July 22, 2010

Twins dump Nick Blackburn and MLB-worst 6.53 ERA from rotation

Because of his low strikeout rates and mediocre ground-ball percentages Nick Blackburn was always walking a very fine line between success and failure, which is why I criticized the Twins for signing him to a four-year, $14 million deal this offseason when they already controlled him through 2013 and could have instead gone year-to-year with his contract status. Of course, not even I expected the wheels to come flying off this quickly or this completely.

Blackburn began the year by going 6-1 with his usual 4.28 ERA through the end of May despite just 17 strikeouts in 61 innings, but in nine starts since June 1 he's 1-6 with a 9.88 ERA, .378 opponents' batting average, and nearly as many walks (14) and home runs (11) as strikeouts (18) in 41 innings. His latest sub par outing Sunday pushed his ERA to an MLB-worst 6.53 and after 18 starts the Twins decided to demote Blackburn to the bullpen yesterday.

Brian Duensing will replace Blackburn in the rotation after posting a 1.67 ERA in 43 innings as a reliever. He's yet to throw even 50 pitches in a game this year, so Duensing will likely be on a pitch count for his first matchup tomorrow night against the Orioles, but he was a starter throughout his minor-league career and pitched well in nine starts down the stretch last year. With that said, those expecting Duensing to be a rotation savior are going to be disappointed.

His secondary numbers haven't been particularly great despite working mostly as a one-inning reliever facing more left-handed hitters than he'll see as a starter. So while his 2.98 ERA in 127 career innings looks great, his 4.59 xFIP is considerably less promising. His minor-league track record is also underwhelming, with a 4.00 ERA, .275 opponents' batting average, and just 207 strikeouts in 331 innings as a starter at Triple-A.

Of course, it won't take much for Duensing to be a huge improvement over Blackburn and he's certainly capable of putting together a solid half-season as a mid-rotation starter. Making the switch was absolutely the right move, but expectations for Duensing need to be held in check and everyone involved should be happy if he posts an ERA under 4.50. As for Blackburn, in the short term he'll get some low-leverage work as a mop-up man and long reliever.

In the long term it's tougher to say because the contract really complicates things. Blackburn is owed $3.75 million next year, $4.75 million in 2012, and $5.5 million in 2013, so simply cutting him loose won't be an option and the Twins have unnecessarily forced themselves into being heavily invested in getting him turned around. I'm not optimistic about those odds, but just as Blackburn wasn't as good as he looked in 2008/2009 he's not as bad as he's looked this year.

He is, however, a 28-year-old with the third-lowest strikeout rate among all active pitchers, a lifetime .302 opponents' batting average, and a 5.02 career xFIP. For comparison, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey have career xFIPs of 4.23 and 4.33, so there should be zero doubt that the Twins booted the correct guy from the rotation. Blackburn bucked the odds and out-pitched his secondary stats for two years, but you can only walk that tightrope for so long without falling.

July 20, 2010

Twins call up Anthony Slama, demote Alex Burnett to Triple-A

Alex Burnett experienced initial success after making his big-league debut on April 8, tossing 31.1 innings with a 2.30 ERA, .225 opponents' batting average, and 26-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio through mid-June. Since then he's coughed up 12 runs in 9.2 innings while walking more batters than he struck out and allowing opponents to hit .466, and after his fourth ugly outing of the month last night the Twins demoted Burnett back to Triple-A.

To replace Burnett on the roster and in the bullpen the Twins called up right-hander Anthony Slama, who ranked 19th on my list of the team's top prospects heading into the season and has been deserving of a chance for some time now. Clearly the front office doesn't believe in Slama, keeping him in the minors until five months before his 27th birthday despite a 1.80 ERA in 235 career innings and Ron Gardenhire making it pretty clear he wanted to give him a look.

However, his amazing minor-league track record screams out for an opportunity. I don't expect Slama to be an elite reliever and he's no sure thing to even develop into a quality setup man, but when someone holds opponents to a .170 batting average while racking up 83 strikeouts in 68 innings at Triple-A there's no reason not to give him a shot. Hopefully he'll thrive like Pat Neshek, who the Twins were similarly skeptical about before finally giving him a shot in 2006.

As for Burnett, his overall numbers were reasonably strong for a 22-year-old rookie getting his first taste of the majors, with a 4.39 ERA and 30-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 innings. He showed a promising fastball-slider combination after making the switch from starter to reliever just last season and certainly looks capable of being a key part of the bullpen long term. He jumped straight from Double-A to the majors, so some time at Triple-A is hardly a bad thing.

July 19, 2010

Life after Cliff Lee

All the Cliff Lee trade speculation went for naught, as the Twins reportedly balked at making Aaron Hicks part of a package for the impending free agent and the Mariners ended up with several offers beyond what the Twins should have been willing to give up for him anyway. At the last moment the Mariners pulled out of a nearly agreed-upon deal with the Yankees for a package headlined by Jesus Montero to accept a Justin Smoak-led offer from the Rangers.

Prior to the season Baseball America ranked Hicks as the No. 19 prospect in baseball, but the same list had Smoak at No. 13 and Montero at No. 4. At midseason Baseball America published a rankings update that had Montero at No. 5 and Hicks at No. 9, with Smoak no longer eligible for "prospect" status after playing regularly in the majors. I'm sure plenty of people view Hicks as a better prospect than Montero or Smoak, but in general he's not seen at quite that level.

New York's offer reportedly included Montero and two or three other mid-level prospects, while Texas' package for Lee included Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and Matthew Lawson. In terms of trying to match those offers up to the Twins' farm system, it would likely be something along the lines of Hicks plus David Bromberg, Alex Burnett, and Luke Hughes. Or perhaps, as was rumored at one point, Hicks plus Wilson Ramos. Either way, far too much for my liking.

Now that Lee is off the table Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com speculates that Cubs lefty Ted Lilly would be a "logical target" for the Twins. Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune went even further, listing the Twins and Mets as the front-runners for Lilly. It passes the smell test, as the Cubs are clearly sellers, Lilly has long been a solid mid-rotation starter, and as an impending free agent he'd be much easier to acquire from a payroll standpoint than, say, Roy Oswalt.

In fact, recent reports suggest that no teams are even willing to absorb the remaining money on Oswalt's contract, let alone do that and give up prospects. Lilly is owed about $5 million for the rest of the season, which the Cubs may be willing to cover in the right deal. On the other hand, because he projects as a Type A free agent the Cubs could just let Lilly walk and collect a pair of compensatory draft picks, so any trade offered would likely need to beat that value.

Lilly has a 3.76 ERA, .235 opponents' batting average, and 584-to-180 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 693 innings since signing a four-year, $40 million deal with the Cubs, including a 4.07 ERA, .236 opponents' batting average, and 75-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 104 innings this year. He has a 4.22 xFIP during that four-year span, which would basically put him neck and neck with Scott Baker as the Twins' third-best starter behind Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano.

Among the starters rumored to be available Dan Haren strikes me as the most intriguing. He's one of the youngest of the bunch at 29 years old and has generally been underrated, with his value perhaps at a low point because of a bad-looking 4.60 ERA through 20 starts this season. His secondary numbers are far better, with a 133-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 135 innings, and he's had a sub-4.00 xFIP in six straight years to go with a 3.72 ERA in 207 career starts.

Haren is one of the top dozen or so starters in baseball despite remaining fairly anonymous in Arizona and he's also signed through 2013 at about $13 million a year, so if the Diamondbacks are looking to sell low on him the Twins should be willing to pounce. However, it doesn't sound like that's necessarily the case, with reports that they're smartly asking for a lot in return, and it's tough to imagine the Twins giving up top prospects and absorbing that much salary.

Ricky Nolasco is another interesting name rumored to be available thanks to his 4.90 ERA in 50 starts since going 15-8 with a 3.52 ERA in 2008. His secondary numbers are significantly better than his ERA, with a 3.73 xFIP this season and a 3.85 xFIP for his career, and Nolasco is even younger than Haren while still being arbitration eligible next season. If you look past the recent ERAs he's a 27-year-old mid-rotation starter who misses bats and throws strikes.

I've gotten e-mails and comments asking about Fausto Carmona since the Indians are clearly sellers and he was their representative in the All-Star game. Carmona has seemingly bounced back from a horrendous 2009 with a 3.65 ERA in 19 starts, but a 64-to-49 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123 innings suggests not that much has changed. He has electric raw stuff and induces tons of ground balls, but Carmona remains a big question mark because of shaky command.

Oakland will likely make Ben Sheets available, because he's signed to a one-year, $10 million deal and the A's are struggling just to stay around .500. Sheets got off to a terrible start after missing last year following elbow surgery, but has a 3.72 ERA and 66-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last 82 innings. Similarly the Astros will likely look to deal Brett Myers, although his one-year, $3.1 million contract also includes an $8 million mutual option for next season.

Myers has a 3.35 ERA and 93-to-39 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 innings this year and an xFIP of 3.91 in over 1,300 career innings.  While not really a fly-ball pitcher he struggles at times to keep the ball in the ballpark, serving up an average of 31 homers per 200 innings during eight seasons with the Phillies. Myers has kept the long balls in check so far this season and Target Field would help mask any homer-related issues with the Twins.

Guys like Kevin Millwood, Jake Westbrook, and Jeremy Guthrie are also said to be available, but aside from making a change just for the sake of making a change none represent any kind of real upgrade over Baker or Kevin Slowey (and nearly anyone represents an upgrade over Nick Blackburn at this point). Sticking with in-house options is a much better idea than giving up value to scrape the bottom of the veteran barrel.

Haren and Oswalt are legit No. 1 starters, Lilly, Nolasco, and Myers are all strong mid-rotation starters, Sheets is a riskier mid-rotation option, and after that it dries up in a hurry. Between those six starters there are definitely opportunities for the Twins to upgrade the rotation, but with Baker and Blackburn both signed to long-term deals and Slowey still 26 years old with a career 4.53 ERA despite recent struggles the situation is a lot trickier than just picking a name.

July 16, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• Much like me, Chris Webber has had just about enough of David Kahn.

• Aw, cute. Nick Punto is trying to grow a Carl Pavano-like mustache.

John Sickels projected the career stats of Rick Vaughn from Major League, which is the type of thing I find endlessly amusing. Given that there's basically a website for everything at this point, someone really needs to create a Baseball-Reference.com-style setup dedicated to the careers of players from baseball movies. I'd sponsor Roger Dorn's page.

• I plugged my most recent blog entries into this website that promises to "analyze who you write like" and it spit out Stephen King. Naturally.

• I've always believed pretty girls in baseball hats was basically the perfect combination, until I saw supermodels in baseball uniforms. The game was nice and all, but this picture was clearly the highlight of the entire All-Star break.

• As if Louis C.K.'s new show on FX wasn't amazing enough already, in this week's episode he name-dropped Jamie Moyer in the middle of a sex scene.

Seth Stohs, John Bonnes, Nick Nelson, and Parker Hageman have partnered with bloggers from other teams to produce a massive, 160-page "Trade Deadline Primer" with player profiles, essays, prospect reports, trade scenarios, and all kinds of other good stuff. I got a look at the product at the latest TwinsCentric gathering and was impressed by the content and layout. They put tons of work into the project and made something very worthwhile, all for under $10.

• Which former Twin is among the best players never to make an All-Star team?

• I tried to sound extra smart for my appearance on Minnesota Public Radio earlier this week. Also, more people have contacted me after hearing my MPR interview than ever contacted me following an appearance on KFAN or KSTP or any other stations. I'm not sure how to explain it, other than maybe just the novelty factor? Anyway, give it a listen.

• My first (and probably last) restaurant review.

• I'm shocked that something like this has never happened involving A.J. Pierzynski.

• If you only watch one video of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh turning heel as the nWo, make it this one:

If you didn't laugh at that, you either didn't watch wrestling as a kid or you don't have a soul.

• Anyone still think the Heat will struggle to fill out the rest of the roster with solid players? I'll be shocked if they don't win 60-plus games in Year 1.

• This is what it looks like when Will Ferrell invades the workspace of an MLB.com writer.

• I'll assume Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven finished sixth.

• Just in case her stellar acting work on Modern Family wasn't enough to make you a big Sofia Vergara fan, there are also these pictures.

Dennis Green's son Jeremy Green lost his ESPN.com job following his recent arrest on drug and child pornography charges. Would it be in bad taste to make a "he is who we thought he was" joke?

Scott Boras comparing Prince Fielder to Mark Teixeira is more reasonable than you might think, but Fielder still looking an awful lot like he did in this picture is why many people have a hard time buying it.

• Poker player Ted Forrest was already in good shape at 188 pounds. Then someone bet him $2 million that he couldn't lose 50 pounds in two months. Now he weighs 138 pounds and has $2 million. The morale of the story is that all my repeatedly unsuccessful weight-loss attempts have lacked is someone willing to bet me a whole bunch of money. Well, that and willpower.

• Naming the five center fielders with 400 or more homers is a pretty good trivia question even if you get Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider as "hints."

Joe Rogan talks mixed martial arts backstage at one of his comedy shows. Good stuff.

• Clearly my problem is that I don't tell enough lies. Or leave the house.

• Just in case you thought the people involved in the actual process put any kind of thought into anything All-Star related, they don't.

• I'm intrigued by this, mostly because Sports Illustrated and Turner Sports already produce so much quality content on their own, but "challenge ESPN.com" is often planned for and, aside from perhaps Yahoo! Sports, never accomplished.

• Here are some highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

- Justin Morneau likely bound for disabled list with concussion
- He's alive! Carlos Beltran finally returns from knee surgery
- Yunel Escobar may have "attitude problems" but he also has a good track record
- Angels stick with Scott Kazmir despite MLB-worst 6.92 ERA
- Edinson Volquez on the verge of return from elbow surgery
- Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce, together again at ESPYs
- Mariners promote last year's No. 2 overall pick Dustin Ackley to Triple-A
- Pedro Martinez won't be re-signing with the Phillies and may not pitch at all
- Royals promote 21-year-old stud prospect Mike Moustakas to Triple-A

• Finally, in honor of the Twins' current state this week's AG.com-approved music video is a live version of "Looking For Answers" by Susan Tedeschi:

July 15, 2010

Restaurant Review: Mix Fusion Bistro

(Mix Fusion Bistro at 6407 City West Parkway in Eden Prairie)

There's a great Seinfeld episode where Jerry Seinfeld takes an interest in the struggling new restaurant that opened up across the street from his apartment, eventually suggesting to the owner that he change The Dream Cafe from all-American food and decor to cuisine and culture from his native Pakistan. The advice is well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective, and naturally hilarity ensues. You can watch some of the highlights here and here.

I bring that up because recently I had an experience that reminded me of the episode. A new "French-Asian fusion" restaurant called Mix Fusion Bistro opened up in my neighborhood and I went with a group of eight people at seven o'clock on a Saturday night. We called ahead and made a reservation, but it turned out the place was completely empty when we arrived and no other customers came in during the hour or so we were there.

Afterward we talked about what a shame it was, because the food was great, the staff was friendly, and the decor was nice. In fact, all eight people liked what they ordered and several loved their dish. I got the dijon herb-crusted pork prime rib and it was great. As a unique new restaurant with good food Mix Fusion Bistro should have plenty of customers, but as Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares has taught me sometimes quality isn't enough to get people in the door.

I fear they're facing long odds serving French-Asian fusion in suburban Minnesota, particularly since the restaurant seems far too upscale and classy to be next to an electric fence store in the middle of a strip mall. Still, once upon a time I was convinced no one would ever read this blog and thanks largely to word of mouth people eventually found the place, so I'm hoping this quasi-review convinces a few of you to give Mix Fusion Bistro a try. They deserve a chance.

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