October 3, 2011

Twins Notes: Pohlad, payroll, surgeries, power arms, and naked parties

• During a lengthy interview with LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune owner Jim Pohlad predictably confirmed that manager Ron Gardenhire and general manager Bill Smith will be back in 2012, saying: "We're not a knee-jerk organization." When asked about holding people accountable following one of the worst years in Twins history, Pohlad cited "the perfect storm of injuries and players not performing":

We need to address how can we keep the players healthy. We need to address how can we encourage the players during the offseason to get to a point where they're going to play up to their capabilities. I'm not saying that the medical staff or the training staff has done anything wrong. I'm just saying let's look at the injuries and see how they can be prevented in the future.

Pohlad told Neal that the Twins "are very pleased with the job [Gardenhire] has done" under "very difficult conditions." He stopped short of praising Smith, saying instead that "he also has had a very tough situation" and then citing his 15 years in the organization. Neal brought up Smith saying he's more administrator than talent evaluator and asked if he's "the right man to turn things around." Pohlad initially replied with "what's Billy's title?" and then said:

General manager, so he's in charge of managing the baseball operation. I mean those are his words, like you said. I don't remember reading that, but if those are his words that's really his job, to manage the baseball department. We don't look to Billy solely--I don't know if any organization does, maybe they do at some place--we don't look solely at him as the premier judge of talent. He has a whole bunch of people that he gets input from on the judgment of talent.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Smith, but Pohlad is absolutely right that the Twins' front office decision-making involves a lot more voices than just the general manager. When asked how much money Smith and the front office will have available this offseason, Pohlad indicated that the payroll "is going to come down naturally because it exceeded where we wanted it" for this season "but it's not going to be slashed." Hmm. Check out the full interview for more.

Ben Revere, Justin Morneau, and Nick Blackburn each underwent surgeries within days of the final game. Revere's surgery was considered a minor knee "cleanup," as Neal reports that he was "seen with ice on his left knee after games" down the stretch. For a guy whose entire game is built on speed knee problems at age 23 are worrisome, but Revere never missed time and hit .368 with seven steals in his final 15 games.

Morneau underwent surgery to stabilize a tendon in the back of his left wrist, which is actually the injury that initially forced him to the disabled list in mid-June before neck surgery and more concussion issues followed. Morneau also recently had knee and foot surgeries, which means he'll be rehabbing four different operations this offseason along with trying to recover from the concussion that occurred 16 months ago. At age 30 he's clearly at a career crossroads.

Blackburn, who had elbow surgery last fall, underwent an operation to remove pressure from an entrapped nerve in his forearm as part of a radial tunnel syndrome diagnosis. He'll be in a splint for six weeks and can't throw for two months, which makes the timing curious. Blackburn hasn't pitched since August 21 and was shut down on September 4, yet waited until Friday to have the surgery. He's under contract for $4.75 million in 2012 and $5.5 million in 2013.

Denard Span appears to have avoided a major setback in his concussion recovery despite a scary looking collision with the center field wall in Game 161. Span came back too early from his concussion initially, looking lost for nine games and heading back to the disabled list with more symptoms, but he finished the season with some reason for optimism by going 5-for-18 (.278) with four extra-base hits in five games after returning on September 21.

That may not seem like much, but before stringing together those hits late Span went through a brutal 2-for-42 (.048) stretch following the concussion. Span was hitting .300/.367/.392 in 55 games before colliding with Royals catcher Brayan Pena on June 3, yet finished the year with a .264/.328/.359 mark in 70 total games. Hopefully a full winter of rest is better for Span than it was for Morneau, because there's not much the Twins can do besides wait.

Even if the Twins wanted to revisit their July trade talks with the Nationals for Span it's hard to imagine Washington general manager Mike Rizzo being comfortable enough with his status to pull the trigger. If he gets over the concussion symptoms the Twins shouldn't be willing to deal Span for a reliever--even a very good, young one like Drew Storen--and if he doesn't get over the concussion symptoms no team is going to give them anything worthwhile for him anyway.

• Dating back to the end of last year the Twins have talked about adding more "power arms" to the organization rather than continuing to stock the minors and majors with low-90s control artists. Generally speaking that's an excellent idea, but so far that plan has mostly just led to acquiring hard-throwing middle relievers with massive control problems, like getting Jim Hoey from the Orioles for J.J. Hardy and Lester Oliveros from the Tigers for Delmon Young.

Esmerling Vasquez is the latest pickup to fit that mold, as the Twins claimed the 27-year-old right-hander off waivers after he was designated for assignment by Arizona. Vasquez throws hard, averaging 93.7 miles per hour with his fastball, but has managed just 120 strikeouts in 137 innings to go along with 80 walks. And those numbers are actually great compared to his time at Triple-A, where Vasquez had more walks (97) than strikeouts (93) in 121 innings.

Vasquez has been reasonably tough to hit whenever he throws the ball over the plate and his changeup has been much more effective than his mid-90s fastball, so there's some semblance of upside to be unlocked. However, if the Twins are serious about changing the organizational approach to acquiring and developing pitchers they'll need to dig a lot deeper than plucking a few hard-throwing middle relievers with awful walk rates from other teams.

• Even with his strong finish Revere posted a .309 slugging percentage and .619 OPS in 117 games, which are both the lowest marks in Twins history from an outfielder with at least 450 plate appearances. He managed zero homers and just 14 extra-base hits in 481 trips to the plate, and two of those extra-base hits were actually outs as Revere unsuccessfully (but very excitingly) tried to turn triples into an inside-the-park homers.

Revere also stole 34 bases at a solid 79 percent clip. If you add an extra base to his hitting for each steal and erase one time on base for each unsuccessful steal his overall line morphs into .267/.291/.384. I'm not sure if that's more or less encouraging than his actual .267/.310/.309 line, but it does show that all the running didn't make up for the poor hitting. Of course, given his speed and defense Revere merely needs to be not-horrible at the plate to have nice value.

• Not surprisingly Revere led the Twins with 26 infield hits, which is a function of both his elite speed and a 68.5 percent ground-ball rate that was the highest in baseball by a wide margin. As a team the Twins also had MLB's highest ground-ball rate, yet even with Revere boosting the total they were just ninth in infield hits. On the flip side Twins pitchers allowed an AL-high 198 infield hits despite ranking 20th in ground balls, which speaks to the awful infield defense.

Carl Pavano is a prime example of why judging pitchers on their win-loss record or even ERA can be extremely misleading. Last season he went 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA and this season he went 9-13 with a 4.30 ERA. Big dropoff in his performance, right? Well, maybe not:

YEAR      IP      SO     BB     HR      GB%      FIP
2010     221     117     37     24     51.2     4.02
2011     222     102     40     23     50.6     4.10

Pavano pitched slightly worse this year because his already poor strikeout rate fell further, but most of the difference between his 2010 numbers and 2011 numbers can be traced to bad run support and the terrible infield defense behind him. Pitchers who don't miss bats are always at the mercy of their defense and it doesn't necessarily mean the Twins should be happy to have Pavano under contract for $8.5 million in 2012, but his record and ERA overstate the decline.

Rick Knapp left his job as the Twins' longtime minor-league pitching coordinator in 2008 to become the Tigers' big-league pitching coach, but was fired midway through this season. He'll stay in the AL Central, joining the Royals last week as their minor-league pitching coordinator. Knapp got a lot of credit for the Twins' strike-throwing philosophy throughout the organization, so it'll be interesting to see what he can do working with the Royals' stockpile of young arms.

• Hardy finished his first season in Baltimore with 30 home runs and an .801 OPS in 567 plate appearances (which is more than everyone on the Twins this year except Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer). In the entire history of the Twins no shortstop has hit more than 24 home runs and only Cristian Guzman in 2001 topped an .800 OPS.

• In ranking second-to-last among AL teams in scoring this season the Twins hit a combined .247/.306/.360. For comparison, Nick Punto is a career .247/.325/.327 hitter.

• One of the Twins' rare September wins apparently came because Gardenhire scratching his chin got confused for the manager giving the steal sign. Seriously.

• Based on this tweet Brian Duensing has already had an eventful offseason:

Probably for the best considering the collective state of the team's immune system this year.

July 4, 2011

Twins Notes: Musical closers, All-Star wars, and main attractions

Ron Gardenhire stuck with Matt Capps as the closer following Saturday's implosion, but then pulled him with two runners on base and one out yesterday rather than let the right-hander blow back-to-back saves. Glen Perkins wriggled out of Capps' mess for his first career save, leading to postgame speculation that there could be a permanent change in the ninth inning, but Gardenhire downplayed that talk by saying Capps "is still our closer."

With a 4.63 ERA and league-leading six blown saves in 19 chances Capps has certainly pitched poorly enough to warrant a demotion and Perkins has been the Twins' best reliever all year, so giving him an opportunity in the bullpen's top role makes sense. However, removing Capps from the ninth inning would likely just mean giving him chances to blow leads in earlier innings and installing Perkins as closer would put him in a far more rigid, potentially less impactful role.

Perkins has been so valuable in large part because Gardenhire has been willing to use him in basically any situation. He's worked every inning from the fifth to the tenth, seeing significant action in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. He's come into games to protect small leads, but also to keep things close with small deficits or keep things tied with the score knotted. And he's been used a ton, appearing in 31 of 59 games while on the active roster.

As a closer that would all change because Perkins would mostly be limited to pitching the ninth inning with a lead of 1-3 runs. No more putting out fires in the seventh frame, no more pitching the eighth inning down a run, and no more working every other day. Decreasing his workload some may not be a bad thing, but moving Perkins into a role with far more rigid usage won't help matters much overall and would likely just mean Capps sliding into a prominent setup gig.

• In terms of Capps-related mistakes trading Wilson Ramos to get him last season and paying $7.15 million to keep him this season were both worse than sticking with him as closer, where he's perfectly capable of converting saves 80 percent of the time just like every other halfway decent reliever. Perhaps demoting Capps would improve things in the ninth inning, but in order to do that the Twins would have to weaken things in the seventh and eighth innings.

And beyond the immediate on-field domino effect, putting Perkins in a role where he can rack up saves will make him significantly more expensive in future seasons even if his actual value stays the same or even decreases. No one has been harder on Capps and the Twins' decision to acquire Capps than me, but any change that simply involves him in a different high-leverage inning isn't as big as the misguided focus on the save statistic would have you believe.

If the Twins feel they have to remove Capps from the ninth inning it makes more sense to give Joe Nathan another crack at closing and see if his impressive outings since returning from the disabled list are a genuine sign of his old stuff gradually coming back. Nathan's future price tag isn't a factor, his current role doesn't involve a heavy workload anyway, and stringing together some solid outings over the next few weeks might resuscitate his trade value.

Capps isn't as terrible as the six blown saves would suggest, but he's also not a good closer. Never has been, never will be. He's basically Jon Rauch, minus eight inches and a bunch of ink, and plus a beer belly. I've hammered that point home before, so I won't get back into it, but I will say that only two active pitchers with 100 saves have fewer than 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings. One is Danys Baez, who has a 5.03 ERA since 41 saves in 2005. The other is Capps.

Michael Cuddyer was chosen for the All-Star team yesterday, following in the grand tradition of previous Twins representatives like Ron Coomer, Tim Laudner, Dave Engle, Leo Cardenas, Gary Ward, Joe Mays, Doug Corbett, and Cristian Guzman. Assuming that Scott Baker isn't a last-minute pitching replacement this will be the Twins' first year with just one All-Star since 2004. In the six seasons since then the Twins averaged 2.67 representatives per year.

• Incidentally, through exactly half of the season here are the Twins' leaders and trailers in the Baseball-Reference.com-calculated Wins Above Replacement (WAR):

LEADERS              WAR          TRAILERS             WAR
Denard Span          3.5          Tsuyoshi Nishioka   -1.5
Scott Baker          2.8          Justin Morneau      -1.0
Michael Cuddyer      1.5          Jim Hoey            -0.8
Glen Perkins         1.1          Matt Tolbert        -0.7
Jason Kubel          0.9          Joe Nathan          -0.7

I have no problem with Cuddyer getting the nod. He's not a great player and isn't even having a great season--ranking 23rd in OPS and 47th in WAR among AL hitters--but the one-player-per-team rule forces the Twins to send someone and Denard Span is hurt, plus the pitching staff is tougher to crack than the bench. Mostly, though, I couldn't care less about the All-Star game and always have a hard time getting worked up about the picks one way or another.

• Like every other Twins injury this year Jason Kubel's sprained left foot has kept him out for significantly longer than the team's initial return timetable. First he hoped to miss just a couple days, then he aimed to avoid the disabled list, then he was optimistic about returning after the minimum 15 days on the shelf, and now he's already missed 35 days and counting following a setback while rehabbing in Fort Myers. "Day-to-day" equals "one month" in Twins speak.

Rick Knapp, who was the Twins' minor-league pitching coordinator for a dozen years before leaving the organization in 2008 to become the Tigers' major-league pitching coach, was fired yesterday after 2.5 seasons on the job. Knapp was often credited with being a key part of the Twins' organization-wide focus on throwing strikes, but under his watch Detroit ranked 12th, 7th, and 12th in walks and 5th, 11th, and 12th in ERA among AL teams.

David Dorsey of the Fort Myers News Press did a feature on Aaron Hicks, who turned things around following a slow start and is now batting .280/.392/.424 with 26 extra-base hits, 46 walks, and 11 steals in 66 games at high Single-A. His power has been slow to develop, but Hicks' plate disciplines continues to stand out for a 21-year-old, his switch-hitting has become more balanced, and his defense in center field consistently draws positive reviews.

• Saturday marked the start of the international signing period and the Twins' highest-profile pickup is Miguel Gonzalez, a 16-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic who signed for $650,000. Ben Badler of Baseball America reports that the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Gonzalez "draws attention for his ability to pound the strike zone with a fastball that reaches the low 90s" and "has feel for pitching beyond his years." He even predicted the Twins would sign him.

• For all his ups and downs this year Alexi Casilla is hitting .244/.312/.346 through 74 games. His combined line during the previous three seasons: .256/.316/.344. Same old, same old.

Kris Humphries sat through a two-hour rain delay before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch Friday, was mostly booed by the Target Field crowd, fired low to Rene Rivera, and then went back into a suite to sit with fiancee Kim Kardashian, who was the much bigger attraction among Twins players and media members:

On a related note, when things go wrong at least Capps isn't as scary as the guy he replaced:

And that angle doesn't even display the neck tattoos.

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.