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.
  • March 30, 2010

    Twins Notes: Committees, Timetables, and Risky Girlfriends

  • Ron Gardenhire announced that the Twins will begin the year using a closer-by-committee approach with Joe Nathan out for the season following Tommy John elbow surgery:

    We are a committee. Our closer role is a committee. We're going to try just about anything. I've never had to do it. It's going to be an experience trying to mix and match as best we can. But I've got some capable arms that we're going to rely on. I've seen committees work. It's not always the easiest thing in the world, but you just have to ad lib. When you lose your closer, it's a little different. That's how we're going to start, and we'll go from there.

    Aside from steroids there's nothing the baseball media freaks out about more than a team without a so-called established closer, so expect plenty of logic-be-damned overreactions if the Twins blow a couple leads early on. In fact, expect some of those reactions right now. However, the odds of Gardenhire and the Twins sticking with a true committee approach to the ninth inning all year are very slim.

    Gardenhire has said multiple times that he wants to find one man for the job, so mixing and matching Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, and perhaps Pat Neshek early in the season will likely just be a way for him to determine the best fit for the role. I'd be surprised if a committee approach lasts longer than 3-4 weeks and, assuming the Twins don't trade for a veteran closer, would still bet on Rauch leading the team in saves.

    In the meantime we're bound to hear how monumentally insane the Twins supposedly are for treating the ninth inning just like the seventh and eighth innings, which shows just how wrapped up everyone is in a role built around the save statistic. I don't think Gardenhire will go with a true closer-by-committee approach for long, if at all, but the Twins will be just fine if he does. Baseball existed without a one-inning closer for a hundred years or so.

  • Nathan officially underwent surgery Friday, with Mets team doctor David Altcheck doing the honors in New York. Nathan has remained very upbeat publicly while expressing confidence that he'll be ready for Opening Day next season, but those are longer odds than he may be willing to admit. Neshek is 16 months removed from his Tommy John surgery, so I asked him whether coming back in 12 months would have been possible in his case:

    For me, at 12 months there was no way I was ready to face hitters at that time. I don't know how guys come back quicker than that because it honestly was painful at that stage. Lots of scar tissue that would break up. I think they wrote my program to go slower so everything I did was set back a couple months, whereas a normal guy is around 12.

    Plenty of pitchers have returned from the surgery within 12 months and been effective, but I'd be very surprised if Nathan is able to do so at age 35. Incidentally, if you weren't already a huge Neshek fan his answering my questions about elbow surgery via Twitter at midnight on a Tuesday should make you one.

  • After shopping around for a better deal all offseason Ron Mahay finally settled for re-joining the Twins on a minor-league contract last week. Mahay originally signed with the Twins in late August of last season after being released by the Royals, but pitched just nine innings down the stretch. Much like Jacque Jones he's apparently willing to accept an assignment to Triple-A, which makes Mahay a nice low-cost pickup as a potential lefty middle reliever.
  • Along with Mahay, the Twins also signed 29-year-old Yoslan Herrera and 30-year-old Brad Hennessey to minor-league deals. Hennessey spent five years with Giants and even served as their closer for much of 2007, saving 19 games with a 3.42 ERA in 68 innings. He was let go after coughing up 35 runs in 40 innings in 2008 and then spent last season sidelined by elbow problems after agreeing to a minor-league contract with the Orioles.

    Herrera received a $2 million signing bonus from the Pirates after defecting from Cuba as a 25-year-old in 2006, but has been mediocre in the minors and allowed 20 runs over 18.1 innings during his only major-league stint in 2008. They both seem destined for spots in the Rochester bullpen and are solid organizational depth, but Mahay is significantly more likely to see time in Minnesota this season.
  • LaVelle E. Neal III recently profiled 17-year-old top prospects Miguel Angel Sano and Max Kepler. The whole thing is worth reading, but my favorite part was this quote from Kepler:

    I can't wait until I get my driver's license because I have to look for people who are 21 to get into my car and just go somewhere. I was thinking about getting a girlfriend who was 21, but that's kind of risky.

    I initially imagined that quote being said in a thick German accent, but then hearing Kepler's nearly flawless English during a radio interview with Patrick Reusse ruined the fun.

  • Despite extraordinary minor-league numbers Anthony Slama didn't reach Triple-A until just before his 26th birthday last year and I've criticized the Twins for not promoting him more aggressively. However, while the front office may not have much confidence in Slama being for real both Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson indicated they were impressed by the right-hander who ranked 19th on my annual list of the Twins' top prospects.
  • Acquired from the Mets in the package for Johan Santana and traded to the Diamondbacks for Rauch in August, Kevin Mulvey is now competing for the final spot in Arizona's rotation. Meanwhile, a groin injury is hurting Boof Bonser's bid for a bullpen job in Boston.
  • Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports that the Yankees "made a series of attempts" to trade for Denard Span last season "only to be rebuffed each time by the Twins."
  • Remember the lone voter who kept Joe Mauer from being a unanimous MVP? Well, suffice it to say you won't be satisfied by his reasoning.