April 25, 2011

Nevermind, I’ll find someone like you

Catching up with old friends in new places ...

Matt Guerrier signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers and got off to a great start in Los Angeles with 11 straight scoreless innings before coughing up five runs Saturday. Guerrier has filled largely the same role with the Dodgers that he did with the Twins, working the seventh and eighth innings setting up closer Jonathan Broxton while recording more than three outs in five of his first 10 appearances.

Brian Fuentes has been filling in for the injured Andrew Bailey as the A's closer, converting six of seven save chances with a 4.09 ERA and 10-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 innings. He was unable to find a full-time closing opportunity as a free agent and settled for a two-year, $10.5 million deal at age 35. Bailey is due back early next month, at which point Fuentes will slide into a setup role alongside former Twin and original AG.com favorite, Grant Balfour.

Jon Rauch also stumbled into a brief stint filling in as Toronto's closer with Frank Francisco sidelined to begin the season. Just as he did for the Twins last year Rauch did a perfectly solid job in the role, converting all three save chances before Francico returned 18 games in, and he has a 2.25 ERA and 6-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine innings overall. Dating back to last year Rauch has converted 24-of-28 saves with a 2.98 ERA and 52/18 K/BB ratio in 66 innings.

• Obviously the three-year, $13 million contract helped, but Jesse Crain also talked about the opportunity to be in the mix for saves as one of the reasons for signing with the White Sox. Chicago's bullpen has been a mess, with closer Matt Thornton blowing four saves already and manager Ozzie Guillen trying all kinds of different combinations late, but Crain has yet to get a crack at closing duties despite a 1.93 ERA and 11-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine innings.

Orlando Hudson got off to strong start in San Diego while oddly batting third in the Padres' lineup, but a recent slump has knocked his overall line down to .229/.349/.271 in 21 games. Of course, even that .620 OPS is still much higher than the Twins have gotten from Alexi Casilla (.485), Matt Tolbert (.469), Luke Hughes (.448), and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (.519) in the middle infield and Hudson is playing half his games in the majors' most pitcher-friendly ballpark.

• I didn't like the Twins' decision to trade J.J. Hardy after he was above par offensively among shortstops and outstanding defensively in the 101 games he was healthy enough to be in the lineup, but they have to be smiling after he lasted just six games with the Orioles before being placed on the disabled list. Hardy is out until mid-May with a strained oblique and one of the two minor-league relievers the Twins got for him, Jim Hoey, has been thrust into a setup role.

Brendan Harris was also traded to Baltimore in the Hardy swap or more accurately dumping $1.25 million of his $1.75 million salary on the Orioles was part of the Twins' side of the deal. No one will ever be able to explain why the Twins handed Harris a two-year, $3.2 million deal last January, but after spending most of last season at Triple-A he failed to make the Orioles out of spring training and is once again struggling in the International League.

Wilson Ramos has overtaken Ivan Rodriguez as Washington's starting catcher and all of a sudden articles have popped up explaining how the Twins don't regret trading a 22-year-old top catching prospect for the right to pay $10 million for one-and-a-half years of Matt Capps. I'm sure the timing is purely coincidental. Ramos is hitting .351 with surprisingly decent plate discipline early on, giving him a .302/.347/.414 career line through 34 games.

Dealt for Single-A reliever Paul Bargas in December after the Twins settled on Drew Butera as their preferred backup catcher, Jose Morales is now backing up Chris Iannetta in Colorado and playing sparingly in the early going. He owns a career line of .295/.374/.358 in 81 games, but the Twins never trusted his glove. Bargas unfortunately has been hospitalized due to a neurological condition, with general manager Bill Smith describing him as "very sick."

Nick Punto's one-year, $750,000 contract with St. Louis got off to a rough start when he underwent hernia surgery within days of reporting to spring training, but he's healthy now and already starting regularly in place of injured second baseman Skip Schumaker. I thought the Twins should have re-signed Punto as long as the money was no more than $1 million and the projected role was minor. For all his faults, he'd be their best middle infielder right now.

Pat Neshek not only won a spot in the Padres' bullpen out of spring training after being lost on waivers for nothing by the Twins, he threw eight innings with a 2.25 ERA and .222 batting average against. However, while I'm happy to see Neshek doing well and didn't understand cutting him loose, his 7-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio is anything but impressive, his average fastball has clocked in at just 85.6 miles per hour, and now he's been optioned to Triple-A.

• Traded to the Braves for Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond last month in one of the most confusing Twins moves in a long time, Billy Bullock has struggled at Double-A with a 12.15 ERA through 6.2 innings. He thrived at Double-A in the second half of last season, but his shaky control has been a big problem with six walks. Diamond, meanwhile, has a 3.48 ERA and 13-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three starts at Rochester.

Rob Delaney was lost on waivers to Tampa Bay in late January when they Twins dropped him from the 40-man roster to make room for Dusty Hughes. Delaney failed to make the Rays out of spring training, but has a 2.45 ERA and 14-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 innings at Triple-A and will likely get a chance in Tampa Bay at some point this season. Hughes has been a mess so far, living up to his mediocre track record by allowing seven runs in seven innings.

Ron Mahay left the Twins as a free agent, signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers only to be released in the final week of spring training, and has latched on with the Diamondbacks at Triple-A, continuing a career-long pattern of having to prove himself anew seemingly every season despite consistently solid numbers. He might finally just be out of gas at age 40, but Mahay has a career ERA of 3.83 that includes a 3.49 mark in the previous five seasons.

Dennys Reyes beat out Hideki Okajima for the left-handed specialist role in the Red Sox's bullpen coming out of spring training, turning a minor-league deal into $900,000 in guaranteed money, and then got demoted to Triple-A one week into the season after four shaky outings. Reyes cleared waivers and accepted an assignment to Pawtucket, but the $900,000 salary is locked in whether "Big Sweat" gets called back up to Boston or not.

Yohan Pino, a right-hander the Twins swapped to the Indians for Carl Pavano in mid-2009, was traded to the Blue Jays last week for cash considerations. Pino was a mid-level prospect when the Twins dealt him, posting standout numbers in the minors despite mediocre raw stuff, and now he's organizational filler at age 28. Pavano was an impending free agent back then, but went on to re-sign with the Twins twice and has a 4.09 ERA in 326 innings since the trade.

December 7, 2010

Winter meetings rumblings: Nishioka, Hardy, Uehara, Thome, and Pavano

I'm not at the winter meetings this year, but my blog-mate Craig Calcaterra is on the scene in Orlando writing lots of good stuff on Hardball Talk and after Day 1 there are even some Twins-related rumblings worth noting ...

Bill Smith met yesterday afternoon with Tsuyoshi Nishioka's agent for the first time and Ed Price of AOL Fanhouse reports that the Twins have offered the Japanese infielder a three-year deal worth $9-$10 million. Last week I crunched some numbers on previous Japanese players signing with MLB teams and concluded: "Based on those precedents ... a three-year deal for around $9 million seems likely." Not bad. Now he just needs to accept the offer.

J.J. Hardy's status remains up in the air, but I expect his situation to come into focus quickly once Nishioka signs. My hope is still that the Twins keep both players and use Alexi Casilla in a utility role, but as many as six teams have reportedly expressed interest in trading for Hardy and if the Twins are going to move him they'll want to do so before the shortstop market gets settled. Right now I'd probably bet on Hardy being traded for bullpen help.

• Speaking of which, according to Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun the Twins are among six teams to express interest in free agent reliever Koji Uehara. A month ago I examined low-cost bullpen options and put Uehara atop the list of my recommended targets, suggesting that he'd "make an ideal setup man" if "available for a reasonable one-year contract." With at least five other teams bidding that may prove difficult, but it's nice to hear the Twins like him too.

• Last week Jim Thome's agent reiterated that he planned to play in 2011 at age 40 and now the future Hall of Famer told Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com that he wants to play two more seasons. Thome called the Twins "an awesome organization" and "a wonderful place to play," but stopped short of saying he planned to re-sign. According to Rosenthal, agent Pat Rooney "has received calls from multiple teams expressing interest."

• Smith told ESPN1500.com's Phil Mackey that he hasn't ruled out re-signing Carl Pavano, but given various reports of heavy interest from several teams and speculation about three-year offers his returning to Minnesota seems highly unlikely. Making a three-season commitment to Pavano would be a mistake, so hopefully the Twins will be content to let the 34-year-old right-hander walk and take the compensatory draft picks.

Brian Fuentes is drawing interest from multiple teams, including the Red Sox, and is said to be seeking $6-$8 million per season in a multi-year deal. There's no indication that the Twins are in the mix to re-sign him and by not offering Fuentes arbitration they forfeit compensation for the Type B free agent signing elsewhere.

• After sitting out this season following his third back surgery in three years Joe Crede is now attempting a comeback.

Ron Mahay is reportedly drawing interest from the Red Sox and Mets.

• I'm slated to be the guest on Seth Stohs' podcast tonight, starting at 10:00 p.m.

August 23, 2010

Kevin Slowey’s injury opens rotation spot for Nick Blackburn’s return

There was no shortage of at-the-ballpark booing and talk radio-inspired emoting, but I didn't hear many coherent, logical arguments against the Twins pulling Kevin Slowey despite seven no-hit innings last week. And whatever cases that were made have probably gone silent now that Slowey has been placed on the disabled list with further arm problems following his poor follow-up outing Saturday.

It wasn't so much that the Twins wouldn't let him go from the 106 pitches he'd thrown through seven no-hit innings to the 130 or so pitches it likely would've taken to complete the no-hitter, it was that because Slowey had missed his previous start with elbow pain they never really wanted him throwing even 106 pitches in the first place. And now it looks like they were right. Or maybe Slowey would have aggravated the injury throwing 75 pitches anyway. Who knows.

Whatever the case, he's on the DL with an arm injury for the third time in three years and Nick Blackburn is back in the rotation following a month-long demotion to Triple-A. Blackburn fared well in four starts at Rochester, posting a 2.49 ERA and .229 opponents' batting average in 22 innings while inducing 65 percent ground balls, but his 13-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 4.12 FIP were significantly less confidence-inspiring.

Blackburn also rejoins the rotation with a very difficult matchup against the first-place Rangers and their top-five offense in hitter-friendly Texas. In terms of offense at home, the Yankees are the only team in the league with a higher OPS or more runs than the Rangers, so it's hardly an ideal way to ease someone back into the rotation. In addition to Blackburn's return the Twins recalled Anthony Slama, who's needed after Ron Mahay hurt his shoulder on a fielding play.

Dating back to last season Mahay has quietly done some nice work for the Twins with a 3.14 ERA, .244 opponents' batting average, and 33-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings, and while losing a situational left-hander certainly isn't going to wreck the bullpen it does hurt a bit more with fellow lefty Jose Mijares already out for a month after knee surgery. Glen Perkins is now the bullpen's sole southpaw and he's actually worse against left-handed hitters.

Obviously the circumstances are unfortunate, but I'm happy to see Slama getting another shot so quickly. He was anything but impressive in his first taste of the majors, but struggling in five innings to begin a career means almost nothing and his track record in the minors is certainly dominant enough to warrant an extended opportunity. He doesn't address the lack of lefties, but Ron Gardenhire did some of his best bullpen managing when not focused on handedness.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Here are the starting pitching matchups for the four-game series in Texas that begins tonight:

Monday: Blackburn (104 IP, 5.09 xFIP) vs. Rich Harden (74 IP, 5.83 xFIP)

Tuesday: Carl Pavano (174 IP, 3.91 xFIP) vs. Colby Lewis (155 IP, 3.86 xFIP)

Wednesday: Brian Duensing (84 IP, 3.99 xFIP) vs. C.J. Wilson (158 IP, 4.29 xFIP)

Thursday: Francisco Liriano (151 IP, 3.00 xFIP) vs. Cliff Lee (175 IP, 3.27 xFIP)

Remarkably similar matchups in terms of the pitchers' effectiveness and handedness. Righties versus righties, lefties versus lefties. Aces against aces, No. 2 starters against No. 2 starters, guys just back from Triple-A against guys just back from Triple-A. And the Thursday night bout is a doozy, with (according to xFIP, at least) the two best starters in the league facing off. And hopefully Liriano is over the "tired arm" period that got him pushed back to Thursday.

August 18, 2010

Twins Notes: Thome, Morneau, Mijares, Gibson, Revere, and Wimmers

• This offseason the White Sox chose not to re-sign Jim Thome in large part because manager Ozzie Guillen urged general manager Ken Williams to let him go, saying he preferred to cycle various players through the designated hitter slot and make the lineup less homer dependent. Thome signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Twins and has batted .273/.391/.593 in 253 plate appearances, including last night's dramatic walk-off homer in the 10th inning.

Meanwhile, the White Sox have gotten a combined .235/.305/.399 line from the DH spot, with Mark Kotsay drawing the most starts at the position. There is still a ton of baseball left to be played and even with the Twins now up four games on the White Sox in the division you can realistically point to any number of players on either team as the "difference" in the standings, but it sure is easy to focus on Thome simply switching sides. He's been amazing.

Justin Morneau revealed Friday and then repeated yesterday that he's yet to get through a single day symptom-free since suffering a concussion from a knee to the helmet while breaking up a double play on July 7. He's finally been able to take batting practice this week, but the Twins officially abandoned any timetable for his return. Here's how he described the situation to Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com:

At first it was wake up in the morning, feel good for about 10 minutes, and then the rest of the day not feel great. It's gone to wake up in the morning, get here, feel good, we start doing stuff, feel good, then get home and symptoms come back. Obviously you can't start pushing it too hard.

It has to be slow progression like we've done and hopefully that day's coming soon. I'm optimistic, just with how it's gone each day from where we started. Obviously it's taken longer than I thought or than I'd like, but I think they've handled it well and they want to make sure I'm ready to go when it's time to go back out there.

Morneau also talked about the frustratingly unpredictable nature of concussions:

When it happened, I thought two days after I'd be feeling all right. The thing about it, it's unpredictable. Coming in tomorrow, everything could be feeling good, could make it through the whole day. It could be next week, it could be two weeks, you never know. It's unpredictable. That's the part that's most frustrating.

You know, you hurt your knee, your MCL, it's 4-6 weeks. OK, you do a certain type of rehab, if everything goes good you can make it back in four weeks, and you kind of have that timetable. With this, it's different with every single person that goes through it.

Morneau has no doubt talked to his friend, fellow Canadian, and former Twins third baseman Corey Koskie, whose career was wrecked by a concussion at age 33. Koskie was playing for the Brewers in 2006 and hitting .261/.343/.490 through 76 games for one of his best seasons when he suffered a concussion while chasing after a foul ball on July 5. He never played again, finally retiring after going through several years of false starts and setbacks and frustration.

Obviously there's no reason to assume Morneau will mirror Koskie's sad tale, but there's a real possibility that he won't play again this year and legitimate reason to worry about his future. Combined with his missing the end of last season due to back surgery I'm starting to sense a certain segment of the fan base becoming frustrated by another long absence, but this is not an injury that Morneau can simply will himself to come back from. This is beyond toughness.

Jose Mijares being out for a month following knee surgery is a tough break because he had a 2.16 ERA and 21-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings since a bad first outing on April 5, but his role has been so limited that the impact could be fairly minimal. Factoring in his Triple-A stint, Mijares was on the Twins' roster for 90 games and logged 25.2 innings. Not only is that just 46 innings prorated to a full season, he faced an average of 2.8 batters per appearance.

Mijares had basically been pigeonholed into a left-handed specialist role despite holding right-handed hitters to a .256/.316/.400 line for his career. Losing him for a month and possibly the rest of the season is tough in the sense that he's one of the Twins' best relievers, but he was being severely underutilized anyway and the bullpen might be better off if Ron Gardenhire got back to his old style where lefty/righty matchups weren't driving so many decisions.

Ron Mahay tends to be the first name fans bring up when pondering relievers to potentially bump from the bullpen, but he's quietly been very solid in a low-leverage role this season and has a 3.14 ERA with a 33-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings since joining the Twins last August. I'm not convinced that the Twins really benefit much from having a strict left-handed specialist, but Mahay is certainly capable of filling that limited role for six weeks.

On the other hand, keeping Glen Perkins around primarily to have a second left-hander in the bullpen makes little sense. He got a big out last night versus Kotsay, who's 0-for-22 off lefties this year, but Perkins is ill-suited for a role that matches him up mostly with lefty bats. For his career Perkins has allowed lefties to hit .327 with an .857 OPS and righties to hit .283 with a .786 OPS. And as Nick Nelson pointed out, it's been the same story in the minors.

• It doesn't mean anything for the big-league team this season, but the Twins promoting 2009 first-round pick Kyle Gibson to Triple-A last week puts him in line to possibly claim a spot in the rotation next spring. After signing for $1.8 million, Gibson made his pro debut at high Single-A with a 1.87 ERA and 40-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43.1 innings. That got him a promotion to Double-A, where he had a 3.68 ERA and 77-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings.

Gibson moved up to his third level of the season Friday and tossed 5.1 innings of one-run ball in his Rochester debut, giving him a 3.04 ERA, .245 opponents' batting average, and 118-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 142 innings overall. Not bad for a 22-year-old in his first pro season, and Gibson has somewhat offset his pedestrian strikeout numbers with a strong ground-ball rate of 56 percent. He may not have No. 1 starter upside, but could be an MLB-ready No. 2.

• Gibson's new Triple-A rotation-mate Nick Blackburn has a 1.10 ERA in three starts since last month's demotion to Rochester, but an 8-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16.1 innings isn't quite as encouraging. Blackburn has been very tough to hit with a .186 opponents' batting average and he's allowed zero homers while inducing 72 percent ground balls, but ultimately if he can't find a way to miss more bats or re-establish his pinpoint control it's tough to be very optimistic.

Plus, with Brian Duensing thriving as his rotation replacement there's little room for Blackburn as anything other than a long reliever unless Kevin Slowey's elbow issues reoccur. Duensing was brilliant Saturday, hurling a complete-game shutout of the A's, and is now 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA in five starts this year and 8-1 with a 2.62 ERA in 14 career starts. I'm still skeptical about his ability to be more than a fourth starter long term, but clearly he's not going anywhere.

Ben Revere was hit near the right eye with a pitch on August 3 and is expected to miss the rest of the season with an orbital fracture, but Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that he could be cleared to play in the Arizona Fall League. Prior to the injury Revere's stock dropped for the second straight year as his once-lofty batting average predictably came back to earth against more experienced competition and exposed his lack of secondary skills.

Everyone looks great when they're hitting .379 like Revere did at low Single-A in 2008, but he batted .311/.372/.369 at high Single-A last year and .297/.365/.349 at Double-A this season. He managed just three homers, 32 total extra-base hits, and 70 walks in 207 games and 886 plate appearances during that time, which is why I suggested coming into the season that his upside is basically Juan Pierre. Right now he looks like a poor man's Pierre, which isn't good.

• Lost in the MLB-wide flurry of draft pick signings before the midnight deadline Monday is that the Twins signed their first rounder, Alex Wimmers, for the slot-recommended $1.3 million last week. Wimmers is unlikely to move through the system as quickly as Gibson, but he'll start out at high Single-A Fort Myers and has a chance to be in the Twins' plans as soon as 2012. In all the Twins signed each of their top 10 picks from what was a pretty standard "Twins draft."

April 15, 2010

Twins Send Burnett Back to Minors, Call Up Mahay

Following yesterday afternoon's loss to the Red Sox the Twins optioned Alex Burnett back to Triple-A and called up Ron Mahay, transferring Joe Nathan to the 60-day disabled list to make room on the 40-man roster for the veteran left-hander. Even at 39 years old Mahay should be a decent middle reliever and the Twins will use him primarily as a lefty specialist, pushing Jose Mijares into more of a pure setup role (if he gets on track) and Brian Duensing into long relief.

Burnett looked good in his first taste of the big leagues, flashing a low-90s fastball with the type of quality off-speed stuff you'd expect from a former starter, but at 22 years old and with a grand total of just 57 career innings above Single-A he'll likely benefit from some additional seasoning at Rochester. In calling up Mahay the Twins once again bypassed Anthony Slama, and unlike with Burnett the 40-man roster situation can't be blamed.

Mahay obviously fills a different role than Slama would and apparently the Twins feel strongly about needing a third left-hander in the bullpen, but it'll be interesting to see what happens once Clay Condrey is ready to come off the disabled list. Burnett initially replaced Condrey and he or Slama could have simply been sent back to Triple-A when the time came, but there's no such option with Mahay, who'd have to clear waivers and accept an assignment to the minors.

Perhaps when Condrey and his $900,000 salary are ready to return the Twins will keep Mahay as the bullpen's second lefty and send Duensing to Triple-A to work as a starter, but short of that or simply releasing Mahay if he doesn't impress right away I'm not sure what the plan is now. And then of course there's the issue of whether a seventh reliever is even more useful to the Twins than a fifth bench guy could be, although they seem committed to a 12-man staff.

Certainly there are times during a 162-game season when the extra bullpen arm comes in very handy, but more often than not it's tough to find consistent work for 12 pitchers when not so long ago the average staff had 10 or 11 guys. Burnett was with the Twins for 10 days, during which time they had just one off day and the starters had a fairly light workload of 6.1 innings per outing, yet he was called upon for just 2.1 innings and a total of 38 pitches.

Whether used on a pitcher or a position player the 25th spot on the roster won't have much of an impact, but with Drew Butera and Alexi Casilla extremely limited in their usefulness and Jim Thome more or less strictly a pinch-hitter the Twins' current four-man (or maybe 3.5-man) bench could probably make better use of an extra body than the bullpen has so far. Along with Burnett barely seeing action in 10 days, Mijares and Duensing have combined for 5.1 innings.

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