April 10, 2013

Twins Notes: Extensions, saves, prospects, and premature press releases

Justin Morneau

LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Justin Morneau approached the Twins during spring training about a contract extension and they weren't interested, which is the right stance to take. Morneau is an impending free agent, but even setting aside his extensive injury history signing a good but not great 31-year-old first baseman to a multi-year contract isn't a great idea unless he were to take significantly less than his current $14 million salary.

Morneau hasn't topped an .800 OPS while playing more than 100 games since 2009 and while his .267/.333/.440 production in 134 games last season was encouraging after back-to-back years ruined by a concussion it was mediocre for a first baseman. Among the 29 regular first basemen he ranked 14th in batting average, 15th in on-base percentage, and 16th in slugging percentage. Toss in the health question marks and that's an awfully shaky investment.

There's also a chance of Morneau upping his production to pre-concussion levels, but even then they'd have an appealing option of tendering him a one-year "qualifying offer" that was worth $13.4 million this winter. If he accepts they get Morneau back for his age-32 season at a similar salary without a long-term commitment. If he declines and signs elsewhere they get a first-round draft pick. If he isn't traded by then, of course, which is another reason to avoid an extension.

Scott Diamond's delayed comeback from December elbow surgery created an opening in the rotation before the season had even started and Samuel Deduno's groin injury ruled him out, so the Twins turned to Cole De Vries ... and he had to be placed on the disabled list with a strained forearm before his first turn came up. Already scrambling for starters, the Twins called up Triple-A left-hander Pedro Hernandez, who had the benefit of being on the 40-man roster.

Hernandez was acquired from the White Sox along with Eduardo Escobar for Francisco Liriano in July and ranked 35th on my annual list of Twins prospects. He's a soft-tossing control artist with extreme platoon splits that could make it tough for him to stick as a starter, but the 23-year-old fared well enough in his Twins debut. Assuming that Diamond avoids further setbacks Hernandez may not be needed again for a while.

• One side effect of Ron Gardenhire holding Glen Perkins back for "save situations" that may not actually arrive is that lesser relievers are forced into pressure-packed spots. For instance, in the eighth inning Friday left-handed Orioles slugger Chris Davis came up with the bases loaded and one out in a tie game. Situations don't get any more important and if there was no such thing as the "save" statistic Perkins--being the best reliever and a lefty--would be the obvious choice.

Instead, with the game in the balance, Gardenhire called on 25-year-old rookie Tyler Robertson, who served up a grand slam and was promptly demoted to Triple-A the next day. He barely made the team out of spring training, has yet to show he can consistently get big leaguers out, and was apparently one bad pitch from going back to the minors, yet the manager chose Robertson to face Davis while Perkins watched. And people say guys like me are obsessed with statistics.

Since taking over for Matt Capps as the Twins' closer Perkins has converted 18 of 20 saves with a 2.01 ERA and 45-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 45 innings. That's incredibly good pitching, but the role change has also made Perkins less of a weapon thanks to such strict usage. And because the Twins' overall bullpen depth is weak and their only other standout reliever, Jared Burton, needs regular days off holding Perkins back for save situations will lead to some ugly matchups.

J.J. Cooper of Baseball America put together a list of the youngest prospects at each level of the minors, which includes Miguel Sano as the youngest player in the Florida State League and Oswaldo Arcia as the sixth-youngest player in the International League. Age relative to the level of competition is an extremely important factor in evaluating prospects, so keep that in mind when looking at their raw numbers this season.

• Here's where the Twins' top 20 prospects are beginning the season (Rochester is Triple-A, New Britain is Double-A, Fort Myers is high Single-A, and Cedar Rapids is low Single-A):

 1. Miguel Sano      Fort Myers       11. Max Kepler       Cedar Rapids
 2. Byron Buxton     Cedar Rapids     12. Luke Bard        Cedar Rapids
 3. Oswaldo Arcia    Rochester        13. Travis Harrison  Cedar Rapids
 4. Aaron Hicks      Minnesota        14. Mason Melotakis  Cedar Rapids
 5. Alex Meyer       New Britain      15. Jorge Polanco    Cedar Rapids
 6. Kyle Gibson      Rochester        16. J.T. Chargois    Cedar Rapids
 7. Eddie Rosario    Fort Myers       17. Niko Goodrum     Cedar Rapids
 8. Trevor May       New Britain      18. Hudson Boyd      Cedar Rapids
 9. J.O. Berrios     Cedar Rapids     19. Levi Michael     Fort Myers
10. Joe Benson       Rochester        20. Chris Herrmann   Rochester

No big surprises, although Byron Buxton moving to low Single-A and full-season ball at age 19 instead of spending more time in rookie-ball is noteworthy, as is Trevor May repeating Double-A at age 23 after spending all of last season there in the Phillies' system. Max Kepler will eventually join Buxton in the Cedar Rapids outfield, but for now he's rehabbing an injury in extended spring training. And some of the pitchers, including J.O. Berrios, will have their 2013 debuts delayed.

Wilkin Ramirez making the Opening Day roster as the designated "bench bat" based on a good spring training was an odd choice because he's 27 years old with a decade of awful plate discipline and underwhelming overall production in the minors. In adding Ramirez the Twins needed to clear space on the 40-man roster and they did that by designating Alex Burnett for assignment, which exposed the 24-year-old reliever to the waiver wire and got him claimed by the Blue Jays.

I'm hardly a big Burnett fan and praised the Twins for finally deciding he was better off at Triple-A, but losing him for nothing in order to add Ramirez is different. They thought Burnett was worthy of a bullpen job in 2010 at age 22 and worth keeping in the bullpen in 2011 and 2012, but in 2013 he's not worth a spot on a 40-man roster that includes Drew Butera, Caleb Thielbar, and Tim Wood? All so they could add a 27-year-old corner outfielder who's hit .255/.310/.430 at Triple-A.

• Tuesday morning the Twins sent out a press release announcing an "early entry program" at Target Field offering fans the chance to pay an extra $15 for the ability to get in 45 minutes early to watch batting practice. About five hours later they issued another press release retracting that offer because it was "not fully vetted across the Twins organization" and "we apologize for a lack of internal communication which led to the premature release of this misinformation." So ... yeah.

• Through eight games Twins pitchers have the fewest strikeouts in baseball with 38, which is 4.9 per nine innings. They also ranked dead last among all teams in strikeouts in 2011 and 2012 while averaging 6.0 and 5.9 per nine innings.

Josh Willingham has already been plunked twice and is well on his way to extending his streak of ranking among the league's top 10 in hit by pitches every season since 2007. Willingham has a career on-base percentage of .362, but if you removed the hit by pitches it would drop to .346.

Kevin Correia isn't missing any bats, but he induced 12 and 15 ground-ball outs in his first two starts after getting 12 or more ground-ball outs just three times in his final 13 starts last season.

Joe Mauer moved past Gary Gaetti for sixth place on the Twins' all-time hit list with 1,277. In getting those first 1,276 hits Gaetti made 1,077 more outs than Mauer. Seriously.

Aaron Hicks joined Rich Becker in 1993 and Butera in 2010 as the only Twins position players to strike out three times in their MLB debut.

• Butera broke his left hand at Triple-A, so now he'll make $700,000 on Rochester's disabled list.

• "Roy Smalley's Fist List" is a thing, apparently.

Ben Revere is learning some very important things in Philadelphia.

• On this week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode we talked lots about Hicks' slow start, Perkins' excellence, and Gardenhire's decision-making.


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January 31, 2013

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2013: 35, 34, 33, 32, 31

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 36-40.

35. Pedro Hernandez | Starter | DOB: 4/89 | Throws: Left | Trade: White Sox

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2010     A-     29     13     4.04     100.1     122      6      79     17
2011     A+     15      6     2.70      56.2      52      3      44      6
         AA      9      8     3.48      41.1      39      4      43     10
         AAA     4      4     6.00      18.0      28      3       7      6
2012     AA     12     12     2.75      68.2      68      6      37     18
         AAA     7      6     4.46      34.1      43      2      28      4
         MLB     1      1    18.00       4.0      12      3       2      1

Pedro Hernandez was signed by the Padres out of Venezuela as a 17-year-old in 2006, traded to the White Sox as part of the package for Carlos Quentin in 2011, and acquired by the Twins along with Eduardo Escobar in the Francisco Liriano deal. He appeared in one game for the White Sox last season, getting clobbered for eight runs in four innings on July 18 against the Red Sox, and spent the rest of the year at Double-A and Triple-A.

He throws in the low-90s with more fly balls than ground balls and struggled to miss bats after advancing beyond Single-A, producing just 65 strikeouts in 103 innings last season. In the minors at least he's been able to offset all that somewhat with very good control, walking just 1.6 batters per nine innings for his career, but the left-hander has limited upside despite not yet turning 24 years old.

Hernandez has little chance to make the team out of spring training, but he has a spot on the 40-man roster and that means when the Twins need pitching reinforcements during the season he'll jump to the front of the line with any sort of decent work in Rochester. If things go well he could wind up as a useful back-of-the-rotation starter, but Hernandez struggled against right-handed hitters last year and a shift to the bullpen may be his best path to the majors.

34. Jason Wheeler | Starter | DOB: 10/90 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2011-8

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     A-     27     27     3.45     156.2     170     12     115     43

Jason Wheeler was a mess in his first two college seasons, but put together a solid junior year at Loyola Marymount in 2011 and was drafted by the Twins in the eighth round. He signed too late to debut, so the 6-foot-8, 250-pound left-hander began his pro career last season at low Single-A by going 14-6 with a 3.45 ERA in 27 starts. Meanwhile his brother, third base prospect and 2009 fifth-round pick Ryan Wheeler, made his MLB debut for the Diamondbacks.

Wheeler's nice-looking ERA and win-loss record overstate how well he pitched for Beloit, as he got a ton of run support from a stacked, Miguel Sano-led lineup and managed just 115 strikeouts in 157 innings. He did a decent job limiting homers, but Wheeler induced a modest number of ground balls, allowed opponents to hit .281 off him, and showed mediocre control with 2.5 walks per nine innings.

Physically he's among the largest pitchers in baseball, minors or majors, but Wheeler works in the high-80s and low-90s with his fastball. If the Twins' coaches can somehow figure out how to turn his massive frame into added velocity at age 22 he could be a breakout candidate, but short of that Wheeler looks like a potential back-of-the-rotation starter who does most things reasonably well without any standout skill.

33. Adrian Salcedo | Starter | DOB: 4/91 | Throws: Right | Sign: Dominican

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2010     RK+    16      8     3.27      66.0      55      3      65     10
         A+      6      6     6.26      27.1      42      3      16      8
2011     A-     29     20     2.93     135.0     131      4      92     27
2012     A+      8      7     6.39      25.1      33      1      14     15

In the low minors Adrian Salcedo looked like a high-upside prospect, but his stock dropped along with his strikeout rate against more experienced competition and he missed most of last season after being hit in the face by a line drive. He threw just 31 ineffective innings, wasn't picked in the Rule 5 draft after being left off the 40-man roster, and will be 22 years old by the time he throws his first pitch above Single-A.

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007 as a 16-year-old, Salcedo has just 72 walks in 386 innings for a rate of 1.7 per nine frames. Brad Radke's career walk rate was 1.6 per nine innings, so for Salcedo to show that type of pinpoint control so early in his career is extremely impressive. Unfortunately his strikeouts per nine innings fell from 8.6 in rookie-ball to 6.1 at low Single-A to 5.1 at high Single-A, where Salcedo has a 6.32 ERA in 53 innings.

Salcedo's low-90s fastball and overall raw stuff have always gotten positive reviews, but even before the injury the 6-foot-4 right-hander was trending in the wrong direction. Being a control artist in the majors is one thing, but most successful low-strikeout, low-walk starters actually managed decent strikeout rates in the minors. He's still young enough to bounce back from the lost year of development time, but Salcedo's status as a quality prospect is shaky.

32. Tyler Robertson | Reliever | DOB: 12/87 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2006-3

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2010     AA     27     27     5.41     144.2     181     17      91     57
2011     AA     55      0     3.61      89.2      87      6      88     29
2012     AAA    33      0     3.77      28.2      26      2      33     13
         MLB    40      0     5.40      25.0      21      4      26     14

Once upon a time Tyler Robertson ranked among the Twins' best pitching prospects, but his strikeout rate deteriorated as his climbed the organizational ladder and injuries kept him from maintaining peak velocity. After an ugly 2010 season at Double-A the Twins decided they'd seen enough of Robertson as a starter, shifting the 6-foot-5 left-hander to the bullpen. He fared well there with a 3.65 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 118 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.

That earned him a June call-up and Robertson struck out the first four big leaguers he faced, but he struggled to consistently throw strikes and finished with a 5.40 ERA in 25 innings. He actually dominated lefties with a .190 batting average and 22-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but righties hit .290 with more walks than strikeouts. His splits were similarly extreme at Triple-A, so Robertson needs to show that he can avoid being a liability against righties.

His high-80s fastball is reason for skepticism in that area, although the off-speed repertoire from his days as a starter should come in handy. If he can improve versus righties Robertson has a chance to be a ground ball-getting setup man, but if not he'll likely be limited to a southpaw specialist role. Either way, this season will be key for Robertson because at age 25 he may not get a particularly long leash.

31. Madison Boer | Starter | DOB: 12/89 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2011-2

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2011     RK+    15      0     2.60      17.1      13      1      31      2
         A-      8      0     6.75       8.0      12      0      12      1
2012     A-      5      5     3.58      27.2      26      1      20     10
         A+     22     19     6.41     111.0     147     15      66     32

Picked out of Oregon in the second round of the 2011 draft, Madison Boer posted a ridiculous 43-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his 25-inning debut that year. Unfortunately none of that carried over to his first full season, as the 6-foot-4 right-hander from Eden Prairie got knocked around for a 5.84 ERA in 139 innings between two levels of Single-A, allowing opponents to hit .309 while managing just 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

Boer's lack of missed bats isn't a total shock after he struck out just 74 batters in 99 innings during his final college season and Baseball America noted before the draft that his velocity fell from the mid-90s as a reliever to the low-90s as a starter. Still, there's no way a 22-year-old top-100 pick with big-time college experience should struggle that much at Single-A, particularly after toying with rookie-ball hitters.

Boer is already 23 years old, so if he continues to struggle as a starter it'll be interesting to see how long the Twins wait to shift him to the bullpen. That's certainly not a guaranteed fix, but it would allow him to focus on the fastball-slider combo that drew pre-draft praise and would likely provide a much quicker path to the majors. At this point, though, Boer simply needs to get back to pitching well again regardless of the role.

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July 30, 2012

Twins trade Liriano to White Sox for Escobar and Hernandez

Saturday night, with about 65 hours to go until the trade deadline, the Twins pulled the trigger on an increasingly inevitable Francisco Liriano deal by sending him to the White Sox for left-hander Pedro Hernandez and infielder Eduardo Escobar. Both players have spent time in the majors for the White Sox this year and figure to be September call-ups if the Twins don't promote them before then, but unfortunately neither player is considered much of a prospect.

Escobar draws strong reviews for his defense at shortstop and also has experience at second base, but he's never hit at any level and has spent most of this season glued to the White Sox's bench while going 16-for-82 (.195) with 22 strikeouts. Chicago letting him collect dust as a big-league utility man at age 23 doesn't make much sense, but it does suggest they weren't particularly concerned about his development and perhaps viewed him as a marginal player.

And rightfully so, as Escobar hit .266/.303/.354 with four homers and a 104-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 137 games at Triple-A last season and is a career .270/.315/.351 hitter in the minors. He's still young enough to improve at the plate and if Escobar's defensive reputation is accurate he won't have to hit much to be valuable, but so far the switch-hitter has shown almost zero power along with terrible plate discipline and no ability to control the strike zone.

Hernandez was traded from the Padres to the White Sox as the lesser half of a two-prospect haul for outfielder Carlos Quentin on December 31. He debuted for the White Sox two weeks ago and got knocked around by the Red Sox, allowing three homers and eight runs in four innings before an immediate trip back to the minors. Based on both his track record and raw stuff Hernandez is a typical Twins pitcher with modest velocity, good control, and few whiffs.

His fastball tops out in the low-90s along with a slider and changeup, he's induced more fly balls than ground balls, and in 145 innings between Double-A and Triple-A he's allowed more than a hit per inning while averaging 6.5 strikeouts and 2.3 walks per nine frames. Those numbers combined with fly-ball tendencies and underwhelming velocity make it tough to project the 23-year-old lefty as more than a back-of-the-rotation starter or long reliever.

Terry Ryan revealed after the trade that the Twins and Liriano never talked long-term deal, which isn't surprising from either side's point of view. Liriano is two months from being able to hit the open market and take bids from all 30 teams, so unless the Twins blew him away with a huge offer it made little financial sense to pass up free agency. And after living with his ups and downs for seven years the Twins can't be blamed for avoiding a long-term commitment.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement making a "qualifying offer" to Liriano was also an option and would have led to either re-signing him to a one-year deal for around $12 million or receiving draft pick compensation when he signed elsewhere. I'd have preferred a draft pick to what they ended up getting and keeping him for 2013 without the long-term commitment wouldn't have been such a bad thing either, but clearly the Twins felt otherwise.

Getting a pair of C-level prospects is certainly preferable to letting Liriano walk for nothing, but I'm just having a difficult time believing that's the best the Twins could have done. To believe that you'd have to assume the numerous local and national reports about no fewer than a half-dozen teams being interested in Liriano were mostly false or at least that the half-dozen interested teams were only willing to offer the Twins marginal prospects in return.

Maybe that's true. After all, trading Liriano to a division rival--the Twins and White Sox last made a deal in 1986--suggests Ryan felt it was definitely the best offer and for as well as he's pitched since rejoining the rotation in May he's still a two-month rental with an inconsistent track record who turned in a clunker in front of a collection of scouts last time out. Of course, plenty of other two-month rentals are being traded for vastly superior prospects this month.

My expectations for a Liriano trade were never particularly high, or so I thought. I certainly did not expect the Twins to land anything close to an elite prospect and thought even a prospect in the B-plus range was probably wishful thinking, but to wind up with two likely role players who didn't crack the top 10 in arguably MLB's worst farm system is disappointing. If this is truly the best the Twins could do a lot of people wasted a lot of energy reporting and speculating.

Nine years ago in one of the best trades in team history the Twins acquired Liriano from the Giants along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski. At the time Liriano was 19 and universally viewed as a high-upside arm, but coming off an injury wrecked Single-A season he rated behind Bonser in most prospect rankings. Bonser ultimately proved to be a bust, but Nathan developed into an elite reliever and Liriano ... well, that's a bit more complicated.

Following the trade Liriano was healthy and dominant in the minors, establishing himself as one of baseball's top 10 prospects. As a rookie in 2006 he worked out of the Twins' bullpen for six weeks and then joined the rotation in mid-May, doing the impossible by upstaging Johan Santana with an 11-2 record, 1.95 ERA, .162 opponents' batting average, and 105-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings spread over his first 14 starts.

He had a mid-90s fastball and a devastatingly unhittable slider that racked up a combination of strikeouts and ground balls rarely seen. He was simply as good as a pitcher can possibly be. And then he got hurt. After an unsuccessful comeback attempt Tommy John surgery followed, knocking Liriano out for all of 2007 and leaving him at Triple-A to begin 2008. He returned to the Twins in mid-2008 as a much lesser but still effective version, but then struggled in 2009.

Liriano seemingly put it all back together in 2010, posting a 3.62 ERA and 201 strikeouts in 192 innings to show that he was still very capable of dominating despite missing a few miles per hour off his pre-surgery stuff. And then he unraveled last season, throwing away all the progress he'd made, and began this year with a 9.45 ERA in six starts before the Twins demoted him to the bullpen in May.

Three weeks and a handful of unspectacular relief outings later Liriano rejoined the rotation and put together an 11-start stretch in which he posted a 3.68 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings. His raw stuff was still closer to the excellent, post-surgery 2010 version than the otherworldly, pre-surgery 2006 version, but Liriano's strikeout rate and swing-and-miss totals were as dominant as ever.

He picked a bad time for his one clunker during that 11-start span, failing to make it out of the third inning while allowing seven runs in Chicago last Monday night, although doing that damage against Liriano didn't stop the White Sox from trading for him. Coming into the game Liriano had gone at least five innings in every start since April 27, but he allowed three homers in 2.2 innings after allowing a total of three homers in his previous 71 innings.

It's unlikely that one ugly start significantly altered Liriano's trade value and by trading him for a pair of middling prospects just 12 hours before his final scheduled pre-deadline start the Twins certainly showed that they didn't think one impressive outing would give him a big last-minute boost. So now in an odd twist of fate (or at least scheduling) Liriano's next start will come Tuesday at Target Field, against the Twins. And his new batterymate? A.J. Pierzynski.

Liriano's time in Minnesota was both amazing and maddening, but it's hard not to think back to that unhittable rookie and dream about what could have been if only his elbow had held up under the pressure of a high-stress delivery and overpowering raw stuff. He left his mid-90s fastball on the operating table and never learned to consistently throw strikes with lesser velocity, which is how limitless potential turns into a 4.33 ERA and two marginal prospects.


For a whole lot more about the Liriano trade and the Twins' other potential deadline deals, listen to this week's episode of Gleeman and The Geek:

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