July 25, 2011

Twins Notes: Time’s a wastin

• Yesterday marked the two-thirds point of the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figured to define the Twins' season leading right up to the July 31 trade deadline. So far they're 6-6 and seven games out of first place, which is a half-game further back than the start of the stretch and the same deficit as a month ago. For all their getting healthy and turning things around the Twins have basically tread water for a month, leaving only 61 games to close a seven-game gap.

At this stage various playoff odds put the Twins less than five percent to win the division, but a) they're presumably better than the overall record shows, b) the rest of the AL Central is far worse than an average division, and c) memories of what happened down the stretch in 2006 make many people reject the idea of becoming sellers regardless of the odds. Tough decisions need to be made this week, the impact of which extends well beyond August and September.

Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun reports that the Twins are "eyeing" Orioles reliever Koji Uehara, who's quietly been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball since moving to the bullpen full time last season. Uehara was a solid but injury prone mid-rotation starter, but as a reliever he has a 2.35 ERA and ridiculous 113-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 88 innings while holding opponents to a .187 batting average.

It doesn't get much better than that and sure enough his 2.51 xFIP since the beginning of last season ranks third among all relievers with at least 80 innings. Uehara isn't a household name and as a 36-year-old with injury baggage he'd come with some risk, but if healthy he's an elite reliever and has a reasonable $4 million option for 2012. Connolly writes that the Orioles "are looking for major league-ready starting pitching," which makes Kevin Slowey a possible fit.

• Slowey has actually been linked to quite a few teams as rumors swirl leading up to Sunday's trade deadline. Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Blue Jays scouted him at Triple-A, which makes sense given that they showed interest in Slowey during spring training. Toronto is believed to be shopping various veteran relievers, including old friend Jon Rauch, so that seems like a natural fit. At this point I'd be very surprised if Slowey isn't traded.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last week that the Twins won't deal impending free agent Michael Cuddyer, but apparently that didn't stop at least one team from trying to change their mind. According to Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News the Giants expressed interest in Cuddyer with the intention of using him at second base, but were rebuffed and quickly moved on to acquire Jeff Keppinger from the Astros for two prospects.

Danny Valencia is putting together one of the most polarizing seasons by any hitter in Twins history, piling up memorable hits and RBIs while hitting terribly overall. Valencia is hitting just .236/.286/.391 overall, yet leads the team with 53 RBIs and many of them have come in key spots. Talk of Valencia's ability to come through in the "clutch" has already become prevalent, but he's actually been awful in situations normally associated with that concept.

With runners on base Valencia has hit .253/.303/.374. With runners in scoring position he's hit .247/.308/.381. And in "close and late" situations he's hit .206/.260/.235. So if he's not thriving with runners on base or in key late-inning spots, how does Valencia have so many RBIs and big hits? Because he's come to the plate with 269 runners on base, which leads the Twins and ranks 10th in the league. RBIs are a function of opportunity as much as performance.

Glen Perkins has shown no sign of slowing down, allowing one run in his last 15 games with a 17-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 innings. His overall ERA is down to 1.63, with zero home runs and 43 strikeouts in 39 innings. Vic Albury is the only Twins pitcher to allow zero homers in more than 39 innings, tossing 50 homer-less frames in 1976, and Joe Nathan (four times) is the only Twins pitcher with a sub-2.00 ERA and more strikeouts than innings. Perkins is unreal.

Scott Baker looked good in his return from the disabled list Saturday, shutting out the Tigers for five innings. He was on a pitch count after missing two weeks with a sore elbow, but Baker had good velocity and recorded five strikeouts while allowing just three singles and one walk. In beating Detroit he sliced his ERA to 2.88, which is ninth in the American League and would be the lowest mark posted by any Twins starter other than Johan Santana since 1991.

Brian Duensing struggled Friday against the Tigers' right-handed-heavy lineup, coughing up seven runs in 4.2 innings. He's allowed right-handed hitters to bat .306 with a .486 slugging percentage off him, which is one of the reasons why I thought the Twins should have left him in the bullpen to begin the season. Early on the decision to pick Duensing over Slowey looked smart, but since May 1 he has a 5.22 ERA and 56-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 79 innings.

Luke Hughes got an unexpected demotion to Triple-A over the weekend as the Twins opted to stick with 13 pitchers and 12 position players for a while. Finding enough consistent work to go around is very difficult with a 12-man staff, so carrying 13 pitchers is absurd. With that said, Hughes didn't exactly make himself indispensable by hitting .237/.293/.322 with 46 strikeouts in 193 plate appearances. At best he's a 26-year-old platoon bat with limited defensive value.

• Assuming the Twins don't trade an outfielder it's tough to imagine Ben Revere staying in the lineup or perhaps even the majors once Denard Span returns from his concussion. Revere has looked very good tracking down fly balls in center field, but the initial excitement created by his singles and speed has predictably faded at the plate. His overall line is down to .249/.287/.284 in 62 games as the obvious limitations shown by his track record have been on full display.

Kelsie Smith covered her final game as the Twins beat reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press yesterday, announcing that she's leaving the newspaper to move to Canada and have a baby next month. Smith doesn't like me much--which puts her in some pretty good company--but I always thought she did quality work and linked to her stuff often here despite the perpetual difficulties of navigating the Pioneer Press website. Her coverage will definitely be missed.

Steve Singleton quickly signed a minor-league deal with the Phillies after the Twins released him from Triple-A last week due to reported "off-the-field issues."

• And last but not least: Bert Blyleven took his rightful place in the Hall of Fame yesterday.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.

July 19, 2011

Twins Notes: Diamond’s debut, Mauer’s momentum, and Rauch’s return

Scott Diamond had a decent big-league debut, particularly for a mid-level prospect called up for an emergency spot start after posting a 4.70 ERA at Triple-A. He was very efficient early on and ended up using 90 pitches in 6.1 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits and two walks against an Indians lineup that ranks 11th among AL teams in OPS versus lefties. He served up a homer to Lou Marson, which is pretty tough to do, but also induced 12 ground-ball outs.

In terms of projecting his future performance Diamond looked basically like you'd expect based on his minor-league track record, showing good control and ground-ball tendencies along with mediocre raw stuff. He averaged just 88.9 miles per hour with his fastball, topping out at 90.3 miles per hour, and wasn't very successful with his off-speed pitches. Diamond struck out just one of the 26 batters he faced and also managed only one swinging strike on 90 pitches.

• In yesterday's doubleheader Joe Mauer made a pair of good defensive plays at first base in Game 1, threw out one of the two runners attempting to steal against him in Game 2, and was 6-for-8 at the plate while the rest of the Twins' lineup went 10-for-60 (.167). Mauer struggled initially after returning from a two-month stay on the disabled list and was hitting just .186 on June 24, but since then he's 27-for-72 (.375).

Mauer still hasn't shown any power yet, but he's hitting .375 with a .456 on-base percentage and .431 slugging percentage during the past 21 games, raising his batting average from .186 to .290 in three weeks. During that same time his on-base percentage rose from .234 to .361, which ties Denard Span for second-highest on the team. Oh, and the Twins are 19-15 when Mauer starts and 25-36 when he doesn't. It's almost as if he's still really good or something.

• In an interview with Tom Pelissero of 1500-ESPN assistant general manager Rob Anthony said that the Twins will be looking for middle relief help going into the July 31 trade deadline, which makes sense assuming they should be buyers at all. Glen Perkins has been fantastic all year in a setup role and Joe Nathan has thrived since returning from the disabled list, but with Matt Capps basically relegated to mop-up duties they could use another right-handed option.

Alex Burnett has been thrust into a high-leverage role almost by default and has the potential to some day be a viable late-inning asset, but for now he's an overmatched 23-year-old rookie with a 6.21 ERA and 20-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29 innings and has struck out just two of the last 30 hitters he's faced. Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune speculates the Twins may try to reacquire Jon Rauch from the Blue Jays, which would certainly be interesting.

• Over the weekend the Twins released 25-year-old former 11th-round pick Steve Singleton, who'd been starting regularly at shortstop and second base at Triple-A. Singleton is hardly an elite prospect, but the release still raised eyebrows considering the Twins' organization-wide lack of middle infield depth and Rochester's ongoing struggles just to put a competitive lineup on the field thanks to the big-league team calling up most of their best hitters.

Sure enough, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Singleton was let go due to "off-the-field issues." Singleton cracked my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects just once, ranking 33rd in 2009, but since then he's hit just .273/.320/.414 with twice as many walks (117) as strikeouts (58) in 265 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Singleton never projected as more than a potential utility man and even that seems like wishful thinking now.

Justin Morneau has been cleared to resume "baseball activities" three weeks after surgery to address a pinched nerve in his neck, which according to trainer Rick McWane means "he's ready to take ground balls, play catch, and run around." Swinging the bat will come later, so even setting aside the Twins' inability to get any injured players back within their initial return timetables this season Morneau is unlikely to be ready before mid-August.

• Last but certainly not least: Delmon Young's adorable reaction to Jim Thome's monstrous 596th career homer is now in GIF form. If he never played baseball and only reacted to Thome homers, Young would be my favorite Twin of all time.

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