January 18, 2011

Twins Notes: Fuentes, Rauch, Morneau, Casilla, Pavano, and Thome

• The offseason bullpen exodus is now complete, as Jon Rauch signed with the Blue Jays and Brian Fuentes signed with the A's to join Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain in leaving the Twins after that quartet combined to throw 45 percent of the team's relief innings last season while posting a 2.98 ERA. The rest of the Twins' bullpen had a 3.90 ERA. Here are the contracts each reliever got on the open market:

- Crain: $13 million for three years from the White Sox

- Guerrier: $12 million for three years from the Dodgers

- Fuentes: $10 million for two years from the A's

- Rauch: $3.75 million for one year from the Blue Jays (with a $3.75 team option for 2012)

Tough to blame the Twins for failing to bring Crain, Guerrier, Fuentes, and Rauch back at those prices, but it would've been nice to get more than one draft pick as compensation for letting all four guys leave as free agents. It's also worth noting that Matt Capps will probably make more than any of those four departing relievers this season and the Twins traded one of their top prospects in Wilson Ramos for the right to pay (or overpay) him $6 million or so in 2011.

UPDATE: Make that $7.15 million for Capps. Yeesh.

• As noted last week plenty of veteran middle relievers have signed for reasonable money this offseason, but the Twins have yet to add any potential 2011 bullpen help beyond Jim Hoey, a hard-throwing but erratic right-hander acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy trade. They reportedly were among the half-dozen teams to offer right-hander Jose Veras a minor-league contract, but he opted to sign with the Pirates instead.

Justin Morneau told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he's yet to "do any hitting or baseball activities" this offseason and doesn't plan to do so until next month, which seemingly means Morneau and the Twins still have no idea whether he'll be ready to play this season. General manager Bill Smith also hinted that Morneau continues to experience at least some symptoms more than six months after his concussion, saying:

In July, August, and September the protocol was if he had any concussion symptoms, he needed to back off. Now I think the doctors have given him a little more of the go-ahead. If you have mild symptoms, you need to work through it, play through it.

Smith also stressed to Christensen that the Twins "are very hopeful and very optimistic he'll be ready to go for spring training," but it's tough to trust that anyone really knows anything when Morneau still hasn't engaged in baseball activities without symptoms. Until he takes that step there's only so much anyone can know, good or bad.

Alexi Casilla and the Twins avoided arbitration with a one-year, $865,000 contract, leaving Capps, Francisco Liriano, Delmon Young, Kevin Slowey, and Glen Perkins on the arbitration docket. Today is the deadline for teams and players to exchange salary figures for hearings next month, but expect the Twins to work out deals with everyone before then. They haven't actually gone through with an arbitration hearing since losing to Kyle Lohse in 2005 and 2006.

• Various sources still expect Carl Pavano to re-sign eventually, but Christensen reports that the two sides "appear to be in a temporary holding pattern" while the Twins focus on dealing with the aforementioned arbitration eligible guys. I've heard some speculation that the market for Pavano was overstated because few teams were willing to actually forfeit a first-round pick to sign the Type A free agent, especially once the Brewers got Zack Greinke and bowed out.

Mark Simon of ESPN.com crunched the numbers on Jim Thome's domination of right-handed pitching and found that Thome has the third-highest OPS in baseball versus righties during the past five seasons, behind only Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard. And he was as great as ever against right-handers last year, clobbering them to the tune of .302/.455/.698 to rank second in the league behind MVP winner Josh Hamilton. Not a bad guy to keep for $3 million.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka was signed by the Twins to replace Hardy or Orlando Hudson, but how will the Chiba Lotte Marines replace Nishioka in Japan?  Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker looks at the other side of the Japan-to-MLB move.

November 24, 2010

Twins offer arbitration to Pavano, Hudson, and Crain

Last night was the deadline to offer departing free agents arbitration to receive compensatory draft picks if they sign elsewhere and the Twins did so to Carl Pavano, Orlando Hudson, and Jesse Crain, but chose not to tender arbitration offers to Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, and Brian Fuentes. Pavano and Crain were no-brainers, as they'll both have plenty of interested teams on the open market and if not the Twins would gladly welcome them back on one-year deals.

Hudson was seemingly a tougher call, as he's had to accept one-year deals as a free agent in each of the past two offseasons and may simply decide to accept the Twins' arbitration offer to ensure another one-year deal for at least the $5 million he earned in 2010. That would hardly be disastrous, as he was certainly worth $5 million, but it's unclear how he fits into the budget for 2011 and I'd heard from several sources that the Twins weren't interested in keeping him.

As a Type A free agent Guerrier signing elsewhere would have brought back a first-round pick and a second-round pick had the Twins offered him arbitration. However, the odds of another team be willing to forfeit their first-round pick to sign a good but not great 32-year-old reliever seem slim and the Twins didn't want to risk Guerrier seeing his lack of other options and simply accepting the arbitration offer because that could have meant paying him $5 million in 2011.

My sense is that the Twins have little interest in bringing back Rauch, so while getting a draft pick when he signs elsewhere would've been nice they didn't risk his accepting arbitration and locking them into a one-year deal for at least $3 million. Fuentes earned $9 million this season, so any arbitration offer to him would essentially have been offering a one-year, $9 million deal and the Twins don't have that kind of payroll space even if they'd like to have him return.

I'm very curious to see how the Hudson situation plays out, especially since it could impact J.J. Hardy, and it'll also be interesting to see if they make efforts to re-sign Guerrier or Fuentes at lesser salaries. Doing so with Guerrier is far more likely, but it's possible Fuentes could also be an option to come back if he can't find any full-time closer gigs on the open market. As general manager Bill Smith put it: "We haven't closed the door on re-signing any of those players."

UPDATE: Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com speculates that the Twins may have a gentleman's agreement with Hudson that he'll decline their arbitration offer, which isn't unheard of (Javier Vazquez and Trevor Hoffman are also doing it) and would obviously make the entire situation a whole lot less surprising. If true, the Twins basically get a free draft pick out of the deal.

October 8, 2010

ALDS Game 2: Yankees 5, Twins 2

At this point writing about postseason losses to the Yankees has me feeling like Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day, except there's no Andie MacDowell to hit on while going through the same frustrating story over and over again. I'm not sure what's left to say, really, but here are some notes from Game 2 of the ALDS ...

• For all the media-fueled talk of Francisco Liriano being untrustworthy in big games and Carl Pavano being less likely to implode they basically turned in identical performances versus New York. Liriano struck out seven and allowed four runs on nine baserunners in 5.2 innings, while Pavano struck out three and allowed four runs on 11 baserunners in six innings. Unfortunately neither performance was particularly good.

• Of course, Pavano's line (and the game in general) would've looked much different had home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt called what appeared to be a pretty obvious strike three on Lance Berkman in the seventh inning. Instead he called it a ball and Berkman connected on a go-ahead (and ultimately game-winning) double on the next pitch. Berkman later came around to score, putting the Yankees up 4-2.

Via replays and various pitch location charts the call was perhaps somewhat less obvious than it initially appeared, but Pavano's pitch was pretty clearly a strike and even more clearly was a pitch that's almost always called a strike. However, it was also far from the only questionable ball/strike call Wendelstedt made all night and in fact his strike zone was wildly inconsistent for both sides and ... well, let's say "unique." Plus, in Game 1 a bad call went the Twins' way.

• From the moment Ron Gardenhire left the dugout there was absolutely zero that doubt he'd end up getting tossed from the game. Typically pitching coach Rick Anderson makes all trips to the mound that don't involve a pitching change and Gardenhire has a long history of incidents with Wendelstedt, so clearly he headed out there with the intention of venting his frustration with the umpire and perhaps even with the goal of getting tossed.

Jon Rauch deserves some praise for wriggling out of the bases-loaded, one-out jam against Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano in the seventh inning, just as he probably deserved more praise than he received during the regular season for converting 21-of-25 save opportunities before the closer role was yanked away and for his 3.12 ERA and 41-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57.2 innings overall.

• Lost in the talk of pitching matchups and rotation orders is that the Twins' lineup has been inept during the 2-11 playoff stretch against New York, scoring 3, 1, 1, 1, 2, 6, 4, 5, 2, 3, 1, 4, and 2 runs. That works out to 2.8 runs per game, which won't equal many wins regardless of the pitching. To put that in some context, the average AL team scored 4.5 runs per game this year. Against the Yankees the Twins have more than four runs twice in 13 playoff games.

• Coming into the series I felt that two factors being somewhat overlooked were the strength of the Yankees' bullpen even beyond Mariano Rivera and how facing four left-handed starters in five games put the Twins at a big disadvantage because they relied so much on left-handed bats Joe Mauer, Jim Thome, and Jason Kubel. Both factors have sadly played out pretty much as expected in the first two games. They face a right-handed starter Saturday in Phil Hughes.

• I'll be co-hosting "Twins Wrap" on 1500-ESPN following (hopefully) both games in New York, talking with Darren Wolfson and taking phone calls starting about an hour after the final out. Win or lose the shows will likely last for at least an hour and maybe two hours, so I'd definitely love to hear from some AG.com readers, if only for the sake of my sanity.

July 12, 2010

Anatomy of a collapse (Part 1: Pitching)

When the Twins woke up in Seattle on June 1 they were 31-20 and riding a five-game winning streak that gave them a season-high 4.5-game lead over the Tigers (and 8.5-game lead over the White Sox) in the AL Central. They were clicking on nearly every cylinder, with the pitching staff allowing the second-fewest runs in the league and the lineup scoring more runs than any team outside of the powerful AL East.

Through two months they had the second-best record in baseball, were on pace for 98 wins, and looked capable of running away with the division. Instead they've fallen apart. After losing two of three from the Tigers over the weekend the Twins are now 15-22 since the calendar flipped to June, turning a 4.5-game lead into a 3.5-game deficit in under six weeks and limping into the All-Star break in third place at a disappointing 46-42.

Here's a look at their run scoring and run prevention during the good times and bad times:

                      RS/G     RA/G
Through May 31        4.92     3.82
Since June 1          4.24     4.85

Through the end of May the Twins scored 4.92 runs per game, but since then they've managed just 4.24 runs per game for an offensive decline of 14 percent. And the decline of the pitching staff has been even steeper. Through the end of May the Twins allowed 3.82 runs per game, but since then they've coughed up 4.85 runs per game for a pitching (and defense) drop of 27 percent. Let's dig a little deeper and look at the individual pitching performances since June 1:

ROTATION                IP      ERA      FIP
Carl Pavano           60.1     3.13     4.29
Scott Baker           42.2     5.48     4.56
Francisco Liriano     41.2     4.75     1.90
Kevin Slowey          40.2     5.31     4.58
Nick Blackburn        36.0    10.00     7.48
TOTAL                221.1     5.41     4.53

While going 15-22 the Twins' rotation had a cumulative 5.41 ERA, with only Carl Pavano under 4.50 and Nick Blackburn checking in at 10.00. However, their cumulative Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was a much more reasonable 4.53, with Pavano, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey all right around 4.50 and Francisco Liriano at an excellent 1.90 thanks to his great 51-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio with zero homers allowed in 41.2 innings.

In other words the rotation as a whole didn't pitch quite as horribly as their 5.41 ERA suggests and in particular Liriano's secondary numbers were outstanding. That their ERA was a full run worse than their FIP shows that perhaps the starters had poor defense played behind them, received poor bullpen support, or maybe just had some bad luck (since we are talking about a very limited sample size here). That's the good news.

The bad news is that Blackburn had a 7.48 FIP in addition to his ghastly 10.00 ERA. It's rare for a pitcher's FIP to get that high, because the stat is designed to take bad luck, bad defense, and bad bullpen support out of the equation and ... well, few pitchers are still that bad once you strip their performance of those factors. For instance, no pitcher with more than 50 innings in a season has cracked a 7.00 FIP since 2006.

Blackburn's overall FIP this season is "only" 5.89, but he's compiled a 7.48 FIP since June 1 by striking out just 17 of 180 batters while walking 14 and allowing 11 homers. His strikeout rate has always been terrible, but he made up for it with great control and limited home runs. Now his strikeout rate is non-existent, with 91 percent of batters putting the ball in play since June 1, and he issued twice as many walks as before while serving up a homer every three innings.

BULLPEN                 IP      ERA      FIP
Brian Duensing        18.2     1.45     4.06
Alex Burnett          16.1     4.96     5.89
Matt Guerrier         16.0     5.07     4.70
Ron Mahay             14.1     2.51     4.60
Jon Rauch             13.0     1.39     2.97
Jesse Crain           12.1     1.46     2.96
Jose Mijares           8.1     2.16     4.40
Jeff Manship           5.1     3.38     6.01
TOTAL                104.1     2.85     4.38

Not surprisingly, while the rotation's ERA was much worse than their FIP the bullpen's ERA was much better than their FIP. During the 15-22 stretch the bullpen actually had a pretty looking 2.85 ERA, but inheriting runners from the starters and allowing them to score isn't reflected in the relievers' ERAs and their FIP was merely mediocre at 4.38, with only Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain below 4.00. Despite that Rauch and Crain were used for just 25 innings in 37 games.

In the past Rauch's durability was a major asset, as he averaged 80 innings per season from 2006-2009 while appearing in half of his team's games. However, now he's a "closer" instead of a "setup man" and so Ron Gardenhire has subjected him to the same extremely rigid usage patterns he employed with Joe Nathan, which is why four different relievers have more innings than Rauch since June 1 and he's on pace for just 62 innings in 59 appearances on the year.

Rauch has shown the ability to log tons of innings, but now that the Twins have entrusted him with the most important role in the bullpen he's on pace for 25 percent less work because the manager will only use him up 1-3 runs in the final inning. That means fewer innings for Rauch, who has a 2.38 ERA and 3.32 FIP, but also more innings for the lesser relievers and more work for Matt Guerrier, who Gardenhire is perfectly willing to wear out because he's not a "closer."

In the past few weeks Guerrier pitched three times in four days and then, after a short break, worked five times in seven days. Not surprisingly he began to struggle, taking the loss in three straight appearances. Rauch is capable of being a workhorse and Guerrier has worn down like this in the past, but since Gardenhire lets the "save" statistic dictate how he runs the bullpen Guerrier has pitched in 42 percent more games than Rauch since June 1.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When a team goes from 31-20 to 46-42 fans start calling for all sorts of moves to be made and the pitching staff is certainly the most obvious place to point fingers, but realistically what can and should the Twins do? Some of the most plausible "solutions" involve guys like Slowey and Baker simply pitching better, but here are three other ideas that don't involve dumping half the roster or trading half the farm system ...

1. Blackburn needs a break from the rotation.

The misguided decision to hand Blackburn a four-year, $14 million contract this offseason when he was already under team control through 2013 complicates the situation, but whether he's injured or just finally tasting the downside of "pitching to contact" he's been bad enough for long enough that making a change is reasonable. I'm far from confident in Brian Duensing as a starter, but moving him into the rotation and shifting Blackburn to long relief makes sense.

2. If there aren't many save chances to be had, use Rauch more in non-save situations.

Gardenhire's rigid deployment of Rauch was fine when there was a steady flow of late leads to close out, but using the team's best, most durable reliever for 13 innings in 37 games simply because the "save" chances dried up is silly and a lesson in backwards managing. Gardenhire has unfortunately let Rauch's new role drastically alter the way he uses him, but that doesn't mean Rauch has forgotten how to pitch without a lead of 1-3 runs in the ninth inning.

3. Bring up Anthony Slama from Triple-A.

I've been banging the Slama drum for a while now and at this point I'm not sure what else the guy can do to get a shot in Minnesota. His numbers in the minors have been ridiculously good at every stop and he now has a 1.80 ERA, .152 opponents' batting average, and 79 strikeouts in 65 innings at Triple-A. His control is shaky and his raw stuff isn't overpowering, but so what? He's dominated at every level and is already 26 years old. Why not at least give him a chance?

April 7, 2010

Twins Notes: Reliever Picking, Strawman Arguing, and Face Stuffing

  • If there was no such thing as a "save" the Twins probably would have left Matt Guerrier in to pitch the ninth inning last night after he breezed through a 1-2-3 eighth inning on just 11 pitches, but instead they brought in new closer Jon Rauch. And guess what? Just like most quality relievers would do about 90 percent of the time in that spot, he was able to protect a two-run lead for one inning against the bottom of the lineup. So far, so good.
  • There was a last-minute change to the projected Opening Day roster, as Clay Condrey was placed on the disabled list with a strained right elbow and the Twins called up Alex Burnett to take his spot in the bullpen. Burnett thrived after moving to the bullpen in the minors last year and ranks No. 21 on my list of the Twins' top prospects, but the move was surprising because he's just 22 years old and has zero experience at Triple-A.

    By choosing Burnett the Twins again showed how little faith they have in Anthony Slama's amazing minor-league numbers being for real. He's four years older than Burnett and had a 2.67 ERA with 112 strikeouts in 81 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season. He's not on the 40-man roster, but the Twins could have made a spot by putting Joe Nathan on the 60-day disabled list and if a minor-league reliever is getting a shot it should be Slama.
  • Last night Ron Gardenhire had his first shot to get Brendan Harris into the lineup versus a left-hander, but my hope that he'd sit Nick Punto for a clearly superior option offensively proved to be wishful thinking. Gardenhire cited their career stats against Joe Saunders and wanting the better glove behind Nick Blackburn, but they had a meaningless 15 combined at-bats off him and despite his rep Blackburn's ground-ball rate is barely above average.
  • According to USA Today the Twins have the 10th-highest Opening Day payroll this year after ranking 24th, 25th, 18th, 19th, and 20th during the previous five seasons. I'd expect them to eventually settle into the 12-18 range, but for now being a "big-payroll team" is fun. Of course, even with the Twins at a team-record $97.5 million the Yankees are out-spending them by a cool $110 million and a total of five teams have an edge of at least $40 million.
  • Last week I wrote about the Twins finally getting somewhat involved in statistical analysis and a few days later an Associated Press article about new-school stats quoted Gardenhire:

    Sabermetrics has picked us to finish like fourth or fifth three years in a row. So you figure their numbers out. Numbers are good bases to go off things and try to figure things out, but for every number you throw out there that's not supposed to work, the human element's always coming.

    Bad pitch, guy gets a hit. But he's not supposed to, still rips a pitch in the gap. Those are all great things and, over the course of time probably prove out pretty good. But I like the human element and I like the heart way better than I like their numbers. And that's what I'll always stay with.

    I'm not even entirely clear about what Gardenhire is specifically talking about there, but I do know that "sabermetrics has picked us to finish like fourth or fifth three years in a row ... so you figure their numbers out" is just false and a strawman argument. Baseball Prospectus, for instance, has projected the Twins to finish first or second in five of the past six seasons, which is more often than the Twins have actually finished first or second.

  • Just a month after signing him to a minor-league contract the Twins have released Charlton Jimerson, which is no surprise. At the time of the deal I wrote that he "would be laughably overmatched in the majors" as a even a fourth outfielder and the Twins quickly replaced him with a better fit for that potential role in 29-year-old Dodgers castoff Jason Repko, who'll join Jacque Jones in the Triple-A outfield while competing for the same potential call-up.

    Jones is obviously the sentimental pick and had an impressive spring, but as a right-handed hitter Repko might be a better fit in an outfield/designated hitter mix with lefty bats Denard Span, Jason Kubel, and Jim Thome. He hasn't played regularly in the majors since 2006, but fared decently against lefties back then and has hit .291/.355/.470 overall in 230 games at Triple-A. Plus, unlike Jones he's actually played center field regularly in recent years.
  • Much like Jimerson, the Twins also released 29-year-old left-hander Mark McLemore after inking him to a minor-league deal last month. Seth Stohs notes that in addition to Jimerson and McLemore the Twins released a bunch of other minor leaguers like Jason Jones, Rene Leveret, Jonathan Waltenbury, Jeff Lanning, and Blair Erickson. As a 2006 sixth rounder who ranked 31st on my list of Twins prospects last year Waltenbury is the biggest surprise.

    Jones was a Rule 5 pick from the Yankees last winter and the Twins gave up a decent minor league reliever in Charles Nolte to keep him in the organization after not making the team, but he never struck me as a particularly worthwhile pickup. Leveret has hit .303/.390/.442 in four pro seasons, including .286/.363/.399 at high Single-A last year, but lacks the power to be a legit first base prospect. Lanning was an eighth-round pick just two drafts ago.
  • Speaking of Seth, during the Twins-Cardinals exhibition game last week FSN coincidentally showed him eating in the bleachers. Bert Blyleven had been talking about how relaxing it was at Target Field, so when Seth popped up on camera he said: "Now that's relaxing, that gentleman stuffing his face." And since this is the internet, naturally a bunch of other people who noticed one of their favorite bloggers on screen captured the moment for posterity:

    To see Seth "stuffing his face" in person check out the latest TwinsCentric event Saturday.
  • Last week Jeremy Greenhouse of Baseball Analysts interviewed me about the Twins, but somehow it segued into Lost and LaVelle E. Neal III's je ne sais quoi.
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