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.

Interested in sponsoring a week of AG.com during the offseason? Click here for details.

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:

April 4, 2011

Bullet points and not-so-deep thoughts on a 1-2 weekend in Toronto

• My offseason-long worries about the new middle infield defensively looked legitimate as both Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka made several mistakes in the field. Nishioka in particular committed two obvious errors--booting a ground ball and making an errant throw to first base after coming in on a chopper--and also botched a run-down situation. If nothing else all those Twins-fed, end-of-spring articles touting Nishioka as a Gold Glove candidate seem sort of silly.

Justin Morneau was 1-for-10 in the series, but started all three games while striking out just once and made three or four loud outs on hard-hit balls to the outfield, including a near-double caught in the left-center field gap and a near-homer hauled in at the warning track. To me his durability and overall health remain far bigger question marks than his bat. If he's able to stay in the lineup consistently, he'll hit.

Joe Nathan successfully converted a two-run save in his first appearance since 2009, but it wasn't pretty. He threw just 15 of 31 pitches for strikes and allowed a run on two hits and two walks, with his first out coming on a long fly ball that nearly tied the game. More importantly, as was the case throughout spring training Nathan's velocity was way down. His slider wasn't sharp and his fastball clocked in at 88-91 miles per hour compared to 93-95 mph pre-surgery.

• While not quite as "off" as Nathan's velocity, Francisco Liriano's fastball was a few miles per hour lower than last season and his command was a mess. He walked five versus just three strikeouts, couldn't make it out of the fifth inning, and served up two homers after allowing more than one long ball in just two of 31 starts last season. Of course, next to Carl Pavano's eight-run, three-homer Opening Day outing Liriano's start looked downright impressive.

Nick Blackburn's start was a gem compared to Pavano and Liriano. He couldn't complete six innings, yet kept everyone but the reigning home run champ in the park and looked way more like the mid-rotation starter from 2008/2009 than the batting practice pitcher from most of last year. Blackburn did get away with some crushable pitches, as at least three outs were drilled to center field, but he induced 11 ground balls and his beard was also in midseason form.

• I'll avoid criticizing Ron Gardenhire too much for trotting out his usual "getaway day" lineup in the third game of the season, since presumably he wants to establish a consistent pattern of rest for the regulars, but some lineup decisions left me shaking my head. For instance Jason Kubel, a left-handed hitter with an awful .236/.313/.352 career line off left-handed pitchers, started both games versus a lefty while sitting out the one game against a righty.

• Kubel and Jim Thome each have no business being in the lineup regularly against lefties, yet the lack of a decent right-handed bat on the bench means at least one of them will usually be in there unless Gardenhire gives Jason Repko a rare start. However, to sit Kubel in favor of Michael Cuddyer in the one game started by a righty is just odd. Kubel's only real value is his ability to hit righties and Cuddyer hit just .261/.319/.423 off righties from 2008 to 2010.

• While the spring training debate centered on Luke Hughes versus Matt Tolbert for the utility infielder role, Tolbert winning that job was no shock given his ability to play shortstop and the fact that Gardenhire started him there over Casilla in Game 3. However, we've already seen how Hughes could still come in plenty handy as a righty-hitting alternative to Kubel (or Thome) against lefties. Unfortunately the decision to carry seven relievers leaves no room for him.

Denard Span's ability to bounce back offensively is a big key this season and he looked good at the plate, going 5-for-11 with a homer and two walks while seeing a ton of pitches. Span and Danny Valencia were the only Twins to homer in the series, whereas the Blue Jays went deep a total of seven times while out-scoring the good guys 22 to 8. Dating back to last year Twins pitchers have now allowed 32 homers in 12 games against the Blue Jays.

• Yesterday's bullpen usage was interesting, as Gardenhire turned to Jose Mijares in the sixth inning and then used Glen Perkins for the eighth frame. Not exactly the assumed lefty pecking order and showing that much faith in Perkins is ... well, let's say surprising. Also of note is that Matt Capps worked the seventh inning for the first since 2007 after Mijares had back-to-back walks leading off the frame. In general less rigid bullpen roles are a positive, but I'm skeptical.

• New third base coach Steve Liddle made a Scott Ullger-like mistake getting Valencia thrown out at the plate in the fifth inning when holding him up would have kept the Twins in a bases-loaded, no-out situation with a 2-1 lead and the top of the lineup potentially breaking things wide open. Not every out at the plate comes from a third base coach's error and Valencia may have been safe if not for a great throw, but that's a spot where taking a risk isn't needed.

• In the first inning of Saturday's game rookie Kyle Drabek struck out the side as Nishioka and Morneau complained about umpire Angel Hernandez's spacious strike zone. Meanwhile, amid the whiffing and moaning Joe Mauer drew a four-pitch walk. Drabek, who was acquired from the Phillies in the Roy Halladay trade and is the 23-year-old son of former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek, threw seven one-hit innings in his fourth career start and his cutter was nasty.

• Next up: Four games against the Yankees in New York. No big deal or anything.

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.