August 2, 2010

Twins Notes: Liriano, Slowey, Plouffe, Myers, Ramos, and Eight Years

Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of this blog and the Twins fittingly celebrated by winning their eighth straight game. When it comes to this blog I've been fortunate about many things, not the least of which is that the Twins have been a winning team for almost that entire time. I started blogging on August 1, 2002. Two months later they made the playoffs for the first time since 1991 and they've had just one losing season since then, going 703-591 (.543) overall.

I've been doing this since the summer after my freshman year of college and I sometimes think about how different my life could have been blogging about the Orioles or Pirates or Royals (or 1993-2000 Twins) during that time. Would losing teams have kept my interest for so long? And even if they did, would anyone have wanted to actually read about it? I've met great people and gotten great opportunities thanks to this blog, and timing and luck have played a big part.

I started because I wanted to be a writer and needed to find some kind of audience when the college newspaper wouldn't have me, so eight years, 1,515 posts, and 6.7 million visitors later I'm still amazed the thing lasted more than a month. Eight years is the limit for a presidency and the length of a $184 million contract, but I have no plans to stop any time soon. Whether you've been here since August 1, 2002 or just found the place today, thank you for reading.

And now the stuff you actually came here for ...

• In analyzing the rotation's struggles a couple weeks ago I noted that Francisco Liriano was suffering from some combination of bad luck and bad defense, because while his ERA was still plenty good his secondary numbers showed one of the elite pitching performances in baseball this season. At the time Liriano was coming off a start in which he failed to make it out of the second inning and so some readers found it hard to believe, but he's been unhittable since.

He shut out the Mariners for seven innings yesterday, making him 4-0 with a 33-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two runs allowed in 29 innings spread over his last four starts. And even his current 3.18 ERA is worse than it should be because Liriano still has one of MLB's highest ball-in-play batting averages. Based on his 150-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio and two homers allowed in 136 innings, Liriano has been the best starter in baseball according to FIP and xFIP.

• Liriano wasn't alone in blanking Seattle's awful lineup, as Kevin Slowey threw eight shutout frames Friday. I avoid relying much on win-loss records to evaluate pitchers and Slowey being 10-5 with a 4.44 ERA when Liriano is 10-7 with a 3.18 ERA isn't fair. With that said, beating the Mariners improved Slowey's career record to 36-20, which is a .643 winning percentage that ranks as the second-highest in Twins history among pitchers with at least 75 starts:

                      W      L     WIN%
Johan Santana        93     44     .679
KEVIN SLOWEY         36     20     .643
Camilo Pascual       88     57     .607
Mudcat Grant         50     35     .588
Jim Perry           128     90     .587

To be clear, that definitely does not mean Slowey "knows how to win" or even that he's been particularly good while posting a 4.40 ERA in 437.1 career innings, but it is kind of interesting.

Trevor Plouffe was recalled from Rochester to replace Nick Punto, whose hamstring strain requires a stint on the disabled list. Plouffe started six games at shortstop when he was called up to replace J.J. Hardy in mid-May, but seems unlikely to play much this time around with Ron Gardenhire committed to Alexi Casilla as the starting second baseman and No. 2 hitter while Orlando Hudson is out.

Plouffe played just 20 of his 770 games at second base in the minors, but like most shortstops should be able to handle the position just fine and in theory could compete with Casilla for the starting job there in 2011 if Hudson isn't re-signed. Plouffe has shown good power at Triple-A with a career-high 15 homers and .462 slugging percentage, but he's hitting just .259 with a .318 on-base percentage and 71-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his third season at Rochester.

• You wouldn't know it by his going 24-for-58 (.414) with 12 extra-base hits in 14 games since the All-Star break, but Joe Mauer has been diagnosed with tendinitis in his right shoulder and received a cortisone shot after going 3-for-4 in Saturday's game. According to Gardenhire an MRI exam revealed no structural damage, but because the soreness "just won't go away" the Twins decided to "put this in there, give it a couple days without throwing, and go from there."

Justin Morneau was initially scheduled to take batting practice before yesterday's game, but opted against it at the last minute in part because it was "family day" and various Twins would be on the field with their kids. Gardenhire explained that Morneau "didn't want to be on center stage" and "wants to ease into it ... with less people around." He hasn't played since taking a knee to the helmet on July 7 and recovering from a concussion is notoriously unpredictable.

• After sending Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa to the Nationals for Matt Capps the Twins failed to make another move prior to Saturday's trade deadline, but they reportedly were close to acquiring Brett Myers from the Astros. Whether or not that would have been a sound move is impossible to say without knowing the players heading back to Houston, but Myers was listed among my preferred starting pitcher targets when examining potential fits two weeks ago.

Despite owning the fourth-worst record in baseball and going into full-scale rebuilding mode by trading Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, the Astros chose not to deal the 30-year-old Myers and instead signed him to a two-year, $21 million contract extension with a $10 million option or $3 million buyout for 2013. That seems like a questionable decision for a team years from contention and certainly suggests the Astros' asking price for Myers in trade was substantial.

• To make room on the 25-man roster for Capps' arrival the Twins sent Nick Blackburn and his $14 million contract to Triple-A. I've made my objection to Blackburn's extension clear since the day it was signed in March, but at this point demoting him to Rochester certainly makes sense. Whether or not Blackburn has the ability to get back on track is up for debate, but obviously it wasn't going to happen while pitching sporadically as a mop-up man in Minnesota.

• Washington assigned Ramos to Triple-A following the trade, but general manager Mike Rizzo said he'll be "at least" a September call-up because "we feel like he's major-league ready." For now the Nationals have Ivan Rodriguez as their starting catcher and the future Hall of Famer is actually signed through 2011, but he's hitting just .264/.291/.345 at age 38 and moving into more of a backup/mentor role next year seems likely if they truly think Ramos is MLB-ready.

• Capps uses "Final Countdown" as his entrance music, which will always remind me of this.

July 30, 2010

Twins get Matt Capps from Nationals for Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa

Matt Capps was available for nothing this offseason. Non-tendered by the Pirates in December following a career-worst campaign that saw him post a 5.80 ERA and .324 opponents' batting average while serving up 10 homers in 54.1 innings, Capps became a free agent and signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Nationals in large part because they were one of the only teams willing to promise him an opportunity to remain a closer.

And last night the Twins decided to overpay for that closing experience, acquiring Capps from the Nationals for Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa. To be clear, Capps is a good, solid late-inning reliever. He bounced back nicely in Washington with a 2.74 ERA and 38-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 46 innings and has a 3.50 ERA in 317 career innings. However, if not for his racking up 93 saves for bad teams I'm convinced the Twins never would have even considered this move.

Much like the Twins turning to Jon Rauch with Joe Nathan sidelined, Capps' reputation as an "experienced closer" comes largely from teams simply giving him a shot to accumulate saves. Rauch has done a perfectly fine job filling in for Nathan, converting 21-of-25 saves with a 3.05 ERA and 27-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38.1 innings, and if given a longer opportunity may have turned himself into an "established closer" just like Capps did. Seriously.

Take a look at their respective career numbers as relievers:

           IP     ERA     FIP    SO/9    BB/9     AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS
Capps     317    3.50    3.80     7.0     1.7    .263    .302    .415    .717
Rauch     402    3.54    3.90     7.5     2.7    .242    .297    .390    .687

Capps has had better control, Rauch has been tougher to hit, and their overall effectiveness is nearly identical across the board. If pressed I'd pick Capps over Rauch because he's younger and has fared better in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), but by far the biggest difference between them is that one has accumulated saves for four seasons while the other has accumulated saves for one season.

No one would ever suggest that trading Ramos for a reliever who's slightly better than Rauch is a sound idea, yet by focusing on the save statistic the Twins have done just that and many fans will instinctively be on board with the move for an "established closer." Now, don't get me wrong: Capps is a quality reliever and represents a clear upgrade to the Twins' bullpen. What he's not is an elite reliever or enough of an upgrade to part with Ramos.

Capps is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player next season as well, which means the Twins essentially traded Ramos and Testa for 1.5 seasons of him. Unfortunately part of his inflated perceived value includes his likely price-tag in arbitration, which is sure to rise from this year's $3.5 million salary to over $5 million (and perhaps well over $5 million) thanks to those same shiny-looking save totals.

Capps makes the Twins better for the final two months of this season and all of next year, but the improvement isn't nearly as large as the "All-Star closer" label would have you believe and the cost involved is significant in terms of both players and money. Next season the Twins will pay a premium for a quality setup man they perceive as something more because of a reliance on a flawed statistic and they gave up a good catching prospect for the right do that.

In fairness, Ramos' value is inflated as well. His historic debut caused the Twins fans who don't know any better to assume that he was destined for stardom and his subsequent struggles at Triple-A have exposed him as a good but not great prospect. However, he still projects as a good defender behind the plate and a 22-year-old being overmatched in his first experience at Triple-A is far from disastrous.

I'm not convinced that Ramos will become a star, but the possibility certainly exists and at the very least he looks capable of developing into a starting-caliber catcher for many years. Joe Mauer's presence meant Ramos had little shot to be that starting-caliber catcher in Minnesota, but that doesn't mean the Twins needed to deal him immediately or when his value was at an all-time low or for an underwhelming return like Capps.

I have no problem with trading Ramos or trading for bullpen help, and in the Twins' minds they just traded him for an "All-Star closer." In reality they traded Ramos for a setup-caliber reliever who accumulated saves on bad teams and is thus overrated and soon overpaid. Among the 93 pitchers who've logged 150-plus relief innings in the past three calendar years, Capps ranks 38th in xFIP, 49th in FIP, 50th in ERA, 61st in strikeout rate, and 85th in opponents' average.

You'd think the Twins would have learned something about the created-not-born nature of the closer role and often spurious value of saves from Rauch's relatively successful stint filling in for Nathan, but instead they just paid a premium for a guy whose perceived value and ability are much higher than his actual value and ability solely because of his role and save total. Capps is a good reliever, but the Twins paid for a great reliever and did so for all the wrong reasons.

July 29, 2010

Breaking News: Twins trade Wilson Ramos to Nationals for Matt Capps

There's no official announcement yet, but I've confirmed with multiple sources that the Twins have agreed to trade Wilson Ramos to the Nationals for Matt Capps.

I'm not a fan of the move, to say the least. I'll have a full write-up shortly.

UPDATE: Twins just announced the deal as official. Joe Testa is also headed to Washington.

July 7, 2010

Checking in on the Twins’ top prospects (and a possible Cliff Lee deal)

Twins prospects are suddenly a popular topic with everyone wondering what type of package the Mariners may accept for Cliff Lee, so I thought it would be worthwhile to check back in on my preseason top five prospects to see how they're faring and how it could impact a potential trade for the ace left-hander. In no particular order ...

Miguel Sano is a very, very long way from the majors, but the early returns on last season's record-breaking $3.15 million investment are looking pretty great for the Twins. Sano debuted weeks after his 17th birthday, homered in his first professional at-bat, and hit .344/.463/.547 in 20 games in the Dominican Summer League to earn a quicker-than-expected promotion to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League ... where he singled in his first at-bat earlier this week.

Rarely does a 17-year-old making his professional debut show good plate discipline and hitters from the Dominican Republic are especially known for hacking at everything, yet Sano drew 14 walks in just 80 plate appearances. Now, two of those walks were intentional and given how thoroughly Sano destroyed DSL pitching several others were probably of the quasi-intentional variety, but his simply not having an immediate aversion to free passes is a pleasant surprise.

• On the other hand, Wilson Ramos has been totally overmatched by Triple-A pitching, posting a hideous 41-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio while hitting just .208/.244/.319 in 52 games. Ramos showed reasonable enough plate discipline in the low minors, but since advancing to Double-A last year he has 14 walks and 64 strikeouts in 106 games. He's making contact at a palatable rate, but the total lack of patience is disturbing along with a .427 career slugging percentage.

Ramos remains a very solid prospect largely due to projecting as a good defensive catcher, but it was always wishful thinking to assume he was even close to an MLB-ready impact bat and that notion now looks silly. With that said, he's still just 22 years old and has fewer than 450 plate appearances above Single-A, so there's no need to sour on Ramos too much. However, if the Mariners view him as an acceptable centerpiece for a Lee trade, it would be very tempting.

• Much less tempting is a report that the Twins have offered both Ramos and Aaron Hicks for Lee, which is far enough above other rumored offers for Lee and previous midseason hauls for impending free agents that I'll assume it's off base. Hicks has been somewhat disappointing since a great debut at rookie-ball in 2008 and his .256 batting average in 143 games at low Single-A is a concern, but he also has 92 walks and 51 extra-base hits in those 143 games.

Few truly excellent prospects have .256 batting averages in the low minors, but his strikeout rate isn't absurdly high and a speedy 20-year-old center fielder drawing 92 walks in 638 plate appearances qualifies as an exceptional skill from which to build. Even with Hicks' stock falling a bit he's still a notch above the quality of prospect I would feel comfortable parting with for a half-season rental and compensatory draft prospects. His upside is just too high.

Ben Revere led the minors with a .379 batting average when he was at the same level and the same age Hicks is right now, but his OPS has dropped 200 points in the two seasons since then. Even coming back down to earth Revere has still hit .311/.372/.369 in 121 games at high Single-A last year and .307/.380/.361 in 64 games at Double-A this year, but the difference is that he lacks the patience and power potential to have the same type of room for growth.

In the past two years Revere has a .375 on-base percentage and .365 slugging percentage, while Hicks has a .363 OBP and .396 SLG. Almost identical, except Revere has done that with a .310 batting average and Hicks has hit .256. Obviously it's better to hit .310 than .256, but in terms of projecting future value Revere will have to bat .300 to make a major impact whereas Hicks could do so at even .275 because he'll tack on significantly more walks and power.

Kyle Gibson went through a brief rough patch at Double-A last month, but has bounced back with three straight impressive starts in which he allowed a total of two runs in 20 innings. He hasn't been nearly as dominant at Double-A as he was at high Single-A to start the season, as his ERA has nearly doubled, his strikeouts are down 10 percent, he's induced 15 percent fewer ground balls, and his opponents' batting average is up 20 percent.

However, some deterioration is expected as a player moves up the minor-league ladder and that mostly just shows how great Gibson was at high Single-A, because a 3.56 ERA, 51-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 54 percent ground-ball rate in 61 innings at Double-A is still plenty strong from a 22-year-old. It's tough to project him as a future ace based on his performance so far because his strikeout rate isn't great, but one step below that seems doable.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I'd probably shift the order around somewhat, but my preseason top five prospects would still be my midseason top five prospects. In terms of what I'd feel comfortable parting with in a Lee trade, my focus would be trying to sell Seattle on a deal built around either Ramos or Revere. Ramos because he's a bigger question mark than widely assumed and probably destined to be traded at some point anyway, and Revere because his upside is basically Juan Pierre.

If the Mariners are willing to take Ramos or Revere plus a mid-level prospect or two the Twins would be smart to pull the trigger. And if they're willing to include underrated reliever Brandon League along with Lee it would even make sense for the Twins to give up Ramos and Revere. I'd balk at anything beyond that, including a Hicks/Ramos package. Lee is amazing, but getting him for half a season guarantees nothing and that's just too much long-term value lost.

May 26, 2010

Twins Notes: Hardy, Plouffe, Gibson, Perkins, Morales, and Ramos

J.J. Hardy came off the disabled list last night after missing 17 games with a wrist injury, so as expected the Twins optioned Trevor Plouffe back to Triple-A.  Plouffe made three starts at shortstop in Hardy's absence after Brendan Harris (eight starts) and Alexi Casilla (six) initially filled in, going 3-for-13 with a double and five strikeouts. It'll be interesting to see if Plouffe can resume his solid hitting at Triple-A or if he'll fall back into his underwhelming career norms.

Kyle Gibson turned in another excellent start at Double-A yesterday, tossing a seven-inning complete game while allowing just an unearned run. He induced 11 ground-ball outs, struck out four, and walked none to improve to 3-0 with a 0.84 ERA since a promotion to New Britain. Gibson is now 7-1 with a 1.53 ERA, .207 opponents' batting average, 3.5 ground balls per fly ball, and 60-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64.2 innings between high Single-A and Double-A.

• I'm not sure how long it'll be available online since the St. Paul Pioneer Press' website remains a disaster, but John Shipley wrote a lengthy article about Glen Perkins' struggles at Triple-A. Perkins is 0-6 with a 9.09 ERA in eight starts at Rochester, serving up seven long balls in 33.2 innings while opponents bat .359 off him. Setting aside his clash with the Twins regarding the service time aspect of his injuries, it sure seems like Perkins' shoulder must not be healthy.

Jose Morales is back playing again following offseason wrist surgery, going 13-for-41 (.317) with two doubles and six walks in 11 games at Rochester. So far he's splitting time between designated hitter and catcher because of his injury and Wilson Ramos' presence at Triple-A. Drew Butera made his seventh start Sunday and is now 4-for-25 (.160), so presumably once Morales looks like his old below-average self defensively the Twins will make the switch.

• Ramos is just 5-for-39 (.128) since returning to Triple-A, making him 6-for-57 (.105) with 12 strikeouts versus one walk since collecting seven hits in his first two big-league games. He's batting just .160/.183/.302 overall in 25 games at Rochester, so it'll be a while before the folks clamoring for him to stick in the majors come out of the woodwork again.

Ron Gardenhire's son Toby Gardenhire is now Ramos' teammate at Rochester after being promoted to Triple-A despite hitting .225/.295/.250 at Double-A and .234/.298/.267 in 380 pro games. I've referred to Matt Tolbert as a poor man's Nick Punto, so I suppose that makes the defensively versatile and offensively inept junior Gardenhire a homeless man's Punto. I'll take a wild guess and say his father has dreams of him filling a utility role one day.

• Minor-league outfielder and former 13th-round pick Michael Harrington was suspended 50 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Taken in the 2008 draft after a four-year career at the College of Charleston, he was hitting just .145 in 24 games at high Single-A this season and has a .231/.302/.363 overall line in 194 pro games.

• For some reason I watched a few A's games last week and twice saw Craig Breslow throw a scoreless inning. Breslow was a nice waiver-wire pickup for the Twins in 2008, posting a 2.89 ERA over 53 innings before they misguidedly cut him for Sean Henn in a "making moves just to make moves" decision I criticized at the time. Henn went 0-3 with a 7.15 ERA in 11.1 innings, while Breslow has a 2.57 ERA and 63-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 innings since leaving.

Randy Ruiz had a similarly strong run after being dropped by the Twins, batting .313 with 10 homers in 33 games for the Blue Jays last season, but played poorly and sporadically to begin this season before requesting his release to sign with a team in Japan. After over a decade of clobbering minor-league pitching to finally get his first chance in the majors at age 30, he likely finishes his big-league career with a .272/.332/.488 line in 238 plate appearances.

Jim Callis of Baseball America recently ranked the 20 best draft prospects since he joined the magazine in 1989, based strictly on their standing at the time of the draft. Stephen Strasburg tops the list and Joe Mauer is the final selection at No. 20, with two players the Twins passed on to select him in 2001 ranked No. 2 and No. 13.

Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has been agreeing with me a lot lately (or the other way around), this time about the silliness behind allowing the accumulation of a statistic determine bullpen usage. As he notes, because of "saves" managers regularly use their best reliever to protect a three-run lead and one of their worst relievers to protect a four-run lead.

• Baseball-Reference.com recently added Wins Above Replacement (WAR) data to its amazing collection of statistics, and Mauer has the top three seasons by a catcher since 2000.

• All beat writers work on their game stories while the game is still going on, and unfortunately for Kelly Thesier of MLB.com sometimes the rough draft makes its way online.

• It sounds like Rick Reed enjoyed his time in Minnesota about as much as Twins fans did.

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