August 7, 2008

Twins Notes: Washed Up, Called Up, and Used Up

  • Mercifully designated for assignment last week after posting a 5.48 ERA in 23 starts with the Twins, Livan Hernandez was claimed off waivers by the Rockies yesterday. After trying unsuccessfully to get something in return for Hernandez, the Twins decided to simply let the Rockies assume the remaining $1.7 million on his contract. Unfortunately the Twins weren't able to keep Hernandez in the AL, where they could have potentially faced him down the stretch.

    On the other hand, dumping a washed-up veteran right-hander on the Rockies is quickly becoming an annual tradition. Last August the Twins pawned Ramon Ortiz off on the Rockies, somehow managing to get Matt Macri in return before Ortiz predictably posted a 7.62 ERA in Colorado. Ortiz fetching a fairly useful player in Macri would seemingly suggest that Hernandez could bring back a marginal prospect, but ditching him and getting a rebate is certainly return enough. Good luck on Planet Coors, Livan.

  • After signing one-year deals that drew tons of criticism in this space Hernandez and Ortiz had eerily similar Twins careers, getting off to solid starts that briefly made me look silly before completely falling apart. Ortiz signed for $3.1 million and posted a 3.80 ERA through seven starts, but had a 6.75 ERA over his next 46 innings and was dumped on August 15. Hernandez signed for $5 million and posted a 3.88 ERA through 10 starts, but had a 6.87 ERA over his next 75 innings and was dumped on August 1.

    If there's a lesson to be learned it's that you can only out-run your track record for so long before being a horrible pitcher catches up to you. In both cases a veteran pitcher had seen his performance decline significantly over the course of multiple seasons and was a poor bet to be successful for the Twins. In both cases the Twins ignored that and signed them anyway, wasting millions of dollars and dozens of starts before realizing their mistake and cutting bait.

    Perhaps more than any other team the Twins should know that talent trumps experience, yet they go for the washed-up veteran route every season. This year it was spending $9 million on Hernandez and Craig Monroe, who both struck me as poor bets and obvious mistakes. Last year it was Ortiz, Sidney Ponson, Rondell White, and Jeff Cirillo, each of whom worked out poorly. In 2006 it was Tony Batista and Juan Castro, who were predictably disasters. At some point it'd be nice to see a lesson learned.

  • Hoping that Hernandez stayed in the AL to face the Twins was mostly a joke, but maybe not totally. Released by the Twins in June, Juan Rincon signed a minor-league deal with the Indians two weeks later, was called up from Triple-A shortly after that, and served up a homer to Denard Span in the eighth inning Sunday. Some might say that was the first time Rincon has helped the Twins since 2006 and he has a 7.45 ERA in eight appearances with the Indians.
  • It took five months longer than it probably should have and involved paying Monroe over $21,000 per plate appearance to hit .202/.274/.405, but the Twins finally followed my advice from way back in spring training and gave Randy Ruiz an opportunity. Part of my objection to handing Monroe $3.82 million was that guys like Ruiz are freely available and capable of filling the same role for $3.5 million less. Here was my take when Ruiz failed to make the Opening Day roster despite a strong spring:

    A 30-year-old veteran of nine seasons and over 3,600 trips to the plate in the minors, Ruiz has yet to get even a sniff of the big leagues despite a .300/.370/.522 career hitting line. ... He has a lengthy track record of success in the minors and looks capable of filling a specific niche in the majors as a right-handed platoon bat, but unfortunately for Ruiz he picked the wrong year to make the Twins.

    I'd argue that signing a scrap-heap bat like Ruiz for $350,000 makes more sense than handing $3.8 million to Monroe, but that ship sailed months ago. ... Strictly in terms of hitting ability the only real difference between Monroe and Ruiz is that the Tigers gave Monroe a chance in 2003 after he put up a string of impressive seasons in the minors. Ruiz has yet to get that chance and probably won't.

    On one hand it's frustrating that the Twins ignored Monroe's recent track record and basically wasted $3.5 million on another mediocre veteran who was so obviously washed up that even a lowly blogger could spot it. On the other hand, the Twins deserve at least some credit for eventually realizing their mistake with Monroe and cutting him loose while giving Ruiz his first chance in the big leagues after a decade of putting up big numbers in the minors.

    At 30 years old Ruiz is far from a potential star and his considerable flaws have conspired to keep him from the majors, but when the role simply requires platooning at designated hitter against left-handers and providing a decent bat off the bench, he's been capable of filling it for years now. Ruiz has spent a decade in the minors, posting an OPS above .800 every single year, and has hit .302/.369/.524 in over 4,000 career plate appearances, including .320/.366/.536 in 111 games at Triple-A this season.

  • It's been clear for a while now that the Twins' bullpen is shaky at best, but back-to-back implosions against the worst team in the league likely hammered the point home for a lot of people. Pat Neshek's season-ending elbow injury has proven to be a huge blow to the Twins and the bullpen has gradually been unraveling since he went down in mid-May. Ron Gardenhire pleaded for a 12- and even 13-man pitching staff, but fixing a bullpen is something that can't be done with quantity over quality.

    In theory a seven-man bullpen makes sense when a relief corps is struggling, but having two different mop-up men and a pair of situational left-handers doesn't keep Gardenhire from running the most reliable setup man into the ground. Instead, Matt Guerrier gets constant work and Craig Breslow sees action once per week, leaving the Twins' bullpen simultaneously overcrowded and lacking depth as multiple spots are filled with guys who aren't trusted in anything resembling a key spot.

    Things have gotten so bad for the bullpen that starters are now being asked to remain in games longer than they normally would and Gardenhire is finally willing to use closer Joe Nathan is a less rigid role. Both of those changes make plenty of sense despite backfiring in the back-to-back meltdowns against the Mariners, and in fact utilizing Nathan outside of the ninth inning and in more non-save situations is something that I've long been campaigning for in this space. Here's Gardenhire on his new approach:

    I'll take my chances with Nathan. We're going to have to be able to do those things. We're struggling. Nathan is going to have to come in and get some outs in the eighth. That's the way it is going to be from here on out.

    If there's one thing that you'll never see me complain about--and some might suggest that there's truly only one thing--it's the Twins using their best, highest-paid pitcher in the most important spots.

  • Guerrier is clearly showing signs of wearing down, which makes sense given that he's on track to log 85 innings and has appeared in 40 of the team's 78 games since Neshek went down, including working 10 of the past 15 games. Meanwhile, Nathan was used in the eighth inning Tuesday night for just the third time this season, has thrown as many as 20 pitches just three times in the team's last 75 games, and is on pace for a career-low 65 innings.

    Gardenhire has long deserved criticism for failing to take full advantage of Nathan by holding him back for save chances that never materialize no matter how many leads are blown before the ninth inning, which is why it's encouraging to see his mind changing about Nathan's usage even if that change was brought about by the bullpen's struggles. Giving Nathan the occasional five-out save opportunity and letting him pitch in crucial non-save situations is the easiest, most effective way to improve the bullpen.

    Unfortunately, it may also be the only way to avoid Guerrier joining Neshek to the disabled list. Dennys Reyes is only effective against lefties and has been used for an average of 1.8 outs per appearance. Given his lack of workload a backup situational southpaw is usually overkill, which is why Breslow has appeared in just eight games during the past six weeks. Boof Bonser rightfully hasn't earned anyone's trust yet as a reliever, so his workload is sporadic at best and involves primarily mopping up.

    All of which means that if Gardenhire doesn't loosen the reigns on Nathan, he's more or less left to choose between Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Brian Bass for every crucial, non-save situation. And Crain can only be ridden so hard coming off shoulder surgery, which is why Guerrier pitches in nearly every close game and Bass inexplicably leads the league in relief innings while repeatedly being allowed to fail miserably in high-leverage situations that he has no business in.

  • Giving Nathan a longer leash has the potential to make a huge impact while lessening some of the mounting pressure on Guerrier, but even if Gardenhire shocks me by following through on his plans to extend Nathan's usage the Twins are still at least one reliable arm short of a quality bullpen and miles away from matching the outstanding, deep relief corps that they've leaned on so heavily over the past half-dozen seasons.

    My suggestion last week that the Twins should go after LaTroy Hawkins didn't pan out because they were apparently unwilling to part with a marginal prospect for him despite being interested. Hawkins would have helped, but there are plenty of mediocre relievers like him who're readily available and could at least give the Twins another decent arm to rely on. If nothing else Bobby Korecky deserves another chance after posting a 3.38 ERA and 61-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61.1 innings at Triple-A.

  • Lost in the back-to-back ugly games from the pitching staff is that the lineup churned out 20 runs in three games against the Mariners. Since scoring just 3.8 runs per game in April to rank as the league's second-worst offense, the Twins have averaged 5.5 runs in May, 5.1 runs in June, 5.5 runs in July, and 5.2 runs so far in August. Here are the individual hitting numbers for players who've batted at least 100 times since May 1 (sorted by OPS):
                           PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
    Justin Morneau 378 .328 .405 .532 .937
    Denard Span 129 .318 .411 .505 .916
    Joe Mauer 327 .324 .425 .471 .896
    Jason Kubel 253 .282 .360 .518 .878
    Nick Punto 131 .291 .341 .470 .811
    Alexi Casilla 273 .313 .351 .424 .775
    Delmon Young 326 .300 .347 .417 .764
    Brian Buscher 126 .308 .333 .419 .752
    Brendan Harris 294 .258 .315 .390 .705
    Michael Cuddyer 219 .244 .320 .371 .691
    Craig Monroe 129 .181 .264 .397 .661
    Mike Lamb 165 .253 .291 .353 .644
    Carlos Gomez 347 .257 .296 .346 .642

    Seeing that type of production from Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer should come as no surprise and Span has rightfully received a ton of credit for his emergence over the past month, but Jason Kubel has sort of flown under the radar. Or at least he did until going 4-for-5 with a pair of homers and a double Tuesday night. Together they've given the Twins four hitters with an OPS between .878 and .937, which goes a long way toward explaining the lineup's extended breakout.

    Since May 1 there are 15 hitters in the AL who've posted an OPS above .875 while coming to the plate at least 250 times, and the Twins have three of them batting 3-4-5 in the lineup behind a rookie with a .400 on-base percentage who keeps proving me wrong by showing no signs of slowing down. Hell, even Nick Punto is back to hitting like it's 2006 again and Michael Cuddyer is finally nearing a return. Between the strong lineup and shaky bullpen, this definitely isn't your older brother's Twins team.

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

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