Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hindsight 20/20: Aaron Hicks

It's easy to second-guess things now right? Aaron Hicks, after lighting things up during Spring Training and landing the starting center-fielder job, is now in about as deep of a funk as a player can have. After last night's game in which Hicks went 0-for-5 with 3 more Ks, there really isn't any direction he can go but up. Wanna see a bad stat line?

2 hits in 35 ABs
16 strikeouts, 2 walks
.165 OPS

To put things into perspective a little bit - Hicks has put 19 baseballs into play so far this season (7 groundballs, 10 flyballs and 2 line drives)...and he's struck out 16 times. According to FanGraphs - Hicks' contact % when he swings at pitches that are in the strike zone is 80.0% and for comparison, Drew Butera had a 89.7% contact rate on pitches in the strike zone during his Twins career (Mauer's lifetime average is 93.2%). When Hicks swings at a pitch that's outside the strike zone, his contact percentage drops to a miserable 55.6%. In over 75% of Aaron Hicks' at-bats this year, he's had a first pitch strike meaning that he's been down 0-1 in most of his at-bats so far this year (7th highest percentage in the Majors right now among qualified hitters).

I point all this out because what's been most surprising to me about Hicks' at-bats is his lack of plate discipline. This is a guy who had a 3:4 BB/K ratio in the Minors and that showed in his career .379 OBP...he has a good eye at the plate, but he's not using it. Even in spring training, Hicks only struck out 16 times in 22 games.

Another thing that baffles me is why Ron Gardenhire continues to bat Hicks at the top of the lineup. Why not drop him down to the bottom of the lineup and see if that takes a little of the pressure off of the 23-year-old rookie?? It can't be because of Hicks' speed -- because that is an asset he isn't able to use unless he starts getting on-base a little bit. Hicks leads the Major Leagues in outs-made (34) for crying out him an extra at-bat per game isn't even what's best for the team.

I realize it's easy to say "I told you so" and "hindsight is 20/20" and all that - but really, this is an experiment the Twins should not have embarked on in the first place. Instead of letting Hicks start the year at Triple-A and continue his development, the organization decided to put Hicks in high-pressure situation where the chances of failure were high. As it stands, they've lost a year of contract control on their young center-fielder and he may end up having to go back to Triple-A anyway. I don't know how much longer the Twins coaches and front-office are going to give this kid, but my guess is that it isn't going to be long, especially after reading today that they might be kicking the tires on Julio Bourbon out of the Rangers organization. I get it that sometimes rookies struggle a bit - but there's a difference between struggling and being vastly over-matched and Aaron Hicks falls into the ladder category.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A .500 Team?

After a pretty good weekend which saw the hometown club win 3 out of 4 against divisional rival Kansas City, the Twins are now 33-45 and 8.5 games behind the division-leading Chicago White Sox. The Twins' record still doesn't look pretty, but I'm here to tell you that it's not as bad as it looks. Since May 1st, the Twins have gone 27-29 thanks in large part to an offensive that has been out-producing some pretty horrible starting pitching.

Aside from Joe Mauer, the offensive production has come from a couple of unexpected performers in the likes of Josh "Hammer" Willingham and Trevor "Plouffda" Plouffe who both seem to have made it their mission to lead the team in homeruns this year. In yesterday's game against KC, both Willingham and Plouffe went deep and Trevor managed to have the upper hand at the end of the day, hitting two bombs in a 10-8 Twins' win. On the scorecard, Plouffe leads the team in HRs with 18 and Willingham is one back at 17 (Morneau is a distant 3rd place with 10 homeruns so far this season). In only 59 games so far this season, Plouffe has managed to rack up 31 RBI and 35 Runs and has asserted himself in the middle of what has become a very formidable lineup for the Twins. The 3, 4, 5, and 6 hitters for the Twins are Mauer (.324/.414/.445) and then some combination of Willingham, Morneau, Plouffe and Doumit, all of whom bring some thunder (or at least the potential for it) to the plate with them.

Getting back to the pitching; after owning an MLB-worst 5.64 team ERA in April, the staff as a whole has been slowly improving. In May the team ERA dropped to 4.96 and in June it dropped again to a mildly respectable 4.33 mark. Twins' starters have improved quite a bit as well. After posting a miserable 6.75 ERA in April, they posted a 5.74 mark in May and improved again in June with a 5.09 ERA collectively. A 5.00+ ERA is still pretty brutal, but at least they are moving in the right direction. It's possible that the Twins could get Carl Pavano back towards the middle or end of this month and I have a feeling that Nick Blackburn will begin to figure out his issues and start to pitch better as well. It would be hard to get much worse than his current 7.74 ERA...

With 4 teams ahead of them in the standings, it's impossible HIGHLY unlikely that the Twins will be contending for anything come September, but I think that over their past 50+ games, the Twins have shown that they are at least capable of competing on a night-in, night-out basis. It's been good to see some of the youngsters like Plouffe, Scott Diamond, Cole DeVries and Ben Revere step up. The result has been much more watchable than last year's 99-loss team and gives me a little more hope going forward. The only thing I hope this recent success doesn't lead to is hesitation on the part of the front-office to make the trades they need to make. Despite being "only" 8.5 games back in the standings, the Twins still need to be sellers and with players like Span, Willingham, and Liriano performing well of late, the team has some decent trade-bait to dangle out there.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Remembering a Good Man: Dark Star

I don't know how the news escaped me, but it wasn't until yesterday that I heard of Dark Star's passing. By now I've had time to process it - I've watched the tribute videos out there, listened to the interviews with people who knew him, and taken time to remember what I liked so much about Dark Star's evening radio program on WCCO back in the day.

My tribute needs a little bit of back story. When I was growing up, my parents decided (rightfully so) that TV had little to offer young they got rid of it. From the time I was 9 or 10 years old, there was no functional TV in the house. So what did I do? I bought myself a little handheld radio and immediately fell in love with the AM dial. It took me no time at all to find The Good Neighbor (WCCO for those of you not familiar with MN radio) which, at the time, was a mostly-sports/news station. They were the home of the Twins, they had radio personalities like Steve Cannon, Dark Star, Tim Russell, Dave Lee (still there), and everyone's favorite weatherman, Mike Lynch. My bedtime as a kid was usually sometime between 7pm and 8pm which afforded me a good amount of time to listen to Dark Star's show.

I liked his irreverence, I liked his optimistic attitude, I liked the way he joked around with everyone. I admired the way he handled people who didn't like him. I liked that he was respectful of those who disagreed with them. I liked it that he knew when to be serious, but never took himself too seriously. I liked that he was unpredictable. There was no doubt that he was a diehard Twins and Vikings fan. Truth be told, he put me to sleep a lot of nights - not in a bad way - and usually I went to bed smiling.

In watching the interviews with people who worked closely with Dark, you can tell he was a well liked guy. Paul Allen broke down when he was interviewed, Reusse wrote a very nice tribute to his fallen friend, hell, even the guy at Canterbury Park was distraught. I guess its in seeing the real emotion in those who knew him that lets me know that his personality wasn't just a radio thing - its a tribute to him that those he knew closely are so affected by his passing. I don't live in Minnesota anymore so I haven't been able to listen to him for awhile, but I will miss tuning in to hear him when I visit. Rest in Peace, Dark Star, and thank you for what you brought to sports talk radio.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Seeing the Future

I had the pleasure, this Memorial Day, to take in a Kane County Cougars game here in the Chicagoland area and was pleasantly surprised to find that their opponent today was the Twins' Single-A affiliate Beloit Snappers of the Midwest League. I had nice seats, 3 rows from the field on the 3rd base side and witnessed a donnybrook of a game; a 41-hit, 24-run affair that featured 2 homeruns, 4 errors and a total of 11 different pitchers.

It was a hot one at Fifth-Third Bank Stadium today (95 degrees) but that didn't scare away the fans which included many families out there enjoying some Minor League Baseball. The wind was blowing straight out and the players came to the park with their good bats. It was 5-4 Snappers by end of the 3rd inning and the two teams played see-saw until the bottom of the 9th when Cougar Orlando Calixte hit a 2-run HR to left field which tied the game up at 9 a piece. The two bullpens then pitched a couple of scoreless innings each before the Snappers blew it wide open in the top of the 12th, plating 6 runs, capped off by a monstrous center-field moonshot off the bat of Miguel Sano, his 12th of the season. I'm telling you, this homerun hit off the top of the scoreboards in center, he absolutely mauled it.

One cool sidebar from the game: a row in front of us and a few seats down was a kid sitting with his dad. He was wearing a Yankees hat, but as the game went on I noticed that he was rooting for the Snappers. Eventually he and I realized that we were both cheering for the road-team and for the rest of the game I had a cheering buddy. Every time the Snappers would do something good, he would look over and give me a thumbs-up. It was cute. When I left I gave him a high-five and a "Go Twins".

Getting back to Sano, he was pretty unimpressive for most of the game. Up until his HR in the 12th he was 0-for-6 and committed an error at 3rd. His body type reminds me of Hanley Ramirez. He has a big athletic figure, but he also has speed evidenced in the game by a close play at 1st when he grounded to the shortstop. I knew that he had been slumping of late at the plate so I didn't have a whole lot of expectations but was very happy to see him hit a homerun. A couple of other players that caught my eye were Eddie Rosario (2B) and Adam Pettersen (SS) who went 3-for-7 in the game with a triple, 3 runs and an RBI. He has good energy and though he is small, he has a quick bat and plays a decent shortstop. In looking at his numbers on Baseball-Reference he doesn't have a very impressive resume and lacks any real power, but he's only 23 years old and has good energy. I know that last remark isn't all that informative but hey, I only saw one game.

Pitching-wise there was nothing all that impressive. Snappers starter Matt Summers pitched pretty well (5IP, 4R, 1ER, 7H, 8K, 1BB) but didn't look overpowering or as dominating as those 8Ks would suggest. His fastball looked to be topping out at about 92mph. After having himself a nice season in Rookie ball last year, he has failed to translate that success into the Single-A level, carrying a 4.21 ERA into the game with a paltry 5.1 K/9 ratio.

All in all, it was a great time. If you haven't had a chance to see some Minor League baseball, I highly recommend it. It's very family-friendly stuff and it's cool to see players like Sano and Rosario who might make it to the Bigs one day. Kinda like getting a glimpse of the future...or at least the potential that the future may hold.

Sano "The Future" in the foreground, Rosario in the background.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A History Lesson: Twins Pitching - Draft Edition

I was scanning through boxscores this morning, pausing on the boxscore of the Twins' latest defeat and suddenly I had a particular curiosity. After writing yesterday about how an organizational change in philosophy is needed, I thought, "besides the Twins current lot of mediocre pitchers, who else is out there that has come through the Minor League system with the club...what have been their results?" As I compiled the list, with the the help of some of my twitter followers (@KirbysLeftEye, @Robert_Short, @trtx84, @thisisbeth, and @SethTweets), another question became rather obvious...what has the Twins farm system really produced in the way of pitching in the last 10-15 years?

The list of home-grown Twins pitchers, excluding anyone on the current roster, is actually fairly short...shorter than I thought it would be. I didn't differentiate between starters or relievers, the only requirement was that the pitcher had to have come up (more or less) through the Twins farm system and had to have reached the Majors at some point in their career. Here's the list:

*Matt Garza - currently a starting pitcher for the Cubs
*Jose Mijares - currently a reliever for the Royals
*Kevin Slowey - currently in the Minor League system for the Indians
*Jesse Crain - currently a reliever for the White Sox (on the DL)
*Pat Neshek - currently in the Minor League system for the Orioles
*J.C. Romero - currently a reliever for the Cardinals
*LaTroy Hawkins - currently a reliever for the Angels
*Kyle Lohse - currently a starting pitcher for the Cardinals
*Grant Balfour - currently the closer for the Athletics

**Notable names missing from this list include Johan Santana (a Rule 5 selection who only spent one year in the Twins Minor League system), Matt Guerrier (taken off waivers from the Pirates in 2003), and Carlos Silva (came over in the Eric Milton trade).

Here's another list - of pitchers the Twins have drafted in the first or second round since 2000 (source):

2000 - Adam Johnson, Aaron Heilman, J.D. Durbin
2001 - Scott Tyler
2002 - Jesse Crain
2003 - Scott Baker
2004 - Glen Perkins, Kyle Waldrop, Matt Fox, Jay Rainville, Anthony Swarzak
2005 - Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey
2006 -
2007 -
2008 - Carlos Gutierrez, Shooter Hunt
2009 - Kyle Gibson, Matt Bashore, Billy Bullock
2010 - Alex Wimmers
2011 - Hudson Boyd, Madison Boer

When you look at that list, one thing should pop out to you and that is this fact: the Twins have not produced even ONE big-league pitcher drafted within the first two rounds of the draft in the past 6 years. The last couple of draft classes excluded (for obvious reasons) the Twins have only drafted ONE pitcher in the first two rounds who even stands a decent chance to be a Major Leaguer and that is Kyle Gibson who is currently on the DL after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. Since 2006, the Twins have drafted only two pitchers anywhere in the draft who have reached the Majors: Jeff Manship (14th round, 2006) and Anthony Slama (39th round, 2006), both of whom are currently pitching for AAA Rochester.

Maybe suggesting that the Twins need an "organizational change in philosophy" is putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps what really is needed is a change in the methods (or the personnel) that this team uses to scout young talent. (Side note: It's interesting when you take a look at the tenures of the current members in the Twins scouting department. Deron Johnson, the Twins current Director of Scouting started in 2007, the same year Bill Smith took over as GM.) To be fair, most other teams in MLB have only had a small handful of pitchers drafted in '06-'11 reach the Majors, but the Twins currently have zero. Another thing to point out here is the hit-or-miss nature of drafting's like drafting a starting quarterback in the NFL. Unless you're looking at a Stephen Strasburg type who is clearly a big-league commodity when drafted, it's difficult to project what a pitcher's potential will be 2-5 years down the line when they finally make it to the Big Leagues. That said, prior to 2006 the Twins did have some success drafting pitchers which bore fruit in the likes of Scott Baker, Glen Perkins, Matt Garza, Jesse Crain and Kevin Slowey - all of whom had at least a good season or two with the Major League club. Perkins is currently the best reliever in the Twins bullpen and Matt Garza has had some very good numbers for the Cubs over the last two seasons and tossed a no-hitter in 2010 with the Rays. They've shown the ability to identify good talent, at least at some point in the past, but that ability appears to have waned...or flat out disappeared.

I'd love to hear what you readers think - also, let me know if I left anyone out of the first list above.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Move the Twins Can Make Now

My fandom for this team is wavering - I can admit it. In March I was optimistic that the Twins could put the 2011 disaster behind them and have a respectable season, hell maybe even a winning season. It is now clear that my 'rose-colored glasses' were on and those glasses now lay broken in pieces on the ground. Reality is a bitch sometimes. After watching historic offensive ineptitude over the last 5 games, watching the team get no-hit and swept by the Angels and handled easily by the lowly Mariners, it's getting to the point where I can't follow this team on a daily basis any longer. I'm not going to stop being a fan - it just hurts too much to continue watching day after day. All that said, I think it's time that the Twins front-office took a realistic look at things. This team isn't going to win anything this year...and likely won't be winning anything next year either. The current team in inept on a number of levels with too many holes to address all at once. So, knowing that the mountain lay in front of you, first steps need to be taken and taken soon. The first thing I would do is see what you can get for Matt Capps.

There are a number of teams right now with struggling and/or injured Closers. Potential teams that would be looking for a closer include: Yankees, Marlins, Nationals, Blue Jays, Angels, Red Sox, Athletics, Giants, and on and on. Trading for Matt Capps was the beginning of the fall for the Twins and dealing him now could be the beginning of the healing process. I know that not all of the teams I mentioned above are going to be interested in an overweight closer with a suspect history of success in the 'Closer' role, but surely there must be a team or two out there who could be duped into giving up a prospect or two for the 28-year-old right-hander, just as the Twins were 2 years ago. The bottom-line is that the Twins aren't really going to need Capps and there is currently a lot of potential demand for someone with his experience. Not only that, you clear the remainder of his $4.5M salary off the books.

There are other players the Twins could trade. Denard Span, Carl Pavano and Josh Willingham come to mind. None are more useless to this team, however, than the portly Capps. The Twins have a strained bullpen already, but with the way the starters have pitched it doesn't really make sense to hold on to a guy like Capps given the closer situations on so many other teams. The Twins have to start turning the ship around by rebuilding their depleted Minor League system and that happens by trading expendable talent like Capps.

Beyond trading Capps, this organization needs to take some serious time in thinking about their philosophies towards pitching and hitting. The "pitch-to-contact" philosophy that has now become the punch-line to jokes when referring to the Twins, is obviously flawed. Without good defense to back up these types of pitchers, the results are bound to be disastrous. From an offensive standpoint, the brass seem to put an emphasis on the elusive concept of "team speed" but a) poorly utilize the speed they do have and b) don't understand that "team speed" and winning don't correlate very well. The teams that are successful have a balance between "power" and "finesse". They have the boppers who can hit one out at any moment and they have the scrappy singles and doubles hitters who can pester the opponent with speed. They have power arms and they have control pitchers. They don't get stuck trying to hoard one type of pitcher or hitter. They put a high value on players whose strengths translate into winning matter the particular way in which they go about it.

I want to be optimistic about this team, but Twins fans, I'm afraid we're in for a few years of losing baseball before things get better. There are a lot of factors, both internally and externally, working against this team. The division has gotten better. The Twins minor league system has some talent, but that talent is currently at the A and AA levels and is not nearing maturity to the Bigs. The current squad of big-league talent isn't that good. Payroll will continue to shrink as attendance wanes. The Twins don't have much to offer in the form of trade-bait. In summary, this team needs Terry Ryan's savvy more than ever, to dig out of a hole that has quickly gotten very deep.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Time for Joe to Go?

I know it's 'in vogue' to call for the head of the hitting coach when things are going badly. I'm hardly the first and if things keep going like this for the Twins (6 runs in 4 games) more and more people will jump on that bandwagon. The fact of the matter is that in each of the past two season, the Twins offense has gotten off to a very slow start and sometimes a change a scenery is needed, even if the old scenery isn't necessarily the problem.

Last year, the circumstances were different, but the outcome was the same. In their first 29 games of 2011, the Twins managed only one game in which the offense scored more than 5 runs. Injuries were to blame more than anything else for the slow start in 2011, but this year the Twins entered and emerged from Spring Training with a fully capable lineup that had been playing well leading up to the beginning of the season.

Their struggles so far this year are no mystery when you look at the data. As a team they seem unable to hit a ball that doesn't hit the ground before it hits a glove. In fact, of all the balls the Twins have put in play so far this season, 67.7% of them have been groundballs which, far and away, leads the Majors. Their GB/FB ratio is 3.35/1 -- almost DOUBLE that of any other team (the next closest is the Giants at 1.87/1 GB/FB ratio). The propensity to hit groundballs has led to an understandably low BABIP (.184) which pretty much explains why the Twins have been unable to score runs. To put it a different way - the Twins have scored 6 runs in 4 games and 3 of those runs have come as a result of HRs hit by Josh Willingham. If not for that, the Twins would have been shutout twice in the first 4 games. [all stats courtesy of]

Joe Vavra's had a good run. He was hired following the 2005 season and in 2006, the Twins scored over 800 runs and won 96 games. After a down year in 2007, the Twins again reached the 800+ runs mark in both 2008 and 2009 and almost reached that mark in 2010 scoring 781 runs. Last year, well, we all know what happened last year - the team only scored 619 runs on it's way to one of the worst years in franchise history.

I'm only half-heartedly calling for a change. I know it's only 4 games and I also know that there are 158 games left this season. The Twins offense could (and probably will) turn it around at any point. I'm saying that if this offensive futility continues, then there needs to be some changes made -- and in this case I think it should start with the hitting coach.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Josh Willingham: What's Not to Like?

Depending on who you trust on Twitter, the Twins may or may not have agreed, in principle, to a deal with outfielder/DH free-agent Josh Willingham. Jerry Crasnick reported earlier this evening that a deal had been reached pending a physical - a report which was contradicted by Rhett Bollinger later in the evening saying that the two sides were close, but that they hadn't yet officially reached a deal...either way, I'm willing to bet that Willingham will become a Twin here within the next 12-24 hours so I thought I'd chime in. On an unrelated note, please forgive my scant postings over the last couple of weeks. I started a new job on Dec. 2nd and, well, it's been non-stop busy-ness since with no end in sight.

There's really not much to dislike about this deal from an outsiders perspective. Michael Cuddyer, whom Willingham is "replacing", is 32-years old, so is Willingham. Their hitting profiles are very similar in that they are both right-handed hitters with some power and good on-base percentages. In watching Cuddyer go to another team, the Twins get two draft picks in return and for a farm system that is somewhat depleted, the picks could not be coming at a better time. In addition, Willingham is likely to save the Twins a little bit of money. All of these things are positive. The only negative, in my opinion, is that you lose a guy in Cuddyer who has been a scrapper and a gamer for the last few seasons, who was clearly a good clubhouse guy and who was somewhat of a fan favorite. That said, none of those are reasons to keep a guy around.

Josh Willingham really didn't start to see regular big-league action until 2006 (age 27) but has been a pretty consistent big-league performer since, compiling a .262/.361/.475 triple-slash in 2,707 big-league at-bats. Since the beginning of the '06 season he has hit 131 homeruns (avg ~ 21/yr) and 155 doubles (avg ~ 26). Defense is where Willingham struggles a bit and where Cuddyer certainly has the upper hand when comparing the two players. Willingham will almost certainly be in left-field for the Twins - a position has spent the majority of his big-league career playing. He also gained some experience as a DH last year with Oakland so if the Twins get him, I would expect we'll see him used in that role as well from time to time.

I really hope the Twins do get Willingham. I was never bitten by the Cuddyer-bug, I respect him as a player and a hard-worker, but I think that the Twins benefit more in the long-run by letting him go. Willingham doesn't have quite the versatility that Cuddyer has defensively, but for a little less coin I'm willing to make the swap.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Remembering Brad Radke

No, he didn't die. I thought about changing the title to make it seem less eulogy-like, but I couldn't think of anything. He didn't die; instead, I found out today that this is Radke's first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame and given the other people on this year's ballot, he might actually have a shot...just kidding. I thought it would be fun to revisit Radke's career, first inning struggles and all.

Brad William Radke was drafted in the 8th round of the 1991 MLB Amateur Draft at the young age of 18. He was a product of Jesuit High School in Tampa, FL which also produced other Major Leaguers such as Lou Piniella, Al Lopez (HOF), Dave Madagan and Jason Michaels. Radke had early success in the Minors, throwing well in Rookie Ball and A-league ball before a promotion to AA towards the end of the '93 season. Radke spent all of the 1994 season at AA posting a very good 2.66 ERA in 186.1 innings - enough to turn some heads in the Twins front office.

Given that '94 was a strike-shortened season, the 1995 season started late and Radke was actually able to make the team out of Spring Training. He made his Major League debut on April 29th, a relief appearance in which he allowed 3 earned runs (4 runs overall) to the Baltimore Orioles in a game the Twins went on to lose 13-7. After that game, the rest of his appearances that year were as a starter and he managed to do OK considering he was on a team that lost 88 games that season (only 144 played that year). He won 11 games against 14 losses, gave up a league-high 32 homeruns, and threw 181 innings for the Twins...not bad for a 22-year-old rookie who's pro-career, to that point, had not extended past AA ball.

Even in that first year, Radke began to show a pattern which would plague him for his entire career - he had trouble getting out of the 1st and 2nd innings without giving up runs. In '95, his 1st inning ERA was 6.43, his 2nd inning ERA was 5.53 and after that, it settled in the low-4s. Though subsequent seasons were not nearly as terrible, the trend of early-inning struggles continued for most of Radke's career. He also gave up a TON of homeruns. He led the league in homeruns-allowed in both 1995 and 1996 and finished in the top 5 in that category 4 times during his career. For his career, he allowed 326 home-runs which ranks 35th all-time among MLB pitchers...this despite the fact that Radke had a relatively short 12-year career.

Brad Radke's career was not without highlights however. In 1997 he had a pretty lucky season that saw him win 20 games for the hometown club...especially impressive given the fact that the Twins lost almost 100 games that season. In that same year, he also won 12 consecutive games (consecutive starts), becoming only the 3rd pitcher since 1950 to do that (courtesy: wikipedia). Radke's career saddled the Twins transition from perennial loser to perennial contender perfectly; the team has 6 losing seasons and 6 winning seasons during his tenure as a Twin.

Radke was inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame in 2009, the team's last season in the Metrodome. He the poster child for the pitching "mold" that the Twins have become famous for...low strikeout rate, low walk rate. Radke ranks 32nd all-time in BB/9IP ratio (min 1,000 IP), ranking ahead of other famously walk-stingy pitchers like Roy Halladay and Greg Maddux. Radke will, I think, always be fondly remembered by Twins fans. He was quiet, he wasn't a distraction, he was a work-horse and he was reliable - that's about as much as you can ask of any player. In a way, he was kind of a paradox - he possessed pin-point control, yet gave up a lot of home-runs. My personal favorite memory of Radke isn't exactly a good one (if your name is Brad Radke). My favorite player growing up, aside from Kirby Puckett who was done playing by the time I was 12 years old, was Ken Griffey Jr. I begged my dad to take me to see him when the Mariners were in town during the '99 season and in the game we saw, Radke started and gave back-to-back home-runs to Griffey and A-Rod in the 1st inning. Classic.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What DO the Twins Have?

With the baseball winter meetings coming up in a week or so - the baseball hot-stove fires are about to be stoked into a blazing inferno here in the next 1-2 weeks. Up to this point I've done my fair share of speculating about what the Twins will do and in looking around other Twins blogs, you'll find no shortage of others who tried their hand at the same thing. With this piece, I want to take a different tact...I want to take a look at the pieces the Twins have right now that we can be assured of seeing on Opening Day (barring pre-season injury of course). All of us have a pretty good idea of what the holes on this team are - but laying out what the team has right now may make it crystal clear where the team should start in addressing their weaknesses.

Infield (arbitration eligibles in red, backups in parentheses):

C - Joe Mauer (Ryan Doumit/Drew Butera)
1B - Justin Morneau
2B - OPEN (Alexi Casilla)
SS - Jamey Carroll (Tsuyoshi Nishioka)
3B - Danny Valencia
DH - Ryan Doumit/ ?

This infield situation is complicated by unknowns. In a perfect world, the Twins would bring in a Kelly Johnson or a Aaron Hill type to fill the hole at 2nd base and your infield would be set with Morneau & Valencia on the corners with Carroll and Johnson/Hill up the middle. Reality is far from that though as the Twins have still not addressed second base and only God knows what Justin Morneau's availability will be come Opening Day.

Outfield (arbitration eligibles in red, backups in parentheses):

CF - Denard Span (Ben Revere)
LF - Joe Benson? Trevor Plouffe?

To me, the outfield situation is just as dire as the bullpen situation. If the Twins do nothing to address the outfield situation, the Twins will have a couple of guys (Revere and Benson) with less than a full-year of Major League experience as your starting Right and Left fielders. Not only that, Denard Span is coming off a 2nd-half which saw him miss significant time due to a concussion. He has said on Twitter that he's been feeling good lately, but with Morneau's cautionary tale, I don't think there's any counting on Span. I would like to think they'll bring back Jason Kubel, though I view his role as more of a DH if he returns, filling the void left by Jim Thome's departure. Aaron Hicks stands to get a look in Spring Training, but as a 22-year-old who spent all of last year a Fort-Myers (A-ball), I don't know that his chances are all that good. The Twins have announced that they are going to make Trevor Plouffe an outfielder, but even if he makes the transition defensively, I don't know that he has much staying power in the lineup (.697 OPS in 286 PAs last season). In short, the Twins have a lot of outfield question marks and not a lot of answers, though I did discuss a few potential free-agent answers in my last post.

Starting Pitching (arbitration eligibles in red):

#1 Francisco Liriano
#2 Carl Pavano
#3 Scott Baker
#4 Nick Blackburn
#5 Kevin Slowey? Brian Duensing?

Some people have seen a lot of question marks here too, but to me the starting rotation is pretty much set with the only question mark being who the Gardenhire and the Twins will decide to install as their 5th starter. As expected, Duensing's permanent move to the rotation last season exposed him and I wouldn't be surprised if they move him back to into the bullpen and give Slowey his old spot back. Then again, Slowey is (and has been) in the dreaded Gardenhire dog-house for awhile, so there are certainly no guarantees there. I would love to see the Twins go out and grab another starting pitcher, but those tend to be expensive, especially in a market like this year's when there are not many good ones available. As far as help from the farm goes, the Twins have nothing in the Minors that inspires much confidence in terms of starting pitching. There are a couple of arms (Hendriks, Salcedo), but they don't seem close.

Bullpen Pitching (arbitration eligibles in red):

Glen Perkins
Jose Mijares
? Jeff Manship ?

Ok, I take that back about the outfield rivaling the bullpen as the Twins most pressing issue. Holy smokes. The Twins have a bunch of garbage arms they could use including (but certainly not limited to): Alex Burnett, Scott Diamond, Jim Hoey, Jeff Gray, etc. With around $69.5M already committed to next year's payroll, and another $15M or so wrapped up in arbitration eligible players...the Twins have about $15M to spend to fill holes in the infield, outfield and bullpen. It's going to take every cent of that money, in addition to some GM wizardry, to field a competitive Twins team in 2012, but I feel that Terry Ryan is up to the task. Capable bullpen arms don't need to be expensive, and as Aaron Gleeman talked about in his most recent column, the Twins shouldn't feel the need to spend a lot of money on a closer either...a closer doesn't need to be "proven" in order to be dominant.

I think if I were Mr. Ryan, I would focus on the outfield first because useful outfielders are likely to be snapped up a lot more quickly than useful bullpen arms will be. Aside from that, I wouldn't overreact or overpay for marginal talent. The Twins have enough quality pieces (especially if Mauer and Morneau are healthy) that they can afford to have a few duds in the lineup). I would rather see good money spent in the bullpen than money needless thrown at replacement level infielders and outfielders.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Looking to the Outfield

Hats-off to Terry Ryan. In his first couple of weeks back on the job he has already addressed two significant areas of weakness on the ballclub using minimal funds. I could take a few minutes and talk about the Ryan Doumit acquisition, but others have already done a good job of that, particularly Nick Nelson  and Parker Hageman - both of them wrote excellent pieces about Doumit and his fit with the Twins, check out both pieces.

Because Terry Ryan has been so thrifty so far, he has left himself with a good chunk of funding left to fill other holes on the team, particularly in the outfield, starting rotation and bullpen. I want to look to the outfield to see what the Twins options are. I'm operating from the assumptions that the Twins lose either Cuddyer or Kubel, or they lose both of them. I don't see the Twins being able to keep both and I find a situation in which Kubel stays to be much more likely. If the Twins keep either Cuddyer or Kubel they will likely only "need" to add one outfielder to the mix because I'm also assuming that Ben Revere and/or Joe Benson will make the Major League club out of Spring Training. I put "need" in quotes because if they Twins keep Kubel, they could technically get away with not adding an OFer at all, but unless you're willing to make Kubel and Revere full-time outfielders, they're going to have to add someone. Moving along...

**By the way, it has been reported that the new collective bargaining agreement in Major League Baseball does away with compensation for Type-B free agents meaning the teams with Type-Bs will receive nothing if the player signs with another club. I haven't seen any sources confirming that this is set in stone so I'm leaving the designations there for now...just keep in mind that it may be utterly meaningless if it's true that MLB did away with "Type-B" designations.

Jason Kubel (Type-B) - 2011 Salary: $5,250,000
I've talked about Kubel before, particularly about how I think he has unique value. Kubel, like most other Twins' players, was injured for a large portion of the season, missing a total of 63 games. Through the first two months of last season he was pretty much the only bright spot in the lineup posting a .310/.355/.465 line through the end of May. He was looking like his 2009-self until being sidelined for all of June and most of July with a sprained foot. Anyway, we all know the story. Kubel is unique in the sense that he's a left-handed power hitter. Prior to the 2011 season, he had 3-straight 20+ HR seasons and during those three years he had a .821 OPS. His defense isn't great, but sans-Thome, the Twins could really use a competent hitter in the DH spot, a role Kubel would be able to fill quite competently. Kubel has been a consistent performer when healthy and at 29-years-old, extending him a 2-4 year deal makes sense.

Cody Ross (Type-B) - 2011 Salary: $6,300,000
Ross is an intriguing option from a few different angles. First, he can (and has) play all three outfield positions. Most of his playing time has been spent in centerfield, but he's also played appreciable time in right and left. With as many interchangeable parts as the Twins have (a catcher that needs frequent breaks from catching, no established DH, etc), having a versatile outfielder could be a major positive for a club that needs to move players around on a regular basis. In addition to that, Ross has some decent power (career .456 slugging %) from the right-side which is lacking in the current Twins lineup.
Ross has a couple of downsides as well. His ability to get on-base leaves something to be desired (career .323 OBP) and he doesn't really hit for average either. Fielding-wise he's very average though for the Twins, "average" is probably an upgrade, especially in right-field. There's also the fact that in each of the last 5 season, Ross' OPS has dropped...from 1.064 in 66 games in '07, to .730 in 121 games last season. At 30-years-old Ross definitely has something left in the tank, but unless Ross sits out there on the free-agent market for awhile, the price tag will likely be too high to make it worth the risk.

Ryan Ludwick (Type-B) - 2011 Salary: $6,775,000
It's scary when you look at how similar Ryan Ludwick and Cody Ross are offensively. Ross' career triple-slash is .261/.323/.456, Ludwick's career triple-slash is .261/.332/.455. Pluses for Ludwick are slightly better plate-discipline and slightly better defense, but other than that the two have very similar career stories. Ludwick, much like Ross, has even seen a decline over the last 4 seasons. After an All-Star season in '08 which saw him hit 37 HRs and drive in 113, his OPS and overall production have declined in each season since. Given his poor 2011 season, I'm guessing that Ludwick could probably be had for a discount and would definitely be an upgrade defensively - I think he's in line for a bounce-back of sorts.

Brad Hawpe (Outright FA) - 2011 Salary: $2,000,000
The Padres had a $6M option on Hawpe but after a dismal 2011 season, they understandably decided to opt for the $1M buyout making Hawpe an outright free agent. From 2006 to 2009 Hawpe was a very consistent hitter for the Colorado Rockies posting 4-straight 20+ HR seasons and a .902 OPS over that time. Ever since, he's looked nothing like that while splitting time between 3 different ballclubs. Defensively, Hawpe is nothing special at all with a career-.978 fielding% and a career -18.9 UZR/150 -- and my 'nothing special' I mean he's pretty terrible. Hawpe might be worth a flier - but if I were Terry Ryan I wouldn't offer anything more than a one-year "let's see" type deal.

Josh Willingham (Type-A) - 2011 Salary: $6,000,000
It's hard to say how realistic it is that the Twins could land Willingham. For one thing, he's certainly going to be making more than $6M per year with whomever he ends up signing. His OPS has been north of .800 for the past 6 seasons and at 32-years old, he has miles left on the tires. Offensively he's probably the best of the mid-tier options out there and defensively he sits somewhere between Cody Ross and Ryan Ludwick. I would be ecstatic if the Twins went out there and got him, but given their self-reported payroll goals, I find it improbable that he ends up in a Twins uniform. Michael Rand over at the Star Tribune wrote an interesting piece about Willingham and how the Twins fans might be focusing too much on him, can't say I disagree - check it out.

I think we'll continue to see the Twins regularly add pieces as we go through the next couple of months - not all of them are going to be household names, but I would be surprised to see one bigger name in there somewhere - I think it will most likely it will be a starting pitcher or reliever.

I haven't mentioned this in a post before (I don't think), but if you want, follow me on Twitter (@thebatshatters). I try to keep it almost 100% sports and Twins related - unlike some people who choose to share their political views on a regular basis. Also, on this Thanksgiving Week, I want to say a big THANK YOU to all of you who are regular readers of this blog, I really appreciate the time you take to read and comment.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

Leave it to the Astros to go and screw everything up. I'm not sure exactly HOW it happened, but the new owner of the Astros (Jim Crane) got Bud Selig and Major League baseball to sign-off on moving the team to the American League as part of his deal to buy the team. In addition to the Astros' move from the NL Central to the AL West, MLB will be adding a second wild-card team to each league and will, most likely, implement a one-game playoff between the two wild card teams in each league (a play-in game, if you will). Oh, and because each league now contains the same odd amount of teams (15), 'Inter-league Play' will now be a regular, every-day part of the baseball schedule.

My first reaction to these changes is all negative. Wasn't this past season's September and October evidence enough that what baseball has/had is working? You had two teams make the playoffs on the very final day of the regular season, you had several compelling and interesting playoff series and you had a 7-game World Series for the 2nd consecutive year. I know it's not like this every year, but even in recent memory there has been plenty of similarly exciting stuff happening at the end of the season (back-to-back Game 163s in 2008 and 2009 for the Twins comes immediately to mind). I can't help but feel that one change in particular hasn't been purely media motivated, and the change I'm referring to is the addition of a second wild-card in each league.

For years now, the Eastcoast Sports Programming Network (ESPN) talking heads have been bitching about the fact that there are three playoff-worthy teams in the AL East and only two of them can make it into the post-season. Other lesser AL East teams like the Orioles and Jays have publicly stated that they don't feel they can realistically compete with the payrolls in their own division and thus cannot field teams that can compete for precious few playoff spots. In swoops Bud Selig to save the day! Make no mistake, these moves are motivated PURELY by revenue opportunities...not for the betterment of the game of baseball. The game is fine the way it is/was.

My second reaction to this news was more rational. It's going to happen, might as well accept it. I do like it in one aspect and one aspect alone. I feel as though the wild-card teams should have a disadvantage of some sort. They didn't win a division and not having home-field advantage is not disadvantage enough. If you have a one-game playoff between the two wild-card teams, then each wild-card team will likely (but not necessarily) be forced to use their respective aces...this will give them a distinct disadvantage, especially in the first round of the playoffs where the series' are only a maximum of 5 games in length. I actually like the change from that perspective, but from every other perspective I think it is a needless change.

I also an idea for one further change MLB might as well make to go along with all of the other changes they're talking about. Do away with the Designated Hitter OR do away with pitchers hitting in the National League. Now that you're going to have year-round Interleague Play, why play with two sets of rules? Year-round Interleague Play is already going to further disrupt the precious idea of a "balanced schedule" so why compound the problem by continuing to hold on to separate rules in each league? DH's are already worthless for 10 games of the season as things currently stand and now they're adding several Interleague games to every team's schedule...

Like I said earlier, all of these changes are motivated purely by revenue - I just wish that Bud Selig and MLB would come clean about it. To say that these changes will "improve the game of baseball" is like slapping every baseball fan in the face. We all know how great baseball has been over the past few months. Nobody even once broached the subject of adding extra wild-card teams to the mix until the Tampa Bay Rays started winning...and adding another wild doesn't even guarantee extra drama. As Bill from The Platoon Advantage pointed out on Twitter (@Bill_TPA), the two sudden-death wild-card teams in the American League in 2001 would have been the Oakland Athletics (102-60) and the Minnesota Twins (85-77) - hardly would have seemed fair to make the A's play a one-game playoff...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Crazy Thoughts: Twins Should Pursue Reyes

I've been thinking a lot about the Twins lately, specifically what I think the expectations should be for this off-season and for the 2012 campaign. While I celebrated the re-installation of Terry Ryan as Twins GM, I was equally disappointed to hear that the team plans on dropping it's 2012 payroll to around $100M. Imagine my surprise when I saw many fellow Twins' bloggers support this decision; I figured the reaction would be the opposite. Here's my logic, and I'm going to present a case that the Twins should go after Jose Reyes.

Two Aprils ago, on a mild night in Minneapolis, the Twins played their first regular-season game in the new Target Field. That 2010 season was a dream of sorts with the squad tallying 94 wins and easily winning the AL Central crown. The playoffs left a poor taste in all of our mouths, but there was hope for 2011 because a majority of the team was returning...except for the middle-infield and half the bullpen. Things didn't work out the way most of us thought they would. In 2011, the Twins had their worst season in 12 years on their way to losing 99 games and finishing dead-last in the AL Central. Bill Smith was fired. Terry Ryan was re-crowned GM...and now the Twins want to reduce the payroll?? Only 2 seasons after opening their brand-new stadium...a large portion of which was paid for by taxpayers in Minnesota? This may seem crazy, but I think that rather than pulling back, this team should be doing all it can to put a competitive team back on the field next year. The holes are obvious and the potential fixes for those holes are out there in the form of free-agents.

In my opinion, when you fight for 10+ years to get a new stadium built and then it gets done, and then in only your 2nd year in said stadium the team has a bad DON'T give up. I think the Twins owe it to the fans to put as good of a product as possible onto the field, even it is means raising the payroll to $120M or $130M. Here are some other reasons why now is a bad time to reduce payroll and "re-build" for a couple of years: 

a) Joe Mauer isn't getting any younger, neither is Justin Morneau. I realize that both players have had their injuries and that neither is a "sure thing" for the 2012 season, especially Morneau. That said, Mauer is turning 29 shortly after the 2012 season starts and Morneau will turn 31 next May. If you doing the re-building thing for the next season or two, you may be missing out on the last couple of "prime" years from two of your current superstars. Say what you will about Mauer, I know there's a lot of question marks there, but he is going to have a few more great seasons during his career. 

b) The Twins have nothing in the Minors that inspires much confidence, especially in terms of pitching. As this last season showed, the Twins farm depth is no where near what many of us thought it was. Many of the Triple-A players that were called-up as a result of injuries last year were over-matched or were just not very good. Of particular concern was the lack of middle-infield depth and the lack of capable bullpen arms in the farm system. Nothing has really changed on that front. The Twins have a few decent prospects (Hicks, Sano, etc), but NONE of them are fact the one elite pitching prospect they had (Kyle Gibson) will likely not even pitch in 2012 due to Tommy John surgery. Liam Hendriks, who was thought to be one of the Twins better Minor League arms, took a huge step back in 2011 and pitched to a 6.17 ERA in 4 September starts with the Major League club at the end of the year. According to Baseball Prospectus' new prospect rankings, the Twins have ZERO pitching prospects that even rise to the level of "3-stars". No matter how you look at it, the Twins are going to be getting much rotation help from the Minors any time soon and we've all seen what they have for potential bullpen arms and, well, it ain't good. 

c) Re-building isn't going to put butts in the seats. The reason the Twins are talking about reducing payroll is because the team is anticipating a loss of revenue as a result of the team's poor play on the field in 2011. Less season-tickets have been sold, there was less revenue from vendors in the 2nd half of last season, and on and on. That said, spending less on the team and risking a couple more losing seasons isn't going to increase revenue. If anything, it will simply make the problem worse which will result in continued payroll reductions. This has been the Pohlad's M.O. all the way back to when Carl was owner of the team. The Pohlad's want the team to be profitable and they will reduce payroll to the point where, at the very minimum, the Twins are a break-ever proposition. To hear front-office people say, "oh, we might raise the payroll again in a few years" is insulting. The Twins increased their payroll number after every winning season during the 2000's and dropped it following the 2007 after the club had a sub-.500 record that season. The only reason the payroll went up in 2009 was in anticipation of the club's move to Target Field.

You always hear sports media people talk about "windows" for a given team winning a championship. Usually they are talking about how the "window is closing" on a team...and in the Twins case, the window is already closed or, at best, it's almost closed. This is why the Twins put a stopper on the window and try and get Jose Reyes. Landing Reyes would address a number of issues the Twins have. 

a) Shortstop-play is perhaps the Twins most glaring weakness. The position has been a black-hole of offense for them for a majority of the past 20 years and though they have been able to put capable defenders there, they haven't been able to find the complete package (aside from the one season of JJ Hardy).
b) As was made obvious last season, middle infield defense can be directly correlated to the success of the pitching staff. There are a lot of factors at play here, but good middle infield defense can save A LOT of runs which translates directly to wins. Reyes is a very capable defender with a large range when healthy.
c) Ron Gardenhire wants speed? Reyes is speed. He stole 39 bases last season in only 126 games. When he has played full seasons, he's led the National League in steals 3 times (2005, 2006, 2007).
d) There has been talk of the Twins trading Denard Span, some say to the Nationals. If they managed to do that and picked up either Espinosa or Desmond, they could put either one at 2nd base, and by acquiring Reyes, you have a bonafide lead-off man to replace Span. Reyes has more pop, more speed, and a better eye than Span.

Reyes isn't going to be cheap. He made $11M this past season and projects to be making at least $15-$20M/yr depending on the length of the deal. That represents a SIGNIFICANT investment for the Twins, yes, but it also fills a hole that the organization clearly has right now and will probably have for awhile if it is not addressed soon. Reyes is 28-years-old, so he is by no means old, and if you could entice him with a short-term deal, like has been rumored to the be the case with the Marlins (reported that they offered him 3-years @ $20M per), you could hedge your bets a little with regard to age.

I don't expect the Twins to be players in the Reyes sweepstakes, especially considering their recent announcement about payroll, but it's fun to dream. I really don't understand the reduction in payroll and I don't understand the support for it either. This team has set of circumstances RIGHT NOW (in terms of the age of certain star players) that it will not have 2 or 3 years from now. I think the Twins should either try like hell right now to win, or it's going to be awhile before we see a truly competitive team on the field.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Some Thoughts on Bill Smith

It was one of those rare moments where I was actually on Twitter when some big Twins story broke and I was so surprised I had to read it twice. Bill Smith has been fired as GM by the Twins and has been offered another position within the organization...which I'm guessing is one he will likely turn down. His replacement, at least on an interim basis, is former Twins' GM Terry Ryan who was captain of the Twins ship from 1994 to 2007.

This is some pretty exciting news. Calls for Bill Smith's head have been going around the Twins blogosphere for awhile now and he has been rightfully (IMO anyway) blamed for the current state of the team and for a dreadful 2011 season. Terry Ryan certainly has quite a big job ahead of his for this off-season, but my level of trust in his decision-making abilities is far-higher. When Terry Ryan was the Twins GM, he consistently made good trades and good free-agent pickups using a limited payroll AND he also helped build a powerhouse farm-system that churned out many of the starters on the current Twins roster (Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, Cuddyer, Span, Valencia, etc). He also executed several trades, some of which are among the best in recent memory (Liriano and Nathan for Pierzynski and he acquired Johan Santana in the Rule 5 draft). He wasn't immune to bad deals (brought Drew Butera to the team in 2007) but more times than not he made good decisions that brought quality players to the Twins organization and ultimately turned the team back into a winner in 2001.

As a fan of the team, this is a great way to start the off-season in my opinion. I feel comfortable knowing that it is Terry Ryan rather than Bill Smith who has $20-$30M to spend this off-season and I think Ryan will make deals that will benefit the Twins both in the short-term and the long-term.

That said....

Terry Ryan is by no means a savior. Let's not forget that Terry Ryan was a Sr. Advisor with the Twins during the entire time that Bill Smith has been the GM. I don't know to what degree he was involved in making decisions, but he was definitely involved and yet the Twins made bad move after bad move during that time. Additionally, the Twins have a number of holes they need to address this off-season and even with $20-$30M to spend, any Twins GM is going to need to be extremely savvy to fill those holes. On top of that are the health concerns with Mauer, Morneau, Liriano, etc that are mostly out of Ryan's hands, but will ultimately go a long way in determining the outcome of the 2012 season and beyond. Oh, and the farm-system is mostly depleted of near-Major-League-ready talent. Make no mistake, it's a big job. Like I said though, I feel better knowing that Terry Ryan is making the final decisions, here's hoping for a good off-season.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The SS/2B Dilemma

Tonight is the night (any Dexter fans out there?). As the clock strikes midnight, MLB free-agents everywhere will be eligible to sign a contract with any club that makes them an offer. Some are Type-A free-agents, others Type-B, but all of them free to go to any team that will have them. If I'm Bill Smith and the Twins, I have a lot of work to do this off-season. I need half of a bullpen, I need a couple of middle-infielders, I might even need a starter...I've gotta get going. Earlier this week I talked about the Twins bullpen needs and now I want to focus on another somewhat pressing need of theirs and that's the middle infield.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a disaster last year. Alexi Casilla was pretty much who we thought he would be. The others were just minor-league fill-ins in what was a dismal season up the middle. Last year's experiments highlighted just how much of a mistake it was to let JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson go without having a whole lot to fall back on. 5 players saw 15 or more starts at 2nd base. 4 players saw more than 30 starts at SS. 44 errors we committed between the two positions and an overall .970 fielding percentage (league average for the positions combined was .979)...and that's not even counting the 20 errors at 3B. Last year's Twins team was essentially a real-life example of how much of a difference a good (or bad) defensive middle-infield makes.

Given that free-agency is literally right around the corner, here are a couple of free-agents that would be a good fit for the Twins. Some of them are more expensive, others not so much - though for a lower salary you often have to compromise on offensive production.

#1 Candidate: Kelly Johnson (2B) - Type-A
MLBTR thinks that Johnson is headed to the Dodgers, but there's no reason to think that the Twins couldn't get in on this free-agent. I've talked about Johnson here before on this site, but in my opinion he really is the cream of the crop when it comes to free-agent 2nd basemen. Johnson is 29-years-old, he has a career .260/.343/.441 triple-slash, and he's a good 2nd baseman (.981 career fielding % and career 10.9 UZR). While Johnson is perhaps one of the more expensive middle-infield candidates out there, he also is probably looking for a long-term contract which the Twins would be smart to offer him given the lack of middle-infield depth within the organization. Johnson made $5.85M last season and could probably be had for a 3-5 year deal worth about $7-9M per year (worth the picks you'd have to give up due to Johnson's Type-A FA status). Johnson would be an instant upgrade on Alexi Casilla and would allow the Twins to either move Casilla to SS or find someone else to play shortstop and make Casilla a utility option.

#2 Candidate: Clint Barmes (SS or 2B) - Type-B
I actually wouldn't mind seeing the Twins pursue both of these guys, but my gut tells me that's unrealistic. Barmes in not much to look at offensively, but he is intriguing from a defensive standpoint. Barmes has played more SS in his career than 2B, but has a solid (not spectacular) glove and a little pop in his bat. He made $3.92M last year and if offered some sort of multi-year deal, would probably only command a salary in the $4M-$5M per year range, maybe even less. At 32 years old Barmes is probably only to get slower from here, but as a short-term fix, he's worth a look.

#3 Candidate: Aaron Hill (2B best, can play SS) - Type-B
Hill would most likely be a 2B candidate only, but again, it's a need the Twins have so he's worth a look. After being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks last season, Hill showed that he's still got it carrying a .315/.386/.492 line in 33 games to end the season. Hill has a career 21.7 UZR score at 2B to go along with his .987 fielding %. Hill and Johnson are very similar...both are solid defenders who bring a bat with them to the plate. Within the spacious confines of Target Field, Hill is likely to be more of a doubles hitter than Johnson but either of them would be a vast upgrade offensively from what the Twins have in-house. Aaron Hill made $5M last year and would be the "middle-of-the-road" option between these three, likely commanding a $5-7M salary over a 2-3 year deal.

There are other options out there, Furcal, Betancourt, etc., but these are the three options I like best based on price, age and ability. I would love to have Kelly Johnson, I think he would make a great fit for the Twins, but my gut tells me I'm dreaming which is really too bad.

Monday, October 31, 2011

WS Thoughts & The Off-Season

I went to bed in the 8th inning of Game 6, my birthday was on Friday and I was out and missed Game 7...that said, I still caught the excitement of it and and my thoughts about this year's World Series can be summed up in one word: WOW. I love how a number of 'sportswriters' out there are all, "oh my gawd, this World Series SAVED baseball..." it didn't, it simply reminded everyone of how great of a sport baseball is and how exciting it can be. This whole season was great (home-town team aside) and the St. Louis Cardinals are an incredible story of how anything can happen if you just keep playing hard every day.

On the flip-side, my heart aches for the Texas Rangers and their fans. Back-to-back Game 7 losses in the World Series?? And I thought missing the playoffs for the first time in 2 years hurt. I just think of all the work that is takes to get to the World Series, then to do it in consecutive seasons and have nothing to show for's heart-breaking. Overall, I thought it was a great series, it was quite compelling, I loved seeing Pujols make some history and I was really glad that there wasn't a "goat" or some extraneous circumstance that would ultimately distract from what a hard-fought series this was.

As we all bask in the glow of a great end to the 2011 MLB season, it's time to start talking Twins again - more specifically, it's time to start brain-storming ways that this team can attempt to field a much more competitive team in 2012. As has been reported on a number of blogs, the Twins look to have about $30M to spend this off-season and with the number of issues they have to address...figuring out how to spend $30M will not be a problem. For my money, the Twins need to address the bullpen first and as things are shaping up, there should be a number of intriguing options. The bullpen was clearly one of the Twins' greatest weaknesses this past season and as far as fixing things go, the bullpen is probably one of the cheaper fixes.

1. To Sign or not to Sign: Joe Nathan.
Those who say that the Twins should not re-sign Joe Nathan are the ones who point to his overall 2011 numbers, which are pretty ordinary. 4.84 ERA, 43/14 K/BB ratio, 1.16 WHIP - not closer-type numbers. That said, the last couple of months were much more Nathan-esque. Between July and the end of the season, Nathan threw 27.1 innings, striking out 27 and only walking 5 while saving 11 games. Considering the Twins only won 22 games in the second-half of the season, 11 saves isn't bad. Velocity-wise, Nathan only improved as the season went on which bodes well for his success next season and beyond. Ultimately, the question will most likely be cost - it wasn't a surprise at all that the Twins declined Nathan's $12.5M option. I think if they could sign the 36-year-old right-hander to a 2-year deal worth around $10-14M, I feel that they would end up getting their money's worth. In reading around other Twins blogs, it would seem I'm not alone in wanting Nathan back next year.

2. Identify your core bullpen pitchers and build around them.
Among the remaining in-house bullpen options (the obvious ones anyway), all of the main guys are arbitration eligible. Jose Mijaries, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey are all up for arbitration and the Twins could easily offer arbitration to all of them and not spend much cash. The most expensive of the three, Kevin Slowey, is worth the extra money because of versatility as a spot-starter. The total cost for all three would likely between somewhere in the $4.5 - $5.5M range and all three have been effective in the past. Around these 4 arms (Mijares, Perkins, Slowey and Nathan) - sign 2-3 additional bullpen pitchers. Options are plenty; here's a list compiled last year. There are a number of intriguing names on that list and it should not be any much trouble to land a couple of them on relatively cheap contracts. Some of the names that interest me are: Scott Linebrink, Jason Frasor (if the White Sox don't pick up his option), George Sherrill (left-handed, would be a nice set-up man for Nathan), and Michael Wuertz (could be a cheap option with good potential).

3. Don't sign any relievers to 3-year contracts.
Last year, it seemed like a number of teams lost their heads signing relievers to three-year deals. Of note in the AL Central were Jesse Crain (signed by the White Sox) and Joaquin Benoit (signed by the Detroit Tigers). Both pitchers end up having very good seasons, but one season does not a 3-year contract make. On top of that, for every example of a 3-year reliever deal that started well, you have an equally good example of one that did not (see: Rafael Soriano, NYY). With so many good names out on the market this year, there's no reason to be desperate. If you can't get Player X without a 3-year deal, move on and find someone else.

I know how this all plays out is much more complicated than I make it seem, but I really do feel that a re-vamped bullpen could add 15-20 wins to the season total next year. Twins relievers had 20 blown saves last year against 32 saves and 29% of the runners that Twins relievers inherited last year scored, which was right about average for the American League. If the Twins could reduce that blown-saves number from 20 to 10, that alone would be worth a $10-$15M investment in the bullpen. As was highlighted during the recently concluded post-season, bullpen pitching is critical to a team's success and if a team has a good bullpen, the confidence of the rest of the team increases accordingly.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Some Awards Banter

As much as I was looking forward to the end of the regular season this year I have to admit, I've actually kinda missed being able to check up on the Twins everyday. I don't miss the feeling of loss after loss, but I miss the day-to-day. Fortunately, this year's MLB playoffs have been REALLY good and have been filled with major market schadenfreude which has been medicine for my weary baseball soul. I'm very pleased with the 4 teams that remain and I was really happy for Milwaukee fans who saw their baseball team snatch a Game 5 victory from the clutches of defeat in winning their first playoff series since 1982. I was born in 1983 so to think that in my entire lifetime, the Brew Crew hadn't won a playoff, this is big. I really like their team too, the combination of power and hustle, scrap and confidence,...and their swagger is undeniable. I like their rotation, I like their bullpen and if they go on to win the World Series, I think I might even have a smile on my face.

Anyway, I didn't put my pen to paper to write about the post-season, plenty of others are writing much more meaningful pieces. The purpose of my piece today is more obligation, but calling it 'obligation' gives it the wrong connotation. As a part of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (BBA) we are asked to cast our votes every year for various awards and then those votes are compiled amongst all the blogs in the network and the network as a whole comes out with it's winners. This has already been done for manager of the year (Connie Mack Award) which you can check out here. For my part, I'd like to take on a couple of Awards, notable the "Walter Johnson" Award (honoring the best SPs) and the "Stan Musial" (honoring the MVPs). Since we are a Minnesota Twins blog, we vote for the American League winners of these awards.

Walter Johnson Award - Best Starting Pitcher (AL)

The Walter Johnson Award uses a 5-3-1 point system so we are supposed to vote for our 1st, 2nd and 3rd place vote getters which makes this whole process a little more interesting if you ask me.

1st Place: Justin Verlander (5 points)
I've trolled my Yankee followers on Twitter a little bit lately suggesting that Verlander was a 'no doubt' winner of this Award despite the fantastic, but under appreciated season that Yankee ace CC Sabathia had. That said, Verlander had a super-human season and I don't see you could give the award to anyone else. First, the vitals:

24 Wins (not really important, but hey, it's a lot of wins for a single-season)
2.40 ERA - Lead the AL
0.920 WHIP - Lead the Majors
2.99 FIP - 4nd in the AL
3.12 xFIP - 2nd in the AL
251.0 IP - Lead the Majors
250 Ks - Lead the Majors

4.39 K/BB ratio - 2nd in the AL
2.84 SIERA - Lead the AL
5.14 WPA - Lead the Majors
7.0 WAR - 2nd in the AL

The argument for Verlander is pretty convincing. He helped his team run away with the AL Central crown, he was dominant from start to finish, and he lead the Majors in a few of the more important measures of pitching success.

2nd Place: CC Sabathia (3 points)
I already alluded to it earlier but this should come as no surprise. CC actually was worth 7.1 WAR this season which was. 0.1 more than Verlander and also out-pitched Verlander in FIP (2.88) and xFIP (3.02). Pro-CC people will argue that it should be taken into consideration that CC also pitches in the AL East and is therefore facing tougher opponents on a more regular basis. I would say that's a legitimate point, but who a pitcher faces is nothing that the pitcher can determine so what division a given pitcher is in cannot be used as criteria for an award. CCs reward for a great season will be either a) 5 more seasons at $23M per in New York or b) a HUGE free-agent deal somewhere else.

3rd Place: James Shields (1 point)
I'm going out on a limb a little for my 3rd place selection. What I am most impressed with about Shields season was all of the complete games...11 of them to be precise, which led all of Major League Baseball. For a guy who had never been a dominant pitcher, Shields had a breakout year of sorts winning a career-high 16 games with career bests in ERA (2.82), IP (249.1), WHIP (1.04), Ks (225), and WAR (4.9). I will say that Shields had an awfully "lucky" season considering his BABIP was .258 while his career average for that category sits at (.299). That will occasionally happen with ground-ball heavy pitchers though and for this season, it no-doubt worked in Shields' favor.

Stan Musial Award - AL MVP

Here is my list of my top 10 with a general discussion at the end.

1. Curtis Granderson (13 points)
2. Jacoby Ellsbury (9 points)
3. Miguel Cabrera (8 points)
4. Ian Kinsler (7 points)
5. Dustin Pedroia (6 points)
6. Jose Bautista (5 points)
7. Justin Verlander (4 points)
8. CC Sabathia (3 points)
9. Alex Gordon (2 points)
10. Ben Zobrist (1 point)

If I'm going strictly off of WAR (Wins Above Replacement) values, then Ellsbury wins this award running away...but in considering "valuable-ness", Granderson gets my nod. The Red Sox were/are absolutely loaded with talent. Among the WAR leaders, the Red Sox have 3 of the top 9 players (Ellsbury, Pedroia, A. Gonzalez). The Yankees are also loaded with talent, but not to that degree having only 2 players in the top 13 (Granderson & Cano). In a year in which A-Rod was not himself and Teixeira was streaky, Granderson was the constant producer setting career highs in Runs, RBIs, HRs, BBs and OPS all while committing only 3 errors in the field all year next to a dozen highlight-reel catches. Granderson's 7.0 WAR pales in comparison to Ellsbury's 9.4, but to me Granderson was more valuable in the sense that his team really needed his production to win.

I had a couple pitchers on my MVP ballot, though to be clear I would not have put them anywhere near the top. I've talked about this before (mostly on Twitter) but I feel that the MVP award name should be changed to Best Offensive Player. Keep the Cy Young Award as "the best pitcher" and make MVP the best hitter award. "Value" is to subjective and I don't think great offensive seasons should be ignored, much like Alex Gordon's was, simply because the player is stuck on a bad team. In the same way that the team a given pitcher plays for should not factor into the discussion for the Cy Young Award, the team a hitter plays for and whether or not that team makes the playoffs should not factor into their selection as the best hitter.

Anyway, that's enough pontificating for now. I hope to post more regularly here this off-season. My job has changed a bit in the sense that I have less and less time to blog about the Twins, but I am going to try my hardest to keep the discussion going here. It should be an exciting off-season!

Monday, September 26, 2011


Taps could probably have been played on a number of occasions this season in reference to the Twins, but as we enter the final week of this, the "summer of our discontent", we can finally plays Taps on one of the worst seasons in franchise history and, hopefully, move on. With three games remaining, the Twins have 98 losses, needing to win 2 out of 3 from Kansas City to avoid the 2nd 100-loss season in team history. Here are some of the low-lights:

**In their last 52 games, the Twins are 10-42 (.192) which would translate to about a 32-win (130 loss) season if they played that way over the course of a full year. This stretch has included 3 losing streaks of at least 6 games and was punctuated franchise worst 11-game losing streak against mostly divisional opponents.

**For this entire season, the Twins have never been at or above .500 since before they started playing on April 1st (0-0).

**They've been shutout 13 times.

**Despite 98 losses, the Twins actually own an 8-7 record against Kansas City, a 9-9 record vs. the White Sox, a 5-1 record against Texas and a 4-4 record against Oakland. Against every other American League opponent, they have a losing record this year including a 4-14 record against Detroit.

**The Twins have played in 45 games this year that are considered blowouts (wins by either team of 5+ runs), the Twins record in those games is other words, they've lost 30 games this season by 5 or more runs.

**Despite not having the worst record in baseball (a distinction owned by the lowly Houston Astros), the Twins do have the worst run differential in all of baseball at -185. By comparison, they run differential last year was +110. Yes Bill, good bullpen arms make a HUGE difference.

Alright that's enough. I've been eagerly reading some of the other Twins blogs with their suggestions and analysis of what the Twins might do in the off-season to start turning this thing around. I saw on Twitter the other day that the Twins drew over 3 million fans this year and I guess my message to the organization would be this: without some serious planning and a few savvy moves to improve this club for next year, you will have a brand-new, but half-empty stadium on your hands because I can promise you that the "new stadium smell" is going to wear off pretty quick if you keep carting a .384 team out there.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hard to Believe

One year ago today, the Twins beat the Cleveland Indians 6-4 and clinched the AL Central crown for the 2nd year in a row. One year ago today we were all talking about how nice it was to clinch the division with 11 games left to go in the season. One year ago today we were talking about how the Twins would set up their rotation for the playoffs.

Today I read an article that the Twins need to win tonight to avoid their longest losing streak since 1982. Today I read an article that the Twins need to win 4 out of their final 9 games in order to avoid only the 2nd 100-loss season in team history. Today the Twins are 59-94, 29.5 games out of first place and have the 2nd worst record in Major League Baseball...

My-oh-my how much can change in one year's time.

Much has been written about the reasons for the Twins' struggles this year and I'm not here to shed anymore light on it, I think we're all had enough hand-wringing and head-scratching for one season. It's amazing that a 94-win team with essentially the same group of core players could end up a near 100-loss team the very next season, but I suppose it's not without precedent. The 1990 Twins finished in last place and won only 74 games before winning 95 games in 1991 and going on to win the World Series. Since 1991, only 5 teams have gone from last place to first place and all of them were National League teams (source), two teams have gone from last place to make the playoffs via the Wildcard. To quote the movie, "Dumb and Dumber"..."so you're saying there's a chance!"

If the Twins can get Mauer, Morneau and a host of other injured players healthy over the off-season, they should have no problem out-performing this year's injury-riddled Triple-A team. It will be interesting to see what kind of fall-out there will be with regard to personnel changes within the Twins organization this off-season. If I had my vote I would probably find a new GM and a new training/medical staff. Bill Smith has proven to be mediocre at best and the with the number of injury debacles the Twins have had over the last few years, I think the Twins need to take a long, hard look at their training staff to see where some changes might be made. Getting healthy will be Goal #1 for the Twins this off-season and they will need to make a few savvy moves to shore up the many holes that this season has made obvious. Here's to next year.