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.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Territory Train, which takes the heavy lifting out of planning and executing Twins road trips. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

March 28, 2013

Twins Notes: Setting the Opening Day roster

ron gardenhire spring training

• Barring any changes between now and Monday here's what the Twins' roster looks like:

   LINEUP:                    ROTATION:
C  Joe Mauer               RH Vance Worley
1B Justin Morneau          RH Kevin Correia
2B Brian Dozier            RH Mike Pelfrey
SS Pedro Florimon          RH Liam Hendriks
3B Trevor Plouffe          RH Cole De Vries
LF Josh Willingham
CF Aaron Hicks                BULLPEN:
RF Chris Parmelee          LH Glen Perkins
DH Ryan Doumit             RH Jared Burton
                           LH Brian Duensing
   BENCH:                  RH Casey Fien
IF Jamey Carroll           RH Josh Roenicke
IF Eduardo Escobar         RH Ryan Pressly
OF Darin Mastroianni       LH Tyler Robertson
OF Wilkin Ramirez

If the above 25-man roster sticks there will be a total of 11 holdovers from last season's Opening Day roster: Joe Mauer, Justin MorneauJosh WillinghamRyan Doumit, Chris Parmelee, Trevor Plouffe, and Jamey Carroll among position players and Glen Perkins, Jared Burton, Brian Duensing, and Liam Hendriks among pitchers.

Scott Diamond's elbow problems opened the door for Samuel Deduno to get back into the rotation, but a groin injury suffered during the World Baseball Classic shut that door. Deduno, who was dropped from the 40-man roster and passed through waivers unclaimed four months ago, will head to Triple-A. Cole De Vries, who unlike Deduno is on the 40-man roster, is set to join Vance Worley, Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, and Hendriks in the season-opening rotation.

De Vries held his own in 14 starts as a 27-year-old rookie last season, but he was an emergency call-up when the rotation was wrecked by injuries and has a 4.39 ERA with just 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 156 innings at Triple-A. De Vries throws strikes and as an Eden Prairie native who went undrafted out of the University of Minnesota he's a good story, but he's likely to serve up a ton of homers and turning to him already is a bad sign.

Alex Burnett stuck around in the majors far longer than his performance warranted, spending nearly three full seasons in the Twins' bullpen despite a 4.61 ERA, sub par control, and just 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings. On the surface his 3.52 ERA last season may have looked like a big step forward, but it came with a horrible 36-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 72 innings and the Twins smartly didn't let his experience keep them from sending Burnett to Triple-A.

Barring late additions Burnett's demotion to Rochester means that the four bullpen spots after Perkins as closer and Burton and Duensing as his primary setup men will go to Casey Fien, Josh Roenicke, Ryan Pressly, and Tyler Robertson. Pressly is the biggest surprise after the Twins opted not to keep Rule 5 picks in the majors in both 2011 and 2012, but he throws hard and they clearly like how he's looked since shifting from starter to reliever late last season.

I'm glad Fien is getting another shot after looking good in 35 innings last season. He has a solid enough track record in the minors to think he can be a useful middle man. Roenicke was claimed off waivers from the Rockies in November and has shown the durability to soak up innings, but poor control and sub par strikeout rates aren't an encouraging combo. Rafael Perez not being ready yet following shoulder surgery made it pretty easy for Robertson to be the third left-hander.

Perkins and Burton put the Twins in good shape for the eighth and ninth innings, but beyond that duo Fien, Roenicke, and Pressly from the right side and Duensing and Robertson from the left side isn't particularly promising. Anthony Swarzak, who likely would have made the team as a long reliever, and Tim Wood, who was in the mix for one of the final bullpen spots, will both begin the season on the disabled list.

• Last offseason the Twins signed outfielder Wilkin Ramirez to a minor-league deal and sent him to the minors without any fanfare after he hit .214 in 10 spring training games. He played most of the season at Triple-A and did little to distinguish himself, hitting .276/.316/.451 with 15 homers and an ugly 97-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 98 games. He became a free agent and re-signed with the Twins on another minor-league deal. And now Ramirez is on the Opening Day roster.

What changed between then and now to make a 27-year-old journeyman with an underwhelming decade-long track record and awful plate discipline worth a roster spot in the majors? Ramirez has had a good spring, hitting .444 with nine doubles in 16 games. And that's basically it. Last year at this time no one gave him much thought and his play in Rochester didn't warrant a call-up, but 45 good at-bats convinced the Twins he's the man for the job.

It doesn't matter much, because backups on last-place teams aren't exactly of vital importance and the Twins failed to bring in many superior options, but trusting 50 plate appearances in spring training over 4,000 plate appearances in the minors generally isn't a sound approach to decision-making and Ramirez is an odd pick to replace Drew Butera following Ron Gardenhire's call to "beef up" the bench. He's a career .255/.310/.430 hitter at Triple-A.

Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press crunched the numbers and calculates the Twins' payroll at $81 million, which is the lowest since it was $65 million during the final season at the Metrodome in 2009. In their first season at Target Field the Twins spent $98 million and in Year 2 that rose to $113 million, but the payroll dropped to $94 million in Year 3 and now it's well below MLB average. Not quite the pattern fans were hoping for throughout the new ballpark push.

• Friend of AG.com Dan Szymborski predicted the American League standings for ESPN.com based on his excellent ZiPS projection system and not surprisingly the Twins are bringing up the rear in the AL Central at 66-96. Only the Astros have a worse projected record in the AL.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode featured a whole bunch of Aaron Hicks talk.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Territory Train, which takes the heavy lifting out of planning and executing Twins road trips. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

March 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Hicks, Butera, Gibson, Diamond, Benson, and 612 Brew

aaron hicks three homers

• Making official what was pretty clearly the plan as soon as they followed up the Denard Span trade by also trading Ben Revere, the Twins named Aaron Hicks the Opening Day center fielder. Perhaps if Hicks had a terrible spring training Darin Mastroianni could have worked his way into the gig as a place-holder, but Hicks made that a moot point by hitting .350/.397/.650 with three steals in 18 games, including a headline-making three-homer game.

Hicks is a very good prospect with an all-around skill set that could make him a long-term building block, so I'm extremely excited to see him play. However, by jumping him from Double-A to the big leagues at age 23 the Twins may be rushing his development a bit and are definitely sacrificing their ability to delay his eventual free agency for the maximum amount of time. If he never goes back to the minors Hicks will be a free agent following the 2018 season, at age 29.

Based on service time rules they could've pushed back his free agency by an entire year, gaining an extra season and 162 games of team control, by sending Hicks to Triple-A for as little as four weeks. In that scenario if the Twins called him up in late April or early May and Hicks never went back to the minors he'd be a free agent following 2019, at age 30. Short-term gratification is hard to ignore, but stretching a prospect's pre-free agency years is done regularly by many teams.

Instead of having Hicks for 135 games this year and 162 games in 2019 they'll have him for 162 games this year and zero games in 2019. That math seems straightforward enough, especially considering Hicks is likely to be better as a 29-year-old veteran than as a 23-year-old rookie and the Twins might actually be contending in 2019. It's not about being cheap, it's about maximizing a player's value before he can leave. But it apparently never factored into the Twins' decision.

• One thing that has always made Hicks an intriguing prospect is excellent plate discipline, which he displayed immediately as an 18-year-old at rookie-ball in 2008 and has maintained ever since. He's averaged 98 walks per 150 games as a pro, including 79 walks in 129 games at Double-A last season, which is not a skill set you typically find in speedy, athletic, up-the-middle defenders. Joe Mauer, who knows a little something about plate discipline, took notice of Hicks' approach:

I've been real impressed by him. For a young guy to take pitches and work at-bats is pretty impressive. Even today, I talked to him and told him taking pitches is going to help the guys behind him. He has a pretty good grasp on how to approach an at-bat.

Ron Gardenhire tends to use speedy center fielders and middle infielders atop the lineup even if they lack strong on-base skills, so it's nice that Hicks is actually a patient hitter. By comparison, Revere drew a grand total of 57 walks in 254 games for the Twins. Hicks' high walk rate has also come with lots of strikeouts and mediocre batting averages, so it'll be interesting to see how he adjusts to facing pitchers with better control and no fear of throwing him strikes.

• Back in December the Twins tendered Drew Butera a contract for 2013 and then in January the two sides avoided arbitration with a one-year, $700,000 deal, but he'll be making that money in Rochester after being optioned to the minors. On one hand it's encouraging that the Twins finally realized a career .183/.232/.265 hitter probably shouldn't be in the majors. On the other hand it would have been nice to come to that conclusion before signing him to a $700,000 contract.

One-year deals to avoid arbitration aren't fully guaranteed until certain dates this month, so even after signing Butera they could've saved five-sixths or three-fourths of the money by releasing him. Detroit recently did that with Brennan Boesch, saving $1.9 million of a $2.3 million deal, but those deadlines have passed. Gardenhire talked of wanting a stronger bench and removing Butera fits that, but he also talked of wanting Jim Thome and that apparently isn't happening.

Kyle Gibson won't be joining Hicks on the Opening Day roster, as initial reports of him looking great coming back from Tommy John elbow surgery gave way to struggles in actual games and the Twins sent him to Triple-A. He'll be limited to 130 innings this season, so there's an argument for not wasting them at Triple-A, but the problem with that line of thinking is assuming Gibson is ready to succeed against big-league hitters when he hadn't even done that yet before surgery.

• What was supposed to be minor surgery to remove a bone chip from Scott Diamond's elbow in December has become a season-opening stint on the disabled list for the would-be Opening Day starter. For now the plan is for Diamond to make his season debut in mid-April, missing the Game 1 matchup versus Justin Verlander and a couple more starts, but the Twins' injury timetables haven't been worth a whole lot in recent years and worrying about elbow issues tends to loom.

• Diamond on the DL and Gibson at Triple-A means Samuel Deduno or Cole DeVries is likely to be in the Opening Day rotation and both of them could get a spot if the Twins decide to send Liam Hendriks back to Triple-A. At the beginning of the offseason Terry Ryan spoke of big plans for fixing the awful rotation, yet the Twins are already turning to the same career minor leaguers who were thrown against the wall to see if they stuck last season as emergency options.

Joe Benson was sent to Triple-A after a lackluster spring training, but even if he'd played well there wasn't much room for him on a roster with Hicks and Mastroianni. Benson is coming off a terrible, injury wrecked season, so he needs to get back on track or risk falling off the prospect radar, but he'd seemingly be the obvious call-up if Hicks struggles or if any of Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau, Chris Parmelee, or Ryan Doumit gets injured.

Danny Rams and Cole Nelson were among a handful of minor leaguers released by the Twins. Rams was a 2007 second-round pick with lots of power, but couldn't turn himself into a quality defensive catcher and hit .241 with 543 strikeouts in 406 games while failing to get past Single-A. Nelson and Lester Oliveros were acquired from the Tigers for Delmon Young in 2011--the same day "Gleeman and The Geek" debuted--but the big left-hander from Edina stalled at Single-A.

Anthony Swarzak will join Diamond in beginning the season on the disabled list as he recovers from the fractured ribs suffered in the "horseplay" incident during Twins Fest.

Tim Wood, who was a candidate for the Twins' bullpen and out of minor-league options, has been shut down with a strained rotator cuff.

Matt Capps failed to make the Indians on a minor-league deal and may accept an assignment to Triple-A one year after beginning the season as the Twins' closer.

Scott Baker's comeback from Tommy John surgery has been derailed by a strained elbow and he'll be shut down for at least a month.

• Thanks to everyone who came to the Twins Daily meet-up Saturday at 612 Brew. It was a great turnout and we're definitely planning to host semi-regular events throughout the season. Between the beer and laid-back space 612 Brew is an ideal venue, with the added bonus that the owners are Twins fans and the head brewer is a "Gleeman and The Geek" listener. I'm sure we'll be back there at some point, but in the meantime I highly recommended checking out 612 Brew.

• I didn't think to take any pictures until after the crowd had already thinned out a bit, but ...

twins daily 612 meetup2

twins daily 612 meetup1

twins daily 612 meetup4

twins daily 612 meetup3


This week's blog content is sponsored by Territory Train, which takes the heavy lifting out of planning and executing Twins road trips. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

January 9, 2013

Twins Notes: Goin, Tosoni, Harden, Bullock, Diamond, and Liriano

Parker Hageman of Twins Daily interviewed Twins manager of major league administration and baseball research Jack Goin for a glimpse into the team's use of statistical analysis. Hageman co-hosted this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode and we discussed that topic quite a bit. Short version? While it's nice to see the Twins get more involved in statistical analysis my sense remains that they're merely dipping their toes in the water while other teams are swimming.

Rene Tosoni, who the Twins dropped from the 40-man roster in August, has signed with the Brewers on a minor-league contract. Tosoni cracked my annual ranking of Twins prospects at No. 11 in 2010 and No. 14 in 2011, but he was sidetracked by injuries and then basically just stopped hitting. Now he's a 26-year-old corner outfielder who struggled in 60 games for the Twins in 2011 and hit just .224/.293/.315 in 81 games between Double-A and Triple-A last season.

Clete Thomas, who briefly filled a bench spot while the Twins kept Ben Revere at Triple-A for a bit longer, has re-signed on a minor-league deal. Thomas struck out 16 times in 28 at-bats for the Twins and hit just .232/.281/.405 with a 109-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 109 games at Triple-A, so despite his big-league experience the 29-year-old outfielder now looks like little more than depth for Rochester.

• After appearing on "Gleeman and The Geek" two weeks ago Darren Wolfson of 1500ESPN.com did some digging and found that Rich Harden's minor-league contract with the Twins includes a July 31 opt-out clause. As far as opt-out clauses go that's a very late one, so if he doesn't look to be at full strength in spring training the Twins can stash Harden at Triple-A for a while and that makes what was already a worthwhile, low-risk flier look even better.

• Free agent Brett Myers was linked to the Twins by various sources throughout December, but ended up signing a one-year, $7 million deal with the Indians that includes an $8 million team option for 2014. And according to Wolfson the Twins never even made him an offer, which has become a familiar story this offseason and makes Kevin Correia's two-year, $10 million deal all the more confusing.

• And speaking of the Indians, they're the latest mid-market team to secure a new local television deal that significantly surpasses the Twins' current contract with FOX Sports North.

Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPN New York and had an interesting little note related to the Twins, reporting that they would have taken Jefry Marte from the Mets with the No. 4 pick in the Rule 5 draft had Ryan Pressly of the Red Sox not been available. Marte is a 21-year-old third baseman who hit just .251/.322/.366 at Double-A last season and was not selected by another team, with the Mets later trading him to the A's for Collin Cowgill.

Billy Bullock, the 2009 second-round pick traded to the Braves for the ability to stash Scott Diamond at Triple-A as a Rule 5 pick, was suspended 50 games for a "drug of abuse." He still throws hard with lots of strikeouts, but Bullock's control is awful and he's no longer a prospect at age 24. I hated that trade at the time and it's worked out very well for the Twins, although I still think they should have just kept Diamond as a long reliever and kept Bullock.

• On a related note, Diamond underwent minor elbow surgery to remove a bone chip and should be ready for spring training, but he won't pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic.

• In looking over Mike Pelfrey's career it struck me how amazing his draft class ended up being. Pelfrey was the No. 9 pick out of Wichita State and among the players selected ahead of him were Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, and Ryan Zimmerman. But wait, there's more. Other top-30 picks included Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Cameron Maybin, Jacoby Ellsbury, Colby Rasmus, and Matt Garza, who the Twins took No. 25. That's crazy.

Jeff Clement was the No. 3 pick in that same draft--between Gordon and Zimmerman--and after hitting just .218/.277/.371 in 152 games for the Mariners and Pirates he'll likely spend this season at Triple-A for the Twins.

• After spending nearly all of last season in the Twins' bullpen despite adding to his lengthy track record of mediocrity with a 5.71 ERA and 26-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 52 innings Jeff Gray was dropped from the 40-man roster in late August. He went unclaimed on waivers, became a free agent, and agreed to a minor-league deal with the White Sox.

Kiley McDaniel, who formerly worked for several MLB teams, recently watched Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton play instructional league games and wrote very detailed, interesting scouting reports for Fan Graphs.

Francisco Liriano's two-year, $12.75 million deal with the Pirates is in jeopardy because of an offseason injury to his non-throwing arm.

• An oral history of Nick Punto sliding into first base is the best thing you'll read today.

• Podcast listeners who enjoy when we're interrupted by a drunk person will absolutely love this week's episode, and there's also some good Twins talk about how the roster is shaping up.

June 12, 2012

Real, fluke, or something in between: How good is Scott Diamond?

I liked the Twins' decision to pluck Scott Diamond from the Braves' farm system in the Rule 5 draft, writing at the time that "he's had success at every level" and "may be able to find success in the big leagues without missing a ton of bats" because he "has done a tremendous job inducing ground balls and limiting homers" in the minors. That was December of 2010 and later that offseason I ranked Diamond as the 36th-best prospect in the Twins' farm system.

I hated the Twins' decision to trade Billy Bullock to the Braves for Diamond to circumvent the stipulation that Rule 5 picks must remain in the majors all season or be offered back to their old team. It seemed silly to give up Bullock, a hard-throwing reliever drafted in the second round and given a $533,000 bonus just a year earlier, when the Twins already had Diamond and could have retained him simply by keeping him on the roster as a long reliever at age 24.

Diamond ended up spending nearly the entire second half of last year in the majors anyway, meaning the Twins basically traded Bullock for the ability to keep him in the minors for an extra three months. And in those three months Diamond had a 5.56 ERA at Triple-A, so it wasn't surprising when the left-hander struggled in his first taste of the big leagues with a 5.08 ERA and ugly 19-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 innings while allowing opponents to hit .317.

Bullock had issues of his own following the trade with a 4.44 ERA and 34 walks in 51 innings at Double-A, but he still threw in the mid-90s and still racked up 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings while holding opponents to a .199 batting average. Bullock continued to look like a potential late-inning reliever, Diamond continued to look like a potential back-of-the-rotation starter, and the Twins' thought process behind the trade continued to make little sense to me.

Despite making seven starts for the Twins down the stretch last season Diamond was never in the mix for an Opening Day roster spot this season, getting sent back to Triple-A as part of the first round of spring training cuts. He fared well in Rochester with a 2.60 ERA in six starts, but also allowed opponents to hit .270 and managed an unimpressive 26 strikeouts in 35 innings as a 25-year-old spending his third consecutive season at Triple-A.

When injuries and ineffectiveness wrecked the Twins' rotation for a second straight year they again turned to Diamond, calling him up on May 5. In returning to the majors Diamond brought with him a 4.50 ERA in 39 total Triple-A starts, which along with his modest 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings there and the equally modest fastball velocity he showed in debuting last season seemingly provided little reason for optimism.

And so naturally six weeks later Diamond has a 1.61 ERA through seven starts.

You can call it fluky or lucky or unsustainable or maybe even none of the above, but obviously Diamond isn't going to maintain a sub-2.00 ERA for very long. However, in watching Diamond's seven starts this season compared to his seven starts last season it's just as obvious that he looks like a much different pitcher. Looks can be deceiving, of course, but a deeper inspection of his numbers also shows significant improvement along with some good fortune:

YEAR     PA     SO%    BB%    HR%     GB%     LD%     BIP     LOB
2011    181    10.5    9.3    1.7    46.2    21.0    .338    67.4
2012    183    15.3    2.2    2.2    61.7    20.8    .308    82.6

Diamond faced 181 batters last year and has faced 183 batters this year, so while small the sample size is equal. He's gone from as many walks (17) as strikeouts (19) to a 28-to-4 ratio, increasing his strikeouts by 46 percent and decreasing his walks by 76 percent. He's allowed the same number of line drives and actually given up more homers, but Diamond's ground-ball rate went from neutral at 46 percent to among the league leaders at 62 percent.

He's also seen his luck even out a bit, as his batting average on balls in play went from .338 to a more typical .308 and his percentage of runners stranded on base went from slightly worse than average at 67 percent to substantially better than average at 83 percent. In his second go-around as a major leaguer Diamond's pitching and luck have both improved dramatically, although what he's thrown and how he's thrown it haven't changed all that much:

YEAR     PA     FB%     MPH     CB%     MPH     CH%     MPH
2011    181    58.4    88.9    27.7    79.9    14.0    83.0
2012    183    63.2    89.6    27.8    81.2     8.9    83.9

Compared to last year Diamond has cut down on his changeup in order to throw eight percent more fastballs while utilizing his curveball the same amount. He's added around one mile per hour to each of his three pitches, but Diamond's average fastball still clocks in at just 89.6 mph to rank 131st out of the 168 pitchers with 30 or more innings this season. His repertoire has been pretty similar, with a few tweaks, and the per-pitch results are also similar within that:

YEAR     PA    STR%    ZON%    1PS%    SWG%    MIS%
2011    181    63.3    49.4    59.5    45.9    15.9
2012    183    65.6    51.8    61.1    44.3    13.0

Diamond has gotten slightly more strikes, thrown slightly more pitches in the strike zone, and jumped ahead of batters with first-pitch strikes slightly more often, but all three of those rates are within a couple percentage points of last season and he's actually induced slightly fewer swings and slightly fewer misses than in 2011. Add it all up and Diamond's results are vastly improved, but his raw stuff and general approach haven't changed a ton.

That could mean he's simply learned to make better pitches, which would obviously be a good thing, but it could also mean he's been fortunate that pitches thrown at roughly the same velocity and roughly the same frequency have created far better results. There's no doubt that Diamond has looked and pitched better, but exactly how much better and the sustainability of his improvement is an interesting question that will require more than 14 starts to answer.

For now I'm cautiously optimistic that Diamond can be a solid third or fourth starter, although admittedly fifth starter was more likely based on his track record prior to rejoining the Twins last month. He throws strikes and keeps the ball on the ground, which is a great foundation for success, and if Diamond can maintain any kind of decent strikeout rate he could be part of the Twins' rotation for a long time. Or at least long enough to make everyone forget Bullock.

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