February 6, 2012

Twins Notes: Relievers, starters, outfielders, draftees, and signing an MVP

Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com has the details of Joel Zumaya's one-year deal with the Twins. He's guaranteed $400,000 even if they cut him during spring training and that would turn into $850,000 if Zumaya is on the Opening Day roster, with another $900,000 in potential bonuses based on appearances. If he were to stay healthy and effective for the entire season Zumaya could earn a total of $1.75 million.

Of course, Zumaya hasn't stayed healthy and effective since he was a 21-year-old rookie in 2006, so when he signed my assumption was that the Twins would still look to add another veteran right-hander for the bullpen. At this point, however, that looks increasingly unlikely, as capable relievers continue to sign elsewhere for modest one-year contracts and minor-league deals with no indication that the Twins will snatch one up.

I wrote about the bullpen last week, noting that the Twins' impatience led to overpaying Matt Capps in an obvious buyer's market and is extra frustrating when combined with the apparent unwillingness to spend even $1 million more to address a clear weakness. Since then Todd Coffey signed with the Dodgers for $1.3 million and Chad Qualls signed with the Phillies for $1.15 million. They had plenty of chances to cheaply add a decent setup man and refused.

Terry Ryan said that he views the rotation as a strength, which might be true relative to the rest of the team but certainly isn't true relative to the rest of baseball. Last year Twins starters combined for MLB's fifth-worst ERA and while they might be healthier this time around the front four of Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, and Nick Blackburn made 104 starts in 2011. Jason Marquis replacing Brian Duensing is the only real change and he had a 4.43 ERA.

Clearly the rotation is capable of being better and healthier, but when Pavano is your Opening Day starter and both Blackburn and Marquis are taking the mound every fifth day it's tough to see the group as anything but below average even if you're optimistic about Baker staying healthy and Liriano being way closer to the 2010 version than the 2011 version. My blog-mate Matthew Pouliot projected numbers for all 30 rotations and has the Twins in the bottom five.

• Ryan and Ron Gardenhire have both made it very clear that the starting outfield will be Ben Revere in left field, Denard Span in center field, and Josh Willingham in right field. Assuming that Span is healthy after missing much of last year following a concussion, obviously. Trevor Plouffe is no longer viewed as an infield option and platooning his right-handed bat with the left-handed Revere in left field would make sense, but as usual with Gardenhire that's unlikely.

• With the No. 2 overall pick in June's draft and seven of the first 100 picks the Twins will have MLB's highest signing bonus allotment at around $12 million, according to Jim Callis of Baseball America. February speculation is mostly silly, but Baseball America's early ranking has Stanford pitcher Mark Appel first, followed by high school pitcher Lucas Giolito, high school outfielder Byron Buxton, Arizona State shortstop Devin Marrero, and Florida catcher Mike Zunino.

Camilo Pascual will be this year's inductee into the Twins' team Hall of Fame, which should please Patrick Reusse and the other local media members who've stumped for him in recent years. Pascual, who pitched in Minnesota from 1961-1966, ranked 20th on my list of the best players in Twins history.

Tom Kelly will also have his numbered retired by the Twins, which rendered the normally stoic former manager speechless during the Diamond Awards banquet last week. "Tom Kelly Day" at Target Field is scheduled for September 8, when he'll join Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Kent Hrbek, and Bert Blyleven as retired numbers.

Chris Colabello is one of the more intriguing minor-league signings in an offseason filled with them, as the 28-year-old first baseman joins the Twins after winning MVP of the independent Canadian-American Association. Colabello has hit .317/.390/.541 in seven years in the CAMA, including .348/.410/.600 with 20 homers in 92 games last year. Not only was he MVP of the CAMA, he was Baseball America's choice as player of the year in all independent leagues.

Luke Hughes injured his shoulder while playing back home in the Australian Baseball League and the Twins have pulled him from the Perth Heat's roster for the championship series.

Justin Morneau denied Nick Nelson's report that his wrist surgery stemmed from an injury that occurred during a clubhouse incident.

• Old friend Pat Neshek, who split last year between the majors and Triple-A for the Padres, signed a minor-league deal with the Orioles.

• Because the Twins are seemingly done adding players this offseason, it's worth noting that their current roster doesn't fare very well based on early projections.

• Finally, just a heads up: My annual series ranking and profiling the Twins' top 40 prospects will begin either later this week or early next week. I'm putting the finishing touches on it now.

November 15, 2011

Offseason shopping on a budget: Relievers

For the second straight offseason the Twins need relief help. Last winter they ignored the free agent market, trusted various in-house options, and wound up with a fire-starting bullpen that had the worst ERA in baseball. Joe Nathan and Matt Capps are free agents and Glen Perkins is the only reliable holdover, so here are 14 worthwhile bullpen targets who figure to be cheap enough to fit into the Twins' budget assuming they don't bust it on Nathan or another closer.

Frank Francisco: If other teams pursue Francisco as a closer the Twins should bow out, but if he's available for setup man money it could be a nice fit. He can't be counted on for more than 50 or 60 innings, but over the past four seasons Francisco has a 3.54 ERA, 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and a .226 opponents' batting average while averaging 94.1 miles per hour with his fastball. If the Twins are serious about adding power arms, he's an obvious target.

Jonathan Broxton: After a four-year run as one of baseball's most dominant relievers Broxton began struggling in mid-2010 and fell apart this season, missing the final five months with an elbow injury. He underwent minor surgery in September, but is expected to be fully recovered by spring training and is still just 28 years old. Broxton had a 2.92 ERA with 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings through his first five years. He's a big risk, but the reward could be just as huge.

Mike Gonzalez: After a long history of arm problems Gonzalez is recovering from knee surgery, but if healthy he's an elite left-handed reliever. Gonzalez had 51 strikeouts in 53 innings this season and has averaged 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, which ranks second among all active lefties. His control can be shaky and offering more than a one-year deal would be a mistake, but Gonzalez is capable of getting high-leverage outs versus lefties and righties.

LaTroy Hawkins: At age 38 and eight years after leaving the Twins as a free agent Hawkins posted a 2.42 ERA and 28/10 K/BB ratio in 48 innings for the Brewers, giving him a 3.43 ERA in 444 total innings since exiting Minnesota. He's lost fastball velocity, but Hawkins still averaged 92.6 miles per hour this season and served up just one home run while inducing more than 60 percent ground balls for the second time in his career.

Brad Lidge: Once an elite closer with a devastating mid-90s fastball and high-80s slider, Lidge averaged just 88.9 mph on his fastball and 80.9 mph on his slider this year while being limited to 19 innings following elbow surgery. At age 35 his velocity likely isn't coming back, but Lidge still racked up 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings throwing in the high-80s and his slider remains one of the best pitches in baseball. If the price is right he'd be a nice boom-or-bust pickup.

Octavio Dotel: I suggested signing Dotel last offseason, when he got a one-year, $3.5 million deal and logged 54 innings with a 3.50 ERA and 62/17 K/BB ratio. He has the highest strikeout rate of all time among right-handers with 800-plus innings and even at age 37 got more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings for the fifth straight season. Dotel struggles against left-handed power hitters, but if spotted mostly versus righties he can be a major late-inning weapon.

Joel Peralta: Another of my suggested signings last winter, Peralta got a one-year, $925,000 deal from the Rays and tossed 68 innings with a 2.93 ERA and 61/18 K/BB ratio. His raw stuff has never been particularly impressive and Peralta is a 35-year-old extreme fly-ball pitcher, but his secondary numbers have always been excellent and he's got 110 strikeouts versus just 20 non-intentional walks in 117 innings since the beginning of 2010.

Takashi Saito: Saito is 41 years old and missed nearly the entire first half with hamstring and back injuries, but was his usual unhittable self after returning in July with a 1.46 ERA and .186 opponents' batting average in 25 innings. After a brilliant career in Japan he's played six years in the majors, posting ERAs of 2.07, 1.40, 2.49, 2.43, 2.83, and 2.09. Aging and injuries make him a risk, but Saito remains incredibly effective and would surely accept a one-year contract.

Jon Rauch: Rauch pitched much better than he got credit for as Nathan's replacement in 2010, converting 21 saves in 25 chances before the misguided deal for Capps bumped him back into a setup role. He left as a free agent last winter and had a mediocre season for the Blue Jays on a one-year, $3.5 million contract, but Rauch posted a 2.82 ERA and 60/20 K/BB ratio in 73 innings during one-and-a-half years for the Twins and remains a capable setup man.

Chad Qualls: Also on my list of suggested bullpen targets last winter, Qualls inked a one-year, $2.55 million deal with the Padres and threw 74 innings with a 3.51 ERA and 43/20 K/BB ratio. Because he called pitcher-friendly Petco Park home that ERA isn't as impressive as it appears and Qualls' strikeout rate was the worst of his career at age 32, but aside from a fluky 2010 season his annual ERAs are 3.55, 3.28, 3.76, 3.05, 2.81, 3.63, and 3.51 dating back to 2004.

Dan Wheeler: Yet another reliever I suggested last offseason, Wheeler signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Red Sox and threw 49 innings with a 4.38 ERA and 39/8 K/BB ratio. Much like Dotel he's susceptible to left-handed power hitters, but righties hit just .200/.233/.379 off Wheeler during the past three seasons, producing a 104/18 K/BB ratio. As an extreme fly-ball pitcher Target Field is a good fit and at age 33 he should be available for a one-year deal.

George Sherrill: Before missing the final six weeks of the season with elbow problems Sherrill tossed 36 innings with a 3.00 ERA and 38/12 K/BB ratio, and if healthy the 35-year-old would fit nicely as a left-handed specialist. Combined over the past three seasons lefties hit just .192 with two homers and an 80/17 K/BB ratio off Sherrill, who has a 3.68 ERA and 320 strikeouts in 323 career innings.

Todd Coffey: With his sizable gut and sprint to the mound Coffey seems like a sideshow, but over the past three seasons he posted a 3.68 ERA and 167/64 K/BB ratio in 206 innings. That includes a 3.62 ERA and 46/20 K/BB ratio in 60 innings for the Nationals, who signed him to a one-year, $1.35 million deal after Coffey was non-tendered last offseason. I wanted the Twins to sign him then and he'd make sense again now as a hard-throwing righty setup man.

Michael Wuertz: Wuertz was injured and ineffective this season, convincing the A's to decline their $3.25 million option on the 32-year-old right-hander. When healthy the Minnesota native was an extremely effective setup man from 2004-2010, throwing 381 innings with a 3.45 ERA and 9.7 strikeouts per nine frames. His velocity has declined recently, so anything more than a modest one-year deal would be too risky, but Wuertz's fastball-slider combo is worth a flier.

December 6, 2010

Picking through the non-tenders

Thursday's deadline came and went without the Twins non-tendering anyone, but a total of 52 arbitration-eligible players were non-tendered by other teams and that group hitting the open market provides a secondary class of free agents worth picking through. There are no stars to be had and for the most part all 52 players were cut loose for a reason, but with the Twins in search of bullpen help and perhaps a backup outfielder there are options worth considering.

Bobby Jenks: Cut loose by the White Sox because he would have been due for a raise on his $7.5 million salary, Jenks remains a very good reliever and pitched much better than his 4.44 ERA this year suggests. His average fastball still clocked in at 95 miles per hour, he racked up 61 strikeouts in 53 innings, and served up just three homers while inducing 58 percent ground balls. Jenks could end up being a tremendous bargain if his ERA and weight scare teams off.

D.J. Carrasco: Arizona had MLB's worst bullpen ERA by a full run and Carrasco was only due for a raise to around $1.5 million, so it's tough to explain why they cut him loose. Whatever the case, after spending 2006 and 2007 in the minors and transitioning to the bullpen full time he's had ERAs of 3.96, 3.76, and 3.68 with 157 strikeouts in 210 innings and a .255/.327/.356 opponents' line in the past three years. He'd be a nice low-cost replacement for Matt Guerrier.

Joel Peralta: After back-to-back rough years Peralta had to earn his way back to the majors with a dominant stint at Triple-A as a 34-year-old and then pitched brilliantly for the Nationals with a 2.02 ERA, .170 opponents' average, and 49-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 49 innings. That somehow got him non-tendered, but as a fly-ball pitcher with excellent control and a 4.22 career ERA he'd fit perfectly working the middle innings for the Twins.

Todd Coffey: Another right-handed middle-reliever candidate, Coffey was non-tendered by the Brewers despite a 3.52 ERA and 128-to-46 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 153 frames for Milwaukee. Coffey's slider is his best pitch, but his average fastball also clocks in at 94 miles per hour and he's induced 52 percent ground balls to go along with missing plenty of bats. Turning to the bad-control, good-stuff spectrum, Jose Veras and Manny Delcarmen could be decent fliers.

Hideki Okajima: After posting a 2.72 ERA in his first three seasons Okajima was relegated to mop-up duties following a terrible first half, angered the Boston media by avoiding interviews, and admitted to being homesick without anyone to talk to in the bullpen. All of which explains why he was non-tendered, but a rebound playing alongside Tsuyoshi Nishioka seems doable. He pitched well down the stretch and has always been more setup man than lefty specialist.

George Sherrill: With a 6.69 ERA this season Sherrill earned his non-tender from the Dodgers, but he was an All-Star in 2008, had a 1.70 ERA in 2009, and still looks plenty capable of being a good left-handed specialist in 2011. Right-handed batters crushed Sherrill this year, but he held lefties to .192/.286/.288. And that's actually worse than his ridiculously great career mark of .167/.235/.265 versus lefties.

Matt Diaz: Ron Gardenhire has unfortunately shown zero willingness to actually bench Jason Kubel versus lefties despite a miserable .236/.313/.352 career line against them, but if he did Diaz would be an ideal platoon partner. He's stretched thin when asked to play every day, but Diaz is a lifetime .335/.373/.533 hitter off lefties. With an overall career line of .301/.350/.456 he may be out of the Twins' price range for a part-time player, but he'd be very useful.

Scott Hairston: He doesn't destroy lefties quite as convincingly as Diaz, but Hairston hits them well enough (.278/.331/.498 despite calling MLB's most severe pitcher's ballpark home) to be a strong platoon partner for Kubel and also brings significantly more defensive versatility to the table than Diaz with extensive center field and second base experience along with nearly two thousand innings as a corner outfielder.

Lastings Milledge: Yet another nice fit as a possible platoon-mate for Kubel, although Milledge is different than Diaz or Hairston in that he's still just 25 years old. While coming up through the Mets' system he twice ranked among Baseball America's top dozen prospects, but Milledge has already been let go by three teams while hitting just .269/.328/.394 in 1,655 trips to the plate. Within that he's been solid off lefties and has a good glove when playing a corner spot.

Fred Lewis: As a left-handed hitter Lewis obviously wouldn't work at all as a platoon-mate for Kubel, but he'd have value if the Twins are looking for a more traditional fourth outfielder. He's hit .272/.348/.418 in 1,518 plate appearances, has 20-steal speed, and is solid defensively in the corners while having some experience in center field. Not exactly the ideal fit roster-wise, but useful enough that he'd be worth adding anyway if the price was right.

Tony Gwynn Jr.: Despite a Hall of Fame father with seven batting titles and 3,141 hits Gwynn Jr.'s bat is his weakness. He's hit just .244/.323/.314 in 1,054 plate appearances and at age 28 seems unlikely to develop further. He does have the plate discipline to avoid being a total non-factor offensively and Gwynn is an elite defensive outfielder with 30-steal speed. Batting left-handed (and Jason Repko's presence) keeps him from being a better fit for the Twins.