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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Zumaya Done for the Year

The Twins announced today that Joel Zumaya is done for the season after tearing his ulnar collateral elbow ligament. While the time it took Zumaya (1 bullpen session) to be done for the year is almost comical, this should come as no surprise to Twins fans.

GM Terry Ryan is expected to address the media regarding Zumaya on Monday. Zumaya's latest career setback throws an already inexperienced and iffy Twins bullpen into further uncertainty and it will be interesting to see which Twins relievers can step up during spring training and grasp a spot in a bullpen race that has been thrown wide open.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Central Showdown - Catcher

Over the next few weeks, I thought it might be fun to break down the AL Central position by position ranking from top to bottom the best and worst that the division has to offer. Obviously some of these position battles are going to be divisive but I will do my best to justify my rankings as I go. As with all predictions and blogging, I am always happy to be proven wrong. Today we will start at catcher; I will be ranking from best to worst 1-5 for each position.

1. Carlos Santana – Indians

I realize that this may immediately alienate Twins fans from continuing to want to read this list! But hear me out. The difficulty with this kind of ranking is so many players in the central (particularly with the Twins) have question marks concerning their health.

In his first full big league season Santana broke out the power bat in a big way, bashing 27 HR and managing a decent .359 OBP despite his miserable .239 BA (mainly thanks to walking in approximately 15% of his PA, wow!) Santana suffered from a miserable .263 BaBIP in 2011 so with work in improving plate discipline by cutting down on strikeouts and improving contact, his average should rise in 2012. Don’t be surprised if he comes close to 30/100 with an average closer to .275. Defensively Santana threw out right on the league average of 28% of potential base stealers and despite being a slightly below average fielder (Rfield -4 in 2011), his offensive skill set should lead him to become the best power hitting catcher in baseball in 2012.

2. Joe Mauer – Twins

The primary reason Mauer was not ranked number one on this particular list is the questions surrounding his health from 2011. While Mauer has reported to camp completely healthy, you can never be too careful. The acquisition of Ryan Doumit will be crucial for keeping Mauer’s bat in the lineup as much as possible.

Simply put, when Mauer is healthy, he has one of the sweetest swings in baseball. Despite a power outage since the Twins moved to Target field after his MVP season in 2010, Mauer is one of the league’s elite hitters. Through 9 major league seasons Mauer owns a slash line of .323/.401/.471, averages 96 runs scored, 15 HR and 90 RBI. Mauer own a career WAR of 40.3 and throws out an average of 35% of base runners. Mauer received a brutal backlash from Twins fans last season in the wake of being paid $23 million for the first of 8 seasons in his mega-pact with the Twins and only managing to take the field for 82 games. This simply speaks to how critical Mauer is to the Twins chances of success and how high a standard and expectation he has set for himself. If the Twins follow the Indians blueprint with Santana, moving him to DH and 1B to give his body the rest it needs, expect that monster average and OBP to return and a lot of runs to be scored, with or without the power stroke.

 3. Alex Avila – Tigers

Tiger’s fans might feel hard done by seeing Avila at number three on the list, especially after a season that had the Tigers catcher receiving some MVP recognition. The truth is, Avila was pretty lucky in 2011. Avila’s BaBIP jumped to a ridiculous .366 last season after having averaged .293 in the previous two. Avila’s average should come back down to earth this season to the tune of something around .270. Avila has a solid power stroke, with an ISO of .211 in 2011, walks a ton – (73 times last year), and strikes out a ton – 131 times last year. Avila threw out an excellent 32% of base stealers in 2011 and has improved his skills defensively behind the plate. Unfortunately for Avila, he plays at a position at which the AL Central is loaded. He will need a repeat performance of 2011 to be considered one of the games elite catchers.

4. Salvador Perez – Royals

Assuming that Salvador Perez picks up from where he left off in his excellent September call-up he could well be the Royals opening day catcher. In 148 big league ABs Perez managed a .331 average with 3 HR and a decent .361 OBP along the way. Similarly to Avila, Perez benefited from a bloated .362 BaBIP and 2011 was his first season playing above the A level minor league ball. Perez has suffered from a lack o plate discipline in his 5 minor league seasons (managing only 71 walks over that entire span) as well as striking out a little too much. This should lead Royals fans to temper their expectations of Perez going forward this season, particularly with regard to his batting average. If he can remain somewhat consistent he should get plenty of playing time to exhibit the decent pop in his stroke and with the sub-par Brayan Pena being his most significant challenger, he will have every opportunity to earn the Royals everyday job.

5. A. J. Pierzynski – White Sox

Most Twins fans can recall the aftermath of the 2003 season in which Pierzynski was traded away to the Giants in one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history, for a package that included Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser (who, aside from Carl Pavano, had some of the most questionable and entertaining facial hair in recent Twins history).

Since moving onto the White Sox in 2005, Pierzynski has been nothing but consistent. He typically racks up a line of .285/.325/.425, with 15 HR and 70 RBI. Pierzynski is beginning to show signs of age and at 35 has seen his power output decrease steadily over the last three seasons. The Twins 3rd round draft choice of 1994 draft has declined defensively, with a weak arm and a worsening ability in the field. Pierzynski is a fierce competitor and will continue to be a solid presence behind the plate, but his best days are far behind him.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Danny Valenca - Growing Pains

Danny Valencia is another Twin who suffered from over-inflated expectations in 2011. After an excellent debut in 2010 in which he contributed a .311/.351/.448 slash line to help guide the Twins to another AL Central title, Valencia struggled in his sophomore campaign eking out a tepid .246/.294/.383. Despite this decline, Valencia had some successes, leading the Twins in HR and playing in 154 games, a significant achievement given the constant nagging injuries that plagued the rest of the big league roster.

I have to admit I have a hard time liking Valencia, on the surface he is arrogant, which belies his status as a mediocre hitter and a horrible fielder. I wanted to look at his numbers from his rookie season to see if there were significant factors that contributed to his sophomore slump and what we can expect from him in 2012. Comparing some of Valencia’s numbers from 2010 and 2011 yield fascinating results; In 2010 Valencia had a monster BaBIP (batting average for balls in play) of .345, compared to a tough luck figure of only .275 in 2011. Below is a table that compares Valencia’s slash line from each of the last 2 seasons with what the average MLB hitter would contribute in the same ballpark. In other words lgBA represents the BA of an average MLB hitter whose home park is Target Field, similarly so with lgOBP and lgSLG.

Valencia BA
Valencia OBP
Valencia SLG

Clearly Valencia stacks up excellently against the rest of the league in his major league debut in 2010. Valencia falls below the adjusted league BA, OBP and SLG in 2011 but it is the OBP which is most concerning and severely limited his production. There are a number of factors that may have contributed to this.

Firstly, Valencia does not walk enough. He falls about 2% below the MLB average for BB/9, this may not seem like much, but equates to around 15 walks per season, a significant on base presence; this however, has been a statistic common to both of Valencia’s seasons in the big leagues. Valencia also has shorter plate appearances than the average MLB hitter. On average over his first two seasons, Valencia has seen 3.68 pitches per PA, compared with 3.82 for the average MLB player. While this may seem like an infinitesimal difference it equates to about 100 extra pitches over the course of the season. 

2012 will be an important year for Danny Valencia
Valencia has begun to develop more patience at the plate, increasing his walk rate from 2010 to 2011 as well as seeing more 2-0 and 3-0 counts than the average MLB hitter. If Valencia is getting himself in more and more of these excellent counts and beginning to walk more, what else could have contributed to his regression (besides a crashing BaBIP)? It is interesting to see what Valencia does when he is in these hitter’s counts. On average Valencia swung at less first pitches, had significantly more strikes looking than the average hitter and struck out looking 5% more than the average MLB hitter. Valencia only swung at 67% of the strikes he saw, compared with a league average of 72%. Finally, Valencia fouled off 7% less of the strikes he saw than an average MLB hitter. All of these statistics make me question two things, the quality of Valencia’s eye at the plate and his timing.

It seems that what we have seen from Valencia is an increased ability to get in solid ‘hitters’ counts followed by an extreme defensiveness at the plate. His ability to get in situations where he can get a good pitch to hit seems to be offset by an inability to get consistently excellent contact on pitches. Valencia suffers from a below average line drive rate and a significantly above average % of fly balls that fall in the infield. Valencia it seems needs to work on his approach at the plate to continue to increase his ability to manipulate counts, build on his increased BB/9 from 2011 and exert a more controlled aggression in hitter’s counts. Valencia is a right handed pull hitter well-suited to the confines of Target Field. Similarly to Alexi Casilla, a more measured aggression at the plate may serve him well. If he can work through these issues in spring Twins fans can expect Valencia to split the difference of his 2010 and 2011 campaigns.

Predicted Slash Line .270/.320/.390 18 HR 75 RBI

Now we have done enough looking back on 2011 it is time to look forward to 2012. The next few entries will be a series previewing the AL Central position by position, taking a look at who is primed for a big season and who will be in for big disappointment. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Last Man In? Jared Burton

The Twins are taking a slightly different approach to spring training this year, scheduling an extra three days of workouts prior to their March 3rd opener against the Rays. This increased workload will allow the Twins a few more days to work on fundamentals after showing incredibly poor defense and consistently committing rudimentary errors throughout the 2011 season. The Twins are also bringing more players to camp this year in order to create a sense of urgency surrounding jobs on the big league roster. Among these are 26 non-roster invitees, including 11 pitchers. Some of these, including Jason Bulger, Phil Dumatrait and Jared Burton have significant big league experience. Of the three, Burton seems perhaps the most likely to compete for one of the final few Twins bullpen spots available.

Burton was originally drafted by the Oakland Athletics in 2002 (8th round) but was selected by the Reds in the 2006 Rule 5 draft. Burton has had a recent history of injuries including shoulder inflammation and a variety of muscle strains, managing only 8 innings in the last 2 big league seasons. Despite this, Burton fits the mold of what the Twins are looking for in a solid bullpen addition. Over 5 major league seasons Burton has managed a ERA of 3.41 (.397 FIP), WHIP of 1.325, struck out 143 in 169 innings and held opposition hitters to an average of .237, solid numbers for a middle of the bullpen arm.

Jared Burton may be a dark horse for a bullpen spot this spring.
A look at Burton’s velocity shows a fastball that sits in the low to mid 90s and a decent looking slider. Burton should thrive in Target Field. In 5 seasons in hitter friendly Great American Ball Park Burton was exceptionally good at keeping the ball inside the park, 0.7 HR/9, has a solid whiff rate of 7.6 SO/9 and while the amount of free passes he issues has been consistently high 3.9 BB/9 an improved Twins defense should help him limit the damage his lack of control may cost him.

Burton also appears to have some deception to his delivery with only 5.8% of fly balls becoming HR (compared to the MLB average of 7.5%) as well as when healthy making opposing hitters watch his stuff go by, with a L/SO of 38% in 2008, compared to the MLB average of just 25%. If Burton has a solid spring he may seize an opportunity in an iffy and inexperienced Twins bullpen to see if he can replicate his solid big league numbers from the early part of his career. At this point, taking a flyer on Burton would be preferable to the perennially sub-par Alex Burnett, who has shown little to no growth over his first two MLB seasons, look out for Burton as a spring surprise.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bullpen Shape Pt 2

Lefty Specialist – Brian Duensing

With the rotation seemingly filled out with Pavano, Liriano, Baker, Blackburn and Marquis, Duensing seems destined for a return to the bullpen, where he has previously excelled. Thank goodness, Duensing was the definition of ineffective against right handed hitters last season, giving up an eye-popping .330 BA against and 20 HR in just 470 ABs. Looking back to 2010 where he primarily fulfilled the role he will in 2012 for the Twins, as a left handed specialist out of the bullpen, the southpaw had the number of most of the lefties he faced. In 2010 he held opposing lefties to just a .167 BA against and an OBP of just .217. A return to those numbers will be important for the Twins after the loss of Jose Mijares, who despite having various fitness and locker room problems had functioned effectively as the Twins lefty specialist since the departure of Dennys Reyes.

Longman – Anthony Swarzak

Swarzak is a prototypical long-man. He had a solid 2011 in which he posted an ERA of 4.32, showed good control 2.3 BB/9 and kept the ball inside the park, albeit at cavernous Target Field, 0.8 HR/9. These stats solidified Swarzak’s position in a weak Twins bullpen and as a possible spot starter. It will be interesting to see if he gets a shot at the rotation should Nick Blackburn consistently struggle again in 2012. If he does he will need to improve upon his 4.9 SO/9 to have any hope of holding down a starting job, especially with Liam Hendriks knocking on the door at AAA Rochester.

The Question Mark – Alex Burnett

Burnett is a frustrating piece of the Twins bullpen picture. He has solid stuff including a fastball that can reach the 93-94 mph range but the one thing he has proven in his first two big-league seasons is that he doesn’t know how to use it. Burnett has shown remarkable consistency in those two seasons, unfortunately for the Twins, it has been consistently bad. Between 2010 and 2011, Burnett has logged just under 100 innings, with a horrendous 1.48 WHIP, poor control 4 BB/9 and only an average ability to put hitters away 6.4 SO/9. Burnett is still the right side of 25 but this might be his last full-season to impress the Twins before they look in another direction for reliable bullpen arms. He can certainly throw; he has this season to show he can pitch too.

The Rest - 2 spots remaining

With 2 spots remaining this is perhaps the area Twins fans feel the most frustration with going into camp. There were a bevy of experienced and dependable righties on the free agent market this off-season (Dan Wheeler who was signed by the Indians to a minor league deal in particular is of note, as was the Dodgers Todd Coffey), however the Twins chose to let their internal options battle it out for the remaining spots. Let’s take a look at the possibilities.

Kyle Waldrop - 5.73 ERA and 1.48 WHIP over 11 IP in 2011
Lester Oliveros - 4.05 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP in 13 IP with the Twins in 2011 (nearly 5 BB/9 will do that!)
Scott Diamond - 5.08 ERA and a 1.74 WHIP in 39 IP with the Twins in 2011
Terry Doyle - 2.94 ERA and an excellent 1.18 WHIP in 422 minor league innings over the last 4 years. Doyle was the Twins Rule 5 draft selection this winter and will certainly go into camp with a chance at making the pen.

The Twins also have several non-roster invitees with big league experience, including Jason Bulger, Phil Dumatrait and Jared Burton. The Twins have certainly left their bullpen battle open-ended heading into spring, understandable given their performance last season. While they can expect to have at least a partial bounce back year after solidifying their defense this off-season, the front office may regret not grabbing one more veteran right handed arm to provide stability and leadership in an AL Central with increasingly formidable hitting.

Bullpen Shape Pt 1

The bullpen was a constant source of pain and humiliation for Twins fans last season, to deliver the point, with a bullet, the Twins bullpen was the worst in the Majors, with an ERA of 4.58, allowing opponents an average of .270 against them, striking out a pathetic 323 in 461 innings of work. The beleaguered corps also had a WHIP of 1.46, stuck out just 6.3 per 9 innings and was generally a shambles. Looking forward to 2012 both the personnel and performance of the pen is hard to predict, but the Twins, who have always prided themselves on excellent relief pitching, may witness a much more mediocre bullpen in 2012, with rebound years, increasing experience and some successful pickups.

Closer - Matt Capps

Few relievers have garnered the ire of Twins fans in the way Capps did last year. Truth be told, while he had a poor season, Twins fans were frustrated after his dominant 2010, particularly in the wake of Joe Nathan’s slow return to form after Tommy John surgery; and who can blame them? Capps went from an excellent 2.47 ERA to a Kevin Gregg-esque 4.25 in 2011. Interestingly his WHIP and BB/9 actually decreased, so why the drop-off? Capps K/9 fell from 7.3 in 2010 to a miserable 4.7 in 2012. Capps BaBIP was also an incredibly friendly .265 in 2011, compared to .317 in 2010. So what gives? Other than the strikeout decrease and a jump in the amount of HRs Capps surrendered in 2011, the only other figure that jumps out is his improved control. Capps walked just 4.7% of batter faced in 2011 (the MLB average is 8.5%); perhaps this increased strike zone presence (combined with Capps’ very average closer stuff) led to his massively down year. Look for a rebound from Capps, who may not hit the heights of 2010 but should split the difference of a stellar 10’ and a disappointing 11’.

LH Set-Up Man – Glen Perkins

Perkins was the highlight of the pen last year, having a breakout year and exhibiting simply dominant stuff consistently for the Twins. Despite petering out at the end of the season, he was simply outstanding. Perkins was simply nasty in 2011, striking out 65 in 61 innings in 2011, giving up just 0.3 home runs per 9 innings and holding opposing hitters to a batting average of just .244. Perkins was also a bright spot in a Twins bullpen generally incapable of striking out opposing hitters (Perkins made 25% of opposing hitter’s whiff last season, compared to the MLB average of just under 18%, elite stuff indeed). Perkins velocity was up significantly from 2010; look for a similarly outstanding contribution in 2012 with a man who may well be the next long-term solution at closer.

RH Set-Up Man – Joel Zumaya

Bringing Zumaya on board was a low-risk, high reward move by Terry Ryan. Zumaya offers an elite power arm, although he hasn’t been able to stay on the field since his rookie season of 2006. Zumaya was a beast his rookie season, with 10.5 SO/9, a WAR of 3.4 and holding opposing hitters to a .187 average. Since then he hasn’t managed more than 38 innings and despite logging solid numbers in fits and spurts, has failed to deliver the type of results both his arm and his stuff had promised. Zumaya could be an important power arm in the Twins bullpen in 2012 if healthy but Twins fans should temper their expectations in him becoming a late innings stabilizing force. Don’t be surprised if you see the headlines which must make Zumaya feel like he is stuck in Groundhog Day ‘Zumaya headed to the DL’, the chances are high.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Next Generation

La Velle E. Neal recently wrote an article in the StarTribune detailing which affiliates various Twins prospects will begin their seasons with. The free swinging pair of super studs Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario will begin their seasons at Low A Beloit, along with Twins 2011 1st round draft pick out of North Carolina Levi Michael. With Sano ranking as the number 23 prospect on Jonathon Mayo’s top 100 prospects list and with their being a strong case for Rosario making the list I thought it’d be fun to take a closer look at what the future may hold for the Twins infield.

In recent years, despite their success, the infield has been an area of constant flux for the Twins. Between Justin Morneau’s injury woes, an unreliable middle infield platoon and the 3B position being unstable since fan favorite Corey Koskie left for Milwaukee the idea of a prospect rich infield developing in the lower levels of the Twins minor league organization has Twins fans eagerly anticipating their big league arrival. Let’s take a look at these three in a little more detail.

Eddie Rosario (2B)

The only hitter who arguably out-performed Miguel Sano in the Appalachian league in 2011 was outfielder and now 2B Eddie Rosario. The 20 year old Puerto Rican was taken by the Twins in the 4th round of the 2010 draft. In 67 games at Elizabethton in 2011 Rosario was good for a line of 337/397/670 with 9 triples, 21 HR, 60 RBI and 17 SB to boot. Pause, breathe, and continue reading. While some don’t project Rosario to have nearly the upside of Sano, citing a ‘long swing with some considerable holes’ and expect a major drop off in 2012. If he can make a successful conversion to 2B, sure up his swing and build upon his excellent bat speed and other tools he could be an upside 2B, a position in demand, especially for an organization that has rarely had one.

Levi Michael (SS)

The Twins took Tar-Heel Michael with the 30th overall pick in last years amateur player draft, their first 1st round college position player since Travis Lee in 1996. The Twins typically spend their 1st round selections on college arms. Michael hit .309 in his college career as a switch hitter, hitting .297 with a .444 OBP his senior year despite battling several injuries. Michael also has some speed on the base-paths, successfully stealing 35 of 38 in his final two seasons in Chapel Hill. Michael is comfortable playing both middle infield positions, a versatility which the Twins will savor. While Michael has his limitations, including questionable range, he should develop into a solid gap hitter with a little more pop as he continues to get stronger. A switch hitting versatile middle infielder is always an excellent asset to a big league club and while Michael doesn’t have the raw tools of Rosario or Sano, he should be a solid addition to the new wave of infielders rising through the Twins ranks.

Miguel Sano (3B)

Sano should turn out to be the best of them all. He received a record $3 million signing bonus at the tender age of 16 in 2009 but it may turn out to be one of the best pieces of business the Twins have done in recent times. In his first shortened season at rookie-ball Elizabethton Sano blasted r-ball pitching for a line of 292/352/637, Bashing 20 HR and 59 RBI in just 66 games! Sano projects to hit for average as well as power when he increases his plate discipline and baseball IQ while having the glove and arm to man the hot corner and according to his upside projection from Mayo may be ‘bashing home runs as an all-star third baseman’. Clearly such projections are speculative for an 18 year but it is clear that in Sano the Twins have locked up a precocious talent at a position they have struggled to foster the talent to dominate in recent years.

The Twins hope Sano is their next superstar
It is difficult to speculate exactly how quickly these 3 prospects will rise through the Twins farm system or with what level of success. Having 3 solid infield prospects with major league potential is certainly comforting when considering recent years of constant and repetitive off-season discourse on how to plug the holes in the Twins sub-par infield. Keep an eye on them this season or better yet, visit the Snappers and watch three of the Twins more fascinating and exciting prospects try and earn their stripes on the same diamond.