Friday, February 29, 2008

Let the Games Begin

The Twins opened their exhibition schedule yesterday with a sight that has become all too familiar to fans -- an inept offensive performance resulting in a loss. The Reds defeated the Twins 6-1 thanks to a pair of three-run innings. Glen Perkins surrendered a three-run home run in the fifth, and Ricky Barrett later gave up three more runs in the eighth. The Twins managed only five hits and scored their only run in the sixth inning thanks to three errors by Cincinnati fielders. Phil Miller observed that the loss was "awfully reminiscent of last season's constant search for offense." That's disheartening. It also gives me an opportunity to dust off the ol' "offensive ineptitude" post label. Sadly, I'm sure it won't be the last time I'll be attaching it to a post this season.

Of course, this was only the first game of the spring, so it's far too early to draw any conclusions or become overly concerned. Here's hoping the Twins look better tonight, with Boof Bonser facing off against Boston Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Sorry for the skimpy post today, but it was a long week and I'm beat. If anyone has anything interesting to discuss or debate in the comments section, I'll be around. Have a good weekend all.

* EDIT: Also, make sure to visit Twins Territory. They've launched their revamped and re-designed blog/fan community and it looks great!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thin at the Top

The other day, Baseball America released their Top 100 Prospects list for the 2008 season. The Twins organization had three representatives: Deolis Guerra at 35, Carlos Gomez at 52 and Nick Blackburn at 56. Only one of those players was actually signed and developed by the Twins.

For a team that emphasizes drafting and player development, having one internally raised prospect in BA's Top 100 (and many have opined that Blackburn's position at No. 56 is overly generous) is downright embarrassing. It certainly does not speak well to the way the Twins have drafted over the past several years. It also doesn't paint a particularly bright future for a team that is amidst a rebuilding process.

This problem can be remedied though. First of all, the Twins need a few guys currently in their low minors to have breakout years. There are plenty of candidates to do so -- some notable ones include Tyler Robertson, Deibinson Romero, Joe Benson and Chris Parmelee. For the Twins to return their system to prominence, it is also essential that they do well in the upcoming draft in June. The Twins will have a number of high picks, including three of the first 31 thanks to Torii Hunter's free agent departure. As far under budget as they are, there's absolutely no excuse for the Twins to go cheap like they did last year. Spend the money it takes to get the best players available.

The Twins' system is currently in a state of disrepair, and BA's list serves as a grim reminder of that fact. Fortunately, the organization isn't too far from getting back to where it needs to be. This year should be a big one in that respect.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Second-Half Performances: Trend or Mirage?

Baseball players frequently put up numbers during the second half of a season that differ dramatically from what they were able to do in the first half. This can be attributed to a variety of factors. Sometimes it is a player who is young, or returning from injury, and improving as he adjusts to the level of competition. In other instances, we find the opposite affect -- that a player's performance will decline in the latter part of the season as opponents discover his weaknesses and adjust to his style of play. And of course, in some cases, the change in production is attributable simply to luck, or to a particularly good or bad stretch of play.

Whatever the case, oftentimes we can look at a player's second half and use it as a predictor as to how he will perform in the next season. It makes intuitive sense that a player is more likely to carry his performance from the latter half a season forward, rather than the early part of the season. With this in mind, let's take a look at some Twins players who saw their performance rise or fall in the second half of 2007, and judge whether or not we can expect those second-half trends to carry over into the 2008 season.

First half: 42.1 IP, 1.70 ERA, 52 K/13 BB, opp .129/.205/.243
Second half: 28 IP, 4.82 ERA, 22 K/14 BB, opp .260/.347/.440


Neshek's drop-off in the second half last season was dramatic, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat concerned. However, for the time being, I am inclined to label it as a mirage. Before being shut down mid-way through September, Neshek had appeared in a total of 74 games last year. That is a ton for a guy whose previous high for an entire season was 65 (set the previous year). While his innings load (70 1/3) was not that bad, it wears a pitcher down to warm up and enter games that frequently, and indeed Neshek was shelved with two weeks left because his arm had worn down. More than likely, that's why we saw his numbers drop off after the All-Star break. He enters this season with a fresh arm after a winter of rest, and hopefully Ron Gardenhire will be a little less liberal about forcing Neshek to warm up and enter games several nights in a row just to get an out or two.

First half: 240 AB, .250/.302/.404, 7 HR, 37 RBI
Second half: 178 AB, .303/.379/.511, 6 HR, 28 RBI


Kubel seemed out of his element for much of 2006 after missing the entire 2005 campaign in the aftermath of major knee surgery. His struggles carried over into the early part of the 2007 season, where he appeared tentative at the plate and seemed to struggle with his pitch recognition. However, even during the hard times, Kubel always made hard contact, and as he began to regain the plate discipline that he showed throughout the minors, his numbers began to improve rapidly. Prior to the All-Star break last year, Kubel's K/BB ratio was 2.6; afterward, that number dropped to 1.4. The latter number is much more in line with his minor-league K/BB ratio of 1.1, and as such it should be no surprise that his second-half hitting line was extremely similar to this career hitting line in the minors of .320/.385/.499. Expect similar things in 2008.

First half: 53 IP, 1.70 ERA, 37 K/13 BB, opp .183/.246/.253
Second half: 35 IP, 3.34 ERA, 31 K/8 BB, opp .272/.318/.463


Guerrier has always been a pretty solid pitcher, but I don't think there's really any question that he was playing way over his head in the first half last year. His luck evened out in the second half, when his ERA and opponents' OPS shot way up despite the fact that he improved his strikeout rate considerably and maintained a relatively modest walk rate. Considering his past performance and his age, I think it's much more realistic to expect an ERA around 3.34 than around 1.70 from Guerrier. Fortunately, that's still very solid.

First half: 322 AB, .295/.364/.581, 24 HR, 74 RBI
Second half: 268 AB, .243/.318/.384, 7 HR, 37 RBI


Through the first four months or so of the 2007 season, Morneau continued to post numbers very similar to the ones he racked up during his MVP campaign in 2006. Then, in August and September, Morneau completely fell apart. After hammering 28 home runs through the end of July, Morneau managed a measly three home runs during the season's final 56 games. The drop-off in power isn't completely shocking, since we saw the same trend even during his magnificent '06 campaign (albeit to a much lesser degree), but in 2007 Morneau lacked a .342 second-half batting average to offset the power outage. His offensive numbers down the stretch last year were dreadful, and it seems completely inexplicable. As far as I'm aware, he had no major injuries, and the drop-off in production did not come along with a noticeable increase in strikeouts or decrease in walks. With all these facts in mind, I'm inclined to pass off Morneau's dud second half as a really bad two-month stretch, rather than a fundamental decline in ability. Considering the massive contract he recently signed, we'd better hope that is the case.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Spring Has Sprung

Well, not literally. It's still February, and still pretty cold outside (though not nearly as bad as it was before -- boy was yesterday's 35-degree high refreshing). Down in Ft. Myers, the temperatures have been in the 80s and warm-ups are heating up. La Velle E. Neal III, Joe Christensen and Phil Miller have all been blogging live from the ballpark, and each scribe has been delivering many interesting details. I've particularly enjoyed Miller's blog; he has been updating several times each day and his coverage has been extremely thorough. Thanks Phil, keep up the great work.

Christensen had some quotes from Ron Gardenhire in one of his blog posts yesterday indicating that the 2008 batting order might be starting to take shape.

“I would like to have him [Justin Morneau] in that 4-spot,” Gardy said. “I think that’s where he belongs.”

So from that, would it be safe to assume he wants Joe Mauer batting second?

“No, I wouldn’t assume that,” Gardy said. “I think that sounds really good, but don’t assume that. I like that. I think [Mauer’s] an on-base percentage guy, and I’d like to have a righthanded bat in between them. … So it makes sense, if we can find a leadoff guy, and if we can find a third hitter, all those things.”

Batting Mauer second and Morneau fourth makes a lot of sense, and the smart money would be on either Delmon Young or Michael Cuddyer hitting between them. Unless Young can learn how to take a walk, I think it would make more sense to hit Cuddyer ahead of Morneau because he'll probably get on base more often than Young this season. Here's my early prediction for the Opening Day lineup:

1. Gomez, CF
2. Mauer, C
3. Cuddyer, RF
4. Morneau, 1B
5. Young, LF
6. Kubel, DH
7. Harris, 2B
8. Lamb, 3B
9. Everett, SS

That group is short on speed outside of Gomez, but each player 2-6 is a legit 20-plus home run threat. If forced to choose between a lineup built around speed or power, I'll go with the latter. The speed approach didn't really work for the 2007 unit.

Speaking of speed, it sounds like Kevin Slowey is popping the mitt pretty hard here in early spring. We've all come to learn that you can't put too much stock into reports on players from spring practices (remember Buster Olney's raves about Justin Jones back in spring of '06?), but it's definitely good to hear that Twins' hitters are coming away from the batting box shaking their heads after facing Slowey. Despite his stellar minor-league numbers, scouts have always been hesitant to label Slowey a top prospect or a potential ace because he lacks devastating stuff. Any signs of change on that front are welcome.

Jim Souhan had a very well written column on the charms of Spring Training in yesterday's Star Tribune. I found one observation particularly amusing:
You could hear Twins legend Tony Oliva chiding choosy hitters from behind the cage, saying, "No take-a, take-a, take-a. If I could see it, I swung at it."
Here's hoping the Twins keep Oliva away from Delmon Young.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Offseason in Review

Barring the acquisition of a veteran center fielder or another washed up innings-eater to add to the rotation, it looks like Bill Smith's first offseason at the helm of the Minnesota Twins is complete. It was certainly the most eventful winter we've seen around these parts for some time. The departures of Johan Santana and Torii Hunter and the arrivals of Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez represent a fundamental shift in the team's philosophy -- sort of an "out with the old, in with the new" movement. But how successful was Smith in taking care of business over the past several months? Let's take a look at each move and grade them out.

Joe Nathan's option activated for $6 million.
This one was an absolute no-brainer. Nathan is a terrific bargain at this price. His presence will be extremely important this year with so many questions surrounding the Twins' bullpen.


Craig Monroe acquired from Cubs for player to be named later.
Trading for Monroe was not a bad idea in and of itself. He's a decent player with some pop and the ability to hit lefties. The problem is that the Twins will end up paying Monroe $3.82 million this season, which is way too much for a guy who hit .219/.268/.370 last year. Granted, payroll is far from an issue for this team, but it still seems ill-advised to throw that kind of money at Monroe when there were several considerably less expensive options available who would have been at least as good.


Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan traded to Tampa Bay for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie.
Bringing in a player with Young's upside is always a good thing, and he has a chance to be a very special player for this team for many years to come. Meanwhile, the addition of Harris addresses a lack of offense from the middle-infield positions for the Twins, while Pridie gives the team a potentially solid center field option. The thing that irks me about this trade is how much value the Twins had to give up in it. I understand why a blue-chip pitching prospect like Garza and an established major-league shortstop like Bartlett were included; you've got to give something to get something. Yet, the presence of Morlan in the deal really hurts. He was the organization's best relief pitching prospect, and a guy who might have been Joe Nathan's eventual replacement. If Young really lives up to the hype, this can still be a good deal, but as it stands I wouldn't say this deal favors the Twins much at all.


Free agent Adam Everett signed to one year, $2.8 million deal.
With Bartlett gone, the Twins needed an answer at shortstop -- at the very least someone who could serve as a stopgap until Alexi Casilla or Trevor Plouffe is ready to take over. The signing of Everett takes care of that issue, and it's a one-year deal with a relatively reasonable price tag. Everett is one of the worst hitters in all of baseball, but also one of the best defenders. As long as the Twins are able to fill other spots in the lineup with reasonably productive hitters, Everett can be a useful player. However, if he's in the same lineup as Nick Punto and Carlos Gomez, it's probably going to be a tough day for the Twins' pitchers. A hitter as poor as Everett is really the last thing an offense-starved team like the Twins needed, but in fairness they needed a reliable answer at shortstop and his contract is a low-risk one-year deal.


Free agent Mike Lamb signed to two-year, $6.6 million deal.
Just a day after signing one former Astro in Everett, the Twins tabbed another one in Lamb. Everett and Lamb, who spent several seasons playing alongside one another on the left side of Houston's infield, is basically a polar opposites. While Everett is a defensive wizard with a very weak bat, Lamb is a productive hitter whose defensive ability is limited. Because of that, and because he tends to struggle against left-handers, I don't think Lamb will be a full-time starter at third base. With that said, he'll get the lion's share of the at-bats there, and will undoubtedly present a massive offensive upgrade over Punto. Lamb is 32, so the two-year deal (with an option for a third year) is reasonable, as is the money involved. Good signing.


Justin Morneau signed to six-year, $80 million extension.
Admittedly, the Twins might be overpaying for Morneau. He'll have to be solidly above average with the bat in order to be worth the kind of money he'll be getting during his first three free agent years in this deal, and his career line (.276/.340/.498) is decidedly average for a first baseman. With that said, I think there's plenty of reason to believe that Morneau will be a better hitter than that over the course of this contract. It was also crucially important for the Twins to make a big move and show a commitment to competing during an offseason where they lost three popular veterans due to budget constraints. Signing Morneau, the organization's lone proven power hitter, to the biggest contract in franchise history certainly qualifies as such a move. Morneau might be overrated a bit by Minnesota fans, but there's a reason for that -- he's the only legitimate home run threat to don a Twins' uniform in quite a long time, and there aren't exactly a bunch more percolating in the minor leagues. It is for that reason that locking up Morneau for the foreseeable future was an absolute necessity, even if the Twins are overpaying a bit.


Michael Cuddyer signed to three-year, $24 million extension.
Another smart signing. I'm not the hugest Cuddyer fan, but the money here is a reasonable for a corner outfielder who is relatively productive with the bat and a good clubhouse presence. The fact that the contract is for only three years (with a club option for a fourth) is crucial, because it protects the team in the event that Cuddyer proves to be the sub par hitter he was last year, while also leaving the door open for a prospect like Chris Parmelee or Joe Benson to eventually overtake right field.


Johan Santana traded to Mets for Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra.
This was, of course, the doozy. Smith was in a tough spot -- extending Santana was not feasible, the pitcher was threatening to enact his no-trade clause if nothing had been worked out by the start of Spring Training, and there was likely pressure from up top to make a move and avoid the PR backlash that would come along with Santana walking as a free agent at the end of the season. For those reasons, I don't really blame Smith for failing to get anything close to fair value in return for the two-time Cy Young Award-winning left-hander. But there's really no doubt about it: this was not a good trade from the Twins' perspective. At all. They gave up the league's best pitcher -- a guy who is in the prime of his career and well on his way to Cooperstown -- and in return they got four flawed prospects, none of whom could have even been considered the best prospect in his own organization prior to the trade. Unfortunately, that's just how things played out. Santana would need to be signed to a massive contract, and the interest just wasn't there. A disappointing situation where no one can really inherit the blame, but a bad trade nonetheless.


Free agent Livan Hernandez signed to one-year, $5 million deal.
Hernandez has been trending downward in almost every important category for the past for years, and is switching from the worst offensive division in baseball to a very solid one, so the outlook for him in 2008 is not particularly encouraging. He may not hang in the rotation for the entire year, in which case the $5 million the Twins are paying him could end up being a colossal waste. With that said, Hernandez has thrown 200+ innings just about every year he's been in the league, and his veteran presence could prove important on a staff that is nearly devoid of big-league experience. There's very little chance that he'll end up being for $5 million, but it's only a one-year deal and there's a decent chance he could be useful to this team.



When reflecting on the Twins' 2007 and looking ahead to the upcoming offseason back in early October of last year, I made the following statement:
This offseason is going to be a hugely important one, and I really have no idea what to expect from new GM Bill Smith. I truly hope he's able to make some moves that will get the team back on a competitive track in 2008 while simultaneously setting the organization up for future success.
Clearly, that was the blueprint that Smith followed during this offseason. There was obviously an eye toward the future with acquisitions like Young and Gomez, but also a focus on fielding a competitive team in the short-term with signings like Lamb and Hernandez. The result is a roster with a lot of potential, but also a lot of work to do to reach that potential. If players like Young, Gomez and Guerra end up turning into star players, Smith's first offseason will be looked back at as a huge success. If they fail to progress, we may look back at it as a winter of despair, one that sent the organization spiraling back into those dark days of the mid-'90s. I'm cautiously optimistic that things will work out, but for now it's very difficult to judge this offseason.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Visa: Don't Leave Home Without It

Last week, we learned that visa problems were going to keep Francisco Liriano from showing up in Ft. Myers in time for the scheduled arrival date for pitchers and catchers. Yesterday, La Velle reported that visa problems would also be preventing Dennys Reyes and Alexi Casilla from arriving to camp on time.

Liriano's issues stem from a DUI arrest back in 2006, and the law that is holding him up is actually a relatively new one implemented within the past year. As such, his situation is excusable. Likewise, Casilla missed an appointment to pick up his visa due to what Bill Smith described as "a legitimate family medical emergency," so we can let that slide too. But as far as I can tell, the only reason Reyes didn't notice until recently that his visa is set to expire in a few weeks is that he never bothered to check. To me, that's unacceptable.

Reyes and Casilla each took a major step backward from 2006 to 2007, and both will be looking to rebound here in 2008.

On another note, here is a Joe Mauer interview spliced with some early spring warm-up videos, courtesy of Noah Pranksy and ABC 7 Sports.

Meanwhile, Twins' manager Ron Gardenhire proves he's even more hip than Mitt Romney with this quote in a story about Livan Hernandez's large earrings:
"We talked to him [Hernandez] about those things. We don't wear bling-blings on the field," Gardenhire said. "... I told him he can't wear those anymore. So he's game-on."

Monday, February 18, 2008

2008 Spring Training Preview

The sun is high in the sky, blanketing the expansive stretch of freshly cut outfield grass. A warm breeze blows across the infield, kicking up puffs of brown sand and carrying them into the dugout and seats. The sound of bats cracking and mitts smacking fills the air. Ah, spring.

That last paragraph was pretty difficult to write as I sit here staring out my frost-covered window at another gray winter day in Minnesota. But it sure was fun. I like Minnesota, and I don't generally mind winter, but by the time we approach the end of February each year, I am ready for the snow to melt and for all the wonderful sights and sounds of baseball to fill the air. Fortunately, the start of Spring Training is upon us in the nick of time. Most catchers and pitchers are in Ft. Myers now, and the rest of the position players will slowly begin to make appearances over the course of the next couple weeks.

The majority of us fans can't make it down to Florida to take in the spring action (I'll be in Orlando for a week in mid-March and I'm holding out hope that I can get someone to take a trip down to Ft. Myers with me), but at the very least we can follow all the updates courtesy of the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press beat writers who work tirelessly to transmit all of the pertinent developments to those of us unfortunate enough to be stuck in Minne-snow-ta.

Last year, the Twins went into Spring Training with few questions. They had retained most of their players from a successful 2006 campaign, and the starters at most positions were decided going in. This year will be a lot different, to say the least. Major offseason shakeups have left the Twins with many new faces, and several decisions to be made. Today I'll preview some storylines that merit following, as well as some starting spots that multiple players will likely be auditioning for a spot at. Finally, I will predict the Opening Day 25-man roster, which will undoubtedly prove to be a much more difficult task than it was last year.

Worth Keeping an Eye On...

* Francisco Liriano. When will he get to camp? How will his arm feel? Where will his velocity be? How much will he throw his slider? Certainly more important questions surrounding him than any other player, and the answers could very well determine whether the Twins are contenders or pretenders in 2008.

* The new guys. There are a lot of them: Delmon Young, Jason Pridie, Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber, Mike Lamb, Adam Everett, Livan Hernandez, Craig Monroe, etc. Many Twins fans will be getting their first significant looks at these guys. What will they bring to the table? How will they fit in with the returning Twins' nucleus?

* Joe Nathan. Reports indicate that he and the team are in talks about a contract extension, but it's difficult to gauge how serious these talks really are. Given their frugal nature, it's hard to see the Twins being willing to pony up the amount of money Nathan is likely to command. Will his undecided contract situation be a distraction?

* Jesse Crain. He's coming off surgery for one of the most devastating injuries possible for a pitcher -- a torn rotator cuff and labrum -- and the prognosis for guys in his position is not good. He claims to be ready to go, but I'll be very skeptical until I hear that he's on the mound and throwing 90+ mph.

Position Battles

Starting Second Baseman
This would appear to be a three-way battle between Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla and newly acquired Brendan Harris. Each player has his strengths: Punto is the stellar defender, Casilla the speedy and exciting youngster, with Harris possessing the best stick. Given his poor 2007 campaign, I think there's little doubt that Casilla will start the season in Rochester unless he goes crazy this spring. Punto would seem to have an intrinsic advantage given the fact that Ron Gardenhire is clearly very fond of him, but I imagine that the offense-starved Twins will end up going with Harris on Opening Day in spite of his defensive deficiencies. He will have to have a good spring though, in order to avoid giving Gardy an excuse to stick with his favorite tail-battler.

Favorite: Brendan Harris

Starting Center Fielder
Right now this looks like a battle between two newly acquired players: Jason Pridie and Carlos Gomez. I wouldn't be surprised if the Twins hand a one-year contract to one of the remaining veteran free agents at the position, such as Kenny Lofton or Corey Patterson. If not, the advantage probably goes to Gomez by a smidge, although either one could make a good case. Pridie has the advantage of being older and more experienced, and he's actually had material success in the high minors. Conversely, Gomez is young and still quite raw, and since he was pushed very aggressively through the Mets' system he never had much time to adjust to any level. That's likely a large part of the reason that he has never had a ton of success at any stop in the minors.

With that said, I suspect the Twins will be eager to show some kind of return on the Johan Santana deal, and while his offensive game is a work in progress, Gomez already looks to be an above-average defender and base-runner. It also stands to reason that the Twins might prefer his right-handed bat to Pridie's left-handed bat in a lineup that is somewhat heavy on lefties, with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and Mike Lamb all projecting to be regular starters. I'll give the edge to Gomez for now, but this seems like a spot that could easily be won with a strong performance in March.

Favorite: Carlos Gomez

Fifth Spot in the Rotation
This is tricky, because one could really make an argument that all five spots in the rotation are up for grabs. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume that Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Francisco Liriano and Livan Hernandez all have a spot in the rotation locked up. They are the most established candidates and I think it would take a really poor spring or an injury to prevent any of those guys from being there. This leaves an open competition for the last spot, where numerous young hurlers are likely to get a look. These names include Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing. You could also add veterans Zach Day and Randy Keisler to the list of contenders, but I suspect that they were brought in more as minor-league filler than legitimate candidates to fill a major-league roster spot.

Looking at the group of promising young arms, there are several guys with the potential to step up and seize a spot. But I'll make a couple of assumptions. First, I believe that both Blackburn and Perkins will start the season pitching out of the Twins' bullpen. I think the team will be grooming Humber for the bullpen, though he may just start the season starting in Triple-A. Mulvey is also likely to start in Rochester, and my guess is that Duensing will be there also since his name has mysteriously not been brought up much by Twins' coaches when discussing this year's rotation. That leaves Slowey, who is the only one in the bunch with significant big-league experience.

Slowey made his major-league debut with the Twins last year and tossed 66 2/3 innings with a relatively unimpressive 4.73 ERA. It's certainly worth noting, however, that in his second stint with the team as a September call-up, Slowey was excellent, posting a 3.34 ERA and 28-to-3 K/BB ratio over 29 2/3 innings. Given his late-season success and his complete dominance in Triple-A, I can't see any way the Twins send Slowey back to Rochester as long as he has a solid spring.

Favorite: Kevin Slowey

Final Bullpen Spot(s)
We can be relatively certain that Joe Nathan, Pat Neshek, Juan Rincon, Dennys Reyes and Matt Guerrier will all have a spot in the bullpen on March 31. That leaves one additional spot, or two if the Twins elect to go with a seven-man bullpen (which I believe they will, considering the lack of experience in the starting rotation). I've stated before that I think Humber is going to end up in the 'pen, and I figured that he would likely start the season there if he was truly out of options, which had been rumored in various places. However, La Velle cleared up those rumors on Saturday when he reported that Humber still has one option left. With that being the case, I believe he will start the season in Triple-A, with Blackburn opening the season in the Twins' bullpen as a long reliever. If Jesse Crain is truly back to full strengh in the wake of his surgery, that final spot would probably go to him. Since I have a hard time believing that he'll be ready to go at the outset of the season, I'm going to say the final spot will end up going to Perkins, who is the logical choice since he would give the team a second lefty out of the bullpen.

Favorites: Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins

Final Bench Spot
A seven-man bullpen leaves only four available spots on the bench. We can reasonably assume that three of those spots will be occupied by Mike Redmond, Craig Monroe and Punto (or Harris). The final spot is a little tricky. It could be occupied by the loser of the Gomez/Pridie battle in center field, but I doubt that for two reasons: 1) since both of those players are at a stage where they should be getting regular playing time, the loser would logically open the season as Rochester's starting CF; and 2) the Twins would already have five outfielders between Young, Cuddyer, Kubel, Monroe and Gomez/Pridie. Even Punto could fill a spot in a pinch.

What the Twins lack in the current scenario is backup infielder who can actually be an asset as a pinch-hitter. Punto can play any infield spot, but his bat is weak at third base and especially weak at first base. So, a more powerful corner-infield type would make sense. Garrett Jones is an option, but he is a poor defender and his left-handed bat is redundant with Morneau and Lamb (he also wouldn't be able to field any infield position other than first base). The defensive issues and left-handed bat also prevent Brian Buscher from looking like a real contender. Instead, I think the best option might be Matt Macri, who can play first, second or third, and possesses a solid right-handed bat which could be platooned with Lamb.

Favorite: Matt Macri


With all those battles in mind, here is how I project the Twins' Opening Day 25-man roster (although I certainly reserve the right to make adjustments as Spring Training progresses):

C: Joe Mauer
1B: Justin Morneau
2B: Brendan Harris
3B: Mike Lamb
SS: Adam Everett
LF: Delmon Young
CF: Carlos Gomez
RF: Michael Cuddyer
DH: Jason Kubel

C: Mike Redmond
IF: Nick Punto
IF: Matt Macri
OF: Craig Monroe

SP: Scott Baker
SP: Boof Bonser
SP: Francisco Liriano
SP: Livan Hernandez
SP: Kevin Slowey

RP: Joe Nathan
RP: Pat Neshek
RP: Matt Guerrier
RP: Juan Rincon
RP: Dennys Reyes
RP: Nick Blackburn
RP: Glen Perkins


Friday, February 15, 2008

Wrapping Up the Offseason

The long, cold offseason is finally coming to a close, with pitchers and catchers reporting to Ft. Myers on Sunday. Next week I'll have an offseason review piece, as well as a Spring Training preview, and within a couple weeks the Twins' exhibition schedule will be getting underway.

I don't have much to write about today, but here are a few notes:

* One pitcher who won't be reporting to Ft. Myers on Sunday is Francisco Liriano, who is having visa problems stemming from a 2006 DUI arrest. The process of getting things cleared up could take a little over a week. That's unfortunate news, considering that Liriano probably needs to be in camp more than any other pitcher on the staff being that he hasn't pitched in a major-league game in well over a year. The good news, however, is that within the article linked above, Joe Christensen mentions that Liriano "appears fully recovered the Tommy John elbow procedure he had in November 2006," noting that the left-hander "pitched two innings recently in a scrimmage at the Twins’ Dominican academy in Boca Chica."

There is not one player on the Minnesota Twins that I am looking forward to watching this year more than Liriano.

* On Wednesday I wrote about the Twins' signing of Livan Hernandez and concluded that, while not outrageous, it is not a particularly good move. Many fans seem satisfied with the signing, and I have seen numerous people voice sentiments that sound something like this: "Basically the Twins got another Carlos Silva for about half the money Silva is making in Seattle."

While Hernandez and Silva are both heavyset Latino right-handers, the comparison is probably not apt. Given his recent downward trends, I think it's a lot more likely that Hernandez pitches like Silva v. 2006 than Silva v. 2004, 2005 or 2007. Silva was never flashy, but for the majority of his time in Minnesota, he was a solid pitcher who kept the team in games and occasionally tossed a gem. It seems like he was a little under-appreciated, and he may be missed more than people realize, especially by those who seem to think Hernandez will step in and pick up right where Silva left off.

* Speaking of Hernandez, Christensen had an entry in his blog yesterday outlining the details of the newly acquired pitcher's contract, which includes an incentive whereby Hernandez will receive $100,000 if he wins a Cy Young Award this year. Apparently that's pretty standard, but it still seems kind of funny to me. I'd be fine with the Twins rewarding him with $100 million if he wins the Cy Young.

* Finally, here's the image that graced the front page of's MLB section yesterday:

Could that be any more depressing for a Twins fan?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Par for the Course

We all knew it was going to happen at some point. Under-budget and facing the prospect of a starting rotation devoid of experienced veterans, the Twins were going to go out and overpay for a free agent pitcher with a proven ability to eat innings. The Twins dabbled earlier in the offseason, signing guys like Randy Keisler and Zach Day to basically risk-free minor-league contracts, but yesterday the team made its "big splash," handing Livan Hernandez a one-year contract worth $5 million (plus incentives).

The Cuban-born Hernandez, who will (allegedly) turn 33 a week from today, is an 11-year major-league veteran who has spent his entire career in the National League, spending time with four different organizations. He is the definition of a workhorse, having thrown 200-plus innings in nine of those seasons (and 199 2/3 in one of the others). He led the National League in innings pitched for three consecutive years from 2003-05, and has finished in the top ten in that category seven times. He ranks 15th among active pitchers in total innings.

Unfortunately, along with being durable, Hernandez is also quite hittable and homer-prone, and not particularly dominant. There was a time when he posted some pretty good numbers to go along with those impressive innings totals -- during those 2003, 2004 and 2005 seasons where he led the NL in innings, Hernandez also kept his ERA under 4 and managed to strike out a reasonable number of hitters. Those days are in the past, however, and recent trends do not paint a pretty picture:

Year: ERA, K/9IP, WHIP
2004: 3.60, 6.56, 1.24
2005: 3.98, 5.37, 1.43
2006: 4.84, 5.06, 1.50
2007: 4.93, 3.96, 1.59

Obviously, these numbers are disconcerting. It stands to reason that, despite his (allegedly) relatively young age, Hernandez is already wearing down due to the high workload he has faced annually throughout his career. Now, with Hernandez another year older and switching to a better offensive league, there's every reason to believe that his numbers this season could slide into Ramon Ortiz territory.

Yet, I certainly wouldn't view this signing as negatively as the acquisitions of Ortiz and Sidney Ponson last year. For one thing, the Twins will probably only be filling one rotation spot with a washed up vet. That's much more palatable than the idea of promising 40 percent of your starts to Ponson and Ortiz, particularly when you consider that there is a lot less certainty in the rotation this season now that Johan Santana and Carlos Silva are gone. Let's break it down:

You'd like to think that Boof Bonser and Scott Baker are locks for two spots in the rotation, and hopefully Francisco Liriano can fill another spot. Given his dominance in Triple-A last year and his success with the Twins in September, I have to believe Kevin Slowey will make the rotation out of Spring Training. As I explained on Monday, I believe Phil Humber will start the season pitching out of the bullpen, so had the Twins not acquired Hernandez we would likely be left with a battle between Glen Perkins, Kevin Mulvey, Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing for the final spot in the rotation. Given that Perkins and Mulvey have essentially no experience at the Triple-A level, both could probably benefit from starting the season there, and it's not clear that either Blackburn or Duensing are ready to pitch in the Twins' rotation yet. Slotting Hernandez in that final rotation spot allows all four pitchers to start the season in Rochester (or perhaps, in some cases, the Twins' bullpen) and step in should any of the other five starters suffer an injury or prove ineffective.

While I'm not outraged with this signing, I'm not particularly fond of it either. There are two camps among fans when it comes to the 2008 Twins: one camp believes this team has a legitimate shot at competing, the other one doesn't. No matter which camp you belong to, there is little reason to get excited about this signing. If the Twins truly can compete this season, it's highly unlikely that Hernandez will provide better production as a starter than one of the Blackburn/Duensing/Perkins/Mulvey group would be able to provide, so he's not really enhancing their chances. If the Twins can't compete, then this is a rebuilding year and player development will be the key goal, in which case there's a good chance Hernandez will be hindering the development of at least one of those young pitchers.

Just as they have with many of their other free agent signings over the past few years, the Twins are bringing in an aging veteran who was good at one point but is not very good anymore, and banking on that veteran returning to something close to his old form. As we've seen with Ponson, Ortiz and Tony Batista, this just doesn't happen very often, and what you see is usually what you get with players like these. More than likely, that will be the case with Hernandez. Nevertheless, he does create some depth in the pitching staff, and immediately becomes the only player on the roster who has pieced together a full season in a major-league rotation. There's some value in that, and we'd be ignorant to overlook it.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Philip Humber: The Next Joe Nathan?

I had a dream last week. In this dream, the Twins had not yet announced the Johan Santana trade, but indications were that a deal with an unknown team was in place and that a press release would be made available by the team shortly. I fully expected Santana to be headed to the Yankees, with 21-year-old wunderkind Philip Hughes coming back. The idea was tantalizing -- the Twins would be losing their historically great southpaw, but getting back an absolute stud with legitimate potential to fill the massive void left by Santana's departure. Hughes and Francisco Liriano at the top of the rotation for the next five years? My mouth watered. I think I drooled into my pillow a little bit.

The announcement was made. The Twins had traded Santana. I rushed to my computer to read through the official press release. "The Minnesota Twins announced to today that they have traded two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana for a package that includes right-handed pitcher Philip..." Yes, this is looking good... "H..." Oh baby! "u..." How long until Hughes Twins jerseys are available at the Pro Shops?? "...mber." WHAT?! I woke up in a panic. Thank goodness it was only a dream, and the Twins didn't really trade Santana for a package whose most attractive player might be a marginal pitching prospect who posted a 4.27 ERA in Triple-A last year. Oh wait... yes they did.

There was a time when Phil Humber's career path appeared headed in the direction that Hughes' has gone. Selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 draft by the Mets after a dominating career at Rice University, Humber had the makeup and stuff of a guy who could rocket through the minor leagues and be pitching at the top of an MLB rotation in no time. Sadly, elbow problems and Tommy John surgery have derailed Humber, and at this point he is far from a guarantee to develop into a strong major-league starter. At one point, it might have been realistic to say Humber could replace Santana as the Twins' ace, but at this point it would be difficult to make that case. Then again, it's entirely possible that the Twins wanted Humber in the package not as a replacement for Santana, but instead as a replacement for another elite Twins pitcher who may be on his way out.

Humber and Joe Nathan are alike in a number of ways. Nathan is 6'4" and 205 lbs. Humber is 6'4" and 210 lbs. Nathan came to the Twins as the most major-league ready pitcher in what was essentially a veteran-for-prospects swap. Ditto Humber. When he's at his best, Nathan relies on a speedy fastball and a nasty breaking pitch to fan opposing hitters. The same can be said for Humber.

Like Humber, Nathan was almost exclusively a starter as he traveled through the minor leagues, but obviously he thrived upon shifting to the bullpen. Could Humber experience the same type of success with a switch to the 'pen? It would be a logical move. Humber has struggled to regain the velocity on his fastball and bite on his curveball since undergoing surgery on his elbow. Working in shorter bullpen stints, he may be better able to utilize his stuff. The lesser workload might also lower his risk for injury. Additionally, moving to the bullpen can be beneficial for pitchers who struggle with control -- that certainly was the case for Nathan, who walked 4.56 batters per nine innings as a minor-leaguer but has never seen that number exceed 2.86 since becoming a full-time closer in the big leagues. The Twins are going to be needing to add some power arms to their bullpen in the near future, with Nathan and Juan Rincon both likely to be gone after next year and Eduardo Morlan no longer in the organization.

It's unlikely that anyone acquired in Mets trade is going to become the next Johan Santana, but if Humber can become the next Joe Nathan, it will make the deal a whole lot more palatable. I think he could do it, but maybe I'm just dreaming.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Can Liriano Snap Back?

Oh, F-Bomb.

No, I'm not referring to Bert Blyleven's expletive of choice. I'm referring to a popular nickname for Francisco Liriano, the young left-handed phenom whose healing left elbow may be the key to the Twins' chances of competing in 2008. On Wednesday I wrote about the state of the Twins' organization from a pitching standpoint, noting that Liriano is the only player with legitimate ace potential likely to be on the team within the next several years. There's no doubting that Liriano has the ability to pitch like a No. 1 -- he was transcendent in 2006, better even than Johan Santana. The question is whether he will be able to regain that form, and if so, how soon he can get there. If it's this season, the Twins could be a force to be reckoned with. Is that plausible? Liriano says he feels great, but in order to get a realistic idea of what to expect from him this year, it is prudent to look at how other pitchers have historically fared in their first year back after the operation.

Here is a quick and dirty list of some prominent pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery over the past decade, and how they performed in the majors in their first year back (innings pitched, ERA, strikeout-to-walk ratio):

Matt Morris
Underwent surgery: 1999
First season back: 53 IP, 3.57 ERA, 34/17

John Smoltz
Underwent surgery: 2000
First season back: 59 IP, 3.36 ERA, 57/10
Became a full-time closer upon returning; later returned to Atlanta's rotation where he has been excellent.

Erik Bedard
Underwent surgery: 2002
First season back: 137.1 IP, 4.59 ERA, 121/71
A good comp for Liriano because he's a hard-throwing left-hander with good breaking stuff.

Kris Benson
Underwent surgery: 2002
First season back: 130.1 IP, 4.70 ERA, 79/50

Adam Eaton
Underwent surgery: 2002
First season back: 183 IP, 4.08 ERA, 146/68
Not truly his first season back, he returned to the Padres in September of '02 to make six starts and post a 5.40 ERA.

Jon Lieber
Underwent surgery: 2002
First season back: 176.2 IP, 4.33 ERA, 102/18

Chris Capuano
Underwent surgery: 2002.
First season back: 33 IP, 4.64, 23/11
Also pitched 142 2/3 innings in Triple-A for a total of 175 2/3 innings pitched in his first season back.

A.J. Burnett
Underwent surgery: 2003
First season back: 120 IP, 3.68 ERA, 113/38

Paul Byrd
Underwent surgery: 2003.
First season back: 114.1 IP, 3.94 ERA, 79/19
Interestingly, he posted a 6.22 K/9 rate that ranks as his best in the past 10 years.

Ryan Dempster
Underwent surgery: 2003
First season back: 20.2 IP, 3.94 ERA, 18/13
Converted to a full-time reliever after the surgery. Has not been especially great since, but what's notable is that it took him less than a year to recover and get back on the mound.

Randy Wolf
Underwent surgery: 2005
First season back: 56.2 IP, 5.56 ERA, 44/33

Most of the players on this list managed to post numbers in line with their career averages in their first year back, which obviously would be a very good thing in Liriano's case. The big issue is innings. I couldn't find one example of a pitcher who surpassed the 200-inning mark in his first season back, and most reached only 130 or so. That might be a realistic goal for Liriano, but he does have a few things working in his favor: 1) he has had a longer recovery time than most pitchers on the list, and 2) he is very young. Of course, he also does have a relatively violent delivery and a high reliance on his breaking pitch, factors which may work against him.

To be completely honest, I have no idea what to expect from Liriano this season. If the Twins can get 130 innings at around a 3.00 ERA from him, I think we'd all be very satisfied. Can that actually happen? History says yes. We'll have to wait and see.


On a completely unrelated note, the Gophers football team's recruiting class was ranked No. 17 in the nation by and No. 23 by ESPN. That's pretty amazing for a team that went 1-11 last year. If you're at all interested, you can check out this feature I wrote on head coach Tim Brewster for the student magazine here at the U a while back. Great guy.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Monumental Shift

For the past several years, the Twins' organization has been saddled with a major problem: too much pitching, too little hitting. It was a problem that prevented the 2005 and 2007 teams from making the playoffs, and also a deep-rooted issue that reached all the way into the lowest levels of the minor leagues. Any listing of the organization's top prospects was certain too include far more arms than bats. Fans continually bemoaned Terry Ryan's inability to deal from his pitching surplus and acquire legitimate hitters.

Now, here in the wake of Bill Smith's big offseason shakeup, I find myself looking up and down the organizational ladder and noticing a major reversal. Suddenly, it appears quite possible that pitching will be the problem needing to be addressed in coming years, while the offense could be in far better shape.

Don't get me wrong. Throughout the minor leagues, the Twins are still far deeper in quality pitchers than hitters. There are very few impact bats on the horizon, which remains troubling. Yet, looking at the Twins' major league roster, you find enough young, controllable, talented hitters to inspire confidence that this offense could be fairly strong for the next several years; to wit: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, Alexi Casilla, Mike Lamb and Jason Pridie. Granted, some of those players have chance of fizzling out (Gomez, Casilla, Pridie) and some aren't exactly young (Lamb), but all of the hitters listed have a decent shot at being productive hitters and all are locked up for at least the next three seasons. Several of the players listed -- most notably Mauer, Morneau and Young -- could very well rank among the league's elite hitters.

The pitching situation is less encouraging, if not in the long term than almost certainly in the short term. As I mentioned before, the Twins are not lacking in quality pitchers throughout their organization. In Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Glen Perkins, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Kevin Mulvey, Philip Humber and Brian Duensing, the Twins have a collection of major-league ready starters that most teams in the league would envy. The problem is that almost none of these pitchers have legitimate ace potential, and it would be a stretch to project almost any one of these guys as even a strong No. 2. This problem persists throughout the organization's advanced minor league affiliates. There are good prospects there: Anthony Swarzak, Ryan Mullins, Jeff Manship, Oswaldo Sosa, Yohan Pino and Jay Rainville to name a few. Each of those pitchers has a fairly good chance of developing into a big-leaguer at some point, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one with the makeup of a front-line major-league starter.

Dipping into the lower levels of the minor leagues, you find a few guys like Tyler Robertson and Deolis Guerra who have the upside of a top-of-the-rotation starter, but it's awfully difficult to put a ton of stock into pitching prospects who are still in their teens. Losing Johan Santana and Matt Garza has left this team with a lack of power arms outside of Francisco Liriano, so if Liriano struggles in his return from Tommy John surgery, we are potentially looking at a team that is very middle-heavy in terms of starting pitching over the next several years and without much in the way of star power. A rotation filled with solid but unspectacular starters would inevitably rank right in the middle of the league, and that would put a lot of pressure on the offense to make this team a playoff contender.

Over the next several seasons, we could see this team relying on offense to win games a lot more than we ever have in recent Twins history. That method will only work if some of the team's hitters live up to their star potential. Here's wishing good health to Liriano, and hoping guys like Baker and Bonser can step up to provide this staff with the type of above-average performance it will need. There might not be as much help on the horizon as we'd like to think in that department.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Blame Game

Having passed his physical and reached agreement on a contract that will make him the richest pitcher in baseball, Johan Santana is now officially a member of the New York Mets. In return, the Twins have received a package of prospects that is almost unanimously being labeled as underwhelming. This development has Twins fans desperately seeking a deserving party upon which to pin blame in a situation that seemingly has not been handled very well. I've seen numerous articles leveling scathing criticism against everyone from Carl Pohlad to Bill Smith to Santana himself. My thinking on the subject is that while several people probably could have acted in a way that would have led to better results, no one was completely out of line here. The Twins were put in an unfortunate situation and the result is that they've lost their franchise player for a relative pittance. It's a shame, but I don't think anyone is specifically at fault.

First, let's talk about Santana. Fans seemed to have turned on him for the way he acted during this debacle, claiming that he abused his leverage and backed the Twins into a corner with his self-imposed deadline. We may never know how Santana truly felt or what he actually said behind closed doors, but reading between the lines I think it's fair to say that he didn't particularly want to pitch in Minnesota. It seems clear that Santana's preference was to move into a larger market to showcase himself, and ideally I think he wanted to move to the National League where the lineups are weaker and where he'll be able to bat. This made the Mets a natural fit.

As a fan of the Twins and a proud resident of Minnesota, the thought that Santana was anxious to move elsewhere is somewhat hurtful. But is it really a reason to hold resentment against him? If his preference is to pitch in New York, then he's well within his rights to try and arrange it. Some have accused him of being disloyal for trying to force his way out from a team that helped him become the pitcher he is today, but he did provide the Twins with five years of phenomenal performance, and he was never an open distraction in the clubhouse or unfriendly toward fans. If he wanted to move on, I think we owe it to him to respect his wishes. He was patient throughout the entire offseason, and I don't really see how he is out of line for wanting a resolution now that we're weeks away from Spring Training.

Now, on to Pohlad. In the wake of this trade, the wealthy Twins owner has been painted by numerous scribes as a greedy monster who coaxed a stadium out of the fans only to pocket his earnings and let the team's stars walk when they become expensive. I am far from a Pohlad defender, but I find this criticism to be unfair, at least when applied to the Santana situation.

For the reasons I mentioned above, I'm skeptical that Santana would have signed an extension with the Twins even if they had made an offer that rivaled the contract the Mets gave him. But even if he would have, would it really have been wise for the Twins to hand him such a contract? Signing pitchers to long-term deals is always a risky venture, and committing over $130 million to a guy who will soon enter his 30s could be suicide for a middle-market team like the Twins. Perhaps Santana is worth $25 million as long as he is the best pitcher in baseball, but will he remain the best pitcher in baseball as he ages into his mid-30s? Maybe, but that is far from guaranteed. I think that the Twins' decision not to extend Santana has less to do with a lack of financial resources and more to do with intelligent baseball management. And, in fairness, the team did just sign Justin Morneau to a six-year mega-deal, so it's not as if Pohlad has slammed the wallet shut.

Finally, many have focused their criticism on the general manager Smith for failing to get a package that includes even one true top prospect for Santana. I've frequently seen it written that Smith "overplayed his hand," when negotiating with the Yankees and Red Sox, only to eventually have them pull their offers. Yet, I can nearly guarantee that had Smith accepted one of those team's offers back in December (assuming the reported offers were legitimately on the table), there would be droves of fans and analysts criticizing Smith for acting too quickly and lacking the patience to create a bidding war which could force a better package out of one of the teams. Smith took a risk by playing the waiting game, and in the end it didn't pay off, but I hardly think one can hold it against him.

I'm more than a little disappointed by the package received for Santana, but I can't say I'm angry at any particular person about it. There's just nowhere to justifiably point a finger. The Twins made a competitive offer, Santana wanted to move on, and so Smith made the best deal he could. As I said when analyzing the trade last Wednesday, I'm not entirely sure that trading Santana for this package will ultimately be more beneficial to the team than keeping him for another year and collecting draft picks as free agent compensation, but I have to trust that the Twins see something in these Mets prospects.