June 10, 2007

The Answers (Part 2: Baseball Questions)

Opening the floor up for questions last week led to over 100 being asked in the comments section and another three dozen or so being sent in via e-mail. Responding to all of them would be pretty tough, but I'll tackle as many as possible by breaking up the answers into two entries. Wednesday's installment covered the "random" questions about this blog, my personal life, and basically anything not directly related to the Twins. Below you'll find my responses to baseball-related questions.

Do you think Jason Tyner should be getting more at-bats?

I think you spelled "fewer" wrong.

If you could pick one position that the Twins should try to upgrade before the trading deadline, what would it be?

Relative to the rest of the league, the Twins' biggest weaknesses offensively have been third base, shortstop, left field, and designated hitter. Left field or DH are the easiest places to upgrade, because defensive considerations are minor and it's usually not overly difficult to find a decent veteran rent-a-bat at midseason. I expect Jason Kubel to perform much better than he has and view him as a long-term building block, but that still leaves one lineup spot wide open for a defensively challenged hitter.

Like Kubel, I expect Jason Bartlett to improve in the second half and hold down shortstop for several more years. Plus, acquiring a quality shortstop at midseason would be both difficult and incredibly costly. On the other hand, Nick Punto is no one's idea of a long-term third baseman and could be replaced via trade more easily. Beyond that, the Twins have no capable third-base prospects who're close to being MLB-ready.

Because of all that, I think third base is the place to target an upgrade, as it would provide a huge boost this season while also patching a hole that the Twins have going forward. Of course, finding a DH bat is never a bad idea and is certainly the place to upgrade if Terry Ryan wants to avoid making a significant trade. If Jason Tyner is still making regular starts at DH down the stretch, it means Ryan hasn't done his job very well.

Everyone says that Jason Kubel has potential, but he continues to underperform. At what point do the Twins consider trading him?

Kubel has a total of 454 career at-bats in the majors, so "continues to underperform" strikes me as a somewhat unfair label. He's 25 years old and coming back from an incredibly serious knee injury that essentially cost him two seasons in the prime of his development. Giving up on him less than 500 at-bats into his career, when the Twins lack capable bats throughout the system, would be incredibly foolish. Plus, prior to spraining his knee Saturday, Kubel was slugging .469 over the past month.

What are your feelings on Bert Blyleven belonging in the Hall of Fame?

I've always been very supportive of Bert Blyleven's candidacy. Not only is he the most deserving of any eligible player not yet in Cooperstown, he's a better candidate than many pitchers who're already Hall of Famers. The fact that he's still on the outside looking in is the biggest example of the long-standing tendency to misguidedly focus on a pitcher's win-loss record while ignoring his ability to simply prevent runs. That cost Johan Santana the Cy Young award in 2005 and has kept Blyleven out of the HOF.

I've heard rumor after rumor about the Twins dealing a young arm for a young third baseman, but if I'm not mistaken the Twins are still high on Matt Moses. How far away from the majors is Moses and does he project well enough as a player to discourage the Twins from making such a trade?

Matt Moses and Denard Span have somehow convinced fans and the media that they're big parts of the Twins' future despite not doing much of anything in the minors to suggest that's the case. Moses is hitting .231/.253/.319 with a 41-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Triple-A after hitting .249/.303/.386 with a 113-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Double-A last season. Toss in mediocre defense at third base and he's about as far from an MLB-ready prospect as you can get.

In the past you've stated that Mauer should stay at catcher, but have you softened your stance at all in light of his most recent injury?

Mauer suffered a major knee injury during his rookie season, but in three seasons since then he's been hurt exactly one time and went two entire seasons without suffering a significant injury of any kind. To me, one injury in nearly three years is not something that suggests moving the best catcher in baseball to another position is necessary. Beyond that, whether from Torii Hunter or Patrick Reusse, the recent talk of Mauer lacking toughness is absurd.

Mark Teixeira is a first baseman who set a Rangers team record by playing in 507 straight games. On Saturday he went on the disabled list with the exact same injury that sidelined Mauer recently, a strained quadriceps muscle. Teixeira landing on the DL obviously had nothing to do with catching and I've yet to see anyone suggest that it's due to lacking toughness. Teixeira landed on the DL because injuries happen. Unless they happen to Mauer more than once every three years, he's just fine.

What's your current assessment of Torii Hunter's performance? Do you think his defense has improved since last season? Can he maintain his current offensive production?

Hunter has been fantastic and his defense, while not as good as it once was, is light years ahead of where it was for much of last season. His offense has already begun to come back down to earth after an amazing start, and I'd bet against him setting career-highs in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage while walking twice a month. Regardless of that, he's been among the best handful of center fielders in the league and that figures to be true all season.

Last week Ron Coomer said that Hunter was taking better at-bats because he was being more selective. "He walked three times in the White Sox series," Coomer said. Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't two of those walks intentional? Is Hunter really taking more pitches this year and having better at-bats?

Ron Coomer bringing up two intentional walks to help support his "analysis" suggesting that Hunter has been more selective at the plate was amusing, among other things. Hunter is on pace to set career-highs in most major offensive categories, so in that sense he's clearly "having better at-bats." However, he's certainly not showing improved patience while doing so. When it comes to selectivity, here's how Hunter's current numbers compare to the rest of his career:

YEAR     P/PA     BB%     K/BB
1999 3.51 5.9 2.9
2000 3.36 4.5 4.3
2001 3.59 4.9 4.3
2002 3.57 5.3 3.7
2003 3.55 6.7 2.5
2004 3.58 6.3 2.8
2005 3.47 7.5 2.1
2006 3.56 7.1 2.5
2007 3.41 3.4 5.5

I've removed intentional walks from the equation, because it's beyond silly to factor them into Hunter's plate discipline. Once that's done, Hunter is currently sporting the worst walk rate and the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio of his decade-long career, and 2000 was the only season that Hunter saw fewer pitches per plate appearance than he has so far this year. He's having a tremendous season, but suggesting that it's primarily because of increased patience is the opposite of reality.

What do you make of the recent reports of Matt Garza's stubbornness at Triple-A?

Seeing that Matt Garza lashed out at the organization publicly last month was disappointing, although not surprising. He blitzed through the minor-league system last year, beginning the season at Single-A and ending it in the majors. Passed up for a rotation spot coming out of spring training because the Twins went with Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson, he was then left at Rochester while Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey were called up to replace Ortiz and Ponson.

Toss in some struggles at Triple-A while the Twins told him to focus on off-speed pitches and it's not difficult to see why Garza is frustrated. Of course, that doesn't make publicly criticizing the organization any smarter. To Garza's credit, he reportedly got over the frustration quickly and has since been a good citizen at Rochester. For the year, he's posted a 3.44 ERA, 66-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .238 opponent's batting average in 68 innings spread over a dozen starts.

Do you think the Twins should pull the plug on Garza and trade him?

Between this question and the previous one about Kubel, I'm disappointed that readers of this blog think that "pulling the plug" on young players with less than a full-season's worth of playing time in the majors is even close to a good idea. Garza is 23 years old, he's pitching well at Triple-A after putting together an amazing season between three minor-league levels last year, and he posted a 4.75 ERA in 47.1 innings with the Twins after a rough debut start. Patience, people.

Who do you believe will be a part of the Twins' rotation in 2008?

Assuming Francisco Liriano avoids a setback, my guess is that the rotation will be Santana, Liriano, Slowey, Garza, and Boof Bonser. Of course, knowing the Twins they'll probably talk Jose Lima or Terry Mulholland out of retirement to avoid going with such a young group.

Compare the production of Punto and Bartlett this season to Batista and Castro last season. Is our current duo much better? Why are you so easy on them and so hard on Batista and Castro?

I just opined that replacing Punto at third base would be the best move the Twins could make right now and last week in the comments section there was a heated argument after several people suggested that I've been far too critical of him, so I'd question the notion that I've been "so easy" on Punto. However, as a duo it's certainly true that I've been less critical of Bartlett and Punto than Juan Castro and Tony Batista despite similarly horrible production at the plate this season.

In addition to being awful offensively, Castro and Batista were sub par defensively and had zero chance of improving based on long track records of poor play. That three-pronged combination is one that I simply couldn't handle watching on a day-to-day basis. Bartlett and Punto have been awful offensively, but their defense is a huge step up from Castro and Batista, and in Bartlett's case at least I think he has a chance to perform significantly better than he has.

Given the Twins' huge depth of high-end pitching prospects, their lack of hitting prospects, and the anticipated return of Liriano, should they trade Santana in the next year for hitting help?

If the Twins believe they have no chance of re-signing Santana, then they'd be smart to explore a trade that could bring them a huge amount of future value for a player who can leave via free agency after next season. If the Twins think they have a chance to re-sign Santana, then they should keep him and do whatever they can to make it happen. In reality it's likely a non-issue, because Ryan has shown that he's not keen on trading pending free agents and Santana has a no-trade clause.

What's a realistic number for keeping Santana around?

It depends. If Santana is looking for the maximum long-term contract he can get, then something in excess of Barry Zito's seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants is likely. If Santana is looking to sign a huge long-term contract while doing what he can to remain in Minnesota, then something along the lines of Zito's deal is possible. It's going to be "a lot of money over a lot of years" no matter what, so it'll come down to where Santana wants to pitch.

Is Mauer going to bat second when he comes back? Do you think that's a good idea?

Mauer is indeed batting second since coming off the disabled list. And yes, I think it's a very good idea. So good, in fact, that I've suggested it here several times over the years, including as recently as two weeks ago.

When Liriano returns, what do you think about the possibility of him being converted into a closer?

Much like Mauer moving out from behind the plate, I think it's far too early to begin thinking about that.

I didn't see Matt Tolbert on your preseason Twins prospects list and I don't think I've even heard any mention of him before. Do you know anything about this kid?

A 16th-round pick in 2004, Matt Tolbert was a four-year starter at the University of Mississippi despite hitting just .288/.368/.394 in 229 games. He debuted at rookie-level Elizabethton, batting .308/.376/.500 in 33 games, but then hit just .266/.326/.365 in 111 games at high Single-A in 2005. He began last year at Double-A, but was demoted to Fort Myers after struggling. Tolbert hit .303/.360/.438 in 40 games there and earned a promotion back to New Britain, where he batted .258/.341/.363 in 72 games overall.

Tolbert came into this season with a .275/.342/.395 hitting line in 256 pro games, which matched his college numbers almost exactly and made him look like little more than a possible utility player for the Twins. Instead, he's leading the Triple-A International League in batting average, on-base percentage, and OPS. Tolbert has been limited to just 41 games at Rochester because of strained oblique muscle that sidelined him for the final two weeks of May, but he's gone 12-for-26 (.462) since returning.

For the year, Tolbert is hitting .378/.449/.575 with three homers, 15 total extra-base hits, and an 18-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That's so out of line with the rest of his track record that it's difficult not to label it a fluke, but he's not showing signs of slowing down. Beyond that, while his breakout is fueled by an unsustainably high batting average, Tolbert has also shown significantly improved power. However, it's only been 127 at-bats and he's 25 years old, so I remain highly skeptical.

Any chance that the Twins could be in the hunt for Elijah Dukes?

Elijah Dukes has a chance to be a very good player, but given his off-field issues he also has about as much chance of playing for the Twins as I do.

What are your thoughts on the new stadium? Is it worth creating a small stadium with no parking lot, no retractable roof, and no serious home field advantage?

I'm thrilled that the Twins will have a new ballpark in 2010, but I do think they'll eventually regret some of the design decisions.

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

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