September 19, 2012

Twins Notes: Herrmann, Mauer, Florimon, Dozier, and Cedar Rapids

• As part of September roster expansion the Twins called up just two players, Luis Perdomo and Eduardo Escobar, but injuries to Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit left Drew Butera as the team's only healthy catcher and led to Chris Herrmann being added to the 40-man roster as a third call-up. Herrmann ranked 20th on my list of Twins prospects coming into this season and should hold a similar spot for next year after a solid Double-A campaign.

Herrmann hit .276/.350/.392 in 127 games for New Britain, nearly matching his .264/.357/.382 career line and showing his usual on-base skills, good strike-zone control, and modest power with 58 walks versus 89 strikeouts and 10 homers in 558 plate appearances. His performance at Double-A was nothing special, particularly for a 24-year-old repeating the level after playing 97 games there in 2011, but Herrmann likely has a big-league future beyond this month.

How long and in which role that future will be depends largely on his defense behind the plate, as Herrmann was an outfielder at the University of Miami before moving to catcher at high Single-A in 2010. This season he played 83 games at catcher compared to 43 games between left field and designated hitter. His defense gets mixed reviews, but Herrmann threw out 44 percent of steal attempts this year and 38 percent in 2011.

Another issue for Herrmann is that he's a left-handed hitter hoping to become the third catcher behind a left-handed hitter in Mauer and a switch-hitter who swings better from the left side in Doumit. That makes Herrmann less than an ideal fit, although his ability to play other positions should be handy and it's not as if Butera's offensive ineptitude coming from the right side helps anyway. Herrmann is likely Triple-A bound next year, but he's shooting for Butera's job.

Rene Rivera, a journeyman catcher who played 45 games for the Twins last year, indicated via Twitter that he was upset about being passed over for the call-up in favor of Herrmann:

I guess I should not expect promises to be kept. Best of luck to everyone. #Disappointed #Lies

Rivera later tried to put that toothpaste back in the tube, tweeting that he never mentioned the Twins and various other damage control, but there seemingly isn't a whole lot of nuance or need for interpretation in his original words. I have no idea what was or wasn't promised, but based on performance alone Rivera didn't warrant more time in the majors. He's a 29-year-old career .193 hitter in the majors and hit .226/.307/.385 at Triple-A this year.

• After going 3-for-4 with two walks last night Mauer is now hitting .325 with a league-leading .419 on-base percentage, which is remarkable considering he was hitting .265 on May 18. Here's a list of all the players in Twins history with an on-base percentage of .410 or higher:

                    YEAR      OBP
Joe Mauer           2012     .419
Joe Mauer           2009     .444
Joe Mauer           2008     .413
Joe Mauer           2006     .429
Chuck Knoblauch     1996     .448
Chuck Knoblauch     1995     .424
Rod Carew           1978     .411
Rod Carew           1977     .449
Rod Carew           1975     .421
Rod Carew           1974     .433
Rod Carew           1973     .411
Harmon Killebrew    1970     .411
Harmon Killebrew    1969     .427

And then there's also this: Mauer's current OPS? .877. Mauer's career OPS? .874.

Pedro Florimon looks good defensively at shortstop and can't hit, so Ron Gardenhire has predictably taking a liking to him immediately:

I'm very comfortable with him out there. We're not going to name a starting lineup [for 2013] or anything like right now, or even later, but I really like him out there. I think there are things he can get better at ... but I like him. I like the way he moves, I like the way he watches. He pays attention. He's got great hands.

Assistant general manager Rob Antony agreed about Florimon and also indicated that Brian Dozier's future may no longer be at shortstop:

Florimon has kind of made the plays and shown some of the range that you really like from a shortstop, that Dozier didn't necessarily do. So it might be a situation where we still think Dozier can be a good player, but he may end up being a second baseman instead of a shortstop.

While perhaps a surprise to the people who didn't know any better and bought into the misguided hype surrounding Dozier's arrival, his defense at shortstop has always been in question. Of course, for as bad as Dozier was offensively this year there's at least some reason to believe he's capable of being a decent hitter. The same is not really true of Florimon, who has hit .228/.284/.327 in the majors and .250/.318/.352 between Double-A and Triple-A.

According to Baseball-Reference.com the Twins' attendance is down 4,967 fans per game, which is a drop of 372,000 total fans compared to this same point last season. And that represents tickets sold rather than actual attendance, of course. Only the Astros have seen their attendance drop more than the Twins this year, no other team is down more than 3,400 fans per game, and across baseball overall attendance is up nearly 1,000 fans per game.

• In their last 324 games (two full 162-game seasons, basically) the Twins are 127-197 for a .392 winning percentage.

Josh Willingham became the fourth player in Twins history with 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs in a season, joining Harmon Killebrew (seven times), Justin Morneau (three), and Gary Gaetti (two). Overall the Twins now have 13 of the 665 total instances of a hitter reaching 30-100 since 1961. By comparison, Alex Rodriguez has 14 seasons with 30-100 all by himself.

• After eight years with Beloit as their low Single-A affiliate the Twins have switched their Midwest League team to Cedar Rapids, which offers better facilities in addition to being closer to Minnesota.

Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune does Twins updates for Baseball America and got an interesting quote on Tsuyoshi Nishioka from vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff:

The player we all saw was not the player we scouted in Japan. For whatever reason, we haven't seen that guy. I mean, none of us believed that he wouldn't hit.

When the Twins spent $15 million to acquire Nishioka in December of 2010 he was coming off a batting title in Japan, but a deeper look at his numbers showed that the .346 average was due to unsustainable success on balls in play. However, even projections adjusting for that had Nishioka as a decent all-around hitter. Instead he's hit .215/.267/.236 for the Twins and .260/.318/.327 for Rochester. Radcliff is right, but sadly the Twins were very wrong.

• Twins prospects Miguel Sano and Oswaldo Arcia were both selected for Baseball America's minor league all-star team, which includes a total of 30 players.

• This year eight American League pitchers with at least 50 innings have posted an Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) worse than 5.00. Three of them are Twins: Jeff Gray, Nick Blackburn, Alex Burnett.

• Perdomo, who the Twins called up while leaving Anthony Slama and his consistently great numbers to rot in the minors, now has a 5.06 ERA and 10 walks in 10.2 innings this season.

• Complete list of players in Twins history with more plate appearances and a lower OPS than Alexi Casilla: Al Newman, Danny Thompson.

• Old friend Pat Neshek, who spent most of the past three seasons at Triple-A before being called up by Oakland three weeks ago, now has a 0.63 ERA in 17 appearances for the A's.

• Regarding the Twins' offseason plans John Shipley of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote that the free agent starting pitcher market "isn't deep." That jibes with some comments general manager Terry Ryan made previously, but on this week's Gleeman and The Geek episode we spent about 45 minutes breaking down the various free agent starters and found that to be anything but true. It's plenty deep, especially in the type of pitchers the Twins usually go after.

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December 15, 2011

Twins Notes: Comings, goings, returns, and engagements

• Arbitration-eligible players Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, and Alexi Casilla were tendered contracts, but the Twins non-tendered Jose Mijares and made him a free agent. Terry Ryan's explanation for the move was odd, as he said the decision "gets up to how much he's going to make" and "we decided we didn't want to go there." Ryan also indicated that the Twins tried to work out a pre-deadline contract with Mijares to avoid non-tendering him, but he declined.

Non-tendering players rather than paying them undeserved arbitration raises is common, but that doesn't really apply in Mijares' case. He was paid $445,000 in 2011 and would've been in line for a raise to at most $750,000, which is only $270,000 more than the new MLB minimum salary and represents 0.75 percent of the payroll. If the Twins thought he was worth keeping around cutting Mijares loose over money when "money" is only $270,000 makes little sense.

Clearly they lost all faith in Mijares as his velocity dipped and he totaled as many walks (30) as strikeouts (30) in 49 innings, but he's still just 27 years old and prior to falling apart in 2011 he had a 2.49 ERA in 105 career innings. His secondary numbers have never been as good as his ERA, but given that the Twins aren't exactly overflowing with quality relievers and the cost to keep the hefty lefty around was little more than the minimum salary the move surprised me.

• Along with non-tendering Mijares the Twins also sliced Jim Hoey and Pedro Florimon from the 40-man roster. Hoey was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays, leaving only marginal relief prospect Brett Jacobson to show for last winter's misguided J.J. Hardy trade with the Orioles. Florimon, whom the Twins claimed off waivers from the Orioles last week, cleared waivers this time around and was assigned to Triple-A.

Claiming and waiving a player within the span of a week might seem silly, but Florimon has the potential to be a decent utility infielder and now the Twins can stash him in the minors without using up a 40-man roster spot. I've long felt the Twins should be more willing to shuffle guys through the fringes of the 40-man roster, so while Florimon is hardly a high-upside player the maneuvering surrounding him was nice to see.

Hoey perhaps deserved a longer opportunity based on his minor-league numbers and mid-90s fastball, but his complete lack of control and quality off-speed pitches weren't encouraging and at 29 years old he's far from a prospect. Hoey wasn't totally without potential when the Twins acquired him and he's exactly the type of reliever teams should take fliers on in minor trades, but the problem is that trading Hardy was anything but a minor mistake, then and now.

• Signing veteran minor leaguers to help Rochester be competitive after back-to-back 90-loss seasons is clearly a priority for the Twins and the latest batch is Rene Rivera, P.J. Walters, and Sean Burroughs. Rivera split this year between Rochester and Minnesota, helping to fill in for Joe Mauer behind the plate, but was trimmed from the 40-man roster in October. He's the epitome of a replacement-level catcher and handy enough to have around at Triple-A.

Walters was traded from the Cardinals to the Blue Jays in the seven-player swap headlined by Colby Rasmus and Edwin Jackson on July 27, but Toronto let him become a free agent three months later and his track record is pretty underwhelming. Walters briefly looked like a decent prospect back in 2007 and his strikeout rates are solid, but the 26-year-old right-hander has a high-80s fastball, mediocre control, and a 4.63 ERA in 484 innings at Triple-A.

Burroughs was the ninth overall pick in the 1998 draft and Baseball America ranked him as one of the game's top 10 prospects in 2000, 2001, and 2002. His big-league career started off well enough, as Burroughs debuted for the Padres as a 21-year-old and hit .289/.345/364 through his first 339 games, but he never developed any power, regressed in other areas, struggled with substance abuse, and was finished at age 25. Or so it seemed.

After three seasons out of baseball Burroughs signed a minor-league deal with Arizona, whose general manager Kevin Towers was the GM in San Diego who drafted him. He worked his way back to the majors by hitting .412 in 34 games at Triple-A and then struggled in 78 games as a bench bat, hitting .273/.289/.336 with an ugly strikeout-to-walk ratio. Burroughs is one of the biggest prospect busts of the 2000s, but at age 30 still qualifies as intriguing Triple-A depth.

• Just five weeks after Bill Smith was fired as general manager Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com reports that he's close to returning to the organization in a "special assistant" role that would involve running the Twins' efforts in Latin America and their spring training complex in Florida. Smith was overmatched and then some as a GM, but handled the firing amazingly well publicly and has been with the Twins since the mid-1980s, so their showing him loyalty isn't surprising.

Nick Punto signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the Red Sox to replace Jed Lowrie, who was traded to the Astros for Mark Melancon. As always, in a bench role with a modest salary Punto is an excellent fit on just about any team. Unfortunately the Twins played him too much and paid him $4 million in both 2009 and 2010 (plus a $500,000 buyout to avoid paying him $5 million in 2011). He'll now be paid a total of $4 million for his first three post-Twins seasons.

Kevin Slowey avoided arbitration with the Rockies, agreeing to a one-year, $2.7 million deal.

Jacque Jones, whom I rated as the 30th-best player in Twins history, has been hired by his hometown Padres as a Single-A hitting coach. He last played at Triple-A for the Twins in 2010.

• Mauer got engaged to fellow Cretin-Derham Hall graduate Maddie Bisanz.

October 17, 2011

Twins Notes: Roster trimming, old friends, minor awards, and 10-5-2004

• Most teams prepare for the offseason by trimming at least a handful of lesser players from the margins of their 40-man roster and the Twins' initial purge included Anthony Slama, Matt Tolbert, Jason Repko, and Rene Rivera. All four players were outrighted off the 40-man roster and went unclaimed on waivers before being assigned to Triple-A. In order to call any of them up to the majors next season the Twins would first have to re-add them to the 40-man roster.

Slama is the one questionable cut, as his minor-league track record has long screamed out for an opportunity that the Twins simply never seemed interested in giving him. He likely would've finally gotten an extended shot in the majors during the second half because of all the Twins' injuries, but Slama missed the final two months of the season with an elbow injury of his own. If healthy he's capable of being a solid middle reliever, but at age 28 time is just about up.

Tolbert is the epitome of a replacement-level infielder and the Twins realizing that's not worth 40-man roster space is encouraging considering they gave him at least 100 plate appearances in each of the past four seasons. I've called Tolbert a poor man's Nick Punto, but that actually might short-change Punto. Tolbert is 29 years old, doesn't offer anything special defensively, and has hit just .230/.288/.319 in 680 plate appearances as a big leaguer.

Rivera entered this season as a 27-year-old with 159 plate appearances in the majors, but the Twins gave him 35 starts and 114 plate appearances because Joe Mauer wasn't healthy and they had embarrassingly little catching depth behind him. Just as Tolbert is the definition of a replacement-level infielder, Rivera is a prime example of a replacement-level catcher. He's solid defensively, but Rivera has hit .193 in the majors and .254/.297/.421 in 186 games at Triple-A.

Repko's best fit is as a fifth outfielder who starts against left-handed pitching, but that role is pretty limited to begin with and Ron Gardenhire never utilizes a platoon anyway. When put in a more traditional fourth outfielder role Repko doesn't hit enough to be a reasonable fill-in and mostly just wastes a bench spot, which the Twins can't afford when combined with the 12-man pitching staff Gardenhire prefers. He'll likely be in another organization next season.

• Old friends Pat Neshek and Jose Morales were also dropped from 40-man rosters in similar house cleanings by the Padres and Rockies. Neshek split this year between Triple-A and San Diego, but struggled in both places as his fastball topped out in the high-80s following elbow surgery in November of 2008. Morales missed most of the season with a broken thumb, hitting .267/.352/.317 in 22 games as the Rockies' backup catcher. They'll both likely be free agents.

• Rochester is plenty frustrated with the Triple-A team after back-to-back 90-loss seasons, so the Twins re-signed minor-league free agents Aaron Bates, Ray Chang, and Mike Hollimon to begin stockpiling some depth. All three guys are closing in on 30 years old with basically zero chance of being called up to Minnesota, but Bates is a first baseman who hit .316/.408/.439 in 106 games for Rochester this season and Chang and Hollimon are useful infielders at Triple-A.

Brian Dozier was named the Twins' minor league player of the year, which is both a tribute to how well he played this season and an indictment of how poorly the rest of the farm system fared. Dozier was an afterthought coming into this season, as the Twins assigned him to high Single-A as a 24-year-old and only promoted him to Double-A after the 2009 eighth-round pick hit .322/.423/.472 in 49 games at Fort Myers.

Dozier was just as productive at Double-A, hitting .318/.384/.502 in 73 games, but he currently projects as more of a utility man than a strong everyday player and won't be anywhere close to cracking any top prospect lists for 2012. Depending on how the Twins address their woeful middle infield depth this winter Dozier may get a chance to force his way onto the Opening Day roster, but more likely he'll begin next season in Rochester at age 25.

Liam Hendriks got the nod as the Twins' minor league pitcher of the year after throwing 139 innings with a 3.36 ERA and 111-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Double-A and Triple-A. Hendriks is two years younger than Dozier and a step or two above him as a prospect, looking like a future middle-of-the-rotation starter. He ranked No. 8 on my list of the Twins' prospects coming into this season and got his feet wet in the majors with four September starts.

Here are the Twins' recent minor-league award winners:

YEAR     PLAYER              PITCHER
2011     Brian Dozier        Liam Hendriks
2010     Joe Benson          Kyle Gibson
2009     Ben Revere          David Bromberg
2008     Ben Revere          Anthony Slama
2007     Brian Buscher       Kevin Slowey
2006     Alexi Casilla       Matt Garza
2005     David Winfree       Francisco Liriano
2004     Jason Kubel         Scott Baker
2003     Joe Mauer           Jesse Crain
2002     Lew Ford            J.D. Durbin

Certainly a mixed bag, to say the least.

• How far has Aaron Hicks' prospect stock fallen? According to Baseball America at least, a ton. On their annual preseason prospect list they ranked him No. 19 for 2010 and No. 45 for 2011, but on their recently released postseason list of top prospects by league Hicks ranked No. 18 ... in the Florida State League. Seems like a safe bet that he won't crack Baseball America's top 100 for 2012. In fact, Miguel Sano may be the only Twins prospect who does.

• Speaking of Hicks, this out of context quote amused me: "I was pretty much going down the same road as Tiger Woods."

John Ourand of Sports Business Journal crunched the numbers on local television audiences across baseball and the Twins' viewership declined 28 percent compared to last year, dropping from 152,000 to 109,000 viewers per game. That decline of 43,000 viewers per game was the largest drop of any MLB team, although based on percentage of viewers lost the Twins' drop was only the fifth-highest. Whatever the case, FSN had an ugly season along with the Twins.

• How long has it been since the Twins won a playoff game? Their last postseason win came on October 5, 2004 against the Yankees, as Johan Santana tossed seven shutout innings and Jacque Jones homered off Mike Mussina in a 2-0 victory. New York's lineup that day included Gary Sheffield, Bernie Williams, John Olerud, and Ruben Sierra, all of whom are retired. And here was the Twins' lineup:

1. Shannon Stewart, LF
2. Jacque Jones, RF
3. Torii Hunter, CF
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Corey Koskie, 3B
6. Lew Ford, DH
7. Cristian Guzman, SS
8. Michael Cuddyer, 2B
9. Henry Blanco, C

Wow. Lew Ford at designated hitter, Corey Koskie at third base, Henry Blanco at catcher, and Justin Morneau in the cleanup spot as a 24-year-old rookie, not to mention a double-play duo of Cristian Guzman at shortstop and Michael Cuddyer at second base ... with Cuddyer batting after Guzman. I was still in college at the time, Sano was 11 years old, and on that same day Dick Cheney and John Edwards had their vice presidential debate.

• I wrote an article for MinnPost attempting to make sense of Delmon Young's playoff power.

June 13, 2011

Twins Notes: Hotness, to and from contact, dizziness, and tough decisions

• They still have the worst record in the league at 26-39, still are on pace to go 65-97, and still would need to go 59-38 from here on out to finish with even 85 wins, but by going 9-3 to start June the Twins have at the very least put off a potential fire sale for a while and made their games fun to watch again. Baby steps, sure, but 26-39 looks a whole lot prettier than 17-37 and as usual the thoroughly mediocre AL Central makes much bigger steps seem possible.

Francisco Liriano had a panic-inducing April, posting a 9.13 ERA with as many walks (18) as strikeouts (18) as the Twins tried to convince him to "pitch to contact" with terrible results. His first May start was a no-hitter versus the White Sox and Liriano flirted with a second no-hitter yesterday against the Rangers, giving him a 1.89 ERA in six starts since May 1. And as Liriano explained after racking up nine strikeouts, his success has come from not following advice:

I've always been the power pitcher, trying to strike out people. I feel more comfortable pitching like that. I'm trying to be me, [the way] I used to pitch last year and the year before. I'm not thinking about contact at all.

Good. It never made much sense that the Twins would try to force Liriano into the same strike-throwing, contact-inducing mold they use for pitchers with inferior raw stuff and less ability to overpower hitters, so thankfully he stayed with the approach that led to so much success last season.  Liriano has allowed two runs or fewer in five of six starts, with the lone outlier coming after throwing 123 pitches in the no-hitter, so hopefully they'll stop trying to fix him for a while.

Carl Pavano has also put together a strong six-start stretch since beginning the season 2-4 with a 6.64 ERA, logging 43 innings with a 2.49 ERA and just two homers allowed. However, his lack of missed bats continues to be worrisome from a 35-year-old pitcher set to earn $8.5 million in 2012. Pavano has just 16 strikeouts in those 43 innings, which is a minuscule rate of 3.3 per nine innings and even lower than his 3.6 per nine innings through seven bad starts.

Pavano can still be effective by limiting walks and homers, but it'll be tough for the Twins to get their money's worth over the next season-and-a-half if he can't get back to at least 5-6 whiffs per nine innings like 2009 and 2010. Not only are his 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings this year the lowest rate in baseball, no other pitcher is below 4.0 and the last pitcher to qualify for the ERA title with a lower strikeout rate was Livan Hernandez at 3.4 in 2008 ... for the Twins.

Denard Span's collision with Royals catcher Brayan Pena didn't look like much at the time. In fact, I was watching on television alongside a handful of other Twins bloggers and a few beat reporters, and no one seemed to think much of it beyond Span not turning Pena into Buster Posey with a bigger collision. Span stayed in the game and even played a few days later, but then complained of dizziness and was put on the new seven-day disabled list for concussions.

Span told reporters that he's "definitely scared" about the situation and it's easy to see why. One reason is that Justin Morneau missed the final three-plus months of last season and was sidelined for a total of nine months following a concussion last July and still hasn't gotten back on track 11 months later. Beyond that, Span described what he's currently going through as "a familiar feeling" to when he missed time with vertigo in 2009:

I feel a little like somebody's kind of pushing me from the back a little bit. I'm not going to fall over, but it's the same exact feeling. I want to get this checked out. I'm frustrated, all those things. There's something wrong. I don't know what it is, so I want to get it taken care of.

Span, who'd bounced back from a disappointing 2010 to be the Twins' best all-around player through 60 games, also revealed that he still experiences symptoms related to the vertigo two years later, saying: "It's calmed down a lot and it's manageable, but it's been something I've dealt with since then." That's news to me and is a glimpse into the type of health information players and teams tend to keep to themselves whenever possible.

Alexi Casilla continues to play very well since escaping from the doghouse thanks to Trevor Plouffe's mistake-filled attempt to replace him and is now batting .337/.401/.421 in 27 games since mid-May. His defense is also improved and Casilla is finally using his elite speed. Despite great stolen base percentages Casilla attempted just 21.5 steals per 600 plate appearances prior to this year. This season Casilla has already tried 12 steals in 198 plate appearances.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka is finally on the verge of returning 10 weeks after an injury expected to last 4-6 weeks and once that happens Casilla seems destined for second base despite starting 10 straight games at shortstop. Nishioka looked shaky at second base before fracturing his fibula thanks in part to incorrect double play positioning, so the Twins presumably wouldn't have him playing shortstop while rehabbing if they planned to bring him back as a second baseman.

Ron Gardenhire has dropped some strong hints recently about being unhappy with Danny Valencia and Nishioka returning provides an opportunity for the Twins to keep Matt Tolbert as the utility man and Luke Hughes as the starting third baseman while demoting Valencia back to Triple-A. Hughes has hit well in a part-time role of late, but hasn't been impressive overall with a .270/.311/.360 mark and 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 games.

What's funny about Valencia's situation is that his power and plate discipline have been fine, but whereas an unsustainably high .345 batting average on balls in play fueled his better than expected rookie season an unsustainably low .239 batting average on balls in play has him fighting for his job now. Ultimately the "real" Valencia is somewhere in between and his career line of .270/.321/.397 is close to both his minor-league track record and Hughes' likely upside.

• Barring a setback it looks like Joe Mauer will come off the disabled list Thursday, returning to the lineup after missing 57 games with complications following offseason knee surgery. In his absence the Twins have gotten the worst production in baseball from their catchers, as Drew Butera and Rene Rivera (and Steve Holm, briefly) have combined to hit .178 with a .497 OPS. To put that in some context, Al Newman has the lowest OPS in Twins history at .581.

They've both done a good job defensively, particularly when it comes to controlling the running game, but Butera has hit .174/.207/.261 in 40 games and Rivera has hit .196/.262/.304 in 20 games. So naturally in discussing Mauer's impending return yesterday Gardenhire talked about what a "tough decision" it will be choosing which replacement-level catcher gets to avoid a trip back to Triple-A and stick around as the backup:

Oh, absolutely. You want tough decisions though. I don't like it when it's carved out, "this is going to happen." You want tough decisions. That means both of them are doing OK, and when Joe comes back, sure, we're going to have to make a tough decision. And both of them have done their parts and they continue to. But it's not going to be easy no matter which way we go.

"Both of them are doing OK" and "both of them have done their parts" is an interesting way to describe two players who've literally combined for the worst production in baseball. How much worse than a .497 OPS could they get before it no longer qualified as "doing OK"? In reality it's only a "tough decision" because neither Butera nor Rivera have played well enough to warrant sticking around, in which case "stub your toe or get a paper cut?" is also a "tough decision."

• Speaking of Rivera, last night he tweeted this charming picture of Ben Revere at Morneau's annual casino night charity fundraiser:

Is that a better or worse look for Revere than this little number from his rookie hazing?

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May 9, 2011

Promotions, demotions, and disabled list stints

Catching up on the Twins' recent roster moves ...

Alexi Casilla's ill-conceived reign as the Twins' starting shortstop lasted all of a month, as he played his way out of the job by hitting just .190/.257/.286 with predictably spotty defense at a position where he lacked both the skills and experience to succeed. Trevor Plouffe has now taken over at shortstop, earning a call-up by shaking off a dreadful spring training to start well at Triple-A. That leaves Casilla as the primary second baseman, with Ron Gardenhire saying:

I talked with Alexi about it. I asked him about second base and he said it's easier. We'll see if it's easier. I know he's always more comfortable over there too. I think he's trying to do a whole heck of a lot. At second base maybe he'll be able to relax a little bit more and not rush things.

Casilla needing to relax and get comfortable has been repeated like a manta since his debut in 2006, along with talk of supposed upside. At this point, however, it might be time to conclude that Casilla just isn't very good. He'll be 27 years old in July and has 1,200 plate appearances in the majors, so Casilla is neither young nor inexperienced. Defensively he's overmatched at shortstop and merely decent at second base, and he's a career .244/.301/.321 hitter.

Even his best raw tools more often than not go to waste. Casilla has a strong arm, but the big windup and shaky accuracy mean he can't be counted on to make routine plays. He has great speed and is a remarkably efficient base-stealer, yet has a grand total of just 37 steals in 338 games. Casilla is out of minor-league options and can't be sent to Triple-A without first passing through waivers, but the risk of losing him should no longer be part of the decision-making.

• There's no immediate reason to cut bait on Casilla, but if Plouffe is performing well enough to keep a starting job by the time Tsuyoshi Nishioka is ready to return from his fractured fibula in a couple weeks keeping Casilla around would likely mean demoting Matt Tolbert to Triple-A or reducing the pitching staff from 12 to 11. It's difficult to imagine Ron Gardenhire being in favor of either option, so Casilla may truly be playing for his Twins future right now.

Of course, Plouffe having a strong grip on the job in 2-3 weeks is hardly assured. According to Gardenhire the coaching staff at Rochester praised Plouffe's defense and he hit .282/.344/.590 in 21 games there, but that brings his career mark at Triple-A up to just .255/.306/.430 in 307 games and his shortstop defense received mixed reviews long before the error-filled showing this spring. He ranked 32nd on my list of the Twins' top prospects coming into the season.

Plouffe's flaws may be different and less familiar than Casilla's flaws, but aren't necessarily any less abundant and a 25-year-old with a non-elite glove and .306 on-base percentage in 1,300 plate appearances at Triple-A isn't significantly more likely to impress as an everyday shortstop than Casilla or Tolbert. Plouffe is worth a look at shortstop and so is Nishioka once he returns, but this may not be a problem that can be solved by shuffling a deck full of the same cards.

• On the other hand, injuries to Delmon Young and Jim Thome forced the Twins to call up Ben Revere and Rene Tosoni, both of whom project as more likely long-term starters than Plouffe. Tosoni got the nod with Young out by virtue of his better start at Triple-A, but then Revere was called up anyway once Thome and Jason Repko went on the shelf last week and now they're splitting time in left field despite the two left-handed hitters not forming a natural platoon.

Thome, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer are impending free agents, so it's possible Revere and Tosoni will be two-thirds of the starting outfield next season along with Denard Span. For now they're just keeping the roster spots warm with Young seemingly close to returning and both Thome and Repko also due back before the end of the month. Revere seems more likely to stick once Young returns because he fills Repko's role as the backup center fielder.

• When the Twins claimed Dusty Hughes off waivers from the Royals in January they talked up his nice-looking ERA and the fact that left-handed hitters like Mauer and Span raved about his stuff after facing him. Ignored in all that were mediocre secondary numbers last season and an underwhelming track record in the minors, and sure enough Hughes was demoted to Triple-A after posting a 10.13 ERA in 12 appearances while opponents batted .356/.434/.622 off him.

Meanwhile, the player dropped from the 40-man roster to make room for Hughes three months ago, Rob Delaney, was called up by the Rays yesterday after posting a 1.50 ERA and 19-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 innings at Triple-A. Delaney won't necessarily stick in Tampa Bay and Hughes might thrive if given another shot in Minnesota, but so far the reliever swap based on ERA and hitter reviews rather than secondary stats and track records looks like a mistake.

• Last month when Joe Mauer was placed on the disabled list the Twins called up Steve Holm from Triple-A to serve as Drew Butera's backup and Gardenhire said things like "he can swing it" and "we liked him in spring training." Holm's track record said otherwise, as the 31-year-old career minor leaguer had hit just .250/.334/.379 at Triple-A. Holm predictably struggled, going 2-for-17 at the plate and 0-for-5 throwing out runners before being demoted back to Triple-A.

Holm is the definition of a replacement-level catcher, so there's no reason to fault the Twins for dropping him, but the process by which he so quickly fell out of favor is curious given that the Rochester call-up taking his job, Rene Rivera, is every bit as much a replacement-level catcher with a decade in the minors and an even less impressive track record. Why make that switch just weeks after calling up Holm over Rivera in the first place? Here's what Gardenhire said:

Just trying to mix it up. Don't want to sit here and get complacent. I hope these guys understand we're not afraid to move people around. It's just a change. Holm hadn't been swinging great. They told me Rivera was hitting balls right on the button. Terry Ryan had been watching him the last few days. He can run into a ball, and we need somebody who can run into the ball.

Presumably the Twins scouted both players before signing them as free agents this winter and then formed further opinions about them during spring training. Last month that meant calling up Holm over Rivera, yet three weeks and just 18 plate appearances later they reversed that decision because Holm "hadn't been swinging great" and Gardenhire got a report that Rivera "was hitting balls right on the button." Sounds a lot like his quotes about Holm last month.

Terry Ryan must have watched Rivera on a rare good day, because he hit just .200/.250/.333 at Rochester before the call-up. Beyond that, the notion that Rivera "can run into a ball and we need somebody who can run into the ball" is being awfully kind to a career .245 hitter with a .405 slugging percentage in parts of seven years at Triple-A. Decisions don't get less important than "Holm or Rivera?" but the decision-making process in this case fascinates me.

• As if that wasn't already too much talk about replacement-level backup catchers ... When the Holm-for-Rivera swap was announced quite a few people e-mailed and tweeted me wondering why 2007 eighth-round pick Danny Lehmann didn't get the nod instead. My assumption is that those people looked at his .325 batting average in a dozen games this season rather than his ugly .239/.318/.312 career line in five seasons. Lehmann is homegrown, but that's about it.

Francisco Liriano's no-hitter obviously quieted Gardenhire's talk of Kevin Slowey coming off the disabled list to replace him in the rotation, so instead Slowey rejoined the bullpen with a start-length relief outing after Saturday's rain delay. Slowey began the season in a secondary setup role, but with the bullpen hierarchy changing dramatically in the month he missed it'll be interesting to see if he reclaims the high-leverage role that he's capable of thriving in.