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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Twins Hold Firm at Deadline

The trade deadline came and passed at 4pm EST yesterday, with the Twins making no major moves despite being in the midst of a poor season for the second straight year. While other struggling teams such as the Phillies, Astros and Cubs cleaned house, the Twins chose to stand pat and while this has drawn the ire of many Twins fans, it points to the quality of GM Terry Ryan and his rebuilding plan.

The Francisco Liriano trade has already drawn a considerable amount of criticism from Twins fans; ultimately the Twins had very little choice. In what turned out to be Liriano’s last start in a Twins uniform, he was shellacked by the White Sox for 7 ER in 2.2 IP. Oh yeah, and 25 major league scouts were there watching. Twins fans disappointed by the return gained for their mercurial ace were buying into a perceived value for Liriano which never really existed. Despite his excellence in his previous 10 starts Liriano reminded the league at a crucial time how heart-breaking he can be. Perhaps the rest of the league had also bought into this perceived value too but purely by the numbers in his MLB career to date Liriano has pitched 789.1 innings to an ERA of 4.32 and a WHIP if 1.34 and despite an excellent 9.1 SO/9 was simply promise unfulfilled for the Twins. White Sox GM Kenny Williams deserves credit for acquiring a pitcher who has the potential to help his club down the stretch and giving up very little in return from a farm system which, while much maligned has produced Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, two key South-Side difference makers this season.

In the build up to the trade deadline Ryan had discussions with teams regarding Denard Span, Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham, Glen Perkins and Jared Burton, yet not a deal was done. The difficulty the Twins found themselves in was that all of these players are under team control through at least next season and all (with the exception of Morneau) are inexpensive relative to their production. Span is having an excellent year hitting .297/.361/.402 through Tuesday and making a little over $12 million guaranteed over the next two seasons. Willingham is signed on for an uber bargain at 3 years and $21 million. Perkins signed a 3 year $10.5 million extension this offseason and Burton is having an excellent year, making a mere $750,000 and is arbitration eligible at the end of the current season. Despite these players excellent seasons (again with the exception of Morneau – who has shown signs of life hitting .333 with 2 HR and 7 RBI in his last 10 games) none of them could bring in the kind of high ceiling pitching talent the Twins are looking for simply because other clubs are not interested in moving it. Remember that the Dodgers ultimately baulked on Ryan Dempster because they were not willing to give up their top pitching prospect, Allen Webster, in return. The only club to give up such a high caliber pitching prospect before the deadline was Detroit, who potentially over dealt, sending Jacob Turner to the Marlins for Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez.

Terry Ryan was wise not to trade any Twins players with solid production and team friendly contracts for an uncertain return.
While the argument could certainly be made that Ryan might have targeted high ceiling guys from the lower levels of the minor leagues the Twins GM has begun to try and address the organizations need for pitching in this years draft. Let us remind ourselves with some of the Twins early draft choices this year and how they are progressing thus far. Number 32 pick out of Puerto Rico Jose Berrios has been lighting it up in rookie ball with a 0.64 ERA through 14 IP, striking out 21 in the process and holding opponents to a 0.85 average. Second round RP out of Rice JT Chargois has given up merely a hit in 7IP with Elizabethtown to date, striking out 6. While number 42 pick Luke Bard struggled initially with his control for the GCL Twins, he pitched his first scoreless inning for Elizabethtown last night (Tuesday). Finally 2009 1st round pick Kyle Gibson pitched 3 innings of no hit ball for the GCL Twins on Tuesday, walking 1 and striking out 7 in the process, in his bid to return from Tommy John surgery. While these players are clearly a long way away from major league ready my point is simply that the Twins draft focus shifted sharply this year to focus on high caliber arms, a trend that will likely continue with good draft position in 2013.

With the Twins out of the AL Central race the probability of both Matt Capps and Carl Pavano being traded in August if they clear waivers and can return to health is high. Without Capps, Pavano and Liriano next year the Twins will have a little financial wiggle room to go out and seek free agent pitching to aid a rotation seriously in need of some veteran leadership. Indeed, names like Morneau and Span may well surface again in the off-season, at which point Terry Ryan may receive an offer he can’t refuse. In the mean time Ryan haters stand down, the Twins wily GM is building from the ground up and the old adage will always ring true, ‘no trade is better than a bad trade’.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Trade Deadline Updates

With the July 31st trade deadline mere days away, Twins fans have their eyes and ears glued to a swirling rumor mill to see what might become of some of their players. The team is in disarray and inevitably in selling mode, after moving to a season worst 18 games under .500 after another shellacking by the White Sox on Tuesday.

Twins fans should temper their expectations however as the organization is not in a good position to get outstanding prospects for most of its moveable and desirable pieces. Here is the latest on the Twins rumor mill.

Twins GM Terry Ryan has been playing his cards close to his chest as the deadline approaches, asking for high prices for all his moveable assets in the form of high ceiling, close to major league ready power arms. The Twins are eager to move Justin Morneau but inconsistent form, injury worries, horrifying lefty/righty splits and the Twins unwillingness to eat any of his $14 million salary mean he will likely stay in a Twins uniform for the time being.

Ryan has indicated that every player on the Twins roster is available for a price, specifically referring to Josh Willingham. Willingham is in the midst of a career year, having clubbed 25 HR, 72 RBI and produced a .274/.385/.568 slash line through Tuesday putting him on pace for 41 HR, whilst cutting down on SO and increasing his BB%. The price on Willingham is said to be ‘laughable’ according to Jason Stark and why shouldn’t it be? Trading the Hammer would be an ill conceived move unless they could return at least one blue chip prospect. Willingham is signed to what now appears a bargain 3 year $21 million salary and has indicated a desire to finish his playing career in Minnesota.

The likelihood that Francisco Liriano gets traded remains extremely high but his decimation by the White Sox on Monday night means teams are still wary of his inconsistency. Look for him to be traded after his final scheduled start before the trade deadline on Sunday, particularly if he pitches well at home against the Indians. Despite Liriano’s value being inhibited by a poor start it was given a boost by the Phillies signing Cole Hamels to a 6 year, $144 million extension, leaving Liriano as the best, if erratic, left handed starter available at the deadline. Again don’t expect much of a return on Liriano; he is essentially a 3 month loaner, as he will become a free agent at the end of the season.

The most intriguing trade chip remains Denard Span. The Reds are said to be high on Span, looking for a consistent leadoff hitter. Span’s numbers are up on his last two seasons, he currently owns a .282/.345/.385 line with 29 XBH and 9 SB. Span is signed to a team friendly deal that his him earning $11.25 million over the next two seasons, with a club option for 2015. The Reds are said to be considering a package surrounding young lefty power arm Tony Cingrani who is a combined 10-3 with a 1.62 ERA and 130 SO in 111 innings pitched between High A Bakersfield and AA Pensacola. At 22, Cingrani would seem to indeed be a worthy prize, but due to the nature of Span’s contract it seems the Ryan is not willing to part with him merely for Cingrani. In a market where Juan Pierre and Shane Victorino are also available on a short term loan basis, the Twins seem to be pricing themselves out of the trade market for Span.

Ultimately it seems as if Liriano might be the only significant piece moved at the deadline. I would personally urge the Twins to trade Span if they can get a high caliber power lefty pitcher. With the emergence of Ben Revere and Aaron Hicks finally fulfilling some of his promise at AA New Britain (.274/.372/.434 with 9 HR 43 RBI and 22 SB) the Twins should reap the rewards Span can bring. The Twins have never had difficulty producing outstanding outfielders and with Hicks, Joe Benson (despite a very poor year) and Oswaldo Arcia waiting in the wings should cash in if they can take advantage of the Reds need for a leadoff hitter. If the Twins kept Span, would they be a competing team in ’13 with the constant sludge they trot out to the bump every day? I think not. Terry Ryan, It’s time to make some difficult, but it the long term rewarding decisions for this ball club, go get some arms.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Twins Dealt Poor Hand as Trade Deadline Approaches

With the July 31st trade deadline fast approaching, trade talk is heating up and will continue to do so in the wake of the All-Star break in Kansas City. Given the Twins current position as AL Central cellar dwellers and 11 games back of the currently leading White Sox they look to be sellers in a market with more than its fair share of trade talk and speculation as a result of more teams in playoff contention given the additional wild card position available in each league beginning this season. So what position are the Twins in to make deals that will have significant impact on an organization which has many needs but is particularly bereft of high quality major league ready pitching?

Many blogs have been expecting a large scale house cleaning effort by the Twins in the coming weeks with the likes of Texas, Toronto, Atlanta and Cleveland all being touted as potential trade partners for the Twins, to name but a few. The Twins however find themselves with few quality names to trade and will certainly not be able to acquire any blue chip prospects, due to a variety of extenuating circumstances.

Carl Pavano was initially a name being mentioned after the Twins awful start but with injury derailing his season, will not be dealt in the buildup to the deadline. Another name that has been strongly linked to trade discussion has been that of Denard Span. The consistent on base machine has been paying well throughout this season and the Nationals have shown interest in Span over a few consecutive seasons. The emergence of Bryce Harper has certainly diminished this possibility as his .282/.354/.472 slash line through 63 games outshine Span’s own line (.270/.334/.375), indeed Harper also has more HR, SB and RBI than Span, in 15 less games played.

Justin Morneau is another Twin who has been linked with a number of teams, most notably the Toronto Blue Jays. Morneau’s first half numbers simply don’t do enough to entice teams to part with significant prospects. The 2006 MVP was held to a .246 average through the first half of the season, with 11 HR and 38 RBI and despite playing in 65 games (just 4 shy of last years total), his history with chronic post-concussion syndrome, middling form, inability to hit the ball to the opposite field this season and bloated contract (in which he is due $14 million next season) make him less likely to be dealt. Matt Capps remains a likely trade chip as the Twins have a $6 million option on him in 2013 which they are unlikely to pick up. Despite the fact that Capps has pitched well this season his DL stint prior to the all star break derailed his momentum in which he had given up just 3 ER in his 8.1 innings pitched.

Finally there is Francisco Liriano. On Monday FOX sports Ken Rosenthal reported that teams were ‘wary’ of trading for Liriano, despite an ERA of 2.74 in 8 starts since his return from the bullpen including 52 strike outs in just 49.1 innings. Rosenthal went on to report that it would be unlikely that teams would part for significant prospects for Liriano, who many teams see as a ‘bullpen option’. With Liriano becoming a free agent at the end of the year, the Twins do not have much leverage or a significant history of consistency from their mercurial ace to barter with, despite several reports that the Braves have scouted Liriano’s last several starts.

The Twins could be in a far stronger position approaching the trade deadline but impending free agency, injury history and a lack of form has made it probable that the return they receive on any trades made will be moderate at best, stay tuned for further updates.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Rise of Super Plouffe

The last Twins game I attended was at Comerica Park against the Tigers on June 16th. The game ended in an 11-7 victory with the Tigers committing a cycle of infield errors within the first 3 innings. The beginning of the game was of especially low quality and at that time, myself and a friend of mine who was at the game, a Tigers fan, began a complain-a-thon about the guys on our respective teams who make their fans suffer the most. For him, that was Ryan Raburn (some things never change), for me it was Trevor Plouffe, who was at that time hitting .138. ‘.138,’ I kept complaining, ‘if this guy had minor league options left there is no way he would be playing in this game’. Later that night Plouffe shut me up by hitting a 2 run HR and has not stopped shutting me up ever since (Raburn, incidentally, is hitting .178, a mere 21 points higher than he was on May 16th.

Plouffe’s rise over the month of June has been truly remarkable. A first round pick by the Twins in 2004, Plouffe has always had pop in his bat, but consistently struggled to get on base at the major league level and struggled mightily to field any position the Twins put him in, achieving a pedestrian .305 OBP in 2011 and managing a fielding % of just .944 at his primary position of SS, where he started 45 games last season. Plouffe entered June with a slash line of .176/.270/.382, which he has since raised to .249/.326/.521. Over that same span Plouffe blasted 11 HR, batted in 21 and gained 72 total bases. So what is the difference between super Plouffe and the Plouffe of old?

Super-Plouffe, along with Josh Willingham, has been helping Twins fans re-think the notion of Target Field as a pitcher's paradise.
At first I thought Plouffe might be benefiting from a favorable Babip but his during the 2012 season stands at just .237 (what might his line look like if this figure was even at .280)! In one regard, Plouffe has not changed, he still strikes out a lot. Since his major league debut in 2010 however, Plouffe has managed to consistently reduce his SO%. In 2010 in a very limited sample size it was 31.8%, in 2011 over 320 PA it was 22.2% and in 2012 through 230 PAs it has fallen slightly to 21.3%, higher than the MLB average of 18.3 %. Plouffe has significantly increased his discipline at the plate however, taking walks at a rate of 10%, up from 7.8% last season and well above the MLB average of 8.3%. It is Plouffe’s HR/FB ratio that has taken the most noticeable spike. 23.1% of Plouffe’s fly balls become home runs, almost 1 in 4, that compared to a MLB average of just 7.5 %, a remarkable increase. While Plouffe still struggles in the field, particularly with his throwing, his power surge that has put him in line for a 28 HR 70 RBI season, albeit with a .235 average, which will be enough to keep the arrogant and under-performing Danny Valencia in Rochester, where he has struggled with consistency to a mere .250 average.

So what might Plouffe’s future be with the Minnesota Twins? Despite showing much improved form of late the Twins still figure to be sellers at this years’ trade deadline. Denard Span, Francisco Liriano and perhaps Justin Morneau (if he can find some consistent form) may all become targets for contending teams, of which there are an increased number with the new wild card format coming into play. With Plouffe out of minor league options and the Twins bereft of right handed power besides that bat of Josh Willingham, Plouffe will likely be on a very long leash with the Twins brass to show he can become an everyday player for the foreseeable future. IF Plouffe can continue to lower his strikeouts, improve his BB% and park fastballs into Target Field’s left field seats (which he is making appear nearer and nearer home plate) the Twins may have found an excellent power bat around whom they can begin to rebuild a team who can challenge for a weaker than though AL Central title sooner than later. With Plouffe under contract until 2018 and making just $485,000 this season, you might call him the best value player in the AL right now.   

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Examining the Draft

A few days after the June 6th 1st year player draft is a good time to reflect on what was perhaps the Twins most critical draft ever, attempting to replenish a minor league talent pool that shows promise at the lower levels, but lacks major league ready talent. Despite their now seemingly yearly June surge (having won 9 of their last 11 games), the Twins are still in a deep hole in the AL Central cellar and the next few weeks will be critical in determining the Twins action with the forthcoming July trade deadline. In particular, critics of the Twins farm system (including myself) have bemoaned their lack of high caliber arms and a team ERA of 5.01, good for 31st in the majors would seem to underline this weakness.

The Twins certainly took a stab at correcting this imbalance, selecting 24 pitchers out of their 43 draft choices. The Twins should be commended in choosing toolsy outfielder Byron Buxton with the second overall pick. Widely considered the top talent in the draft, the Twins had the opportunity to pick top college pitching option Mark Appel after the Astros surprisingly chose Puerto Rican SS Carlos Correia with the number one overall pick. The Twins went with the best available talent and in Buxton have secured a talented player who has drawn comparisons to Justin Upton.

The Twins used their two compensatory 1st round picks to start stacking up on arms, including their own Puerto Rican prospect – Jose Berrios at number 32 and younger brother of Boston’s Daniel Bard Luke Bard at number 42. Berrios is a compact right hander who throws consistently in the mid 90s and has a plus fastball and power curve, as well as a serviceable changeup. Bard, who served as a closer at Georgia Tech, has similar stuff, with a slightly larger frame at 6’3. Most scouts projected Bard to be a relief option at the next level, but the Twins are adamant about making a starter out of him.

With their next two choices the Twins drafted two power throwing college closers, in left handed Mason Melotakis out of Northwestern St at number 63 and intriguing 1B closer combo J.T Chargois out of Rice at number 72. Scouts suggest that both are capable of becoming setup men at the big league level, if not closers.

It seems as if the Twins stuck o their projections on draft day and are determined to not be pigeonholed into being labeled as a ‘pitch to contact’ team any longer. The additions of Buxton, as well as two hard throwing starters and a pair of hard throwing late inning relievers would be exactly what the doctor ordered for the Twins a few years down the line at the big league level. Due to the new pay structure from the new CBA signed this season it seems there will never be another team with as many high picks as the Twins had this season, with 5 of the first 72. Everything points towards them having taken full advantage of their draft position. Only time will tell.