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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Twins June Decisions

It has been a good week for the Twins, despite a blowout loss to the White Sox Friday night they finished up a successful 5-3 road trip which featured improved play all over the field and some outstanding individual performances, most notably P.J Walters complete game win in Chicago and Justin Morneau swinging a hot stick.

Despite this good run, the Twins are running into significant injury problems, with Carl Pavano missing his start Saturday and Nick Blackburn on the DL. Coupled with the loss of Jason Marquis (demoted due to ineffectiveness) times are desperate for the Twins pitching staff. The current rotation features Scott Diamond, Walters, Anthony Swarzak, and U of M graduate Cole De Vries, who despite possessing only limited stuff danced around a serious shellacking at the hands of the White Sox on Friday night.

Moving forward into June the Twins roster may undergo even more alterations as the trade deadline approaches and the Twins begin to set their roster and minor league systems up for 2013 and beyond. Most of the conjecture I have read has surrounded trading Denard Span, which is certainly still a possibility for teams looking for outfield help. Span has been consistent this year and provides a steadily high OBP at the top of any order as well as a solid base-running threat. For the development of their big league roster now and in the future however, the Twins would do well to try and avoid trading Span. The Twins have Span signed through 2014 with a $9 million option for the 2015 season and looking at that deal as a whole (5 years - $16.5 million) Span is signed to a team friendly contract which provides the Twins with plenty of financial flexibility, especially given the large proportion of the Twins payroll committed to Mauer and Morneau. Coupled with the fact that Span is still only 28, he is a player the Twins should continue to build around.

Looking at the Twins payroll for 2013 they will be working with approximately $ 90-100 million (so far this season, attendance is down around 5,000 per game) accounting for the potential drop of around $10 million from this years payroll. The Twins have two significant contract options to consider for 2013, Scott Baker and Matt Capps. Scott Baker has a $9.25MM option for 2013. Despite Terry Ryan’s comments after Baker’s season ending injury was announced in which he affirmed an expectation of seeing Baker in a Twins uniform in 2013 the club would do well to decline this option. Despite Baker’s outstanding numbers in 2011 before he was shelved late in the season, he is far too fragile to commit that amount of money to on a team that will likely be far from competing next season. Capps will be an interesting decision; he has a $6MM option for 2013 with a 250K buyout. Capps has performed well this season, especially in save situations and with the sheer amount of major injuries to significant closers this season (see Rivera, Madson, Soria) Capps may become trade bait for a fringe playoff team seeking mid-season relief help.

Will Capps remain a Twin throughout the 2012 season?
Carl Pavano will be one of the Twins significant free agents at the end of 2012. If nothing else, Pavano has provided stability, if not excellence for the Twins rotation over the last few seasons. Despite a low strikeout rate and average ERA and WHIP, if Pavano can stay healthy and keep his ERA in the low 4s through June, the Twins could seek to trade him to a team needing pitching help at the bottom of their rotation. The X-factor in the Twins free agent pool for 2013 is Francisco Liriano, who has shown limited improvement since his demotion to the Twins bullpen. If Liriano can re-remerge successfully into the Twins rotation he may also be moved before the trade deadline. That would perhaps be the best-case scenario for the Twins as since his excellent 2010 season Liriano has not shown he is capable of maintaining his status as an elite major league pitcher.

The Twins position in the upcoming draft will undoubtedly be one of the keys to rebuilding an ailing franchise. In the meantime the front office needs to start making some bold decisions to weed out the occasional bad contract, free up some payroll, bring in prospects where possible and begin catalyzing the transition from a struggling franchise to one that has the young arms capable of making them a contender again in the next five years.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Comerica Adventures

I went to see the Twins at Comerica Park yesterday 5/16/12. It says something about the poorness of this team that through yesterday’s game, I had attended 5.5% of their games this season (just 2) and seen close to 20% of their victories (also 2)! Wednesday night’s game was one of the strangest and most compelling games I have ever been to, so I felt compelled to report.

First off, if you haven’t been to Comerica Park, it is a pretty great stadium, nice layout, good views all round. Never let anyone hear you say Tigers owner Mike Illitch is not a savvy businessman. The Tigers fans are slowly paying off Price Fielder’s fat $190 million contract, one extra dollar on all concessions this season at a time.

The Tigers defense was absolutely awful, their entire infield committing errors in the first 3 innings of the game. Combined with some timely hitting, this spotted the Twins to a 2-1 lead after one. In the top of the second Brian Dozier crushed a Rick Porcello pitch into the left field seats for a three run HR. At that point I couldn’t help myself, 35 games of 2012 season misery briefly washed away for me in a split second; I stood up and applauded loudly. My celebration was greeted with the kind of reaction you might expect and it totally deserved, I was quickly back in my seat, but I couldn’t help feeling good. The Twins (and Tigers ineptitude) had spotted Blackburn to a 5-1 lead. Surely with the pressure off, even against a powerful lineup, he could make this a quality start. Wrong. I mean dead wrong.

Not only did Blackburn surrender his lead, he gave it up, in the very next half inning as Detroit plated 5 runs on a walk, five straight singles and a sac fly. I was mortified. Blackburn has always been someone I have struggled to like. It seemed that he always went through brief periods of competence followed by long stretched of ineptitude. His 8.37 ERA and 1.77 WHIP this season says it all. Blackburn’s post-game thoughts were the final nail in his coffin for me. ‘They weren’t crushing balls, I was still making fairly quality pitches, they were just able to do whatever they had to do, that’s a good lineup over there’. That sounds like a long expiring list of excuses to me. Firstly, I don’t agree with the notion of a fairly quality pitch. Even if it boils down to good hitting, a pitch that doesn’t result in an out isn’t a quality enough pitch. I wish Blackburn would take some responsibility for his performance; his ‘they have a good lineup’ line just doesn’t cut it in the big leagues. There are (in my estimation) currently 10 good AL hitting lineups. For want of a better expression, ‘give it a rest Blackburn’! In 5 of his last 7 starts he has given up 5 ER or more, in his last 7 starts he has gone 6 innings or more just 3 times, currently he is simply not good enough for a major league roster. To compound his abject performance, Jeff Gray relieved him in the 3rd and got through 2 scoreless innings in 12 pitches, before giving up 1 ER to the heart of the Tigers lineup and inducing 4 ground balls among his 7 outs, exactly Blackburn’s MO.

I did have a Trevor Plouffe hitting .100 watch planned for my blog but the last two games he has made me eat my words, long may his mini-hot streak continue. Jokes aside, is was great to see the Twins play good fundamental baseball and get consistent excellence from their bullpen for a good win, even against a poor performance from the Tigers.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Revisiting the Johan Santana Trade

We all remember the (much happier) Twins team built around names such as Joe Nathan, Tori Hunter and two-time Cy Young award winner Johan Santana. Although difficult to accept, the then small market Twins would inevitably trade Santana in order to regain some value for him rather than assuredly losing him to a free-agent market lining up to sign the premier starter on the market in 2008

Speculation was rife leading up to Santana’s trade, would the Twins be able to secure a then top prospect pitching ace in the making such as Jon Lester from the Red Sox or Phil Hughes from the Yankees. Knowing that Santana would eventually hit the free agent market, neither of the AL East powerhouse franchises bit on letting go of their then top prospects. The Twins turned to Queens and traded Santana to the Mets for a package that included Carlos Gomez, Kevin Mulvey, Phil Humber and Deolis Guerra.

What an ugly trade it turned out to be. Carlos Gomez played out a few uneventful seasons as the Twins on again off again center fielder, punctuated by highlight reel plays in the outfield and a memorable playoff sealing run in game 163 of the 2009 season against the Tigers. Mulvey, a former 2nd round pick of the Mets, last pitched in the majors for the Diamondbacks in 2010 and currently holds a 4.91 ERA at the Mets AA affiliate at Binghamton. Phil Humber, himself a number 3 overall pick in 2004 was quickly let go of by the Twins after consistently struggling and picked up by the Royals and eventually the White Sox. He had a descent 2011 season but despite throwing a perfect game against the Mariners in the early going in 2012, has largely struggled his way to a 6.83 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 27.2 IP. Wow, this is like the anti Pierzynski to San Francisco trade! But what about Guerra?

In 2007 Guerra was a super raw lanky 18 year old the Mets originally signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela. Indeed, Guerra’s raw ability was so promising Baseball Prospectus rated him the #35 prospect in MLB prior to the 2008 season. Fast forward five year and Guerra has filled out. Now 6’5 and 245 lbs, his dominance is beginning to match his imposing physicality. After struggling mightily in 2010 and 2011 with AAA Rochester and AA New Britain respectively, Guerra is putting it together so far this season. Starting the season at New Britain, Guerra was quickly promoted after giving up just 1 ER in 12.2 IP, having a WHIP of 0.474 and overpowering hitters to the tune of a 10.7 SO/9. 

Guerra has shown no sign of slowing down in the early going at AAA Rochester. In 9 IP, Guerra has yet to give up a run, surrendering just 6 hits, good for a WHIP of 0.778 and maintaining an excellent 10 SO/9. Guerra’s has held opposing hitters to a paltry .119 BA at AA New Britain and a still dominant .188 at AAA Rochester.

Looking at some of Guerra’s advanced metrics and his stuff yields just as impressive results. He has maintained a FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 1.66 at AA and 1.98 at AAA Rochester. Guerra’s velocity has receded slightly since he was a talented raw 17 year old, but his fastball still hits in the low 90s and can reach back for mid-90s heat. Guerra also has a plus slider and an excellent biting curve and has been working on developing his change up. If his early performance this year is any indication, expect to see Guerra in a Twins uniform if any member of the bullpen starts to consistently struggle. Given the Twins rough start to the season, it’s great to see at least one young arm that has the potential to succeed at the big league level.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dire Straits

Things have gone from bad to worse for the Twins in the last week or so. Being no-hit by Jered Weaver and one-hit by King Felix and the Mariners bullpen, while frustrating are simply two more losses in a season that is quickly spiraling out of control for the Twins. The team currently sits at 7-19, a full four games behind the next worse team in the AL and there is no reason to believe things will get better in the coming weeks.

Justin Morneau has hit the DL due to the reemergence of a wrist issue that required surgery in the off-season. To compensate the Twins will call-up Rochester prospect Brian Dozier. There was talk of Dozier making to big-league club out of spring training after impressing with both bat and glove. His hot start carried over into the beginning the season at Rochester but has since slowed down and is hitting just .250 in his last ten AAA games.

The Twins also announced that they will recall Scott Diamond in an effort to improve their consistently struggling pitching. In six starts this season Diamond has pitched himself to a 4-1 record with a 2.60 ERA and 26 strikeouts through 34.2 innings pitched. Despite this hot start there is little reason to believe Diamond will be able to carry this over into the big leagues and I don’t think he will represent much of an improvement over the current Twins starting rotation. Diamond was given some experience at the big league level. In 39 innings pitched in 2011 Diamond was 1-5 with a 5.08 ERA and a WHIP of 1.74. Diamond managed just 4.4 SO/9 at the big league level – hardly the overpowering stuff the Twins rotation so sorely lacks.

With the Twins 7.5 games back after a month of the season, May will be a critical month for the 2012 club. After Sunday’s rubber game against the Mariners, the Twins will play 15 of their next 23 games at Target field, against slightly less tough opposition than their brutal opening month schedule. If the Twins continue to struggle expect the house cleaning to begin. By the all-start break the Twins roster could look significantly different with certain players becoming trade bait for teams in need. Denard Span is a name who has been mentioned and after his strong start may well find himself in a different uniform by the trade deadline. The Twins have to be careful if they pursue this route as Span is signed to a team friendly 4 year deal, the Twins need to acquire good value in areas of need for the organization, something that was sorely lacking in trades carried out in the Bill Smith era. Between potential forthcoming trades and excellent draft position this year, the Twins have a great opportunity to begin strengthening a mediocre farm system and build for the future.