Friday, May 06, 2011

Three-Bagger: Sophomores, Rivera and Reinforcements

* Austin Jackson and Danny Valencia finished second and third, respectively, in the AL Rookie of the Year vote last season. Both players shared one common trait: very good batted ball luck. Jackson led the league in strikeouts but still managed a .293 average, thanks to an astronomical .396 BABIP. Valencia batted .311, his highest mark since he was at Ft. Myers in early 2008, aided by a .345 BABIP.

Given the volatile nature of BIP luck, it was fair to expect second-year regression for both players, and sure enough that's what we've seen. Valencia is hitting .218/.301/.327 for the Twins, and Jackson is hitting .190/.258/.281 for the Tigers.

Of the two slumping sophomores, I'd say Jackson has more to worry about. He was extraordinarily lucky to maintain a such a good average while striking out in over a quarter of his at-bats in 2010; this year he once again leads the league in whiffs and the balls he has put in play haven't been as apt to evade gloves.

Meanwhile, Valencia's funk seems more like bad luck than regression to the mean. He has actually upped his line drive rate from last year (from 18.8 percent to 23.9 percent) and has shown very good discipline at the plate, with 13 strikeouts and 12 walks in 113 plate appearances.

Valencia was unlikely to rattle off another .800 OPS in his second season, but I think most of us would have been content if told he was walking more, striking out less and hitting more liners after a rookie campaign that wasn't exactly shabby.

* I wrote on Monday about the dire state of the catcher position for the Twins. Joe Mauer's replacements have produced a worse hitting line than the average National League pitcher, and they're not exactly making up for it on the other side of the ball; Minnesota pitchers have generally struggled and opposing teams have run wild on the bases.

I concluded then that the Twins ought to either sign or trade for a catcher if they sensed that Mauer's return was still weeks or months away. The combination of Drew Butera and Steve Holm was simply not acceptable as even a moderately long-term solution for a major-league team.

It turns out the front office agreed with at least part of that sentiment. They optioned Holm to Rochester yesterday, but he's only swapping places with another lackluster option who was already there. In order to jolt their fledgling squad, the Twins have replaced Holm and his .343 OPS (which, mind you, was actually superior to Butera's .306) with 27-year-old Rene Rivera and his .583 OPS in Triple-A.

I suspect the Twins were dissatisfied with Holm's game-calling (opponents scored 26 runs over the last two games he received) and inability to control the running game (he was 0-for-5 throwing out runners). A shakeup at the catcher position was beyond necessary. But replacing Holm with another no-bat minor-league journeyman who has no business playing in the majors is not a passable solution for an offense that has been baseball's worst over the first five weeks of the season.

* In addition to Rivera, the Twins called up two other minor-leaguers who merit a bit more enthusiasm. With both Jim Thome and Jason Repko hitting the disabled list earlier this week, Trevor Plouffe and Ben Revere have been promoted to try and build on their brief 2010 MLB debuts.

Revere, who hit .375 over his last 10 games in Rochester, is a welcome addition. His bat isn't much of an asset, but he's a better defender than Rene Tosoni -- who has looked very green -- and he adds significant speed to the roster.

Plouffe has gained attention by smashing six home runs over his first 21 games in Triple-A this year, and would have a hard time proving a worse option at shortstop than Alexi Casilla, but I maintain the stance I took on him in early April:
I'd note that while Plouffe's power is intriguing -- especially for a middle infielder -- his on-base skills and defensive aptitude are questionable. Much like with Luke Hughes, we shouldn't allow a brief power-hitting streak to skew our perceptions of him as a ballplayer.
The Twins themselves don't seem to believe in Plouffe as a legitimate answer, as they've directed Tsuyoshi Nishioka to take reps at shortstop while he rehabs from a broken leg.


neckrolls said...

To echo your point about Valencia, he's hitting below the MLB average for each trajectory type. But it's especially egregious on the liners, where he's hit just .474 while everybody else has hit .729. That's about 5 hits he's had taken away, like the one Alexi Ramirez leapt up and snared on Wednesday. With league average luck, he'd be hitting something like .287/.363/.416. Of all the Twins' slow starters, he's probably the one I'm least concerned about.

Andrew said...

So, would you think that once Nishioka is off the DL, Gardy and company would stick him at short while starting Cuddy at second? That would leave a Kubel, Span, Young, Revere, Repko outfield? Cuddy is better in right, but perhaps the more reps he gets at second, the more comfortable he'd feel. Thoughts? (I'll agree it is most likely not a solid long-term answer, but for the meantime--meaning this year--it may be the only option.)

Josh said...

While I expected a regression for Valencia as well, the early results have been pretty bad especially since his defense has suffered as well and his base running has been really questionable. Hopefully when he luck turns around a little his entire game will round back into shape. I think he'll be fine.

The catching situation, along with the middle infield disaster is still troubling, especially when you see what kind of ugly lineups it produces (like Game 2 in the ChiSox set this week). You had Span sandwiched by Casilla & Tolbert (and Butera ahead of Casilla) which really gave Span no chance even if he reached base to get in absent a miracle. Too many easy outs in the lineup because of these black holes.

ScottyB said...

Why the hell did they decide on Rivera instead of Lehmann? Lehmann is great defensively and batted over .300 between AA and AAA so far this year. Are they so in love with Butera's .110 average that if they have a comparable defensive catcher who bats even .250, they're afraid they might have to admit they have a better option as backup catcher. Meanwhile, just as Holm had no business in the majors, I doubt Rivera should be in the majors and Butera is inadequate. With Mauer out, we're hurting bad at catcher. Any talk of moving Mauer from behind the plate is moot until the Twins develop, trade for, or sign a free-agent catcher.

Matt Groff said...

The twins had a decent backup catcher in Wilson Ramos... but they traded him for Matt Capps who was oh so helpful in the first round sweep in the playoffs...

Bad decision for Bill Smith.

Nate said...

I haven't been in favor of the Capps for Ramos trade, but I'm not so sure Ramos would have been much help in the playoffs last year either...

I'd be interested to hear which suitable catchers around the league you think teams might be willing to part with.

Nick N. said...

I'd be interested to hear which suitable catchers around the league you think teams might be willing to part with.

Max Ramirez was released by the Cubs today. Twenty-six years old, .297/.394/.474 career hitter in the minors. Questionable defense but at this point the Twins need to bring in some hitters.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about your take on Plouffe after an excellent debut in Fenway Park. Not only did he offer a refreshingly potent bat in the middle infield but he made a nice play and a strong throw that would have gunned down just about anybody not named Jacoby Ellsbury...and his questionable plate discipline looks like a vast improvement over Tolbert, Hughes and Casilla. Yes, it's one game but he looks the part much more than the soft hitting middle infielders the Twins have been trotting out for a month now. I say Twins fans should hope this guy takes SS and runs with it because when Nishioka comes back and if he takes over at SS then we are still left with Casilla, Tolbert or Hughes at 2b. A Plouffe-Nishioka IF might be a bit more palatable.

Should we really be so sold on Plouffe as a terrible fielder? Isn't that the reason they held Valencia off the major league roster for the early part of 2010 while we suffered through a Punto/Harris platoon? And early on the reason we were keeping Dougie Baseball at 1b over Morneau? Both Morneau and Valencia have been better than advertised as fielders and maybe the same will be true of Plouffe...Twins fans should certainly hope that is the case.

Catcher has been terrible with the absence of Mauer. They should trade for a catcher not only as an immediate need but also as a permanent backup for him. Butera may be nice behind the plate but he's been a very easy out at the plate and will always be.

Maybe the real question should be on the Twins front office and managerial staff as talent evaluators coming out of spring training. This isn't the first year they've had to trot out minor leaguers to fix lineup shortcomings....names like Ponson, L. Hernandez, R. Ortiz, B. Harris, Punto, Casilla, Everett, Batista, J. Castro, R. White come to mind and now we can add Manship, D. Hughes and Casilla (for a second time) to the list. Stronger roster construction seems to be the remedy for some of the slow starts under Gardy and Terry Ryan/Bill Smith. I wonder how 'close' pitchers like Gibson, Diamond and Gutierez really are? I would bet one or two of them might be able to help out in the pen.

If the bullpen wasn't such a trainwreck that Capps/Ramos trade would look horrible. Without Capps and Perkins you might need starters to pitch complete games every time out.

Is anyone else concerned about Morneau's health? He looks like he's lost considerable weight and the balls he has gotten hold of have been warning track outs rather than home runs. His continued struggles at the plate are as much to blame for the stagnant hitting as Mauer's absence.

Anonymous said...

Scotty B you are still setting the bar way too low if you want Lehman on the team...maybe he's a better option than Rivera, Holm or Butera..who knows? Who cares? They need a MLB caliber catcher not another AA/AAA talent.

Anonymous said...

The Capps - Ramos trade is the reason the Twins have no back up catcher and a weak bullpen. The money they are paying Capps would of been enough to re-sign Guerrier, Crain and Fuentes. Crain or Fuentes could of both closed. Also, having Ramos around would of made a move to the outfield for Mauer much easier to do. That trade will haunt the Twins for a long time.

ScottyB said...

No question that Lehmann is not optimal. I was going with the premiss that this is reality, not fantasy baseball where we could get anyone we wanted. We are talking the Minnesota Twins, a team still on a limited budget, and there aren't many great optionsreadily available. While Lehmann is not a great option, he is a better option than Butera, Holm or Rivera who was readily available for the Twins. No question, losing Ramos has hamstrung this team this year and in the future when Mauer moves to another position. But that's water under the bridge or over the dam or whatever. Bill Smith needs to be combing the waiver wire or the minor leagues and the draft board for a better option for this season and the future.

Anonymous said...

I too have been wondering about Morneau. He looks really thin! Think he is really at full strength?