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 3, 2010

Twins tender contracts to all nine arbitration-eligible players

Prior to yesterday's deadline the Twins tendered 2011 contracts to all nine of their arbitration-eligible players: Francisco Liriano, Delmon Young, Matt Capps, J.J. Hardy, Alexi Casilla, Pat Neshek, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, and Jason Repko. Arbitration has already been avoided by Neshek and Repko, who ensured they wouldn't be non-tendered by signing one-year deals for $625,000 and $600,000 respectively.

The other seven players tendered contracts are now under the Twins' control for 2011 and will either have their salaries determined through an arbitration hearing or agree to deals at some point beforehand. They're eligible to be traded in the meantime and there's lots of speculation that the Twins tendered Hardy a contract despite his no longer being in their plans since doing so retains his rights and they can trade him rather than simply cutting him loose for nothing.

I'm still holding out some increasingly slim hopes that the Twins will keep Hardy as the starting shortstop and pair him with Tsuyoshi Nishioka at second base while using Casilla as the utility infielder, but at the very least there's apparently a strong enough trade market for Hardy that they'll get something in return for letting him go. Arbitration salary figures are exchanged next month and the hearings aren't until February, so Hardy's status may be in limbo for a while.

Repko signing a pre-deadline deal for $600,000 means he'll return as a backup outfielder after filling that role following his June call-up from Triple-A. Ideally even a reserve outfielder would have a little more offensive upside than a 30-year-old with a .227/.304/.365 career line in the majors and modest totals at Triple-A, but Repko is a great defender and hitting right-handed makes him a decent fit as a complement to lefty batters Denard Span and Jason Kubel.

A rough return from Tommy John surgery and public spat with the team over the handling of an in-season hand injury seemingly made Neshek a non-tender option, but instead he re-signed for his 2010 salary. Neshek's velocity and command were off from his pre-surgery norms in 11 games for the Twins and just 25 strikeouts compared to 40 hits in 37 innings at Triple-A wasn't encouraging, but the bullpen has plenty of holes and hopefully his arm strength will return.

August 30, 2010

Twins Notes: Thome, Fuentes, Kubel, Neshek, Wimmers, and Span

• Not only has Jim Thome switching from the White Sox to the Twins had a massive impact on the AL Central race, Baseball-Reference.com's blog points out that he's having one of the best seasons ever by a 39-year-old (he actually turned 40 over the weekend, but this is his age-39 season). Here are the all-time leaders in adjusted OPS+ at age 39:

AGE 39              YEAR      PA     OPS+
Barry Bonds         2004     617     263
Ted Williams        1958     517     179
Hank Aaron          1973     465     177
JIM THOME           2010     279     161
Babe Ruth           1934     471     161

Thome has fewer plate appearances than everyone else on that list, but he's on pace to finish with approximately 350 and any time you can make a top-five list alongside Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth you're doing something really right. Paul Molitor is the only other player in Twins history to post an OPS+ above 100 at age 39, hitting .341/.390/.468 in 728 plate appearances for a 116 OPS+ in 1996.

And if you're already thinking about the Twins possibly re-signing Thome for next season, here are the all-time leaders in OPS+ at age 40:

AGE 40              YEAR      PA     OPS+
Willie Mays         1971     537     158
Carlton Fisk        1988     298     155
Edgar Martinez      2003     603     141
Moises Alou         2007     360     137
Dave Winfield       1992     670     137

That's a much different and less impressive list in terms of both names and numbers, which is a good reminder of how tough it is to dominate at age 40. In fact, based on OPS+ no hitter in the history of baseball has ever been as productive as a 40-year-old as Thome has been as a 39-year-old, which is something to keep in mind when it comes to 2011 expectations for the future Hall of Famer. Of course, I loved the signing at the time and would love to see him back.

• I made a rare weekend post analyzing the Brian Fuentes trade, so read that if you missed it Friday night. I wondered how Ron Gardenhire will use Fuentes down the stretch, but so far so good. Gardenhire smartly pulled Nick Blackburn after 8.2 scoreless innings Saturday when he walked speedster Chone Figgins as the tying run in a 1-0 game, bringing in Fuentes to get the 27th out with left-handed slugger Russell Branyan at the plate.

Fuentes dispatched Branyan with ease and in doing so hinted that perhaps Matt Capps won't always get the call in the ninth inning when dangerous left-handed bats are due up. Fans and media instinctively balked at the notion of "closer by committee" when Joe Nathan went down, but if Fuentes isn't needed early in a game bringing him in for tough ninth-inning lefties makes sense. I'm skeptical after the Twins focused on Capps' closing experience to explain that deal.

October 15 is the deadline for the Angels to pick the player to be named later they receive for Fuentes, but all indications are that they're choosing from a list of fairly marginal prospects and some reports even suggest "cash" could be substituted for the player. I already liked the deal when I thought the PTBNL could end up being a mid-level prospect, so a low-level prospect or cash would make it even more of a no-brainer.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about Fuentes' contract status, so let's try to clear it up. He has a $9 million option for 2011 that vests with 55 games finished, but that's a moot point with just 34 so far. He'll be a free agent and get Type A or B status, so in theory the Twins can receive compensation when he leaves. However, that first requires offering Fuentes arbitration and since he could guarantee himself $10 million by simply accepting the Twins won't do it.

Fuentes is a six-week rental, and a good one.

Luke French is the 47th left-handed starting pitcher the Twins have faced in 131 games this year, which means they've been matched up against a lefty 36 percent of the time compared to the league average of 29 percent. Jason Kubel started at designated hitter versus French and has started 34 of the 47 games against lefties despite hitting just .210/.306/.341 off them this season and .232/.312/.352 off them for his career.

Much like Jacque Jones before him, Kubel's career-long ineptitude versus lefties makes him an obvious platoon player who Gardenhire simply refuses to platoon. Even worse, Kubel was in the cleanup spot yesterday, which is the third time he's batted cleanup against a lefty. In fact, he's yet to hit in the bottom third of the lineup versus a lefty this season, batting nine times in the fifth spot and 22 times in the sixth spot along with the three cleanup starts.

And while he was at DH yesterday, Kubel has been in right field for 17 of the 34 starts versus lefties, which means in 13 percent of their total games the Twins have chosen to combine poor defense in right field with a .650 OPS from the middle of the lineup. Not having Justin Morneau since early July has made it impossible for Gardenhire to use his preferred lineups, but in half of Kubel's starts against lefties Morneau was also in the lineup. Platoon him, please.

• Every time the Twins make a change to the bullpen--and there's been no shortage of them recently--I get comments, e-mails, and tweets asking about Pat Neshek. Fans (and bloggers) love Neshek and want to see him succeed after Tommy John surgery, but because the Twins weren't pleased with how he handled his post-surgery finger injury he's become sort of the forgotten man at Triple-A (and is choosing to fly under the radar by not speaking to reporters).

He's pitched well since being sent to Triple-A in early June following a DL stint, going 4-1 with a 3.47 ERA, .263 opponents' batting average, and 24 strikeouts versus six non-intentional walks in 36.1 innings, but certainly hasn't been dominant or close to Rochester's best reliever. He's apparently no sure thing to get a September call-up and based on performance alone--rather than his history and presence on the 40-man roster--no one would be clamoring for Neshek.

Wilson Ramos made his Nationals debut last week, but was only called up for a couple days with Wil Nieves away from the team. Ramos went hitless in his only game before being sent back to the minors, making him 1-for-22 since starting his career with seven hits in his first two games. He has hit .319/.347/.514 in 18 games at Triple-A since being swapped for Capps last month and will be back in Washington when rosters expand later this week.

• After basically taking two months off before signing for $1.3 million a week or so before the deadline, first-round pick Alex Wimmers has been assigned to high Single-A for his pro debut. He's pitched twice so far at Fort Myers, tossing 5.2 scoreless innings with an 8-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .105 opponents' batting average while on a strict pitch count. By assigning him directly to high Single-A the Twins have set him up to advance through the system quickly.

Denard Span was caught trying to steal third base yesterday, so dating back to last season he now has 42 stolen bases while being thrown out or picked off 31 times. Yuck.

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.

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