August 8, 2013

Twins Notes: No trades, botched moves, nice debuts, and bye bye Butera

drew butera twins

Catching up on the Twins happenings while I was in Philadelphia for the SABR convention ...

• Essentially giving away Drew Butera wasn't supposed to be the full extent of the Twins' trade deadline activity, but aside from Glen Perkins they simply didn't have much to offer. It's certainly surprising that they didn't move Justin Morneau, especially given various reports suggesting that multiple teams expressed at least some level of interest, but they weren't going to get more than a marginal prospect for a below average 32-year-old impending free agent anyway.

Morneau has shown improved power recently and it's still possible to find a taker for him between now and August 31, but the waiver system limits options and every game he plays is one fewer game another team can acquire. For the third year in a row the Twins failed to make a significant move to swap veterans for long-term help before the trade deadline, which is rare for a rebuilding team and in several cases stems from their inability to pull the trigger at the right time.

• Butera spent parts of four seasons with the Twins, lasting long enough to get a $700,000 salary for this year via arbitration, which is amazing considering he hit .215/.287/.324 at Double-A and .218/.268/.307 at Triple-A. Plenty of terrible-hitting catchers have solid MLB careers because of defense, but Butera was several steps below terrible-hitting. He hit .182 with a .494 OPS, which is the lowest by any position player with 500-plus plate appearances in the past 30 years:

                    PA      OPS
DREW BUTERA        534     .494
Angel Salazar      932     .500
Brandon Wood       751     .513
Tom Lawless        590     .521
Kevin Cash         714     .526

Comparing across eras can be difficult, but there's a strong argument to be made that Butera is the worst hitter of the past three decades and if nothing else he's the only hitter with 500-plus plate appearances and an OPS below .500 during that time. And based on his minor-league track record that .494 OPS might actually count as out-performing expectations. Not surprisingly the Dodgers sent Butera to Triple-A immediately after acquiring him from the Twins.

• It's tough to look at Aaron Hicks' rookie season and not conclude that the Twins botched things at just about every step along the way. Instead of furthering his development and suppressing his service time by having him open the year at Triple-A they all but handed Hicks the center field job before spring training and rushed him from Double-A to the majors. Based on his 2-for-48 slump to begin the season and subsequent struggles, it's clear that they misjudged his readiness.

In early July they had another opportunity to send Hicks to Triple-A following his disabled list stint for a hamstring injury, but instead abruptly ended his minor-league rehab assignment and rushed him back to the majors after Josh Willingham's knee surgery. He again struggled, giving him a .194 batting average and 84 strikeouts in 81 games overall, at which point they finally demoted Hicks to Triple-A four months into the season.

Being overmatched as a 23-year-old rookie jumping from Double-A is hardly a death sentence for Hicks' long-term potential, although not many struggles are that extreme and allowed to go on for that long. Ultimately he needs to figure out how to maintain a patient approach while also being aggressive within the strike zone, which has been a career-long issue. Because of the demotion he won't use a full year of service time, but this was probably the worst path to that destination.

Andrew Albers joined Chris Colabello and Caleb Thielbar in going from independent ball to the Twins' roster and as if that wasn't already a good enough story the 27-year-old left-hander tossed 8.1 shutout innings against the Royals in his debut. Based on Game Score it was the best MLB debut in Twins history, topping Bert Blyleven's seven innings of one-run ball on June 5, 1970 and Anthony Swarzak's seven shutout innings on May 23, 2009.

Blyleven went on to become a Hall of Famer and Swarzak went on to become a long reliever, so a great debut certainly doesn't guarantee anything. With that said, Albers is definitely an intriguing player. His fastball tops out in the high-80s, which is particularly worrisome when combined with extreme fly-ball tendencies, but Albers is a strike-throwing machine and managed 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings between Double-A and Triple-A. He's still a long shot, but could be useful.

• Albers is getting his big chance because the Twins sent Scott Diamond to Triple-A, completing a dramatic decline for a pitcher many people were extremely excited about this time last season. Diamond's awful strikeout rate always suggested that most of the excitement was overblown and he missed even fewer bats this year along with more walks and fewer ground balls. There are 122 pitchers with at least 300 innings since 2011 and Diamond ranks dead last in strikeout rate.

To have sustained success while striking out 4.3 batters per nine innings a pitcher needs to have spectacular control and induce tons of ground balls. And even then Diamond's realistic upside at age 27 is a lot closer to a left-handed Nick Blackburn than any kind of long-term building block. In fact, comparing Diamond's numbers through three seasons to Blackburn's numbers through three seasons is eerily similar:

               ERA    SO/9    BB/9    HR/9     OAVG
Diamond       4.39     4.3     2.2     1.0     .292
Blackburn     4.14     4.4     1.8     1.1     .293

At least the Twins haven't signed Diamond to a long-term contract extension yet.

Tim Wood, who was signed to a minor-league deal in November and then added to the 40-man roster two weeks later because the Twins suddenly felt worried about losing a 30-year-old Triple-A reliever in the Rule 5 draft, will miss the remainder of the season following shoulder surgery. He never threw a pitch this year in the minors or majors.

Chris Parmelee has hit .301/.409/.466 with a 15-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 games at Triple-A since his demotion. Not as spectacular as his 2012 breakout there, but the guy can hit International League pitching.

Kevin Correia has a 5.90 ERA and .329 opponents' batting average in 17 starts since May 1.

Parker Hageman of Twins Daily interviewed Jared Burton and wrote an interesting article about the right-hander's fantastic changeup.

• For a lot more about the Twins' lack of trade deadline activity and Hicks' demotion, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


This week's blog content is sponsored by the Twins Daily light rail pub crawl/Twins game, where you can join Aaron Gleeman, John Bonnes, Parker Hageman, Nick Nelson, and Seth Stohs for a day of bar-hopping and baseball on September 14. Space is limited, so book your spot.

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.

November 27, 2012

Twins Notes: Pinto, Thielbar, Bromberg, Clement, Valencia, and Nishioka

• After clearing lots of the dead weight from the 40-man roster the Twins filled the empty spots by adding eight players: Aaron Hicks, Kyle Gibson, B.J. Hermsen, Michael Tonkin, Daniel Santana, Josmil Pinto, Tim Wood, Caler Thielbar. All eight players would have been eligible for the Rule 5 draft on December 6 if they hadn't been added and the first five names on the list were expected, as they rank among the Twins' better upper-minors prospects.

Pinto was somewhat surprising in that he's played just 12 games above Single-A through age 23, already spent about half of his time as a designated hitter, and failed to crack a .700 OPS in 2010 or 2011. He did bounce back with a strong season at high Single-A, hitting .295/.361/.473 in 93 games before a late promotion to Double-A, and the Twins apparently believe Pinto has a chance to be an impact bat.

When the Twins signed Wood to a minor-league contract on November 10 he didn't get a 40-man roster spot, but for some reason two weeks later they decided the 30-year-old reliever with just 58 career innings of big-league experience needed to be protected. He has a decent Triple-A track record and looks capable of being a useful middle reliever, but adding Wood to the 40-man roster weeks after signing him to a non-roster deal certainly seems odd.

Thielbar was cut by the Brewers two years after being an 18th-round draft pick and latched on with the independent league St. Paul Saints, where the left-handed reliever impressed the Twins enough to sign him in mid-2011. This year he pitched at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, faring very well overall, but his 3.57 ERA and 32/16 K/BB ratio in 40 innings for Rochester were nothing special for a 25-year-old. Helluva story, questionable 40-man addition.

• Most of the aforementioned dead weight that was previously trimmed from the 40-man roster have either found new homes or re-signed with the Twins on minor-league deals. Samuel Deduno, P.J. Walters, Esmerling Vasquez, and Luis Perdomo re-upped without 40-man roster spots, Jeff Manship signed a minor-league contract with the Rockies, and Matt Carson signed a minor-league deal with the Indians.

At the time Carlos Gutierrez was the only player claimed off waivers after being dropped from the 40-man roster by the Twins, but two weeks later the Cubs dropped him from their 40-man roster and sent him outright to Triple-A when no one claimed the former first-round pick. As of now the Twins have a full 40-man roster, but there's still no shortage of replacement-level talent that can safely be let go if/when they need spots for trades or signings.

David Bromberg was the Twins' minor league pitcher of the year in 2009, but he was dropped from the 40-man roster after missing most of 2011 with a broken forearm and became a minor-league free agent last month. It was somewhat surprising to see the Twins sour on Bromberg so quickly, but he was never considered a top prospect and struggled this year working mostly as a reliever at age 24. He signed a minor-league deal with the Pirates.

• If you're into misleading headlines "Twins sign former top prospect, No. 3 pick" is a good one, but Jeff Clement seems destined for Rochester after inking a minor-league deal. While in the Mariners' farm system Clement ranked among Baseball America's top 75 prospects in 2006, 2007, and 2008, but poor defense kept him from playing catcher regularly and his bat hasn't been good enough for first base/designated hitter. For now he's just intriguing Triple-A depth.

Tim Doherty and Marty Mason replaced Tom Brunansky and Bobby Cuellar on the Triple-A coaching staff. Doherty will be Rochester's hitting coach after serving as a Red Sox assistant hitting coach this year. Mason takes over as pitching coach and his resume includes 11 seasons as the Cardinals' bullpen coach under manager Tony La Russa. Brunansky and Cuellar were promoted to the Twins' coaching staff as part of last month's quasi-shakeup.

• Last month when Tsuyoshi Nishioka forfeited the remaining $3.25 million on his contract to part ways with the Twins it was portrayed as an act of charity on his part. There's no doubt he did the Twins a favor, but as I wrote at the time: "He'll likely recoup the $3.25 million and then some back in Japan, where he was a .346-hitting, Gold Glove-winning star before leaving." Sure enough, Nishioka signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal with the Hanshin Tigers.

Danny Valencia spent most of his time at Triple-A after the Twins traded him to the Red Sox for a non-prospect in early August and now Boston has cut him from the 40-man roster. Overall this year Valencia hit .188/.199/.299 in the majors and .259/.300/.404 in the minors, posting a combined 90/21 K/BB ratio in 126 games. At age 28 he might be nearing the end of the line, although Valencia re-emering as a right-handed bench bat wouldn't be shocking.

Torii Hunter is back in the AL Central, signing a two-year, $26 million contract with the Tigers. That's a big commitment to a 37-year-old and his 2012 production was built on an sustainably great ball-in-play batting average, but it's worth noting that Hunter has more or less been worth $20 million over every two-year period since establishing himself in 2001. He's aged remarkably well and moving from center field to right field resuscitated his defense.

• For a whole lot more about the 40-man roster additions, Nishioka's raise, and the state of the Twins' farm system check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.