May 16, 2005

Minor League Update: Double-A New Britain

Many organizations use Double-A as the main stop for their best prospects, often promoting them straight to the majors while bypassing Triple-A. The Twins, for the most part, don't do that, although there are certainly some exceptions. For instance, Joe Mauer skipped Triple-A altogether on his way to the majors and it has worked out extremely well. But he is not the norm within the organization.

Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Juan Rincon, Lew Ford, Jesse Crain, Michael Cuddyer, J.C. Romero, Jason Bartlett, and Matthew LeCroy each ended up with significant time at Triple-A, and even guys like Jacque Jones, Kyle Lohse, and Luis Rivas made extended stops there. All of which is a long way of explaining why Double-A New Britain's roster is usually not packed with great prospects.

The team's better prospects play there, of course, but they are eventually pushed to Triple-A rather than allowed to stay at Double-A until they are deemed ready to make the leap to the majors. This year is no exception, despite the fact that, as I discussed here last week, Triple-A Rochester isn't exactly bursting with great prospects either. New Britain is currently sitting in the cellar of the Eastern League's Northern division with a 14-21 record, 6.5 games out of first place.

  • The Rock Cats are really struggling offensively right now. Through 35 games, New Britain ranks 11th in the 12-team Eastern League in batting average (.236), on-base percentage (.303), walks (99), and runs scored (109), although they do rank a semi-respectable eighth in slugging percentage (.363). It's a very tough league for offense, but the Rock Cats are taking it to an extreme level.

    Of the 15 hitters who have played for New Britain this season, just one, Danny Matienzo, is batting above .275. Gabby Torres leads the team with a .346 on-base percentage, but has a slugging percentage of just .279 to go along with it. In all, 11 of the 15 hitters have batting averages of .250 or lower and 11 of the 15 have on-base percentages under .320. Matienzo is the only player on the entire team who is above league-average (.251/.318/.380) in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

  • However, as you might expect, a lot of New Britain's pitchers are putting up very nice numbers. The Rock Cats rank sixth in the league in ERA (3.57) and opponent's batting average (.244), while ranking fourth in strikeouts (274). And, as is the case throughout the Twins' organization, New Britain's pitchers throw strikes, ranking third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.5-to-1) and fifth in walks per inning (0.36).
  • Without question the biggest standout performance on the team so far this season belongs to Francisco Liriano. Liriano is a hard-throwing lefty who the Twins acquired from the Giants along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski two offseasons ago. I said last week that the trade "will be one of the best in team history" and Liriano's emergence is a big reason why.

    When the Twins dealt for Liriano, he was a 19-year-old who was coming off a season in which he was able to pitch just nine innings because of injuries. There was no questioning his talent, but Liriano was available to the Twins at a discount because of the questions surrounding his health and the fact that he was so far away from the majors. It's about a year and a half later now and Liriano is looking like a textbook Terry Ryan pickup, flourishing after being plucked from the low minors of another team.

    Not only has Liriano been healthy since coming to the Twins, he has pitched very well. He posted a 3.79 ERA in 156.2 innings between Single-A and Double-A last year, striking out 174 batters (10.0/9) while walking 60. And so far this year he has a 3.78 ERA in eight starts at New Britain, with a 59-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .234 opponent's batting average in 50 innings. The ERAs are a little higher than you'd like to see, but Liriano is blowing people away and he doesn't turn 22 years old until October. He is without question one of the best handful of prospects in the organization.

  • Sadly, aside from Liriano very few pitchers on New Britain's staff are putting up great numbers this year. Well, that's not entirely true. Colby Miller has an outstanding 2.01 ERA in seven starts, but he has just 30 strikeouts in 44.2 innings and has handed out 14 walks. Considering his lack of strikeouts in years past and horrible numbers at New Britain last year (3-7 with a 5.83 ERA in 14 starts), he'll have to either start missing some more bats or keep his ERA in the 2.00s to really get my attention.

    One guy who is worth keeping an eye on is Pat Neshek, a 24-year-old right-handed reliever who was the Twins' sixth-round pick back in 2002 and is now serving as New Britain's closer. Neshek has always racked up big strikeout totals, but struggled with his control last year. So far this season he is throwing strikes, with a 24-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 2.41 ERA in 18.2 innings.

    Another performance worth noting comes from Lavele Speigner, who is not to be confused with the Official Twins Beat Writer of, La Velle E. Neal. Speigner was the Twins' 14th-round pick back in 2003 and pitched extremely well at Single-A last year, tossing 77 innings with a 2.22 ERA and 76-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He did that while pitching out of the bullpen last season, but has continued to pitch well this year after a move to the starting rotation. Speigner has a 4.60 ERA in seven starts, but also has a 35-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings.

  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Game in Review: Brewers at Pirates (by Studes)
    - Banana Fana Fo Fudcat (by Steve Treder)

    Today's Picks (33-23, +$1,095):
    Chicago (Prior) -140 over Pittsburgh (Fogg)
    Florida (Willis) -120 over Los Angeles (Lowe)
    Toronto (Towers) +205 over Minnesota (Santana)
    Boston (Clement) -140 over Oakland (Zito)

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