March 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Fifth starters, old friends, bullpens, and short shelf lives

Ron Gardenhire announced yesterday that Scott Baker will be in the rotation alongside Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, and Brian Duensing, which means Kevin Slowey is bullpen bound despite a 39-21 record and 4.42 ERA in 82 career starts. Winning percentage is a mostly useless stat, but it's still notable that Slowey is headed to the bullpen with a .650 mark that ranks second to Johan Santana in Twins history among pitchers with 50 decisions.

I'm of the belief that both Baker and Slowey deserved rotation spots ahead of Blackburn, but with Gardenhire awarding Blackburn a starting job weeks ago that was clearly never an option and short of that Baker over Slowey is the right call. Baker is the longest-tenured member of the rotation and has a 4.33 ERA in 138 career starts, including a 4.49 mark in 29 outings last season after drawing the Opening Day assignment. He's a perfectly solid mid-rotation starter.

Slowey fits that description as well, but his durability has been in question since returning from late-2009 wrist surgery and there's been various speculation that the Twins aren't thrilled with his demeanor. It also likely didn't help Slowey's cause that he's not signed to a multi-year deal and is owed $2.7 million this season, whereas Baker is under contract for $11.5 million through 2012. To his credit, Slowey apparently took the demotion to the bullpen in stride yesterday.

Whether he'll be an effective enough reliever to gain Gardenhire's trust in a high-leverage role is unclear. Slowey has all of four career relief appearances, half of which came when he was a 23-year-old rookie in 2007, but has a 2.74 career ERA in the first inning and like most relievers the short appearances should help lessen the importance of his mediocre secondary stuff. As a reliever Slowey can focus on his fastball and slider while leaning less on his iffy changeup.

Of course, Slowey may not be long for the bullpen anyway. Rarely do teams make it through a 162-game season using just five starters, leaving Slowey just an injury away from being called back into rotation duty, and it wouldn't be surprising if teams have expressed trade interest in an affordable 27-year-old mid-rotation starter under team control through 2013. Shopping him seems natural, especially if they think No. 1 prospect Kyle Gibson will be ready by midseason.

• Dumped by the Twins and claimed off waivers by the Padres earlier this week, Pat Neshek flew from Florida to Arizona and tossed a perfect inning with two strikeouts yesterday. His first strikeout victim? None other than Carlos Gomez. Neshek is reunited with Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson, the latter of whom is already annoying new teammates with the same motor mouth that reportedly helped guarantee his departure from the Twins after one season.

Alex Burnett was seemingly never viewed as a strong Opening Day bullpen option thanks to last year's second-half fade and he's been assigned to Triple-A. He jumped all the way from Double-A to the majors and then struggled in 14 appearances following a midseason demotion to Rochester, so some more time there at age 23 is probably a good thing. I'm still convinced Burnett can eventually be a solid bullpen contributor, perhaps this season.

• Burnett returning to Triple-A, Neshek going to San Diego, and Slowey moving to the bullpen did a lot to clear up the relief picture. Slowey joins Joe Nathan, Matt Capps, and Jose Mijares as locks, with Dusty Hughes and Glen Perkins looking like clear favorites to serve as second and third lefties behind Mijares. That would leave just one open spot, presumably for a righty, with Jeff Manship, Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and perhaps Carlos Gutierrez as candidates.

Trevor Plouffe entered camp with at least an outside chance of pushing Matt Tolbert for the utility man job, but was 7-for-34 (.216) with seven strikeouts versus just one walk at the plate and was an absolute disaster defensively, making six errors in 16 games. He'll head to Triple-A for the fourth straight season, leaving Tolbert and Luke Hughes to duke it out for the backup infielder gig. For whatever it's worth, Hughes is in a 0-for-13 slump following a hot start.

• Last week I linked to a study showing that the Twins promote their position player prospects through the minors slower than every other organization and the first round of spring training cuts included a couple assignments that will add to those numbers. Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson were sent back to Double-A after playing 111 and 103 games there last year. Benson led New Britain in homers and OPS, so his repeating the level is the epitome of that study.

Ben Revere spent last year alongside Benson in New Britain's outfield, but he was assigned to Rochester in a move that makes it very clear he'll be the first outfielder called up if needed. Obviously no surprise after Revere spent most of September with the Twins last year, but his moving up the ladder while Benson stays behind is interesting given that Benson topped his OPS by 128 points at Double-A. Revere is more polished than Benson, but has far less upside.

• There's been very little talk about left-hander Scott Diamond potentially making the Opening Day roster and Rule 5 picks must be sent back to their original team if they aren't kept in the majors all season, but the Twins reportedly may try to work out a deal with the Braves to keep him without the Rule 5 restrictions. He hasn't been impressive this spring, but Diamond has a chance to be a useful back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever at some point.

• Injuries to Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel mean Jon Rauch looks likely to start the year as the Blue Jays' closer and the Twins kick off the season with a three-game series in Toronto.

• It was fun while it lasted, but Gardenhire is already too in on the whole "just fire it through the internet" thing for the humor to really continue much longer. Based on various beat writer accounts of his media briefings the past couple days, Gardenhire has been jokingly mentioning the internet, blogs, and Twitter seemingly every other sentence and has apparently also come up with his own set of accompanying sound effects. We'll always have the t-shirt, at least.

• Speaking of beat writers, Jon Marthaler of Twinkie Town put together some brilliant advice for Rhett Bollinger as he replaces Kelly Thesier at MLB.com.

March 21, 2011

So long, Sideshow Pat: Padres claim Neshek off waivers

Pat Neshek has struggled to rediscover his velocity and overall effectiveness since undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in November of 2008 and seemed destined for Triple-A following an unimpressive series of appearances this spring, but instead the Twins made a surprising move by deciding to simply let him go. They removed Neshek from the 40-man roster, which required placing him on the waiver wire, and the Padres claimed him yesterday.

In most cases a player is removed from the 40-man roster because the team needs their spot for another player, but that wasn't the case here. There was no follow-up move after Neshek was placed on waivers and general manager Bill Smith indicated that the 40-man roster spot might remain unfilled for a while. Beyond that, if the Twins did need to create an opening they could have cut Eric Hacker, who was a very questionable addition and is bound for Triple-A.

Had he been out of minor-league options Neshek being let go also would have been less of a surprise, but he does have an option remaining and could have been stashed at Triple-A while being called up or sent down at any point this year. In fact, that's likely what San Diego will do after claiming him. By allowing the Padres to take Neshek and his contract the Twins did save some money, but his $625,000 salary represents less than one percent of their total payroll.

This move wasn't made because the Twins needed a 40-man roster space or because Neshek couldn't be kept unless he was in the majors or because money was tight. No, this move was made because the Twins simply decided to give up on Neshek. He was a shell of his former self last season, which wasn't unexpected after missing all of 2009 following surgery, but Neshek's raw stuff wasn't much better this spring and he'd plummeted down the bullpen depth chart.

Clearly the Twins have zero faith in his ability to turn things around when they'd rather have $625,000 than another bullpen option at Triple-A and Neshek angering the team last year by going public about the handling of his finger injury perhaps made their decision even easier. Giving up on a 30-year-old reliever fighting to top the mid-80s with his fastball 28 months after elbow surgery is understandable, but the timing and motivation behind the move are odd.

Even before the surgery his fastball was typically in the high-80s, which along with a side-arm delivery made the Twins so skeptical of Neshek's dominance in the minors that they didn't give him an opportunity until 2006, shortly before his 26th birthday. Once in Minnesota the Brooklyn Park native showed that he belonged by quickly gaining Ron Gardenhire's trust as the primary setup man and throughout it all Neshek interracted with fans via his website and Twitter.

In other words, it was very easy to root for Neshek whether he was a standout minor leaguer deserving of a shot, a trusted member of the Twins' bullpen, a rehabbing Tommy John survivor, or a guy struggling to get back to where he was. I'm among the many Twins fans sad to see him go, but the Padres' unmatched success plucking relievers off the scrap heap for the past decade and baseball's most pitcher-friendly ballpark makes San Diego the ideal landing spot.

I'd love to see him turn things around, even for the Padres, but regardless of what happens with the rest of his career the excellent but short run Neshek had for the Twins should not be overlooked. From a call-up in July of 2006 to his elbow giving out in May of 2008 he had a 2.91 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 121 innings while opponents hit .188 with a .592 OPS. To put that in some context, Nick Punto's career OPS is .644.

He was death to right-handed batters, who couldn't square up a high-80s fastball coming out of nowhere from that crazy side-arm delivery and flailed away at his frisbee slider while hitting .176 with a strikeout in one-third of their plate appearances. Skeptics focused on his supposed vulnerability against left-handed batters and continued to bang that same drum long after it was proven inaccurate, as Neshek held them to a .211 batting average. He was great, period.

I'm not sure if Neshek will ever rediscover anything resembling his old level of effectiveness, let alone approach his previous dominance, and I'm not sure why the Twins weren't more willing to show a bit of additional patience when there was absolutely nothing or no one forcing them to reach that verdict quite yet, but it was an awful lot of fun to watch while it lasted and I'll be rooting for "Sideshow Pat" with the Padres.

December 20, 2010

Twins Notes: Nishioka, Morales, Bargas, Ullger, Hudson, and Punto

Tsuyoshi Nishioka's contract turned out to be a little more team-friendly than expected. He'll earn $3 million a season for three years, which is slightly less than first reported, and the deal also includes a $4 million team option or $250,000 buyout for 2014. If he proves to be a good player the option lets the Twins control him at a reasonable cost for a fourth season and if he struggles their total commitment (including posting fee) will be $14.55 million for three years.

Vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff noted that the Twins have scouted Nishioka in Japan for several years, so the front office had no shortage of reports and information from which to base their opinion on him. On the other hand, somewhat surprisingly (to me, at least) Ron Gardenhire revealed that he's never even seen video of his new starting middle infielder in action:

I don't know anything about him. I don't know anything about his swing, nothing. I haven't seen video on him or anything. Just the reports from our scouts. He's supposed to be a good player. I'm going to get this kid down there [to spring training] and see what happens, see what he looks like, see where I think he's most comfortable, and talk to the kid.

Gardenhire apparently isn't much for YouTube. There were plenty of interesting quotes uttered during Nishioka's introductory press conference, but my favorite came earlier when he said the following upon arriving in Minnesota: "I was so surprised by this cold weather because it was colder than I expected. Even the stadium was covered by snow." For his sake hopefully no one is taking Nishioka to the Vikings game.

• Lost in Nishioka signing is that the Twins also dropped Jose Morales from the 40-man roster, trading the 27-year-old catcher to the Rockies for relief prospect Paul Bargas. I'm far from the biggest Drew Butera fan and would've preferred if the Twins gave Morales more of a chance to be Joe Mauer's backup, but injuries played a factor as well and at this point he's a marginal player without minor-league options who the team seemingly never trusted defensively.

Morales hit .297 with a .370 on-base percentage in 181 plate appearances for the Twins and .304 with a .367 OBP in 1,163 plate appearances at Triple-A, and those numbers coming from a switch-hitting catcher definitely make him a viable big leaguer. However, with just 11 homers and a measly .095 Isolated Power between Rochester and Minnesota he doesn't have enough pop to be an asset at another position if the Twins weren't willing to use him behind the plate.

• Bargas was a 13th-round pick in 2009 and shifted to the bullpen as a pro after starting for three years at UC-Riverside. He's posted very good numbers in the low minors with a 3.12 ERA and 98-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 98 innings, and the 6-foot-1 southpaw has been death on left-handed batters early on. He's far from a top prospect, but Bargas certainly represents a reasonable return for a 27-year-old backup catcher and at age 22 has some upside.

• I can't recall any fan base ever loving a third base coach. For the most part the job involves going unnoticed when you perform well and being vilified when you perform poorly, because the successes blend into the flow of a game and the failures bring things to a screeching halt. With that said, Scott Ullger has seemingly been an extraordinarily poor third base coach, with a tendency to get the Twins' slowest runners thrown out at the plate by the widest margins.

He's been relieved of third base duties and will now serve as bench coach, switching jobs with Steve Liddle. Aside from Al Newman being let go as third base coach in 2005 there's been a remarkable lack of coaches leaving the staff during Gardenhire's decade-long tenure with the Twins, but Ullger has been moved (or perhaps more accurately, demoted) from hitting coach to third base coach in 2006 and from third base coach to bench coach now.

• There was never any chance of the Twins re-signing Orlando Hudson, but he's landed on his feet (and then some) with a two-year, $11.5 million deal from the Padres. Reportedly as part of a gentleman's agreement Hudson promised the Twins ahead of time that he'd decline their arbitration offer, so they'll get a compensatory draft pick between the first and second rounds for letting the Type B free agent walk.

Good defense at second base and hitting .268/.338/.372 in 126 games made Hudson a sound one-year investment for $5 million, and if you toss in a top-50 pick that also carries significant value it turned out to be a very positive signing even if the Twins didn't enjoy his presence in the clubhouse enough to bring him back. Hudson is coming off arguably a career-worst season and had to settle for one-year deals in 2009 and 2010, so getting a two-year deal now is odd.

• Mauer missed some time in September with left knee problems and recently underwent what the Twins are calling a "minor procedure" that leaves him with plenty of room to recover before spring training. Since missing most of his rookie season because of a knee injury that required surgery in 2004, he has the most plate appearances of any catcher in baseball.

• In the least surprising news since my last weight-loss attempt failed, Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that "Gardenhire has asked the Twins' front office if it can bring back free-agent infielder Nick Punto." No word on if Gardenhire has contacted Punto, but if he did I imagine it went something like this:


















He's supposed to be a good player.'

Gardenhire said he has no immediate plans to slot Nishioka either at second base or shortstop.

"I'm going to get this kid down there (to spring training) and see what happens, see what he looks like, see where I think he's most comfortable and talk to the kid," he said.


















March 24, 2010

Nathan Officially Opts For Surgery

As expected Joe Nathan will have season-ending Tommy John elbow surgery to fix a torn ulnar collateral ligament, officially making that decision Sunday morning after feeling soreness during a highly anticipated game of catch with pitching coach Rick Anderson (only to have the news overshadowed by Joe Mauer signing hours later). Nathan and the Twins had hoped that a few weeks off would allow him to pitch through the pain, but that was always a massive long shot.

Now the optimism is aimed at Nathan making a full recovery for next season, but as Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek have shown recently Tommy John patients can have a true recovery timetable that stretches beyond the oft-quoted 8-12 months. Liriano underwent the surgery in November of 2006 and has a 5.12 ERA in 212.2 innings since returning, while Neshek took the mound again about 14 months after surgery and may not be 100 percent yet at 16 months.

For every Liriano and Neshek there are also examples of pitchers who returned to the mound sooner than 12 months and didn't miss a beat, but at 35 years old Nathan seems an unlikely candidate to be one of them. He'll miss all of this season, there's a good chance he'll miss at least some of 2011, and his career is very much in jeopardy following a seven-season run as arguably the best reliever in baseball.

As part of a four-year, $47 million extension signed in March of 2008 he's owed $11.25 million in both 2010 and 2011, with the Twins holding a $12.5 million option or $2 million buyout for 2012. Add it all up and the Twins have another $24.5 million committed to Nathan, which is a harsh reminder of the risks involved in handing out long-term contracts to even the very best players. However, insurance will reportedly cover as much as half of his salary for this season.

There's no doubt that losing Nathan is a big blow to the Twins' playoff chances, but my hope is that they don't overreact by paying a premium for an "established closer" via trade. Closer is the most overrated "position" in baseball, as many people attach some sort of mythical value to the role despite the fact that the MLB average for converting ninth-inning saves is typically around 85 percent and elite closers like Nathan top out at around 90 percent.

Beyond that, Nathan himself is an example of how most successful closers are failed starters, former setup men, or both. In fact, Nathan, Rick Aguilera, and Eddie Guardado all fall into the "both" category and rank 1-2-3 on the Twins' all-time saves list. Prior to thriving as closers for the Twins that trio had accumulated a grand total of just 26 career saves in 17 seasons as big leaguers, which coincidentally is the exact number of saves Jon Rauch has in seven seasons.

Heath Bell of the Padres saved 42 games with a 2.71 ERA last season and is now being linked to the Twins as a possible Nathan replacement, but at this time last year he was a 30-year-old setup man with just two career saves. That he's now viewed as an "established closer" whose experience in the role is touted as evidence that the Twins should pay a premium for him via trade shows just how silly the whole notion is in the first place.

Certainly there are some scenarios in which trading for a quality reliever could make sense for the Twins and depending on the cost involved Bell might even be a worthwhile target, but to overpay for that same quality reliever largely because he has "closing experience" that their in-house options lack would be a mistake in logic. Bell only has experience at closer precisely because the Padres focused on his ability rather than his save total one year ago.

Truly replacing Nathan is impossible because he's a great reliever, but for closers the dropoff from "great" and "mediocre" is typically 3-5 blown saves, some of which still end up as wins anyway. Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, and a post-surgery Neshek don't fit the description of an ideal closer, but the same is true for many pitchers who have success in the role. Hell, last year the best save percentage in baseball belonged to Fernando Rodney.

Once you set aside the inflated, often hyperbolic importance placed on the closer role there's no reason to think that group can't produce someone capable of converting save opportunities at an 80 percent clip, which all but the disasters tend to manage each season with or without "closing experience." Bell is better than Rauch or Guerrier or Crain, but if the price tag involves Aaron Hicks, Wilson Ramos, or Ben Revere they're better off trusting the in-house options.