January 28, 2010

Twins Notes: Liriano, Neshek, Winfree, and McLemore

  • Earlier this month Ron Gardenhire passed along a report he received from the Dominican Republic saying that Francisco Liriano was "throwing the living fire out of the ball" with his fastball around 92-94 miles per hour and a "filthy" slider. Two winters ago Gardenhire passed along similar reports of Liriano "letting it fly" at 93-96 miles per hour "free and easy" while coming back from Tommy John surgery, yet he arrived at spring training throwing in the high-80s and was basically a mess.

    So there were good reasons to be skeptical about third-hand reports of Liriano's velocity in winter ball this time around, particularly after he went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA in 136.2 innings last season. However, my skepticism has faded because his numbers in the Dominican Republic are insanely good and last night he dominated while starting the final game of the league's World Series. And as an added bonus the game was broadcast online by ESPN, so those third-hand reports are no longer really needed.

    First let's talk about the stats, which prior to last night included a 0.82 ERA and 54-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43.2 innings. Whether his fastball was 85 or 95 those numbers are impossible to ignore. And it turns out last night showed that reports about his velocity were pretty accurate (assuming the radar gun used was based somewhat in reality). He tossed five innings of one-hit, shutout ball while racking up 10 strikeouts, was regularly clocked at 93-95 mph, and unleashed some wicked high-80s sliders.

    To say that Liriano looked like the pre-surgery phenom who was baseball's best pitcher in 2006 would be hyperbole, but for one night at least he certainly looked closer to that guy than the one who averaged under 91 mph with his fastball for the past two seasons and constantly struggled just to throw strikes. Ultimately the real test will come when he faces MLB lineups, but he faced plenty of major leaguers in the DWL and his video game-like stats match the glowing reports. Skepticism is turning into optimism.

  • MLB.com's Kelly Thesier reports that Pat Neshek is "a little anxious" but "on track to be ready for the start of spring training" 14 months after Tommy John surgery. "I just want to face hitters to see where I'm at and get that in my head," Neshek said. "I want to face hitters to give me that total confidence back. Right now it feels like I'm killing time waiting for that to happen." Prior to going down in May of 2008 he had a 2.91 ERA with 143 strikeouts and a .188 opponents' batting average in 121 innings.After signing Clay Condrey the Twins have six relievers as locks for the Opening Day roster, so even if they go with a 12-man pitching staff that leaves just a single spot for Neshek or one of the losers of the fifth-starter competition. And that assumes they won't sign Jarrod Washburn. In other words, healthy or not I'd say there's a decent chance Neshek will begin the season on the disabled list if only to give the Twins some extra time to sort out the pitching staff.
  • David Winfree was the Twins' minor league player of the year in 2005, but in the four seasons since then he failed to improve his plate discipline while sliding down the defensive spectrum, and now after seven years in the organization the former 13th-round pick has signed with the Yankees. I'm not sure if the Twins were even interested in keeping him around, but certainly Winfree's odds of reaching the big leagues with the Yankees have decreased. He'll probably be a part-time player for them at Triple-A.Winfree once ranked as high as 13th on my annual list of the Twins' top prospects, but dropped to 27th in 2008 and 28th last season. He may have squeaked onto the list again this year, but it's tough to fault the Twins for letting him go. While a .275 hitter with good power and bad plate discipline is intriguing in a teenage third baseman, the exact same skill set in a 24-year-old corner outfielder who failed to show an ounce of improvement for five years is a much different story.

    He has excellent power that's been masked somewhat by pitcher-friendly environments throughout the Twins' system, but that plus his age are about the only positives left on his resume at this point and it's tough to see Winfree developing into more than a platoon guy in the majors. His on-base percentages, by year: .329, .323, .308, .319, .317. His slugging percentages, by year: .452, .478, .426, .450, .460. And for his career Winfree has averaged 35 walks and 113 strikeouts per 600 plate appearances. Oh well.

  • Winfree becomes minor-league filler for the Yankees and the Twins added some Triple-A depth of their own by signing Mark McLemore to a minor-league deal. Not to be confused with the switch-hitter who played 19 seasons in the majors, this Mark McLemore is a 29-year-old left-hander who missed all of 2008 following Tommy John elbow surgery and struggled at Triple-A for the Astros in his return. Even before the injury his numbers were mediocre, so he'll likely compete for a rotation spot at Rochester.
  • Yahoo! Sports put together a directory of Twins blogs as part of Big League Stew's ongoing series, showing again why my blogging career would be much different had my parents named me something that didn't begin with back-to-back A's. It got me first in line for french toast sticks in elementary school and now it gets me first in line for links.
  • Lastly, my annual series ranking and profiling the Twins' top 40 prospects starts Monday with 36-40, unless of course they make a big move over the weekend or something. Oh, and Link-O-Rama returns next week too, because my hard drive can only store so many bookmarked Mila Kunis photo shoots.

  • Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

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