August 22, 2011

Danny Valencia, Joe Mauer, and “the long-term answer at third base”

Ron Gardenhire has had no shortage of worthy subjects for postgame criticisms this year, but the manager has seemingly focused on Danny Valencia's various shortcomings more than any other player during his daily media briefings. Thanks to a nice-looking RBI total Valencia's poor hitting has mostly gotten a free pass, but Gardenhire has repeatedly and consistently singled out the 26-year-old third baseman for his defensive miscues and mental lapses.

Gardenhire's focus on Valencia was never more apparent than on August 12, when the infield collectively imploded behind starter Carl Pavano and most of the manager's postgame criticism centered around Valencia misplaying a bunt in the third inning rather than, say, Matt Tolbert's misplay in the seventh inning or any number of Tsuyoshi Nishioka's wide-ranging assortment of mental and physical errors.

Phil Mackey of 1500-ESPN suggested on Twitter afterward that Gardenhire picked on Valencia because he thinks there's the potential for him to become a much better player, whereas with Nishioka (and Tolbert) he has no such hopes. And there's no doubt plenty of truth to that, but it's also clear that Gardenhire is simply frustrated by Valencia on several different levels, some of which were perceived issues dating back to his days in the minors.

Before calling him up at age 25 the Twins weren't shy about citing Valencia's defense and work ethic as issues keeping him in the minors, but then he hit .311 and played surprisingly well at third base as a rookie to make it easy to overlook any doubts. However, now that he's come back down to earth offensively--as strongly hinted at by an underwhelming minor-league track record--and his defense has also slipped Valencia's flaws are again at the forefront.

So much so, in fact, that Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports "not everyone views Valencia as the long-term answer at third base." Meanwhile, the underlying aspects of Valencia's offensive production mostly haven't changed much from his optimism-creating rookie campaign and in fact in some key areas like line-drive percentage he's actually faring better as a sophomore, but his batting average on balls in play has plummeted from .345 to .275.

None of which is to say the Twins are wrong to view Valencia skeptically long term. He's not as great as he looked with a .345 batting average on balls in play last year and he's not as awful as he looks with a .275 batting average on balls in play this year, so the question is whether the player in between those two extremes is a long-term building block. And the answer likely depends on Valencia's defense at third base.

Despite the wild swings in production his overall .271/.315/.412 line through 207 games in the majors is basically what should have been expected from someone who hit .288/.338/.452 in 246 games between Double-A and Triple-A. During the past three seasons MLB third basemen have collectively batted .260/.325/.410, which makes Valencia almost exactly average for the position offensively.

Defense is a similar story, as blending together last season's strong showing with this year's terrible showing gives Valencia a combined Ultimate Zone Rating of 0.2 runs above average in 1,700 innings at third base. For a 26-year-old making the minimum salary average at the plate and average in the field is plenty valuable, but his current poor defense more closely matches his minor-league reputation.

At his salary even average offensively and slightly below average defensively would make him a valuable player for the next several seasons, particularly in an organization lacking in quality alternatives at third base, but the Twins are likely right not to view Valencia as "the long-term answer" at the position and his short-term status could change in a hurry if, as Christensen reports, some Twins officials "privately hope Joe Mauer adds third base to his repertoire."

I'm still of the opinion that Mauer should remain at catcher unless or until he's sidelined again for a lengthy stretch, but lessening his workload behind the plate by using him more at other positions is clearly in the Twins' plans and certainly a worthwhile idea. And if he does make the switch away from catcher at some point third base is an intriguing destination where catchers like Joe Torre, Johnny Bench, B.J. Surhoff, Todd Zeile, and Brandon Inge have landed.

A huge portion of Mauer's value comes from manning a key defensive position at which only a few players can even compete with his hitting, so moving him to an offense-driven position like first base or designated hitter would dramatically decrease the strength of his bat relative to the competition and wipe away nearly all defensive contribution. As a way to take a break from catching twice a week first base or DH is fine, but as long-term homes they're problematic.

No position is more demanding defensively or less productive offensively than catcher, so on paper there isn't a way to move Mauer without having his overall value drop unless his hitting and/or health significantly improves as part of the switch. With that said, compared to first base or DH at least third base would allow him to remain an elite hitter for the position while giving him the opportunity to contribute sizable value defensively.

In other words, if the Twins decide Mauer has to make a position switch beyond simply taking a couple days off from catching each week third base could be the lesser of all evils. It should also be noted that Mauer is certainly no sure thing to be an asset at third base after playing exclusively catcher for more than a decade, but his skill set suggests the potential to do well there in time and the possibility existing in the Twins' collective mind is bad news for Valencia.

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August 19, 2011

Twins Notes: 600, concussions, missed flights, debuts, and naming later

Jim Thome ruined the Twins' plans to have him reach 600 career home runs at Target Field by being too damn good, hitting his 599th and 600th homers Monday night in Detroit and then delivering No. 601 against the Tigers two nights later. Thome has been deserving of the Hall of Fame for years already, but hopefully becoming the eighth member of the 600-homer club will ensure his place in Cooperstown. With the way he's hitting, though, that can probably wait.

Thome hasn't been able to duplicate his ridiculous 2010 numbers, but he's having one of the greatest seasons in baseball history by a 40-year-old. In fact, last season his .283/.412/.627 line added up to the fourth-highest adjusted OPS+ of all time by a 39-year-old and this season his .259/.365/.513 line would be tied for the fourth-highest adjusted OPS+ from a 40-year-old. Here are the age-39 and age-40 leaderboards for adjusted OPS+:

AGE 39           YEAR     PA    OPS+        AGE 40           YEAR     PA    OPS+
Barry Bonds      2004    617    263         Willie Mays      1971    537    158
Ted Williams     1958    517    179         Carlton Fisk     1988    298    155
Hank Aaron       1973    465    177         Edgar Martinez   2003    603    141
JIM THOME        2010    279    161         JIM THOME        2011    226    139
Babe Ruth        1934    471    161         Dave Winfield    1992    670    137

If you're curious, here's the adjusted OPS+ leaderboard among 41-year-olds:

AGE 41           YEAR     PA    OPS+
Ted Williams     1960    390    190
Barry Bonds      2006    493    156
Brian Downing    1992    391    138
Stan Musial      1962    505    137
Carlton Fisk     1989    419    136

I'd love to see Thome take a run at that list in 2012 for the Twins and even in a part-time role he'd move past Sammy Sosa for seventh place on the homer list. My favorite stat: Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds are the only hitters with more homers and more walks than Thome.

• Two weeks ago Denard Span came off the disabled list despite admitting that he wasn't fully recovered from a June 3 concussion, saying that he felt it was time to simply play through the symptoms after spending two months on the sidelines. He struggled on a rehab assignment at Triple-A and that continued with the Twins, as Span went 2-for-35 (.057) with three times as many strikeouts as walks before being shut down again with migraines and dizziness.

According to trainer Rick McWane "this is something very similar" to his 2009 bout with vertigo and "the concussion stirred up a previous existing condition." Various medications failed and left Span with side effects, making it likely that he'll miss the remainder of the season. Worse, much like Justin Morneau coming into this season, Span may enter 2012 as a major question mark. Unfortunately for Span and Morneau being tough won't help you get over a brain injury.

Luke Hughes was recalled from Rochester to take Span's roster spot and the short-handed Twins would've started him last night versus left-hander CC Sabathia and the Yankees, except Hughes missed his flight to Minneapolis because he was at the wrong gate. Seriously. Michael Cuddyer and Matt Tolbert were on the active roster but injured and Jason Kubel wasn't with the team due to a personal matter, which forced Ron Gardenhire to get creative.

Gardenhire had exactly nine healthy players at his disposal, including a 40-year-old designated hitter and a pair of catchers, so he wrote out a lineup that included Joe Mauer in the outfield for the first time since high school. Mauer will surely never get the same type of endless praise that the local media gives Cuddyer for his willingness to play other positions, but he's looked good at first base since returning from the disabled list and was decent in right field too.

• It turns out the "later" in player to be named later was around 48 hours, as the Tigers sent 23-year-old right-hander Lester Oliveros to the Twins to complete the Delmon Young trade. At the time of the deal a source told me the PTBNL would be "nobody special" and Oliveros fits the description, but he's not without promise. His fastball averaged 94.5 miles per hour in nine games for the Tigers and he's got 93 strikeouts in 72 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.

Oliveros' mid-90s velocity and outstanding strikeout rate also comes with poor control, as he's walked 43 batters in those 72 frames. Tons of strikeouts, tons of walks, and a big-time fastball make Oliveros appear similar to a younger version of Jim Hoey, which is intended as a positive thing despite the actual Hoey flopping with the Twins earlier this year. Oliveros may eventually do the same, but he also has a chance to be a quality reliever as soon as next season.

• It went down to the wire, but the Twins got first-round pick Levi Michael and supplemental first-round picks Hudson Boyd and Travis Harrison signed before Monday's deadline. Michael received $1.175 million, which is right about the MLB-recommend "slot" bonus for a 30th pick, but Boyd and Harrison each signed for around $1 million when the slot amounts for their picks were $700,000 and $650,000. As always, it's good to see the Twins spending on the draft.

Kevin Mulvey, who the Twins acquired from the Mets as part of the Johan Santana deal and then traded to the Diamondbacks for Jon Rauch in mid-2009, was designated for assignment by Arizona. He's allowed 24 runs in 27 innings as a major leaguer and the 26-year-old former second-round pick has posted increasingly poor results at Triple-A, including a 6.98 ERA and 44-to-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 80 innings there this year.

• Gardenhire was asked about the 2012 middle infield during a recent interview on 1500-ESPN and specifically mentioned Brian Dozier, a 2008 eighth-round pick who began this season as a 24-year-old at high Single-A and is now playing at Double-A. Dozier is having a very nice year, hitting .317/.397/.465 with nearly as many walks (46) as strikeouts (55) in 108 games, but has just four homers and batted just .275/.350/.349 between two levels of Single-A last season.

• No decision has been made yet on Kyle Gibson's possible Tommy John surgery, as the 2009 first-round pick has decided to get a second opinion next week from the doctor who performed Joe Nathan's elbow surgery in March of 2010.

Ben Revere has made too many outs atop the lineup, but at least some are exciting outs.

• Last night's game against the Yankees wasn't much fun, but this MLB.com headline made me laugh: "Long balls trip up Duensing." In related news, I'm a 28-year-old child.

• Thanks to everyone who listened to the first episode of my "Gleeman and The Geek" podcast with John Bonnes. We weren't sure what to expect, but the download count and the feedback have been extremely encouraging and our plan is to record one new episode a week. You can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or download it via the website, so please help spread the word. And if anyone with some design skills has an idea for a good logo, let me know.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota law firm Snyder Gislason Frasier LLC, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your legal needs.

August 17, 2011

“Gleeman and The Geek” #1: Thome and Delmon

After threatening to do it for years I've finally taken the leap and started a podcast, along with John Bonnes. We're calling it "Gleeman and The Geek" and we taped the first episode Monday night while drinking beer at Park Tavern in St. Louis Park.

Topics for the first show include the Delmon Young trade, Jim Thome hitting his 600th homer, Danny Valencia's future, Francisco Liriano's disappointing season, and what the outfield may look like in 2012. And tons of other stuff. Keeping in mind that it was our first try at podcasting, we have no idea what we're doing, and we drank three pitchers of beer during the recording, I actually think it turned out pretty well. Please give it a listen and let us know what you think.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 1

UPDATE: The show is now available on iTunes.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota law firm Snyder Gislason Frasier LLC, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your legal needs.

August 16, 2011

Twins trade Delmon Young to Tigers for Cole Nelson and PTBNL

There's no doubt that trading Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan to the Rays for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie on November 28, 2007 was a big mistake. It was a bad move at the time, as the Twins undervalued Garza and Bartlett while overlooking Young's considerable flaws as part of his supposed upside, and in the four years since then it has proven to be one of the most lopsided missteps in team history.

At various points along the way the Twins surely could have gotten a decent return by trading Young, particularly following a 2010 season in which he hit .298/.333/.493 with 21 homers, 46 doubles, and a bunch of RBIs. But they didn't and he took several massive steps backward this year. Trading for Young was a mistake and not trading him after last season was too, but once those poor decisions were made yesterday's decision to dump him was a sound one.

Young was a No. 1 pick and universally regarded as an elite prospect, but those days are long gone. Now he's a 25-year-old veteran of 2,800 plate appearances and has hit .289/.322/.426 with meager power, zero plate discipline or strike-zone control, awful defense, and laughably bad baseball instincts. He's also being paid $5.38 million this season and would be in line for a raise to at least $6 million next season via arbitration, with free agency looming in 2013.

There's nothing the Twins could do to erase their previous bad decisions regarding Young, but the mistake now would have been keeping him for another season at that price. Too little too late, but the Twins finally came to the realization that he shouldn't be in their long-term plans and that left them three options. They could trade him now, they could try to trade him shortly after the season, or they could non-tender him this winter.

They chose the one option with a guaranteed return, minimal as it may be, trading him to the Tigers for minor leaguer Cole Nelson, a player to be named later, and around $1.25 million in savings. Nelson was a 10th-round pick in last year's draft out of Auburn and the Edina native is a 6-foot-7 southpaw with plus fastball velocity and mediocre numbers at Single-A, so he's a decent second-tier prospect. I'm told the player to be named later will be "nobody special."

By trading Young within the division the Twins made it clear they no longer believe his oft-cited potential is likely to arrive and it's difficult to argue otherwise about a poor defensive corner outfielder with a .426 slugging percentage and 12 homers per 500 at-bats. Since he joined the Twins in 2008 the only player in all of baseball with more plate appearances and a lower Wins Above Replacement total than Young is Yuniesky Betancourt. Seriously.

Even in 2010, his lone quality season in four years with the Twins, he was merely a good but not great hitter whose putrid defense wiped away much of his offensive value. That year there were 64 total corner outfielders, first basemen, and designated hitters with at least 500 plate appearances and Young ranked 46th in on-base percentage, 23rd in slugging percentage, and 27th in OPS. And in the three surrounding seasons Young slugged .401.

Perhaps it'll click for Young in Detroit or his next home after that, but he got ample opportunity to show he's more than just another bad-glove, good-bat corner outfielder and couldn't even consistently accomplish the good-bat part. Young's flaws on and off the field mean his bat has to be special and it's barely been average. There's a reason the Twins got so little for him and it's the same reason their trade for him was such a mistake: Young simply isn't very good.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota law firm Snyder Gislason Frasier LLC, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your legal needs.

August 15, 2011

Twins Notes: “Psst. It’s Over.”

• To put the Twins' current 11.5-game AL Central deficit into context consider that they're 15.0 games ahead of the Astros for the worst record in baseball. They're also just 3.0 games ahead of the Royals for last place in the AL Central and 5.5 games ahead of the Orioles for the worst record in the AL. There are 43 games remaining and the Twins would have to go 29-14 just to finish .500. In their last 43 games the Twins are 20-23.

Alexi Casilla spent two weeks on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring and then aggravated the injury in the seventh inning of his first game back Friday, immediately returning to the DL. Trevor Plouffe, who was optioned to Triple-A to clear a roster spot for Casilla, was called right back up and will hopefully get more of an opportunity than last time, when he often found himself on the bench in favor of Matt Tolbert.

Plouffe has plenty of flaws and is hardly guaranteed to become a solid big leaguer, but if ever there was a time for the Twins to find out it's when the division title is out of reach and their primary alternative is a 29-year-old career .235/.291/.326 hitter. Using the final six weeks to see if Plouffe can be a part of the team's plans in 2012 and beyond is far more valuable than giving Tolbert more time to cement his status as the definition of a replacement-level player.

Kevin Slowey's long-awaited return to the Twins' rotation technically never happened, as he allowed one run in two innings yesterday before the game was washed away by rain.

Denard Span is 2-for-35 (.057) with nine strikeouts versus three walks since spending two months on the disabled list, telling LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he's still having post-concussion symptoms and is struggling with new medication. Not good.

Justin Morneau returned to the lineup six weeks after surgery to remove a herniated disk fragment from his neck, but told Neal that he still doesn't have feeling in his left index finger because of nerve damage. Despite that Morneau went 11-for-30 (.367) with a homer and four doubles in seven games rehabbing at Triple-A.

Joe Nathan became the Twins' all-time saves leader Wednesday with his 255th since joining the team in 2004, moving past Rick Aguilera. Nathan is definitely the most dominant closer in Twins history--and one of the most dominant in baseball history, for that matter--but his save total and Aguilera's save total isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. Here's an explanation of the differences from my write-up of Aguilera as the 18th-best player in Twins history:

It's important to note that Tom Kelly used Aguilera much differently than Ron Gardenhire has used Nathan. Nathan has inherited a grand total of 54 runners in seven-plus seasons with the Twins, which works out to one per eight innings. Aguilera inherited 38 runners in his first year as closer, and then saw 37 and 40 more in the next two years. In all, Aguilera inherited 207 runners during his time in Minnesota, which works out to one every 2.5 relief innings.

The vast majority of Nathan's saves involved starting an inning with a clean slate, but Aguilera often saved games he entered with runners on base. That goes a long way toward explaining his seemingly mediocre save percentage and Aguilera also deserves credit for stranding more than three-fourths of the runners he inherited.

In addition to being more difficult than Nathan's saves, on average, Aguilera's saves were also longer, as he recorded 55 more outs in his 254 saves than Nathan has in his 255 saves.

Glen Perkins might be wearing down in his first full season as a reliever. He allowed eight runs in 43 innings through August 5, including 37 scoreless appearances in 45 total outings, and never gave up more than one run in a game. And now Perkins has allowed six runs in his last four innings, including four straight outings with a run and multiple runs in two of them. David Ortiz's homer was the first served up by Perkins in 178 plate appearances this year.

Amelia Rayno of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote an interesting article about the pitcher-catcher relationship and specifically Carl Pavano picking Drew Butera as his personal catcher. Near the end of the article she noted Pavano's respective ERA with different catchers, but it's worth repeating: Pavano has a 4.26 ERA in 35 starts with his preferred catcher, Butera, and a 4.09 ERA in 31 starts with Joe Mauer. And this year's numbers skew further in Mauer's favor.

• MLB suspended Twins minor leaguer Kennys Vargas for 50 games after he violated the drug prevention and treatment program by reportedly testing positive for phentermine, which can be used to speed metabolism for weight loss. Vargas is 6-foot-5 and Seth Stohs notes that his weight has been an issue. Vargas, a 20-year-old first baseman who was signed out of Puerto Rico in 2009, was hitting .322/.377/.489 in 44 games at rookie-level Elizabethton.

Ted Uhlaender is the only outfielder in Twins history to get 200-plus plate appearances in a season with an on-base percentage below .300 and a slugging percentage below .300, hitting .226/.280/.286 in 403 plate appearances in 1966. Ben Revere is hitting .245/.294/.285 in 298 plate appearances. And his noodle arm was in right field Wednesday because Ron Gardenhire refuses to move Delmon Young there. Don't mess with success. Or something. How silly.

Jim Thome has faced three pitchers at least 70 times in his career. One is Tim Wakefield, whom he faced last week, and the other two are Roger Clemens and Brad Radke. Thome has hit just .185 off Wakefield and .225 (with good power) off Radke, but crushed Clemens to the tune of .355/.438/.855 with eight homers and seven doubles in 62 at-bats. Among all hitters Clemens faced at least 50 times Thome is the only one to top a 1.000 OPS. And he's at 1.293.

• Tonight is the deadline for MLB teams to sign draft picks and the Twins' first-rounder, North Carolina junior shortstop Levi Michael, remains unsigned, as do supplemental first-round picks Travis Harrison and Hudson Boyd. Their next six picks are all signed.

• While watching Tom Kelly fill in for Bert Blyleven during one of the recent FSN broadcasts I looked up his old minor-league numbers and the former manager hit .272/.406/.436 with more walks (538) than strikeouts (429) in 782 games at Triple-A. Of course, he was a first baseman, which is why Kelly spent 13 seasons in the minors and 47 games in the majors. Offensively at least he was a poor man's Doug Mientkiewicz.

• Why was Chuck Knoblauch a no-show at the 1991 team's reunion last week? Because "he's considerably out of shape," according to Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Which is smart, because Kent Hrbek would have really goofed on him.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota law firm Snyder Gislason Frasier LLC, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your legal needs.

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