Sunday, February 19, 2012

Goodbye and Hello

March 3rd will mark the seven-year anniversary of the inaugural post on this blog, back when Nick Mosvick got things off the ground with a Spring Training Preview that detailed the outlook for players like Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Kyle Lohse, J.D. "The Real Deal" Durbin, Matt LeCroy, Jacque Jones and Michael Cuddyer (the third baseman).

Since then, there have been 1,607 articles posted here, covering all the ups and downs of an organization that has alternately thrilled, frustrated and baffled, but never failed to entertain. This outlet has allowed me to chronicle my evolution as a writer, analyst and fan, constantly growing from the knowledge gained through interactions with a loyal and intelligent reader base.

It's been quite a ride, and I'm damn proud of what I've been able to accomplish in this space. So it is with a tinge of sadness that I announce this will be my final post here, at least for the foreseeable future.

No, I'm not retiring from blogging. Instead, I'm migrating to a new site that I've been developing along with the TwinsCentric crew for the past several months. It's called Twins Daily, and it will be the exclusive home of my work and theirs as well (though our posts will continue to appear on We hope that it will become the central hub for quality Twins content and conversation on the web.

In short, Twins Daily is a community site that enables a whole new level of user interaction. By registering for a free account, you'll be able to not only read and comment on our blogs, but also create your own blogs and interact with members on our fully functional message board. Columns and forum posts that stand out will be promoted to the front page and appear alongside our stuff.

If you're interested in continuing to follow my work specifically, you can bookmark my personal blog over at TD, which has its own RSS feed (the URL will also direct to that page starting later this week). But I strongly recommend that you make a habit of routinely swinging by the front page, which will be updated daily with fresh content from myself, John Bonnes, Parker Hageman and Seth Stohs, along with the best work from our community of contributors (which, we hope, will include you).

I'm really excited about the next step in this journey. We're going to have a lot of fun over at Twins Daily. See you there.

Friday, February 17, 2012

What to Watch in 2012: Revere's Average

When he was a prospect coming up through the minors, Ben Revere showed promise as a lightning-fast outfielder who could make things happen with his legs and with his glove. He was drafted in the first round in 2007, put himself on the map by leading the Midwest League with a .379 average in 2008 and graduated to the majors by the age of 22.

Revere's projected value in the bigs is overstated by minor-league numbers that include a .326/.385/.408 slash line and 154 stolen bases over parts of five seasons. His ability to terrorize opponents on the base paths will only be an asset if he's getting on at a steady clip, and since he's not going to be able to do so by coaxing walks, his offensive value will largely hinge on his ability to hit for average.

While rising through the Twins' system, Revere never walked in more than 8 percent of his plate appearances at any level. It's not hard to see why; he likes to swing and put the ball in play, and pitchers at higher levels aren't afraid to throw him strikes on three-ball counts since he's virtually incapable of hitting the ball over an outfielder's head. This was particularly evident last year, when Revere drew a free pass only 32 times in 622 plate appearances between Triple-A and the majors. For reference, that 5 percent walk rate is only one point higher than Delmon Young's career mark.

It'd be nice if Revere walked a little more often, but he is who he is and that's not likely to change. Therefore, he'll need to hit his way on base in order to maximize his impact. That was never really a problem for Revere the prospect, who batted over .300 at every single minor-league stop, but last year he got a cold dose of reality as big-league pitchers held him to a .267 average.

He had stretches where the hits would fall in, and he did finish the season strong, batting .394 with seven multi-hit efforts in his final 15 games. Revere gets out of the box and down the line fast enough that he can frequently leg out singles on weak contact. Still, batting over .300 in a major-league season is a tough task, and it's near impossible when you're beating the ball into the ground nearly 70 percent of the time and when those grounders often don't make it past the pitcher's mound.

As a defensive specialist and No. 9 hitter, Revere doesn't carry lofty offensive expectations, but last year's .619 OPS simply won't cut it for a regular. There's not much reason to expect a significant boost in walks or extra-base hits, so the key to offensive success for the young outfielder will be an increase in hard grounders that skip past gloves and line drives that drop in front of outfielders, at the expense of those weak infield rollers.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

What to Watch in 2012: Pavano's Strikeouts

When the Twins acquired Carl Pavano in August of 2009, his fastball was averaging almost 91 miles per hour and he was striking out 16 percent of the batters he faced. In two seasons since, his velocity has dropped by two miles per hour and his K-rate has descended steadily, to 13 percent in 2010 and 11 percent in 2011.

Among qualifying major-league starters, only Brad Penny had a lower K/9 mark last year than Pavano's 4.1. A lack of whiffs isn't necessarily a death knell, especially when you can limit walks and homers, and Pavano's propensity for pitching to contact has helped him efficiently rack up 220 innings in consecutive years, but in order to succeed with this style a pitcher needs help from his defense and a certain measure of luck.

Last year Pavano didn't benefit much in those areas; nor did his staff mates, as the Twins finished with the worst defensive efficiency (converting batted balls into outs) in all of baseball. While the club's fielding is expected to improve this season, it would take a rather drastic turnaround for it to be considered a strength.

Pavano has been a fairly extreme ground ball pitcher in each of the past two years, so infield defense will likely be a key factor in his success. Around the diamond, the Twins will be relying on a third baseman who was repeatedly scolded for his passive defensive approach last year, a shortstop who's 38 and spent much of his career as a utility man, a mistake-prone second baseman with a reputation for losing focus, and a first baseman who's looked foggy in the field since being concussed.

In other words, if Pavano's strikeout rate continues to slide, it's a good bet that he'll once again rank among the most hittable pitchers in all of baseball. He may be able to overcome that and hold value as a serviceable innings eater, but it's not a label you want attached to your Opening Day starter and de facto No. 1.

The Twins have plenty of uncertainty in their 2012 rotation, so more than ever they'll be counting on Pavano -- whose 443 innings over the past two years lead all Twins pitchers by more than 100 -- to be that veteran rock. In order to to excel, it is essential that he take matters into his own hands and find a way to start missing a few more bats.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What to Watch in 2012: Valencia's Defense

In his second season as a big-leaguer, Valencia was struck by the infamous sophomore slump, with his OPS sinking by 122 points after an outstanding rookie campaign. That drop-off, however, was largely attributable to a 70-point dive in BABIP, which suggests that with steady peripheral rates and neutral luck his numbers at the plate will creep back upward in 2012.

Yet, judging by Ron Gardenhire's comments during the course of last season, Valencia's offense was not deemed by the club to be his most worrisome deficiency. If the young third baseman's starting job becomes endangered at some point this year, it seems likely that his glove will be the cause rather than his bat.

Late in August, Gardenhire expressed his frustration with Valencia's passive approach at the hot corner. On occasion, the manager intimated through media outlets that the team's future at third base had fallen into question.

You could hardly blame Gardy. After looking surprisingly sharp in the field during his big-league debut, Valencia showed severe regression in Year No. 2. Not only was he far more sloppy, committing 18 errors, but his range was visibly deteriorated. I'm reluctant to apply the UZR metric in single-season samples, but the difference there was stark: after putting up a 10.2 UZR/150 in 2010, Valencia finished at -6.1 in 154 games last season. In other words, UZR showed a 16-run defensive swing from one season to the next.

Whether you buy into that statistic or not, it seems clear that Valencia took a sizable step backward in the field last year, and that if he's unable to reverse that trend, his grip on the starting job will continue to loosen. As we've seen time and time again in the past, Gardenhire and the Twins are far more tolerant of substandard production at the plate than a failure to consistently get the job done defensively.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What to Watch in 2012: Perkins' Slider

As we count down the days until pitchers and catchers report to Ft. Myers, I'm going to run a series of columns this week detailing some of the less high-profile story lines worth following in the 2012 season. We've heard plenty about the redemption quests of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span and Francisco Liriano; in the coming days I'll be examining some other factors that could significantly impact the 2012 season. Today, I look at the pitch that turned around an embattled southpaw's career and could continue to entrench him as one of the game's best relievers.

After averaging just 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings over the first five seasons of his MLB career, Glen Perkins made the switch to full-time setup duties last year and the difference was night and day. In 61 2/3 innings at the back end of the Twins' bullpen, Perkins struck out 65 batters, good for a 9.5 K/9 rate that was superior to any seasonal mark he'd put up since splitting the 2006 campaign between Double-A and Triple-A as a 23-year-old.

Improved health and the freedom to let loose in shorter relief stints aided an increase in velocity across the board for Perkins, but while his fastball gained a few ticks, his most impressive pitch was a devastating slider, which showed remarkably more bite than we've ever seen from it in the past.

According to the PitchFX data available at Brooks Baseball, Perkins threw his slider a total of 440 times between 2008 and 2010, inducing only 47 swings-and-misses (10.7 percent). Last year, his much improved version garnered 60 whiffs on 276 deliveries, spiking his rate to 21.7 percent. That included a 27.6 percent swinging miss rate on two-strike counts, where the spinner was a dominant and very frequently used weapon.

Perkins' supremely effective slider enabled him to completely neutralize right-handed hitters, making him one of the few left-handed relievers in the league worthy of trust against batters from either side of the plate in late-inning situations. If his mastery with that offering continues, we could see him closing games before long.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Three-Bagger: Mastroianni, Hughes & Vote Lindsay!

* In order to make room for newly signed reliever Francisco Cordero (whose one-year, $4.5 million contract is one of many that makes the Twins' Matt Capps signing look like an overpay), the Blue Jays designated 26-year-old outfielder Darin Mastroianni for assignment.

Yesterday, the Twins claimed Mastroianni off waivers. He profiles as a similar player to Ben Revere, in that he's a contact-hitting speedster who can handle all three outfield spots (but doesn't have the arm for RF) and steals tons of bases. Another similarity that he shares with Revere is that he has almost no power to speak of, with 14 homers in 549 minor-league games.

Whereas Revere spent much of his age 23 season in he majors last year, Mastroianni has played in only one big-league game despite being three years older. His .276/.358/.389 line last season as a 25-year-old in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League inspires little confidence in his ability to make any kind of offensive impact. His best offensive skill has been taking walks, but he'll have a difficult time translating that to the majors where pitchers will fearlessly attack.

On the surface, the Twins appear to view Mastroianni as a cheap replacement for Jason Repko, given that he can run and swings from the right side. It's never bad to have additional outfield depth, but still one must wonder whether this marginal talent is deserving of a spot on the 40-man roster.

* Luke Hughes recently hurt his shoulder while sliding into home plate during winter ball in Australia. Terry Ryan says that the injury is not believed to be overly serious, but the Twins had him scheduled for an examination this week.

Given that he's out of options and provides versatile right-handed roster depth, Hughes seemed like an extremely good bet to make the 25-man roster out of spring training. If he's healthy, that will remain true, but now there's a chance he'll have to open the season on the disabled list.

* Lindsay Guentzel has officially made the first cut for MLB Fan Cave and is among the 50 finalists. She's the only Twins fan in the group. Please join me in showing some Minnesota love by voting for her and helping support her cause.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

NTB Top Ten Prospects 2012

While many, like me, are holding out hope that the Twins can find a way to compete in a 2012 season where the odds are stacked pretty heavily against them, we must acknowledge that there's a good chance the big-league club won't catch the number of breaks it needs, and that by the mid-season point fans will be looking elsewhere for signs of hope.

Those signs will hopefully come from some of the players listed below in my annual preseason ranking of the organization's top ten prospects. Last year's crop fared about as well as the major-league roster, with nearly every player experiencing injury or performance setbacks, so several members of that list have dropped down or off this year's board.

With that being said, there's a lot of promise to be found below, and the Twins should be stocking their farm system with plenty more high-end talent in June when they select five times in the top 75 picks (including No. 2 overall). Here's a look at the Top 10 Prospects, as I currently see them:

10. Brian Dozier, SS
Age: 24 (DOB: 5/15/87)
2011 Stats (A+/AA): .320/.399/.491, 9 HR, 56 RBI, 92 R

Acquired in the eighth round of the 2009 draft, Dozier established himself as an intriguing prospect while showing strong on-base skills over his first two seasons. Last year, he really put himself on the map with an excellent campaign split between Ft. Myers and New Britain, as he continued to display outstanding plate discipline (66/55 K/BB ratio) while sprinkling in some pop (33 doubles, 12 triples, nine homers).

Ultimately, the biggest questions about Dozier revolve around his defense. Folks in the organization question whether he can stick at short in the bigs. If he can, and if his well rounded offensive skill set holds up, he could prove to be a godsend for a system that is extremely light on middle-infield (and especially shortstop) talent in the upper levels.

9. Alex Wimmers, SP
Age: 23 (DOB: 11/1/88)
2011 Stats (GCL/A+): 41.2 IP, 4.10 ERA, 40/23 K/BB, 1.22 WHIP

In his first start of the 2011 season, Wimmers threw nearly as many wild pitches (three) as strikes (four) in a 28-pitch outing that was cut short after he walked the first six batters he faced. The 2010 first-round pick was immediately placed on the disabled list with "flu-like symptoms" as Twins fans drew inevitable comparisons to Shooter Hunt, a promising hurler whose career went off the tracks after he lost the ability to throw strikes.

Fortunately, Wimmers was able to regain his control in the second half, as he returned to the Miracle in July and posted a 3.32 ERA and 39/16 K/BB ratio over 40 2/3 innings the rest of the way. He ended his season with a seven-inning no-hitter that included only two free passes. His walk rate will definitely be worth monitoring going forward, but for now it appears that disaster has been averted, and if he puts together a full season Wimmers has the potential to shoot up this list.

8. Adrian Salcedo, SP
Age: 20 (DOB: 4/24/91)
2011 Stats (A): 135 IP, 2.93 ERA, 92/27 K/BB, 1.17 WHIP

In 355 1/3 innings as a pro, Salcedo has allowed only 12 home runs and 56 walks. Those are extremely impressive numbers, particularly when you consider that he's been on the young side for every level he's played at. His low strikeout rate (6.1 K/9IP) suggests limited upside, but scouts speak highly of his raw stuff and as a 6-foot-4 20-year-old, he's projectable and could ramp up the whiffs as he fills out his lanky 175-pound frame.

7. Oswaldo Arcia, OF
Age: 20 (DOB: 9/9/91)
2011 Stats (A/A+): .291/.335/.531, 13 HR, 51 RBI, 46 R, 3/6 SB

After he put together a monster season in the Appalachian League in 2010, many wondered whether Arcia's breakout performance was for real, given that it was somewhat out of line with his good-not-great previous efforts in rookie ball. The slugging outfielder made a statement right out of the gates last year, raking to the tune of .352/.420/.704 over his first 20 games at Beloit.

Unfortunately, elbow problems that limited him mostly to DH duties over the first month required surgery in early May, shelving him for a good chunk of the season. When he returned, he was promoted to Ft. Myers, where he rounded out the campaign by hitting .263/.300/.463 with eight homers over 227 plate appearances. Those numbers aren't amazing and he struggled a bit with his plate approach, drawing only nine walks during that span, but his power remained intact and the performance was plenty encouraging for a 20-year-old in High-A ball.

6. Liam Hendriks, SP
Age: 22 (DOB: 2/10/89)
2011 Stats (AA/AAA): 139.1 IP, 3.36 ERA, 111/21 K/BB, 1.13 WHIP

After a spectacular 2010 season that saw him register a 1.74 ERA between Beloit and Ft. Myers as a 21-year-old, Hendriks kept the mojo going last year when he jumped out to an 8-2 start in New Britain, posting a 2.70 ERA and 81/18 K/BB ratio in 90 innings. The continued excellence earned him a promotion to Rochester, where his impeccable command held up (three walks in 49 1/3 innings) but the rest of his numbers came back to earth.

The Aussie eventually made four starts for the Twins as a September call-up, and looked predictably overmatched. This isn't entirely discouraging, considering his age, and doesn't change the right-hander's outlook as a potentially effective mid-rotation strike-thrower.

5. Joe Benson, OF
Age: 23 (DOB: 3/5/88)
2011 Stats (GCL/AA): .284/.387/.491, 16 HR, 67 RBI, 71 R, 14/24 SB

Taking his second shot at Double-A pitching, Benson showed significant improvement in some key areas last year, raising his batting average by 25 points and his on-base percentage by 44 points. He didn't approach his home run total of 27 from the prior season, but his power showing was respectable.

Benson has some notable flaws in his game, the most alarming of which is a bulky strikeout rate (27 percent over the last two years) that will limit his ability to hit for average in the majors. He's also been successful on less than 60 percent of his steal attempts in the minors, which is odd in light of his exceptional speed. Still, even if Benson doesn't live up to the considerable offensive promise he's shown in New Britain over the past two years, he'll maintain value as a strong defensive outfielder who can work the count and hit for power.

4. Kyle Gibson, SP
Age: 24 (DOB: 10/23/87)
2011 Stats (AAA): 95.1 IP, 4.81 ERA, 91/27 K/BB, 1.43 WHIP

Gibson put together one of the best 2010 campaigns of any prospect in baseball, and impressed coaches in big-league camp last year to the extent that certain members of the organization wanted to see him head north out of spring training. Instead, the 23-year-old was assigned to Rochester, where he got off to a solid start before seeing his performance deteriorate until eventually it came to light that he had a torn ligament in his elbow.

He'll miss the entire 2012 season and will return in 2013 as a 25-year-old learning to throw with a surgically repaired arm. Certainly it's a major bump in the road, and many boards are going to have him even lower than I do, but I'm still a big believer in his talent and upside. His timetable may be pushed back by a year (or more), but I think we'll see Gibson become a staple at the front of the Twins' rotation down the line.

3. Eddie Rosario, OF
Age: 20 (DOB: 9/28/91)
2011 Stats (Adv-Rk): .337/.397/.670, 21 HR, 60 RBI, 71 R, 17/23 SB

A year ago, Rosario was a little-known prospect who had put together a solid yet unspectacular debut in the Gulf Coast rookie league after being drafted 135th overall in 2010. That has all changed now. Rosario moved up to Elizabethon last year and absolutely obliterated the pitching there as a 19-year-old, smashing 21 homers to lead all hitters in the Appy League.

Rosario doesn't have the pedigree of his similarly transcendent teammate (who you'll find two spaces below) so it's wise to remain cautious of a drop-off as moves up to full-season leagues, but this incredible performance cannot be ignored. Additionally, the Twins have announced that they'll try moving him from the outfield to second base next year. If that transition takes and his offense continues to shine, he could find himself at the top of this list next year.

2. Aaron Hicks, OF
Age: 22 (DOB: 10/2/89)
2011 Stats (A+): .242/.354/.368, 5 HR, 38 RBI, 79 R, 17/26 SB

In the first two years after he was drafted 14th overall, Hicks was the Twins' consensus No. 1 prospect. At this point, however, I'm taking a leap of faith by keeping him in the second spot. The switch-hitting outfielder has all the tools to develop into a big-league star, but his on-field performance simply hasn't progressed as anyone would hope. His power numbers remain substandard, he strikes out too much, he doesn't hit from the left side of the plate and last year he put up the worst batting average of his career.

I remain bullish on Hicks because his raw tools are just too impressive to give up on, and he's consistently displayed two uncommon skills in spite of his disappointing overall output: exceptional plate patience and stellar defense in center field. He raked in the Arizona Fall League recently (.294/.400/.559) and I'm hoping he can build on that and turn the corner in 2012. If not, his tremendous athletic prowess won't save him from sliding down this list next year.

1. Miguel Sano, 3B
Age: 18 (DOB: 5/11/93)
2011 Stats (Adv-Rk): .292/.352/.637, 20 HR, 59 RBI, 58 R, 5/9 SB

When the Twins signed Sano out of the Dominican Republic with a hefty bonus back in 2009, the 16-year-old drew some lofty offensive comparisons. His performance across three levels of rookie ball has left no reason to doubt the high praise.

Sano's second pro season was more impressive than his first, which had already established him as one of the game's better up-and-coming power hitters. Despite being only 18 years old, he finished third in the Appy League in OPS, second in homers and first in total extra-base hits. His strikeout rate was a bit high and his walk rate a bit low – both understandable given his age and degree of dominance – but otherwise it's tough to find much fault with his production.

He's still got a long way to go before reaching the majors, and much can happen between now and then, but at this point Sano is on a path to become the best pure power hitter to come through Minnesota in decades.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Dangerous Gambles in the Rotation

Teams generally enter every season with a few question marks in the rotation. The Twins, unfortunately, look like they'll head into the 2012 campaign with five.

With each starter slated to occupy a spot in Minnesota's rotation, there is a fair amount of upside and also significant downside. At this point there's no way to know which versions of these various Jekyll-and-Hyde acts we'll be seeing, so all we can do is hope that the Twins can come up heads more often than tails as they seek to improve on a league-worst pitching performance in 2011.

Carl Pavano has officially been tabbed as Opening Day starter – an honor that he's earned since he's the only member of this unit who threw more than 150 innings last year. In 2010 he was a highly effective innings-eater and arguably the most valuable starter on a 94-win team. Last year his results were thoroughly mediocre as he allowed more hits than any other pitcher in the league.

Heads, he remembers how to miss a few extra bats and returns to the form he showed while winning 17 games two years ago. Tails, his performance continues to descend as he ages into his late 30s.

Francisco Liriano was stellar in 2010, picking up Cy Young votes while striking out 200 hitters and earning a Game 1 ALDS start. Last year his ERA never dropped below 4.59 as he battled injuries and control issues that plagued him right up until the end of the campaign.

Heads, he regains his fastball command and helps power the top of a solid rotation. Tails, the problems that haunted him in 2011 remain present, leading to continued inconsistency and frustration before the non-competitive Twins trade him for peanuts at the deadline.

Scott Baker is the only member of this bunch who actually took care of business in 2011, and naturally his season was cut short by persisting elbow problems. Though his first-half success made him a borderline All-Star, he threw only 24 innings after the break.

Heads, Baker finally shrugs off the arm troubles that have plagued him intermittently throughout the past two seasons to pile up 200 frames for the first time since 2009. Tails, his elbow keeps on barking and limits him once again, perhaps leading to surgery.

Nick Blackburn has been a reliable, mid-rotation workhorse when healthy, hurling 400 innings with a 4.04 ERA between 2008 and 2009. Sadly, he hasn't been able to stay healthy since, and recently underwent arm surgery for a second consecutive offseason.

Heads, Blackburn overcomes his flaws and serves as an average, yet valuable, anchor in the No. 4 spot. Tails, the hits keep on coming and he struggles to another shortened and substandard campaign.

Finally, Jason Marquis is the newcomer in this equation. If he repeated his 4.43 ERA posted with the Nats last year, he'd be a decent enough fifth starter. But a 4.55 ERA and 1.43 WHIP over the course of a career that's been spent entirely in the inferior NL don't bode well.

Heads, Marquis proves to be a serviceable piece at the end of the rotation, perhaps until a better option emerges in the minors. Tails, he follows the path of former bargain bin veterans like Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Livan Hernandez, dropping before the season's halfway through.

It's not often that you see someone flip heads five times in a row, but it happens, and if these five could live up to their potential the Twins would boast a very respectable starting corps.

Unfortunately, these coins appear to be weighted, and not in a good way. Pavano is in the twilight of his career. Liriano had a discouraging run in winter ball. Baker hasn't really been healthy since '09, and neither has Blackburn. Marquis just ain't very good.

I rue the thought of the Twins pitching staff giving up 800-plus runs again this year, and I'm holding out hope that they can turn things around drastically. Given the talent present, it's certain possible.

But I wouldn't bet on those odds. Would you?