August 3, 2011

Twins Notes: Familiar names, logjams, ugly OBPs, and rotation issues

• It's always difficult to dig through all the rumors and speculation at the trade deadline to get a sense for what actually happened with deals that fell apart, but when it comes to the Twins' talks with the Nationals about Denard Span the various reports form something resembling a consensus. It sounds like the Twins were willing to build a deal for Span around Drew Storen, but the Nationals balked when asked to include infield prospect Stephen Lombardozzi as well.

There are other stray details that appeared in some reports but not others, such as the Twins' interest in outfielder Roger Bernadina or the Nationals trying to substitute Tyler Clippard for Storen as the reliever centerpiece, but ultimately the starting point of the talks was Storen for Span, with Lombardozzi's inclusion proving to be the hurdle that tripped everything up. And if that's true, it should be scary for Twins fans.

Trading a 27-year-old center fielder with good on-base skills, plus defense, and a team-friendly contract that runs through 2015 for a 70-inning reliever is a fundamental mistake in logic--not to mention player evaluation--that you'd think the Twins would've learned to avoid at all costs after last year's Wilson Ramos-for-Matt Capps swap with those same Nationals. Lombardozzi would've tipped the scales a bit back in the Twins' direction, but not that much.

His father, Steve Lombardozzi, played four years with the Twins, hitting .233/.307/.345 in 423 games from 1985-1988. Father and son are both second basemen and occasional shortstops with good strike-zone control, plus speed, and modest power. Stephen has advanced through the minors more quickly than Steve and his numbers project slightly better, but he didn't crack Baseball America's top 10 Nationals prospects and is no sure thing to become a solid regular.

Lombardozzi's performance in the minors is good but not great and built around a .300 batting average. That's obviously a positive thing, but he's managed just 16 homers in 417 games and averaged only 55 walks per 600 plate appearances, including just 28 free passes in 473 trips to the plate between Double-A and Triple-A this season. With minimal power and iffy patience it's tough to project a big impact in the majors from a .298/.370/.412 hitter in the minors.

Storen is a very good, young, and cheap reliever and Lombarozzi is a decent enough prospect who should settle in somewhere between nice utility man and mediocre starter. Together they have plenty of long-term value, but not enough to part with a good, young, and cheap center fielder with a .366 career on-base percentage. I'm relieved the Twins passed on the deal, but also worried the Nationals merely temporarily saved them from again overpaying for saves.

• I'm very curious to see how Ron Gardenhire handles the outfield logjam now that Span has returned from a two-month stint on the disabled list following his June 3 concussion. Last night against a right-handed pitcher Span started in center field and Ben Revere was on the bench, but presumably the Twins won't keep the 23-year-old Revere around in the big leagues unless he's starting at least somewhat regularly.

That could be accomplished pretty easily by platooning Revere and Delmon Young in left field, but Gardenhire has never seen the value of platooning and has yet to see the value of sitting Young versus right-handed pitching, against whom he's hit just .263/.298/.340 this year and .283/.315/.405 for his career. Either way, Span will provide some much-needed on-base skills atop the lineup after Revere got on base at a measly .301 clip in 52 leadoff starts.

Apparently the Twins wanted Span to see some action as a corner outfielder in Rochester, but he refused (or maybe declined, depending on your preferred wording choice). Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com reports that "Span didn't want to play in any games in left or right field during his rehab stint." Or as Gardenhire phrased it: "We talked before, about doing that in the minor leagues, but we didn't get that done. So he's in the big leagues, in center field."

I'm not yet convinced Revere in center field and Span in left field is better than Span in center field and Revere in left field anyway, but it's an interesting situation given how much criticism Joe Mauer took during his rehab assignment for insisting on playing catcher. Young has never played right field for the Twins despite a strong arm being his only asset defensively, so unless Gardenhire changes his mind on that issue we'll see Span or Revere in right field soon enough.

• So far this year 16 hitters have gotten at least 100 plate appearances for the Twins and 10 of them have an on-base percentage of .300 or lower (the AL average is .322):

                     PA      OBP
Danny Valencia      425     .289
Delmon Young        295     .295
Ben Revere          269     .300
Justin Morneau      231     .281
Luke Hughes         198     .296
Drew Butera         168     .210
Tsuyoshi Nishioka   171     .259
Matt Tolbert        159     .250
Trevor Plouffe      117     .291
Jason Repko         111     .287

No other team in Twins history had more than seven position players notch 100 or more plate appearances and a .300 or lower OBP. We're seeing some historic ineptitude when it comes to getting on base. As a whole the current team's .309 on-base percentage is the Twins' lowest since 1981 and their first sub-.320 mark since 1984.

• According to general manager Bill Smith the Twins finished runner-up in the winter bidding for Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, as the A's easily topped them $19 million to $7.7 million. Contentious negotiations followed and the two sides couldn't agree on a deal, so the A's were refunded and Iwakuma headed back to Japan. And now Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com reports that Iwakuma has hired a new agent with an eye toward coming to MLB in 2012.

Crasnick notes that because Iwakuma has now played 10 seasons in Japan he can become an outright free agent without the need for bidding, posting fees, or exclusive negotiating rights. He'll simply hit the open market in November alongside other free agent pitchers, which likely takes the Twins out of the running even if Tsuyoshi Nishioka's extreme struggles following a $15 million investment haven't already soured them on pursuing other Japanese players.

• Last spring I criticized the Twins for handing Nick Blackburn a four-year, $14 million deal, as they already had him under team control via arbitration and minuscule strikeout rates meant it would be hard to sustain his status as a mid-rotation starter. Sure enough, since the signing his 4.2 strikeouts per nine innings is MLB's lowest rate and Blackburn has a 5.00 ERA and .302 opponents' average in 291 innings. He's owed $4.75 million in 2012 and $5.5 million in 2013.

In his last seven starts Blackburn has given up 39 runs on 58 hits and 13 walks in 33 innings, allowing opponents to hit .387 with a .607 slugging percentage. Brian Duensing hasn't been nearly that awful, but his rough patch dates back much further. After last night's loss Duensing has a 5.14 ERA in 92 innings spread over 16 starts since May 1, allowing opponents to hit .290 and slug .458. And just a reminder: Kevin Slowey has a 4.42 career ERA as a starter.

• Capps has quietly strung together seven straight scoreless outings since being stripped of closer duties in mid-July, although recording just two strikeouts in 21 plate appearances during that stretch doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Overall this season Capps has struck out just 12.1 percent of the batters he's faced, compared to 19.3 percent last season and 18.7 percent for his career. He's also allowed more homers (eight) than walks (six). Brad Radke approves.

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August 1, 2011

Stranded at the intersection of buyer and seller, Twins stay put

In the end, it turns out the answer was "neither."

For weeks the big debate among fans, media members, and perhaps even the team itself has been whether the Twins would be buyers or sellers (or maybe a little bit of both) at the trade deadline. Yet as the Tigers, Indians, White Sox, and nearly every other team joined the trading frenzy that came to an end yesterday the Twins did nothing, hanging on to various impending free agents, choosing not to empty the doghouse, and failing to secure any stretch-run help.

And it wasn't for a lack of rumors, as the Twins were linked to all kinds of on-the-block players and said to be shopping plenty of their own despite no one being certain whether to consider them buyers or sellers. They were deep in talks with the Nationals over Denard Span, several teams scouted Kevin Slowey at Triple-A, contenders looking to add a bat came after Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Jim Thome, and the Twins had calls in on numerous relievers.

"We had a lot of activity, we had a lot of calls, we made progress on a number of possibilities, but we just couldn't get to the finish line," general manager Bill Smith explained to reporters shortly after the deadline came and went without a move. Smith made it clear that the Twins saw themselves as buyers looking for "more ammunition" and noted how disappointing it was to walk away empty-handed "because we had an awful lot of people do an awful lot of work."

Much of that work apparently involved negotiating with the Nationals over Span, with national reporters joining Minnesota and Washington sources to provide constant updates throughout the past week on a trade that would have brought the Twins significant bullpen help. Initially the Nationals were said to be offering a Tyler Clippard-led package until it became clear that the Twins' focus was on Drew Storen, with the two sides haggling over secondary pieces.

Not only did the reports about Span come out of nowhere and escalate quickly, the talks with the Nationals provided a glimpse into why the Twins ended up doing nothing at the deadline. They viewed themselves as buyers by virtue of contending in the incredibly weak AL Central, but a 50-56 record and six-game deficit made fully committing to that approach tough and they tried to do that buying without delving into the farm system.

Instead of following the typical buyer path of using their highest-ranked prospects to acquire an impact player for the major-league team the Twins offered up their 27-year-old leadoff man and center fielder. Instead of parting with mid-level prospects to bring in big-league depth the Twins tried turning a banished 27-year-old starting pitcher into veteran relief help. They tried to buy with some of the same assets they would have used to sell and instead did neither.

If the Twins were a typical 50-56 team they would have had no problem identifying themselves as sellers, likely cashing in some combination of Cuddyer, Kubel, Slowey, Thome, Joe Nathan, Matt Capps, and Delmon Young for future value. However, because the weak division meant 50-56 wasn't out of the race on July 31 selling those pieces became a much more difficult road to go down. They talked themselves out of being sellers, but not quite enough to be buyers.

It's hard to blame the Twins too much for not selling, because giving up on a season with two months remaining isn't easy when the team climbed out of a 17-37 hole and into respectability while turning a seemingly insurmountable 16.5-game deficit into a margin that inspires hope for a comeback. With that said, Smith and company are responsible for making the toughest of tough decisions and hope or not their postseason chances are as slim as the roster is flawed.

Losing to the A's after the deadline passed puts them at 50-57 and seven games back in the AL Central with just 54 games to play. Detroit has emerged as division favorites, second-place Cleveland leads the Twins by 4.5 games and made arguably the biggest deadline splash by parting with four prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez, and even third-place Chicago leads the Twins by three games. By comparison, the Twins are four games ahead of last-place Kansas City.

I'm willing to believe that the Twins' playoff odds should be higher than the two percent figure shown in most projections, but that still means bumping them up to just five percent or maybe eight percent if you're feeling wildly optimistic. Latching on to that hope is understandable, but they were smart not to deal Span for Storen or swing other big trades in an effort to maximize those modest odds and I'd have been awfully tempted to sell that small now for a bigger later.

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July 27, 2011

Twins Notes: Span, Mijares, Cuddyer, Nathan, Aguilera, and Gibson

Amanda Comak of the Washington Times writes that Denard Span "is high on the Nationals' list of targets" and Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the two sides "have talked." Whether that means the Twins actually engaged in negotiations is unclear, but the Nationals are looking for a long-term solution in center field and Rosenthal speculates that shortstop Ian Desmond and one of Washington's relievers could interest the Twins.

Rosenthal specifically mentions Tyler Clippard, who's been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball since moving to the bullpen full time in 2009, posting a 2.59 ERA and 251 strikeouts in 209 innings while holding opponents to a .184 batting average. However, he also says the Nationals are "reluctant" to trade the 26-year-old Clippard and "unwilling" to move 23-year-old closer Drew Storen, in which case the Twins shouldn't even be engaging in talks for Span.

As a 25-year-old shortstop Desmond fills a Twins need in theory, but aside from hitting .355 for two months at Triple-A in 2009 he simply hasn't been any good. Desmond hit .259/.326/.388 in 638 total games as a minor leaguer and has hit .254/.296/.377 in 269 games for the Nationals. He's also committed 54 errors with an Ultimate Zone Rating of -7.5 in 259 games at shortstop. Clippard is very intriguing, but Desmond as the centerpiece of a Span trade would be awful.

Of course, with Span still on the disabled list nearly two months after a concussion and taking back-to-back days off while rehabbing at Triple-A it's probably a moot point anyway.

• On a related note, can you imagine the look of pure joy on Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo's face when his phone rings and "Bill Smith" appears on the caller ID? Actually, after the Wilson Ramos-for-Matt Capps swap last year Rizzo is probably the one calling Smith.

According to ESPN.com's Buster Olney the Twins have "been looking to trade" Jose Mijares, so Monday's five-run appearance probably didn't do much for his value. Criticism of Mijares has never matched his 3.09 career ERA, but this year's performance clearly deserves to be ripped. He has a 5.47 ERA and 21 walks in 26 innings compared to 32 walks in 105 innings coming into the season. I can't imagine the Twins getting much for him, though, so I'd probably hold on.

• Local and national reporters continue to insist Michael Cuddyer won't be traded despite his being linked to just about every contending team looking for a right-handed hitter. There are also doubts about whether the Twins will look to sell anyone, although my guess is that Kevin Slowey will be moved whether they're in sell mode or buy mode going into Sunday's deadline and my hope is that they're shopping (in vain, perhaps) Capps and Delmon Young either way.

• No word yet on how many teams are interested in Cuddyer as a pitcher after Monday night's scoreless inning versus the Rangers, but he averaged 87.3 miles per hour with his fastball. By comparison, Carl Pavano has averaged 89.1 mph with his fastball this year. In addition to his mid-80s heat Cuddyer also threw an assortment of off-speed pitches, producing the following strike zone chart:

It wasn't pretty, but Cuddyer mopped up with a scoreless eighth inning after Nick Blackburn, Chuck James, Phil Dumatrait, Alex Burnett, and Mijares combined to allow 20 runs on 25 hits in the first seven frames. He's the first Twins position player to pitch since John Moses in 1990.

• Last night Joe Nathan tied Rick Aguilera for the Twins record with his 254th save and once again looked very good in the process, striking out two left-handed hitters to preserve a 9-8 win with a scoreless inning. Since coming off the disabled list in late June he's now thrown 12 innings with a 1.46 ERA and 10-to-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .159 batting average. And his overall ERA is finally under 5.00 for the first time since April 12.

• Prior to coming off the bench to deliver the game-winning double last night, Joe Mauer was 6-for-35 (.171) as a pinch-hitter in his career.

Kyle Gibson probably would've needed to dominate the International League for the Twins to have called him up already, but instead the 2009 first-round pick had a nice first two months at Triple-A and has struggled of late. Gibson was 0-4 with a 5.17 ERA in June and then took 17 days off before coughing up 13 runs in two July starts, including a career-high five walks last time out. And now Rochester will skip his next turn in the rotation because of elbow soreness.

Gibson's ugly win-loss record and mediocre ERA overstate how much he's struggled overall this season, as a 91-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 95 innings is plenty impressive and he's done a decent job keeping the ball in the ballpark. However, there's no getting around the fact that his recent performance and health are worrisome. Through the end of May he had a 3.60 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 55 innings, but in 40 innings since he has a 6.47 ERA and 32 strikeouts.

Between the Twins' rotation depth and tendency to move prospects along slowly thoughts of Gibson being in Minnesota by June were perhaps misguided to begin with, but expecting him to be knocking on the door to the majors by now was certainly reasonable. Instead he's taken a step backward and has looked a lot more like a future mid-rotation starter than the potential second-tier ace Twins fans were dreaming on following his strong pro debut.

Jim Callis of Baseball America reports that Twins signed Vanderbilt southpaw Corey Williams for $575,000, which is double the MLB-recommend "slot" bonus for a third-round pick. Always good to see the Twins spending in the draft and August 15 is the deadline to sign other picks.

Justin Morneau's lengthy list of health issues now includes migraine headaches, which could threaten his goal of returning from neck surgery in mid-August.

Tyler Mason of FOXSportsNorth.com did an enjoyable "where are they now?" piece on Marty Cordova, although he neglected to mention the former Rookie of the Year's frequent cameos in UFC president Dana White's travel videos.

• Last and least, just a reminder/plug: I'll obviously have analysis here of any moves the Twins make, but in the meantime you can read my thoughts on all the rumors and trades throughout baseball each day at Hardball Talk on NBCSports.com. It's good stuff, I promise.

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