December 11, 2006

Winter Meetings Twins Moves

As expected, the Twins made zero major moves during last week's Winter Meetings. However, they did make a few minor moves that are at least somewhat intriguing to those of us who like to micro-analyze every aspect of the organization whenever possible. After all, during an offseason in which re-signing Rondell White may be one of the biggest headline-grabbers, you take what you can get in the middle of December.

In their annual quest to find bench bats and bullpen depth while collecting potential reinforcements for Triple-A Rochester, the Twins signed Ken Harvey, Carmen Cali, and Mike Venafro to minor-league contracts. Actually, if you really wanted to stretch things a bit in an effort to turn something the Twins have done this offseason into an important-looking move, "Twins sign former All-Star" is probably the way to go.

You see, back in 2004 Harvey was an All-Star. Seriously. Thanks to the stupid one-player-per-team rule and the fact that "All-Star" is for some reason often defined as "guy having a good first half," Harvey was selected to the American League team in a season that saw him bat .287/.338/.421 in 120 games splitting time between first base and designated hitter for the Royals. Meanwhile, Tim Salmon will retire having never made a single All-Star team. But, I digress.

Once upon a time, several years before he was an undeserving All-Star, I ranked Harvey as the 36th-best prospect in baseball heading into the 2002 season. Here's what I wrote about him at the time:

If you went to "Central Casting" and asked for a designated hitter, they would probably show you Ken Harvey. He is big, fairly unathletic and, most importantly, he can hit. Harvey came into the season with a career minor-league batting average in the .350s, but focused on improving his power in 2002. The end result was mixed. Harvey hit a career high 20 homers and also added 30 doubles, but saw his batting average drop to .277, over 75 points below his career average.

Harvey will no doubt be looking to make one final adjustment in 2003, getting his batting average back up near what is was prior to 2002, while keeping his new found power. ... Harvey is the odds-on favorite to be Kansas City's designated hitter in 2002, so he'll have to make those adjustments at the major-league level. I don't think Ken Harvey will ever be a truly great player, but he should be an upper-level DH/1B, hitting .300 with 20 homers and lots of doubles.

Harvey never became the hitter I thought he'd be, batting a combined .274/.332/.411 in 271 games with the Royals spread over four seasons, before injuries set his career back even further. He missed the entire 2006 season after tearing his Achilles' tendon, but could emerge as a potential platoon partner for Jason Kubel if healthy. Harvey has zero defensive value and doesn't hit right-handed pitching very well, but has batted .303/.342/.487 in 330 plate appearances against southpaws as a big leaguer.

While Harvey will be trying to prove he's healthy enough to be an option at designated hitter on days a left-handed pitcher takes the mound against the Twins, Cali and Venafro will be trying to prove they can be the second left-handed reliever out of the Twins' bullpen. Dennys Reyes is the team's primary lefty after a great 2006 season and Ron Gardenhire told me last week that Glen Perkins won't be working out of the bullpen in 2007, which means there might be an opening for another southpaw out there.

Cali has always had above-average raw stuff, but he was knocked around to the tune of a 9.45 ERA in two stints in the majors with the Cardinals and has struggled at Triple-A for two straight seasons. He pitched well after a demotion to Double-A last year, but prior to that had posted a 5.46 ERA, 64-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .300 opponent's batting average in 85.2 innings at Triple-A between 2005 and 2006.

The good news is that Cali is still just 27 years old and held left-handed batters to .235/.297/.284 with 27 strikeouts and zero homers even while struggling overall last season, suggesting there could be a decent LOOGY hiding in the ugly numbers. Much like Reyes, Cali's ability to become a dependable major-league pitcher will depend on whether or not pitching coach Rick Anderson can mold him into something he likes.

Meanwhile, Venafro has plenty of experience as a big-league LOOGY, throwing 253.1 innings with a 4.09 ERA in parts of seven seasons in the majors. However, he's 33 years old and last pitched a full big-league season in 2002, which is why the Twins were able to grab him with a minor-league deal. A quick glance at his career numbers against righties and lefties shows why the Twins think he could fit as the bullpen's second southpaw.

             AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
vs RHB .304 .372 .453 .825
vs LHB .240 .318 .310 .618

The above numbers are from over 1,100 big-league plate appearances, but what Venafro did as a 27-year-old in 2001 doesn't really say much about what he could do as a 33-year-old in 2007. A side-arming lefty, Venafro posted a 2.35 ERA in 56 Triple-A appearances last season, with a 28-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .206 opponent's batting average in 38.1 innings. As you'd expect, he was particularly tough on left-handed hitters, holding them to a .188 batting average and zero homers.

The Twins have smartly avoided LOOGYs over the years, instead relying upon relievers capable of getting both righties and lefties out. Reyes was the only lefty in the bullpen for most of last season, yet it was among baseball's best because Gardenhire trusted Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek, and even Reyes for entire innings. Given multiple lefties to work with late in the year, Gardenhire often over-managed himself into unfavorable spots by getting cute mixing and matching lefties and righties.

Venafro fills the LOOGY role well and Cali might do a similarly good job shutting down lefties, but I'd rather see the Twins use a bullpen spot on someone capable of working in less rigid situations. Rather than carrying someone like Venafro, who might be good for one batter an outing a few times per week, I'd prefer using that spot on someone capable of tossing 65 innings. Not only would that keep Gardenhire from getting into trouble, it might lead to discovering the next Neshek or Matt Guerrier.

In addition to signing Harvey, Cali, and Venafro to minor-league contracts last week, the Twins also snatched Alejandro Machado from the Nationals via Thursday's Rule 5 draft. The Twins paid $50,000 to select Machado and now must either keep him on the major-league roster for the entire season or offer him back to the Nationals for $25,000. Most Rule 5 picks end up being sent back to their original teams, which is why the event itself probably gets more attention than it deserves.

For instance, none of the four players taken by the Twins in Rule 5 drafts this decade made it past spring training, as Ryan Rowland-Smith, Jason Pridie, Jose Morban, and Brandon Knight were all offered back to their original teams. On the other hand, the Twins ended up with none other than Johan Santana in the 1999 Rule 5 draft and also snagged Shane Mack in the 1989 Rule 5 draft. Machado has no chance to be an impact player like Santana or Mack, but there's reason to think he could stick.

Many Rule 5 picks are spent on inexperienced players who have what are perceived to be relatively high upsides, which is why most of them don't make it through an entire season on the major-league roster. Machado is different, in that he's already played two full seasons at Triple-A and is apparently being looked at to fill a specific role. At this point, it looks like Machado will battle Luis Rodriguez to be the Twins' utility infielder.

Machado is considered a good defensive middle infielder, which gives him a leg up on Rodriguez, who's stretched defensively at shortstop. The question will be whether the Twins think Machado can hit enough to warrant a roster spot, because slick-fielding infielders who can't hit aren't particularly difficult to find. Of course, given how long the Twins stuck with Juan Castro over Jason Bartlett, the odds may be in Machado's favor regardless of whether his bat looks capable in spring training.

Here's what Machado has done in the minors recently:

YEAR     LV      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2004 A+ 186 .355 .424 .446 1 13 22 27
AA 346 .280 .363 .353 4 13 41 39
2005 AAA 383 .300 .359 .379 3 22 32 47
2006 AAA 373 .260 .356 .346 4 20 52 51

Machado posted some big numbers in the low minors, but since arriving at Double-A he's been more or less a .280/.350/.350 hitter over three seasons in the high minors. He makes good contact, draws a lot of walks for someone with zero power, and has enough speed to swipe 15-20 bases at a decent clip. Those are no doubt the type of skills the Twins look for in a backup middle infielder and they didn't have many major league-ready options within the organization, so it was a decent pick.

However, before you get too excited about Machado's solid on-base percentages and decent overall hitting numbers, take a look at the following comparison:

                 G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Player A 233 .280 .357 .362 .719
Player Z 385 .281 .338 .384 .722

"Player A" is Machado's career hitting line in 233 games at Triple-A, while "Player Z" is Rodriguez's career hitting line in 385 games at Triple-A. In case you're curious, Rodriguez has batted .255/.327/.359 in 335 major-league plate appearances, which is more or less what you'd expect from his Triple-A numbers. In other words, Machado looks like a faster version of Rodriguez who can handle shortstop defensively, which isn't so bad.

I question whether Machado will be able to maintain a solid on-base percentage in the majors, because his plate discipline will only take him so far against big-league pitchers who aren't afraid to groove a powerless hitter fastballs over the plate. If he can continue to make good contact on the way to batting .280 or .300, like he did in 2004 and 2005, he'll have enough value offensively to be a solid bench player. If his batting average drops to .260, as it did last season, Machado is an iffy big leaguer.

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