October 24, 2012

Twins Notes: Coaching changes, Rantz retires, and Gibson impresses

• It turns out the coaching shakeup wasn't as extreme as first believed, as the reconfigured staff includes Joe Vavra and Scott Ullger sticking around in new roles. Vavra goes from hitting coach to third base coach and Ullger goes from bench coach to first base coach. Ullger is running out of jobs he can be moved to, going from hitting coach to third base coach to bench coach to first base coach, which is the role he filled upon joining Tom Kelly's staff in 1994.

Vavra and Ullger remaining on Ron Gardenhire's staff and Rick Anderson keeping his job as pitching coach means the shakeup led to just three new coaches: Tom Brunansky replaces Vavra as hitting coach, Bobby Cuellar replaces Rick Stelmaszek as bullpen coach, and Terry Steinbach replaces Ullger as bench coach. Brunansky and Cuellar were the Triple-A hitting and pitching coaches, while Steinbach has been an assistant coach for Wayzata high school.

Cuellar is an intriguing addition because he has a lengthy track record in the minors that includes being credited with teaching Johan Santana his incredible changeup and also gives the Twins a much-needed Spanish-speaking coach. Brunansky was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A this year and has drawn some rave reviews for his work with young hitters, so it will be interesting to see how his approach differs from Vavra's, especially with Vavra still around.

Cuellar and Brunansky were expected additions, but Steinbach seemingly came out of nowhere after the Twins decided against taking Paul Molitor up on his offer to join the staff. Steinbach is a Minnesota native who starred for the Gophers and spent the last three seasons of his 14-year career with the Twins, but he's never coached professionally beyond being a spring training instructor. In addition to bench coach duties he'll work specifically with catchers.

It's not often that you see both a hitting coach and a bench coach demoted to base coaches, but it fits with the Twins' overall reluctance to make sweeping changes. Even when they shake things up they still can't quite say goodbye to longtime staffers and in the end Stelmaszek, first base coach Jerry White, third base coach Steve Liddle are the only members of the 2012 staff who won't be on the 2013 staff.

• There was a major change in the front office, as Jim Rantz announced his retirement after an astounding 52 years in the organization as a player, scout, and executive. Rantz was born in St. Paul, pitched for the Gophers, and actually predates the team's move to Minnesota, signing with the Washington Senators in 1960. He never made the majors, but pitched five years in the minors and went on to become one of the most important people in Twins history.

For the past 27 years Rantz has been the Twins' minor league director, overseeing the draft and development of prospects that has consistently played such a key role in any success the organization has found during that time. He's specifically credited with picking Kirby Puckett third overall in the 1982 draft and repeatedly received awards from his peers in the scouting community. Rantz's right-hand man, Brad Steil, has been named the interim replacement.

Kyle Gibson is turning heads with his performance in the Arizona Fall League, combining great results with better velocity than he showed prior to Tommy John elbow surgery last year. So far we're only talking about a total of 13 innings, so the sample size is barely worth mentioning, but Gibson has a 0.69 ERA and 19-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio while inducing nearly three ground balls for every fly ball. Keith Law of ESPN.com filed this scouting report:

Gibson was very impressive Tuesday in his second start of the fall, working from 92-94, driving the ball down in the zone, and showing a plus slider at 83-86 that he would throw in any count, in or out of the zone, and would even back-foot to a left-handed hitter when the guy might be looking for a changeup away. He did show a true changeup, but was mostly fastball-slider and looked like a big leaguer, and one with a higher ceiling than he showed as an amateur when he had a pretty-but-slow curveball as his primary breaking ball.

Gibson wouldn't be the first pitcher to come back from Tommy John surgery throwing harder than before, but that certainly hasn't been the norm for Twins pitchers over the years and too often the opposite has been true. He still has a long way to go, but so far so good.

• On this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode we did a tutorial on transaction, roster, and service time issues and one of them was the circumstances in which "Super Two" players get an extra year of arbitration eligibility. Based on MLB Trade Rumors' calculations Twins reliever Alex Burnett missed qualifying for "Super Two" status by four days, so he'll make the minimum salary in 2013 rather than potentially doubling that amount via the arbitration process.

• In preparation for the offseason teams are clearing 40-man roster space by waiving players and because of their high waiver wire priority the Twins may be able to snag someone useful. Their own housecleaning should come soon and marginal players on the 40-man roster include Luis Perdomo, Esmerling Vasquez, Matt Carson, Jeff Manship, P.J. Walters, Deolis Guerra, Cole DeVries, Samuel Deduno, Carlos Gutierrez, Kyle Waldrop, and Drew Butera.

• Just a reminder in the wake of his ALCS MVP: Delmon Young has hit .268/.296/.422 in 191 regular season games for the Tigers, was moved to designated hitter on a team that has Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the field, hit .240/.270/.320 in "high leverage" situations this year to rank dead last among 143 qualified hitters in Win Probability Added, ranked 139 out of 143 in Wins Above Replacement, and hit .235/.278/.235 in the ALDS. Shit happens.

• I wrote the foreword for the "2013 Offseason Handbook" published by Twins Daily, which includes an incredible amount of good, unique content written by John Bonnes, Seth Stohs, Nick Nelson, and Parker Hageman, plus a lengthy interview with Terry Ryan. I'm not part of the Twins Daily crew, so my recommendation is based purely on merit: For just $6.95 you can get a great product and support writers who provide tons of free Twins content year-round.

• There's no real correlation between playing ability and coaching ability, but I ranked Brunansky as the 28th-best player in Twins history.

• I'll start breaking down potential free agent options, trade targets, and other offseason topics once the World Series is over, but in the meantime this week's episode of "Gleeman and The Geek" includes a lengthy preview of the Twins' payroll situation and winter plans along with a position-by-position look at free agency.

October 5, 2012

The End

66-96.

Last year 99 losses and the AL's worst record motivated the Twins to fire general manager Bill Smith a month after the season ended. This year 96 losses and the AL's worst record led to immediate and sweeping changes to the coaching staff, as the Twins announced yesterday that everyone on Ron Gardenhire's staff except for pitching coach Rick Anderson has been let go or reassigned to a lesser role within the organization.

During the first 11 seasons with Gardenhire as manager the Twins fired a grand total of one coach, Al Newman. Yesterday alone they fired first base coach Jerry White, third base coach Steve Liddle, and bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek while reassigning hitting coach Joe Vavra and bench coach Scott Ullger to roles described as infield and outfield instructors. Head trainer Rick McWane was also let go.

I'd love to offer some meaningful analysis, but beyond stating the obvious about the need for change after 195 losses in two years it's difficult to say if specific firings were justified or what the shakeup's impact will be. Good or bad, evaluating coaches is a lot of guesswork. What's easier to see is that with a new coaching staff and Gardenhire's contract up after 2013 the writing is seemingly on the wall for what another 90 losses would lead to this time next year.


Being a Twins fan hasn't been much fun lately, so now more than ever I want to thank you for stopping by AG.com this season. My hope is that you'll stick around all offseason, because I'll be analyzing moves, breaking down potential free agent targets, parsing trade rumors, rolling out my annual ranking of Twins prospects, and writing every bit as often as during the season. And of course we'll continue to have new "Gleeman and The Geek" episodes every week.

Thank you for reading this blog, thank you for listening to my podcast and radio appearances, thank you for following me on Twitter, thank you for supporting my work at NBCSports.com and MinnPost, and thank you for all the kind words and even the not-so-kind ones. If you'll keep reading and listening I'll keep writing and talking, and maybe this time next year we'll be looking over playoff matchups. And if not, at least baseball will still be baseball.

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May 11, 2011

Twins Notes: Hail Mary

Joe Mauer took batting practice prior to last night's game, but told reporters that there's still no timetable for his return despite "feeling a lot better." Here's more from Mauer on his status:

Today was kind of my first day getting on the field a little bit, moving around, and it was a good day. That [viral infection] really did push me back quite a bit. When it was all said and done, I lost around 15 pounds. I lost a lot of strength, so that probably pushed me back a week or a couple weeks.

I'm feeling a lot better now. I'm getting my strength back and my weight back, so hopefully I can get back on the field. You've got to get back into baseball shape. But yeah, I still got some work to do, and I wish I knew when I would be back, and I know everybody else wishes too, but you just got to keep going in the right direction.

Mauer and Twins trainer Rick McWane have both admitted that he wasn't physically ready for Opening Day due to offseason knee surgery, but unsuccessfully played anyway until shutting it down after nine games. In his absence Drew Butera, Steve Holm, and Rene Rivera have hit a combined .102 with zero homers and a .136 slugging percentage. For comparison, National League pitchers have hit .133 with a .167 slugging percentage this season.

• Last week I wrote about Carl Pavano's strikeout rate plummeting and then he whiffed zero of the 25 batters he faced Sunday against the Red Sox, marking his second straight start with zero strikeouts. Pavano now has just 17 strikeouts in 42 innings this season and a total of 29 strikeouts in his last 81 innings dating back to August of last year. Since the beginning of 2010 here's a list of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball among pitchers with at least 200 innings:

                    SO/9
NICK BLACKBURN      3.92
Mark Buehrle        4.23
Brad Bergesen       4.45
CARL PAVANO         4.59
Livan Hernandez     4.77

Having two-fifths of the rotation on the lowest strikeout rate list isn't a good thing, particularly with a poor defense trying to turn all those balls in play into outs behind them, and Pavano's inability to miss bats is very worrisome six weeks into a two-year, $16.5 million deal.

• Unfortunately throwing one of the least impressive no-hitters of all time didn't magically get Francisco Liriano back on track, as he allowed four runs before departing after three innings with the same illness that pushed the follow-up start back in the first place. Liriano now has a 7.07 ERA and more walks (27) than strikeouts (21) in 36 innings after posting a 3.62 ERA and 201-to-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 192 innings last year. What a mess. And then it hailed.

• Ranking dead last among AL teams in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homers, and walks is depressing enough, but Nick Nelson notes that the Twins have still managed to hit into the fourth-most double plays. Pretty hard to do with the fewest baserunners, but they've found a way. Overall they're on pace to score 505 runs after scoring 781 runs last season. Makes the removal of those trees in center field seem kind of silly, huh?

Jason Kubel deserves plenty of praise for continuing to thrive in the middle of an otherwise horrendous lineup. He hasn't driven in many runs because no one else can get on base, but Kubel is hitting .347/.400/.504 with three homers and 10 doubles in 34 games. Take out Kubel and the rest of the Twins' lineup has hit .216 with a .297 slugging percentage. Seriously.

Matt Tolbert has a .290 career on-base percentage, including .183 this year, yet yesterday was the 10th time in 34 games this season he's batted first or second in the Twins' lineup. And prior to Trevor Plouffe's hamstring injury Ron Gardenhire had him batting second despite a .306 career OBP in the minors. At this point I should be used to it, but Gardenhire ignoring OBP skills because he has it in his head that No. 2 hitters should be middle infielders is maddening.

Michael Cuddyer has hit just .267/.332/.406 in 189 games since the beginning of last year while earning around $12 million, yet when it comes to the local mainstream media you're far more likely to see him touted as team MVP than criticized for sub par production. Following the various Twins beat writers on Twitter provides an interesting glimpse into why Cuddyer rarely gets any heat from people who rely on him for quotes in an otherwise untalkative clubhouse.

For instance, here's a recent tweet from Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press:

Wanna know why the Twins kept Cuddyer? Because he's a leader. Because he stands up and faces the music when they're struggling. Sets an example.

And here's a similar tweet from John Shipley of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

How long can media go with just Cuddyer, Span, and the starting pitcher talking after games?

Personality and media friendliness definitely impact how a player's performance gets portrayed and with Cuddyer serving as everyone's go-to quote his on-field struggles tend to be ignored. I'm not necessarily blaming reporters for taking that approach, since it's somewhat natural and I'd surely be guilty of doing the same to some degree if put in that position, but it's one reason why being an outsider with no access can be a positive thing for objective analysis.

Delmon Young went 4-for-5 in an extended spring training game yesterday and is aiming to come off the disabled list Friday, which would mean missing 19 games with a strained oblique muscle. Obviously the lineup is desperate for some help, but hopefully Young is fully recovered because oblique strains tend to linger. My guess is that Rene Tosoni heads back to Triple-A to make room for Young, if only because Ben Revere can back up Denard Span in center field.

• Much has been made about the Twins' franchise-record $113 million payroll, which only adds to the frustration with their early struggles, but Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star Tribune points out that they've basically gotten zero positive value from their five highest-paid players earning a total of $67 million in Mauer ($23 million), Justin Morneau ($15 million), Joe Nathan ($11.25 million), Cuddyer ($10.5 million), and Pavano ($8 million).

• Third base coaches from successful teams are frequently linked to managerial openings each offseason, yet Scott Ullger was rarely even mentioned as a candidate during his mistake-filled five seasons as the Twins' third base coach. Ullger was moved (or perhaps demoted) to bench coach this season and now Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune names him as a potential Ozzie Guillen replacement if the White Sox continue to struggle, writing:

Few potential candidates are more intriguing than Scott Ullger, who has been on the Twins' coaching staff since 1998 and is currently Ron Gardenhire's top lieutenant. Would the Twins let Ullger talk to the White Sox? Would Ullger want to?

Yes, please. Talk about killing two birds with one stone.

• Every time Jose Mijares allows a hit, let alone a run, my Twitter feed fills with people calling him names and acting as if he's the worst pitcher in Twins history, so just a reminder: Mijares has a 2.56 career ERA and .225 opponents' batting average. I realize fat people make for easy targets, literally and figuratively, but being overweight doesn't preclude someone from being good at their job.

Matt Capps didn't pitch in Monday night's extra-inning loss because there was never a "save situation." Last night he closed out a 10-2 loss. Modern closer usage is hilarious sometimes.

Conor Glassey of Baseball America broke down the picks for next month's draft and the Twins have seven of the first 200 selections, including their own first rounder at No. 30 and a pair of compensatory picks at No. 50 and No. 55 for losing Type B free agents Orlando Hudson and Jesse Crain. They forfeited as many as four more compensatory picks for Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch by not offering them arbitration.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka fracturing his fibula when Nick Swisher slid hard into second base raised questions about whether he was fully prepared for American baserunners aggressively trying to break up double plays after not having to account for that threat in Japan. As part of his ongoing rehab Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Nishioka may start working on double-play technique with former second baseman Paul Molitor in Fort Myers.

J.J. Hardy returned from the disabled list last night and homered for the Orioles.

• All the Twins' injuries and subsequent call-ups from Triple-A have left Rochester with a very thin roster, so they signed 27-year-old Aaron Bates to a minor-league contract. Bates was the Red Sox's third-round pick in 2006 and briefly made it to the big leagues in 2009, but as a first baseman with a .230/.318/.344 line in 198 games at Triple-A he's little more than roster filler. Bates is, however, engaged to Lacey Wilson, the reigning Miss Massachusetts.

• They also signed Deinys Suarez, a 27-year-old right-hander who defected from Cuba along with Yuniesky Maya in 2009. Maya and Suarez both threw in front of scouts in the Dominican Republic after defecting, but Maya got a $7.4 million deal from the Nationals and Suarez had to settle for a minor-league deal from the Twins two years later despite solid numbers in Cuba.

• Pitching prospect David Bromberg underwent surgery to fix a broken forearm that involved inserting five screws to stabilize the injury suffered from a line drive. Bromberg ranked 13th on my list of Twins prospects coming into the year and prior to the injury he had a 3.63 ERA and 11-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 innings at Double-A.

• Sad news about Paul Bargas, the 21-year-old reliever acquired from the Rockies this winter for Jose Morales. He was sent home from spring training with what was called a neurological condition and LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Bargas has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

April 27, 2011

Twins Notes: Cuddyer, Mauer, Nishioka, Casilla, Perkins, and Gibson

Michael Cuddyer has hit just .160 in six starts at second base since Tsuyoshi Nishioka went down with a fractured fibula, but Ron Gardenhire announced that Cuddyer will be the primary second baseman until Nishioka returns from the disabled list next month. Gardenhire explained the decision by saying that using Cuddyer at second base allows him to get both Jason Kubel and Jim Thome into the lineup together, but that sounds far more valuable than it actually is.

Against right-handed pitchers having Kubel and Thome in the lineup together is great, but that could just as easily be accomplished by simply benching Cuddyer versus righties, off whom he has a measly .379 slugging percentage since the beginning of 2010. And against left-handed pitchers Kubel and Thome both struggle anyway, so using Cuddyer at second base to get their left-handed bats into the lineup accomplishes little except weakening the defense.

Cuddyer isn't potent versus righties and neither Kubel nor Thome are potent versus lefties, so Gardenhire making the move to get all three bats into the lineup suggests that he doesn't fully grasp the importance of platoon splits or is vastly overrating the player Cuddyer has become at age 32. Or maybe both. Either way, the Twins would likely be better off starting a superior defender at second base while benching Cuddyer for righties and Kubel or Thome for lefties.

• General manager Bill Smith announced yesterday that Joe Mauer will not be ready to come off the disabled list when eligible Thursday, which is no surprise. Smith told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Mauer is over the viral infection that caused him to lose 15 pounds and further complicated his bilateral leg weakness, but there's no official timetable for his return and a minor-league rehab assignment will be required before rejoining the Twins.

Drew Butera has started eight of 11 games in Mauer's absence, with Steve Holm drawing the other three assignments. Butera continues to do a fantastic job controlling the running game, but the endless praise for his pitch-calling has continued despite Twins pitchers posting a 5.18 ERA with him behind the plate and he's hitting .147 to bring his career line to .188/.225/.278 in 190 plate appearances. Brandon Wood is MLB's only active hitter with a lower career OPS.

• Smith also told Christensen that Nishioka "is on schedule, if not ahead of schedule" with his recovery that was initially expected to take 4-6 weeks from an April 7 injury, so that seemingly means he could be ready to come off the disabled list within a couple weeks. Gardenhire has obviously become increasingly comfortable with Cuddyer at second base, so I'm curious to see what happens if Alexi Casilla is still struggling by the time Nishioka is ready to return.

• Speaking of Casilla, despite being a little-known role player two prominent national writers recently had notes about him in their columns that featured scouts giving unflattering reports. One scout told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com that Casilla "is too out of control for me" and "he's more of a backup.'' Another scout told Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com that "you see his lack of instincts when he plays every day." Tough to argue with either assessment, unfortunately.

• I'm highly skeptical of Glen Perkins' early success given his 5.87 ERA in the majors and 5.49 ERA in the minors over the previous two seasons, but the combination of getting healthy and moving to the bullpen full time appear to have increased his velocity. He's averaged 92.4 miles per hour on his fastball compared to a career mark of 90.5. Perkins was never well-suited for a situational left-hander role, but being better versus righties can be a positive as a setup man.

• It sounds like Kevin Slowey is on the verge of being ready to return from his shoulder injury, but because of the rainouts the Twins will likely need a spot starter Sunday against the Royals and between the injury and beginning the year in the bullpen Slowey's arm isn't stretched out for more than 50-60 pitches. Among pitchers already on the 25-man roster recent call-up Eric Hacker is the most obvious candidate to start. He has a 4.36 ERA in 311 innings at Triple-A.

Top prospect Kyle Gibson is actually in line to start Sunday at Triple-A, but calling him up to face the Royals that day is unlikely, to say the least. Gibson has certainly pitched well enough to warrant the call-up, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his first start last week and striking out eight batters in six innings of one-run ball yesterday, but the Twins can delay his future free agency for an entire season by keeping him in the minors until at least June.

Justin Morneau missed six games with the same flu bug that got Mauer and Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com reports that he also needed a cortisone shot in his neck before finally returning to the lineup. Morneau is closer to breaking out than his bad numbers suggest, but his getting on track was tough enough without a week-long flu and neck issues. Delmon Young has also missed five straight games (and counting) with a rib injury, leading to some ugly lineups.

• Swapping the much-maligned Scott Ullger for Steve Liddle as third base coach hasn't led to fewer head-scratching outs at the plate. In terms of MLB-wide criticism third base coaches may trail only umpires, as both jobs involve successes going largely unnoticed and failures being obvious. With that said, it sure seems like the Twins have had a particularly awful run with Al Newman followed by Ullger and now Liddle. Some friendly advice: Don't test Shin-Soo Choo.

• Tommy John elbow surgery is much more common for pitchers, as the Twins have learned the hard way recently, but LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that outfield prospect Angel Morales and shortstop prospect Estarlin De Los Santos both have ligament injuries that may require the well-known surgery. Position players generally recovery far more quickly, but the Twins have had enough trouble rehabbing pitchers to make me nervous.

Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus took a much different approach than I did last week in examining the "pitch to contact" advice the Twins gave to Francisco Liriano, but still came to essentially the same conclusion: "Rather than making him more of a pitcher, it would probably just make him a more ordinary pitcher."

Sergio Santos was a former first-round pick turned minor-league journeyman who spent half of 2008 playing shortstop at Triple-A for the Twins. Now he's the White Sox's closer.

• Something to keep in mind as the Twins climb to .500: If you assume the Indians and Royals aren't going to actually win the AL Central then the Twins are just two games out of first place.

• I stumbled across these two pictures from last week that are basically Casilla in a nutshell:

December 20, 2010

Twins Notes: Nishioka, Morales, Bargas, Ullger, Hudson, and Punto

Tsuyoshi Nishioka's contract turned out to be a little more team-friendly than expected. He'll earn $3 million a season for three years, which is slightly less than first reported, and the deal also includes a $4 million team option or $250,000 buyout for 2014. If he proves to be a good player the option lets the Twins control him at a reasonable cost for a fourth season and if he struggles their total commitment (including posting fee) will be $14.55 million for three years.

Vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff noted that the Twins have scouted Nishioka in Japan for several years, so the front office had no shortage of reports and information from which to base their opinion on him. On the other hand, somewhat surprisingly (to me, at least) Ron Gardenhire revealed that he's never even seen video of his new starting middle infielder in action:

I don't know anything about him. I don't know anything about his swing, nothing. I haven't seen video on him or anything. Just the reports from our scouts. He's supposed to be a good player. I'm going to get this kid down there [to spring training] and see what happens, see what he looks like, see where I think he's most comfortable, and talk to the kid.

Gardenhire apparently isn't much for YouTube. There were plenty of interesting quotes uttered during Nishioka's introductory press conference, but my favorite came earlier when he said the following upon arriving in Minnesota: "I was so surprised by this cold weather because it was colder than I expected. Even the stadium was covered by snow." For his sake hopefully no one is taking Nishioka to the Vikings game.

• Lost in Nishioka signing is that the Twins also dropped Jose Morales from the 40-man roster, trading the 27-year-old catcher to the Rockies for relief prospect Paul Bargas. I'm far from the biggest Drew Butera fan and would've preferred if the Twins gave Morales more of a chance to be Joe Mauer's backup, but injuries played a factor as well and at this point he's a marginal player without minor-league options who the team seemingly never trusted defensively.

Morales hit .297 with a .370 on-base percentage in 181 plate appearances for the Twins and .304 with a .367 OBP in 1,163 plate appearances at Triple-A, and those numbers coming from a switch-hitting catcher definitely make him a viable big leaguer. However, with just 11 homers and a measly .095 Isolated Power between Rochester and Minnesota he doesn't have enough pop to be an asset at another position if the Twins weren't willing to use him behind the plate.

• Bargas was a 13th-round pick in 2009 and shifted to the bullpen as a pro after starting for three years at UC-Riverside. He's posted very good numbers in the low minors with a 3.12 ERA and 98-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 98 innings, and the 6-foot-1 southpaw has been death on left-handed batters early on. He's far from a top prospect, but Bargas certainly represents a reasonable return for a 27-year-old backup catcher and at age 22 has some upside.

• I can't recall any fan base ever loving a third base coach. For the most part the job involves going unnoticed when you perform well and being vilified when you perform poorly, because the successes blend into the flow of a game and the failures bring things to a screeching halt. With that said, Scott Ullger has seemingly been an extraordinarily poor third base coach, with a tendency to get the Twins' slowest runners thrown out at the plate by the widest margins.

He's been relieved of third base duties and will now serve as bench coach, switching jobs with Steve Liddle. Aside from Al Newman being let go as third base coach in 2005 there's been a remarkable lack of coaches leaving the staff during Gardenhire's decade-long tenure with the Twins, but Ullger has been moved (or perhaps more accurately, demoted) from hitting coach to third base coach in 2006 and from third base coach to bench coach now.

• There was never any chance of the Twins re-signing Orlando Hudson, but he's landed on his feet (and then some) with a two-year, $11.5 million deal from the Padres. Reportedly as part of a gentleman's agreement Hudson promised the Twins ahead of time that he'd decline their arbitration offer, so they'll get a compensatory draft pick between the first and second rounds for letting the Type B free agent walk.

Good defense at second base and hitting .268/.338/.372 in 126 games made Hudson a sound one-year investment for $5 million, and if you toss in a top-50 pick that also carries significant value it turned out to be a very positive signing even if the Twins didn't enjoy his presence in the clubhouse enough to bring him back. Hudson is coming off arguably a career-worst season and had to settle for one-year deals in 2009 and 2010, so getting a two-year deal now is odd.

• Mauer missed some time in September with left knee problems and recently underwent what the Twins are calling a "minor procedure" that leaves him with plenty of room to recover before spring training. Since missing most of his rookie season because of a knee injury that required surgery in 2004, he has the most plate appearances of any catcher in baseball.

• In the least surprising news since my last weight-loss attempt failed, Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that "Gardenhire has asked the Twins' front office if it can bring back free-agent infielder Nick Punto." No word on if Gardenhire has contacted Punto, but if he did I imagine it went something like this:


















He's supposed to be a good player.'

Gardenhire said he has no immediate plans to slot Nishioka either at second base or shortstop.

"I'm going to get this kid down there (to spring training) and see what happens, see what he looks like, see where I think he's most comfortable and talk to the kid," he said.