August 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Thome, Oliveros, Blackburn, Swarzak, Neshek, and Hardy

Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the Twins placed Jason Kubel and Jim Thome on revocable waivers yesterday, which is no surprise and doesn't necessarily mean anything. Both impending free agents will likely be claimed, at which point the Twins can either work out a trade with the claiming team or pull them back for the rest of 2011. They won't have options or leverage, but trading Thome and to a lesser extent Kubel could still be worthwhile.

• It took the Twins about 72 hours to choose Lester Oliveros as the player to be named later in the Delmon Young trade and then less than a week to call him up, adding the 23-year-old to the bullpen while placing Nick Blackburn on the disabled list with a forearm strain. Oliveros' fastball velocity and minor-league strikeout rates make him intriguing, but his awful control is a big hurdle to get over if he's going to become a useful late-inning option.

• For the second straight season Blackburn has pitched horribly before revealing an arm injury. Last year he earned a late-July demotion to Triple-A by throwing 104 innings with a 6.66 ERA, returned a month later to pitch well down the stretch, and then had elbow surgery. This year he was very good through mid-June, posted a 7.01 ERA and .366 opponents' batting average in his next 11 starts, and exited Sunday's game with "sharp pain" in his forearm.

Anthony Swarzak will step into the rotation for Blackburn, which is a perfect opportunity for Swarzak to convince the Twins that he's more than just a long reliever. His miniscule strikeout rate and mediocre minor-league track record suggest he's been pitching over his head and will be overmatched as a full-time starter, but Swarzak has certainly earned the chance to prove the numbers are wrong with a rubber-armed 3.12 ERA in 66 innings.

J.J. Hardy going deep last night might have been the most inevitable homer of all time or at least the most inevitable homer since Young's first post-trade swing last week. Hardy now has 24 homers for the Orioles, which is the most by an AL East shortstop since Miguel Tejada back in 2006. Hardy has 24 homers in 383 at-bats while the Twins' entire infield, including everyone to play first base, second base, shortstop, or third base, has 37 homers in 2,328 at-bats.

• Gardenhire claimed yesterday that Hardy "was probably going to be non-tendered" by the Twins if they hadn't traded him to Baltimore, except they actually tendered Hardy a contract on December 2 and didn't trade him until December 9. Perhaps they already had the framework of a deal in place, in which case Gardenhire is telling the truth about their misguided plan to cut Hardy for nothing. Ultimately the only difference is the degree of the Twins' ineptitude.

• On other hand, Gardenhire saying that the Twins planned to non-tender Young this winter if they hadn't traded him to the Tigers is totally believable and equally justified. Much like with Hardy they got whatever modest return they could for Young rather than simply cut him loose for nothing, but the fact that they apparently viewed Hardy then and Young now in the same light is pretty discouraging from a player evaluation standpoint.

• Also discouraging was Hardy strongly hinting that the Orioles' training staff has done a much better job than the Twins' training staff, which unfortunately isn't difficult to believe given the Twins' incredible number of injuries and failures to meet recovery timetables this year.

• Old friend Pat Neshek has been designated for assignment by the Padres after throwing 25 innings with a 4.02 ERA and more walks (22) than strikeouts (20). Neshek has been hard to hit with a .216 opponents' batting average, but between the hideous strikeout-to-walk ratio and an average fastball velocity of 86.4 miles per hour he hasn't made the Twins regret letting him go for nothing during spring training.

Jim Callis of Baseball America crunched the numbers for the past five drafts and reports that the Pirates and Nationals led all MLB teams in spending at $52 million and $51 million while the White Sox were last in spending at $18 million. During the five-year span the Twins were 25th in spending at $24 million, which is largely due to having just one top-20 pick and zero top-10 picks from 2007 to 2011.

• Speaking of the draft, after last night's loss the Twins are in line for the No. 5 pick next year. Last time they picked higher than 14th was in 2001, when they took Joe Mauer first overall.

Jeff Sullivan of SB Nation reviewed Mauer's first career appearance in the outfield and found that playing right field seems pretty damn easy most of the time.

Ron Gardenhire's history with umpire Hunter Wendelstedt trumped his history with Danny Valencia last night, so hopefully the manager and his third baseman at least cracked a couple beers together in the clubhouse after their dual ejections.

Ben Revere's iffy routes, weak arm, and six errors in just 60 games in center field have been frustrating, but last night he made one of the best, most spectacular catches I've ever seen.

John Bonnes and I are slated to record the second episode of our "Gleeman and The Geek" podcast tonight, so hopefully you'll be able to download it here or on iTunes in the morning. If you'd like to ask us questions to be answered on the show or want podcast-related updates, follow @GleemanAndGeek on Twitter.

This week's content is sponsored by PosterBurner.com, where you can turn your photographs into high-quality custom posters.

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.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.

December 10, 2010

Twins trade J.J. Hardy to Orioles for James Hoey and Brett Jacobson

Speculation about trading J.J. Hardy steadily increased after the Twins placed the high bid for exclusive negotiating rights to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka last month and yesterday they pulled the trigger, sending Hardy, Brendan Harris, and $500,000 to the Orioles for minor-league relievers James Hoey and Brett Jacobson. Nishioka and the Twins are negotiating, but moving Hardy shows they're very confident in signing him before the December 26 deadline.

However, even with Nishioka expected to sign shortly the decision to part with Hardy is a very questionable one for several reasons. First and foremost is that Hardy is simply a good player at a key position and tends to be underrated by those who don't recognize the full value of his defense, don't appreciate the lack of offensive production generally found in shortstops across baseball, or focus solely on the time he missed with a wrist injury.

Hardy is certainly not without flaws and some of them are prominent, but a deeper look at his performance clearly shows an above-average shortstop the Twins could have retained without having to make a multi-year commitment. He hit .268/.320/.394, which may not look like much but is actually better than the MLB average for shortstops of .262/.319/.371. And after coming back from the wrist injury Hardy hit .302/.356/.436 in 64 games.

Among the 28 shortstops to play at least 100 games this season Hardy ranked 11th in batting average, 13th in on-base percentage, 10th in slugging percentage, and 11th in OPS, making him above average for the position offensively no matter how you slice it. Toss in outstanding defense that Ultimate Zone Rating pegged as MLB's best at 12.8 runs above average per 150 games and Hardy was one of the top 12 shortstops in baseball even while missing 60 games.

Beyond underrating Hardy relative to other shortstops the trade also shows a level of faith in both Nishioka and Alexi Casilla that makes me nervous. Investing about $15 million for three years of Nishioka is a sound move, but like previous Japanese imports he's a question mark at the plate and is also coming off a career-year above his track record. And while he won a Gold Glove at shortstop in Japan, opinions are mixed at best on if he can thrive there in the majors.

Casilla is also an option at shortstop after faring well there in limited action subbing for Hardy, but he hasn't played the position regularly since 2007 at Triple-A and has never even graded out strongly at second base. He's also far from reliable offensively, or at least far from reliably good offensively. Casilla has hit well at times, but owns a career line of .249/.306/.327 in 1,073 plate appearances. To put that in some context, Nick Punto is a career .247/.321/.322 hitter.

Turning over the middle infield to Nishioka and Casilla has the potential for disaster, especially given that the primary backup options at this moment are Matt Tolbert and Trevor Plouffe. It doesn't shock me that the Twins have undervalued Hardy, but unless there's another move up their sleeve it does surprise me that they're so willing to go into 2011 with a pair of question marks atop the depth chart and a pair of replacement-level players as fallback options.

In speaking about the trade yesterday general manager Bill Smith made it very clear that the move was made largely because Ron Gardenhire wants to add more speed to the lineup and Hardy, despite his excellent range defensively, is one of the slowest shortstops in baseball. In a vacuum adding more speed is obviously a good thing, but in this case adding the speed may come with getting worse on both sides of the ball and being faster isn't that vital to winning.

Of course, the deal wasn't just about dumping Hardy and in fact the Twins chose to tender him an arbitration offer last week specifically because they felt confident about getting something in return for him via trade. Smith admitted to discussing Hardy with at least six teams and the decision to settle on the Orioles' offer of Hoey and Jacobson makes the Twins' targets in those talks crystal clear. They wanted bullpen help for 2011 and beyond in the form of power arms.

For the most part the Twins' longstanding, organization-wide focus on drafting and developing pitchers with better control and command than raw stuff has served them well, but at times it has also left them short on the flame-throwing relievers many other teams prefer to rely on in late-inning roles. Neither pitcher acquired from Baltimore fits the Twins' typical mold, as Hoey and Jacobson are both big guys with power fastballs and shaky command.

Jacobson was the Tigers' fourth-round pick in 2008 and was traded to the Orioles for Aubrey Huff in mid-2009. He spent this season repeating high Single-A at age 23, making his 2.79 ERA and 67-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 71 innings less impressive than it looks. His first crack at high Single-A included a 4.13 ERA and 55/26 K/BB ratio in 65 innings, so while being 6-foot-6 with mid-90s velocity gives Jacobson some upside his performance so far hasn't been special.

I'll need to study up on Jacobson before determining a ranking, but if he cracks my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects it'll likely be just barely. Hoey has fewer than 50 career innings in the majors and has spent the past two seasons exclusively in the minors, so technically he meets my qualification for "prospect" status too, but he also turns 28 years old in a few weeks and made his big-league debut way back in 2006. He's more of a project than a prospect.

Hoey was selected by the Orioles in the 13th round of the 2003 draft and emerged as a top relief prospect after putting up some incredible minor-league numbers in 2006 and 2007, but then blew out his shoulder and missed all of 2008 following surgery. He initially struggled so much after coming back in 2009 that the Orioles dropped Hoey from the 40-man roster and he passed through waivers unclaimed.

He remained in the Orioles' organization at Double-A and put together a decent 2009 despite struggling to throw strikes, but was left off the 40-man roster last offseason and wasn't picked in the Rule 5 draft. Hoey began this year back at Double-A, but earned a midseason promotion to Triple-A and combined for a 3.25 ERA, .196 opponents' batting average, and 70 strikeouts in 53 innings between the two levels.

His control was awful with 34 walks in 53 innings and the great numbers aren't much different than what Anthony Slama has done in the high minors, but Hoey's velocity has bounced back enough post-surgery that his raw stuff is superior to Slama's. As a 28-year-old "prospect" with a surgically repaired arm he's by definition a long shot, but Hoey's numbers this year show the potential for dominance and unlike Slama he has the mid-90s heat and power slider to match.

Hardy and Nishioka starting with Casilla as a backup would've been the best chance to win in 2011. Instead they focused on Hardy's flaws, trading an above-average shortstop under team control at a palatable one-year price and turning to two question marks in the name of getting faster. It makes them worse in the short term, perhaps by a lot, and the haul from Baltimore isn't impressive, but clearing Harris' salary off the books is nice and at least Hoey is intriguing.

November 11, 2010

Blowing up the bullpen on a budget: Low-cost free agent options

Joe Nathan going down for the year with a torn elbow ligament in the middle of spring training left the Twins without one of the most dominant relievers in baseball history and forced some unexpected changes on the bullpen, but Jon Rauch and Matt Capps converted 37-of-43 save opportunities while replacing him as closer and the relief corps as a whole ranked fourth in the league with a 3.49 ERA.

Nathan's recovery from Tommy John surgery will hopefully have him ready for Opening Day, but with Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Brian Fuentes all free agents the Twins could be forced to completely remake the bullpen this offseason. That quartet of free agents logged 45 percent of the Twins' total relief innings, including the vast majority of high-leverage work, and it seems unlikely that more than one or maybe two of the pitchers will be re-signed.

Healthy or not Nathan is under contract for $11.25 million in 2011 and as an arbitration eligible player Capps is all but guaranteed to get a sizable raise from his $3.5 million salary, meaning the Twins may have to rebuild the rest of the bullpen on a budget. Spending about $17 million on Nathan and Capps alone could make it difficult to re-sign any of their own free agents and also likely takes the Twins out of the running for other big-name relievers on the open market.

Nathan, Capps, and Jose Mijares are the under-contract holdovers and some other in-house options include Alex Burnett, Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney, Pat Neshek, Jeff Manship, Glen Perkins, and Kyle Waldrop, but whether it means re-signing their own free agents or bringing in outside help my guess is that at least two bullpen spots will be filled by pitchers not on that list. With a close eye on the budget, here are some potential low-cost suggestions ...

Koji Uehara: He couldn't stay healthy as a starter after leaving Japan to sign a two-year, $10 million deal with the Orioles two winters ago, but Uehara quietly had a ton of success following a move to the bullpen this season. He posted a 2.86 ERA, .220 opponents' batting average, and 55-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 44 innings, including an absurd 45-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half.

As a 35-year-old with a history of arm problems Uehara is risky, but that should also keep his asking price down and perhaps make him available for a reasonable one-year contract. Uehara converted 13-of-15 saves for the Orioles after moving into the closer role late in the year, but would make an ideal setup man for the Twins and certainly fits pitching coach Rick Anderson's preferred strike-throwing mold.

Chad Qualls: With a 7.32 ERA in 59 innings between two teams Qualls had a dreadful season, but most of that can be blamed on a .399 batting average on balls in play that was the worst in all of baseball among the 327 pitchers who logged at least 50 innings. In fact, Qualls was one of just two pitchers with a BABIP above .375. Qualls could be unlucky again in 2011 and that number would still probably drop by 40 points, and his career mark is .309.

Thanks to a solid strikeout rate and high percentage of ground balls he posted a nice-looking 3.91 xFIP that would've ranked second on the Twins behind only Francisco Liriano and both his xFIPs and ERAs were consistently in the 2.75-3.50 range from 2004-2009. He's maintained good velocity on a fastball-slider combo and if the Twins can avoid being scared off by his ugly ERA there's a quality setup man to be found in Qualls' track record and secondary numbers.

Dan Wheeler: Keeping the ball in the ballpark has been Wheeler's weakness, with 28 homers allowed in 172.1 innings over the past three seasons, but he still managed ERAs of 3.12, 3.28, and 3.35 in that time thanks to a 144-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That includes a 46/16 K/BB ratio and .207 opponents' batting average in 48 innings this season, which made it surprising that the Rays declined to exercise their $4 million option on the 32-year-old right-hander.

As a Type A free agent it's possible the Rays will offer Wheeler arbitration even after declining his option, in which case the Twins should cross him off their list because he's not worth giving up a first-round pick to sign. Even if they don't offer arbitration other teams with more money to toss around than the Twins may snatch him up for more than the declined $4 million option. He has a 3.31 ERA in 392 innings since 2005, including a sub-3.50 mark in five of six seasons.

Octavio Dotel: Available after the Rockies declined his $4.5 million option, Dotel is somewhat similar to Wheeler in that limiting homers has been his biggest weakness throughout most of his career. He's also 37 years old and has lost a bit of velocity in recent years, but Dotel still averaged 92 miles per hour with his fastball this season and racked up 75 strikeouts in just 64 innings. He's never averaged fewer than 10 strikeouts per nine innings in a full relief season.

To put that in some context consider that in Twins history there have only been 10 instances of a pitcher logging 50 or more innings while cracking double-digit strikeouts per nine innings, with Nathan and Johan Santana accounting for six of them. Dotel has done it eight times since 2000, including each of the past three seasons. He'll serve up some homers, but Dotel will also miss a ton of bats and put together plenty of dominant outings.

Frank Francisco: Early struggles saw Francisco lose his closer job to Neftali Feliz in April and a strained rib muscle got him left off the Rangers' playoff roster, but in between he posted a 2.84 ERA, .220 opponents' batting average, and 57/16 K/BB ratio in 51 innings from mid-April to the end of August. He also had a 3.43 ERA, .206 opponents' batting average, and 140/41 K/BB ratio in 113 innings during the previous two seasons.

There's a strong chance some teams may still view Francisco as a closer option, in which case the Twins can't really compete for his services, but if he fails to draw any offers for ninth-inning duties they shouldn't hesitate to offer the 31-year-old righty a two-year deal. He's consistently had elite raw stuff and results, perhaps masked by ugly outings in April and a non-arm injury. He's a Type A free agent, so they'll have to wait to see if the Rangers offer arbitration.

Chan Ho Park: He was a bust in New York after signing a one-year, $1.2 million contract last winter, but Park's struggles can be traced to serving up seven homers in 35 innings for the Yankees. Obviously that's not a positive thing, but his ground-ball rate suggested it wouldn't continue and sure enough he allowed just two homers in 28 innings after the Pirates claimed him off waivers in early August.

His overall numbers include a 4.66 ERA and 52/19 K/BB ratio in 64 innings and Park was a big part of the Phillies' bullpen in 2009 with a 2.52 ERA and 52/16 K/BB ratio in 50 innings. At age 38 and with the poor first-half showing in New York he's unlikely to be in high demand and I certainly wouldn't trust Park with a high-leverage role in 2011, but he still looks very capable of being a solid middle reliever and the price figures to be right.

Will Ohman: I first advised going after Ohman two offseasons ago only to see him miss most of 2009 following shoulder surgery, but he bounced back with a 3.21 ERA and 43/23 K/BB ratio in 42 innings this season. He's been used primarily as a left-handed specialist and struggled versus right-handed hitters this season, but Ohman did a solid enough job against righties in previous years to be more than a one-batter-per-appearance guy.

And he's been death on lefty bats, of course, holding them to .229/.323/.313 this season and .208/.298/.348 for his career. Ohman makes sense as a second lefty alongside Mijares, but if the Twins are looking for more of a true southpaw specialist side-armer Randy Choate may be a better target. Choate led the AL in appearances with 85 yet logged a total of just 45 innings. He can't be trusted versus righties, but has held lefties to .217/.297/.301 for his career.