Friday, February 27, 2009

Spring Cleaning

It feels a bit strange referring to the current point in time as "spring" considering we just had several inches of snow dumped on us up here in Minnesota, but down in Florida spring training is definitely underway and the Twins have gotten their Grapefruit League schedule off to a good start with wins over the Red Sox and Reds. Today, we'll wrap up the week with some notes on various Twins-related topics...

* Yesterday's 10-4 win over the Reds was highlighted by an eighth-inning grand slam off the bat of first baseman Brock Peterson. Peterson is a player who I've always found be underrated as a prospect, and he's a guy I recently touted as a candidate to surprise people this spring. A .269/.349/.435 career minor-league line from a 25-year-old first baseman is far from impressive, and it's discouraging that his numbers took a dive last year in his second turn at Double-A, but Peterson is one of the few hitters in the Twins organization with power from the right side of the plate. If he can make some strides this year, Peterson could battle for a role as a backup first baseman and part-time DH on the big-league roster in 2010.

* If the first two games of spring training are any indication, the tales of Brian Buscher's added muscle mass were not exaggerated. Buscher started the spring opener at third base and got the nod yesterday at first, and through five at-bats he's already racked up four hits, including a double and a home run. Five spring at-bats don't really mean anything, but we'll take whatever flashes of power we can get from a guy who's managed just 16 extra-base hits in 338 major-league plate appearances. If Buscher wants to stick with the Twins as a bench option or succeed as a semi-regular third baseman in the event that Joe Crede gets hurt or proves ineffective, adding more power will be a top priority along with ironing out his defense.

* The hits just keep on coming. On the same day Twins fans learned that Boof Bonser would be gone for the season, they also learned that the team has reportedly ended their pursuit of the top setup option on the market, Juan Cruz. I never expected the Twins to make a serious play for Cruz in the first place and was somewhat surprised to hear that they actually made a move on him, but these reports sound about right to me. Of course, in a chat on the Star Tribune Web site yesterday beat writer Joe Christensen answered a question about whether the Twins might resume their pursuit of Cruz by noting, "Their ambivalence has me believing they still have a trade up their sleeve. I realize that's probably just my imagination." Hey, maybe not. After all, the Twins were reported to be at an "impasse" with Crede just before they signed him.

I suspect we'll be hearing Chad Cordero's name mentioned often in the coming weeks...

* Baseball Think Factory recently released their annual ZiPS projections for the Twins, which can be viewed here. I'm one of the least interested people you'll find when it comes to these projection systems, which is why you'll rarely see me refer to them here, but they can be somewhat interesting to look over.

These projections expect many of the team's prominent hitters -- Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, Delmon Young -- to more or less repeat their performances from a year ago, with Michael Cuddyer returning to a level of production close to 2007. ZiPS sees Denard Span taking a significant step back (.270/.337/.369) and Carlos Gomez failing to take a step forward. I'd tend to disagree with both of those projections, as well as the projection for Scott Baker (10-9, 4.27 ERA). Crede is projected to hit .250/.303/.416 while playing in just 92 games, which undoubtedly disgusts many of the Crede-backers out there but isn't particularly unfair.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Worst Case Scenario

The Twins kicked off a brand new year of baseball with their first competitive action last night, but excitement was subdued in the wake of news that Boof Bonser's season is likely over after an exploratory surgery procedure earlier in the day revealed tears in his labrum and rotator cuff. This is essentially the worst injury a pitcher can sustain, leaving Bonser with a long road to recovery and less-than-great odds of ever returning to his previous level of effectiveness.

This news didn't really come as a shock to me, if only because I've become conditioned to expect the worst in situations such as this. I've written about Bonser twice in the past week so I don't know how much more I can expound upon the subject of his loss. He's been a better pitcher than his numbers have shown over the past year, and struck me as the only member of the Twins' current group of bullpen arms with good enough stuff to perhaps step into a setup role and develop into a fearsome right-handed force in front of Joe Nathan. The Twins bullpen contains plenty of serviceable relief pitchers, but with Bonser and Pat Neshek out for the year, it lacks righty power arms outside of Nathan. Bonser has fanned 7.3 batters per nine innings over the course of his major-league career (9.49 as a reliever) while Neshek's strikeout rate registers at 10.6 K/9IP. Among the group of Jesse Crain, Luis Ayala, Craig Breslow, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares and Philip Humber, only Breslow has a career big-league strikeout rate above 6.1, and he's tossed only 75 innings as major-leaguer.

Now, it's not impossible to be an effective reliever with a pedestrian strikeout rate, and it's fairly likely that a couple of the remaining hurlers -- such as Crain and Mijares -- will post relatively decent strikeout totals this year. But losing Bonser and Neshek hurts because it takes away the two right-handers who could really be relied upon to come in and throw the ball past tough hitters. Unless Robert Delaney can rise fast or Humber can pull everything together and blossom into the dominant reliever I theorized he might be capable of becoming when the Twins first acquired him, it seems the Twins only shot at finding a dominating right-handed eighth-inning guy for this season would be a move to bring in Juan Cruz. Such an acquisition remains unlikely, but the pressure is building on the Twins; this is going to be a long season if the bullpen continues to be as unreliable as it was late last year.

As a final note, I'll comment on some of the fan frustration being directed toward the Twins' team doctors for their handling of Bonser's situation. It seems clear that Bonser has been having issues with his shoulder for some time now and on the surface this certainly appears to be a situation that could have been addressed much sooner. Yet, the same could have been said about Neshek's situation last year, and this was my take when the team announced he'd need Tommy John surgery in November:
There were plenty out there who vocally opined that the team should bite the bullet and have Neshek go through surgery immediately; indeed, had this been their course of action the reliever probably would have been able to return sometime around June or July of next year rather than sitting out the entire campaign.

The finger-pointing, though, is ultimately pointless. There's little doubt that both the player and the team strongly preferred to avoid surgery if at all possible, and as Joe Christensen made sure to note in his blog post on the news, when Neshek first suffered the injury "he received a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews, who agreed with the Twins recommendation to rehab the injury, instead of having surgery."
My reaction to Bonser's situation is basically the same. While this injury may have been discovered earlier had different steps been taken months ago, surgery quite frankly sucks and should always be a last resort. If MRI exams revealed nothing serious and expert doctors truly believed there was a good chance the problem was a bad case of tendonitis that could be healed with rest, then there's really no reason not to at least try that course of action.

Unfortunately, that didn't work out, and the prognosis for Bonser is rough. Not only does this serious injury almost certainly cost him the 2009 season, it puts his entire career in jeopardy and puts his future with the Twins very much in question. I'm dearly hoping that Bonser can ultimately make a full recovery, but in the meantime concerns will revolve around the Twins' ability to find a right-handed pitcher who can be counted on late in games, because they've just lost one of their top candidates to do so.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bonser Down

When news surfaced recently that Boof Bonser had been having trouble throwing during the offseason and received a cortisone shot in his shoulder to alleviate some soreness, I feared the worse in spite of reports that previous MRI exams had revealed no structural damage. Perhaps it’s because I’m a worrywart, or perhaps it’s because I’ve become jaded after many years of following sports and learning that seemingly every minor injury eventually transforms into something more significant. Sure enough, it was revealed yesterday that Bonser will undergo exploratory surgery today “to get to the bottom of why he’s having shoulder problems.”

Now, this is a potentially minor operation and if the surgeon ultimately discovers that the problem is not serious, Bonser can still be a factor for the Twins this season. However, it does seem almost certain at this point that he will at least open the season on the disabled list (which, as I mentioned last week, isn’t necessarily a bad thing), and if the Bonser’s issues are significant he could be on the shelf for most or all of the season.

A season-ending injury would be a tough blow for Bonser-backers (a collection I’d group myself in). With his 96-mph heat and nasty curveball, the hefty right-hander seemingly had a decent chance of helping revive the Twins’ battered bullpen if he could harness his stuff. Now, at the very least he’ll have a rocky road as he tries to capture a significant role in the ‘pen during the season while recovering from shoulder surgery. At worst, his time with the Twins might be done.

It’s possible that Bonser’s absence will put some added urgency into the team’s reported pursuit of Juan Cruz, but I remain skeptical about the likelihood of such a move taking place. Cruz would be a tremendous addition for the Twins, but working out a contract with him and his agent while also hammering out a compensation agreement with the Diamondbacks would be a tall order. While the Twins may step up their efforts to acquire Cruz, I think it’s equally likely that they take advantage of their newfound roster flexibility and carry both Philip Humber and Jose Mijares north in April while stashing Bonser on the DL.

I’m truly hoping that when the results of Bonser’s exploratory surgery are announced, the news is good. But given the history of these types of situations, I’m not terribly optimistic.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Great Expectations

After reading through a story on Joe Crede on the Star Tribune's online edition yesterday, I glanced at the reader comments section below the article and came across this statement:
i would take crede at 75% over anybody else on the team.

Oh boy. On a team that features legitimate stars like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan, that's pretty ridiculous. Now, I bring up this comment not just to point out one loony anonymous opinion out there on the Web, but rather to point out what seems to be a common misperception among Twins fans. While the comment quoted above may be rather extreme, I've definitely picked up on a theme of misguided exuberance regarding this acquisition. I think this is largely the result of exasperation that has built up within the fan base over a long winter of overactivity, and also a tendency for fans to focus on Crede's perceived upside (like what he did to the Twins last year, and what he did overall in 2006) while overlooking his considerable flaws.

Now, contrary to popular belief, I don't hate Crede. And I certainly don't hate this move. I see the Twins' signing of Crede to a one-year deal for $2.5 million guaranteed, with $4.5 million in incentives based on plate appearances, as one that potentially carries very little downside for the Twins and gives them a reasonably good chance of getting improved play out of the third base position this season. My main concern when it came to signing Crede was that the Twins would hand him a large guaranteed contract, and then feel obligated to trotting him out there repeatedly even if he were ineffective in order to get their money's worth. Let's face it, stubborn loyalty to veteran players has been a Ron Gardenhire trademark in the past. Yet, the beauty of a contract in which well over half the money is tied up in playing time incentives is that not only are the Twins free of a large monetary commitment that would tie them to Crede, they actually have legitimate incentive not to continue trotting him out there if he's ineffective. That $3-4 million Crede can earn by working his way toward 525 plate appearances may not mean much to you and I, but I'd bet it matters to the Twins' front office and ownership. Let's not forget that this organization willingly took a big PR hit in 2007 by trading Luis Castillo for marginal prospects at midseason solely to get a couple million off the books.

Crede's negatives have been discussed exhaustively in this space: he's a major injury risk, he generally has not been a great hitter over the course of his career, his power numbers have been propped up by a hitter-friendly ballpark, etc. Moreover, it seems that members of the team have a rather skewed view of Crede's ability. For instance, says Michael Cuddyer: "Crede has killed us over the past couple years." Says Gardenhire: "He can put the ball in the seats as he’s done plenty of times against us. Those guys kind of make good impressions on you when they keep hitting balls in the seats against you." This whole "he's been good against us so he must be great" mentality is one I remember picking up on after last year's acquisition of Craig Monroe. It's worth noting, though, that while Crede has generally clobbered the Twins when the two teams have faced off in Chicago, he has posted just a .219/.242/.355 line over 49 career games in the Metrodome.

Now, none of that dooms Crede, and there's no denying that -- if healthy -- he can be a solid player. It is important to keep in mind that that is a big IF, and that there is a sizable difference between "solid" and "great." Crede is coming off two back surgeries and has missed 180 games over the past two seasons, and by his own admission he's still not quite 100 percent (that story seems to have changed since he was a free agent looking to get signed, oddly enough). Crede's biggest strength is his defense, and if his back continues to give him problems and limits his flexibility, his fielding could conceivably take a hit. It's encouraging, though, that he still rated quite well defensively last year with the White Sox in spite of the fact that he was probably playing through some back problems.

Still, I must stress that Crede's upside is not as high as many seem to believe, and his likelihood of reaching that upside isn't particularly great. Fans who are expecting Crede to repeat his 2006 performance this year are begging to be disappointed, because that season was as much of an outlier as Cuddyer's 2006 season. If he's healthy enough to stay on the field, Crede should be able to provide strong defense from the hot corner while popping a few big home runs, but he is also likely to make a lot of outs.

Crede has a lot invested in this season. Not only will he need to stay on the field to activate the incentives in his contract, he's also out to prove to teams around the league that he's healthy so that he can seek a larger contract next winter. These circumstances may play for or against the Twins. That motivation may push Crede to work extra hard and put up big numbers while going out of his way to avoid injury. It might also push him to play through injuries while posting poor numbers as he did in 2007. One of the best things about the Crede signing is that the Twins still have a solid backup option in place between Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris, but that benefit only works if Gardenhire is willing to fall back on it when the time is right.

This offseason has been a dreadfully slow one for the Twins, and many Twins fans -- including myself -- have grown exasperated with Bill Smith for missing the boat on some great opportunities. Yet, the GM deserves a lot of credit for his handling of the Crede situation. Rather than give in to absurd initial demands, Smith gauged the limited market for Crede and played the waiting game until finally the third baseman's demands came down to a reasonable level. If Crede truly believes he is going to be fully healthy and productive all year, he can now prove it on the field and earn his money. If he's not, the team has the ability to fall back on the Harris/Buscher option while only losing a couple million dollars. Whether they take advantage of that opportunity will fall on the manager.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Another Ship Sails

Note: I'll get to the Joe Crede signing tomorrow. For today, I need to vent...

Earlier this offseason, I was rather annoyed when a player I coveted was acquired by a team other than the Twins for a far lower price than I'd anticipated he'd go for. In that case, it was Mark DeRosa, who the Cubs traded to the Indians for the modest price of three marginal pitching prospects not long after I wrote a post singing his praises and explaining why he'd be a great fit for the Twins. Now, it's happened again. Just one day after I posted an article explaining why signing Orlando Hudson -- if the price was right -- would make all the sense in the world for the Twins, the Dodgers nabbed Hudson with a one-year deal that guarantees only $3.4 million.

Hudson is a high-caliber player with three Gold Gloves on his shelf and an impressive career hitting line. While there is some concern that he'll begin to decline soon (though he certainly hasn't yet) and some have noted that he's somewhat injury-prone (though certainly not to Joe Crede's extent), this was a one-year deal carrying a commitment of less than $4 million. That's less than Nick Punto will make this year or next, and less than a million more than Crede is guaranteed to make.

Now, I realize that signing Hudson would have cost the Twins a first-round draft pick in June, and I'm sensitive to that fact. But this organization is currently deep on talent in the low minors -- six of the players on my Top Ten Prospects list in January were in Single-A or lower last season, and not one of the top five players on Aaron Gleeman's recently concluded top prospects list has faced Double-A competition yet. Losing a first-rounder would not have been ideal, but it's something that the Twins could have absorbed, particularly considering that they'll receive an extra second round pick in the draft once Dennys Reyes signs.

Now, one can't say with any certainty that the Twins could have acquired DeRosa or Hudson at the same price they eventually went for. Perhaps the Cubs were more willing to deal with the Indians than the Twins, and perhaps Hudson preferred to stay on the West Coast. But what irks me is that the Twins did not seem to pursue either of these players with any seriousness. DeRosa seemed like an afterthought when he was clearly available back in December, and I don't recall once seeing or hearing Hudson's name mentioned by anyone other than speculating bloggers such as myself.

The Twins came within an inch of the playoffs last year and are comfortable with what they've got -- I understand that. But this offseason has presented some terrific opportunities to acquire quality players at positions of need for pennies on the dollar, and the Twins have missed the boat on multiple occasions now. The Twins finally made a move to take advantage of this down marketplace by signing Crede, but better moves were available. Sometimes clinging to the status quo makes sense. Sometimes it does not.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bonser's Pains: Burden or Blessing?

Yesterday, we learned that Boof Bonser has been scheduled to undergo another MRI on his ailing right shoulder. Tests taken a couple months ago reportedly revealed no structural damage, but Bonser has struggled to throw the baseball this offseason and saw no improvement in a throwing session on Wednesday.

The team seems to think this is just a bad case of tendonitis that will eventually go away, but Bonser’s words haven’t struck me as particularly optimistic. In a La Velle E. Neal III report published earlier this week, the right-hander was quoted as saying, “It was bothering me. I started playing catch and throwing off the mound (after the New Year) and I really couldn’t do it. So we stretched it out and finally got the cortisone shot. Here I am right now.” … “Here I am right now”? Does that sound like a guy who is confident he’s on the verge of putting these issues behind him and getting to work?

If Bonser’s upcoming MRI reveals something more serious than a case of tendonitis, it will likely lead to a a stint on the disabled list at the beginning of the season. That’s unfortunate, because Bonser showed some promising flashes late in the 2008 season after moving into the bullpen, and he has the stuff to become a force as a reliever. However, the Twins can’t really be counting on Bonser for much considering he finished last season with an ugly 5.93 ERA. Plus, Bonser opening the season on the DL would potentially relieve the Twins of some headaches when it comes to constructing a bullpen, as they’d be able to bring Jose Mijares north as a second left-hander without the risk of losing either Bonser or Philip Humber.

I’m hopeful that Bonser’s shoulder issues don’t turn out to be anything particularly serious, and I could easily see him stepping up as a key contributor in the bullpen this year. With that said, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he were to open the season on the DL, allowing the team some extra time to sort out the bullpen situation.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Last-Ditch Effort

As part of a series of articles on potential free agent targets back in October, I wrote up a post on Orlando Hudson, noting that I felt the second baseman would make a great addition to the Twins. I tempered my hopes with the caveat that Hudson would likely command a spendy long-term deal, and I failed to mention another fact that would make him an unlikely target for the Twins: as a Type A free agent, Hudson would cost whichever team eventually signed him a first-round pick in this June's draft.

Never would I have dreamed that Hudson would still be available in mid-February, with players already working out in Ft. Myers. One of Hudson's biggest sticking points may no longer be an issue, as it seems now that Hudson may have to settle for a one- or two-year deal at a reduced salary. The troubled economy has been unkind to Hudson, which is unfortunate for him, but the situation presents a great opportunity for the Twins to nab a high-quality player who could be a great fit at an unbeatable price.

Many have been yearning for the Twins to hammer out a deal that would bring in third baseman Joe Crede, but I am actually more concerned about the Twins' status at the middle infield spots than at the hot corner. I'm relatively confident that between Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris, the Twins can find reasonable production at third base (whether that is in the form of a strict platoon, or a lion's share of playing time going to one player or the other, I'm not sure). I'm less convinced that between Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla -- both of whom carry some major offensive downside -- the Twins can coax reasonable production at two starting spots. I'd be much more comfortable if the Twins trotted out a reliable player like Hudson at second base, with Casilla serving as a backup infielder or perhaps pushing for playing time at shortstop should Punto's performance start to remind us of 2007.

I've noticed a lot of concern amongst fans about Punto being etched in as the starting shortstop for this year, but I'm somewhat surprised at how little worry seems to be floating around regarding Casilla at second base. I think this is, in large part, because fans remain enamored by the energy Casilla brought to the team when he was called up in mid-May last year and proceeded to .313/.351/.424 over the next couple months while helping the Twins charge toward the top of the division. However, Casilla went down with a finger injury at the end of July and, after returning on August 21, batted just .225/.302/.289 the rest of the way. It's entirely possible that this offensive dropoff was a result of lingering effects from his injury, but it's worth noting that Casilla had hit just .219/.350/.250 in Triple-A prior to his call-up last year, as well as .251/.313/.312 between Triple-A and the majors in 2007. Over the majority of the past two years, Casilla has been a poor offensive player. When laying out the likelihood for each starter to improve upon their 2008 performances this season, I guessed that the odds for Casilla to improve were 50 percent. If I'm right, that means that a bad flip of the coin would have Casilla producing worse than his .281/.333/.374 line from last season. That could make him a major offensive liability.

Signing Hudson would give the Twins a strong solution at second base, while either allowing Casilla to serve as a backup middle infielder and pinch-runner or else take over at shortstop with Punto returning to his role as a super utility man.

Of course, one major stumbling block remains when it comes to Hudson. The Twins would still have to surrender a first-round draft pick by signing him, and that's something they've been strongly opposed to all offseason. Still, Hudson might be worth it. He'd give them a legitimate, switch-hitting on-base threat at the top of the order along with sound defense at second base while also creating additional infield depth, all for what would likely be a bargain price. That's some major short-term gain. The question is whether the Twins are willing to swallow the long-term expense.

Twins players are already in camp and the front office seems prepared to move forward with what they've got, but there have been rumblings that Bill Smith is still mulling over some options in a last-ditch effort to augment his current group. Crede might be the most likely spring acquisition, but in my opinion Hudson would be a much more meaningful and substantive addition.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wednesday Update

Nothing new for today, but if you're bored you can check out my appearance on the Minnesota Twins podcast from last night, where I was a guest along with Pioneer Press beat writer Phil Miller and the Twins Geek, John Bonnes.

As a disclaimer, I would like to note that while it might seem from listening to the above podcast that me and John disagree on just about every Twins-related issue, we generally agree on the vast majority of topics. I think Seth just likes to pick the ones that we differ on to hear us go at it. Who can blame him?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

2009 Spring Training Preview

Aside from the thrill of entering a new season with each team's destiny unknown, the arrival of spring training always carries with it an exciting mix of freshness and mystery in terms of roster composition.

Well, usually.

Twins pitchers and catchers officially report for duty in Ft. Myers today, signaling the official end of the offseason and the beginning of an eight-month stretch of preseason, regular season and (hopefully) postseason baseball. That's great, of course, but for the Twins, this spring kickoff comes with a decidedly subdued level of intrigue. While last year's Opening Day starting lineup featured five new players, this year's Opening Day 25-man roster will probably only feature one new player (Luis Ayala). And while the Twins entered last spring with a number of positions up for grabs (second base, center field, fifth starter), this year most roles on the team are already essentially locked up. Spring exhibitions will give players a good opportunity to shake off their winter rust and prepare for the season, but you get the sense that management already has a plan drawn out for Opening Day.

Sure, it's possible that a terrible spring showing from Carlos Gomez or Denard Span could earn either play a trip to Rochester to open the season, but that seems unlikely. Barring an injury, it seems almost certain that the lineup Ron Gardenhire writes out on Opening Day will be identical to the one he wrote out for the Twins' tiebreaker against the White Sox last September (except with Michael Cuddyer pushing Delmon Young out of the lineup and perhaps Brian Buscher starting over Brendan Harris at third, depending on the pitching matchup).

Still, the fact this year's iteration of spring training won't likely feature the amount drama and competition that we typically see doesn't mean there won't be plenty to keep an eye on over the next month and a half. Many members of the Twins organization will be participating in the World Baseball Classic, and there are a number of storylines worth following at the Twins' spring training home as well. Today, I'll run down a few of those, predict how they'll play out, and take a stab at guessing the Opening Day roster (we'll see if I can beat my 22-for-25 rate from last year).

Worth Keeping an Eye On...

* Injury situations. The Twins don't enter this spring with any major injury concerns (as long as Joe Crede's not on the roster), but two players worth monitoring are Joe Mauer and Boof Bonser. Mauer underwent a kidney operation during the offseason and his recovery process has been a bit slower than planned. While all indications are that the surgery won't be a problem and won't prevent him from being able to start on Opening Day, he's still bothered by soreness and wasn't able to work out much during the offseason. Perhaps more concerning is Bonser's situation. It recently came to light that Bonser had a hard time throwing off a mound during the offseason due to "a heavy case of tendinitis," and needed a cortisone shot in his shoulder last week. X-ray and MRI exams have reportedly come out negative, but shoulder problems for pitchers always present cause for concern.

* WBC performers. A handful of Twins will be participating in the World Baseball Classic, including Francisco Liriano, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Nick Punto, Ayala, and several minor-leaguers. Much of the WBC action will be televised, so fans will have an opportunity to get an early glimpse of these players in action. We'll have to cross our fingers and hope they all stay healthy.

* Starting pitching pecking order. You won't see any of the rotation spots listed under the "Position Battles" section below, because it seems pretty clear that the Twins' five-man staff is locked in: Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins. However, injuries often strike during spring training and early in the season, and the depth chart behind those five is unclear. Kevin Mulvey, R.A. Dickey, Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing and others will all be battling to be first in line if another starter is needed.

* Early signs of progress. One can't draw too many conclusions from the smattering of exhibition games that take place during the month of March, but sometimes you'll catch meaningful glimpses. You may recall that Denard Span posted a .404 on-base percentage last spring, a precursor to the much-improved plate discipline he'd show during the season. This year, keep an eye on players like Gomez, who has reportedly worked hard to refine his plate approach during the winter months, and Buscher, who has reportedly added mass during the offseason in an effort to bring some more power to the table.

Position Battles

Final Bench Spot
With Span/Gomez/Cuddyer apparently comprising the Opening Day outfield alignment and Jason Kubel looking like the regular DH, Young is looking like the fourth OF/DH. With Mike Redmond holding down backup catcher duties and either Harris/Buscher filling a backup infielder role, this leaves one remaining bench spot (assuming a seven-man bullpen). While the favorite for that spot right now has to be Matt Tolbert, who played well last year and gives Gardenhire some flexibility, nothing is guaranteed. Let's not forget that Tolbert himself came out of nowhere to claim that utility role last year. Matt Macri, Luke Hughes and Alejandro Machado all could get a legitimate look with strong spring performances.

Favorite: Matt Tolbert

Final Bullpen Spots
It is presumed that the first five bullpen spots will go to Nathan, Crain, Ayala, Craig Breslow and Matt Guerrier. Assuming the team goes north with a seven-man bullpen (which seems like a certainty to me), this leaves two remaining spots for three viable candidates: Philip Humber, Bonser and Mijares. Humber and Bonser are both out of options, so the team has strong incentive to keep them both, but starting Mijares in Triple-A would leave Gardy with only one left-handed option out of the bullpen to begin the year. It should be interesting to see how this situation shakes out. For now, I'll guess that the team goes with Humber and Bonser, but a trade or injury could shift the dynamics of this battle.

Favorites: Boof Bonser and Philip Humber


With all that sorted out, here's how I envision the Twins' Opening Day 25-man roster:

C: Joe Mauer
1B: Justin Morneau
2B: Alexi Casilla
3B: Brian Buscher
SS: Nick Punto
LF: Denard Span
CF: Carlos Gomez
RF: Michael Cuddyer
DH: Jason Kubel

C: Mike Redmond
IF: Brendan Harris
IF: Matt Tolbert
OF: Delmon Young

SP: Francisco Liriano
SP: Scott Baker
SP: Kevin Slowey
SP: Nick Blackburn
SP: Glen Perkins

RP: Joe Nathan
RP: Jesse Crain
RP: Luis Ayala
RP: Matt Guerrier
RP: Craig Breslow
RP: Boof Bonser
RP: Philip Humber


Friday, February 13, 2009

Gearing Up For Spring

Twins players are sprinkling into Ft. Myers for voluntary workouts, and pitchers and catchers begin official workouts on Monday. After a dreadfully slow offseason, spring training is almost upon us. The lack of activity from the Twins this winter has unfortunately led to a relative lack of updates on this blog, but now that we’re on the verge of some actual baseball being played I can finally start to get back into the groove.

I’ll have a Spring Training Preview up sometime next week, and I’m also pretty eagerly anticipating the World Baseball Classic. A lot of baseball fans I’ve spoken with seem pretty ho-hum about the WBC, but I’ve never really understood this sentiment. It’s an opportunity to watch baseball earlier than we usually do… what could be wrong with that? And while the actual meaningfulness of the tournament is debatable due to a lack of history and legacy, I think we can pretty safely say that the games carry more significance than your typical spring training exhibition affair. Plus, prospect buffs will potentially get a chance to see prospects like Luke Hughes and Carlos Gutierrez in action, which can otherwise be tough unless you live in Florida or New York.

Getting back to the subject of spring training exhibitions, I’ll be tripping down to Ft. Myers in mid-March to catch a Twins game or two. The last time I ventured down to Florida to experience some spring baseball was in 2004, where I was able to catch a glimpse of Joe Mauer in action sooner than most. It was a great experience and I’m looking forward to getting down there again next month. I’ll be sure to snap some photos and report anything interesting. If anyone else is planning on heading down there, feel free drop me a note.

Barring a Joe Crede signing, it appears that the Twins are pretty much done with their offseason moving and shaking, and will roll into the Lee County Sports Complex in Ft. Myers with a group that is largely the same as the one they finished with last year. I’m feeling considerably more positive about the team’s chances than I did one year ago, and this season should feature some interesting storylines, such as: young players working to grow as hitters, a bullpen looking to bounce back from a miserable second half, youthful pitchers fighting to fend off regression, and an overcrowded outfield with more starting-caliber players than spots available. And, of course, it’ll all go down in the very last year of the Metrodome’s existence as a major-league ballpark.

Spring has sprung once again, and it’s an exciting time of year for baseball fans. Let’s get down to business.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Odd Man Out

On Saturday afternoon, I met with a few Twins bloggers at Joe Senser's in Bloomington to discuss baseball over snacks and drinks. The gathering provided me with an opportunity to meet John Meyer (of Twins Most Valuable Blogger) and Parker Hageman (of Over the Baggy) for the first time, catch up with the affable Seth Stohs, and engage in another friendly yet contentious debate with John Bonnes over Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young (suffice to say we fall on opposite ends of the spectrum in our standpoints on both players). The outing also afforded my mother the opportunity to, upon learning of my plans from my Facebook status, take the following shot: "What kind of luncheon do people go to at 2:30 in the afternoon? Oh wait, this is a bloggers luncheon." Well played, mom.

Of course, we also had to talk a little bit about what qualifies as perhaps the Twins' biggest offseason move thus far -- the signing of reliever Luis Ayala to a one-year, $1.3 million deal. And that's just what we did... talk about it a little bit. Ayala just isn't someone worth getting excited about. He's got a history of pitching well, having posted a sub-3 ERA in each of his first three seasons as a big-leaguer, and he has some experience closing games. But he's 31 years old, missed the 2006 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and posted a 5.74 ERA and 1.45 WHIP between the Nationals and Mets last year. A right-handed reliever who has a history of posting solid ERA figures despite underwhelming peripherals and who is looking to bounce back from a miserable 2008 campaign... Ayala basically seems like another Matt Guerrier.

Now, I don't mean to say that Ayala is a terrible addition. He's a sinker specialist who seemingly has a decent chance to provide some quality innings this year, and it's tough to pout too much about a one-year commitment at just over a million dollars. What I find more interesting is that the signing of Ayala could very well signal that either Boof Bonser or Philip Humber is gone. Both those players are out of options, and the Twins were going to have a hard time bringing them both north out of spring training as it was. By signing Ayala to a contract and (at least in my view) essentially guaranteeing him a spot in the bullpen, the Twins are seemingly pushing one of the Bonser/Humber duo out the door.

Prior to Ayala's signing, a seven-man bullpen for the Twins would have probably looked like this: Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Craig Breslow, Jose Mijares, Bonser and Humber. With Ayala entering the fray, the Twins will either have to start Mijares in Triple-A or say goodbye to one (or both) of Bonser and Humber. That could present a difficult decision for Ron Gardenhire. While there's technically no downside to starting Mijares in the minors (and it's probably the option I'd choose), this would leave the Twins with only one lefty in the bullpen and would rob the team of its best non-Nathan relief option during the last month of the 2008 season.

If it comes down to it, the choice between Bonser and Humber is not an easy one. Bonser showed some devastating stuff after moving to the bullpen last season, and members of the organization have publicly mused that he could eventually blossom into a dominant setup man, so this doesn't seem like the proper time to give up on him. Humber came on strong in the second half for Rochester last year, and allowing one of the four prospects that came back in the Johan Santana trade to simply walk away one year later would probably not reflect well upon the organization.

While it makes sense to carry all these pitchers into spring training and let things sort themselves out (at least one of these relievers is bound to get hurt or perform horribly), there's some risk involved in this course of action. Humber and Bonser are both talented enough to have some semblance of trade value, so carrying them to the end of spring training and then being forced to lose them while getting nothing back would be a mistake worth avoiding.

Signing Ayala doesn't strike me as the type of move that provides a clear, decisive upgrade to the bullpen, but it could pan out. If, however, the move forces the Twins to part with either Bonser or Humber while receiving nothing in return, it could end up hurting more than it helps.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Improving in '09: The Offense

I have said on multiple occasions during this offseason that I think there's a fairly good chance that the Twins will be a better team overall in 2009 than they were in 2008 despite having made essentially zero moves to improve the roster over the course of the winter. This belief is seeded in the fact that the Twins' roster is overwhelmingly comprised of young players still learning their way through the majors, and history tells us that players like this often get better and better as they make adjustments and move toward their physical prime.

With a player like Torii Hunter in his later years with the Twins, we basically knew what to expect. Since Hunter had established himself at the big-league level, one could project with a fair amount of certainty the type of production Hunter would put forth on any given year, within given boundaries. The same is true for many of the veteran players populating opposing AL Central rosters. With 2,681 career at-bats, Justin Morneau is likely to be the most experienced starter in the Twins' 2009 lineup and the only player to have logged more than 2,500 big-league ABs. For comparison, the Indians (who I currently view as the division favorites) are likely to sport a lineup with at least five players that have surpassed the 2,500-AB threshold. The Tigers figure to feature six such players, the White Sox four.

Carlos Gomez, who served as Hunter's replacement in center field last year, has just one full season of major-league experience under his belt. With his raw physical tools and sizable upside, he's at an age where immense strides are possible and moderate strides are expected. Of course, it's also possible that Gomez fails to make the necessary adjustments and fizzles out with further exposure to major-league pitching and scouting reports.

With youthful and relatively inexperienced players filling the majority of their lineup, the Twins are playing the odds and hoping that the improvement outweighs the regression. Having finished just a game out of first place last year, even moderate overall improvement could make the difference. So today, I'll break down the probabilities of each projected offensive starter improving on his 2008 performance. Please note that these figures are pretty much arbitrary and not based on any mathematical formula -- they are simply educated guesses I've taken after judging all available information.

C - Joe Mauer
2008 Stats: .328/.413/.451, 9 HR, 85 RBI, 98 R
Mauer posted better numbers in 2006, so we know he's capable of improved production, but it's awfully hard to project a better line than the one posted above. If Mauer can begin to display some power while maintaining his elite BA/OBP numbers, he could conceivably take the next step and cement himself as the best player in the AL. It's more likely, however, that he struggles with injuries at some point during the season and takes (probably small) a step backward.
Probability of Improvement (PoI): 20 percent.

1B - Justin Morneau
2008 Stats: .300/.374/.499, 23 HR, 129 RBI, 97 R
For a few years in a row now, Morneau has carried excellent numbers into the final months of the season before limping through the final weeks and leaving his overall line at a less spectacular final point. Morneau has shown consistent improvement with his plate approach and, in my opinion, is likely to regain some of his power which regressed last year. He'll be 28 for the majority of the season, a prime age. I like his chances to finish with better numbers in 2009, though perhaps not drastically better.
PoI: 75 percent.

2B - Alexi Casilla
2008 Stats: .281/.333/.374, 7 HR, 50 RBI, 58 R
I go back and forth on Casilla. On the one hand, he's still only 24 years old and is an athletically gifted player with solid defensive skills. On the other hand, he hasn't shown much over the past couple years and I think he's being overrated by a lot of local fans. While Casilla provided a boost with his initial surge upon being called up last season, he posted a .591 OPS after returning from an injury in mid-August to finish with a final line was not particularly impressive, and he had played quite poorly in Triple-A prior to his May call-up. Casilla is young and his '08 line doesn't set a very high baseline, but I worry that the player we'll see this year will be the one we saw over the majority of the last two seasons and not just May-through-July of 2008.
PoI: 50 percent.

3B - Brendan Harris/Brian Buscher
2008 Stats (Harris): 265/.323/.394, 7 HR, 49 RBI, 57 R
2008 Stats (Buscher): 294/.340/.394, 4 HR, 47 RBI, 29 R
The indication has been that the Twins will platoon these players this season, a strategy which would take advantage of their abilities to hit opposite-armed pitchers and ideally maximize their offensive production. Buscher holds a .294/.354/.411 line against right-handers during his limited MLB experience, while Harris has managed a .295/.360/.440 line against southpaws. It is questionable whether Ron Gardenhire can actually implement a strict platoon, but if he can mostly shield these players against pitchers they're vulnerable against, the Twins should be able to improve on a .283/.330/.399 hitting line at third-base that included numerous brutal at-bats from Mike Lamb.
PoI (for 3B overall): 75 percent.

SS - Nick Punto
2008 Stats: .284/.344/.382, 2 HR, 28 RBI, 43 R
The numbers Punto posted last year were nearly identical to the ones he posted in 2006, and they're plenty solid for a solid defensive shortstop. Unfortunately, his numbers in both of those seasons were superior to his overall minor-league line, and given that he's 31 years old, I see only a slim chance of him building upon the numbers he posted last season. His brutal 2007 campaign reminds us that there's a lot of room to fall, but without the pressure of batting high in the order or playing an offense-oriented position, I think Punto should be able to keep his regression relatively small.
PoI: 10 percent.

LF - Denard Span
2008 Stats: .294/.387/.432, 6 HR, 47 RBI, 70 R
Span burst onto the season with an outstanding performance last year in his major-league debut, and his unimpressive minor-league track record suggests he'll have a very tough time repeating -- much less improving upon -- that feat. It does bear noting, however, that Span put up monster numbers in Triple-A last year and was also very good there during the second half of 2007. This turnaround in production, coupled with the fact that his patience and power looked pretty legitimate last year, lead me to believe more than most that he's capable of at least posting similar numbers in 2009. I don't think he's necessarily likely to improve, but I also don't think it's anywhere close to impossible.
PoI: 40 percent.

CF - Carlos Gomez
2008 Stats: .258/.296/.360, 7 HR, 59 RBI, 79 R
Gomez has major strides to make with his plate approach, and unfortunately he didn't make a whole lot of visible progress over the course of the season. Still, he put up far better numbers last year than he did in his major-league debut with the Mets in 2007, and at age 23 should certainly be expected to take another step in the right direction this year. Reports that he's been working hard to refine his strike zone control this offseason are encouraging. Gomez probably won't break out and reach his lofty potential this year, but I'd be very surprised if he didn't take a step in that direction.
PoI: 80 percent.

RF - Michael Cuddyer
2008 Stats: .249/.330/.369, 3 HR, 36 RBI, 30 R
Injuries limited Cuddyer to 71 games last year, and pretty clearly dampened his performance when he was able to get on the field. Cuddyer strikes me as the type of player who might decline quickly once he reaches a certain age, but he'll be 30 this year which still qualifies as a prime year. As long as he can stay healthy, there's very little chance he doesn't surpass last year's paltry numbers, and I'm assuming he'll be doing everything he can to stay healthy this year after dealing with frustrating ailments during both of the past two seasons.
PoI: 90 percent.

DH - Jason Kubel
2008 Stats: .272/.335/.471, 20 HR, 78 RBI, 74 R
After missing the entire 2005 season due to a major knee injury, Kubel has made steady improvement since returning to the Twins in 2006, seeing his OPS leap from 665 to 785 to 806. It could be that he peaked last year, but Kubel's fantastic minor-league numbers suggest that he has more upside remaining and with just 1,161 major-league at-bats he remains relatively young in terms of baseball experience even though he'll turn 27 this year. (For comparison, 23-year-old Delmon Young has 1,346 career MLB at-bats.) The key for Kubel at this point will be improving his plate discipline and raising his average, skills that he clearly possessed in the minors where he posted a nearly even K/BB ratio and batted .320. In both of the past two seasons he has had his overall numbers dragged down by slow starts; the hope is that this year, with a starting spot firmly locked down for the first time ever, he'll be able to hit the ground running.
PoI: 65 percent.

OF/DH: Delmon Young
2008 Stats: .290/.336/.405, 10 HR, 69 RBI, 80 R
It's tough to label Young's position since Gardy apparently doesn't currently view him as a member of the Opening Day lineup, but it stands to reason that the outfielder will get his work in one way or another this season. The Twins were hoping that Young would be able to take a major step forward last year in his second major-league season, but unfortunately he merely treaded water, posting an OPS that was 17 points higher than the mediocre 724 figure he put in up 2007. I have a hard time believing Young will ever reach the superstar potential some dreamed of a year or two ago, but this kid is too talented to put up sub par numbers for three straight seasons. He must improve this year. He must.
PoI: 80 percent.

And so, in one man's humble opinion, out of 10 players who figure to get regular playing time (counting Harris/Buscher as one), six are more likely than not to build on their 2008 performances. And I don't see players like Mauer, Span and Punto as being particularly likely to post improved numbers, I'd also be fairly surprised if any of those players experienced a major regression. That is... as long as they stay healthy.

And of course, health will be a huge factor. No team stays healthy all year, and some of the players listed above are almost certain to have disappointing seasons, if even through no fault of their own. Depth will be key, and you can be fairly confident that players like Matt Tolbert, Jason Pridie and Mike Redmond, along with various farmhands, will be called upon to step up this season.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Wednesday Tidbits

Happy Wednesday everyone. Before I get into Twins-related stuff today, one bit of housekeeping. I am switching e-mail addresses, from my former University of Minnesota address ([email protected]) to a new Google Mail address ([email protected]). I figure that since we're closing in on a year since my graduation it's probably time to move on from my school address. So if you'd like to contact me in the future, please keep this change in mind. Moving on...

The latest rumor to pop up around the Twins media-scape is that the team has once again been showing interest in Seattle left-hander Jarrod Washburn. This same rumor emerged around the middle of last season, and it makes as little sense now as it did then. One of the Twins' biggest advantages compared to other teams around the league is how little they are spending to field a pitching rotation that is potentially solid one-through-five. The presence of guys like Boof Bonser, Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey provides the Twins with enough depth to absorb injuries or performance issues, so really there is no reason whatsoever to be targeting an expensive mediocre 34-year-old like Washburn.

In breaking down this rumor (one which also strangely suggests the Twins might be interested in acquiring catcher Jeff Clement), Joe Christensen opined that the Twins' pursuit of Washburn "makes sense." Clearly I'd disagree with that, but in explaining his viewpoint Christensen noted that the addition of Washburn "would give the Twins one veteran in their starting pitching staff," and that while the team's five starters all did well last year, "it’s overly optimistic to think they’ll all be that healthy and good again in 2009." That's a fair point, but the Twins have decent rotation depth and adding an overpriced player with minimal upside solely because he comes with the "veteran" label is not likely to augment this pitching staff in any meaningful way. One would think that taking failed gambles on Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Livan Hernandez over the past two years, the Twins would have learned something about misguidedly investing in sub par veteran arms solely because they have experience when more talented youngsters are on hand. I don't know if Christensen was speaking from his own point of view or from what he assumes to be the organization's point of view, but I hope it's the latter.

Thankfully, it appears that the Twins have pulled the plug on Washburn talks.  Hopefully these rumors were based on empty speculation by Seattle's beat writers rather than any actual truth. 

If the Twins really wanted to take a shot at upgrading their rotation, they could do something creative like signing Ben Sheets, sliding Glen Perkins to the bullpen and starting Jose Mijares in the minors. Sheets is a major injury risk and he'd be expensive, but he'd likely accept a short-term deal at this point and his upside is huge. The Twins would be in better position to assume the risk associated with Sheets than most teams, since they'd have a somewhat proven backup option in Perkins waiting in the bullpen along with Humber/Bonser, plus Mulvey and a few others in Triple-A.

I'm not saying there's any chance of that happening, and I'm not even saying it's a move I'd necessarily advocate (Sheets' elbow scares the heck out of me). But, my point is that if the Twins really want to make some improvements here late in the offseason, it would make far more sense to take advantage of the opportunity provided by a bizarrely inactive free agent market that still contains a lot of quality players looking for work than wasting resources on trading for a player like Washburn who almost certainly won't provide an upgrade.

That is, as long as the free agent they're targeting isn't Joe Crede.