Friday, June 26, 2009

Hitting the Road

With the 6-4 victory over the Brewers yesterday, the Twins continued their mastery of National League teams and won their third consecutive series on the road (after starting the season with a 6-19 record away from the Metrodome). Both of those things bode well as the Twins try to remain undefeated in games I've attended, a streak that will be put to the test when I take in Saturday's Slowey/Wellemeyer tilt at Busch Stadium and again on Monday when I'm present for the Blackburn/Hochevar match-up at Kaufmann Stadium.

The Twins have been frustrating in their inability to vault above the .500 mark, but as of late they have certainly been playing better than their record would suggest. With 357 runs scored and 334 allowed, their Pythagorean W/L record stands at 40-34. That's better than their current 37-37 mark, and suggests that they've been somewhat unlucky (though it's worth noting that their Pythagorean numbers may be a bit skewed by that 20-1 victory in Chicago earlier this year).

Even with the disappointing outcome of their home series against the Astros and with that fateful Nick Blackburn error that cost them a sweep in Milwaukee, the Twins have won nine of their past 15 ballgames and are starting to perform a lot better on the road. The Tigers continue to play well and have now won seven straight games, but they'll cool off and the Twins are doing well to keep themselves within striking distance. The Tigers are preparing to embark on a nine-game road trip that will conclude next weekend in Minnesota, so the next week of baseball should help clear things up atop the AL Central.

I'm hopeful that the Twins can win their series in both St. Louis and Kansas City to end this road trip on a high note, and I'm especially hoping they win on Saturday and Monday and improve to 9-0 while playing in my presence. Either way, it should be a fun weekend of baseball in the heart of America. We'll see you next week.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Next In Line

I've always been a fan of Danny Valencia. I was surprised when the Twins were able to nab him all the way down in the 19th round of the 2006 draft in spite of his successful college career at Miami, a collegiate baseball powerhouse. I was more surprised when Valencia quickly signed, electing to forego the chance to improve his draft stock with a big senior season. And I was highly pleased when the 21-year-old started his pro career out well by hitting .311/.365/.505 in a half-season at rookie-level Elizabethton after being signed.

Ever since then, Valencia has been remarkably consistent. He has moved up the minor-league ladder at a steady pace of about one level per year, and at each stop has posted numbers fairly close to his overall minor-league hitting line: .303/.363/.485. That's great production, obviously, and combined with improving defense it makes Valencia a bona fide prospect at a position where the Twins have lacked consistent production for several years.

In my preseason Top Ten Prospects list, I ranked Valencia fifth, which is higher than you'd find him on most lists. Here's what I had to say about him:
He isn't spectacular in any aspect of the game, but he also lacks huge flaws, which makes him a relatively safe bet to succeed as he moves up. Valencia hails from a respected college program, possesses the ability to hit for very good average and power from the right side of the plate (much needed assets in this organization), and has reportedly made significant strides defensively since being drafted. Valencia has moved through four levels in two-and-a-half years as a pro and has had success at each one. I'm going to keep liking him until he gives me something not to like.
He still hasn't given me anything not to like. He started this season at New Britain -- where he played the second half of the 2008 season -- and allayed concerns about his plate discipline by posting a very good 40-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 252 plate appearances. He also hit .284/.373/.482 (nearly identical to his overall minor-league line) with seven homers and 29 RBI. Valencia was rewarded for his strong first-half hitting on Monday, when it was announced that the Twins have promoted him to Class-AAA Rochester.

At this point, it would seem that Valencia controls his own destiny, and what more could a prospect ask for? With a strong final three months in Rochester, he could put himself in position to overtake the Twins' starting third base job, which figures to be vacant after Joe Crede almost certainly departs following this season. It would certainly go against the Twins' M.O. to move Valencia into a starting major-league role after just a half-season in Triple-A, but it would seem that they'll be short on options next year if Crede leaves and Valencia could potentially help his case by displaying his skills for the big-league staff later this year if he's able to earn a September call-up.

Crede has been a fine one-year stopgap solution for the Twins, but the problem with such short-term fixes is that the team inevitably finds itself in the same position they were in prior to the acquisition one year later. It's likely that the Twins will once again be searching for an answer at third base during the upcoming offseason, but the chief difference this year is that their top prospect at the position will have a half-season of competition at the highest level of the minors under his belt. If Valencia can continue to hit in Rochester the way he has at every other level while playing quality defense and bringing a good attitude, he can establish himself as a clear favorite to take over the reigns at the hot corner the day the Twins open their new stadium, and to remain there for years to come.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lost Weekend

I spent the past weekend at a friend's cabin, disconnected from the world of Internet and cable TV, so I wasn't really able to follow any baseball. As it turns out, that wasn't such a bad thing. The Twins lost a home series against a mediocre club while seeing some frustrating bullpen issues reemerge, Justin Morneau sat out his first game in two years and Joe Mauer went 2-for-12 to lower his average to a paltry .407 (though he did add another home run, setting a new career high).

The Twins have had such a tough time on the road that winning games at home has become absolutely crucial. As such, a 3-3 homestand against the Pirates and Astros must be viewed as a rather substantial disappointment. With the Tigers continuing to play good ball, the Twins are going to take hold of their own destiny and start stringing together some wins if they want to make gains in this division. Heading into a daunting nine-game road trip, that's no easy task.

Seemingly frustrated with their continued bullpen woes, the Twins did make a roster move during yesterday's off day, calling up Triple-A reliever Bobby Keppel while designating Luis Ayala for assignment. Keppel, a 27-year-old right-hander, held a 2.43 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over 55 2/3 innings in Rochester. Similar to Ayala, he doesn't strike many hitters out and rather tries to induce grounders -- he's been fairly successful in that regard with a solid ground ball rate and only one home run allowed on the season. Still, given his unimpressive peripherals and mediocre minor-league track record, my sense is that this is a lateral move at best. Nevertheless, I'm not disappointed to see Ayala go.

One might be surprised to see Ayala get the axe, given that he has posted a 2.40 ERA over his past 12 appearances to lower his ERA near 4. Yet, Ayala simply has not demonstrated that he can get hitters out consistently enough to fill the role the Twins have asked him to fill. He has allowed runs in four of his past six appearances and opponents are hitting .306/.358/.484 against him this season. The Twins signed Ayala hoping that he could rebound from a tough 2008 season and return to the form he showed earlier in his career. But, in terms of strikeouts, walks and hits, Ayala's performance has been nearly identical to last year, and his already weak ground ball rate has actually dropped.

Last season, Ayala shuttled between two teams, posted a 5.71 ERA and subsequently drawing very little interest in free agency before the Twins signed him to a relatively meager one-year contract. He's been basically exactly what they should have expected. Hopefully they properly scale their expectations for Keppel.

On a brighter note, top Twins prospect Aaron Hicks was finally moved up from Extended Spring Training last week, following the path of last year's first-round pick Ben Revere by heading straight to Low-A Beloit. Hicks made his debut for the Snappers over the weekend. In three games, the 19-year-old went 3-for-8 with a double, an RBI, three runs scored, two strikeouts and four walks. When I ranked Hicks as the organization's top prospect during the offseason, I noted that his combination of plate discipline, speed, power and defense made him an exciting and promising young player, and he displayed all of those skills while manning center field for the Snappers this weekend. He'll be a fun one to follow from here on out.

I also just learned as I'm writing this that Danny Valencia has been promoted to Rochester, but I'll touch on that more later this week... maybe tomorrow.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wrapping Up the Week

I was busy sabotaging Twins Geek's blog yesterday so I didn't get a chance to post here, but today I'll drop a few Twins notes as we head into what should be a beautiful weekend here in the Twin Cities...

* Despite once again performing dreadfully with runners in scoring position, the Twins were able to complete a series win over the Pirates yesterday, riding a complete-game gem from Nick Blackburn to a 5-1 victory.

A day after going 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, the Twins went 1-for-11 yesterday, continually failing to capitalize on opportunities to break the game open. Brian Buscher's late two-run homer made the game look a lot less close than it really was. This team has got to start putting together better at-bats with runners on second and third.

On the (very) bright side, Blackburn sparkled again, coming within one out of a shutout before surrendering an RBI single to Adam LaRoche with two outs in the ninth. Blackburn notched only two strikeouts over his nine innings of work, but allowed just six hits and got 16 outs via ground ball in the sterling effort. He's now 6-2 with a 3.09 ERA this season, and will warrant serious All-Star consideration if he can keep this up for a few more starts.

* Several Twins fans I spoke with prior to the start of yesterday's game seemed disgruntled that Joe Mauer wasn't in the starting lineup. I found this to be a bit shocking. I don't know if people realize how much Mauer has been playing this year.

Since Mauer returned to the lineup on May 1, the Twins have played 46 games. Of those games, Mauer has appeared in 43 and started in 41. That means he's appeared in 93.5 percent of the team's games since his return, and started 89.1 percent. For comparison, in 2008, Mauer appeared in 90.1 percent of the team's games and started 85.8 percent of them. Russell Martin, who led all major-league catchers in games played and at-bats last year, played in 95.7 percent of the Dodgers' games and started 90.7 percent of them.

So basically, since joining the team, Mauer has been in the lineup at nearly the same rate as last year's major-league leader, in spite of the Twins' initial insistence that they'd be cautious with his playing time due to the back injury that kept him sidelined for the first month of the season. And through all that, he's still hitting .425. Amazing.

* After doubling in yesterday's game, Nick Punto now has one more extra-base hit than Delmon Young this season.

* Back at the .500 mark, the Twins haven't lost a series since dropping two of three to the Mariners early in the month, and they'll look to carry that streak forward as they take on the Astros at home this weekend, where they'll face three right-handed starters. The pitching match-ups:

Friday: Kevin Slowey vs. Roy Oswalt
Saturday: Scott Baker vs. Brian Moehler
Sunday: Glen Perkins vs. Wandy Rodriguez

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Refueling the Bullpen

In order to make a roster spot available for Glen Perkins, who returned from the disabled list yesterday and hurled six strong innings in a win over the Pirates, the Twins demoted reliever Jesse Crain to Rochester. The move undoubtedly came as a relief to a number of Twins fans who have grown exasperated with Crain's recent struggles.

After starting the season well, allowing just one run over his first six appearances, Crain has fallen apart at the seams. In his seventh appearance he coughed up four runs in just 1/3 of an inning, and shortly afterward he was placed on the disabled list with a sore sholder. He hasn't been much better since returning, having posted an 8.49 ERA and 2.57 WHIP while allowing seven walks and 19 hits -- including three home runs -- over 11 2/3 innings of work. His ugly performance in the ninth inning of Sunday's series finale at Wrigley was the last straw for many fans. Indeed, the increasingly popular nickname "Crain-Wreck" has seemed fitting.

Personally, I remain a believer in Crain. I look at the solid numbers he put up last year in his first season back from reconstructive shoulder surgery, his quality performance in spring training this year and his excellent start to the regular season, and I see a pitcher who has proven capable of getting major-league hitters out. It seems clear to me that something is not right with Crain at this point in time, and moving him to the minors to get things sorted out is the right move. I'm hopeful that he can come back and be a contributor to the Twins bullpen later this season. Yet, as I look at the roster of the Twins' Triple-A affiliate, there's another bullpen arm that raises my intrigue, and that's Juan Morillo.

We haven't heard much about Morillo since his short stint with the Twins earlier this season ended quickly when he proved incapable of throwing strikes. Control has always been a cardinal issue with Morillo, which is why the Twins were able to pluck him off waivers from the Rockies in spite of the fact that he's one of the few pitchers in baseball who is legitimately capable of touching triple-digits with his fastball. The numbers during his initial stretch in the Twins 'pen were brutal: three appearances, two hits, five earned runs allowed and only one strikeout. Most perturbingly, he was able to get only 52 percent of his pitches into the strike zone. Yet, Morillo displayed a live arm and I vowed to track his progress with the Red Wings, hoping that he could discover some semblance of command and return as a potential impact arm later in the season.

Unfortunately, I sort of forgot about my vow and up until Crain's demotion had almost completely forgotten about Morillo. So yesterday, upon noting that Crain's absence opens another possible hole in the Twins bullpen, and I went and glanced at Morillo's Rochester numbers to see if he has made any strides with his control. The short answer: not really. But, there's still reason for optimism here.

Since joining the Red Wings, Morillo has made 16 relief appearances and totaled 23 2/3 innings of work. During that span, he has issued 16 walks. That's a rate of 6.2 BB/9 IP, which -- while an improvement from his absurd 8.4 BB/9 rate in Triple-A a year ago -- is quite terrible. There isn't really evidence that Morillo is on the uptick, either; in his past 10 appearances he's handed out 11 free passes in 13 2/3 innings.

Yet, a glance over the rest of Morillo's stat line sparks hope. For in spite of that horrendous control, he has still managed a solid 3.42 ERA during his time in Rochester, and has allowed only 14 hits (good for a .188 batting average against) while striking out 33 batters (good for a phenomenal 12.7 K/9 IP rate, which would be the best of his career). And while he's issued 11 walks in those past 13 2/3 innings of work, he's also notched 19 strikeouts.

It seems pretty clear that when Morillo is able to get the ball in the strike zone, he's extremely difficult to hit. But, obviously, his inability to find the zone on any sort of consistent basis is a huge barrier in his quest to become an effective reliever. The Twins' minor-league pitching coaches have a pretty good record with this type of thing, so I'm hoping against hope that with continued efforts Morillo can tame his blazing fastball and eventually provide some rocket fuel to a major-league bullpen that lacks hard throwers.

There's no doubt that the Twins lack sure options in the minors to solve their bullpen woes, but I would advise against giving up on Crain. And I'd also advise that we all keep an eye on that Morillo kid, because if he can somehow find the strike zone he could be a devastating weapon.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mighty Mighty Mauer

On May 1, Joe Mauer made his triumphant return to the Minnesota Twins after missing the entire first month of the season due to injury. I was in attendance that day, and got to see him launch a ball into the left field seats with his very first swing of the season. Given that it had taken Mauer 216 plate appearances to hit his first home run a year ago, seeing him go deep in his very first trip to the plate was a most pleasant surprise for Twins fans. A bit of a fluke, perhaps, but promising nonetheless.

For the rest of May, Mauer played like he was on a mission to prove that his home run in that first at-bat was no fluke. After adding a double and walk to finish that first game 2-for-3, he proceeded to bat .406 over the remainder of the month, launching 10 home runs, six doubles and a triple in 96 at-bats to finish the month with an insane .802 slugging percentage.

It figured that Mauer would slow down in June, and in a way, he has. The power production has tailed off -- over the first half of the month, he's notched two home runs and two doubles over 59 plate appearances, meaning he's averaged one extra-base hit per every 14.75 PAs after averaging one per every 6.42 in May. The June rate isn't bad -- it's about in line with his career rate of 1 XBH/12.84 PA entering this season -- but obviously it's nowhere near the gargantuan power rate he flashed during his first month.

And yet, while the power has dipped for Mauer, the hits have kept on coming. After finishing May with a .414 batting average, Mauer is hitting .415 in June. He's been held hitless only once in 13 games and he's collected multiple hits seven times. Whatever regression we've seen in the power department, it has yet to emerge in the batting average column. Mauer has shown no signs of slowing down his torrid hitting pace.

Now, I'm not going to start talking about any quest to bat .400; we'll have that conversation if he's still hitting at this level around mid-August. But I think it is appropriate to sit back and marvel at what Mauer has done through 181 plate appearances. He's already matched his career high for home runs in just a month and a half, and his OPS+ (229) is a Barry-Bonds-in-his-prime type of figure. If Mauer's season ended today, he would have the highest single-season batting average of any player with a minimum of 181 plate appearances in the last 50 years. Mull that over for a minute.

Twins fans don't need to be reminded of how special a player Mauer is, but it's worth expounding on how absolutely unbelievable his offensive performance has been up to this point. He's bound to hit up some sort of rut at some point, be it regression to the mean or the wear and tear of playing nearly everyday and frequently at a hugely demanding defensive position. It's almost impossibly difficult to maintain a batting average as high as Mauer's currently is, even if big slumps are avoided. (It's worth noting that, for instance, Nomar Garciaparra was flirting with .400 as he entered August in 2000 but ended up falling about 30 points short of that mark because he hit a measly .340 over the final two months of the season. By the way, how the hell did Nomar finish NINTH in the MVP voting that year??)

I would encourage everyone to savor this impressive run while it lasts, but who knows how long it's going to last. Mauer continues to terrorize opposing teams and no one can seemingly figure out how to pitch to him. He's having an historical season that will likely stand out as one for the ages even if his numbers start to gradually but surely decline over the next few months.

Which they will. Right?

Statistics and Odds
While we're all wondering if he will carry this hot hitting into September (and beyond?), it's worth noting that there are gambling entities giving odds on Mauer finishing with a batting average above .400 for the year. Should you get involved with online betting please remember, be smart about it. Bet with your head, not over it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Weekend at Wrigley

It's after midnight on Sunday and I just got home after spending the weekend in Chicago. I'm dead tired, so I'll have to be brief, but I thought I'd share some thoughts about this past weekend's series with the Cubs.

I expressed some concern a earlier this month that the Twins' perfect record in games I've attended this season was going to come crashing down as I traveled to see them play on the road a few times. Fortunately, the team seems to have gotten its act together on the road just in time for the first of my road trips. After dropping two of three in Seattle to open the trip, they split with the Athletics in a four-game set earlier this week (narrowly missing a series victory) and then took two of three from the Cubs at Wrigley over the weekend.

I had the pleasure of attending Saturday's game, a 2-0 victory highlighted by seven shutout innings from Anthony Swarzak (who was rewarded by being demoted to the minors right after the game's conclusion). On Friday afternoon, the Twins had notched a sound 7-4 victory and yesterday they lost a tightly contested battle in the ninth inning when the bullpen experienced a classic Crain Wreck.

Despite losing the finale at Wrigley, the Twins went 5-5 on this latest road trip, which qualifies as a reasonably successful one considering the abysmal 6-16 road record they'd entered the series with. The Twins' lineup is currently riddled with injuries with Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span and Joe Crede all battling ailments. That's troubling, yet there are a bunch of reasons for optimism. The members of the rotationall seem to be settling in and the bullpen pitching is better for the most part. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are continuing to cream the ball. Nick Punto and Carlos Gomez have started showing some signs of life at the plate. Brendan Harris is thriving in regular shortstop duty. If Cuddyer, Span and Crede can get back on the field, you've got to feel pretty good about this team's chances to make a mid-summer run.

Wrigley Field was as amazing as I remembered it and the Cubs fans were generally friendly and highly entertaining (particularly when making any reference to Milton Bradley). The Twins return home tomorrow for a six-game homestand and then take their show back on the road next weekend, first traveling to Milwaukee and then heading to St. Louis and Kansas City. I plan on attending games in both of the latter two cities, so hopefully the Twins can continue to improve their play on the road and keep their perfect winning percentage in games attended by me intact.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Span's Spins Spell Trouble

With two on and one out in the second inning on Tuesday night, Denard Span stepped up to the plate for his second at-bat of the game. The outfielder fouled off the first two pitches he saw from Brett Anderson, then took a ball. On a 1-2 count, he swung wildly at a seemingly hittable pitch on the outside part of the plate, missing it by several inches. It was one of the most awkward swings we've seen from a Twins batter this year and certainly an uncharacteristic one for Span, who has great hand-eye coordination and rarely swings and misses. It was almost like Span had swung at the pitch with his eyes closed.

As it turns out, that wasn't far from the truth. Span later told reporters that he was suffering from dizziness during the game and "just didn't even see the ball" during the aforementioned at-bat. Shortly after the ugly strikeout, Span was removed from the game, and yesterday he traveled back to Minneapolis to see a specialist about this recurring dizziness issue, which caused him to miss a pair of games back in late May as well.

This is peculiar ailment and Span seems as mystified about it as any of us. He notes that the dizziness may be attributable to his offseason Lasik surgery, which was performed on one eye and not the other (a fact I was unaware of) but says he's never experienced problems like this while playing baseball in the past. Said Span: "It's kind of scary."

There's plenty of reason for Twins fans to be scared, too, if this issue ends up keeping Span out of the lineup for an extended period of time. The huge success experienced by Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer and the strong slugging performances by Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Crede this year have somewhat reduced the attention paid to Span's successful sophomore season. Many were skeptical as to whether Span would be able to back up his outstanding rookie campaign, which seemingly came out of nowhere, but he has continued to be an anchor at the top of the Twins lineup. With his abilities to consistently take lengthy at-bats, draw walks at a solid rate, steal bases and hit well against all types of pitchers, Span has essentially been a prototypical leadoff man, something this franchise has been seeking for some time.

If Span is out of the lineup, the Twins lack inspiring options to fill that top spot. Carlos Gomez has been Ron Gardenhire's default choice in the past, but placing a 587 OPS in a position to receive more at-bats than any other player on the team is terribly misguided. Other players who would seemingly fall into Gardenhire's leadoff mold, such as Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto and Matt Tolbert, are also offensive liabilities who belong nowhere near the top of the order. Mauer's on-base skills make him a logical choice to bat leadoff, but that's simply not a move Gardenhire would make.

Hopefully Span and his doctor can reach a conclusion as to what this lingering issue is and get it taken care of. He's been so solid and consistent in the leadoff spot that some fans may have come to take his contributions this year for granted, but be assured: you'll notice his absence in a hurry.


This afternoon I'm heading to Chicago, where I'll be catching baseball at Wrigley Field this weekend. I'd like to try and file a report of some kind this weekend, but you may not be hearing back from me until Monday or Tuesday. Enjoy the weekend!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

First Day Draft Recap

Major League Baseball's draft is a crapshoot, no doubt about it. Unlike the NFL draft where any top draft pick is expected to step in and be a contributor (if not immediately then within a few years), in baseball an organization is fairly lucky if any of the kids they select in the first few rounds end up being an impact player at the major-league level. As for players taken beyond the first round... well that's even more rare.

Looking at the Twins' current roster, we see lots of guys taken with high draft picks contributing. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Delmon Young, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Anthony Swarzak, Jesse Crain, R.A. Dickey and Scott Baker were all selected in the first three rounds of the draft. Sure, a team will occasionally get lucky and find an eventual big-league contributor a few rounds after the top three (Joe Crede was a fifth-rounder and Joe Nathan a sixth-rounder), and in rare instances a team will find a gem even beyond that (Jason Kubel in the 12th round, Nick Blackburn in the 29th), but for the most part we find the future major-leaguers among those first three rounds. Those are the ones I'll focus on in today's analysis. They took place yesterday, and the Twins had four picks. Here's who they took:

Round 1 (Pick No. 22)
Kyle Gibson - RHP, University of Missouri

Yesterday I predicted that Tanner Scheppers would slide to the Twins due to signability concerns and, in an uncharacteristic move, the Twins would snatch him up. Well, Scheppers did fall to the 22nd pick (in fact, he dropped all the way to 44), but the Twins instead went another -- almost equally uncharacteristic -- route, signing college right-hander Gibson. Like Scheppers, Gibson was considered a Top 10 type talent, but his stock fell for mostly different reasons. Gibson's mid-90s velocity dropped into the 80s late this season, and it was recently revealed that this was due to an arm injury. That's the bad news. The good news is that the injury was to his forearm, not his elbow or shoulder, and the damage was a bone fracture rather than anything involving a muscle or tendon. This breeds optimism that Gibson should be able to recover well from the injury.

And if he can make a full recovery, the Twins have gotten themselves a player. Gibson is a tall and lanky guy at 6'6", 210 lbs, and he brings decent velocity that the Twins' system is currently lacking to some degree. Ranked as the fourth-best draft prospect by Baseball America, Gibson brings a fastball, a hard slider and a developing changeup.

There have been indications that the Twins were high on Gibson and I considered predicting him as their first-round target, but truthfully I didn't expect him to fall this far. He has the potential to be similar to Matt Garza in his ability to command two/three strong pitches and move fast through the system. His injury carries some concern, but I trust that the Twins have done their homework. I like this pick a lot.

Here's the scouting report summary on Gibson:
Gibson certainly looked the part of a top college starter in the early part of the season. He has three pitches he can throw for strikes in any count and he shows a lot of poise and a competitive streak on the mound. Scouts love his size at 6-foot-6, though some might worry he's a little too thin. Most look at his combination of stuff, command and mound presence and see a sure-fire first-round pick.
Round 1 Supplemental (Pick No. 46)
Matt Bashore - LHP, Indiana University

The Twins tabbed another college pitcher with the compensation pick they received from Dennys Reyes' departure as a free agent. At 6'3" and 200 lbs, Bashore is a sizable left-handed hurler who reportedly dialed his fastball up to 95 mph during this past season. He was a top college prospect entering this year but lowered his stock a bit by going just 7-5 with a 4.08 ERA for the Hoosiers, although he did come close to setting a school record by notching 108 strikeouts.

While he's shown an ability to hit the mid-90s with his fastball, he'll likely sit in the low 90s on a consistent basis, and his success will likely depend on how he develops his secondary stuff. Not a bad pick, but nothing worth getting too excited about.

Round 2 (Pick No. 70)
Billy Bullock - RHP, University of Florida

The Twins used one of their top picks last year to select a college closer from the state of Florida: University of Miami's Carlos Gutierrez. In that instance, the Twins were clear from the start that their plan was to convert Gutierrez to a starter; they've followed through on that by having him open the season in the Ft. Myers rotation, and he pitched so well that he was recently moved up to Class-AA New Britain.

In spite of their success with this route, the Twins will likely keep Bullock in a relief role. Like Gibson, Bullock stands at 6 feet 6 inches, but he's got a bigger frame at 225 lbs. He really came into his own as closer for the Gators this year and is reportedly capable of hitting 96 mph with his fastball. Bullock has advanced stuff and could be on the fast track, particularly considering the unstable state of the Twins' bullpen.

Round 3 (Pick No. 101)
Ben Tootle - RHP, Jacksonville State University

A fireballer with an upper-90s fastball and a hard slider, Tootle seems like a prime candidate to end up in the bullpen as a late-innings reliever, although the Twins might try him as a starter first. Tootle is in the same camp as Gibson in that his value likely slipped a bit due to an injury; a bad stomach virus held him out of action for a month this year and deflated his overall numbers. Like Gibson's injury, though, Tootle's ailment doesn't seem like a long-term concern and if he can get back to full strength, he has a great arm with impressive potential.

In Summary...

The Twins have always liked to go after college pitchers with their early draft picks, and that was definitely true this year as they brought in collegiate arms with each of their first four picks. Tough to argue with any of those four picks. Gibson is a good low-risk/high-reward guy, Bashore is a hard-throwing lefty with decent upside, Bullock is a hard-throwing righty reliever who could potentially help the big-league club as soon as 2010, and Tootle is a fireballing righty with the ability to dominate. You'd be hard-pressed to argue that the Twins reached on any of their four picks today (in fact, both Gibson and Bullock were generally expected to go higher) and yet all four players should be signable. It was a good first day of the draft that can potentially add some exciting players to the Twins' farm system; today I suspect we'll see them use the middle rounds to bring in some position players.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Tuesday Notes

The Twins chose a bad time to crawl into their shelves offensively this past weekend. The Mariners are a weak offensive team that can be beaten pretty easily if you can put a few runs on the board. Unfortunately, the Twins managed just five runs in the three-game series and came away with yet another road series loss in spite of some solid work from the pitching staff.

It wasn't that the Twins were completely shut down all weekend, it's just that they couldn't deliver hits at crucial moments. They managed plenty of baserunners in the series, tallying 25 hits and 14 walks in the three games, but went just 2-for-24 with runners in scoring position. The Twins entered last night's contest hitting just .259 with runners in scoring position, a massive dropoff from their .305 average in such situations a year ago. Joe Christensen suggested that Twins hitters might be pressing too much in scoring opportunties -- particularly on the road where their struggles are well documented. Whether the problems stem from this or just a major regression to the mean, there's no denying Christensen's conclusion: "if this funk lasts much longer, it’ll throw a serious crimp into the Twins’ playoff hopes."

A few notes on Twins-related topics...

* Today marks the opening of the 2009 ML amateur entry draft. The Twins pick at No. 22 in the first round and have another supplemental pick at No. 46. I've heard a variety of names mentioned as possible candidates for the Twins to take with their first-rounder, including high school pitcher Matt Hobgood, high school third baseman Brian Borchering, college closer Drew Storen and high school shortstop Jiovanni Mier. I'm going to go on a limb and predict that right-hander Tanner Scheppers falls due to signability concerns and the Twins nab him at 22. That wouldn't be a characteristic move for this organization, but the Twins have shown a bit more willingness to open the checkbook on draft day recently and Scheppers has some local ties. Expect hefty draft analysis on this page tomorrow.

* After struggling immensely over the first several weeks of the season, the Twins' bullpen has quietly settled into a very nice groove lately. Check out the numbers for Twins relievers since the beginning of May (coming into last night's game)...

Joe Nathan: 14.2 IP, 1.84 ERA, .192 BAA, 17/3 K/BB
Matt Guerrier: 17 IP, 2.12 ERA, .140 BAA, 13/4 K/BB
Jose Mijares: 15 IP, 3.00 ERA, .259 BAA, 9/7 K/BB
Luis Ayala: 14 IP, 2.57 ERA, .308 BAA, 7/4 K/BB
R.A. Dickey: 23.2 IP, 1.52 ERA, .217 BAA, 16/8 K/BB
Sean Henn: 7.2 IP, 3.52 ERA, .231 BAA, 5/3 K/BB
Jesse Crain: 11.1 IP, 7.15 ERA, .326 BAA, 7/5 K/BB

Even accounting for the continued struggles of Crain, that's a collective 2.79 ERA from current members of the Twins bullpen since the start of May. That's excellent. Of course, it's important to note that a few of these guys (most notably Ayala) aren't remotely likely to maintain this current pace, but the bullpen does deserve a lot of credit for showing tremendous improvement after a terrible first month.

* Does Ron Gardenhire read this blog? The answer, almost certainly, is no; yet, out of coincidence he has seemingly picked up on some of the themes I've been writing about. On May 14 I posted an article titled Saving Guerrier's Arm, in which I pointed out that Guerrier -- who has fallen apart toward the end of the past couple seasons due to overuse -- had appeared in 17 of the Twins' first 34 games, putting him on a pace to pitch in a career-high 81 games. Since the day that post went up, Guerrier has appeared 10 times in 24 games -- a more reasonable rate of usage which would extrapolate to 68 appearances in a full season. He has been used on consecutive days on only one occasion during that span. This reduced dependence on Guerrier may have as much to do with the overall improvement of the bullpen (and starting rotation) as it does with any conscious decision made by Gardenhire to ease up on Guerrier's arm, but nevertheless it's pleasing to see.

Also, I complained last Friday that Delmon Young had started eight times in 11 games since his return from bereavement leave in spite of his extraordinary struggles at the plate, and now Young has been in the starting lineup just twice in the past five games and in left field for only one of them.

With Gardenhire managing the bullpen fairly well, starting Gomez over Young and batting Joe Mauer second rather than any of the weak-hitting traditional middle-infield options, I find myself with rather little to complain about as far as team management goes. What is a blogger to do...

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A Look Around the AL Central

I feel bad that I only managed three posts this week, so I figured a Saturday post was in order. We're about nine weeks into the season now, so it seems a good time to take a look at the competition surrounding the Twins in the AL Central.

Coming into the year, it appeared that the Central would be a wide-open division, which is why many Twins fans held optimism about their team's chances in spite of its significant flaws. Thus far, the division has lived up to its billing. Detroit leads the Central with a 28-25 record -- the worst record of any first-place team in baseball -- and only six games separate them from last-place Cleveland.

The Twins currently sit in second place, 1.5 games behind the Tigers. While near the top of the division, the Twins also must keep an eye on the rearview mirror, where the three other Central squads are none too far behind.

Let's take an early-June status check on the four other AL Central teams.

Detroit Tigers: 28-25 (First place)

The Tigers lead the division, but not for the reasons that one might have guessed coming into the year. Their offense, which as recently as a year ago was vaunted as one of the best in the league, has been rather pedestrian. They rank sixth in the AL in runs per game and 10th in OPS. Those figures aren't awful but they certainly aren't good enough to carry what many assumed would be a rather atrocious pitching staff.

Things is, Detroit's pitching has not been atrocious. They've actually been rather excellent. Among AL clubs, only Seattle is allowing fewer runs on average than Detroit. The Tigers' pitching staff ranks second in ERA and second in WHIP, after last year ranking third-to-last in both categories. That's a pretty incredible turnaround, particularly considering that the Tigers didn't do all that much to upgrade their pitching corps during the offseason. The improvement has come about thanks to phenomenal work of their one major offseason rotation addition -- Edwin Jackson, who is 5-3 with a 2.30 ERA -- as well as a resurgent season from Justin Verlander and a strong debut from Rick Porcello. Meanwhile, Armando Galarraga, who was essentially the only reliable starter on this staff last year, has a 5.31 ERA. Go figure.

Chicago White Sox: 25-29 (Third place)

The Sox have held their own this year in spite of seeing some regression offensively. Carlos Quentin has been dealing with some injuries, and hasn't been nearly the force he was last year when in the lineup. The Sox have gotten paltry production from all their infield positions other than first base (sound familiar?). They've struggled to find an answer in center field, although Scott Podsednik is getting the job done for now. Certainly, though, this isn't the menacing Sox lineup we've seen in the past.

As expected, the rotation has been a mixed bag. Mark Buehrle has been fantastic with a 6-2 record and 2.91 ERA, and Bartolo Colon has been surprisingly effective, but Gavin Floyd has regressed bigtime (who could've seen that coming) and Jose Contreras' attempt to come back from an Achillies injury has been disastrous.

This team looks mediocre to me. That's actually better than I expected them to be, but I don't see them as a real threat unless the Twins and Tigers both collapse.

Kansas City Royals: 23-31 (Fourth place)

The Royals got off to an excellent start this year, winning 18 of their first 29 games and clutching the division lead into mid-May. This led many pundits to become prematurely excited and gloat about how you can't sleep on the Royals, and about how this upstart group led by otherworldly ace Zack Greinke was taking the league by storm. The whole while, I stood by my position that, while young and promising, the Royals just do not have enough offensive talent to compete for a division title.

Sure enough, since winning on May 7 to improve their record to 18-11, the Royals have gone 5-20 and have sunk like a rock in the AL Central. They're currently riding an eight-game losing streak. The reason for the fall? Offense. The Royals rank second-to-last in runs scored, second-to-last in home runs and fourth-to-last in team OPS. During their current 25-game slump, the Royals have averaged less than three runs per game. With that type of performance, Greinke won't have enough miracles up his sleeve to keep them out of last place. It doesn't help that the Royals also can't find answers for the back end of their rotation -- they quickly pulled the plug on the Horacio Ramirez experiment but Kyle Davies, Sidney Ponson and Luke Hochevar haven't been meaningfully better.

There are a number of things to like about this team, particularly on the pitching side, but no hitter has an OPS over 800 and they've gotten a .209/.311/.316 hitting line from the cleanup spot. It doesn't take much to see why this team is in the dregs, and still sinking.

Cleveland Indians: 24-33 (Fifth place)

While I might have been right about the Royals, it appears I was dead wrong about the Indians, whom I picked as my division favorite back in March. Looking back, I don't even know what I liked so much about this team. I guess I figured they'd be able to cobble together a decent rotation behind Cliff Lee but that hasn't been the case. Aaron Laffey has been decent in limited duty as a starter and Carl Pavano has been OK after a rough start to the season, but the rest of the this team's starters have been abysmal. No pitcher outside of those three who has made a start for this team has an ERA lower than 6.16. Fausto Carmona, who I expected to have a bounce-back year (and drafted on two fantasy teams), has been a mess and was demoted to rookie ball after being pounded by the Twins on Thursday. Kerry Wood has been let-down in the closer role and as a whole the Cleveland bullpen ranks 12th in the AL with a 4.93 ERA. In spite of Mark Shapiro's efforts to upgrade that unit during the offseason, it continues to be a huge liability.

Offensively, the Indians have been decent, so if they can get their pitching on track they have a chance to make a bit of a run, but up to this point they have been very, very bad. If they're out of first place by double-digits in July we'll undoubtedly be hearing a lot of Cliff Lee rumors.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Young and the Listless

Since Joe Mauer's return to the Twins' lineup on May 1, we fans have been witness to an incredible hot streak -- easily the most impressive I've ever seen. Yet, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we've also seen one of the most brutal hitting droughts in memory. Over the course of this season, and over the past month or so especially, Delmon Young has been absolutely abysmal.

This post isn't a redux of the tired Young vs. Gomez argument, as Gomez hasn't exactly been a world-beater at the plate in his own right. But Young's at-bats as of late have been mind-bogglingly terrible, and the poor approach has been reflected in his results. Over the past calendar month, Young has gone 10-for-55 (.182) with zero extra-base hits, three walks and 24 strikeouts. He's grounded into three double plays during that span. It's hard to imagine a rougher stretch at the plate.

Particularly troubling is the absurdly high strikeout rate. Young has always been somewhat prone to striking out, with a 17.8 percent major-league K-rate entering 2009, but this season he's been whiffing at an astronomical rate. With 41 strikeouts in 125 plate appearances, Young's '09 strikeout rate stands at 32.8 percent, and over the past month it's been 40.7 percent.

With his inability to put the ball in play with any regularity, Young has been limited to a paltry .231 batting average despite being relatively lucky on balls in play (.342 BABIP). He's got only four hits in his past 41 at-bats and the strikeouts are piling up more than ever. Young looks completely lost at the plate and he's showing no signs of snapping out of it.

Of course, what must be noted is that the majority of those 41 at-bats have come after Young's return from a leave of absence due to his mother's death. Prior to his trip to California to be with his mother in her final days, Young was batting .277 with a 648 OPS and a 24.4 percent strikeout rate. Those aren't good numbers but they aren't disastrous either. Since returning to the team after his mother's passing, Young has hit .098 and has struck out 21 times in 42 plate appearances -- 50 percent! He's fanned multiple times in seven of those nine games.

Without question, losing a mother (particularly at the age of 23) can turn a person's life upside down and make it impossible to focus on anything, particularly playing a sport. As such, Young's current mega-slump is at least partially -- if not totally -- excusable and understandable. What's not excusable is that his name continues to be written into the lineup everyday while he digs himself into a deeper and deeper offensive hole. Young was held out of the starting lineup yesterday for only the third time in 11 games since his return.

I think it's a well documented fact that I'm not a big fan of Mr. Young, but he's not as bad as his recent numbers suggest. In watching him listlessly flail away at the plate, it's pretty clear that he's not really there mentally right now, which is totally understandable given his circumstances. He needs some time to get his head straight. A stint on the bench might work, but would also be tough to work out given that the Twins are already short on healthy outfielders. The better bet would be to place him on the disabled list for a while, although I don't know what the official rules are as far as using the disabled list for mental health issues. (Dontrelle Willis was DL'ed by the Tigers earlier this season for anxiety problems; perhaps the Twins could make a similar move?)

Whichever way they want to go about it, the Twins need to get Young out of the lineup for a while. And once he's got his mind right, he should return to his rightful spot as fourth outfielder.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Road Weary

The Twins have gone 5-0 in games that I've personally attended this year. Given that all those games have been at the Metrodome, this isn't totally surprising; the Twins have posted an excellent 20-11 record at home up to this point. 

This month, I'll be hitting the road to catch three Twins games: at Wrigley Field next weekend and then in St. Louis and Kansas City at the end of the month. I'm more than a little concerned that the team's winning streak in games where I'm present will be coming to an end soon.

With a 6-16 record away from home, the Twins have been the worst road team in all of baseball. At home, they've hit .278/.356/.447; on the road, .263/.335/.406. That's a disparity, but not an unreasonable one. Where the team has really struggled on the road is in the pitching department. Twins pitchers have allowed an OPS 82 points higher on the road than at home, and have posted a 4.53 ERA at the Metrodome compared to a 5.16 ERA outside of it. Last year, the split was even more dramatic (3.27 home ERA, 5.12 road).

The difference in the Twins' play at home versus on the road has been evident recently. The Twins shook off a tough losing streak by winning five of seven games during their last homestand; then, they hit the road and looked completely flat in their first two games in Tampa. They managed to salvage a win in the final game of that three game series against the Rays on Sunday (their first victory in 11 tries in the stadium of an AL East club), but certainly didn't make it look easy.

The team's struggles away from home are particularly troubling since the Twins will embark on a 10-game road trip after finishing up their current series with the Indians. Then, after playing six interleague games at the Dome, they'll hit the road for a nine-game stint. With 19 of their next 26 games set to be played on the road, the Twins will be in dire straights at the end of June if they can't play much better ball in opposing stadiums.

In a Dugout Splinters article for MN GameDay earlier this season, I wrote that maintaining their quality play at home would be key for the Twins if they hope to conquer the AL Central this season. I think I was off-the-mark. Strong play at home has essentially become a given for this ballclub; the more pressing need is that they find a way to win some games on the road. Because, if they can't, they simply don't stand a chance.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Prospect Rundown: May

When we last checked in with our Top Ten prospects at the end of April, the results were a mixed bag. A number of the organization's top prospects were performing quite well, though the guys at the back end of the list -- such as Steve Tolleson, Angel Morales and Shooter Hunt -- had experienced some early struggles. The month of May saw a few of these players get back on track, while others continued to sink deeper into despair. Let's check in with the Top Ten and how they performed in May...

10. Steve Tolleson (AA): .310/.408/.506, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 19 R, 4/5 SB
(Season Totals: .258/.343/.391, 2 HR, 13 RBI, 21 R, 6/8 SB)
Tolleson was absolutely dreadful with the bat in April, hitting .164 while drawing only four walks (to eight strikeouts), driving in two runs and scoring only twice. May was a gigantic improvement, as he bumped his OPS up from 467 to 914 while increasing his RBI total from two to 11 and his runs scored total from two to 19 (!). He also improved his disappointing 8-to-4 K/BB ratio in April to 10/12 in May. His performance this past month was so good that Tolleson earned a promotion to Rochester, where he went 3-for-6 with a double over two games at the end of the month. If he keeps hitting, he'll quickly become an option to help cure the Twins' woeful middle-infield situation.

9. Angel Morales (A): .245/.359/.509, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 10 R, 3/4 SB
(Season Totals: .207/.282/.414, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 16 R, 4/6 SB)
Like Tolleson, Morales experienced a major revival in his offense game after a horrible April. After hitting only .172 during the first month of the season, Morales posted a .245 average in May. Still not great, but a clear improvement that was partially buoyed by a 15-to-7 K/BB ratio that was far better than his ugly 18-to-2 ratio in May. More importantly, Morales was able to get on base at a good clip while showing a huge spike in power. His overall numbers still aren't good, but there was clear improvement this past month and from a 19-year-old in A-ball, that's all you're really looking for.

8. Shooter Hunt (A): 6 IP, 0-0, 10.50 ERA, 8/10 K/BB, 2.66 WHIP
(Season Totals: 17.2 IP, 0-1, 10.70 ERA, 18/33 K/BB, 2.72 WHIP)
After making his first start in May (during which he issued six walks in three innings), Hunt was demoted to the bullpen, where he made two more appearances and continued to experience control problems before being shipped to Extended Spring Training. He spent the second half of May there and will likely remain there until the Twins can find a way to get him throwing strikes. Needless to say, he's been vastly disappointing.

7. Anthony Slama (AA): 16.1 IP, 8 SV, 4.41 ERA, 22/9 K/BB, 1.47 WHIP
(Season Totals: 27 IP, 10 SV, 3.00 ERA, 41/15 K/BB, 1.41 WHIP)
Slama took a bit of a step back in May, posting a weak ERA and WHIP while experiencing some control problems. The downturn in numbers is mostly attributable to a couple bad outings, though, and his strikeout rate remained outstanding. I continue to believe he should be in Triple-A, where the Twins will get a better idea of whether or not he can help their bullpen in the near future.

6. Kevin Mulvey (AAA): 38 IP, 2-2, 4.50 ERA, 26/13 K/BB, 1.26 WHIP
(Season Totals: 57.1 IP, 2-3, 4.08 ERA, 46/21 K/BB, 1.33 WHIP)
Not a particularly good month for Mulvey. Compared to April, his ERA rose while his strikeout and ground ball rates dropped. He did start lasting longer in games, though, and all in all the numbers were far from disastrous so he should be fine going forward.

5. Danny Valencia (AA): .373/.443/.667, 4 HR, 18 RBI, 20 R, 0/1 SB
(Season Totals: .324/.420/.570, 6 HR, 24 RBI, 32 R, 0/2 SB)
After posting good numbers in April, Valencia was an absolute monster in May, clubbing 12 extra-base hits in 75 at-bats while continuing to display good plate discipline. The 24-year-old has effectively proven his mastery of the Double-A level and should be in Rochester by the time I do this write-up next month.

4. Jose Mijares (MLB): 13.2 IP, 2.63 ERA, 9/6 K/BB, 1.39 WHIP
(Season Totals: 16.2 IP, 2.16 ERA, 14/7 K/BB, 1.26 WHIP)
Mijares is now firmly installed as a fixture in the Twins' big-league bullpen. While his control issues became apparent for the first time in his major-league career this past month, he still achieved good results.

3. Ben Revere (A+): .388/.430/.449, 0 HR, 10 RBI, 17 R, 10/15 SB
(Season Totals: .346/.410/.408, 1 HR, 23 RBI, 31 R, 21/31 SB)
Revere flirted with a .400 average for much of last season, and he was at it again in May, as he posted a .388 BA that overshadowed some of his other suspect numbers. He's still not showing much power and his plate discipline actually regressed (5/11 K/BB in April; 10/6 in May), and with his speed it'd be nice if we could see a stolen base conversion rate better than 67 percent. Yet, as long as he can continue post a .400-plus on-base percentage buoyed by a huge batting average, I won't complain.

2. Wilson Ramos (AA): .304/.304/.391, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 6 R, 0/0 SB
(Season Totals: .269/.289/.344, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 12 R, 0/0 SB)
Ramos was limited to six games and 23 at-bats due to a broken finger on his glove hand. He's missed the past three weeks, but was activated from the disabled list just the other day and returned to action for the Rock Cats lineup last night and went 2-for-5 with two RBI.

1. Aaron Hicks (Extended Spring Training)
Hicks remained in EST for all of May, leading some to wonder what's going on. Revere opened the 2008 season in EST but was up in Beloit by the end of April, where he immediately began to tear up Midwest League pitching. I'll defer to the Twins' expertise as far as Hicks' development goes, but at some point the kid has got to start playing some real, competitive ball.