June 9, 2011

Twitter Mailbag: Answers

Last week I asked for mailbag questions submitted via Twitter, so here are about 2,000 words worth of me answering 140-character queries ...

@mabreen: Can the Twins trust Bill Smith to get quality returns at the deadline?

That's definitely a big worry and probably an overlooked aspect of the looming sell-off. Can the general manager and front office whose poor trades have contributed to the team's decline be counted on to capably rebuild through trades? They've never been in clear-cut "seller" mode before, so it's tough to know until it happens, but the thought of the Twins making several big trades definitely makes me very nervous.

@natesleeter: What's the best trade Bill Smith has made?

In-season trades to get Carl Pavano, Jon Rauch, and Brian Fuentes for mid-level prospects were good moves and dealing Carlos Gomez for J.J. Hardy was a strong offseason move. It certainly hasn't been pretty overall, though.

@brandonwarne52: Bigger mistake, dealing J.J. Hardy for pennies or forgoing the Type A compensation for Carl Pavano?

In retrospect trading Hardy and re-signing Pavano for two years both look like mistakes, but at the time I hated the decision to get rid of Hardy and had no problem with the Pavano deal.

@every108minutes: What's the easiest way to explain WAR to my wife?

The simplest explanation is that it measures how many wins a player is worth compared to the caliber of players teams can easily acquire on waivers or as minor-league free agents. And if your wife's eyes don't gloss over as you say that her Wins Above Replacement Wife (WARF) is obviously off the charts.

@kinsky21: Kevin Slowey is almost certainly a goner, but who do you think is the second most likely player to be moved?

Delmon Young seems like the obvious answer, but that assumes he has some semblance of trade value remaining and I'm not so sure that's the case at this point.

@commnman: Time to just cut bait on Delmon Young?

I've never been a Young fan and tried to emphasize how overrated his performance was last season, but at this point between the lack of production offensively, embarrassing effort, and a projected 2012 salary of at least $6 million his value is marginal at best. Unfortunately the other 29 teams have likely figured that out too.

@auzzie_02: What moves would you make at the trade deadline?

I'd look to trade Young, plus Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, Kevin SloweyMatt Capps, Joe Nathan, and Pavano.

@djjlav: How's the diet coming along?

So far so good. I'm down about 70 pounds since March 7, although I was thrown for a loop the other day when I moved the scale a few inches and my weight went up nearly 10 pounds. So now I'm not sure what to believe and it's probably not a great long-term sign that my reaction to the scale issue was to immediately think, "Screw it, I should order pizza and chicken wings."

@bertrecords: Are the Twins' medical reports credible?

At this point I assume a player will need 2-3 weeks on the disabled list any time the Twins say someone is "day-to-day" with an injury and most longer timetables can safely be doubled. For example, Tsuyoshi Nishioka was initially given a 4-6 week timetable and the Twins noted that he was "ahead of schedule" a few weeks in ... and he's already been out for nine weeks. And obviously the entire Joe Mauer situation has been a mess.

@SkiUMahGopher: What's going to happen with the 40-man roster when Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka come off the 60-day disabled list?

In the past--and even early on this year--the Twins have made decisions based on the 40-man roster management, but now they have plenty of dead weight that could either be passed through waivers unclaimed or wouldn't hurt to lose anyway.

@kinsky21: Assuming Joe Mauer doesn't attend the game, who's the Twins' representative for the All-Star game?

Ron Coomer? I have enough issues with the way All-Stars are selected that I won't attempt to predict who'll actually get the nod, but through around one-third of the schedule Denard Span has clearly been the Twins' most valuable player and Kubel is really the only other guy playing at anything close to an All-Star level. And of course now Kubel is on the disabled list and Span is out of the lineup with a potentially serious issue.

@Capt_Yossarian: What's the best show on television right now?

Right now my DVR is set to record more than 30 shows, so it wouldn't seem right to name just one. For comedy I like Parks and Recreation, Community, Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Modern Family, The Office, and Childrens Hospital. For drama I like Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and Men of a Certain Age. And for non-fiction I like Chopped, Poker After Dark, and Top Chef. Watch all of those or just buy a DVR of The Wire.

@jgbaskin: Defense has been bad. Is it an aberration or are most Twins playing to their historical Ultimate Zone Ratings?

Defensive numbers through one-third of a season are barely worth looking at, but Span and Young have rated surprisingly well. However, the Twins have clearly gotten away from their focus on defense. Young, Kubel, and Cuddyer are a horrendous defensive trio in the outfield corners, the middle infield has been a mess no matter the combination, and Danny Valencia seems slightly off compared to last year. It's just not a good defensive team.

@RyanHyde10: Who are potential 2012 top prospects to watch for who the Twins would consider drafting?

It looks like there's no clear-cut Bryce Harper- or Stephen Strasburg-type No. 1 pick for 2012, although I'm assuming the Twins will turn things around enough to avoid finishing with MLB's worst record anyway. In terms of (very early) favorites, I asked ESPN draft expert Keith Law about that last month and he pointed to Stanford shortstop Kenny Diekroeger, Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero, and high school pitcher/outfielder Lance McCullers Jr.

@commnman: What does the 2012 outfield look like and is Denard Span, Ben Revere, and Joe Mauer out of the question?

There's no indication that the Twins or Mauer are ready for him to switch positions, but if that changes an outfield with Span flanked by Mauer and Ben Revere would be a very interesting possibility. Unlikely though, at least in 2012. I'm not entirely sold yet on Revere's bat because his offensive upside is so limited, but I'm hoping the Twins make him the primary left fielder in 2012. At worst pairing him with Span would dramatically improve the outfield defense.

@jessejames3ball: Can Ricky Rubio play catcher?

Let's see if he can play point guard first.

@kinsky21: Ben Revere made it to the majors in 2010. Will Aaron Hicks, drafted a year later, see the majors in 2011?

Revere made it to the majors last season, but not until mid-September and only because Ron Gardenhire requested speed off the bench. Getting his first extended taste of the majors this year is more likely what the Twins had in mind for Revere's timetable and following those footsteps would have Aaron Hicks debuting in 2012, which is possible. I'd be shocked to see him this season. Hicks has more tools to develop than Revere and is on a slower path.

@dan_rausch: With no good internal options, who should the Twins target for shortstop in 2012? A young plus defender for Matt Capps?

Hardy? Jason Bartlett? On a less snarky point, it's difficult to say without knowing who might be available for trade this winter, but as has been the case for most of the past decade the Twins would be well served to look outside the organization for a shortstop. Jed Lowrie of the Red Sox might make sense for both teams, but suffice it to say I don't think they could get him or any other "young plus defender" for Capps, or at least not one with much offensive upside.

@zzhang33: Is Philip Humber for real?

Depends on your definition of "for real." He certainly looks much better now than he ever did in the majors or minors for the Twins, but he's also been extremely fortunate with a .223 batting average on balls in play. He hasn't been nearly as good as the 2.87 ERA suggests, but even a 4.03 xFIP is a pretty amazing accomplishment for White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. Just remember, Garrett Jones looked good for a while after rightfully being dumped by the Twins.

@jessejames3ball: Is Phil Mackey really wearing pants?

I saw Patrick Reusse's co-host Friday night and (surprisingly? luckily? unfortunately?) he was wearing pants. No white belt though, which was the real shocker. On a related note, thanks to Lindsay Guentzel and the TwinsCentric guys for organizing the get-together downtown. We watched a Twins game and then I drank too much while more attractive people danced, lost a staring contest, wore nametags, and had to be driven home by Seth Stohs. Good times.

@bhenehan: Might be early for this, but is it the worst season-to-season collapse in Twins history?

Without question. In fact, it's one of the worst season-to-season collapses in baseball history, as the Twins are on pace to go from division winners at 94-68 last year to MLB's worst record at 61-101 this year. Tough to decline by a whole lot more than 33 games.

@PLUnderwood: At what point is Ron Gardenhire's job on the line?

I've been plenty critical of Ron Gardenhire over the years and didn't think he deserved the Manager of the Year award last year, but he didn't turn into a terrible manager overnight and you'd have to go pretty far down on the list of this season's problems before getting to his name. Ultimately it's tough to win with a roster full of Triple-A players.

@KirkMcKinley: Who would you place most of the blame on with the Twins?

First and foremost, with the incredible number of injuries there's a pretty strong chance they wouldn't have been able to contend regardless of their decision-making. With that said, you can point to the front office along with any of the top handful of highest-paid players. Plenty of blame to go around with offseason moves, roster construction, and player performance. As the late, great Mitch Hedberg would say, this mess has been all-encompassing.

@TwinkieTown: What kind of a timeline would you work on for the Twins' sell-off?

I'm sure they're still holding out some hope for a turnaround after winning six of the last seven games, but realistically they should be willing to make trades immediately if teams are showing strong interest. In some cases the trade deadline could provide leverage, but the flip side to that is also possible and impending free agents should have more value with 100 games left on their contracts than they will with 60 games to go.

@kwdrake: Who's the most depressing (not necessarily worst) Twin of all time?

In the decade-long history of AG.com no player has annoyed and frustrated me more than Luis Rivas, although that had as much to do with the widely held but misguided perception that he was a promising young player as it did his actual performance.

@jgleeman: Is Ben Revere related to Paul Revere?

First of all, that question comes from my cousin. Second, the two being related seems unlikely. And third, has anyone thought to ask Sarah Palin what she thinks about Ben Revere?

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota law firm Snyder Gislason Frasier LLC, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your legal needs.

May 31, 2011

Twins Notes: Nathan, James, Plouffe, Liriano, Swarzak, and Slama

Joe Nathan's comeback from Tommy John surgery went from bad to worse, as the Twins put him on the disabled list with more elbow pain. The good news is that an MRI exam revealed only inflammation. The bad news is that there's no return timetable and Nathan is "prepared" to be out as long as a month. Tommy John surgery recovery is often said to be 12 months, but as we've seen with Francisco Liriano and now Nathan unfortunately that often isn't the case.

Nathan gradually added velocity after arriving at spring training throwing in the mid-80s, but never approached his pre-surgery stuff and the missing miles per hour also came attached to far worse command. Along with his ERA rising from 2.10 in 2009 to 7.63 this season, Nathan's strikeouts are down 38 percent, his walks are up 50 percent, and his average fastball fell from 93.6 to 91.4 mph. He hasn't been as bad as the 7.63 ERA, but he hasn't been Joe Nathan.

• To replace Nathan in the bullpen the Twins called up Chuck James, for whom the bloggers I read and tweeters I follow have been pining. I'm far from convinced that James can make a big impact, but unlike Dusty Hughes or Phil Dumatrait or Eric Hacker there's at least a chance of James proving to be more than just the latest replacement-level bullpen stopgap. James, like Nathan, is an example of how long the road back from arm surgery can be.

Once upon a time James was a top prospect in the Braves' system, posting great numbers in the minors before debuting in September of 2005. He joined Atlanta's rotation the next season at age 24 and posted a 4.05 ERA with a 207-to-105 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 280 innings over two years before blowing out his shoulder. He missed most of 2008 and all of 2009 following rotator cuff and labrum surgery, returning as a Triple-A reliever for the Nationals last season.

He pitched well with a 2.32 ERA and 69/11 K/BB ratio in 66 innings, signed with the Twins this winter, and forced them to call him up by throwing 29 innings with a 1.57 ERA and 37/9 K/BB ratio out of Rochester's bullpen. James' raw stuff doesn't match those numbers, but even while succeeding as a mid-rotation starter in Atlanta his average fastball was just 88 mph and with 106 strikeouts in 95 innings since returning he's missed bats without overpowering hitters.

Sad as it may be, at this point the Twins' main goals should be to get healthy, play respectable baseball, make some smart trades, and sort out who can help them in 2012. Cycling through more guys like Hughes or Dumatrait accomplishes none of that, but James may still have some upside at age 29. Before surgery he was a young mid-rotation starter with a 4.00 ERA and in coming back he's been a very effective Double-A and Triple-A reliever with great K/BB ratios.

Trevor Plouffe got off to a fantastic start after being called up from Triple-A to replace Alexi Casilla at shortstop, but the flaws that made him just the 32nd-best Twins prospect heading into the season have since been exposed. Plouffe has 15-homer power and a very strong arm, but that's about it. Or as I wrote in ranking him No. 32 back in February: "A career as a utility man looks like his most realistic upside." Unfortunately the other options aren't any better.

• Liriano's no-hitter got everyone's hopes up and he's sprinkled in a couple of strong outings, but his overall struggles along with decreased velocity suggested something wasn't quite right physically and yesterday the Twins placed him on the DL with shoulder inflammation. For now the official word is that the Twins are hopeful he can return when eligible next week, but then again they initially hoped he'd miss just one start and avoid the DL in the first place.

Compared to last year Liriano's strikeouts are down 36 percent, his walks are up 107 percent, and he's missing 1.7 mph on his average fastball, which is how his ERA has gone from 3.62 to 5.73 and his xFIP has gone from 2.95 to 5.01. Even while posting an impressive-looking 2.52 ERA in four starts this month Liriano also had a sub par 16-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings, succeeding because of a ridiculously fortunate .154 batting average on balls in play.

Anthony Swarzak took a no-hitter into the eighth inning Saturday while starting in Liriano's place against the Angels, so naturally he'll stay in the rotation during the DL stint. However, much like Plouffe the longer Swarzak remains in a prominent role the more obvious his faults will become. He also started very strong as a rookie in 2009, tossing seven shutout innings in his debut and sporting a 3.90 ERA after five starts, only to finish with a 6.25 ERA in 59 innings.

And since then Swarzak has a 5.67 ERA and 94-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 144 innings at Triple-A, although he was pitching reasonably well prior to the latest call-up. Swarzak may do a nice job filling in for Liriano and may even prove to be a capable back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever, but don't let the great first impressions fool you into thinking he's more than a marginal prospect at age 25.

• To replace Liriano on the roster the Twins called up reliever Anthony Slama, who's similar to James this year in that his outstanding minor-league numbers have always screamed out for an extended opportunity. Slama has a 2.11 ERA and 369 strikeouts in 273 total innings in the minors, including a 2.73 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 105 innings at Triple-A, yet he's 27 years old and has just five appearances in the big leagues.

Slama isn't destined to become an elite reliever, but like James there's at least some reason to think he could be useful to the Twins this year and beyond. Obviously having the worst record in baseball at the end of May is a nightmare scenario for the Twins, but hopefully they can find small positives within the huge negative by giving legitimate opportunities to guys like Slama, who deserves 50 innings to sink or swim even if they've never trusted his minor-league stats.

Danny Valencia batting around .350 for much of his half-season debut last year had many people willing to dismiss his underwhelming minor-league numbers, but he's now played 136 games in the big leagues while hitting .280/.329/.412. He played 120 games at Triple-A and hit .289/.322/.421. Funny how that tends to work. Valencia's defense, however, has been much better than advertised and makes him a solid regular despite a mediocre bat.

• For a while the Twins kept saying Tsuyoshi Nishioka was ahead of schedule in his recovery from a fractured fibula, but he was initially given a 4-6 week timetable on April 7. Monday will be two months since the injury and Nishioka hasn't even started a minor-league rehab stint. When it comes to the Twins and injuries, there's no such thing as "ahead of schedule."

• Orioles manager Buck Showalter was full of praise for Wilson Ramos after an interleague series versus the Nationals, saying: "I love that Ramos kid. He's about as good a young player as I've seen this year. The kid they got from Minnesota. He's really impressive." Ramos has slumped recently, but the 23-year-old's .731 OPS still ranks 14th among the 32 catchers with at least 100 plate appearances and he's the youngest starting catcher in baseball.

• Old friend Brian Fuentes hasn't made many new friends in Oakland, although in fairness it sounds like he's not the first late-inning reliever to have a problem with manager Bob Geren's communication methods.

• Speaking of old friends in Oakland, the A's dealt former Twins minor leaguer Steven Tolleson to the Padres for a player to be named later. Tolleson was never a particularly good prospect, but he looked like a potentially useful role player and ranked 37th on my list last year only to be claimed off waivers by the A's literally the day the rankings were posted in January.

• Dusty Hughes has been a horrendous pickup, but at least Rob Delaney hasn't thrived for the Rays after being waived to make room for Hughes on the Twins' roster. Tampa Bay designated Delaney for assignment, meaning the Twins could potentially use their No. 1 waiver priority to claim him back. Don't count on it, though. He's still my second-favorite Rob Delaney.

Martire Garcia ranked 31st on my list of the Twins' top prospects after throwing 73 innings with a 3.31 ERA and 93-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio between rookie-ball and low Single-A as a 20-year-old. Sent back to Beloit to begin this season, Garcia posted a 5.57 ERA and 22/25 K/BB ratio in 21 innings ... and the Twins released him. Those are ugly numbers, for sure, but there must be a little more to the story too.

• As a team the Twins have an adjusted ERA+ of 84 through 52 games. Among all the pitchers in team history with at least 300 innings Pat Mahomes is the only one with a worse adjusted ERA+ at 81. In other words, after about one-third of the season the Twins have pitched like an entire staff full of Pat Mahomes. And their hitting has been even worse.

Jim Hoey has a 10.45 ERA in 10 innings. The last Twins pitcher with a higher ERA than Hoey in at least 10 innings was Mike Lincoln, who had a 10.89 ERA in 21 innings in 2000. He went on to post a 2.96 ERA in 113 innings for the Pirates in 2001 and 2002, so perhaps there's still some hope for Hoey yet.

• Last season the Twins allowed 67 runs in the eighth inning. This season they've allowed 51 runs in the eighth inning. And there are still 112 games to go.

May 11, 2011

Twins Notes: Hail Mary

Joe Mauer took batting practice prior to last night's game, but told reporters that there's still no timetable for his return despite "feeling a lot better." Here's more from Mauer on his status:

Today was kind of my first day getting on the field a little bit, moving around, and it was a good day. That [viral infection] really did push me back quite a bit. When it was all said and done, I lost around 15 pounds. I lost a lot of strength, so that probably pushed me back a week or a couple weeks.

I'm feeling a lot better now. I'm getting my strength back and my weight back, so hopefully I can get back on the field. You've got to get back into baseball shape. But yeah, I still got some work to do, and I wish I knew when I would be back, and I know everybody else wishes too, but you just got to keep going in the right direction.

Mauer and Twins trainer Rick McWane have both admitted that he wasn't physically ready for Opening Day due to offseason knee surgery, but unsuccessfully played anyway until shutting it down after nine games. In his absence Drew Butera, Steve Holm, and Rene Rivera have hit a combined .102 with zero homers and a .136 slugging percentage. For comparison, National League pitchers have hit .133 with a .167 slugging percentage this season.

• Last week I wrote about Carl Pavano's strikeout rate plummeting and then he whiffed zero of the 25 batters he faced Sunday against the Red Sox, marking his second straight start with zero strikeouts. Pavano now has just 17 strikeouts in 42 innings this season and a total of 29 strikeouts in his last 81 innings dating back to August of last year. Since the beginning of 2010 here's a list of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball among pitchers with at least 200 innings:

                    SO/9
NICK BLACKBURN      3.92
Mark Buehrle        4.23
Brad Bergesen       4.45
CARL PAVANO         4.59
Livan Hernandez     4.77

Having two-fifths of the rotation on the lowest strikeout rate list isn't a good thing, particularly with a poor defense trying to turn all those balls in play into outs behind them, and Pavano's inability to miss bats is very worrisome six weeks into a two-year, $16.5 million deal.

• Unfortunately throwing one of the least impressive no-hitters of all time didn't magically get Francisco Liriano back on track, as he allowed four runs before departing after three innings with the same illness that pushed the follow-up start back in the first place. Liriano now has a 7.07 ERA and more walks (27) than strikeouts (21) in 36 innings after posting a 3.62 ERA and 201-to-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 192 innings last year. What a mess. And then it hailed.

• Ranking dead last among AL teams in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homers, and walks is depressing enough, but Nick Nelson notes that the Twins have still managed to hit into the fourth-most double plays. Pretty hard to do with the fewest baserunners, but they've found a way. Overall they're on pace to score 505 runs after scoring 781 runs last season. Makes the removal of those trees in center field seem kind of silly, huh?

Jason Kubel deserves plenty of praise for continuing to thrive in the middle of an otherwise horrendous lineup. He hasn't driven in many runs because no one else can get on base, but Kubel is hitting .347/.400/.504 with three homers and 10 doubles in 34 games. Take out Kubel and the rest of the Twins' lineup has hit .216 with a .297 slugging percentage. Seriously.

Matt Tolbert has a .290 career on-base percentage, including .183 this year, yet yesterday was the 10th time in 34 games this season he's batted first or second in the Twins' lineup. And prior to Trevor Plouffe's hamstring injury Ron Gardenhire had him batting second despite a .306 career OBP in the minors. At this point I should be used to it, but Gardenhire ignoring OBP skills because he has it in his head that No. 2 hitters should be middle infielders is maddening.

Michael Cuddyer has hit just .267/.332/.406 in 189 games since the beginning of last year while earning around $12 million, yet when it comes to the local mainstream media you're far more likely to see him touted as team MVP than criticized for sub par production. Following the various Twins beat writers on Twitter provides an interesting glimpse into why Cuddyer rarely gets any heat from people who rely on him for quotes in an otherwise untalkative clubhouse.

For instance, here's a recent tweet from Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press:

Wanna know why the Twins kept Cuddyer? Because he's a leader. Because he stands up and faces the music when they're struggling. Sets an example.

And here's a similar tweet from John Shipley of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

How long can media go with just Cuddyer, Span, and the starting pitcher talking after games?

Personality and media friendliness definitely impact how a player's performance gets portrayed and with Cuddyer serving as everyone's go-to quote his on-field struggles tend to be ignored. I'm not necessarily blaming reporters for taking that approach, since it's somewhat natural and I'd surely be guilty of doing the same to some degree if put in that position, but it's one reason why being an outsider with no access can be a positive thing for objective analysis.

Delmon Young went 4-for-5 in an extended spring training game yesterday and is aiming to come off the disabled list Friday, which would mean missing 19 games with a strained oblique muscle. Obviously the lineup is desperate for some help, but hopefully Young is fully recovered because oblique strains tend to linger. My guess is that Rene Tosoni heads back to Triple-A to make room for Young, if only because Ben Revere can back up Denard Span in center field.

• Much has been made about the Twins' franchise-record $113 million payroll, which only adds to the frustration with their early struggles, but Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star Tribune points out that they've basically gotten zero positive value from their five highest-paid players earning a total of $67 million in Mauer ($23 million), Justin Morneau ($15 million), Joe Nathan ($11.25 million), Cuddyer ($10.5 million), and Pavano ($8 million).

• Third base coaches from successful teams are frequently linked to managerial openings each offseason, yet Scott Ullger was rarely even mentioned as a candidate during his mistake-filled five seasons as the Twins' third base coach. Ullger was moved (or perhaps demoted) to bench coach this season and now Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune names him as a potential Ozzie Guillen replacement if the White Sox continue to struggle, writing:

Few potential candidates are more intriguing than Scott Ullger, who has been on the Twins' coaching staff since 1998 and is currently Ron Gardenhire's top lieutenant. Would the Twins let Ullger talk to the White Sox? Would Ullger want to?

Yes, please. Talk about killing two birds with one stone.

• Every time Jose Mijares allows a hit, let alone a run, my Twitter feed fills with people calling him names and acting as if he's the worst pitcher in Twins history, so just a reminder: Mijares has a 2.56 career ERA and .225 opponents' batting average. I realize fat people make for easy targets, literally and figuratively, but being overweight doesn't preclude someone from being good at their job.

Matt Capps didn't pitch in Monday night's extra-inning loss because there was never a "save situation." Last night he closed out a 10-2 loss. Modern closer usage is hilarious sometimes.

Conor Glassey of Baseball America broke down the picks for next month's draft and the Twins have seven of the first 200 selections, including their own first rounder at No. 30 and a pair of compensatory picks at No. 50 and No. 55 for losing Type B free agents Orlando Hudson and Jesse Crain. They forfeited as many as four more compensatory picks for Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch by not offering them arbitration.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka fracturing his fibula when Nick Swisher slid hard into second base raised questions about whether he was fully prepared for American baserunners aggressively trying to break up double plays after not having to account for that threat in Japan. As part of his ongoing rehab Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Nishioka may start working on double-play technique with former second baseman Paul Molitor in Fort Myers.

J.J. Hardy returned from the disabled list last night and homered for the Orioles.

• All the Twins' injuries and subsequent call-ups from Triple-A have left Rochester with a very thin roster, so they signed 27-year-old Aaron Bates to a minor-league contract. Bates was the Red Sox's third-round pick in 2006 and briefly made it to the big leagues in 2009, but as a first baseman with a .230/.318/.344 line in 198 games at Triple-A he's little more than roster filler. Bates is, however, engaged to Lacey Wilson, the reigning Miss Massachusetts.

• They also signed Deinys Suarez, a 27-year-old right-hander who defected from Cuba along with Yuniesky Maya in 2009. Maya and Suarez both threw in front of scouts in the Dominican Republic after defecting, but Maya got a $7.4 million deal from the Nationals and Suarez had to settle for a minor-league deal from the Twins two years later despite solid numbers in Cuba.

• Pitching prospect David Bromberg underwent surgery to fix a broken forearm that involved inserting five screws to stabilize the injury suffered from a line drive. Bromberg ranked 13th on my list of Twins prospects coming into the year and prior to the injury he had a 3.63 ERA and 11-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 innings at Double-A.

• Sad news about Paul Bargas, the 21-year-old reliever acquired from the Rockies this winter for Jose Morales. He was sent home from spring training with what was called a neurological condition and LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Bargas has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

May 9, 2011

Promotions, demotions, and disabled list stints

Catching up on the Twins' recent roster moves ...

Alexi Casilla's ill-conceived reign as the Twins' starting shortstop lasted all of a month, as he played his way out of the job by hitting just .190/.257/.286 with predictably spotty defense at a position where he lacked both the skills and experience to succeed. Trevor Plouffe has now taken over at shortstop, earning a call-up by shaking off a dreadful spring training to start well at Triple-A. That leaves Casilla as the primary second baseman, with Ron Gardenhire saying:

I talked with Alexi about it. I asked him about second base and he said it's easier. We'll see if it's easier. I know he's always more comfortable over there too. I think he's trying to do a whole heck of a lot. At second base maybe he'll be able to relax a little bit more and not rush things.

Casilla needing to relax and get comfortable has been repeated like a manta since his debut in 2006, along with talk of supposed upside. At this point, however, it might be time to conclude that Casilla just isn't very good. He'll be 27 years old in July and has 1,200 plate appearances in the majors, so Casilla is neither young nor inexperienced. Defensively he's overmatched at shortstop and merely decent at second base, and he's a career .244/.301/.321 hitter.

Even his best raw tools more often than not go to waste. Casilla has a strong arm, but the big windup and shaky accuracy mean he can't be counted on to make routine plays. He has great speed and is a remarkably efficient base-stealer, yet has a grand total of just 37 steals in 338 games. Casilla is out of minor-league options and can't be sent to Triple-A without first passing through waivers, but the risk of losing him should no longer be part of the decision-making.

• There's no immediate reason to cut bait on Casilla, but if Plouffe is performing well enough to keep a starting job by the time Tsuyoshi Nishioka is ready to return from his fractured fibula in a couple weeks keeping Casilla around would likely mean demoting Matt Tolbert to Triple-A or reducing the pitching staff from 12 to 11. It's difficult to imagine Ron Gardenhire being in favor of either option, so Casilla may truly be playing for his Twins future right now.

Of course, Plouffe having a strong grip on the job in 2-3 weeks is hardly assured. According to Gardenhire the coaching staff at Rochester praised Plouffe's defense and he hit .282/.344/.590 in 21 games there, but that brings his career mark at Triple-A up to just .255/.306/.430 in 307 games and his shortstop defense received mixed reviews long before the error-filled showing this spring. He ranked 32nd on my list of the Twins' top prospects coming into the season.

Plouffe's flaws may be different and less familiar than Casilla's flaws, but aren't necessarily any less abundant and a 25-year-old with a non-elite glove and .306 on-base percentage in 1,300 plate appearances at Triple-A isn't significantly more likely to impress as an everyday shortstop than Casilla or Tolbert. Plouffe is worth a look at shortstop and so is Nishioka once he returns, but this may not be a problem that can be solved by shuffling a deck full of the same cards.

• On the other hand, injuries to Delmon Young and Jim Thome forced the Twins to call up Ben Revere and Rene Tosoni, both of whom project as more likely long-term starters than Plouffe. Tosoni got the nod with Young out by virtue of his better start at Triple-A, but then Revere was called up anyway once Thome and Jason Repko went on the shelf last week and now they're splitting time in left field despite the two left-handed hitters not forming a natural platoon.

Thome, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer are impending free agents, so it's possible Revere and Tosoni will be two-thirds of the starting outfield next season along with Denard Span. For now they're just keeping the roster spots warm with Young seemingly close to returning and both Thome and Repko also due back before the end of the month. Revere seems more likely to stick once Young returns because he fills Repko's role as the backup center fielder.

• When the Twins claimed Dusty Hughes off waivers from the Royals in January they talked up his nice-looking ERA and the fact that left-handed hitters like Mauer and Span raved about his stuff after facing him. Ignored in all that were mediocre secondary numbers last season and an underwhelming track record in the minors, and sure enough Hughes was demoted to Triple-A after posting a 10.13 ERA in 12 appearances while opponents batted .356/.434/.622 off him.

Meanwhile, the player dropped from the 40-man roster to make room for Hughes three months ago, Rob Delaney, was called up by the Rays yesterday after posting a 1.50 ERA and 19-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 innings at Triple-A. Delaney won't necessarily stick in Tampa Bay and Hughes might thrive if given another shot in Minnesota, but so far the reliever swap based on ERA and hitter reviews rather than secondary stats and track records looks like a mistake.

• Last month when Joe Mauer was placed on the disabled list the Twins called up Steve Holm from Triple-A to serve as Drew Butera's backup and Gardenhire said things like "he can swing it" and "we liked him in spring training." Holm's track record said otherwise, as the 31-year-old career minor leaguer had hit just .250/.334/.379 at Triple-A. Holm predictably struggled, going 2-for-17 at the plate and 0-for-5 throwing out runners before being demoted back to Triple-A.

Holm is the definition of a replacement-level catcher, so there's no reason to fault the Twins for dropping him, but the process by which he so quickly fell out of favor is curious given that the Rochester call-up taking his job, Rene Rivera, is every bit as much a replacement-level catcher with a decade in the minors and an even less impressive track record. Why make that switch just weeks after calling up Holm over Rivera in the first place? Here's what Gardenhire said:

Just trying to mix it up. Don't want to sit here and get complacent. I hope these guys understand we're not afraid to move people around. It's just a change. Holm hadn't been swinging great. They told me Rivera was hitting balls right on the button. Terry Ryan had been watching him the last few days. He can run into a ball, and we need somebody who can run into the ball.

Presumably the Twins scouted both players before signing them as free agents this winter and then formed further opinions about them during spring training. Last month that meant calling up Holm over Rivera, yet three weeks and just 18 plate appearances later they reversed that decision because Holm "hadn't been swinging great" and Gardenhire got a report that Rivera "was hitting balls right on the button." Sounds a lot like his quotes about Holm last month.

Terry Ryan must have watched Rivera on a rare good day, because he hit just .200/.250/.333 at Rochester before the call-up. Beyond that, the notion that Rivera "can run into a ball and we need somebody who can run into the ball" is being awfully kind to a career .245 hitter with a .405 slugging percentage in parts of seven years at Triple-A. Decisions don't get less important than "Holm or Rivera?" but the decision-making process in this case fascinates me.

• As if that wasn't already too much talk about replacement-level backup catchers ... When the Holm-for-Rivera swap was announced quite a few people e-mailed and tweeted me wondering why 2007 eighth-round pick Danny Lehmann didn't get the nod instead. My assumption is that those people looked at his .325 batting average in a dozen games this season rather than his ugly .239/.318/.312 career line in five seasons. Lehmann is homegrown, but that's about it.

Francisco Liriano's no-hitter obviously quieted Gardenhire's talk of Kevin Slowey coming off the disabled list to replace him in the rotation, so instead Slowey rejoined the bullpen with a start-length relief outing after Saturday's rain delay. Slowey began the season in a secondary setup role, but with the bullpen hierarchy changing dramatically in the month he missed it'll be interesting to see if he reclaims the high-leverage role that he's capable of thriving in.

May 2, 2011

Rotation tops, infield middles, and standings bottoms

Kevin Slowey is scheduled to make what could be his final minor-league rehab outing tonight at high Single-A, as the Twins are apparently stretching him out to possibly replace Francisco Liriano in the rotation. Ron Gardenhire hinted during a radio interview Friday afternoon that Liriano might only get one more start to save his rotation spot, but then backed off that stance somewhat while still making it clear that the Twins are seriously considering a change.

No one has praised Liriano's performance last year more than me, but instead of repeating his great secondary numbers with some better luck to take the big step forward into clear-cut ace territory he's taken several huge steps backward. He hasn't been as terrible as the 9.13 ERA suggests, but Liriano has been legitimately awful and compared to last year his strikeouts are down 38 percent, his walks are up 115 percent, and his fastball is missing two miles per hour.

Whether you thought Liriano's performance last year was ace-caliber because of his secondary numbers or merely very good because of his 14 wins and 3.62 ERA, it should be pretty obvious that the pitcher we saw in 2010 isn't the same pitcher we've seen through five starts in 2011. Not only do the Twins look smart for balking at a long-term contract extension for Liriano this offseason, he's been so bad and so different that his health is now a major question mark.

I long for those annoying-at-the-time arguments about whether the Twins' ace was Liriano or Carl Pavano. Liriano's issues are more extreme and have gotten more attention, but Pavano has been plenty terrible himself with a 5.84 ERA through six starts. More worrisome than the bloated ERA is that his strikeout rate continues to plummet, dropping from 7.2 per nine innings in 2009 after the Twins acquired him at midseason to 4.8 last year and now 4.1 this season.

For some context, Nick Blackburn's career rate of 4.3 strikeouts per nine innings is dead last among all active MLB pitchers with 500 innings. Pavano, like Blackburn, doesn't induce enough ground balls to thrive with that few missed bats, particularly with a shoddy defense behind them. As a pitching staff the Twins have managed just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is dead last in MLB. Lots of contact plus sub par defense equals runs in bunches.

Pavano lost to the Royals yesterday, but at least he defeated a trash can in the dugout:

In addition to possibly dumping Liriano from the rotation the Twins also appear to be running out of patience with Alexi Casilla. I never understood why they showed so much faith in him to begin with, basically handing Casilla a starting job in December despite the fact that he was a career .249/.306/.327 hitter with little major-league experience at shortstop and a mediocre defensive track record at second base.

He's struggled even more than usual offensively, batting .190/.257/.286 in 24 games, and his defense has been predictably sloppy and erratic at a position where he started a grand total of 24 times prior to this season. Casilla is overmatched as an everyday player on both sides of the ball, but that should have been pretty clear long before now and unfortunately the options to replace him are lacking because the Twins put so many eggs in his basket all offseason.

Trevor Plouffe is the most obvious in-house replacement and off to a good start at Rochester, but he's also a 25-year-old career .254/.305/.427 hitter in 1,300 plate appearances at Triple-A who draws mixed reviews defensively at shortstop. Plouffe will bring more power to the table than Casilla and probably be somewhat less mistake-prone, but he's a mediocre prospect and hardly a strong everyday shortstop option. They don't have one of those anywhere, sadly.

Gardenhire indicated that Tsuyoshi Nishioka could be an option at shortstop once he returns from a fractured fibula, but that's still several weeks away and he looked very shaky at second base before the injury. Nishioka has plenty of experience at shortstop in Japan, winning a Gold Glove there last year, but he also won a Gold Glove at second base and the combination of iffy arm strength and a stated preference for second base is why he ceded shortstop to Casilla.

Brendan Harris lacked shortstop range, but Gardenhire used him there because he felt Harris struggled turning double plays as a second baseman. Similar logic might apply to Nishioka, but it's unclear if his double play issues are position-based or a function of runners in Japan rarely using hard slides. Beyond that, moving Nishioka to shortstop and starting Michael Cuddyer or Luke Hughes at second base is just a different version of flawed rather than a defensive fix.

This is my 10th year blogging about the Twins and they've essentially had middle infield issues that entire time, which is remarkable for an organization that emphasizes speed, defense, and athleticism so consistently and has a former middle infielder as manager. Here's a list of all the middle infielders to play at least 100 games for the Twins since Gardenhire replaced Tom Kelly as manager in 2002 (which is also the year I started blogging) and their adjusted OPS+ totals:

                     G     OPS+
J.J. Hardy         101      94
Orlando Hudson     126      94
Luis Castillo      227      92
Jason Bartlett     321      88
Luis Rivas         396      80
Brendan Harris     296      79
Cristian Guzman    436      78
Nick Punto         747      74
Luis Rodriguez     206      73
Matt Tolbert       180      70
Denny Hocking      185      70
Alexi Casilla      334      68
Juan Castro        147      64

On the OPS+ scale 100 represents an average MLB hitter, which tells you how ugly the Twins' middle infield has been for the past decade. That list also shows why guys like me wanted J.J. Hardy retained despite his injuries and felt Jason Bartlett never got a fair shake. Casilla ranks second-to-last on the list above only Juan Castro, who played over Bartlett for much of 2005 and 2006. And sadly the farm system is still devoid of any standout middle infield prospects.

There are no shortage of problems with the Twins, but the top of the rotation and the middle of the infield are perhaps the biggest. Being swept by the Royals for the first time since 1998 leaves the Twins with MLB's worst record at 9-18, which is a 54-108 pace with one-sixth of the schedule completed and puts them 10 games behind the first-place Indians. Here's how that stacks up to their record at the same point in nine previous seasons under Gardenhire:

YEAR     W     L     GB
2010    18     9    ---
2009    13    14    3.0
2008    13    14    1.0
2007    15    12    2.5
2006    11    16    8.0
2005    16    11    4.5
2004    16    11    1.0
2003    13    14    5.0
2002    16    11    0.5

Remarkably, last season was the first time under Gardenhire they led the AL Central after 27 games, although they were within one game of first place three other times and within three games in six of the nine years. Their current 9-18 record is two games worse than they've ever been after 27 games under Gardenhire, with 2006 being the closest comparison. That year the Twins were 11-16 and eight games back after 27 games ... and went on to win the division.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »