Friday, January 30, 2009

Kubel's Contract, Cameron's Comments

The terms of Jason Kubel’s new contract have been disclosed, and they’re even better than I’d anticipated: two years, $7.2 million with a club option for 2011. The Twins will pay Kubel $2.75 million this year, $4.1 million in 2010 and -- should they choose to activate their option -- $5.1 million in 2011. Those terms compare very favorably to the annual salaries I guessed Kubel would make over this three-year deal ($3M/$5M/$7M).

Consider this: the 2009 season is the first year Michael Cuddyer would have been eligible for free agency, and as part of his new contract he’ll be making $6.75 million. Cuddyer has had only one season (2006) in his entire career in which he has posted better offensive numbers than Kubel has in each of his past two. Kubel has improved in each of the past two seasons and is reaching his peak years, so there’s no reason to believe he won’t either sustain or improve his performance over the next three seasons. So, in all likelihood, the Twins will be paying Kubel more than $1.5 million less in his first free-agent eligible season than they are Cuddyer, in spite of the fact that Kubel has pretty clearly established himself as the better hitter. This is a nice contract.

Dave Cameron doesn’t think so. In an article published Wednesday on, Cameron asserts that Kubel is basically the same player as Eric Hinske, who signed with the Pirates this week for $1.5 million, and uses this for the basis of an argument that paints Kubel’s contract as a needless risk for the Twins.

Let me first say that I am a huge fan of Dave Cameron. His work at the U.S.S. Mariner is outstanding and he’s truly one of my very favorite baseball bloggers outside of Minnesota. That’s why it pains me to say that he is woefully misguided on this topic.

From a purely statistical standpoint, there is some merit to the Kubel/Hinske comparison. Hinske is a .254/.335/.438 career hitter; Kubel weighs in at .268/.326/.445. Both rate dreadfully in the field, both display some nice left-handed power, both have fairly similar K/BB rates. What Cameron effectively ignores is that Hinske is four-and-a-half years older than Kubel and has nearly 1,800 more major-league at-bats. The only time Cameron makes any mention of the age difference between the two players is in this paragraph:
Yes, Hinske’s five years older, but MLB is full of players with that skillset. Minnesota could have just used Hinske this year, then found his clone next winter, and so on and so forth. Same reward with none of the associated risk that goes with multiyear contracts.
This is a completely baffling sentiment. First of all, five years of age and 1,800 at-bats of big-league experience are not inconsequential. We know what Hinske is by this point, but the fact that Kubel was a minor-league stud who missed a year of crucial development time due to a devastating knee injury and has been steadily improving ever since makes it much harder to judge what he’s capable of. In Kubel, I see a player who is inching closer and closer to the monster hitter he was in the minors. In Hinske, I see a washout whose utility doesn’t stretch beyond left-handed pinch hitter. The two players may share a “skillset” but are likely to be on opposite ends of the spectrum this year as far as how effective their skills really are.

As for Cameron’s suggested plan of using Hinske this year, then finding his “clone” next winter and continuing that path to keep the DH spot filled... it's fine in theory, but it's also something the Twins have shown absolutely no ability to do historically. As easy as it ostensibly is to find decent hitters who can fill the DH role, the Twins went almost half a decade without a competent player in that spot until Kubel’s emergence.

As for the supposed risk associated with the contract, the Twins are paying Kubel about a million more than Hinske will make this year (inconsequential considering their budget surplus) and they’re on the hook for $4.1 million in 2010, which they can pretty easily afford. That’s it. That’s all the risk they’re assuming. They can buy out his option for a paltry $350K in 2011 if his game goes to hell. The reward, which Cameron seems to believe doesn’t exist, is that the Twins have locked up a young, improving, in-house slugger to fill a position that has been a huge liability for them historically, and they’ve done so at a very reasonable price. No need to search the scrap heap on an annual basis for the supposedly ever-present slugging DH that is always available for a million bucks. Those who have followed the Twins are sure to appreciate this luxury, and one would think a person who had to suffer through Jose Vidro as a DH a year ago would appreciate it as well.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Joe Crede: Not a Solution

"We are being buried beneath the avalanche of your inadequacies, Mr. Creedy!"

In the 2005 film V For Vendetta, the above line was screamed angrily by the corrupt Chancellor Sutler at his subordinate Peter Creedy, the head of Britain's secret police force. Though it is spelled different, Mr. Creedy's surname is pronounced the same as that of Joe Crede, which made it a favorite line to yell at my TV any time the Twins would face the White Sox over the past couple seasons.

Crede is now a free agent, and the Twins have reportedly been had a few talks with his agent, Scott Boras. This has led to much speculation from fans who like his solid glove at the hot corner and his potential to bring some power from the right side of the plate. I've been intentionally shying away from the subject because I don't think my opinion will be a very popular one, but readers have commented on this blog for two consecutive days about how nice Crede would be as an acquisition so I feel compelled to put my two cents out there.

Joe Crede is not the answer.

Many people glance at Crede's 2006 hitting line (.283/.323/.506, 30 HR, 94 RBI, very good defense) and immediately salivate over the idea of him joining the Twins on a one-year deal. However, '06 was the only good, full season that Crede has put together in the past six years, and a look at his career hitting line paints a more sobering picture:

Joe Crede, career: .257/.306/.447

For comparison...

Tony Batista, career: .251/.291/.453

When the Twins signed Batista, he was 32 and fresh off spending a year playing in Japan. Crede will turn 31 in April, and he was stateside last season, he hasn't been playing much over the past two years, having been limited to 144 total games due to chronic back problems. Over that span, he has hit .237/.296/.412 with 21 homers and 77 RBI in 502 at-bats. Like Batista, Crede has the potential to hit some home runs from the right side. But like Batista, he's likely to do so while reaching base at a very poor rate.

Now, a healthy Crede is a vastly superior defender to Batista, which instantly makes him a far more valuable player. The problem is that "a healthy Crede" is not one that any team is likely to get this year, particularly not a team that plays on artificial turf. Crede's back problems hav been a major issue over the past two years and, knowing how back injuries can linger and haunt players, I'm rather skeptical of Crede's ability to remain healthy and fully productive throughout the 2009 season. Even if he's able to stay on the field for the majority of the year, there's a pretty good chance Crede's back will remain an impediment that saps his power and negatively affects his defensive prowess.

Now, there's little risk in handing Crede an inexpensive one-year deal and bringing him to camp to compete for a third base job, with the promise that he'll win the spot if he proves healthy and more capable than the alternatives. However, as we've seen with Batista, Adam Everett, Sidney Ponson, Ramon Ortiz, Livan Hernandez and numerous others, that's not how this organization goes about it's business. Even on one-year deals, when the Twins give a contract to a veteran player it almost always comes with the implicit guarantee of a starting job and a pretty long leash to go along with it. That is potentially very bad news for Brendan Harris and Brian Buscher, who should be able to form an effective platoon at third and who have earned a shot as long as the Twins can't find a legitimate upgrade externally.

A fully healthy and peak-performing Crede could do some things to help the Twins, but unfortunately the likelihood of that player emerging this year is extremely low. When I envision Crede playing for the 2009 Twins, I envision him struggling to hit for average or get on base, and showing less power in the pitcher-friendly Metrodome than people are hoping for based on his track record. I envision injuries negatively affecting his offensive and defensive performance when he's in the lineup, and causing him to be in and out of the lineup for much of the year, making third base an unstable and erratic position yet again. I envision him soaking up more money than he deserves and forcing the Twins to buy out the 2010 option on his contract that would almost surely be included by Boras.

The Twins have money to burn and bringing in Crede certainly wouldn't be the end of the world, but his upside isn't all that high and the chances of him reaching it are quite low. In the end, he is bogged down by too many inadequacies for me to get excited about the prospect of him as the Twins' 2009 third baseman.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Charting the Competition: The Indians

The Twins’ offseason strategy thus far has consisted of holding their 2008 roster largely intact, keeping both additions and subtractions to a minimum. Call me an optimist, but I feel that even with a lack of substantive moves, the Twins figure to be an improved team in 2009, if only moderately so. However, fielding a better team than they did in 2008 will not necessarily equate to a higher win total in 2009. The Twins' success will be tied to luck to some degree, and to an even greater degree it will be tied by the quality of competition, particularly within the AL Central.

Having weighed the offseason decisions of the White Sox, Royals and Tigers, I’ve seen no drastic steps forward and I am fairly confident that the Twins can be comfortably viewed as favorites over these three clubs. This, of course, leaves us with one remaining division opponent: the Indians.

The Cleveland Indians: Looking For Some Luck

The Indians entered this offseason with a set of needs similar to those of the Twins. Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro was seeking to shore up a bullpen which finished the ’08 campaign with a 5.13 ERA that ranked second-worst in the AL, and also looking for improved offense from a third base position that yielded a 704 OPS -- worse than the Twins.

Unlike the Twins and the rest of the AL Central clubs, Shapiro took an active, focused approach to solving these problems and managed to do so without surrendering a whole lot in terms of money or talent. The Indians were seemingly side players in the blockbuster J.J. Putz trade, but they may have come out of that deal better than either of the other teams involved, having acquired a quality young bullpen arm in Joe Smith and a promising infield prospect in Luis Valbuena while parting with nothing they couldn’t afford to lose. The Tribe also managed to pry Mark DeRosa from the Cubs in return for three expendable minor-league pitchers, a move I was quite upset that the Twins hadn’t made themselves.

Shapiro’s biggest move of the offseason was signing Kerry Wood to take over as the team’s closer. The deal is somewhat risky considering that it’s a pricey two-year commitment to a guy with a long history of arm problems, but Wood was healthy and dominant for almost the entirety of the ’08 season and can help lift the Cleveland bullpen in a major way if he repeats that performance this year.

The additions of Smith, Wood and DeRosa figure to effectively fill some glaring holes on what wasn’t a bad team to begin with. The Indians finished in third place and 7.5 games out of first last season, but when you consider that they’d been in last place and 14 games away from the division lead in mid-August, that’s not necessarily an unimpressive finish. The Indians surged late in the year, going 31-17 over their final 48 games and looking like quite clearly the Central’s best team over the final two months of regular-season play. And that was without C.C. Sabathia and Paul Byrd, a fact that helps temper arguments that they’ll miss those two in the upcoming season.

Back in the intro paragraph of this article, I mentioned that a team’s success was dependent to some degree on luck. Few teams exemplify this better than the Indians, who scored 805 runs while allowing 761 last season, which means -- according to the Pythagorean Winning Percentage theory -- that with neutral luck they’d have gone 85-77. With a bit of good luck, the Indians could have darn well been right there with the Twins and White Sox at the top of the division. This was nothing new; the Indians experienced similarly bad luck in 2006, when their actual record of 78-84 was 11 wins below their Pythagorean record of 89-73.Yet, in 2007, when the Tribe actually played up to its potential, they came within a game of the World Series.

The Indians are a young team that underperformed last year, finished strong, and has made some savvy moves to improve weaknesses during the offseason. They enter the 2008 season with the reigning Cy Young winner leading their rotation and a perennial MVP candidate patrolling center field. Bill Smith’s laid-back approach this offseason may have worked to keep his club in front of some other gun-shy general managers around the division, but Shapiro’s proactive approach looks to have propelled his club past the inactive Twins and thus prevents our hometown club from entering the season as division favorites as things currently stand.

In order to come out on top of the Indians this year, the Twins are going to have to exceed expectations, or else hope that Cleveland is once again bit by the bad luck bug.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Charting the Competition: The Tigers

Today we continue continue our tour through the AL Central competition in an effort to determine whether the Twins' plan of standing pat this offseason puts them in position to enter the 2009 season as favorites to win the division. In breaking down the White Sox and the Royals last week, I determined that neither team's offseason maneuvers were enough to clearly position them above the Twins, who remain completely intact after missing the playoffs by a game last year. Today, I'll take a look at the Motown squad.

Detroit Tigers: Tamed?

The last offseason was an exciting one for GM Dave Dombrowski, who seemingly established his Tigers as division favorites with blockbuster trades that brought in Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria. These two players were coming off excellent seasons, and adding them to an already potent lineup set the Tigers up to feature a top offense that some misguidedly guessed might score 1,000 runs.

As it turned out, Renteria was a massive disappointment, and while Cabrera bounced back from a slow start to finish with numbers that warranted MVP consideration, that wasn't enough to overcome a shoddy defense and a terrible pitching staff as the Tigers finished last in the AL Central.

This offseason has been a much quieter in Detroit, which has been hit harder by the current economic crisis than most any other place in the nation. The Tigers' offseason thus far has consisted of relatively minor moves, such as the acquisitions of Adam Everett and Ramon Santiago via free agency and the acquisitions of Edwin Jackson and Gerald Laird via trade. These are decent moves, but certainly not sufficient to lift a team from worst to first.

With Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield and an assortment of talented younger players in place, the Tigers offense figures to remain strong in 2009. The pitching staff, however, is another story. This unit was downright horrible last year, allowing 5.29 runs per game and surrendering more homers than any other team in the AL. Justin Verlander is bound to get better and Jackson is a nice backend addition, but the Tigers need some other guys to step up if they want to really get things turned around. Additionally, the Detroit bullpen was a huge liability last year, and the team missed out on all the top closers and ended up signing Brandon Lyon, who is hardly a dominator.

All in all, the Tigers' offseason moves thus far have been pretty uninspiring, and much like the Twins it seems that Detroit will be relying on internal improvements to carry them in 2009. Considering how much older their roster is than that of the Twins and how much further they have to climb, the Tigers seem like longshots to improve enough to capture the division this season.

So, after breaking down three division opponents, it seems to me that even with their passive approach this offseason the Twins are still in strong shape entering the 2009 season. Tomorrow I'll take a look at the final opponent populating the AL Central, the Cleveland Indians.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Charting the Competition: The Royals

Yesterday, I wrote about the Twins' apparent offseason strategy of standing still and hoping they can improve from within enough to shoot past their divisional foes in 2009. This plan is dependent on other teams in the AL Central failing to make sufficient strides to surpass the Twins, who -- despite featuring a young and potentially improving roster -- aren't likely to be world-beaters in '09 as currently comprised. In yesterday's entry I concluded that the defending division champs are more likely to get worse than better in 2009 and as such have surrendered the thin advantage that allowed them to skim past the Twins last season. Today I continue my breakdown of the the AL Central with a look at the Royals.

Kansas City Royals: A Royal Head-Scratcher

Dayton Moore has been pretty active this offseason, making numerous moves guided by some apparent overarching strategy. It’s anybody’s guess just what that strategy is.

The Royals traded a reliever to bring in Mike Jacobs, a first baseman from Florida who brings power from the left side and little else. They traded another reliever to bring in Coco Crisp, who I’ll get to shortly. In an effort to fill the hole created in the bullpen by the departure of these two relievers, they handed a two-year deal worth $9.25 million to Kyle Farnsworth, who will turn 33 in April and is coming off three straight sub par seasons. They also signed Willie Bloomquist, who is basically a poor man’s Nick Punto.

There’s some talent amongst this group of newcomers, but it’s not clear what logic went into targeting these particular names. The Royals finished the 2008 season with a .320 OBP, which ranked third-worse in the AL. Moore showed no visible commitment to improving this grave issue. Bloomquist holds a .322 career OBP. Jacobs is at .318 (.299 last season). Crisp’s career OBP is .331, which isn’t horrendous but also isn’t adequate for a leadoff hitter, which is the role he’s likely to fill in the Kansas City lineup.

Here’s the other thing about Crisp. While a talented player, he’s awfully similar to someone the Royals already have: David DeJesus. The two outfielders are literally almost the same age (they were born within a month of one another), and Crisp’s .280/.344/.409 career hitting line isn’t much different from the .287/.360/.422 line that DeJesus has produced in six seasons. Crisp has more speed and is a better defender, but DeJesus is a superior hitter so the two basically even out. I’m not saying Crisp was a bad acquisition, but it strikes me as odd that one of Moore’s biggest offseason splashes was a trade that brings in a player so similar to one they already have when are there were larger holes to be filled.

What will make the Royals a dark horse candidate to contend this year is their pitching rotation. Zack Greinke and Gil Meche form a solid 1-2 punch at the top, and if young Luke Hochevar can take a step forward while Brian Bannister rebounds from an awful 2008 campaign, the Royals have the potential to surprise, especially with elite closer Joakim Soria slamming the door.

Still, this team has too many questions and too many holes to be viewed as a legitimate contender. The Twins remain safe for now.

Next week we’ll pick up with the Tigers.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Charting the Competition: The White Sox

One topic that was requested by a reader in the comments section last week was a breakdown of the moves other teams around the division have made this offseason. Given the complete lack of activity we've seen from the Twins this winter, that seems like a pretty reasonable idea. If our home squad isn't going to give us anything to dissect, we'll just have to analyze their divisional foes.

The Twins are seemingly employing a strategy that involves keeping their young roster largely intact, hoping for some internal improvements, and banking on getting better as a whole while the other teams in the division stay put or take steps back. It's not a horrible strategy; the Twins were within a game of the playoffs last year and there is plenty of reason to expect improvements from a number of their youthful and still relatively inexperienced players. Still, this strategy is predicated on the notion that other teams around the AL Central won't make enough improvements to pass the Twins by, and that's something that haunted them in the 2005 and 2007 seasons.

So today I'll start a series of articles exploring the Twins' four AL Central opponents, breaking down their offseason moves up to this point and judging whether they've improved enough to render the Twins' plan of standing pat a faulty one. We begin today with our arch-rivals from the South Side.

Chicago White Sox: Oh My God, Who Killed Kenny?

It's been an uncharacteristically quiet offseason for Kenny Williams' Sox. They sent Nick Swisher to the Yankees in return for a borderline starter in Wilson Betemit along with a couple prospects. They sent Javier Vazquez to the Braves in a move that wasn't bad but doesn't really help them this year (the key to the trade was catching prospect Tyler Flowers, who isn't likely to be big-league ready for a couple years at least). They signed Bartolo Colon. They will, in all likelihood, lose Orlando Cabrera to another club, although the shortstop remains a free agent at present.

This is an aging offense, with key players like Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye all moving into their mid-to-late 30s. Nevertheless, those guys can still hit and solid younger players like Carlos Quentin and Alexei Ramirez return as well. I suspect Chicago's offense will be alright. The bigger concern is their starting pitching. The loss of Vazquez leaves them thin in the back of the rotation, and banking on Colon to fill one of those slots is a risky proposition given that the 35-year-old hasn't topped 100 innings in a season since 2005 and has accumulated a 5.38 ERA over the past three seasons when he's been able to pitch. The Sox rotation figures to shake out with Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Colon taking the top four spots while a handful of unproven young starters battle for the final job.

That's potentially a decent rotation, but with all that uncertainly surrounding the bottom portion, the top portion needs to be rock solid. In order for that to happen, Chicago will need Danks and Floyd to repeat their strong performances from 2008. I'm willing to buy that Danks is the real deal, but I'm highly skeptical of Floyd. He went 17-8 with a 3.84 ERA last season, but the impressive surface numbers were sort of the result of a perfect storm of circumstances. Chicago's offense averaged 5.9 runs per game behind Floyd and he allowed a whole lot of unearned runs (his Runs Against Average was 4.67 -- nearly a run higher than his ERA). He also saw only 11.4 percent of fly balls hit against him turn into home runs, a major step down from his figures of 17.3 and 20.9 the two years prior; this improvement probably had more to do with luck than any tangible adjustment made by the pitcher. The bottom line is that Floyd's 4.61 xFIP, his lack of previous success and the unsustainable trends I listed above all lead me to believe there's a good chance he'll come hurdling back down to Earth in 2009. And if that happens, the White Sox don't have the type of solid depth to fall back on that the Twins do.

Last year, Chicago's rotation was about as good as the Twins' was. I find this very unlikely to happen again in 2009, and since they're not giving me any real reason to believe they'll be a better team offensively, I'd say that -- as things currently stand -- the White Sox aren't a big threat. So far, the Twins' plan looks sound.

Tomorrow, I'll take a look at the Royals.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Making the Rounds

We're only about a month away from the deadline for pitchers and catchers to report to spring training, yet one hardly gets the feeling that this offseason is winding down with so many free agents remaining unsigned and with the Twins having made virtually no moves to bring in external help up to this point.

In the coming days I plan to touch on a few more of the topics that readers suggested last week when I opened the floor to post ideas, but for today I'm going to get caught up on recent Twins-related news... at least what there is of it.

* La Velle E. Neal III reports that the Twins are moving closer to signing Eric Gagne in what would stand as the team's first legitimate effort to augment its battered bullpen this offseason. Once an elite closer for the Dodgers, Gagne hit an injury wall in his late 20s, pitching only 15 2/3 innings between the 2005 and 2006 seasons due to back and elbow problems. He's been mostly ineffective since returning from Tommy John surgery and was a disaster for the Brewers last year, but the Twins have money to blow and Gagne has plenty of upside if he can get healthy.

There's little downside to handing Gagne a one-year deal, but he's hardly the slam-dunk bullpen upgrade that some were hoping for this offseason.

* Also from Neal, we learn that the Twins have signed Jason Kubel to a two-year deal. That news initially struck me as uninteresting, but an update to Neal's post indicating that the contract also includes a club option for the 2011 season makes me like the signing a lot. Kubel has two years of arbitration remaining, so a two-year deal would have done nothing other than give the team cost certainty over the next couple seasons, since they'd have been in no danger of losing him anyway. The option for a third year puts Kubel under the team's control through his first year of free agency, though since they're not fully committed, they are protected in the event that Kubel's injury problems resurface or his performance takes an unforeseen dive.

I'm convinced that Kubel is going to be a key component of this offense over the next several years; getting him locked up for the next three seasons gives us one less thing to worry about. Terms of the deal have not yet been released, but my guess is that Kubel will earn something like $3 million and $5 million over the next two years, with the option registering somewhere around $7 million.

* Joe Mauer, who underwent a minor kidney surgery this offseason, announced a while ago that he'd be skipping the World Baseball Classic festivities and has now indicated that he may not be ready for the start of spring training. That Mauer is passing on the WBC is hardly disappointing given the strenuous workload a catcher experiences and the importance of his health. I'll admit that I am slightly concerned to hear that he likely won't be ready by the start of spring training. The organization continues to indicate that there is no cause to worry, but far too often I've seen these seemingly small issues linger on for weeks.

As Mauer goes, so go the Twins. In 2005 and 2007 the catcher was limited by injuries and the Twins struggled. In 2006 and 2008 Mauer was a healthy MVP-caliber player and the Twins were a playoff-caliber team. It's almost difficult to imagine the Twins not contending in a season where Mauer is fully healthy and productive.

Friday, January 16, 2009

My Top Ten Prospects

Wednesday's plea for some ideas on topics to write about yielded numerous emails and comments with intriguing suggestions. Thanks to everyone who wrote in. A few of your requests might be a little beyond my level of capability, being that I don't have access to the Twins clubhouse that would be required to delve into some of the subjects readers inquired about, but I'll certainly try to touch on every topic that was brought up in some form.

One request that I received from a few people was that I put together a top prospects list. Indeed, in the four years that this blog has existed I have never put compiled such a list despite the fact that I follow the team's minor-league system pretty closely. Mainly this is because there are is a sizable group of other experts, bloggers and fans out there who put together such rankings and I didn't feel there was much need for me to add my own list to the fray, being that it likely wouldn't differ a whole lot from the other ones.

But, your wish is my command. I don't have the time or wherewithal to put together a Top 40 list or anything that expansive right now, but I will write up my take on the organization's Top 10 prospects, along with a brief explanation for each. I'll also add a few guys who didn't make my Top 10 cut (but probably did for a lot of other people), with a brief explanation as to why they're not quite amongst my elite.

Listed next to each player his position and the level at which he finished the 2008 season.

10. Steve Tolleson - 2B - New Britain Rock Cats (AA)
Tolleson had displayed an ability to hit for average and get on base during his first three seasons in the Twins' system, but last year for the first time flashed some legitimate power, socking 38 extra-base hits and slugging .466 in his first stint at Double-A. His glove will be what makes or breaks Tolleson as a prospect -- I've heard varying reports, most indicating that he won't make it as a shortstop but is more than passable at second. A middle infielder with a big OBP and some pop would be a big help to the Twins.

9. Angel Morales - CF - Elizabethton Twins (rookie)
Morales has fanned in a ridiculous 116 of his 361 plate appearances (32 percent) since being drafted in June of '07, but you've got to love the power -- he batted .301/.413/.623 as an 18-year-old in advanced rookie ball last season, ripping 15 homers while also covering significant ground in the outfield. He'll have a hard time reaching the majors unless he can improve his ability to make contact, but rangy outfielders with top-notch speed and power always raise eyebrows.

8. Shooter Hunt - SP - Beloit Snappers (A)
Hunt shredded up rookie-level competition after being drafted last June, but struggled mightily with his control while finishing up the season in Low-A Beloit. In 31 innings for the Snappers, Hunt issued 27 walks and threw six wild pitches. His devastating arsenal and youth secure his spot in the Top 10, but Hunt's control problems and physically exerting delivery raise serious concerns.

7. Anthony Slama - RP - Ft. Myers Miracle (A+)
He was doing it against a level of competition that was clearly beneath him, but Slama's incredible 2008 numbers are still impossible to ignore. In 71 innings, the right-hander struck out 110 batters while allowing only 43 hits and zero home runs. Slama's ability to miss bats, combined with good control and strong ground ball tendencies, makes him a very good bet to keep plowing through hitters as he moves up.

6. Kevin Mulvey - SP - Rochester Red Wings (AAA)
Mulvey doesn't wow you with his gaudy numbers or his youth, but he's a very solid pitcher who could help the Twins as soon as this year. Mulvey isn't a dominator -- he gives up hits, lets the occasional ball fly out of the park and doesn't pump strikes like Nick Blackburn or Kevin Slowey. Still, Mulvey is a 23-year-old with a 3.36 ERA in two-and-a-half pro seasons who has already established himself at the highest level of the minors. He also posted the best strikeout rate of his career in his first real stint at the Triple-A level last year, indicating that he's growing along with the level of competition.

5. Danny Valencia - 3B - New Britain Rock Cats (AA)
You won't find Valencia this high on many other lists. He isn't spectacular in any aspect of the game, but he also lacks huge flaws, which makes him a relatively safe bet to succeed as he moves up. Valencia hails from a respected college program, possesses the ability to hit for very good average and power from the right side of the plate (much needed assets in this organization), and has reportedly made significant strides defensively since being drafted. Valencia has moved through four levels in two-and-a-half years as a pro and has had success at each one. I'm going to keep liking him until he gives me something not to like.

4. Jose Mijares - RP - Minnesota Twins (MLB)
There's a good chance Mijares is finished with the minor leagues, but he retains his prospect status and certainly ranks as the best outside of the "Big Three." I think some people are a little too high on Mijares after his brief successful stint with the Twins last September, and the control issues that have haunted his career will probably resurface at some point, but he's got electric stuff and should have a nice career as a quality setup man.

3. Ben Revere - CF - Beloit Snappers (A)
I ran through several reasons why I think Revere is a movable asset last week, but that doesn't mean I don't think he's a great ball player. Through one-and-a-half pro seasons, Revere holds a .360/.416/.484 hitting line. He gets on base and becomes a great weapon once he's there thanks to his lightning speed. It'd be lovely if Revere could develop some power as he ages, but his base skill set already gives him star potential as long as he can continue to hit for big averages.

2. Wilson Ramos - C - Ft. Myers Miracle (High-A)
Ramos first started garnering attention in 2007 when he hit .291 and belted eight homers in Low-A as a 19-year-old. He continued to progress in '08, when he batted .288/.346/.434 with 13 homers and 73 RBI for Ft. Myers. The numbers might not seem all that impressive, but that perception changes when you consider that he was younger than most the competition and is reportedly an exceptional defensive catcher. Backstops who can field their position and hit with power are tough to come by, making Ramos a premium player. If he continues to grow, the Mauer-to-third conversation might be one worth having in a few years.

1. Aaron Hicks - CF - GCL Twins (rookie)
A highly regarded high school star, Hicks quickly made good on his first-round selection by hitting .318/.402/.491 as an 18-year-old in rookie ball. Hicks displayed discipline (32/28 K/BB ratio), power (18 XBH in 173 AB) and speed (12-for-14 on SB attempts) while reportedly playing excellent defense. This kid's got a lot of different skills that can help move him toward the majors, and if they all progress together he could blossom into an elite player. Plus, if he never makes it as a position player, he can always fall back on his arm, which tempted some teams to consider drafting him as a pitcher.


Anthony Swarzak - SP - Rochester Red Wings
He was hammered in New Britain last year before receiving an unexpected promition to Rochester and finishing the year with a 5-0 record and 1.80 ERA there. I'm not convinced his success at the end of the year was real, though.

Carlos Gutierrez - RP - Ft. Myers Miracle
Widely considered a reach when the Twins picked him up in the first round of last June's draft, Gutierrez jumped straight to High-A and pitched well there in a 25-inning bullpen stint. I need to see more from him before I'm willing to call him a Top 10 prospect, though, particularly in light of reports that he lacks secondary pitches to complement his sinker.

Luke Hughes - 3B - Rochester Red Wings
Hughes had a great power season last year, hitting 18 homers over 99 games between Double-A and Triple-A, but most reports I've seen indicate that his defense isn't palatable at third base, and maybe not even at second. Hughes' offense isn't nearly as intriguing if he can't play in the infield.

Chris Parmelee - 1B - Beloit Snappers
Love the patience and power, but I find his terrible batting averages deeply concerning. Parmelee has hit .246 over his three-year career and has hit .239 for two straight seasons in Beloit. People point to guys like Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell and Jack Cust as examples of successful low-average/high-OPS hitters, but those players batted .300 in the minors.

Tyler Robertson - SP - Ft. Myers Miracle
There are a lot of things to like about Robertson -- he's a young, tall left-hander who has posted excellent numbers. He was shut down midway through last season due to shoulder problems and late in the year was reportedly topping out in the 80s with his fastball. That's disconcerting. If he can prove his shoulder is healthy this year, he can easily hop right back into the Top 10... perhaps even the Top 5.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ideas? Suggestions?

I must apologize for the rather inconsistent update schedule on this blog over the course of the past couple months. I assure you it hasn’t been for a lack of effort. I’m not exactly breaking any ground when I say this has been an awfully quiet offseason for the Twins, and as such it’s been quite a struggle for me to come up with topics to write about and keep the page fresh.

With that being said, I wanted to open the doors to any suggestions. If there’s something you’d like to see covered in this space in the near future, please feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email at [email protected]. All ideas shall be taken into consideration.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Three Pressing Needs For 2009

The Twins accomplished a lot of things during the year of 2008. They locked up Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan with long-term deals, acquired a couple potential young lineup fixtures in Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez, worked Francisco Liriano back from elbow surgery, moved several players to the majors for the first time, and generally set themselves up well to compete over the next few years.

The year of 2009 presents new challenges and goals to be met. Here are three things that I feel should stand as top priorities for the Twins before the ball drops in Times Square once again:

3) See what they've got in their minor-league relievers.
It's no secret that the organization's handling of Anthony Slama in 2008 was a huge source of frustration for me. The Twins are short on quality bullpen arms and any potential help should be welcome, so there is no excuse for failing to move promising relief arms through the minors at a reasonable rate.

Well the Twins' bullpen is likely to improve on its own in 2009, Bill Smith's "do nothing" approach isn't going to get bring the team's relief corps back to its glory days. Recruiting some live arms from the minors could provide a big boost to this bullpen -- be it in 2009 or beyond -- and figuring out whether guys like Slama, Rob Delaney and Blair Erickson are going to be able to fulfill that role should be a key priority for the Twins this year.

2) Work to figure out a long-term solution at third base.
I'm not going to say they should have their problems at the hot corner completely solved by the end of the year -- that seems unrealistic -- but they need to make some real progress. Third base has been a perpetual headache for this franchise ever since Corey Koskie's departure. They've tried numerous different players at the position, from Michael Cuddyer to Tony Batista to Nick Punto to Mike Lamb to a handful of part-timers, and all these options have provided substandard-to-disastrous results. Meanwhile, minor-leaguers like Matt Moses and David Winfree have raised hope for an in-house solution before fizzling out.

This year-to-year stopgap approach needs to end. The Twins need to pinpoint a long-term answer at third base so they can stop dealing with the same problems every offseason. It seems all but assured that they'll roll with Brendan Harris and Brian Buscher at the position this year; that's OK, but such a platoon must be viewed as nothing more than a short-term answer. It's unlikely that the Twins will pull off a trade for someone like Adrian Beltre, but even if they do he will serve as a one-year solution.

The key for the Twins will be figuring out what they have in Danny Valencia. This is a big year for Valencia; he's 24 and he'll likely start the year in Double-A. At his advanced age, if he sputters the Twins should probably stop considering him as a legitimate option. If he dominates Double-A and finishes the year strong in Triple-A, the Twins could conceivably look at him as a potential big-league starter in 2010 and beyond. The worst (but unfortunately most likely) thing that could happen is that Valencia's performance falls somewhere between those two extremes, leaving the organization in limbo as to whether or not he can eventually be a palatable answer at third. Luke Hughes is another guy who the Twins can keep an eye on this year, though reports I've heard indicate that he's not likely to stick in the big leagues as a regular third baseman.

Hopefully, the Twins will have a better idea at the end of this upcoming season whether or not Valencia has a future as a regular in the majors. If not, Smith and his staff need to put their full efforts behind finding a long-term answer at third base. The annual failed experiments at the hot corner have got to end.

1) Extend Joe Mauer's contract.
Mauer still has two years left on his contract. It's too early to be worrying about him, right? Well, that's the same thing people were passively saying about Johan Santana prior to the 2007 season. Sometimes, locking up a superstar two years before he is due to hit free agency is the wisest choice, so as to avoid the swirling trade rumors and media circus that inevitably ensue when a player has only one year remaining on his contract. Plus, regardless of the source, it's a bit scary to read a report that the Red Sox "already are salivating over Mauer."

Mauer is among the very top echelon of players in baseball, and would be only 27 when he entered free agency, making him perhaps the most attractive position player to hit the open market since Alex Rodriguez left the Mariners. The Twins would be best to avoid having to even think about the bidding war that would ensue if the big-market clubs started making offers to Mauer. They should lock Mauer up to a long-term deal sometime this year, be it in the spring or during the season. It's going to be expensive, but it's about time this franchise ponied up a bit. Considering that they are well under budget for 2009, it would make sense for the Twins to include a large signing bonus up front as they did with Morneau and Michael Cuddyer last year.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Pohlad, Pavano, and the Pathetic Purple

We’re a full week into 2009 now, and so far I’ve got to say it doesn’t feel much different from 2008. Oh well. Here are a few notes as we keep counting down toward those four beautiful words: “Pitchers and catchers report.”

* I briefly commented yesterday on the passing of Carl Pohlad, who has officially owned the Twins since he purchased the team from Calvin Griffith back in 1984 (though it’s fairly well known that his sons have been running things for the past few years). Certainly this qualifies as big news for those who have followed the team, as Pohlad has been a figurehead in this organization for over two decades.

I don’t know what’s really appropriate to say at this point. Pohlad lived for 93 years, enjoyed great wealth for much of his lifetime, was part of a great family and had the privilege of owning a Major League Baseball team. I think it’s fair to say he had a good run. I respect the fact that he built a fortune for himself and that the Twins won two World Series Championships during his tenure. Whether or not the complaints that Pohlad was overly stingy when it came to putting money into this franchise were fair is debatable, but I do know that I will forever hold bitterness toward him for his role in nearly contracting the team back in 2001.

In any case, I do send my best wishes to the Pohlad family as they cope with their loss. I don’t know much about his sons and their interest in continuing to operate the franchise; it will be interesting to see if an effort is made to sell the team over the next few years.

* The Indians yesterday came to terms with Carl Pavano on a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, plus incentives. The Yankees made a big mistake when they bought high on Pavano after his career year for the Marlins in 2004, but this is a great signing for the Indians. One and a half million isn’t a large commitment, and his possible $5.3 million in incentives don’t begin to kick in until his reaches 18 starts or 130 innings (neither of which he has accomplished since 2004).

I’m not a big fan of Pavano, but he’s 33 years old and has a history of pitching well. If he stays healthy, he can probably counted on for close to league average production; if he doesn’t stay healthy, the Indians aren’t on the hook for much money at all. This is what a low-risk veteran signing should look like. When you hear complaints about the Twins handing $5 million to Livan Hernandez and $3 million to Ramon Ortiz, this is why.

I think the Indians have had an absolutely fantastic offseason. They’ve upgraded their bullpen substantially by adding Kerry Wood and Joe Smith, they’ve filled a hole in their infield by acquiring Mark DeRosa, and now they’ve brought in a potentially solidified a patchy rotation with the addition of Pavano. They also grabbed a very nice future middle-infield piece in Luis Valbuena, who came over in the J.J. Putz blockbuster. They’ve done all this while giving up very little in terms of money or players (with the exception of the somewhat expensive Wood contract). I still question whether they will enter the 2009 season as solid favorites in the AL Central because there are some serious questions about guys like Fausto Carmona and Travis Hafner, but this is a club that came on strong late last year and GM Mark Shapiro has made some savvy moves this winter, making it all the more frustrating to watch Bill Smith continually sit still.

* I guess I’m what you could call a Vikings fan, but for the most part I tend to be pretty indifferent about them. People sometimes ask me why. The fact that Brad Childress remains employed after that debacle of a playoff game and after that wholly underwhelming season should be explanation enough. I do my fair share of complaining about decisions made by the Twins organization, but it is by far the most competently run sports franchise in this town.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A Case For Trading Ben Revere

Having come within a game of the postseason in 2008, the Twins enter the 2009 season with last year's roster almost entirely intact, and with a great opportunity to seize an eminently winnable AL Central division. The problem is that the Twins have not made one meaningful addition this offseason, and if that continues to be the case they're not likely to be favored by many to make the playoffs, much less succeed there. As solid as the the Twins' roster is, they may have a hard time keeping up with competing AL clubs that have been wheeling and dealing to improve their chances. As cliche as it may seem, there's plenty of truth to the notion that adding one impact player could make all the difference in what figures to be a tight division race in '09.

Of course, making a move while holding a "win now" mentality typically means giving away pieces with future value in return for immediate help. The Twins aren't generally in the business of trading away promising minor-leaguers for established veterans (usually they're on the opposite end of those swaps), but they have had some success in the past with trading prospects. As two examples, you can look at the Luis Castillo trade prior to the 2006 season and last year's Delmon Young/Matt Garza swap. In order to acquire Castillo, the Twins had to ship highly touted RP prospect Travis Bowyer to the Marlins along with a solid starting prospect in Scott Tyler. The deal seemed risky at the time, but Bowyer struggled with injury problems immediately after reaching the Marlins organization and hasn't pitched in a professional game since the trade. Meanwhile, Tyler fizzled out and never moved past Double-A. In the Young trade, Bill Smith was forced to include top RP prospect Eduardo Morlan in order to entice the Rays, a move that the time drew ire from fans such as myself. Yet, like Bowyer, Morlan struggled with injury problems last season and after the season was deemed expendable enough by the Rays to be left vulnerable in the Rule V draft.

If the Twins want to make a move and bring in a quality player who can help immediately, it might mean giving up a prospect who is deemed highly valuable by other teams around the league. The trick for the Twins is making sure that player isn't one whose loss will come back to haunt them. To me, the perfect candidate for such a purpose is Ben Revere.

Revere was a great story last year. The diminutive, athletic outfielder had plenty of doubters after being grabbed up by the Twins in the first round of the 2007 draft in what was almost universally viewed as a huge reach intended to save the organization money on a signing bonus. Yet, after a successful half-season rookie-league debut in 2007, Revere took the Midwest League by storm last season, flirting with a .400 average for much of the year and ultimately finishing with a .379/.433/.497 line that earned the 20-year-old the No. 2 slot on Baseball America's postseason organizational Top Ten Prospects list. Clearly, Revere's value is very high right now. And in my mind, there's a very good chance it will never be higher.

I have a sinking feeling that Revere's stock is going to drop significantly, and perhaps as soon as next year. For while the possibility certainly exists that he could ultimately develop into "Ichiro without the arm," as I've heard a few analysts predict, I believe it is much more likely that he develops into a Juan Pierre type player -- an outfielder who hits for a solid average and runs well but doesn't provide much else. Should Revere follow that path, it doesn't mean he can't be a useful player, but it also means he's pretty expendable.

While Revere maintained a nearly even K/BB ratio last year and did manage 18 extra-base hits in 83 games, my fear is that he will never develop great patience at the plate (he's walked only 40 times in 133 minor-league games) or legitimate power (he's homered only once over that same span). If this is true, his value will be tied directly to his ability to hit for a high batting average, and it seems rather unlikely that he'll continue to hit in the high .300s as he moves up through the minors. Should Revere hit something like .300/.350/.390 in Ft. Myers next year, his value could take a pretty significant hit considering that he's an outfielder whose throwing arm is reportedly a considerable liability.

Another key factor worth considering is the fact that Revere is somewhat redundant in this organization. Not only are there several athletic center-field types in front of him -- such as Carlos Gomez, Denard Span, Jason Pridie, Dustin Martin and Joe Benson -- he's also got the organization's top prospect right behind him.

Aaron Hicks starred in the Gulf Coast League last year, and he's got something I always look for in a top prospect: outs. What I mean by that is that Hicks has enough intriguing aspects to his game that if he doesn't develop in certain areas, he has other skills that he can reliably fall back on. Hicks showed impressive discipline at the plate in his pro debut last year, and he also displayed solid power. Even if that plate discipline dissipates as he moves up, Hicks still has a decent shot at being a productive hitter because he has a legitimate shot at developing power. Moreover, Hicks is reportedly a very strong defender with a cannon for an arm, so even if the bat doesn't really pan out, he could still find a niche as a top-notch defensive center fielder. A similar case can be made for catcher Wilson Ramos, who I feel is the organization's second-best prospect. Even if Ramos fails to make major strides with his plate discipline, he's already got a pretty powerful bat, and if that fizzles out he can fall back on his reputation as an excellent defensive backstop.

I'm not seeing as many outs for Revere. At 5'9" and 166 lbs, it seems unlikely to me that he'll ever develop much power (though it's certainly not impossible), and should that be the case, then what happens if his plate discipline starts to decline as he moves up, or if his batting averages start to head south?

I like Revere and would love to see what he could do as he moves up the ladder in this organization. But the Twins are in a great position to succeed right now, and in order to bring in something of immediate value through a trade, they must part with something that is perceived as valuable to another club. For this reason, it'd be tough for the Twins to build an attractive package around prospects who aren't at their peak value -- guys like Anthony Swarzak, Jeff Manship and Tyler Robertson. Revere is a hot item right now... perhaps hotter than he will ever be in the future. That makes this the perfect time to move him, particularly considering that the Twins have enough depth to move forward comfortably without him.


On a final note, I'd like to send my thoughts to the Pohlad family. Longtime Twins owner Carl Pohlad passed away yesterday at the age of 93.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Swwwwing and a Miss

I've been pretty passive about the Twins' lack of activity this season, seeing few legitimate options that were worth getting excited about. One player that I really got behind was Mark DeRosa, an infielder from the Cubs who posted very solid numbers last year and would have represented a cheap one-year fix at third base. In analyzing DeRosa a couple weeks ago, I said that "if the Cubs' asking price is reasonable," acquiring him "makes all the sense in the world."

Unfortunately, it wasn't the Twins who figured that out, but instead their division rivals. The Indians Wednesday sent three marginal pitching prospects to Chicago in return for DeRosa, who immediately fills a hole in their infield. This development is disappointing, to say the least. Not only did the Twins fail to make a move in spite of the fact that the Cubs clearly weren't asking for a whole lot in return, but they let perhaps the most dangerous team in the division going into the '09 season outbid them and acquire a player who most certainly improves their club.

I've gone out of my way to go easy on Bill Smith, but even I'm starting to lose patience. As bad as his trades and free agent signings from last winter are looking, and as stunning as his inability to upgrade the bullpen over the course of the 2008 season was, and now as pathetic as his display on the DeRosa bidding war (if we can even call it that -- it certainly doesn't seem like the Twins made much of an effort here) has been, Smith is running out of slack.

I wish you all the best as you turn your calendars from 2008 to 2009. The Twins' new year certainly hasn't gotten off to a very promising start.