Monday, January 30, 2012

Is Butera's Reign of Terror Over?

The Twins had a lot of players miss significant time last season, but no one's absence was felt more than Joe Mauer, who sat out 80 games with a variety of ailments.

This isn't just because he is the team's best player. It's also because no position carried less depth in the Twins organization than catcher. Mauer was able to start only 47 games behind the plate, and when he was unavailable those nods largely went to Drew Butera, whose miserable .167/.210/.239 hitting line tagged him with the second-worst OPS in the majors among players with 200 or more plate appearances.

Shockingly, Butera might have actually been the best option. When the alternatives are Rene Rivera and Steve Holm – similarly inept hitters who provide less value with the mitt – it's hard to fault Ron Gardenhire for continually writing in Butera's name with the starter sidelined.

Gardenhire's affinity for Butera may have played a role in the front office failing to provide adequate depth at catcher, but there's no question that it was a massive tactical misstep displaying a glaring lack of foresight, especially considering that Mauer's health had already shown signs of deteriorating late in the 2010 season.

Mauer's health remains a question mark as we head into the 2012 campaign, and even if he shakes his injury concerns there's still a good chance he'll spend significant time away from catcher. Butera remains on the roster, but fortunately there are a couple guys who can legitimately push him for the top backup job this year.

One of those players is J.R. Towles, who was signed as a minor-league free agent back in December. Towles, who came up in the Astros system, holds a Butera-esque .187/.267/.315 hitting line in 484 major-league plate appearances. However, while one would expect Butera's horrendous offensive production in the bigs based on his .613 career OPS in the minors, Towles absolutely raked at every level of Houston's system, accumulating a .295/.394/.465 line in 409 minor-league games, including an .831 OPS at Triple-A. Prior to the 2008 season, Baseball America ranked him as the 53rd-best prospect in all of baseball.

Towles has failed in numerous short stints in the majors and it's possible he's one of those guys that will never catch on against MLB pitching, but he's still only 27 (younger than Butera) and there's a chance he could be a late bloomer. He's obviously got some ability.

The other backstop that will be worth keeping an eye on is Chris Herrmann, whom the Twins drafted in 2009. He has split time between catcher and outfield while coming up through Minnesota's system, but if he can stick behind the plate his bat is very intriguing.

After struggling at Ft. Myers in 2010, Herrmann got off to a torrid start there last year and earned a quick promotion to New Britain. There, he continued to excel, batting .258/.380/.392 with seven homers and a 68-to-64 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 406 plate appearances. He also obliterated the Arizona Fall League after the season, batting .380/.456/.620 with six doubles, two homers and a 6/7 K/BB ratio in 15 games.

Herrmann's outstanding plate discipline, combined with moderate pop and a dash of speed (he totaled six triples and 10 steals last year) gives him a very solid offensive skill set, especially for a backup catcher. If his defense holds up, his only downside is that unlike Butera and Towles, he swings lefty so he doesn't match up as a platoon caddy for Mauer.

It's tough to say with much confidence that Mauer will be able to return to catching 130 games this year, but thanks to the presence of guys like Towles and Hermann, a scenario in which the Twins' starting catcher can't do much catching figures to be far less catastrophic than it was in 2011.


If you weren't aware, my friend Lindsay Guentzel, who has worked with KFAN and Fox Sports North, is making a bid to spend the summer covering baseball in the MLB Fan Cave this year. With her bubbly personality and legitimate knowledge of the game, she's a great candidate to represent Twins fans in this NYC-based "MLB dream job."

Lindsay has been promoting non-stop as she vies for this highly competitive position. You can view her latest YouTube video, in which she talks about what she'd do with the various MLB players who are scheduled to make appearances at the Fan Cave this year, here.

Please join me in helping support her quest. If you're on Twitter, tweet the hashtag #LindsInNYC at the @MLBFanCave account. If you're on Facebook, show some love for Lindsay on the MLB Fan Cave page. Let's a get a (very awesome) Twins fan in the Cave in 2012!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Was Ryan Too Quick on the Trigger?

I've generally been pleased with the moves the Twins have made this offseason. In his return to the helm, Terry Ryan has wisely allowed some overpriced free agents to depart while signing solid producers like Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit to bargain deals with little downside.

Two moves that have rubbed me the wrong way, however, are the Kevin Slowey trade and the Matt Capps signing. This isn't because I take issue with the decisions that were made – trading Slowey was certainly justifiable and Capps filled a need as a hard-throwing late-inning righty – but rather the timing.

Ryan has been aggressive in addressing needs and taking care of business this offseason. The Slowey swap and the Capps contract, like the majority of the Twins' moves this winter, were both pulled off before Christmas. However, in neither case was there a need to rush, and events that have occurred recently have made the Twins' haste in those decisions appear rather misguided.

I addressed my quibbles with the Slowey trade earlier this week, when I pointed out that new needs tend to arise for teams as the season approaches and that a better market to trade the embattled starter would have likely developed had the Twins simply shown patience.

With Capps, the Twins clearly overpaid. He's a solid reliever and his $4.75 million deal for next year might be considered reasonable in a different offseason, but not this year. Not with him coming off an ineffecitve campaign and with a sizable crop of similar right-handed relievers on the market competing for jobs. Not with Ryan Madson forced to settle for a one-year deal; with Brad Lidge signing for only $1 million; with Dan Wheeler taking a minor-league contract.

There's no way any other team was going to give Capps close to $5 million. Not even close.

I argued back when the Twins re-signed Capps that the public backlash against the move was excessive – because although I certainly recognized it as an overpay at the time, many folks failed to recognize that the righty does have value and will be a boost to the bullpen.

I also embraced the "no such thing as a bad one-year contract" mantra, reasoning that overpaying Capps by a couple million wouldn't hurt the club long-term and wouldn't prevent them from making other cost-effective moves to round out their bullpen. That's not how a high-revenue team playing in a new stadium should operate.

And yet, the Twins have now watched numerous inexpensive setup men come off the board at dirt-cheap prices – including Lidge and Wheeler, who both signed yesterday – while crying poor and suggesting that they're up against their payroll limit. The Joel Zumaya signing was nice, but he should be viewed more as a smart low-risk flier than a safe bet to lock down the seventh or eighth inning.

I'm not a person who has berated the Twins for lowering payroll and it doesn't really bother me that they're spending $30 million less than the Tigers, who play in a similar market. But if they're not willing to add a million dollars to their current payroll fill an obvious need, the Capps deal looks a whole lot worse.

Maybe this grumbling is all for naught. Maybe Ryan plans to nab one of the remaining relief arms to fill that right-handed setup role and provide the type of security that Zumaya and a crop of iffy internal candidates do not.

But if they don't sign anyone else because they significantly overspent in their eagerness to bring Capps back, the Twins will again be setting up their closer to be the villain in a bullpen that could easily turn out thin and unreliable for a second straight year.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fielder Hardly Seals Division

While many people had already written off the Twins as contenders in 2012 following a 99-loss season, I've been bullish on their (admittedly slim) chances, reasoning that a whole lot can change health-wise from one season to the next and that no club in the AL Central was looking like a world-beater.

The entire division has largely been in a holding pattern all winter. The White Sox, Indians and Royals haven't made impact additions. The Twins have brought in several new players, but all have been designated to fill newly created vacancies. (Willingham for Cuddyer, Marquis for Slowey, Zumaya for Nathan, Doumit for Kubel, etc.)

And those reigning champs? Coming off a 95-win campaign, the Tigers had been conspicuously quiet, seemingly content to maintain the status quo and take another run with largely the same group that succeeded a year ago. Sounded similar to the Twins' approach last offseason.

As it turns out, these Tigers had just been lying in the weeds, waiting to pounce with their royally big move. Yesterday, Detroit signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year deal worth a reported $214 million.

The blockbuster signing comes as a surprise. General manager Dave Dombrowski told reporters less than a week ago that the slugging first baseman was "probably not a good fit," which rung true seeing as how the team already employed one of the best hitters in baseball at Fielder's position. In addition, most were unaware that the Tigers possessed the financial muscle to lock up the game's best under-30 power hitter for a decade.

It's a strong move, and one that bolsters Detroit's roster immensely, ostensibly transforming them from de facto favorites in a weak division to legitimate American League powerhouse. A lineup anchored by Fielder and Miguel Cabrera will strike fear into opposing pitchers, and could approach 900 runs if guys like Alex Avila, Austin Jackson, Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta are all at the top of their game.

Without question, the Fielder signing weakens Minnesota's chances, which were already sketchy at best. But it would be foolish to write off the rest of the AL Central on the basis of this one move. Here are a few reasons to hold out hope that the Tigers can be toppled this summer:

1) V-Mart is out.

Granted, Detroit just added a guy who drove in 120 runs with a .981 OPS last year. But they also lost a guy who drove in 103 runs with an .850 OPS when Victor Martinez went down with a torn ACL a week ago. Fielder is of course a superior hitter to Martinez, especially in the power department (he out-homered V-Mart 38-12 last year) but it's not like his production is simply sprinkled on top of what Detroit got last year.

2) The rotation is questionable beyond Justin Verlander.

Detroit's starting corps is led by the Ace of Aces, a reigning Cy Young winner and MVP. But outside of Verlander, no pitcher who threw more than 100 innings for the Tigers last year posted an above-average ERA. And does anyone really believe that Doug Fister is going to be able to replicate his 2011 performance? Pitching issues could be magnified by the following:

3) This looks like a slow and defensively awful team.

This lineup will slug, no doubt, but baseball isn't all about hitting and there are few defensive assets to be found on this roster. Delmon is tabbed to man left field, Fielder is a notoriously bad defender at first, and there's been some talk that Cabrera could see time at the hot corner this year. Yeesh. In addition, nobody in the lineup outside of Jackson runs well.

4) Stuff happens.

I can't emphasize this one enough. On paper, the Tigers look like runaway favorites in the AL Central with Fielder aboard. Then again, on paper, the Twins looked the same way to many a year ago. Adam Dunn hadn't posted an OPS under .819 in his career before he logged a .569 mark for Chicago. The Red Sox were the toast of baseball before the they became the laughing stock.

A lot can happen in this game. Things rarely work out the way everyone expects them to. It would be surprising if Detroit failed to outclass the rest of the division this year, but it wouldn't be all that surprising.

If you thought the Twins had a shot two days ago, you shouldn't feel any differently now.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On Slowey, Twins Sold Too Low Once Again

The Twins have often been criticized in recent years for the paltry returns they've gotten back when trading away players. We've seen Wilson Ramos, J.J. Hardy, Delmon Young and others flipped for questionable returns, only to quickly boost their value elsewhere. Jose Mijares was non-tendered earlier this offseason because the Twins didn't want to pay him $750,000 through arbitration, and he went on to immediately sign with the Royals for $950,000.

In my mind, the Twins front office has shown a persistent weakness in assessing the value of its own talent.

Kevin Slowey appears to be the latest example. Coming off the worst season of his pro career, Slowey was dealt to the Rockies back in December for relief prospect Daniel Turpen. Six weeks later, Colorado turned around and sent Slowey back to the AL Central, trading him to the Indians on Friday for another relief prospect, Zach Putnam.

Given that the Rockies have loaded up on back-end starters since acquiring Slowey and the Indians are now facing uncertainty in their rotation after "Fausto Carmona" was arrested in the Dominican Republic last week on charges of using a false identity, the move makes sense.

What I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around is that the Rockies were able to get a significantly superior prospect in return for Slowey, despite the fact that he hasn't done anything to raise his value since Colorado acquired him.

Let's compare Turpen and Putnam. The former is a 25-year-old who spent the 2011 season pitching in Double-A, where he tallied more walks (35) than strikeouts (33) over 59 2/3 innings while posting a 4.83 ERA and 1.64 WHIP. The latter is a year younger, but spent last season in Triple-A, where he posted a strong 68-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 69 innings to go along with a 3.65 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. Baseball America recently ranked Putnam as the 10th-best prospect in Cleveland's (albeit weak) farm system.

In short, Putnam is a solid prospect who would stand a good chance of factoring into the Twins' bullpen this year and beyond. Turpen is a stagnating minor-leaguer coming off a terrible year, and he didn't receive an invite to big-league camp. He's shuffled between four organizations in the past two years and seems like a long shot to make an eventual impact in the majors.

You can make the case that Slowey was a headache, and that his best days as a pitcher are behind him, and that the Twins won't regret letting him go. But this isn't about Slowey. This is about properly valuing assets and taking advantage of opportunities to infuse the organization with talent -- an opportunity that the front office, at best, failed to take full advantage of here.

Maybe Slowey had to go, but what was the rush to move him in early December? Why not wait until a more motivated buyer than Colorado came along? Perhaps in spring training when injuries pop up and needs arise, potentially leading to a better market?

When the Slowey-for-Turpen swap went down, I was surprised that no club was willing to part with more than a marginal minor-league relief arm for a 27-year-old starting pitcher with a big-league track record, a dominant minor-league résumé and a reasonable price tag. As it turns out, that wasn't the case. The Twins simply acted too hastily and once again cost themselves in the process.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Morneau and Progress

About a month from today, Jamey Carroll will turn 38 years old. That will make the veteran infielder, signed by the Twins earlier this offseason to man shortstop over the next couple seasons, the same age as former Minnesota third baseman Corey Koskie.

Of course, while Carroll is enjoying the best years of his pro baseball career, Koskie has been out of the game since 2006, when a concussion sustained in Milwaukee ended his days as a major-leaguer.

An athletic baseball player with a tremendous passion for the game, cut down in his prime by an injury that seemed totally harmless at the time, even to him. I brought up the unfortunate parallel between Koskie and Justin Morneau after the latter had been sidelined for a month by a concussion suffered in 2010, and unfortunately, little has happened since then to dispel such allusions.

In the weeks and months following Morneau's initial incident, Twins trainers repeatedly talked about the "progress" he was making toward getting back on the field. He never returned in 2010, but embarked on an offseason program designed to get him back into playing shape while protecting his head. Again, "progress" was the go-to buzzword in all Morneau updates.

The first baseman returned to the field for for 69 games last year, but was hardly the same player, and after re-triggering concussion symptoms on a fielding attempt in August, he was again shut down for the year. Now, Twins fans are left in the same state of limbo that they were a year ago, with the word "progress" once again being tossed around in the absence of any more substantive news.

At this point, the word has basically lost all meaning, but Twins officials can hardly be blamed for falling back on it. As was the case last winter, they don't know what Morneau's status truly is, or what to expect from him when he shows up in Ft. Myers next month.

That's very unfortunate. As Judd Zulgad wrote yesterday for ESPN 1500, the first baseman's situation is distinctly more worrisome than that of Joe Mauer, who by all accounts is feeling much stronger after a surgery-free offseason.

It seems likely that Mauer will be able to play at a high level this year, and even if his balky knee prevents him from catching full-time, the club has added a couple intriguing backup options at catcher in Ryan Doumit and J.R. Towles (a former outstanding prospect who's worth keeping an eye on).

But there's no one who can replace the value that a healthy Morneau provides, both on and off the field. Team insiders suggest that, with Michael Cuddyer gone, Morneau is the one player who can step in as a vocal clubhouse anchor, with the kind of fiery personality to rally the troops and avoid a catastrophe similar to last year.

If Morneau can't go, not only will the Twins lack a slugging first baseman capable of pounding 30 home runs with 100-plus RBI -- they'll also lack an obvious candidate to provide true leadership on this club, whatever you believe that's worth.

Certainly the league's award voters have recognized Morneau's value as stretching beyond his numbers. He won the AL MVP in 2006 with a questionable statistical case and placed second in 2008 with even lesser numbers, despite the Twins missing the playoffs.

Mauer might be the Twins' best player, but Morneau is a vital cog. His uncertain (at best) status going forward is probably the No. 1 overarching concern that surrounds this 2012 team.

For the sake of Twins fans – and him and his family more than anything – I hope his "progress" this offseason is a lot more meaningful than in past instances.

Monday, January 16, 2012

ZOOM! Twins Add Powerful, But Fragile, Bullpen Arm

For Twins fans, the image is tough to forget.

Joel Zumaya was pitching to Delmon Young in the eighth inning of a late June game at Target Field. On a full count, the right-hander reared back and unleashed a 99 mph fastball, which Young fouled off.

It was immediately obvious that something went very wrong with Zumaya on the pitch, as he quickly clutched his right elbow and collapsed to the ground in extreme pain. His right hand was shaking violently as his coaches and teammates huddled around him near the pitcher's mound.

As it would turn out, Zumaya suffered an elbow fracture on the delivery, specifically to the olecranon, which is the top-most point of the ulna (shown to the right). It was the latest in a long line of arm injuries for the righty – the nature of the beast when your game is built around hurling triple-digit heaters – and it's kept him off the field for the last year and a half.

Zumaya can't have fond memories of Target Field, but it looks like he'll return to pitch at the site of his most gruesome injury, as he's reportedly agreed to terms with the Twins on a one-year deal. Pending a physical – which is no simple formality in this case – the reliever will earn a base salary of $800,000 plus incentives to serve as a much-needed right-handed power arm at the back end of the bullpen.

While auditioning in front of an army of scouts back in December, Zumaya was reportedly registering between 93-96 mph with decent command. That's a step back from his previous elite heat (his fastball was averaging 99.3 mph in 2010 before he went down) but it would still qualify him as the hardest thrower on the Twins' staff, and he'll likely add some ticks in spring training if he can stay healthy.

That's a big "if," obviously, as the newly added setup man will join a lengthy list of health question marks in Ft. Myers. Still, Zumaya is only 27, and broken bones tend to heal more reliably than torn ligaments. If the fireballer can finally make his way through a full season with good health – something he hasn't done since his rookie year in 2006 – he could provide a huge boost from the right side in the late innings.

And if things don't work out, the Twins won't be out much money, as his deal is non-guaranteed and his base salary is barely more than the club would've paid to keep Jose Mijares around. This is the kind of low-risk, high-upside signing that Terry Ryan should be looking to make whenever he can, especially with the payroll restrictions that have been imposed upon him.

The fact remains, though, that if Zumaya's arm fails him as it has in five straight seasons, Alex Burnett stands to be the top fallback option. We'll see if Ryan is done shopping for relief help.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thoughts on Payroll

Geoff Baker, a scribe for The Seattle Times, penned a lengthy but very interesting column earlier this week about spending in baseball.

I recommend taking the time to read it, as the themes are very applicable for Twins fans, but the gist of his argument is that ultra-rich baseball owners are gaming the system by soaking up public money and spending far less on payroll than they can afford to. Meanwhile, the baseball community overlooks this injustice and credits general managers (such as Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman and Terry Ryan) who are able to succeed under superficial and ultimately unnecessary financial constraints.

I've heard plenty of Twins fans express outrage over the team's decision to cut payroll this year, and the points made by Baker in his widely read column only serve to fan the flames. In many ways, I can identify with these gripes. But I also wonder whether some fans are getting too caught up in their frustration, to the point where it's dampening their enjoyment of the sport.

Look, we all wish the Twins would spend more money. Basically every fan wishes their team would spend more money. But as Baker's column points out, the problem is systemic. I don't see him naming one single owner who is bucking the trend and dumping money out of his own pocket into payroll.

These guys generally become millionaires (or billionaires) through savvy business decisions and by running a profitable organization, so that's how they operate their baseball clubs. They put the money that their product earns back into that product -- into payroll, into paying employees, into community funds -- and yes, maybe they pocket a little. That's their right. They own the team.

Baker makes it seem unconscionable for any fan to be content with this model, but really, what is any amount of whining and complaining going to accomplish? The Twins have always claimed they put around 50-52 percent of revenue back into payroll, which would indicate a current annual revenue stream of around $200 million. Maybe they make more, but is there any evidence for that other than blind frustration? They don't open their books, and they aren't required to.

If you take their word for it, the Twins went over their stated threshold last year because they wanted to retain a few extra players (namely Jim Thome and Carl Pavano) and make a push. Didn't work out. I think we can all agree that their prospects for contending this year are not as strong, so I'm not going to sit here and blast them for falling back to the $100 million level that has been set as a baseline. They've demonstrated that they're willing to exceed that benchmark when the time is right, but now is probably not that time.

One hundred million dollars, spent well, should be plenty to contend in this division. It puts the Twins solidly in the upper half of MLB team payrolls. Yes, the Pohlads could afford to spend more, but so could every other owner. That's just the way it is, and the way it shall be.

By endlessly complaining about a situation that's not likely to change any time soon (and that we, as individual fans, have no real control over, regardless of Baker's rant) you're wasting your breath and sucking the fun out of the game for yourself.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Are the Twins Delusional?

In Sunday's edition of the Star Tribune, Patrick Reusse suggested that the Twins – like the Vikings – are deluded in their assessment of being able to compete in the short-term.

He's certainly not alone in his stance. Almost every day, whether here in the comments section, or on Twitter, or on other blogs and media outlets, I see people grumbling about the approach being taken by the Twins' front office this winter.

The team lost 99 games last year. Do they honestly believe in their asserted convictions that a return to contention in 2012 is possible, or is this lip service aimed at stimulating ticket sales? If it's the latter, why are they pumping payroll into veteran players like Jamey Carroll and Jason Marquis, who seemingly function as finishing touches on a contending roster rather than useful pieces in a rebuilding process?

What many people seem to forget is that the roster from a year ago is still largely intact. Sure, players like Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are gone, but their replacements – Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit – stand a good chance of replacing the lost production.

The Twins are a year removed from winning the AL Central in dominant fashion, carried by the contributions of many players that are still under team control and still in their physical primes. It's true that a litany of injury concerns surround the club's roster, but that was also true last year – a point I repeatedly tried to get across to jovial fans still reveling in the wake of a 94-win season.

No one could have expected the Twins to lose nearly 100 games last year, not even me in my relatively pessimistic outlook. It took an all-out worst-case scenario, with extraordinarily bad luck striking the entire organization.

But it also took poor planning from a general manager who showed little foresight in recognizing his team's health concerns and the lack of palatable contingency plans. This is an area where I feel that Terry Ryan has improved dramatically over Bill Smith.

No one really knows that to expect from Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span, Francisco Liriano or Scott Baker this year. Maybe their injury issues will carry over into 2012, again causing them to miss large chunks of the season. Maybe they'll be healthy enough to play, but not effective enough to fuel a 25-game turnaround in the standings.

Or maybe they'll benefit from an offseason of rest and rehab, returning to perform like the cornerstones they've been at various times in the past. And maybe, with help from solid complementary pieces like Willingham, Doumit and Carroll, that will be enough to give the Twins a shot in a division that can often be taken with fewer than 90 wins.

I'll fully acknowledge that the latter scenario is far less likely than the former. But I don't think it's delusional. And I also think that, even if you believe the Twins are destined to be a .500 club at best, there's still nothing wrong with Ryan's decision to pad the roster with reasonably priced veteran depth.

Reusse argues in his column that players like Brian Dozier and Chris Hermann should be given an opportunity to get some run in the big leagues this year. Others have stated that this hopeless season should be used to allow Joe Benson, Chris Parmelee and Liam Hendriks to gain valuable MLB experience.

The thing is, none of those guys have spent any time in Triple-A yet (except for Hendriks, who threw 49 innings in Rochester last year). They'll all be in the organization and available whether or not players like Carroll and Marquis are on board, and going with the veterans out of the gate enables those prospects to prove that they're big-league ready rather than being thrown into the fire and leaving Ron Gardenhire with the same kind of depth problems that plagued him last year.

Is it delusional to believe the Twins can hang in the AL Central this year? I say no. And even if it is, there's nothing wrong with the approach being taken by the front office. Whether you're looking to contend or rebuild, depth is a good thing.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Is Nick Blackburn Undervalued?

One couldn't be blamed for writing off Nick Blackburn as an afterthought in the Twins' 2012 starting pitching equation.

After all, he's been pretty bad over the past two seasons. In fact, "pretty bad" might be an understatement – he's been one of baseball's most hittable pitchers, prone to stretches of mind-numbingly horrible performance. His once-premier walk rate has deteriorated into mediocrity, leaving him with little in the way of strengths to fall back on.

So it's easy to forget the fact that, prior to 2010, Blackburn was a pretty dang valuable pitcher. After emerging as a legitimate prospect in 2007, he became a staple in the Twins' rotation, hurling around 200 innings with an above-average ERA in both 2008 and 2009.

After that '09 campaign, the Twins signed Blackburn to a four-year extension worth $14 million. It was a totally unnecessary move that has unsurprisingly backfired, but there was valid reason for the club's faith in the right-hander. Over that two-year stretch, Blackburn was indisputably their most reliable starting pitcher.

Yes, he has been mostly a mess over the past two seasons, and there's a temptation to profile those struggles as symptomatic of his non-dominant, pitch-to-contact approach. But that was the same style he employed while serving as a steady boon amidst the rotation in his first two seasons.

Indeed, his troubles in 2010 and 2011 have very likely stemmed from health issues more than anything else. And while that's not reason to excuse them, it's a fact that should provide fans with hope that he can return to form if his latest surgery takes.

In his first year at Target Field, Blackburn finished with a 5.42 ERA and career-low 3.8 K/9 rate over 161 innings. Ugly numbers, to be sure, but after the season it was revealed that he had (perhaps foolishly) been pitching through elbow discomfort for much of the year. Shortly after the Twins were ousted from the playoffs, he underwent minor surgery on the elbow.

Early on in 2011, Blackburn appeared to have returned to form. Over the first three months of the season, he looked as good as ever, turning in a 3.64 ERA over 101 innings. He was on pace for another solid 200-inning campaign, but things quickly derailed around the halfway point; after the start of July, Blackburn made only 10 more starts, posting a 6.32 ERA over 47 innings while allowing 70 hits and 26 walks.

The sagging control stood out as the most worrisome red flag for the righty, who even during his rough spells had traditionally thrown the ball over the plate. After issuing four walks while recording just four outs against the Yankees on August 21st, Blackburn was pulled and shut down for the season. He'd later be diagnosed with an entrapped nerve in his forearm, for which he underwent surgery in late September.

This procedure was more serious than the one in 2010, as it left Blackburn in a splint for six weeks, but he's expected to be ready for spring training. He'll be one of several question marks among the club's starting pitching crop this year, but it's important to bear in mind that when he's been healthy, Blackburn has been a legitimate asset to the rotation.

His $4.75 million salary – guaranteed as the result of that misguided extension inked two years ago – currently looks like a liability. But it's entirely possible that by the end of the season, it'll look like a solid bargain.

Like with so many other Twins players this year, it will all come down to health.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Turbulent Career of Frankie Franchise

I can still vividly recall Francisco Liriano's first start of the 2006 season.

The date was May 19, and the struggling Twins were in Milwaukee to face the Brewers. I was in attendance at Miller Park that day, sitting along the first base line and eager to see the electric 22-year-old southpaw break into the rotation.

It had been a long time coming. Over the first six weeks of a season that saw the Twins stumble to a 10-game deficit in the AL Central, Liriano was a rare bright spot, thoroughly dominating opposing hitters in short bullpen stints.

He excelled that day, hurling five innings of one-run ball while allowing only two singles and facing two batters over the minimum. For good measure, he chipped in an RBI double at the plate. Frankie Franchise had arrived.

He built on that first start and quickly became baseball's most dazzling rookie, figuring prominently into the biggest turnaround in franchise history by nearly guaranteeing a victory every time he took the mound. In 14 starts through the end of July, Liriano went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 105-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 2/3 innings, holding opposing hitters to a .162 average and .482 OPS. Meanwhile, the Twins went from seven games below .500 to 17 above.

Liriano was a specimen the likes of which I'd never witnessed as a Twins fan. Sure, I'd seen some great starting pitchers come through; Brad Radke succeeded on pinpoint control, while Johan Santana kept hitters off-balance with a devastatingly deceptive changeup.

But Liriano was pure gas. He unleashed 96 mph fastballs and mixed in a steady diet of biting sliders that whipped across the zone in the upper-80s.

The young Dominican was an absolute joy to watch, and a gleaming beacon of hope for the club's future, so I was heartbroken when he slumped off the mound grasping his elbow after recording six outs against the Athletics in mid-September. He would require the dreaded Tommy John surgery, leading to an arduous road to recovery that featured far more valleys than peaks.

He missed the entire 2007 season while rehabbing. In 2008, he was mostly effective, if underwhelming. In 2009, he was a complete mess, unable to find the strike zone and maddeningly inconsistent. Following the season, he regained his confidence while pitching in winter ball and carried that momentum forward to put together his most complete season in 2010, looking at times very similar to the prodigy that took the league by storm in '06.

But last year, it was back to square one. Liriano's command unraveled, his shoulder barked, his work ethic came into question, and he gradually lost the confidence of his teammates, coaches and fans.

Now, with the 2012 season approaching, the Twins are looking to rebound from a disastrous campaign, and their ability to do so will be highly contingent on Liriano's ability to do the same.

In a rotation littered with mediocre contact pitchers, Liriano stands out as perhaps the one true hope for a dominant front line starter. He was obviously a far cry being that guy last year, so if the Twins are to contend this season they will almost certainly require a massive transformation from their most talented – and frustrating – starting pitcher.

Does he have it in him? Ever the Frankie diehard, I'll choose to focus on the similar metamorphosis that took place from 2009 to 2010 (especially since that offseason, like this one, featured a stint in the Dominican Winter League).

And I'll invariably drift back to that day in May of 2006 when this whole crazy ride began.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Internal Righty Relief Options

Yesterday I listed a number of appealing free agents who could fill the Twins' need for right-handed help in the bullpen. I believe that if Terry Ryan wants to provide Ron Gardenhire with a reliable stable for the late innings, he'll need to spend a couple million to bring aboard one of these tried-and-true veterans.

However, I also believe that there are a number of intriguing in-house candidates that should not be ignored. While none of the following six relievers ought to be counted on outright as the club's top righty setup man from the start of the season, they all have a chance to make valuable contributions in the seventh and eighth inning this year and beyond.

Alex Burnett

In general, Twins fans are down on Burnett after watching him struggle to a 5.40 ERA with the big-league club over the past two seasons. However, I would urge those fans very strongly not to rush to judgment. While he's had his growing pains, Burnett is a 24-year-old with a fastball in the mid-90s and a slider that touches the upper-80s.

After dominating Ft. Myers and New Britain as a 21-year-old transitioning to the bullpen in 2009, Burnett never got much of a chance to pitch in Triple-A and has had to acclimate to the big leagues on the fly. He's still young and he's got a powerful arm. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to see him develop into the team's best right-handed eighth-inning option by the end of the year.

Anthony Slama

Injuries limited Slama to 37 innings in Triple-A last season and also probably cost him a chance to contribute much for the Twins, but he was as dominant as ever in Rochester before going down, striking out 42 while allowing only 27 hits with a 2.92 ERA. He avoided surgery for an achy right elbow at the end of the season and has pitched well in Mexico this winter, with a 1.76 ERA and 19-to-5 K/BB ratio in 15 1/3 innings.

Slama turns 28 on Friday and it's unclear whether the Twins will ever have much interest in giving him a shot in the bigs, as they removed him from the 40-man roster at season's end, but his consistently spectacular numbers in the minors certainly warrant an extended look.

Lester Oliveros

Acquired from the Tigers for Delmon Young in August, Oliveros is a high-velocity, high-upside arm. He's had his bouts with control issues, but has averaged 11.2 K/9 in the minors and is still only 23 years old. While pitching in Venezuela this winter, he has posted a 1.33 ERA with 18 strikeouts and nine walks over 20 1/3 innings while touching the upper-90s with his fastball.

Carlos Gutierrez

Gutierrez, 25, works with a hard and heavy heater that induces tons of grounders, helping him limit opposing hitters to 16 home runs in 321 career innings in the minors. In 2011, he notched 57 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings for Rochester. That combination of whiffs and worm burners makes him very intriguing, although he needs to get better at limiting hits and walks. I came away very impressed after seeing him live at spring training last year.

Deolis Guerra

The last remaining prospect acquired from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade, Guerra has largely been a disappointment since switching organizations. Last year, after another poor start in New Britain, the Twins finally gave up on him as a starter and shifted him to a bullpen role, where Guerra abruptly blossomed. After switching around the start of June, the hefty 6-foot-5 hurler posted a 2.80 ERA with 55 strikeouts and 11 walks over 45 innings. He's continued working as a reliever in the Venezuelan Winter League, posting a 3.71 ERA and 23-to-7 K/BB ratio over 26 2/3 innings. He's still only 22.

Jared Burton

Burton is distinctly different from the rest of the players on this list in that, at age 30, he's not really a prospect anymore. He was, once, and he turned in a couple good seasons for the Reds in 2007 and 2008, but over the past few years he's battled injuries and after the 2011 season Cincinnati let him walk. The Twins smartly signed him to a minor-league contract to see if he can regain his prior form. It's an excellent gamble with no risk, and the type of move that could end up making Ryan look very, very smart.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Right-Handed FA Options for the Bullpen

After rounding out their rotation with the addition of right-hander Jason Marquis a couple weeks ago, the Twins took a holiday hiatus -- and so did I. Now, with 2012 officially underway, it's time for the front office to turn its attention toward adding the final pieces of the puzzle as they seek a return to respectability.

Terry Ryan got most of his shopping done early this offseason, utilizing free agency to address several of the club's greatest needs -- a shortstop, a right fielder, a versatile backup catcher and a starting pitcher -- before Christmas. Now, the one unit that stands out as the most lacking is the bullpen.

Fortunately, as is often the case after the holiday season, there are plenty of options left on the shelf and they should be available at a reduced price.

With Matt Capps re-signed to join southpaws Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing, the Twins have a solid base for the back end of the bullpen. What they clearly need now is another right-handed arm for the late innings.

Here are a few free agent righty relievers that the budget-conscious Twins should consider targeting in the coming weeks:

Brad Lidge
Age: 35 | 2011 Stats: 19.1 IP, 1.40 ERA, 23 K / 13 BB, 1.50 WHIP

Lidge was limited to under 20 innings by injury last year, but despite some control issues he was pretty effective when able to take the mound. The slider-slinging right-hander had hoped to land a closer job this winter, but those opportunities have dried up quickly and he'll probably have to settle for a one-year deal as a setup man. He carries some question marks, but holds plenty of upside.

Todd Coffey
Age: 31 | 2011 Stats: 59 2/3 IP, 3.62 ERA, 46 K / 20 BB, 1.26 WHIP

Coffey possesses the type of durability that will surely appeal to a Twins club that watched its pitchers drop like flies last year. He's appeared in 69 or more games in each of the past three years, and has made 57-plus appearances in all but one of his seven big-league seasons. He owns a 4.08 career ERA and has never been a truly dominant pitcher, but figures to be a great value if he lands in the range of the one-year, $2.1 million contract that the TwinsCentric Offseason Handbook predicted.

Dan Wheeler
Age: 34 | 2011 Stats: 49.1 IP, 4.38 ERA, 39 K / 8 BB, 1.11 WHIP

Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN reported last week that Wheeler's agent tried reaching out to the Twins but got no response since the front office was shut down for the holidays. Hopefully Ryan returned that call as soon as he got back into the office this week, because Wheeler is a nice fit. His 4.38 ERA last year may appear mediocre, but his peripherals were very strong and he posted a 3.24 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in the three seasons prior. For his career, Wheeler has held right-handed hitters to a .636 OPS.

Scott Linebrink
Age: 35 | 2011 Stats: 54.1 IP, 3.64 ERA, 42 K / 21 BB, 1.45 WHIP

Like Coffey, Linebrink's main appeal is his durability. He's appeared in 50 or more games in every season since 2004. Even at age 35, his fastball still registers in the mid-90s and he's averaged at least seven strikeouts per nine innings in each of the past four years. His occasional proneness to the long ball could be downplayed at Target Field.

Chad Qualls
Age: 33 | 2011 Stats: 74.1 IP, 3.51 ERA, 43 K / 20 BB, 1.25 WHIP

When looking at Qualls' track record, the one word that comes to mind is "consistency." With the exception of a clunker season in 2010, his ERA has been between 2.81 and 3.76 in each of his eight MLB campaigns. Qualls has been a workhorse in the Matt Guerrier mold, ranking among the National League's top ten most oft-used relievers in five different seasons.

Michael Wuertz
Age: 33 | 2011 Stats: 33.2 IP, 6.68 ERA, 32 K / 26 BB, 1.87 WHIP

Wuertz will likely come cheaper than any other hurler on this list, because he's coming off a tumultuous 2011 campaign and hasn't thrown more than 40 innings since 2009. In that 2009 season, though, he was truly spectacular, posting a 2.63 ERA and 0.95 WHIP while notching 102 strikeouts in 78 2/3 innings. At the right price, it might be worth gambling on the chance that Wuertz can once again harness his devastating slider, but he probably shouldn't be the sole remaining bullpen addition.