May 23, 2007

Twins Notes: Injuries, Theories, and Skipping

  • When the Braves released Craig Wilson last week, I immediately thought that he'd be a decent low-cost pickup for the Twins. Apparently Wilson's agent had the same idea, because Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports the following:

    The agent for Craig Wilson contacted [Terry] Ryan after Wilson was released by Atlanta, but the Twins don't appear to have interest in signing the righthanded hitter. Wilson, 30, is a career .262 hitter, but he batted .172 in 54 at-bats for the Braves this season. He also is limited defensively, and defense is a big reason the Twins have clung to Lew Ford.

    It's true that Wilson is "limited defensively," but his defense has little to do with whether he'd be a good addition. Plus, Lew Ford is every bit as "limited offensively" as Wilson is "limited defensively," and he's started eight of the past 11 games. Ford has almost zero value, while at least Wilson could provide a right-handed bat capable of some offense against left-handed pitching. Plus, with 217 career innings behind the plate, he'd give Ron Gardenhire his beloved third catcher once Joe Mauer returns.

    Setting aside a bad month in Atlanta, here are Wilson's recent numbers against lefties:

    YEAR      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
    2004 128 .259 .375 .537 .912
    2005 69 .283 .449 .415 .864
    2006 147 .278 .347 .496 .843

    Add it all up and Wilson hit .272/.378/.497 in 344 plate appearances against lefties. For comparison, Michael Cuddyer hit .297/.376/.518 against lefties last season. Wilson also did well enough against righties over that three-year span, hitting .255/.337/.458. He's a below-average fielder at first base or an outfield corner, but an .875 OPS against lefties and a .795 OPS against righties would be just fine at designated hitter, where the Twins have given multiple starts to Jason Tyner and Luis Rodriguez.

  • Speaking of Mauer's return, it sounds like he could be back as soon as this weekend. Getting Mauer back in the lineup will provide a huge, much-needed boost, but it's worth noting that Mike Redmond has hit a very Mauer-like .380/.436/.520 in 55 plate appearances with Mauer out.
  • Stuff like this really makes me wish I had some photo-shopping skills.
  • Random stat: Cuddyer drew just six walks in his first 148 plate appearances while hitting primarily fourth in the batting order. He's drawn eight walks in his last 31 plate appearances, with all of them coming as the No. 3 hitter.
  • Gardenhire has predictably decided against skipping Ramon Ortiz's spot in the rotation despite his 11.74 ERA in four starts this month and today's off day. Here's how he explained the need to keep Ortiz on his normal routine:

    He wants the ball. If you were to tell him, "Hey, we're going to skip you," that would be tough. We'd more like to see him go out there and have a good ballgame. That's what this ballclub needs.

    As usual with Gardenhire, that quote seems perfectly reasonable until you actually examine it a little bit. Gardenhire says that it "would be tough" to tell Ortiz that he's being skipped in the rotation, but he had little trouble skipping Scott Baker's turn whenever possible last year. Apparently Gardenhire felt that a 24-year-old Baker was better equipped to handle the tough news and deal with a change in routine than the 34-year-old Ortiz (although Baker's ugly ERA last year suggests otherwise).

    The good news is that Ortiz's leash is seemingly tightening rapidly (or at least as rapidly as a mediocre 34-year-old's leash can tighten with the Twins). Christensen wrote on his blog Wednesday that he thinks "Ortiz will be out of the starting rotation if he continues his May struggles on Saturday against Toronto." If true, that means the small-market Twins, whose low payroll is constantly painted as a huge disadvantage, will have paid about $5 million for 16 combined starts from Ortiz and Sidney Ponson.

    On a related note, the $9 million trio of Ortiz, Ponson, and Carlos Silva have now combined for a 5.45 ERA in 140.1 innings, with the Twins going 9-16 (.360) in their 25 starts. The Twins are 13-8 (.619) when someone other than Ortiz, Ponson, and Silva takes the mound, and the rest of the pitching staff has combined for a 3.45 ERA. But hey, it's not like someone could have possibly spent the entire offseason predicting that this exact scenario would play out.

  • Meanwhile at Rochester, Kevin Slowey and Matt Garza continue to shut down Triple-A lineups after losing rotation-mate Baker to the majors. Slowey has video game-like numbers through eight starts, with a 1.76 ERA, 50-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .195 opponent's batting average in 56 innings. Garza got off to a slow start and his overall numbers aren't as spotless, but he still sports a 3.49 ERA, 46-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .255 opponent's batting average in 49 innings.
  • With Dennys Reyes likely to join Jesse Crain and Glen Perkins on the disabled list with shoulder problems, the Twins' bullpen is undergoing a dramatic change save for the still-healthy late-inning threesome of Pat Neshek and Juan Rincon setting up Joe Nathan. Julio DePaula and Carmen Cali have already been called up to replace Crain and Perkins, respectively, and the team will likely make a move today to replace Reyes.

    I gave a scouting report on DePaula here last week, although my optimism about his future didn't help him avoid getting crushed by the Rangers in his second career appearance. I don't think nearly as much of Cali, who signed a minor-league contract with the Twins after being let go by the Cardinals in November. Cali was far from dominant at Triple-A before being called up and nothing has really changed with him since he signed in December, so here's what I wrote about him back then:

    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.

    In Rick Anderson We Trust, but between Ortiz, Ponson, and Silva this hasn't been his strongest season for miracle working (although at least Kyle Lohse is back to stinking in Cincinnati). If the Twins want to keep two lefties in the bullpen, the top candidates to replace Reyes would seemingly be Ricky Barrett and Jason Miller. For whatever it's worth, while Reyes competed with Darrell May and Gabe White for a bullpen spot in March of 2006, I wrote that "I'd love to see the Twins give Miller a chance."

  • Jason Bartlett is scheduled to undergo an MRI for ongoing neck and shoulder pain that are keeping him out of the lineup and may go a long way toward explaining his defensive struggles this season. If there's a good part about having a utility infielder like Nick Punto as your starting third baseman, it's that he can slide over to shortstop when necessary.
  • I ranked Alex Romero as the Twins' No. 18 prospect this winter before the team waived him in order to make room on the roster for Ortiz. Romero was claimed off waivers by the Diamondbacks and is currently hitting .335/.369/.449 in 43 games at Triple-A. Now, those numbers are nothing special in a hitter-friendly environment like Tucson, but given the playing time going to Tyner and Ford it's pretty obvious that the Twins could use a 23-year-old outfielder who can hit a little bit.
  • I've long been frustrated by Gardenhire's tendency to criticize young players through the media while simultaneously putting forth what often seems like an endless series of excuses for poor-playing veterans. For example, Gardenhire has had little problem taking Bartlett or Kubel to task with a bunch of reporters standing in his office, but then turns right around and says stuff like this to "explain" Ford's increased playing time:

    It's not always about him hitting doubles and triples, it's about him having good at-bats, and he's having them. I like the way he's moving defensively, and I like his energy. He can move around the bases pretty good. So we're just going to let him play out there a little bit.

    Like with the Ortiz quote, Ford "having good at-bats" sounds perfectly reasonable until you realize that he's hitting .214/.267/.286 and has a 5-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And the ability to "move around the bases pretty good" sounds like a valuable skill until you realize that there isn't a whole lot of moving around to be done when you're getting on base 27 percent of the time. Can you imagine Gardenhire saying anything close to that about Bartlett or Kubel (or Baker, if he struggles again)? Of course not.

    For years I've thought that Gardenhire treated young players unfairly and irrationally favored mediocre veterans. That may actually be true, but of late I've started to think that perhaps it has less to do with "young" or "old" and more to do with "good" or "bad." Does Gardenhire favor guys like Ford because he's a veteran or because he's simply not a very good player? Does he take young players to task because they're inexperienced or because they might actually turn into good players some day?

    Ford is an interesting test case, because Gardenhire used to rip into him plenty during the brief stretch when he was actually a valuable player. Ford's production has fallen off over the past few years and now Gardenhire is taking up for him. Another piece of evidence for my little pet theory is Garrett Jones, who has a total of one week of major-league experience and yet has Gardenhire saying nice things about him to reporters:

    We let him get his feet wet. But I'd like for him to get a soaking. I really like the instant run production he can put up there when he walks up to the plate.

    Based on Gardenhire's comments, you'd think that Jones was great during his brief stint. In reality, he went 1-for-8 with a single. I have a tough time imagining that same performance leading to similar sentiments from Gardenhire if the player in question was a legitimate prospect rather than a 26-year-old who has a career on-base percentage of .300 and is in his third season at Triple-A. My theory is that what "allows" Gardenhire to say good things about Jones is that he's mediocre.

    If Jones was good, Gardenhire would surely be telling anyone who would listen that he strikes out too much or needs to work on his defense or isn't "having good at-bats." But because Jones has all those weaknesses and isn't good, Gardenhire lets the compliments and words of encouragement fly. I used to think that Gardenhire put guys like Jones in the "young" category with Kubel, Bartlett, and Baker, but it's starting to seem like he views them as "mediocre" with Ford, Silva, Juan Castro, and Tony Batista.

  • Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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