June 4, 2008

Quarterly Questions (Part 1: Twins Questions)

Last week's quarterly call for reader-submitted questions led to over 150 being posed between e-mails and the comments section. Responding to all of them would be pretty tough, but I'll tackle as many as possible by breaking up the answers into a pair of entries. Below you'll find the first installment, which covers questions related specifically to the Twins. A second installment covering non-Twins questions that are thrown together in the "random" pile is coming soon.

With the AL Central suddenly so weak, do the Twins actually have a shot at winning the division?

Absolutely. My guess before the season was that the Twins would win 82-85 games. Right now they're on pace to go 85-77 and it looks like it won't take a whole lot more than that to claim the division title.

Setting aside Torii Hunter's contract, would you rather have him or Carlos Gomez this season?

Here's how they stack up so far:

             G      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+      WPA      RZR
Hunter 57 .278 .339 .463 117 0.60 .861
Gomez 53 .278 .309 .404 98 -0.63 .929

Torii Hunter has a 30-point edge in on-base percentage and a 61-point edge in slugging percentage while making a more positive impact according to Win Probability Added. Revised Zone Rating shows Carlos Gomez with more range in center field and he's been more valuable on the bases, but it's tough to make an argument for him being better than Hunter right now. Gomez has been better than expected offensively and very good defensively, but Hunter remains one of the elite center fielders in baseball.

What do you make of Alexi Casilla's hot start? Small sample size? Improved skills? Where do you see him long term?

Alexi Casilla has hit .293/.367/.366 in 1,700 plate appearances in the minors, including .257/.344/.316 in 129 games at Triple-A, so batting .328/.392/.484 with 15 RBIs in 19 games is a sample-size fluke. With that said, even ignoring the unsustainable results he's looked nothing like the jittery rookie who was a mess last year. He ranked No. 6 on my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects two years ago and still looks to me like a decent all-around second baseman (or perhaps shortstop) long term.

Have the Twins accidently stumbled upon a long-term solution to their middle-infield problems by moving Brendan Harris to shortstop and Alexi Casilla emerging at second base?

Casilla is almost surely atop the long-term depth chart at second base given the organization's lack of other appealing options, but counting on Brendan Harris as the long-term shortstop would be a huge mistake. He's overmatched there defensively and as a .267/.330/.398 career hitter doesn't look capable of making up for a sub par glove with his bat. He's a palatable short-term starter or long-term backup, but Harris is far from the answer at shortstop.

How come most of the Twins' second basemen are natural shortstops?

This is true throughout baseball. A large percentage of second basemen are former shortstops who switched positions because of problems with their range or arm. In the minor leagues teams will often keep a player at shortstop for as long as possible even if he's not likely to end up there in the majors, which is why there are always far more good prospects at shortstop than second base.

How often does Dennys Reyes throw more on-field warm-up tosses than in-game pitches?

Relievers are allowed up to eight warm-up throws prior to entering a game. Dennys Reyes has thrown eight or fewer pitches in 62 of his 145 appearances (42.8 percent) with the Twins. As a wise man once said, it's a great gig if you can get it.

Based on his performance one-third of the way through the season, where is Delmon Young in terms of his development and how has watching him every night changed your perception about his potential?

My perception of Delmon Young's potential hasn't really changed much because of 10 weeks worth of games. When the Twins acquired Young this winter my analysis was that his long-term ceiling was overstated by people who focused on old prospect rankings and optimistic quotes about his supposed power potential rather than his actual performance. That remains true and many of the flaws that he's shown with the Twins were perfectly visible previously. People just weren't as willing to see them.

Obviously Young hasn't looked great at the plate, but can we take his increased walk rate as a sign that something could turn around for him soon?

Young showed almost no plate discipline in 2006 or 2007, so the fact that he's drawing even a modest amount of walks so far this year is encouraging. With that said, part of his increased walk rate may be due to hitting seventh in the batting order, where teams are perhaps more willing to pitch around him with non-threats in the eighth and ninth spots. Young drew just three walks in 92 plate appearances as a No. 3 hitter, but has walked 13 times in 133 plate appearances batting seventh.

Breaking his plate discipline down beyond walk rate, last season Young led the league by swinging at 63.3 percent of the pitches he saw, including 41.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. This year he's swung at 56.1 percent overall and 37.1 percent outside the strike zone. On one hand he's cut both rates by a significant amount, which is certainly a good thing. On the other hand, he's still swinging at the second-most pitches overall and third-most pitches outside the strike zone.

Is it my imagination or does Delmon Young really look that bad playing in the field? Are there some advanced statistics that quantify his defense in left field, relative to other left fielders?

Young has good speed, but looks lost at times trying to track down fly balls in the gap and has already made a handful of brutal plays. If you ignore the huge difference in arm strength, Young looks an awful lot like Shannon Stewart in left field, canceling out his speed with poor routes and bad instincts. With that said, his overall defensive numbers have been fairly average. Among 17 left fielders who qualify for the batting title, Young ranks 10th in Revised Zone Rating and leads the position in assists.

If the Twins decide to trade Livan Hernandez, what can they hope to get in return?

There were about a dozen variations of this question submitted. If Ramon Ortiz can fetch a mid-level prospect like Matt Macri despite posting a 5.14 ERA for the Twins, then Livan Hernandez can probably fetch something similar. I'd be surprised if the Twins traded him.

If the Twins do trade Livan Hernandez, where would you like him to end up?

Pitching for the White Sox.

I've never heard Glen Perkins talked about in the same breath as Kevin Slowey or Matt Garza, so what's his upside at this point?

Over the years I've probably been a little higher on Glen Perkins and a little lower on Kevin Slowey than most people, but have always viewed their long-term potential as relatively interchangeable. Back in 2007, my ranking of the Twins' top 40 prospects had Matt Garza first, Perkins third, and Slowey fourth. Both then and now they've each looked to me like solid mid-rotation guys with the potential to possibly be No. 2 starters if everything breaks right. So far Perkins has a 3.69 ERA in 68.1 career innings.

How do you see Kevin Slowey projecting out as a major-league starter?

To continue the comparison from the previous answer, Slowey has amazing command and posted far more impressive minor-league numbers, but Perkins strikes me as having better secondary pitches and superior all-around stuff. They're both fly-ball pitchers without exceptional velocity, which as we've already seen makes them susceptible to serving up lots of homers and figures to keep them from approaching anything resembling ace status. So far Slowey has a 4.36 ERA in 107.1 career innings.

Do you know how to send Lew Ford fan mail in Japan?

Here's the address for his team, the Hanshin Tigers.

Are you surprised that Lew Ford still has a fan?


Is Johan Santana starting to drop off? I don't mean that he's going to become a bad pitcher, but is he starting to look like the 10th-best pitcher in baseball instead of the best?

He certainly hasn't been baseball's best pitcher thus far, but recent talk of Johan Santana declining seems overblown. People like Buster Olney of ESPN.com have focused on the fact that his numbers so far with the Mets aren't up to the standards he set while with the Twins, but that's misleading given that Santana typically got off to slow starts in Minnesota. He's made a dozen starts for the Mets and is 7-3 with a 3.20 ERA. On average from 2004-2007, he went 5-4 with a 3.93 ERA through a dozen starts.

In fact, seven wins and a 3.20 ERA are both the best marks Santana has ever had through 12 starts. Santana's velocity is down somewhat and perhaps because of that he hasn't racked up quite as many strikeouts, but the overall quality of his pitching hasn't changed. His Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) with the Mets is 3.46, which ranks sixth among MLB starters. While with the Twins from 2004-2007, his xFIPs were 3.28, 3.35, 3.42, and 3.55.

If you were the power-starved Twins, would it be time to maybe float an offer to Barry Bonds?

Aside from me being forced to choose between simultaneous marriage proposals from Marisa Miller, Elisha Cuthbert, Jenna Fischer, Keeley Hazell, and Mila Kunis, it's tough to think of something that has less chance of happening than the Twins signing Barry Bonds, although I'd be in favor of both things.

Can Nick Blackburn continue to have this type of success?

Nick Blackburn has exceeded my expectations enough to make me appear plenty silly for questioning Baseball America ranking him as the Twins' top prospect prior to the Santana trade, but he's due to come back down to earth. His xFIP is 4.16 while his actual ERA is 3.32, in part because 20 percent of his runs allowed have been unearned. Beyond that, opponents are hitting .303/.344/.423 against him, which doesn't jibe with a 3.32 ERA.

In ranking Blackburn as the team's No. 26 prospect back in February, my write-up suggested that he "is likely MLB-ready and should soon be able to carve out a niche as either a back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever." Only when compared to BA's surprising ranking does that seem like a bad thing. He throws strikes, induces ground balls, and keeps the ball in the ballpark, but at most my projection may have changed from "back-of-the-rotation starter" to "middle-of-the-rotation starter."

What do you think about Joe Posnanski saying Ron Gardenhire is the best manager in baseball?

I think Joe Posnanski is an extraordinary writer and extremely smart person who is very wrong about at least one thing.

Did you really tell Joe Posnanski that he's bats*** insane?

Yes, but in a very nice way.

Where would you rank Ron Gardenhire on a list of the best managers in baseball?

This is tough to say without watching every other manager 100 times per season--which is no doubt partly why Posnanski thinks so highly of someone he watches a dozen times a year--but my guess is that even with some very large, incredibly frustrating faults Gardenhire is still slightly above average.

Any thoughts on the uproar in Rochester about the Twins not promoting prospects fast enough to Triple-A while the team suffers?

I'm sure fans in Rochester don't like watching a last-place team, but the primary purpose of the Twins' minor-league system is to develop players and help the big-league team. Actually putting a successful Triple-A team on the field is secondary, although it'd be beneficial for everyone involved if the Twins had better depth there. Rochester complaining about not having enough good prospects is a bit like Mike Tyson's sparring partner complaining that he's being hit too hard.

Is Luke Hughes for real?

That depends on your definition of "for real." Luke Hughes had a solid 2007 season at Double-A, but narrowly missed cracking my ranking of the Twins' top 40 prospects heading into this year because he previously hit just .238/.293/.339 in two seasons at Single-A and bounced around defensively. Sent back to New Britain for a second stint this season, Hughes has hit .335/.407/.618 with 13 homers, 25 total extra-base hits, and a 42-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 47 games.

Plenty of prospects fare better when allowed to repeat a level and even with this season's big numbers he's just a .272/.331/.411 career hitter. On the other hand, he's now hit .302/.375/.506 in 139 games at Double-A and at 23 years old is still among the youngest players on the New Britain roster. I'm not yet ready to declare him one of the Twins' elite prospects, but his stock has risen dramatically and Hughes is a very intriguing player if his glove proves good enough to avoid a full-time switch to the outfield.

Are you getting (or do you already have) seats in the new Twins ballpark?

I'll definitely be going to significantly more games once the new ballpark opens in 2010, but likely won't be buying full season tickets. Unless something changes between now and then, my job at Rotoworld makes it tough to spend too many weeknights away from the MLB Extra Innings package on DirecTV.

Do you think the Twins will be a World Series contender in 2010, when they open the new ballpark?

I'm not sure exactly what the definition of "World Series contender" is at this point, but they'll certainly be a playoff contender and you never know what can happen in October.

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

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