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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bullpen - An Expected Fall from Grace

Quite simply put, the Twins bullpen was he worst in baseball in 2011. While this came as a shock to many Twins fans that were used to a consistent level of excellence from their relief pitching corps, it really should not have.

The Twins let Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes walk after the 2010 season, a foursome that have combined for a combined career ERA of 3.50 and a combined career WHIP of 1.24. They were not actively replaced, the Twins choose instead to go with organizational options such as Jim Hoey (acquired on the J.J Hardy trade and waived this off-season), Alex Burnett (incredibly average over his first 3 seasons), Chuck James, Jeff Manship and Dusty Hughes. The result was a bullpen that ranked dead last in the majors, with a combined ERA of 4.51 and an opponent batting average of .270 – eek. The Twins corps also allowed opponents a .350 OBP, had a WHIP of 1.46 and a K/BB of only 1.66.

Remarkably the bullpen, perhaps the most bitter tasting of all the failures of the Twins last year, especially given its previous years of consistent success in the one area as yet unaddressed by Terry Ryan his off-season. While the middle infield, outfield and starting pitching have undergone some personnel change (with the recent addition of dependable ground ball machine Jason Marquis), the Twins bullpen if the season were to start today, might look something like this;

Matt Capps – Closer
Glen Perkins – Setup
Anthony Swarzak – Long relief
Brian Duensing – Lefty specialist

The remaining platoon would be chosen from the likes of;

Alex Burnett
Lester Oliveros
Kyle Waldrop
Scott Diamond
Terry Doyle

The core of this bullpen is certainly solid. Matt Capps, while perhaps not as spectacular as his 2010 numbers made him look, is certainly a good deal more capable than his 2011 made him look. Glen Perkins proved himself an outstanding setup man last season, despite a sky high BAbip of .333. Duensing has proven historically that he can be highly effective at retiring lefties and Swarzak produced some solid starts for the big league club last season.

The questions surround the remaining spots in the bullpen, the candidates to fill them being plagued by either inexperience, or mediocrity at the major league level. The Twins could certainly use a veteran presence with the remaining $1-2 million left in their budget to sure u a bullpen lacking both experience and confidence.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The end of an Era

Well Michael Cuddyer’s tenure in Minnesota is over. After 11 seasons with the club that drafted him, he signed a 3 year $31 million pact with the Rockies. While Cuddyer’s departure will undoubtedly sadden many Twins fans; his leaving will ultimately leave the organization in a better place than if he stayed.

There is no doubt that the Rockies over paid for Cuddyer. Though he has served as a model of consistency for the Twins in a lineup that has been frequently bitten by the injury bug, his wage demands were unrealistic for an organization whose clubhouse is aggressively pursuing a philosophy of returning the club to competitiveness immediately in 2012 rather then rebuilding altogether.

Twins fans, who have often begrudged their own brass for not being aggressive enough in the free-agent market, cannot possibly voice those complaints during the beginning of Terry Ryan’s second stint as the club’s GM. In his first 6 weeks Ryan has strengthened the Twins anemic offense by signing Ryan Doumit for 1 year $3 million, sured up a leaky middle infield by signing Jamey Carroll to a 2 year $6.5 million contract and now adding right handed power and an immediate replacement for Cuddyer in Willingham, locking him up through the 2014 season for $21 million, a $9 million saving on Cuddyer and giving the Twins two supplemental draft picks as compensation for Cuddyer signing with the Rockies. For an organization that does not have consistent strength throughout its farm system, having 5 picks (6 if Jason Kubel departs) in the first 60 is exactly what the organization needs.

From a statistical standpoint Willingham and Cuddyer are almost identical. Willingham owns a .361 career OBP compared to Cuddyer’s .343 and indeed, Willingham own slight advantages in SLG and OPS throughout his career. Willingham owns a significant advantage in Isolated power, his career ISO of .214 bettering Cuddyer’s .180, Parker Hagerman’s article summed up exactly why Willingham may be ideally suited to Target field’s left field power ally, as opposed to Cuddyer’s tendency to spread the ball around the field. Willingham is the logical choice for the Twins.

With the Twins payroll projected to sit at around $100 million is bringing Kubel back the right move? While there is major uncertainty going forward surrounding the health of the M&M boys the Twins pitching depth seems to be the biggest remaining void on the 40 man roster. Names that have been thrown around as additions to the rotation are Jeff Francis and Joel Pineiro, while the bullpen needs to be completely revamped after the Twins non-tendered Jose Mijares and lost Joe Nathan to the Rangers.

Looking at Jeff Francis major league stats paint an interesting picture. Francis owns a career ERA of 4.78, a career WHIP of 1.43, walks 2.8/9 innings and struck out only 4.5 batters/9 innings last season at Kansas City. Pineiro walks and strikes out a similar amount, but has a slight advantage in career ERA 4.41 and WHIP 1.35. Pineiro had a miserable 2011, logging a 5.13 ERA but being subject to an above average BAbip of .324 and an ERA+ of only 74. In his previous 2 seasons with the Cardinals and the Angels, Pineiro combined for an ERA of 3.67 and a WHIP of 1.19 while logging 366.1 innings compared to Francis’ ERA of 5.00 and WHIP of 1.42 over the same seasons. While Francis spent one of those seasons at home run Mecca Coors field, Pineiro’s ground ball style and potential change of scenery to Target Field may put him in line for a rebound year and make him a solid contributor to the Twins 2012 rotation should they decide to pursue him.

Monday, December 12, 2011


The Twins rotation was another constant source of frustration posting numbers that were an eyesore to Twins fans throughout the season. The highlight was undoubtedly Scott Baker – who was a stud in the first half posting all-star caliber numbers with his K/9 innings rising to a career high 8.2 in the first half of the season. Baker’s numbers were impressive across the board, walking only 2.1 per 9 innings and finishing with career best ERA 3.14 and WHIP 1.17 before succumbing to injury in late July (broken record much?) and eventually being shelved late in the season.

In 2011 Baker’s K per 9 innings increased dramatically leading to a SO% of 22.5% and a WAR (wins above replacement player) of 3.8. If Baker can remain healthy (a big if given his history of elbow trouble) he should be able to function if not as a top of the rotation ace, certainly a durable and quality number 2 starter.

On May 3rd 2011 Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter against the White Sox. Sweet, right? Well, kind of. Liriano walked 6, struck out 2 and threw 123 pitches, only 66 for strikes in a performance that summed up his season; nasty stuff, not enough ability to use it to its full effect. Liriano is undoubtedly the most talented of the Twins starters, having a solid fastball, good change and a nasty slider. A lot has been made of Liriano’s various mental struggles which certainly seem to be apparent on occasion but are hard to quantify. Simply put here are the numbers that tell the story of Liriano’s 2011 year. Liriano logged just 134.1 innings in 2011 with his ERA rising from 3.62 in 2010 to 5.09 and his WHIP from 1.26 to 1.49 in 2011. Liriano’s strikeout rate fell from 9.4/9 innings to 7.5/9 innings while his BB/9 rose from 2.7 to 5.0 free passes in 2011. With stats like that, not matter how nasty your stuff is, you don’t have a chance against major league caliber hitting.

Desperately sad and devastatingly ineffective for a man removed from a stellar 2010 season that saw him finally recapture some of his 2006 rookie form. So what can we expect from Liriano in 2012? Most of the conjecture I have read regarding the Twins 2011 season surrounds collective outrage at the ineffectiveness of multiple players that had been the team’s stars in previous seasons, Liriano certainly seems to be the focus of this maelstrom of negative attention. There is no reason however, why Liriano cannot recapture some of his 2010 form. Consider his 2009 numbers which preceded his all-star caliber campaign. In 2009 Liriano had a WHIP of 1.51 a BB/9 of 4.3 and an ERA+ of 76 (which compares to his figure of 79 in 2011), eerily similar to his numbers in 2011. The pressure is on for Liriano, who is in a contract year, to turn his disappointing 2011 into a successful 2012, a feat he accomplished from 2009 to 2010, although admittedly after an off-season throwing program and playing winter ball in his native Dominican Republic.

Last off-season the Twins re-upped Carl Pavano to a 2 year deal worth $16.5 million. Pavano had a stellar first season and a half for the Twins after being acquired from the Indians for the stretch run of the 2009 season. 2010 was a particularly strong year for Pav-Stache – who benefited from BAbip of .283, which rose to .303 in 2011. 2011 was a return to earth for Pavano, who had a rough start to the year. Pavano did steady the ship in the mid-summer months and produced a typically workhorse season – logging 222 innings – a number the Twins oft-injured starting staff desperately needed.

In 2012 we can expect more of the same from Pavano – who has to be credited from making the conversion from flamethrower to effective control, pitch to contact guy. Pavano should benefit from a more effective defense behind him in 2012 (Pavano received Rdef or runs of support from defense of -6 in 2011 compared to 3 in 2010, an unacceptable drop-off for a control pitcher who relies on steady defense to maintain his effectiveness), expect 200 innings with an ERA in the 4.00 – 4.30 range but again a good middle of the rotation contributor.

Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn; two names that became consistently associated with a grimace on the face of Twins fans by the end of the 2011 season. Many Twins blogs, including Nick Nelson’s, predicted moving Duensing to the rotation would backfire on the man who had previously been outstandingly effective as a left specialist out of the bullpen, how right they were! Duensing’s 2011 numbers were ugly, posting an ERA of 5.21, a WHIP of 1.51 and a SO/9 of just 6.4. Duensing’s BAbip also went from an incredibly fortunate .275 in 2010 (which was made up of a mixture of spot starts and relief appearances) to a whopping .334 in 2011. With the recent trade of Kevin Slowey to the Rockies the Twins will need to acquire another starter (Jeff Francis or Edwin Jackson anyone?) in order to keep Duensing out of the rotation, which they would be well advised to do. If they can find another starter the Twins can utilize Duensing and Jose Mijares as historically successful lefty specialists as well as Glen Perkins as a truly dominant option giving the Twins a solid left handed relief corps for 2012.

I believe Blackburn has frustrated many Twins fans because he has often been viewed as something he is not, namely a middle of the rotation starter. Blackburn’s numbers over the last 4 seasons show one thing – he is a number 5 starter, and not a particularly good one. Blackburn has fooled Twins fans by turning in the occasional hot month but we should expect similar numbers to those he offered in 2011. Let’s look at Blackburn’s numbers a little more closely. Over the last 4 years he has averaged 29.5 starts per season so we have a good sample size to look at. Over these seasons Blackburn is averaging a putrid 1.44 WHIP, pause, averaging! In 2011 he managed 1.58, dead last in the majors. Blackburn also had a SO/9 of 4.3 over those same 4 seasons – hardly overpowering stuff. Admittedly Blackburn was subjected to the same comical defense that the rest of the Twins rotation was during 2011, but is on average over 4 full major league seasons giving up 10.8 hits per 9 innings. Simply put there is absolutely no indication that Blackburn will show any lasting or significant improvements in 2012 and this is a man Bill Smith saw fit to lock up through 2014 – why? I do not know.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Outfield - Question Mark???

Cuddyer??? Span??? Revere??? Kubel??? You get the idea. So many questions surround the Twins outfield this off-season. Michael Cuddyer remains the top free-agent priority of the front office, with a 3 year offer on the table worth around $24 million.

Let’s start with #5. Cuddyer is rightfully a favorite with Twins faithful, having been in the organization his whole career, producing an excellently consistent .272 BA, 20 HR and 82 RBI average as well as a 272/343/451 line over 11 big league seasons. Add this to his versatility, having played at every outfield position besides SS in his major league career as well as making a relief appearance pitching for the Twins beleaguered bullpen in 2011 and he is a valuable weapon indeed.

Cuddyer is also a renowned positive locker room influence, a power bat from the right side of the plate – the list goes on. It seems unlikely that the Twins will be able to keep both Cuddyer and Kubel, who both rejected arbitration offers to test the waters of free agency. The Twins front office is waiting with baited breath on the decision of Cuddyer, who has drawn interest from financial power houses such as the Red Sox and Phillies, as well as other suitors such as the Rockies and Dodgers.

Span will be another key piece if the Twins are to challenge for the Central in 2012. Owning a career OBP of .361, having an excellent glove, good speed and a friendly contract that will keep him under team control until 2015, Span was another huge loss for the Twins in 2011 missing 92 games with concussion symptoms that had Twins fans asking if they were experiencing Groundhog Day. Span is a table setter at the top of the lineup and one of the truly underrated lead-off hitters in baseball.

Ben Revere made a solid start to his big league career, leading the big league team with 34 steals (a Twins rookie record). While the youngster is not without his flaws, having a much below average arm, he makes up for it with excellent range. Revere needs to work in the off-season on strengthening the areas in which his talent lies. With very little power Revere is a slap hitter with speed who has to be consistently on base to be truly effective. In 481 plate appearances with the big league club in 2011 Revere only had 26 walks, good for a BB% (amount his plate appearances result in a walk) of 5.4%, well below the league average of 8.3%. Revere on average saw 3.52 pitches per plate appearance in 2011, compared to a league average of 3.82, with a typical top of the order players’ number being a little higher still, Denard Span’s career pitches per plate appearance being 3.84, for example.

Despite having excellent speed Revere also needs to improve his base stealing. He was thrown out 21% of the time or 9 out of 43 attempts. Elite base-runners typically have a stolen base % in the low to mid 80s. If Revere can improve his OBP and SB% he and Span could form a dangerously speedy 1-2 tandem at the top of the Twins lineup while covering a huge amount of ground in the outfield.

If Cuddyer does re-sign with the Twins it seems that Jason Kubel, another career long Twin will be on his way out the door. Financially it is impossible for the Twins to resign both (especially given that Terry Ryan has also sighted the bullpen and rotation as other areas he would like to strengthen). Kubel was another Twin who struggled to stay healthy in 2011, taking the field in only 99 contests. He made solid power contribution across the board but since his break out year in 2009 when he posted a line of 300/369/539 with 28 HR and 103 RBI; he has struggled to live up to his talent level. Having Kubel on the roster instead of Cuddyer would add the problem of all three of the Twins power bats being lefties. Kubel has been a solid power contributor in the last 4 seasons but does not seem destined to break out and achieve the super-stardom that many predicted for the South Dakota native early in his career before injury slowed his progress to the big league level.

Josh Willingham is a name that has been bandied around as a potential replacement for Cuddyer should he seek pastures new. Willingham set career highs in RBI 98 and HR 29 but is either on par or slightly inferior to Cuddyer in almost every other statistical category, including in the field, while also being unfamiliar with the Twins personnel and system. The shape and balance of the outfield in 2012 will undoubtedly rest on the decision of #5.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Middle Infield - A Comedy of Errors

Middle Infield – A Comedy of Errors

This was perhaps the most dishearteningly consistent and dismal failure of a team that lost 99 games in 2011. The Twins beleaguered and incompetent middle infield became a laughing stock, both offensively and defensively, with the trio of Trevor Plouffe, Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka committing 35 errors in 242 games between them and combining for an average batting line of 241/302/336 – yikes!

Both Casilla and Nishioka, the Japanese batting champ import struggled to stay on the field, Casilla missing more than a month mid-season with a hamstring strain he could not shake and Nishioka breaking his leg on a Nick Swisher slide at Yankee stadium just 6 games into the 2011 campaign. While Casilla showed flashes of improvement from his poor 2010 season he has frustrated Twins fans by consistently showing just enough at just the right time for the Twins brass to give him a further season to show he can make a more meaningful on base contribution to the team and not merely function as a base stealing threat.

By contrast ‘Yoshi’ floundered throughout his first season in the big leagues. Poor range, a weak arm and a slew of errors made him a defensive liability and a RAR (Runs Above Replacement Level – which measures the number of runs a player is better than a hypothetical replacement player that plays for a team with a .320 winning %) was -18! Wow. Yoshi proved to be a meaningless offensive contributor to a middle infield that was in constant flux and needed a stabilizing force so desperately. Who knows if he will be given a second shot?

While the bat of Trevor Plouffe provided some desperately needed pop, ranking ahead of 3B kid-stud Miguel Sano and fellow Elizabethtown prospect Ed Rosario in the organization in HR, his glove was alarmingly bad. In 2011 at SS alone he was good for a fielding % of .944, almost 30 points below the .972 positional league average. Spring training will be huge for Plouffe, who is out of options and while he is almost guaranteed to figure in the Twins early season plans has yet to prove he can consistently field his position at any level he has played at. In 6 minor league seasons Plouffe has struggled with his fielding in a similar fashion to his first two seasons with the big league club. The logical option moving forward would be to use Plouffe as an outfield option.

Within the first 10 days of his second stint as Twins general manager Terry Ryan took steps to address one of the Twins most glaring on field weaknesses. Ryan signed veteran infielder Jamie Carroll to a two year $6.5 million contract. Carroll is a stop gap solution to a organizational problem area for the Twins, with their best middle infield prospects being Brian Dozier at SS and a little further off Yangervis Solarte at 2B. Carroll does bring defensive consistency to the heart of the Twins infield, having committed only 4 errors in 2011 and having a fielding % of .984 over the last 10 seasons. He also brings a consistent OBP, averaging .364 in his last 3 seasons with the Dodgers. He is however, 38 in February and the price tag certainly seems like a stretch from a Twins team in desperate need of immediate infield help.  

Catcher – Mauer, Doumit and Butera

Much will depend on the consistent health of team talisman Mauer, who was limited to a mere 82 appearances in 2011, the second lowest total of his big-league career. His batting average and OBP fell 40 points each in his injury plagued campaign, and he posted his worst home run and RBI totals since his rookie season in 2004. This was hardly the return the team was looking for on the $23 million investment the Twins committed to the face of their franchise. While Mauer’s transition to playing games at first base will no doubt ease fans fears regarding his long-term durability, the variety and extent of his health issues leaves Twins fans apprehensive for the man the franchise has locked up to be its primary backstop through 2018. If the Twins are to offer any resistance in an improving AL Central in 2012, Mauer’s health will be critical to their chances of success.

Early in his second term as Twins GM Terry Ryan made a move that will endear him to Twins fans all over again, the acquisition of Ryan Doumit; whom he locked up to a 1 year $3 million deal. With Mauer’s health still uncertain his new backup will have Twins fans breathing a heavy sigh of relief, if only because it will save them having to watch Drew Butera’s horrendous struggles at the plate. While posting a line of 167/210/239 last year Butera was a constant source of frustration and a rightful scapegoat for a team that lacked depth across the roster.

While not possessing a strong defensive game and often succumbing to niggling injuries himself, Doumit’s 303/353/477 2011 line is a gargantuan improvement from the anemic Butera, while also allowing Ron Gardenhire a little more flexibility due to his versatility, having the ability to log time at catcher, in the outfield and at the corner infield positions.

If Mauer can stay healthy (a huge ‘if’ and ‘healthy’ meaning playing 130 games in 2012), catcher should be one of the Twins primary areas of strength. Twins fans everywhere will be hoping Mauer can return to his erstwhile status as one of the elite offensive catchers in the game and his perennial role as an on-base machine.

Welcome to Twins Baseball Clubhouse

Welcome to my blog!

I am a huge Minnesota Twins fan currently living in Michigan who loves nothing more than to talk baseball and specifically, Twins baseball. What better forum to explore that than an online blog. All this blog will be designed to do is to provoke discussion and gather as much opinion as possible from all and any Twins fans out there all across the country.

Hopefully this will end up containing all kinds of articles that focus on Twins past and present, as well as the current crop of talent in the clubs various minor-league organizations and the most important topic of all; the expectations Twins fans can have given their current roster for the forthcoming 2012 season.

Examining the Current Roster

The first order of business would seem to be examining the Twins current roster as it stands with a view to analyzing whether it will be competitive in 2012 an increasingly difficult AL Central.