July 30, 2012

Twins trade Liriano to White Sox for Escobar and Hernandez

Saturday night, with about 65 hours to go until the trade deadline, the Twins pulled the trigger on an increasingly inevitable Francisco Liriano deal by sending him to the White Sox for left-hander Pedro Hernandez and infielder Eduardo Escobar. Both players have spent time in the majors for the White Sox this year and figure to be September call-ups if the Twins don't promote them before then, but unfortunately neither player is considered much of a prospect.

Escobar draws strong reviews for his defense at shortstop and also has experience at second base, but he's never hit at any level and has spent most of this season glued to the White Sox's bench while going 16-for-82 (.195) with 22 strikeouts. Chicago letting him collect dust as a big-league utility man at age 23 doesn't make much sense, but it does suggest they weren't particularly concerned about his development and perhaps viewed him as a marginal player.

And rightfully so, as Escobar hit .266/.303/.354 with four homers and a 104-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 137 games at Triple-A last season and is a career .270/.315/.351 hitter in the minors. He's still young enough to improve at the plate and if Escobar's defensive reputation is accurate he won't have to hit much to be valuable, but so far the switch-hitter has shown almost zero power along with terrible plate discipline and no ability to control the strike zone.

Hernandez was traded from the Padres to the White Sox as the lesser half of a two-prospect haul for outfielder Carlos Quentin on December 31. He debuted for the White Sox two weeks ago and got knocked around by the Red Sox, allowing three homers and eight runs in four innings before an immediate trip back to the minors. Based on both his track record and raw stuff Hernandez is a typical Twins pitcher with modest velocity, good control, and few whiffs.

His fastball tops out in the low-90s along with a slider and changeup, he's induced more fly balls than ground balls, and in 145 innings between Double-A and Triple-A he's allowed more than a hit per inning while averaging 6.5 strikeouts and 2.3 walks per nine frames. Those numbers combined with fly-ball tendencies and underwhelming velocity make it tough to project the 23-year-old lefty as more than a back-of-the-rotation starter or long reliever.

Terry Ryan revealed after the trade that the Twins and Liriano never talked long-term deal, which isn't surprising from either side's point of view. Liriano is two months from being able to hit the open market and take bids from all 30 teams, so unless the Twins blew him away with a huge offer it made little financial sense to pass up free agency. And after living with his ups and downs for seven years the Twins can't be blamed for avoiding a long-term commitment.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement making a "qualifying offer" to Liriano was also an option and would have led to either re-signing him to a one-year deal for around $12 million or receiving draft pick compensation when he signed elsewhere. I'd have preferred a draft pick to what they ended up getting and keeping him for 2013 without the long-term commitment wouldn't have been such a bad thing either, but clearly the Twins felt otherwise.

Getting a pair of C-level prospects is certainly preferable to letting Liriano walk for nothing, but I'm just having a difficult time believing that's the best the Twins could have done. To believe that you'd have to assume the numerous local and national reports about no fewer than a half-dozen teams being interested in Liriano were mostly false or at least that the half-dozen interested teams were only willing to offer the Twins marginal prospects in return.

Maybe that's true. After all, trading Liriano to a division rival--the Twins and White Sox last made a deal in 1986--suggests Ryan felt it was definitely the best offer and for as well as he's pitched since rejoining the rotation in May he's still a two-month rental with an inconsistent track record who turned in a clunker in front of a collection of scouts last time out. Of course, plenty of other two-month rentals are being traded for vastly superior prospects this month.

My expectations for a Liriano trade were never particularly high, or so I thought. I certainly did not expect the Twins to land anything close to an elite prospect and thought even a prospect in the B-plus range was probably wishful thinking, but to wind up with two likely role players who didn't crack the top 10 in arguably MLB's worst farm system is disappointing. If this is truly the best the Twins could do a lot of people wasted a lot of energy reporting and speculating.

Nine years ago in one of the best trades in team history the Twins acquired Liriano from the Giants along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski. At the time Liriano was 19 and universally viewed as a high-upside arm, but coming off an injury wrecked Single-A season he rated behind Bonser in most prospect rankings. Bonser ultimately proved to be a bust, but Nathan developed into an elite reliever and Liriano ... well, that's a bit more complicated.

Following the trade Liriano was healthy and dominant in the minors, establishing himself as one of baseball's top 10 prospects. As a rookie in 2006 he worked out of the Twins' bullpen for six weeks and then joined the rotation in mid-May, doing the impossible by upstaging Johan Santana with an 11-2 record, 1.95 ERA, .162 opponents' batting average, and 105-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings spread over his first 14 starts.

He had a mid-90s fastball and a devastatingly unhittable slider that racked up a combination of strikeouts and ground balls rarely seen. He was simply as good as a pitcher can possibly be. And then he got hurt. After an unsuccessful comeback attempt Tommy John surgery followed, knocking Liriano out for all of 2007 and leaving him at Triple-A to begin 2008. He returned to the Twins in mid-2008 as a much lesser but still effective version, but then struggled in 2009.

Liriano seemingly put it all back together in 2010, posting a 3.62 ERA and 201 strikeouts in 192 innings to show that he was still very capable of dominating despite missing a few miles per hour off his pre-surgery stuff. And then he unraveled last season, throwing away all the progress he'd made, and began this year with a 9.45 ERA in six starts before the Twins demoted him to the bullpen in May.

Three weeks and a handful of unspectacular relief outings later Liriano rejoined the rotation and put together an 11-start stretch in which he posted a 3.68 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings. His raw stuff was still closer to the excellent, post-surgery 2010 version than the otherworldly, pre-surgery 2006 version, but Liriano's strikeout rate and swing-and-miss totals were as dominant as ever.

He picked a bad time for his one clunker during that 11-start span, failing to make it out of the third inning while allowing seven runs in Chicago last Monday night, although doing that damage against Liriano didn't stop the White Sox from trading for him. Coming into the game Liriano had gone at least five innings in every start since April 27, but he allowed three homers in 2.2 innings after allowing a total of three homers in his previous 71 innings.

It's unlikely that one ugly start significantly altered Liriano's trade value and by trading him for a pair of middling prospects just 12 hours before his final scheduled pre-deadline start the Twins certainly showed that they didn't think one impressive outing would give him a big last-minute boost. So now in an odd twist of fate (or at least scheduling) Liriano's next start will come Tuesday at Target Field, against the Twins. And his new batterymate? A.J. Pierzynski.

Liriano's time in Minnesota was both amazing and maddening, but it's hard not to think back to that unhittable rookie and dream about what could have been if only his elbow had held up under the pressure of a high-stress delivery and overpowering raw stuff. He left his mid-90s fastball on the operating table and never learned to consistently throw strikes with lesser velocity, which is how limitless potential turns into a 4.33 ERA and two marginal prospects.


For a whole lot more about the Liriano trade and the Twins' other potential deadline deals, listen to this week's episode of Gleeman and The Geek:

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March 26, 2012

Twins Notes: Outfield realignments, Rule 5 returns, and drugs of abuse

• In signing Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract in mid-December the Twins indicated that he'd be their everyday right fielder despite playing just 264 career innings there compared to 5,524 innings in left field. Getting a first-hand look at Willingham and the various other outfield options in camp apparently changed those plans, as Ron Gardenhire announced yesterday that Willingham will be the starting left fielder.

Gardenhire also made official what was expected by naming Denard Span the starting center fielder, which leaves right field for ... well, everyone. Depending on how often and at which positions Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are in the lineup right field could potentially be manned by Ben Revere, Trevor Plouffe, Chris Parmelee, or Ryan Doumit, none of whom have ever played the position on more than a semi-regular basis in the majors or minors.

For years the Twins stressed how valuable Michael Cuddyer's arm was in right field, so their willingness to use Revere there when he might have the majors' worst arm and his range is of better use in the more spacious left field is surprising to say the least. If nothing else it signals that Revere is headed for a part-time role, which along with Gardenhire's stubbornness could lead to his biggest strength being diminished and his biggest weakness being magnified.

If the manager were more willing to make daily shifts he could platoon Revere and Plouffe by using Revere in left field with Willingham in right field against right-handed pitching and Plouffe in right field with Willingham in left field against left-handed pitching. That's something plenty of managers do regularly, but it's something Gardenhire has always avoided with occasionally laughable results. Runners going first-to-third at will with Revere in right field would fit that bill.

Whatever the case, based on Terry Ryan's offseason comments and Gardenhire's outfield announcement yesterday it seems clear that the Twins are less sold on Revere than commonly believed. They're certainly right to be skeptical, as I've been making that case since Revere was in the low minors, but the less he plays the less chance their defense has of being above average and I'm similarly skeptical about Parmelee being ready to thrive offensively.

Terry Doyle seemed like an odd choice for the Twins with the No. 2 pick in the Rule 5 draft. Despite being 26 years old he had just 15 starts above Single-A, including zero at Triple-A, and nothing about his raw stuff or track record suggested more than back-of-the-rotation starter potential. At no point has the Rule 5 draft been a sure-fire way to add useful big leaguers, but when picking so high it seemingly made sense to at least target someone with more upside.

In explaining their reasoning for the pick the Twins talked about how impressed they were by Doyle's performance in the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a 1.98 ERA. However, that consisted of just eight starts and was fueled by an incredibly low batting average on balls in play that screamed fluke. My assumption was that they wouldn't have chosen Doyle if they weren't at least convinced he could stick in the majors as a mop-up man, but apparently not.

Doyle coughed up 10 runs in 5.1 innings this spring and the Twins didn't even keep him around until the end of camp, sending him back to the White Sox. Ultimately it's not a huge deal, as they're out $25,000 and the opportunity to add a higher-upside arm, but it's discouraging for a supposedly scouting-heavy team to take someone atop the Rule 5 draft while citing his fluky, small sample size performance in the AFL as a big factor and then cut him five innings later.

Aaron Thompson, a 25-year-old left-hander the Twins signed to a minor-league contract in December, has been suspended 50 games after violating MLB's drug policy for a "drug of abuse." His track record in the minors is mediocre at best, but Thompson is a former first-round pick and apparently the Twins will keep him in the organization despite the suspension. Once activated he'll likely be a fifth starter or long reliever at Triple-A.

• I'll have a lot more on this subject once my annual series ranking the Twins' top 40 prospects concludes later this week, but Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus recently released their annual organizational talent rankings and the Twins placed 20th and 22nd.

• On a related note, Baseball America crunched the numbers to find that the Twins ranked 15th in international spending last season after ranking 12th in 2010. Miguel Sano alone got a record $3.15 million signing bonus from the Twins in 2009, but in the two years since then they've spent a total of $4.85 million internationally.

• This offseason the Twins sliced $15 million from their payroll, but according to Forbes magazine in 2011 they had baseball's 13th-highest revenue at $213 million and an operating income of $16.6 million, causing the franchise's value to rise four percent to $510 million.

Nick Punto is getting the same treatment from the media in Boston that he got from the media in Minnesota. For instance:

In a game where talent can be measured by precise statistical metrics, Punto is a player whose value is harder to calculate but can’t be denied.

Punto played for $750,000 last year and will make $1.5 million both this season and next season, so teams seem to be in agreement that his value is fairly limited. Then again, I've not experienced his charm in person.

Seth Stohs of Twins Daily reports that the Twins released six minor leaguers: Michael Tarsi, Dan Osterbrock, Kane Holbrooks, Blayne Weller, Matt Schuld, and Derek Christensen. Osterbrock, Tarsi, and Holbrooks each cracked my annual top-40 prospects list at one point, but none were ever considered more than marginal prospects. Christensen was a 2010 draft pick and dominated the low minors, so cutting the 22-year-old right-hander loose seems odd.

• In late 2010 the Twins acquired reliever Brian Fuentes from the Angels for Loek Van Mil, a marginal pitching prospect whose claim to fame was being baseball's tallest player at 7-foot-1. He spent last year at Double-A, throwing 66 innings with a 2.04 ERA and 46-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but the righty from the Netherlands failed to make the Angels this spring and manager Mike Scioscia explained that "he's certainly searching for an out pitch" at age 27.

• Last season the local mainstream media often mocked Kevin Slowey for his intelligence, using it as a way to portray him in a negative light, but a fresh start in Cleveland means the narrative has changed. Jordan Bastian, who covers the Indians for MLB.com, wrote last week:

Always nice as a writer when you find ballplayers who are avid readers on the side ... two in Cleveland's clubhouse include Lonnie Chisenhall and Kevin Slowey.

Funny how that works.

• Last and least, with Opening Day right around the corner I'm restarting the AG.com "sponsor of the week" program. For details about advertising and to reserve your week, click here.

September 6, 2011

Twins Notes: Two games, one run, no wins, and last place

• It might have been the low point of the Twins' season had they been no-hit by Zach Stewart last night, but ... well, I've lost count of low points by now. Instead they merely lost both ends of a doubleheader to their biggest rival while scoring one total run, losing to Johan Santana trade castoff Phil Humber and a rookie with a 5.48 ERA. Not only are the Twins 8-27 in their last 35 games, they've now plummeted past the Royals into last place in the AL Central.

Overall this season the Twins have scored zero or one run in 26 percent of their games, which is tied with the Mariners for worst in the league. And as bad as that sounds they've been far worse recently, scoring zero or one run in 17 of 33 games since August 1. To put that in some context, consider that the Yankees (13), Diamondbacks (15), Tigers (16), and Orioles (16) have scored zero or one run fewer than 17 times all season. What a mess.

Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Brian Dinkelman were the first batch of reinforcements after September 1 roster expansion, Liam Hendriks joins the team for his debut tonight against the White Sox, and the Twins have also promoted Joe Benson and Chris Parmelee to the majors. On my preseason list of the Twins' top 40 prospects Benson ranked No. 6 and Parmelee was No. 19, and they've both improved their stock since then.

Benson in particular has emerged as arguably the team's best prospect among players who're close to MLB-ready, hitting .285/.387/.491 with 16 homers in 114 games at Double-A after the Twins had the 2006 second-round pick repeat the level despite batting .251/.336/.527 with 23 homers in 104 games there last year. He doesn't project as a star and high strikeout rates are a potential red flag, but Benson does a lot of things well and looks like a solid regular.

He's played primarily center field at Double-A, but figures to be a right fielder in the majors and should combine plus range with a strong arm. Offensively he'll hopefully make up for mediocre batting averages with 20-homer power, solid plate discipline, and good speed, although so far Benson hasn't been an effective basestealer. At age 23 and with zero Triple-A experience he may not be quite ready for the majors, but Benson is close enough to take a long look.

Parmelee was the first-round pick in that same 2006 draft and initially looked like a rare Twins prospect with big-time pop and excellent plate discipline, but instead he's worked to cut down on his strikeouts while trading power for a higher batting average. He hit just .250 with a .200 Isolated Power through four pro seasons, but has hit .286 with a .134 Isolated Power during the past two years. To put that in some context, Joe Mauer has a .148 career Isolated Power.

Whether that trade-off was smart for Parmelee's chances of becoming an impact bat, a higher batting average and fewer strikeouts definitely makes him more likely to factor into the Twins' plans. Parmelee, like Benson, spent two seasons at Double-A, hitting .282/.355/.415 with 21 homers in 262 games. Parmelee's upside is tough to evaluate because he's changed so much, but obviously slugging .415 at Double-A isn't a great sign for a first baseman.

Matt Tolbert will also be rejoining the Twins as part of roster expansion despite hitting .145 during a 16-game demotion to Triple-A. Tolbert is 29 years old and will be out of minor-league options in 2012, so hopefully the Twins are willing to cut him loose after four seasons and 658 plate appearances of .232/.289/.323 hitting. Here's a list of all the players in Twins history with more than 658 plate appearances and a lower OPS than Tolbert's career .611 mark:

                      PA      OPS
Jerry Zimmerman      896     .514
Frank Quilici        768     .569
Matt Walbeck        1008     .571
Al Newman           1876     .581
Danny Thompson      2195     .605
Jerry Terrell       1561     .606

Considering he didn't reach the majors until age 26 and was never even much good at Triple-A it's remarkable that Tolbert has hung around this long. He epitomizes "replacement level."

• Arizona Fall League rosters were announced and the Twins are sending Aaron Hicks, Brian Dozier, Chris Herrmann, Cole DeVries, Scott Diamond, Dakota Watts, Brett Jacobson, and Bruce Pugh. AFL participation isn't necessarily meaningful in terms of where someone stands in the immediate plans. Last year they sent seven players to Arizona and only Ben Revere has seen major time with the Twins, although the others included Benson, Parmelee, and Waldrop.

Hicks is the only top-10 prospect in the bunch and he's coming off a disappointing year, but it's still an intriguing mix. Diamond is already in the majors after the Twins gave up hard-throwing reliever Billy Bullock to the keep the Rule 5 pick. Dozier has forced himself onto the prospect radar and is suddenly a Ron Gardenhire favorite. Jacobson was part of the J.J. Hardy trade. Herrmann led the organization in walks. DeVries, Pugh, and Watts are future bullpen options.

Trevor Plouffe is now 2-for-5 stealing bases for the Twins after going 12-for-25 in four years at Triple-A. He's batted .264/.315/.431 with 15 extra-base hits in 156 plate appearances since returning from the minors in July and has even looked somewhat improved defensively when he doesn't forget how many outs there are, but there's no need for Plouffe to do any running. Only in Gardenhire's fantasies is every middle infielder automatically an effective basestealer.

Michael Cuddyer continues to receive seemingly endless praise for playing through injuries even though he's missed 12 of the past 24 games and is hitting .171 with zero homers and 16 strikeouts in his last 20 games. Shocking as it may seem, sometimes even tough guys who're beloved by the local media still have to sit out games and sometimes playing through injuries just means playing poorly.

Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario did some historic mashing for rookie-level Elizabethton, with Sano homering 20 times in 66 games and Rosario homering 21 times in 67 games. That type of power is obviously extremely impressive no matter the context, but in this case it's unheard of, as only two Appalachian League hitters had reached 20 homers in the past 20 years. Historic or not rookie-ball numbers should be taken with huge grains of salt, but that's pretty amazing.

• Back in August of 2008 the Twins sent Mark Hamburger to the Rangers for Eddie Guardado, who was a bust in his second go-around in Minnesota and appeared in just nine games. At the time Hamburger was an undrafted reliever in rookie-ball, which is exactly the type of prospect teams part with for washed-up 37-year-olds, but in the three years since then he's developed into a reasonably promising low-leverage bullpen arm and Texas called him up last week.

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July 14, 2011

18 days, 19 games, and 1 thin line

I'm still not sure what to make of the Twins, exactly. Since their MLB-worst 17-37 start they've gone 24-11, yet sit in fourth place seven games below .500, a half-dozen games behind both the Tigers and Indians, and are nowhere near full strength with Justin Morneau possibly done for the season, Jason Kubel, Denard Span, and Kevin Slowey also on the disabled list, Scott Baker dinged up, and Joe Mauer yet to look like his usual self offensively or defensively.

In many divisions the Twins would be all but dead, but the Tigers, Indians, and White Sox are each flawed teams that don't look capable of winning more than 85-88 games. With even two or three of those aforementioned key players back healthy and productive it wouldn't surprise me one bit if the Twins had the AL Central's best record for the final 45 percent of the season, but is the massive hole they dug in April and May too big to climb out of in just 73 games?

For the Twins to reach 85 wins they'd have to finish 44-29, which is a 98-win pace. To reach 88 wins they'd have to finish 47-26, which is a 104-win pace. While certainly within the realm of possibility for a team that has played at a 111-win pace for the past six weeks and looked like a 90-something win team coming into the season, the Twins are plenty flawed themselves and even playing 100-win ball for the final two-plus months would leave them needing some help.

None of Detroit, Cleveland, or Chicago is particularly fearsome, but trailing two different teams by a half-dozen games with 73 to play is already a huge enough challenge that the Tigers or Indians getting hot, even for a couple weeks, would be extremely difficult to overcome in such a limited time frame. Not only do the Twins need to play 100-win ball, they can't afford to have the Tigers or Indians play like even a run-of-the-mill playoff team during that same time.

Such is life when you're the worst team in baseball for two months and now the Twins play 19 games during the first 18 days of the second half, with a July 18 doubleheader and their next scheduled off day on August 1. And as if a roster that's been wrecked by injuries both big and small all year and simply can't afford to slump playing 19 times in 18 days isn't drama enough, the trade deadline looming on the final day of that brutal stretch adds another wrinkle.

I'm still not sure what to make of the Twins right now, but by July 31 everyone should have a far clearer picture of where they stand one way or another. And that's a good thing. Clawing further into contention by then would leave the Twins with an opportunity to add a key piece or two for the stretch run, but failing to make up any ground during those 18 crucial days could convince them to cash in some impending free agents for help in 2012 and beyond.

Eighteen days to make or break a season and help shape the Twins' future. They need to play consistently well and avoid slip-ups in series against the Royals, Indians, Tigers, Rangers, and A's, all without rest for the weary, and the front office also needs to realistically and smartly evaluate where they stand leading right up to the July 31 deadline. Normally the line between buyer and seller isn't so thin, but then again nothing about this season has been normal.

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May 4, 2011

So ugly it’s beautiful: Francisco Liriano no-hits the White Sox

I guess he'll be staying in the rotation for a while.

Making his first start since Ron Gardenhire spoke publicly about dumping him from the rotation in favor of Kevin Slowey if things didn't improve soon Francisco Liriano and his 9.13 ERA took the mound against the White Sox and threw the Twins' first no-hitter since Eric Milton in 1999. And the funny thing is, Liriano was hardly at his sharpest or most overpowering. In fact, it may not have been one of the dozen most dominant starts of his career.

Liriano's velocity was good but not great, as his fastball topped out at 94.2 miles per hour and averaged 92.5. His slider, which is typically Liriano's best pitch, registered just four swinging strikes on 40 offerings. He didn't miss many bats with just two strikeouts, but also didn't really pitch to contact by falling behind 19 of 30 hitters, throwing nearly as many strikes (66) as balls (57), and walking six (including slap-hitting Juan Pierre three times).

Last season and through his first five starts this year the Twins' defense repeatedly let Liriano down, leading to him posting MLB's highest batting average on balls in play, but last night that same defense saved his piece of history on multiple occasions. Before anyone had any notion of it being a special night Denard Span made a terrific running grab in the left-center field gap, preserving the no-hitter and keeping two runs off the board in what proved to be a 1-0 game.

Danny Valencia made a fantastic play for the final out of the seventh inning, snagging Carlos Quentin's hard ground ball down the third-base line and unleashing a strong throw across the diamond. Justin Morneau kept the ninth inning from getting off to a bad start by scooping out a low throw from shortstop Matt Tolbert for the 25th out. Even the final out was a screaming line drive off the bat of Adam Dunn that found Tolbert's glove.

It wasn't pretty to watch, but history doesn't have to be and Liriano seemed genuinely awed by the moment while doing on-field interviews after the final out. He's been through an awful lot since a spectacular 2006 rookie season was cut short by an elbow injury and his road back from Tommy John surgery was filled with potholes that still trip him up five years later, so while a six-walk, two-strikeout no-hitter won't cure all that ails Liriano it had to feel damn good.

And hopefully it can also be the start of the Twins' turnaround.

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