February 21, 2009

Twins Sign Joe Crede

Selected out of a Missouri high school by the White Sox in the fifth round of the 1996 draft, Joe Crede made his major-league debut in September of 2000, got another cup of coffee in 2001, and then took over for Jose Valentin and Tony Graffanino as Chicago's starting third baseman in mid-2002. He'd hit .291/.346/.462 in the minors, including .289/.345/.504 at Triple-A, so when Crede batted .285/.311/.515 with 12 homers in 51 games as a 24-year-old he officially became the White Sox's starter at third base.

He held that job for the next six seasons, hitting .257/.306/.447 in 3,010 plate appearances spread over 798 games, and came up big during the White Sox's run to the World Series in 2005, going 13-for-45 (.289) with four homers and 11 RBIs in 12 games. In the 108-year history of the White Sox only Robin Ventura, Willie Kamm, and Bill Melton have played more third base than Crede and there's a decent chance that he's heard more anti-Twins pregame speeches than any player in baseball history.

After playing 102 games against the Twins during the past nine seasons Crede has decided to join the enemy, signing an incentive-laden one-year contract Saturday. Over the past couple months there have been countless reports about Crede asking for more than $7 million in guaranteed money for this year, which should have sounded absurd to everyone but agent Scott Boras after significant back problems caused him to miss 180 games over the past two seasons.

Instead he ended up with just $2.5 million in guaranteed money, plus another $4.5 million in potential incentives based on playing time. There's a huge distinction between paying $7 million and potentially paying $7 million if Crede stays healthy and productive all season, and that difference is what makes the signing a smart one for the Twins despite the point I've tried to make throughout the offseason that platooning Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris is a perfectly acceptable fallback plan at third base.

Neither player is anything special, but Buscher is a .297/.354/.411 hitter against righties and Harris is a .295/.360/.440 hitter against lefties, so if platooned properly they're capable of matching and perhaps topping the .266/.336/.436 line that MLB third basemen as a whole produced in 2008 or Crede's career .257/.306/.447 line. They'd give back some runs on defense compared to the average third baseman and more runs compared to Crede, but at a cost of $750,000 the Buscher-Harris combo is underrated.

In particular paying under $1 million for a mediocre platoon was a better option than rumored targets like Casey Blake, Garrett Atkins, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Ty Wigginton who wouldn't provide enough of an upgrade over Buscher and Harris to warrant the cost to acquire them. However, signing Crede is a slightly different story. Crede isn't the huge boost over a Buscher-Harris platoon that most Twins fans seem to think, but if healthy he does represent an upgrade and the price is definitely right.

Crede is hardly a great player and even a mediocre .257/.306/.447 career line overstates his bat thanks to calling Chicago's power-boosting ballpark home, as he's hit .258/.302/.431 on the road. He's good at playing defense and hitting for power, but very bad at hitting for average, getting on base, and staying healthy. When he's not hobbled by back problems Crede is more or less an average all-around third baseman, which is certainly something that the Twins have lacked since Corey Koskie's departure.

They were in position to get solid, cheap production at third base by platooning Buscher and Harris, but there are still several ways for the Crede signing to work out well for the Twins. The best-case scenario is that he hits .260/.320/.450 with 20 homers and strong defense while staying healthy for 140 games, at which point the Twins will have spent $7 million of otherwise unused payroll space to upgrade the position a decent but unspectacular amount.

However, even if more back problems strike Crede the contract will still work out reasonably well if he remains healthy and productive for a while before heading to the disabled list. In other words, as long as his back problems occur suddenly and sideline him immediately rather than lingering and hurting his performance the Twins will simply have dropped a couple million dollars for a temporary upgrade before turning back to the Buscher-Harris platoon.

Unfortunately there's also a worst-case scenario, which is that more back problems lead to a repeat of 2007 when he hit .216/.258/.317 before undergoing surgery. Because of the incentive-heavy deal that may only cost the team $2.5 million, but the playing-time incentives will also motivate Crede to continue playing at far less than full strength and the games lost before ditching him could be much more costly. In that scenario the Twins spend millions on a hobbled downgrade from the Buscher-Harris platoon.

Given the excess payroll room, incentive-driven nature of the deal, and continued presence of Buscher and Harris as fallback options the only way for the Crede signing to really hurt the Twins is if his back problems reoccur without sending him to the DL and the plug isn't pulled quickly. After missing 112 games in 2007 and 65 games last year there's a good chance that Crede's back will act up again, but at least signing all of those washed-up veterans has given the Twins plenty of plug-pulling practice.

February 19, 2009

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2009: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Previous Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2009: 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40

5. Shooter Hunt | Starter | DOB: 8/86 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2008-1

2008 RK 4 4 0.47 19.0 4 0 34 6
A- 7 7 5.46 31.1 26 2 34 27

Rarely do the Twins target young pitchers with sub par control, but Shooter Hunt's electric stuff was too much to pass up with the 31st overall pick in June's draft. Ranked by Baseball America as the draft's fourth-best pitching prospect, he had a 2.65 ERA, .204 opponent's average, and 230 strikeouts in 200.1 innings at Tulane University and whiffed 68 in 50.1 frames while holding opponents to a .172 mark in his pro debut. However, Hunt struggled to throw strikes once he moved from rookie-ball to Single-A.

After walking 3.8 batters per nine innings at Tulane he handed out 27 free passes over 31.1 innings at Beloit, which led to a bloated 5.46 ERA despite opponents hitting .230 with a .328 slugging percentage. Learning to harness his raw stuff will be the biggest challenge for Hunt, but if the Twins can get him to fit into their strike-throwing mold he has legitimate No. 1 starter potential with a fastball that regularly clocks in at 92-95 miles per hour and a big-breaking curveball. Oh, and a great name.

For an organization that has long been flush with command/control pitchers with middle-of-the-rotation upside Hunt sticks out very much like Matt Garza once did, so hopefully the Twins can avoid becoming similarly frustrated if he's equally slow to change his stripes. Hunt will likely begin this season back at Single-A, but has the potential to move quickly if he can cut the walks and could be a bullpen option by 2010 if there's no room for him yet in the rotation.

4. Angel Morales | Center Field | DOB: 11/89 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2007-3

2007 RK- 143 .256 .357 .405 2 11 12 44
2008 RK 218 .301 .413 .623 15 28 26 72

Ben Revere got most of the attention by flirting with .400 for much of the year, but on a per-game basis Angel Morales was actually the Twins' best minor-league hitter last season. Despite being 18 months younger than Revere and six months younger than 2008 first-round pick Aaron Hicks, Morales batted .301/.413/.623 in 54 games at short-season Elizabethton, leading the rookie-level Appalachian League in homers and slugging percentage.

Morales' numbers are plenty great on their own, but become even better after accounting for the fact that the Appalachian League as a whole hit .262/.331/.387. Slugging .623 in an environment where the average slugging percentage was a measly .387 is equivalent to slugging .670 in an environment with MLB-level offense. Morales' breakout consists of just 218 plate appearances, so there are sample-size issues at play, but an 18-year-old center fielder with an adjusted line of .303/.415/.670 is pretty sick.

Morales has whiffed 116 times in just 92 pro games and striking out in 32 percent of your trips to the plate at rookie-ball is a major red flag, but the 2007 third-round pick has shown a unique combination of power, speed, and plate discipline for someone who will be a teenager for the entire 2009 season. He's a very long way from the big leagues, but few Twins prospects can match Morales in terms of raw potential and he'd get a lot more attention if not for Hicks and Revere being in the same system.

3. Wilson Ramos | Catcher | DOB: 8/87 | Bats: Right | Sign: Venezuela

2006 RK 172 .286 .339 .435 3 16 12 14
2007 A- 316 .291 .345 .438 8 26 19 61
2008 A+ 500 .288 .346 .434 13 38 37 103

Signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old in 2004, Wilson Ramos debuted at rookie-ball in 2006, spent 2007 at low Single-A, and played last season at high Single-A, posting eerily similar offensive numbers at each stop. While hitting .290/.345/.435 in three straight seasons doesn't look all that spectacular at first glance, that type of production is outstanding when it comes from a good defensive catcher playing against significantly older competition in pitcher-friendly environments.

He played last season as a 20-year-old at high Single-A, ranking 14th in the Florida State League in OPS. The league's two best OPS totals belonged to a 24-year-old and a 27-year-old, the average age of the 13 guys ahead of Ramos was 23, and only two other catchers were in the top 40. Catching is so physically demanding and driven by defense that major-league backstops were five percent below the MLB average offensively in 2008. For his career Ramos has been 13 percent above average.

He's also no slouch defensively, earning solid reviews for his glovework behind the plate and gunning down 42 percent of steal attempts over the past two years. Ramos strikes out quite a bit and like most players his age has sub par plate discipline, but he's a .288 career hitter who looks capable of 20-plus homers as he matures and is far from disastrous in terms of strike-zone control. Even holding his own as a 21-year-old at Double-A would solidify Ramos as one of baseball's top catching prospects.

2. Ben Revere | Center Field | DOB: 5/88 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2007-1

2007 RK 216 .325 .388 .461 0 16 13 20
2008 A- 374 .379 .433 .497 1 28 27 31

Roundly criticized for taking Revere out of a Kentucky high school with the 28th overall pick in the 2007 draft because most projections pegged him as a third-round talent, the Twins are looking pretty smart so far after the diminutive center fielder led all of minor-league baseball in batting average last year at low Single-A. Revere has hit .360 with 65 steals through 133 pro games, posting a .900 OPS that rates 30 percent above average for his leagues despite a total of one homer in 590 plate appearances.

Revere is 5-foot-9 on a good day and lack of power potential is why he was considered an over-draft in the first round, but he's shown solid gap power with 23 doubles and 20 triples in 531 at-bats. In fact, his .118 Isolated Power last year was exactly average for the Midwest League. Revere's value is always going to come from getting on base and using his speed to swipe bags and track down fly balls, but developing some semblance of power is crucial because he's not going to hit .360 forever.

If he were to hit .300 in the majors with the type of power and plate discipline that he's shown thus far Revere would be at .300/.350/.420, which along with a weak throwing arm would give him upside that resembles Juan Pierre or Lance Johnson. If his power improves enough for Revere to be a 10-homer threat then his ceiling is more along the lines of Johnny Damon or Kenny Lofton. He's been great thus far, but if you're picking nits the components of his performance aren't quite as encouraging long term.

1. Aaron Hicks | Center Field | DOB: 10/89 | Bats: Switch | Draft: 2008-1

2008 RK 204 .318 .409 .491 4 18 28 32

Hicks was a two-way star in high school and most teams liked him more as a pitcher, but prior to the draft he made it clear that he wanted to be a hitter and the Twins selected him as a center fielder with the 14th overall pick. Called "the finest prep outfielder/pitcher prospect in the greater Los Angeles area since Daryl Strawberry in the early 1980s" by Baseball America, Hicks lived up to the hype in his debut by hitting .318/.409/.491 with a dozen steals over 45 games in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Because the GCL is an incredibly pitcher-friendly environment those raw stats actually underrate Hicks' performance, which was the equivalent of hitting .332/.411/.574 in a league with MLB-level scoring. His strong 32-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio is also very encouraging, because high-school draftees typically lack patience and drawing walks isn't something the Twins are known for stressing. Hopefully he can follow the Joe Mauer path by bringing a disciplined approach at the plate with him to the organization.

Hicks was considered one of the draft's elite athletes and it would have been tough for his pro debut to go much better, as he displayed every tool at the age of 18. Dominating rookie-ball hardly guarantees big-league success, but Hicks' combination of physical ability and baseball skills is extremely rare for someone so young and long-term ceilings don't climb much higher than a switch-hitting center fielder with a mid-90s fastball, track speed, plate discipline, and an impact bat.

February 18, 2009

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things Blogs

I've been blogging about the Twins (and other things) since August 1, 2002, which is the equivalent of a few centuries in blogger years (they're like dog years, but with fewer flea shots and more typing). In fact, this blog is so old that when it launched Ron Gardenhire was a rookie manager, his team was trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 1991, and there was exactly one Twins blog even on my radar. Oh, and I was home for the summer following my freshman year of college.

In the half-dozen years since then Gardenhire has won 557 games, his team has gone to the playoffs four times, this blog has had 4.9 million visitors, and the "Twins blogosphere" has expanded to include literally dozens of sites. Several of the best, longest-running Twins bloggers have sadly hung up their keyboards over the years, but a new Twins blog starts up seemingly every week and never before has there been this much Twins coverage available to fans.

At some point during the past six-plus years I've linked to just about every Twins blog, but the medium has expanded so much so quickly that it's impossible to keep up with everything and everyone. My daily reading routine typically includes around a dozen Twins blogs, and with spring training starting up and another season thankfully around the corner it seems like a good time to give them some attention that goes beyond the sidebar links. So, in no particular order here are my favorite current Twins blogs ...

  • Twins Geek - The only person who's been blogging about the Twins longer than me, John Bonnes was around before me and is still going strong. He's one of the nicest people you could ever meet, has penned some really touching entries over the years in addition to lots of good analysis, and also runs GameDay, the independent Twins program that you see being sold around the Metrodome on ... well, game days. Great guy, great blogger, and an inspiration to many Twins fans.
  • Twins Insider - Two springs ago the Minneapolis Star Tribune decided to jump into the blogosphere with a trio of journalist-run blogs, including this one from LaVelle E. Neal III. Known in this space as the Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com or LEN3, he's been covering the Twins for the Star Tribune since 1998 and is among the most respected reporters in the business. During the season his blog is the first place to find breaking news and pregame lineups, and he'll often share behind-the-scenes stuff.

    Plus, he was friendly to me long before someone in his position had any reason to be. After introducing myself to him at the winter meetings three Decembers ago Neal invited me to tag along as he did the whole reporter thing, which was quite an eye-opener. Since then he's plied me with free drinks at his favorite hangout, keeping a stranglehold on the Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com title despite loving soccer, being a Bears fan, and refusing to cast MVP votes for pitchers.

  • Seth Speaks - Seth Stohs is a perfect example of what makes blogging such a great medium. He's a passionate Twins fan with a day job who simply loves talking about baseball, but in another decade he likely wouldn't have found a voice. Thanks to blogging he's gone from an enthusiastic, exclamation point-using fan who created Seth Speaks as a hobby in mid-2003 to an absolute must-read source of Twins analysis, minor-league coverage, and player interviews. Oh, and you should buy his book too.
  • Around the Majors - Star Tribune national baseball reporter Joe Christensen's blog, which features more long-form entries and analysis than LEN3's spot. Christensen is a Faribault native and University of Minnesota alum who joined the Star Tribune in 2006 after covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun. He's occasionally too willing to put on rose-colored glasses for a feel-good story about Tony Batista or Sidney Ponson, but Christensen is also far more open to newfangled stats than most reporters.

    He earns points for often gathering statistical evidence on a subject before forming an opinion, as well as regularly highlighting the work of other Twins bloggers and responding exceptionally well to public criticism from jerks like me. Christensen also deserves some credit for simply replacing Jim Souhan on the Twins beat, although the switch freeing up Shecky to become a columnist and all-around media star sort of cancels out the upgrade. No newspaper has a better one-two combo than LEN3 and Joe C.

  • Stick and Ball Guy - With tons of content written by multiple authors and a robust comments section the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Online Magazine is part blog and part message board. Stick and Ball Guy runs the show and Ubelmann contributes some of the best baseball analysis around, Twins or otherwise. Plus, a tight-knit group of regulars make the comments section a far more enjoyable read than most, which often makes me jealous. I'm proud to be a citizen of SBG nation.
  • A Fan's View From Section 220 - At first glance the Star Tribune's third Twins blog comes from just another fan of the team, but Howard Sinker is a longtime journalist who formerly covered the Twins as a reporter and is now the newspaper's online sports coordinator. On the blog Sinker definitely comes across as more fan than journalist, offering humor and trivia rather than news and spurring discussion by asking questions rather than providing analysis.

    My first interaction with Sinker came at a Batgirl-sponsored get-together in 2006. As we watched Johan Santana lose to Roy Halladay on Opening Day, he argued about how misguided people like me were for criticizing the Batista signing. Despite that inauspicious introduction I've come to really enjoy Sinker as both a person and a blogger, although he does choose to write some variation of "why is everyone else being so negative?" a little too often for my taste (and he'd probably say the opposite about me).

  • Nick and Nick's Twins Blog - A tag-team effort from Nick Nelson and Nick Mosvick when it debuted in 2005 has become a one-man show by Nelson, a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota's journalism school. Nelson impressed me so much with his blogging while in college that he's now a part-time Rotoworld staffer who contributes to MLB and NFL coverage. His blog is similar to AG.com in that it focuses on analysis rather than news, but without as much hardcore stats or Marisa Miller.
  • Twins Now - Whereas the Star Tribune has a three-headed blogging monster, the St. Paul Pioneer Press offers one blog shared by beat writers Phil Miller and Kelsie Smith. Despite the two-author setup Miller does most of the writing and while the updates can be sporadic the blog is a must-read because he's the most underrated sportswriter in the Twin Cities. Miller replacing Jason Williams on the Twins beat in 2007 was like calling up Jason Bartlett to replace Juan Castro at shortstop the previous year.

    As a former basketball reporter Miller brought fresh eyes and an open mind to covering the Twins, and he's produced consistently strong content for a newspaper that's otherwise pretty tough to get excited about. In fact, the Pioneer Press' unwillingness to join this century by creating a decent website has kept far too many Twins fans from seeing Miller's good work. Plus, he was exceptionally nice when we met a few months ago at the winter meetings and went out of his way to get me access to Bill Smith.

  • Over the Baggy - Parker Hageman's blog launched in 2006 but really didn't get rolling until last year, quickly becoming one of my favorites. His blogging is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Batgirl's "less stats, more sass" motto, focusing on statistical analysis and hardcore numbers crunching while delving into some very interesting topics. Hageman also does regular updates on the other AL Central teams, so you can keep tabs on the Twins' competition.
  • Extra Bases - Another beat writer blog, although this one is much different because Jim Mandelaro of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle focuses on the Rochester Red Wings rather than the Twins. Lots of good prospect-related content about the Triple-A team and Mandelaro is outspoken about pretty much everything, so it makes for interesting reading during the season. Plus, he may be the only writer to ever cover the Twins without writing whatever Torii Hunter wanted him to write.
  • Twinkie Town - Run by Jesse Lund as part of the SportsBlogs Nation network, Twinkie Town has a handful of regular authors while also allowing anyone in the audience to post articles of their own. That means sifting through quite a bit of marginal content and the usual message board behavior to get to the good stuff, but between Lund and some of the other regulars there's plenty of worthwhile material. Plus, if you like random shots at me sprinkled into your Twins blogging this is the place to go.
  • Josh's Thoughts - The latest addition to my blogroll and a site that reminds me of Seth Speaks from the name of the blog to the way Josh Johnson enthusiastically produces a ton of content. Head there now and you'll see the finishing touches of Johnson's one-per-day countdown of his top 50 prospects, and during the season he has near-daily entries focusing on day-to-day notes, player interviews, trade scenarios, and game recaps that include handing out a "game ball."
  • On the Road With Pat Neshek - Lots of athletes have started blogging recently, but Pat Neshek was among the first to jump on the bandwagon, chronicling his rise through the minors on his personal site and continuing to pump out great content after he arrived in Minnesota. From collecting baseball cards and autographs to interacting with fans whenever possible it's tough not to like Neshek the person as much as Neshek the relief pitcher, which is why his elbow injury is doubly sad. But he's still blogging.

  • AG.com Live Chat Today at 1:00 PM

    Slightly later start time than usual for today's chat because ... well, just because. As always, doors open for pre-submitted questions about 15 minutes ahead of time and I'll keep going until the questions run out, nap time beckons, or "should the Twins sign Joe Crede?" is asked for the 100th time.

    February 16, 2009

    Early Roster Outlook

    Another long offseason finally came to an end Sunday when pitchers and catchers reported to camp and spring training games begin next week, so it seems like a good time to examine the Twins' roster. We're still about seven weeks away from Opening Day and that time will be filled with talk about players battling for jobs, but while that makes for some nice intrigue in reality it looks like 22 of 25 roster spots have essentially already been accounted for unless the Twins make some last-minute moves.

    The rotation is set with five 27-and-under starters because for once the Twins resisted the annual urge to bring in some washed-up veteran to provide "leadership" in the form of a 5.50 ERA. The bullpen also has five spots locked in after the Twins signed Luis Ayala last week to join Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, and Craig Breslow in front of Joe Nathan. Setting aside the fact that a 12-man pitching staff is overkill, if the Twins go with a dozen pitchers that would leave them with two bullpen spots up for grabs:

    SP   Scott Baker             CL    Joe Nathan
    SP Francisco Liriano RH Jesse Crain
    SP Kevin Slowey RH Matt Guerrier
    SP Nick Blackburn RH Luis Ayala
    SP Glen Perkins LH Craig Breslow

    Maybe: Boof Bonser, Philip Humber, Jose Mijares, Bobby Korecky, Jason Jones

    Jose Mijares was called up in mid-September and was the Twins' primary setup man two weeks later, yet the team seems to be leaning toward sending him back to Triple-A. Because he has minor-league options remaining Mijares can be stashed at Rochester for a while, whereas Philip Humber and Boof Bonser both would need to pass through waivers before a trip to Triple-A. Humber and Bonser being out of options also hurts Bobby Korecky, who's beyond deserving of an extended chance at this point.

    Rule 5 pick Jason Jones will also be in the mix because the Twins must offer him back to the Yankees if they don't keep him on the 25-man roster, but he projects as a marginal mop-up man and is clearly a long shot. It would have sounded implausible back in September, but right now the odds are probably in favor of Bonser and Humber making the team while Mijares and Korecky head to Triple-A. However, trading Bonser or Humber is possible and Mijares can probably pitch his way into a job.

    Part of the problem with a 12-man pitching staff is that there simply isn't enough consistent work to go around, but the other issue is that it leaves room for just four bench players. Three of those spots are reserved for the backup catcher, the non-starting half of the third-base platoon, and the guy who draws the short straw in the outfield jogjam. All of which leaves room for exactly one position player to actually win a spot on the Opening Day roster during spring training:

    C    Joe Mauer                C    Mike Redmond
    1B Justin Morneau IF Brendan Harris
    2B Alexi Casilla OF Delmon Young
    SS Nick Punto
    3B Brian Buscher
    LF Denard Span
    CF Carlos Gomez
    RF Michael Cuddyer
    DH Jason Kubel

    Maybe: Matt Tolbert, Jason Pridie, Matt Macri, Steven Tolleson

    Matt Tolbert has to be considered the overwhelming favorite for the final bench spot after spending the bulk of last year with the Twins while predictably earning Ron Gardenhire's love as a poor man's Nick Punto. Tolbert is also a switch-hitter who can play just about anywhere defensively and that versatility is valuable on a four-man bench. Steve Tolleson is similarly versatile, but there's little reason to think that the Twins would choose him over Tolbert, and Matt Macri is superfluous with Brendan Harris around.

    Jason Pridie is probably as ready for the majors as he ever will be and has the skills that many teams value in a reserve, but the odds of the Twins going with six outfielders seem slim considering that one starter will already be on the bench at all times. Third catcher Jose Morales could factor into the bench equation if Joe Mauer has a setback in his recovery from kidney surgery and Alejando Machado may join Tolleson in the fight to unseat Tolbert if his arm strength has returned following shoulder surgery.

    If the Twins were to sign Joe Crede that would make him the everyday third baseman, push Harris into a full-time bench role, and probably leave Tolbert fighting Brian Buscher for the final bench spot. Short of that or a Delmon Young trade there may not be much intrigue down in Fort Myers as far as the roster is concerned, but between the crowded outfield and unsettled bullpen picture there will be plenty to talk about in terms of how that roster is utilized.

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