May 11, 2012

Twins Notes: Birthday boys, pimping, demoting, neglecting, and mocking

• Reminder: Gleeman and The Geek airs live on KFAN at 4:00 on Sunday. I can neither confirm nor deny that this week's show will just be me sighing into the microphone for an hour.

• Happy birthday to No. 1 prospect Miguel Sano, who turned 19 years old today and is hitting .303/.417/.655 with 10 homers and 20 walks in 33 games at low Single-A. Last week Sano hit a game-winning homer against the Angels' affiliate and the benches cleared because, as Cedar Rapids manager Jamie Burke put it: "I think he kind of pimped that home run a little bit." Here's more from Jeff Johnson of the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

Sano stood in the batter's box awhile to watch his homer against relief pitcher Carmine Giardiana. He trotted the bases, but virtually stopped a few feet before touching the plate, taking off his batting helmet as Kernels catcher Abel Baker barked at him.

Sano glared at the Kernels dugout after finally touching the plate, with Kernels players continuing to give him significant grief. He took a step toward Baker, and the dugouts began to empty, with umpires Fernando Rodriguez and Paul Clemons, as well as both teams' coaching staffs, doing a good job of squelching what could have been an ugly scene.

Also worth noting is that being annoyed by Sano's actions following the homer didn't stop Burke from effusively praising him as a player:

He's young, but he's one heck of a player, man. He's unbelievable. That's the best player I've seen here, by far.

Twins fans may remember Burke as the White Sox catcher who got destroyed by Torii Hunter in a home plate collision back in 2004.

Anthony Slama has never gotten an extended shot with the Twins despite dominating every level of the minors and was dropped from the 40-man roster after injuring his elbow late last season. He's healthy again, posting a 0.57 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 16 innings as Rochester's closer, which gives him a 2.35 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 133 career innings at Triple-A. Slama is 28 years old and has shaky control, but there's no excuse for ignoring him at this point.

Remember when the Twins signed Jason Marquis and Terry Ryan said "he throws the ball over the plate" despite the fact that his career walk rate of 3.5 per nine innings was the exact same as Francisco Liriano's? Through five starts Marquis has more walks (11) than strikeouts (10) in 27 innings and has thrown the same percentage of his pitches for strikes as Liriano, who's been banished to the bullpen.

Sean Burroughs and Clete Thomas cleared waivers after being designated for assignment by the Twins, meaning they'll both remain in the organization at Triple-A but no longer reside on the 40-man roster. Stockpiling that type of depth is a good thing, but in making room for Thomas in Rochester's outfield the Twins demoted No. 2 prospect Joe Benson from Triple-A to Double-A despite the fact that he'd already spent two seasons there.

Benson was off to a rough start, hitting .179 with 27 strikeouts in 28 games, but was hitting for power and drawing walks. At the time of the demotion Benson had a .584 OPS and Ben Revere had a .592 OPS. Demoting a 24-year-old back to Double-A for a third straight season because he struggled in 28 games seems odd, particularly when Chris Parmelee is struggling in the majors after skipping Triple-A following far worse Double-A production than Benson.

• Parmelee sticking in the majors because the Twins trusted September and March instead of a mediocre track record was misguided enough, but now he's not even playing consistently. Parmelee is a left-handed hitter, yet he's been on the bench for three straight games against right-handed pitchers. It'll be buried beneath the mountain of problems, but the handling of prospects Parmelee, Benson, Revere, and Liam Hendriks leaves a lot to be desired.

Dan Osterbrock was the Twins' seventh-round pick out of the University of Cincinnati in 2008 and spent four seasons in the farm system before injuring his shoulder and getting released this spring. Since then he's been extremely outspoken about the Twins' handling of his injury and other pitcher injuries. For instance, when it was announced that Scott Baker needed Tommy John surgery after the Twins initially said he could pitch Osterbrock tweeted:

Wait, the Twins allowed an injury to linger longer than a year without taking care of it?! Shocker.

Then in responding to various questions about his own health status, Osterbrock wrote:

Twins released me. My shoulder was hurting so instead of helping me out, they got rid of me.

I really enjoyed my time with the Twins, but I'm none too pleased with the way it ended and how it was handled.

Shoulder surgery Round 2 tomorrow morning. Looking forward to finally getting this fixed properly.

Surgery went well. Should be throwing soon. Special thanks to the Twins for completely neglecting the obvious injury I had.

Osterbrock also said in an interview with the University of Cincinnati's website that "they kept telling me that I was going to be all right and that I should try to play through it and I did for as long as I could." Because of the increasing number of questions about the competency of the team's medical staff Osterbrock's comments got some attention and the Twins were forced to respond. Not surprisingly they denied any wrongdoing.

• Tommy John surgery has already derailed the career of 2009 first-round pick Kyle Gibson and now 2010 first-round pick Alex Wimmers may be facing the same fate. Wimmers came back from extreme control problems last season to re-establish himself as one of the Twins' better prospects, but he's been shut down with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. Predictably the Twins are saying he can avoid surgery and will try rest and rehab. Good luck.

• Twins owner Jim Pohlad gave votes of confidence to Ryan and Ron Gardenhire, dismissing the notion that either man's job could be in jeopardy. That's certainly not surprising, but it's also worth noting that Pohlad gave Bill Smith a public vote of confidence in October ... and then fired him five weeks later.

Jared Burton served up two homers in his Twins debut and gave up a run two appearances later, but he's been unhittable since then. Literally. Burton has thrown 10.2 consecutive no-hit innings dating back to April 13. During that time batters are 0-for-32 with 11 strikeouts off him, getting on base only via two walks and two plunkings.

• Minnesota native Michael Wuertz held an open tryout for teams in mid-March and the Twins were in attendance, but six weeks later the once-dominant and oft-injured reliever signed a minor-league deal with the Reds.

• Since the Twins traded him to the Orioles last offseason J.J. Hardy has 38 homers in 709 plate appearances. During that same time the Twins' entire infield has combined for 52 homers in 3,828 plate appearances. This season Hardy is out-homering the Twins' infield 8-to-3.

• In starting the season with an MLB-worst 8-23 record the Twins have been outscored by 67 runs in 31 games while no other team has been outscored by more than 32 runs.

• How did Dan Haren lose to the Twins? He was hurt. At this point I'll assume that every Twins victory will be followed by the opposing pitcher revealing an injury within 48 hours.

Jim Callis of Baseball America published his first mock draft and it has the Twins selecting Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton with the No. 2 pick.

• Last and least, I guess now we know that Robby Incmikoski checks Twitter while he's working the game for FSN.

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May 2, 2012

Twins Notes: Butera, Burroughs, Mauer, Morneau, Pavano, and Guerra

• I was on KFAN this morning, sitting in for a couple segments on Paul Allen's show to talk Twins and blogging and all sorts of other stuff. You can listen to my full appearance here.

• After playing every inning of the first 21 games Joe Mauer took a foul ball off his knee and sat out Monday. He returned last night as designated hitter, but the Twins felt the need to add Drew Butera as a third catcher while designating Sean Burroughs for assignment to make room on the roster. Butera was hitting .279/.319/.419 in 15 games for Rochester, which is simultaneously terrible for a 28-year-old at Triple-A and the best numbers of his career.

Burroughs was signed to a minor-league deal in December and the 30-year-old former top prospect impressed the Twins during spring training, winning an Opening Day bench spot. In theory he was a nice fit, offering a left-handed bat and solid glove at third base to complement and perhaps even push Danny Valencia, but in practice he got three starts and 17 at-bats in a month. He's barely played since 2005, let alone had any success, so he may clear waivers.

Justin Morneau gave everyone a scare when he exited Monday's game with soreness in his surgically repaired left wrist and immediately flew from California to Minnesota to be examined by team doctors. Now he's on the way back to the West Coast after an MRI exam showed no structural damage, but Morneau revealed that the wrist was bothering him before Monday and the Twins have said that Friday is the best-case scenario for being back in the lineup.

Thursday is a scheduled off day, so that absence isn't quite as long as it sounds, but giving him 15 days to heal up on the disabled list would seemingly be worthwhile. Instead the Twins will keep Morneau on the active roster, which is something they've done too often with injured players in recent years and becomes particularly problematic when combined with a 13-man pitching staff and Butera. Last night's bench was literally only Butera and Trevor Plouffe.

Carl Pavano managed zero strikeouts Friday for the third time in his last 33 starts and his average fastball has clocked in at just 86.6 miles per hour this season, down from 89.0 mph in 2011 and 90.1 mph in 2010. Pavano signed a two-year, $16.5 million contract with the Twins after throwing 221 innings with a 3.75 ERA in 2010, but since then he's logged 255 innings with a 4.38 ERA and just 4.2 strikeouts per nine innings. At age 36 he's running on fumes.

Deolis Guerra's overall numbers at Double-A last year were ugly, but his success shifting to the bullpen in the second half earned him the No. 27 spot in my Twins prospect rankings. He picked up where he left off at New Britain with a 0.71 ERA and 15-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 innings, at which point the Twins promoted the last remaining piece of the Johan Santana trade to Rochester and he debuted there with three scoreless innings Saturday.

• Another potential bullpen option, Kyle Waldrop, is on the comeback trail after an elbow injury cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster. I'm skeptical of Waldrop's ability to be more than a decent middle reliever because he's already 26 years old and his strong ground-ball rate comes along with underwhelming velocity and few strikeouts, but he certainly warrants more of an extended opportunity than Jeff Gray.

• As has too often been the case recently Twins management subtlety cast some doubt on the legitimacy of Scott Baker's elbow injury before a second opinion from outside the organization led to Tommy John surgery. In speaking to the local media following surgery Baker addressed what Jon Krawcynski of the Associated Press described as "whispers both inside and outside Target Field":

I knew I wasn't crazy. I knew there was some speculation that maybe I was babying it or taking it easy, but good grief. I did everything I possibly could to get better and to try to pitch with it. But that just wasn't going to happen.

When an injured player has to defend himself amid speculation that his injury isn't as serious as he claims and that speculation is fueled at least in part by the team that's obviously not a good situation. Toss in the ongoing questions about the competency of the Twins' medical staff and it gets even worse. On the other hand, Baker also admitted injured pitchers "are not always completely forthright with the staff" and made it clear that he doesn't hold a grudge.

• As expected Ben Revere's return to Minnesota was brief, with the end of Josh Willingham's paternity leave sending him back to Triple-A. Revere is still better off playing in Rochester than mostly sitting in Minnesota, although Sunday being "Ben Revere bat day" at Target Field perhaps wasn't the best timing (or planning) by the Twins.

• In an effort to beef up the Double-A and Triple-A teams the Twins signed a bunch of veteran minor leaguers during the offseason, yet some reinforcements were still needed a month into the season. Joe Thurston is the latest veteran to join Rochester, although once upon a time he was a promising prospect in the Dodgers' system. Now he's 32 years old with 184 games in the majors and 1,485 games in the minors, including 5,000 plate appearances at Triple-A.

Ron Gardenhire will be away from the team for this weekend's Mariners series, missing all three games to attend his daughter's college graduation from Southwest Minnesota State. Bench coach Scott Ullger will fill in as manager, as he's done on a few other occasions.

Luke Hughes' time as Oakland's starting third baseman was short-lived, as he went 1-for-13 with three errors in four games and the A's signed a washed-up, recently released Brandon Inge to replace him. Hughes was designated for assignment, so he's back on the waiver wire.

• Congratulations to Delmon Young for making the front page of the New York Post. MLB suspended Young for seven days following his arrest on assault and hate crime charges, presumably because an eight-day suspension would have made Hanukkah jokes too easy.

• Willingham was a smart free agent signing and has been amazing at the plate so far, but his defense in left field has been just short of Delmon-esque.

Interesting note from Twins media communications manager Dustin Morse: Saturday was the ninth time weather caused a delay or postponement in 174 total games at Target Field.

• Compared to this same time last year MLB-wide attendance is up 1,700 fans per game overall, but the Twins' attendance is down an MLB-worst 5,000 fans per game.

• For his career Valencia has hit .328/.378/.491 versus left-handers and .243/.282/.369 versus right-handers, which is one of the more extreme platoon splits you'll see and along with iffy defense makes him a poor fit in an everyday role. By the way, that play was ruled a "double."

• After last night Denard Span has 76 career steals and has been picked off 26 times.

No. 11 prospect Adrian Salcedo was hit in the face by a comebacker while pitching Monday at high Single-A and suffered a broken nose.

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April 2, 2012

Drew Butera loses his scholarship as Twins set Opening Day roster

"No scholarships." That's how Terry Ryan stressed not handing players jobs this year simply because they had jobs last year. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was the first casualty and now Drew Butera joins him in Rochester after two years in Minnesota. Butera's job was in jeopardy as soon as Ryan Doumit signed, but Ron Gardenhire's fear of catching emergencies and the Twins' aversion to ditching marginal guys for whom they develop an affinity had me skeptical.

Actually replacing replacement-level players is a step in the right direction, although Butera remains on the 40-man roster and, considering Joe Mauer's injury history and Doumit's shaky defense, there's a good chance he'll be back. Butera stuck around despite the lowest OPS of any non-pitcher with 300 plate appearances since 1990 because the Twins loved his defense, liked him as a person, and believed he had a big influence as Carl Pavano's personal catcher.

There's no doubt that Butera did a good job controlling the running game despite Pavano barely paying attention to runners, so the pairing may have been a good fit and may have even helped Pavano. However, evaluating catcher defense is very complicated and assuming something is true because a pitcher thinks it's true doesn't always show itself in the results. In terms of preventing runs Butera catching Pavano was the same as Mauer catching Pavano:

Pavano with Butera catching: 294 innings, 4.14 ERA.
Pavano with Mauer catching: 201 innings, 4.08 ERA.

Butera is a good catcher who can't hit. And not just "can't hit" like most bench players "can't hit." He's historically awful, hitting .178/.220/.261 for the Twins after hitting .214/.296/.317 in the minors. There are plenty of good-glove, no-hit players in the majors, and rightfully so in many cases, but good defenders with absolutely zero hitting ability belong in the minors and by sending Butera there the Twins set the position player side of the Opening Day roster:

   LINEUP                     BENCH
 C Joe Mauer               IF Luke Hughes
1B Chris Parmelee          IF Sean Burroughs
2B Alexi Casilla           OF Ben Revere
SS Jamey Carroll           OF Trevor Plouffe
3B Danny Valencia
LF Josh Willingham
CF Denard Span
RF Ryan Doumit
DH Justin Morneau

My assumption is that Doumit will be the primary right fielder because he's one of the team's best hitters, has experience there, and presumably wasn't signed to mostly sit on the bench regardless of his position. However, if demoting Butera means that Gardenhire will use Doumit as more of a true backup catcher then Trevor Plouffe would seemingly be in line for most of the starts in right field or at least a time-share with Ben Revere.

Chris Parmelee parlayed a big September call-up and strong spring training into the starting first base job, with the Twins deciding that the best chance of keeping Justin Morneau in the lineup is at designated hitter. Morneau may prove healthy enough to return to first base and Parmelee may show that his mediocre track record is more telling than his most recent 100 at-bats, in which case the Twins could shift Doumit to DH and use Plouffe/Revere in right field.

They certainly have no shortage of first base/designated hitter/corner outfield options, which should be good for an offense that scored the second-fewest runs in the league last season, but they're also lacking a true backup middle infielder should 38-year-old shortstop Jamey Carroll or oft-injured second baseman Alexi Casilla need time off and it's unclear to me what role there is for Sean Burroughs unless he eats into Danny Valencia's starts at third base.

On an individual basis this is far stronger than the typical Twins bench during the past decade, although that admittedly isn't saying much. Burroughs, Plouffe, and Luke Hughes are each useful hitters and Revere is at the very least a useful fourth outfielder, but in terms of actually putting that collection of individuals into practice as a functioning bench the lack of a quality defensive middle infielder could get tricky. And speaking of tricky, here's the pitching staff:

   ROTATION                   BULLPEN
SP Carl Pavano             RH Matt Capps
SP Francisco Liriano       LH Glen Perkins
SP Liam Hendriks           LH Brian Duensing
SP Nick Blackburn          RH Anthony Swarzak
                           RH Jared Burton
   DISABLED LIST           LH Matt Maloney
SP Scott Baker             RH Alex Burnett
SP Jason Marquis           RH Jeff Gray
RP Kyle Waldrop

Injuries are keeping the Twins from beginning the season with their preferred 12-man pitching staff. Scott Baker is on the disabled list with an elbow injury, so 23-year-old Liam Hendriks will step into his rotation spot. Jason Marquis has been away from the team following his daughter's bicycling accident and the Twins will take advantage of an early off day on the schedule to skip his first turn in the rotation, which means they'll have eight relievers initially.

Kyle Waldrop would have been one of those eight relievers, but he's on the DL with an elbow injury of his own, leaving space in the bullpen for a pair of early offseason waiver claims (Matt Maloney and Jeff Gray), a non-roster invitee on a minor-league contract (Jared Burton), and a 2011 holdover with a 5.40 ERA in 98 career innings (Alex Burnett). Once everyone is healthy one or two of those guys will lose their spot, but that's a very shaky middle relief corps.

And the presumed late-inning options don't inspire a whole lot more confidence aside from Glen Perkins as the primary setup man. Matt Capps has plenty of questions to answer at closer coming off a disastrous season, Anthony Swarzak seemingly lacks the raw stuff and bat-missing ability for a high-leverage role, and Brian Duensing still needs to show that he can consistently get right-handed hitters out after flopping as a starter.

Aside from overpaying Capps it's a bullpen built on the cheap with failed starters, waiver wire pickups, former mid-level prospects, and injury comebacks. Odds are at least one solid reliever will emerge from that group because that's just how relievers work--my money would be on Burton, assuming he's healthy--but in the meantime things could get pretty ugly as Gardenhire searches for someone dependable beyond Perkins.

December 15, 2011

Twins Notes: Comings, goings, returns, and engagements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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