July 20, 2008

Twins Notes: Service Time, The New Jacque, and Rumors

  • Francisco Liriano's agent made headlines over the weekend for filing a grievance with the Players Association alleging that the Twins are keeping Liriano at Triple-A to control his service time and delay his arbitration eligibility (and eventually his free agency). Liriano is predictably being ripped to shreds by fans and media members who feel that he's out of line, but in reality his agent is seemingly much more to blame for the situation.

    Ultimately Liriano has chosen to be represented by his agent and should certainly be held accountable for statements made on his behalf, but it sounds like Liriano expressed frustration with still being at Rochester--understandable given that he's 8-0 with a 2.53 ERA over his last 10 starts there--and his agent fanned the flames by making a formal complaint. Luckily for Liriano it appears as though both Ron Gardenhire and Bill Smith have directed most of their vitriol at his agent. Here's Liriano's take:

    I don't know why they're keeping me down here. I don't know why. I'm a much better pitcher now than I was. My velocity is coming back, I'm throwing more sliders, everything is coming together. It's not frustrating. I've got to be patient and do my job. Just keep on doing what I'm doing now.

    Those certainly don't sound like the words of someone who's the driving force behind a grievance alleging a serious offense, so Liriano should probably be cut some slack. It seems unlikely to me that service time has played the biggest factor in the Twins' handling of Liriano. Instead, it's probable that they feel guilty about the way he was rushed to the majors in April and because of that are going out of their way to avoid bringing him back before he's completely ready this time around.

    In April the Twins called up Liriano from Triple-A despite both his on-field performance and advice from the Rochester coaching staff suggesting that he was far from ready. He predictably bombed, going 0-3 with an 11.32 ERA before being sent back down with all sorts of confidence issues and new questions about his long-term outlook. As recently as three weeks ago he turned in back-to-back poor outings at Rochester, so it's tough to argue that they've kept him at Triple-A significantly longer than necessary.

    Toss in the fact that Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins are all pitching well and Livan Hernandez's horrible ERA apparently doesn't bother any of the team's decision-makers, and it's easy to see an explanation for why Liriano remains at Triple-A that has little to do with service time. Plus, if the Twins were so concerned about managing his service time at all costs they never would have given Liriano a rotation spot in April to begin with.

  • My guess is that the Twins' handing of Liriano has little to do with service-time ramifications, but you wouldn't see complaints from me even if it did. If keeping Liriano at Rochester for a few weeks longer than needed means that he'll be under the team's control for an "extra" year, it'd make plenty of sense. Unlike Johan Santana finally getting a full-time shot in the rotation or Jason Bartlett finally replacing Juan Castro at shortstop, there's reason to be skeptical that Liriano is ready to immediately thrive.

    Keeping Santana in the bullpen years after he'd shown himself to be the team's most dominant pitcher was overkill. Letting Bartlett beat up on Triple-A pitching for a third straight season while Castro stunk at shortstop was overkill. Asking Liriano to make a few extra starts at Rochester to instill confidence that he won't be a mess if the Twins call him up this time is totally different. Plus, would you rather have Liriano in the Twins' rotation for the past few weeks or for all of 2012?

    You won't find anyone more eager to dump Hernandez from the rotation than me and no one cries louder for young players to be given fair shakes, but being overly cautious with Liriano is a no-brainer and if keeping him at Triple-A for a few extra weeks means delaying his free agency an extra year, that's an easy call to make whether the Twins did it on purpose or not. Hopefully his agent's grievance will be deemed spurious and Liriano will be called up soon, so the focus can shift to his improving stuff.

  • Over at Stick and Ball Guy's blog, Ubelmann notes that Jason Kubel and Jacque Jones have very similar career numbers against left-handed pitching. Jones has hit .230 with a .628 OPS in 1,096 plate appearances against southpaws, while Kubel has hit .217 with a .625 OPS in 190 plate appearances against them. In the early days of this blog one of my frequent complaints was that Gardenhire refused to bench Jones against lefties despite his having zero business being in the lineup against them.

    So far the same is true of Kubel, which is why despite being one of his biggest supporters you'll never see me complain about Craig Monroe starting over him against a left-hander. With that said, it's worth noting that Gardenhire played Jones every day despite his complete inability to hit lefties, while Kubel has basically always been a platoon player. In seven years with the Twins, 23 percent of Jones' playing time came versus lefties, whereas Kubel has batted against a southpaw just 16 percent of the time.

    In addition to their nearly identical struggles against lefties, Jones and Kubel have also posted similar career numbers against righties. Jones has hit .290/.340/.476 in 3,897 plate appearances, while Kubel has hit .275/.328/.463 in 887 plate appearances. My guess it that Kubel will surpass Jones' numbers against righties, because he's still just 26 years old (Jones had his two best seasons at 27 and 28) and is improving the further away he gets from knee surgery, but so far they've been very close.

  • Left-handed batters tend to fare much worse against left-handed pitchers than right-handed batters do against right-handed pitchers. For instance, left-handed batters throughout baseball have been 12 percent worse against lefties than righties this year. By comparison, right-handed batters are just seven percent worse against righties than lefties. Because they typically have far more extreme platoon splits, most left-handed batters are ideal candidates to platoon.

    Elite left-handed batters tend to be good enough overall that they remain strong options against lefties despite the big drop in production. However, when it comes to non-elite left-handed batters like Jones or Kubel teams can usually get better production against lefties from even a mediocre right-handed batter. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are certainly elite left-handed batters, yet even they've been mediocre at best versus lefties during their careers.

    Mauer has hit .326/.419/.504 against righties and .291/.352/.367 against lefties, which is a 20-percent drop in production. Morneau has hit .296/.369/.534 versus righties and .258/.304/.437 versus lefties, which is an 18-percent drop in production. Kubel and Jones are similar in that they've been 17 percent and 22 percent worse against lefties, respectively, but the difference with Morneau and Mauer is that they're good enough overall that they remain relatively productive after the versus-lefties drop.

  • Carlos Gomez's measly .285 on-base percentage now ranks 82nd among the 83 hitters who qualify for the AL batting title, yet Gardenhire still refuses to bat him anywhere but the leadoff spot:

    You don't want to devastate him any more than he already is because he's fighting it pretty hard. If I have to move him down, I have to move him down. I'm just giving him every opportunity, and we'll see. ... You only lead off as the No. 1 hitter of the game once, and then it rolls around. I always find that amazing how much emphasis gets put on that.

    Gardenhire is correct in the sense that the physical act of "leading off" tends to be vastly overrated in terms of importance, but the much bigger issues are that Gomez a) makes a tremendous amount of outs and rarely gets on base in front of the Twins' best hitters, and b) is on pace for 125-150 more plate appearances than he'd get batting ninth. Gardenhire has ignored those issues because Gomez runs very fast, but to steal his own line: "I always find that amazing how much emphasis gets put on that."

  • Over the past couple weeks the Minneapolis Star Tribune has provided multiple updates on Adrian Beltre trade speculation, which has in turn provided a good example of why you'll rarely see coverage of trade rumors in this space. First, here's a note from July 9:

    Trade Winds

    While the Twins don't have a pressing need heading into the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, they do view shortstop and third base as two positions where they could benefit by adding a proven veteran. They have had internal discussions about Seattle third baseman Adrian Beltre, for example, but there are no indications those talks have extended to the Mariners.

    Next, here's a follow-up note from July 14:

    Twins ask Seattle about Beltre

    The Twins recently contacted Seattle to inquire about third baseman Adrian Beltre as they look for ways to boost their offense against lefthanded pitching, a club source said. It's unclear how deep the discussions got, but the Twins decided to act on the internal discussions they had about the Mariners slugger.

    And finally, here's the latest tidbit from yesterday:

    Beltre trade doesn't appear likely

    After exploring a trade for Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre, the Twins came away feeling they won't have a match. Seattle's asking price is steep because Beltre is under contract for next season and is one of the Mariners' better all-around players.

    To recap: First the Twins talked amongst themselves and decided that they'd be interested in acquiring one of the AL's better all-around third basemen. Then they actually contacted the Mariners to discuss a potential trade for Beltre. And finally they realized that the Mariners weren't going to trade him cheaply, thus ending the potential for a deal. Throughout all of that my e-mailbox and the comments section here were filled with the same question: "Why aren't you talking about the Beltre rumors?!" That's why.

  • On a somewhat related note, the Brewers acquired Ray Durham from the Giants over the weekend for a pair of marginal prospects. Durham is 36 years old and has lost much of his range defensively at second base, but he's hitting .293/.385/.414 and may have been an interesting option if the Twins were willing to slide Alexi Casilla to shortstop. Casilla has played almost strictly second base in the majors, but saw the majority of his action at shortstop in the minors and certainly has a shortstop-caliber arm.
  • Speaking of shortstops, the Washington Post recently ran a good article about Cristian Guzman's comeback. After signing a four-year, $16.8 million deal with the Nationals, Guzman hit just .219 in 2005 and missed all of 2006 with a shoulder injury. He also missed a big chunk of last season with a thumb injury, but has hit .318/.354/.439 in 141 games dating back to last year. At 30 years old he's no longer legging out triples or swiping bases, but Guzman finally made his second All-Star appearance.
  • Here's an enlightening quote from the Twins' general manager on Hernandez having a 10-6 record despite a 5.29 ERA:

    I'll take the wins. Who do you want, a guy who's 10-15 with a 2.80 ERA or a guy who's 16-8 with a 7.00 ERA? I'll take the 16-8.

    My hope is that Smith was just sticking up for Hernandez and being literal with his response, because certainly at the most basic level 16 wins are far better than 10 wins. If instead the man in charge of running the team honestly believes that "a guy who's 16-8 with a 7.00 ERA" has out-performed "a guy who's 10-15 with a 2.80 ERA" ... well, then the Twins may not be in the greatest hands (and Smith may not think much of Bert Blyleven's Hall of Fame case or Scott Baker's "loss" yesterday afternoon).

  • It sounds like both Michael Cuddyer and Nick Punto may be sidelined into August. Denard Span will continue to start in right field after hitting .309/.415/.413 with strong defense through his first 28 games. Brendan Harris will continue to start at shortstop despite his Revised Zone Rating ranking third-worst in all of baseball among the 36 players with at least 250 innings at the position, although he's made up for the lack of range recently by hitting .346/.379/.580 over the past two dozen games.
  • Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com LaVelle E. Neal III reports that four of the top 15 from my annual ranking of the Twins' top prospects may be done for the season. No. 3 prospect Tyler Robertson has been shut down with shoulder soreness, No. 11 prospect Chris Parmelee broke his wrist last month, No. 13 prospect Deibinson Romero broke his leg "falling in the dugout while catching a foul ball" last week, and No. 14 prospect Joe Benson is out with a stress fracture in his back.
  • Here's a new(ish) Twins blog to check out, complete with a weekly podcast: Twinscast.
  • Speaking of podcasts (sort of), while shooting one of my videos for NBCSports.com recently it struck me that putting my camera equipment to use for this blog would probably make some sense too. The only problem is that nothing came to mind in terms of a worthwhile blog-related video. Being able to stare at my spectacular beard and amazing physique is nice, but it'd be good to have some decent content as well. If you have any suggestions, e-mail me or drop a note in the comments section.

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

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