 2013 and leaves plenty of room to question whether all the Twins' talk about changing their approach to pitching means as much as fans have hoped.

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December 4, 2012

Free agent pitching options: Non-tendered starters

Last month I examined the Twins' free agent pitching options by separating the potential targets into three categories: Top-of-the-rotation starters, middle-of-the-rotation starters, and back-of-the-rotation starters. Friday was the deadline for teams to tender 2013 contracts to arbitration-eligible players and the free agent class grew slightly as nearly 50 players were non-tendered, including the following starting pitchers.

Jair Jurrjens - RHP - 48 innings - 6.89 ERA - 5.71 xFIP - 19/18 K/BB

Jurrjens had a ton of early success despite mediocre secondary stats, starting 115 games with a 3.40 ERA through age 25, but then he fell apart physically. Knee problems cost him the final two months of 2011 and his 2012 was a mess, as he got knocked around for a 6.89 ERA in 48 innings for the Braves and wasn't much better at Triple-A. Jurrjens is still just 27 and 18 months removed from being an All-Star, but his velocity and strikeout rate have plummeted.

Tom Gorzelanny - LHP - 72 innings - 2.88 ERA - 4.21 xFIP - 62/30 K/BB

Gorzelanny spent this year in the Nationals' bullpen and had enough success as a reliever that he may want to stick there, but the 29-year-old left-hander was a starter previously and has a 4.61 ERA in 111 career starts. His control is spotty and his fastball tops out in the low-90s, but Gorzelanny has 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 46 starts dating back to 2009 and isn't totally helpless against right-handed hitters.

John Lannan - LHP - 33 innings - 4.13 ERA - 4.70 xFIP - 17/14 K/BB

Lannan was a full-time member of the Nationals' rotation from 2008-2011, starting 122 games with a 4.00 ERA, and was awarded a $5 million salary for 2012 via arbitration. And then they sent him to Triple-A, where he spent the bulk of the season at age 27. Lannan's strikeout rate is among MLB's worst and his control is also sub par, but the soft-tossing left-hander induces tons of ground balls and that alone is enough to make him a viable back-of-the-rotation starter.

Jeff Karstens - RHP - 91 innings - 3.97 ERA - 3.84 xFIP - 66/15 K/BB

Karstens bounced between the rotation and bullpen during five seasons with the Pirates, posting a 4.14 ERA in 82 starts. He was limited to 91 innings this year with shoulder and hip injuries, but had a 66-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio that included the best strikeout and walk rates of his career at age 29. Karstens is a pitch-to-contact, fly-ball righty with a high-80s fastball, but his control is very good and when healthy he's been an effective back-of-the-rotation starter.

Mike Pelfrey - RHP - 20 innings - 2.29 ERA - 3.35 xFIP - 13/4 K/BB

After four straight seasons with 180-plus innings Pelfrey was shut down in April and underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in May, making the 29-year-old right-hander a big question mark for 2013. Pelfrey was the ninth overall pick in the 2005 draft and never quite developed as well as the Mets hoped, balancing poor strikeout and walk rates with lots of ground balls for a 4.36 ERA that's less impressive than it looks thanks to pitcher-friendly environments.

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