Friday, February 26, 2010

Second to None

The Twins made a number of quality additions over the course of the offseason that should enable them to improve on problem areas as they move forward into the 2010. JJ Hardy should make the Twins better at the shorstop position if he can rebound even moderately from a rough 2009 campaign. Jim Thome adds a veteran power threat that was amiss on the bench last season. Clay Condrey provides another solid righty option out of a bullpen that was at times so thin that it forced the team to rely on Bobby Keppel in key situations.

Given the flaws on last year's team, though, no offseason acquisition by Bill Smith looms larger than the most recent: the signing of Orlando Hudson.

Hudson overtakes the reigns at second base, a position from which the Twins received an abysmal .209/.302/.267 hitting line last season. Provided that he's healthy, Hudson -- a .282/.348/.431 career hitter -- will almost certainly improve significantly on that number this year. But teams can live with a poor hitter at second base, provided they bury him at the bottom of the order and place competent hitters around him on the field. Indeed, Hudson's most important function might be filling the second spot in the batting order, which was a major liability for this team a year ago.

In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, noted sabermetrician Tom Tango teamed up with Mitchel Litchman and Andrew Dolphin to analyze strategic decision-making in baseball based on years of historical data. One chapter in the book addresses lineup construction, and perhaps the most striking conclusion drawn by the authors is that the No. 2 spot in the order is actually more important to run production than the No. 3 spot. To quote a paragraph from the book:
The run values of each event favor the #2 hitter over the #3 hitter by .02 to .03 runs. And this is across the board, except for the HR (which is even). Likewise, the run values of the #4 hitter's events are all higher than those of the #3 hitter. This means that the #3 hitter should be worse than the #2 and #4 hitters. For most teams, the gap in talent between the #3 and #2 slots is enormous and that talent is concenterated in the #3 slot. This is simply wrong.
Many people disagree with this blatant rejection of traditional baseball thought, and in truth the disparity in "run values" between the two lineup spots as outlined in the book is so small that even if you buy into the authors' reasoning, there's still no call to disparage managers who elect to bat their best hitter third. But what's clear from this study and others -- not to mention common sense, really -- is that having a strong hitter in the two-hole is highly important. The No. 2 hitter figures to receive the second-most plate appearances of any player on the team and also generally bats in front of the club's very best hitters.

Last year, the Twins' No. 2 hitters combined for a .262/.306/.394 line, which is pretty weak even without accounting for the fact that Joe Mauer made 142 plate appearances in that spot (posting a spectacular 1158 OPS). If you remove Mauer's at-bats, the Twins got an absolutely dreadful .232/.272/.326 line from the second spot in the order. It goes without saying that having that kind of production directly in front of the league's best hitter (as Mauer was typically batting third when he wasn't batting second, with the exception of April when he didn't play) is beyond unacceptable.

Hudson has seen his performance fluctuate some over the years, but he has been steady in the OBP department as of late. In each of the past four seasons, he has reached base at a clip of .354 or higher, putting him well above the league average. If he can produce at close to that rate while also providing his usual strong batting average and solid power output, Hudson will give the Twins a massive upgrade in front of Mauer.

Ron Gardenhire loves to write players who can bunt and execute the hit-and-runs into the second spot in his lineups. Certainly, Hudson is a guy who can do those things. But he's also a very competent hitter overall, and his presence could give Mauer a legitimate shot at posting his first 100-RBI campaign.

I slammed my head into my desk last year every time Orlando Cabrera, Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto or whoever else occupying the two-spot ended a rally by making the third out while Mauer stood in the on-deck circle. So, at the very least, Hudson's addition to the lineup should be beneficial for my forehead.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

NTB Top 10 Twins Prospects: 2010

Last year I posted a Top Ten Prospects list for the first time since this blog launched. I'd been hesitant to jump into the fray with a top prospects list in the past since so many other bloggers and writers already create these rankings and I didn't see much need to come up with my own given that they would likely mirror the other ones out there pretty closely.

Yet, I think I found a good way to put the list to use. At the beginning of each month, I would post a "Prospect Rundown," highlighting the performances of each of my top ten prospects during the past month (you can click here for an example). This proved to be a good way for me to keep up with the progress of some of the organization's most prominent up-and-comers, and hopefully everyone else found them useful as well.

So, below is my ranking of the organization's top ten prospects as we enter the 2010 season. If people found the monthly rundowns worthwhile, I'll continue with those this year. (And if you found them worthless, don't hesitate to let me know.) Alongside each prospect's name is their position, the level they finished at last season and where they ranked on last year's list.

10. Joe Benson, OF | Class-A+ Ft. Myers (NR)
When the Twins plucked Benson in the second round of the '06 draft, he was the type of player that warranted immediate excitement. A tremendous high school athlete who excelled in baseball and football, Benson had a well-rounded set of tools that screamed upside. Unfortunately, injuries and a lack of strike zone control bogged down Benson's first few years as a professional. Last year in Ft. Myers, Benson finally started to display the promise that the Twins saw when they drafted him, batting .283 with an excellent .414 on-base percentage. Benson turns 22 next week and will likely open the season in New Britain, where he'll need to ramp up his power in order to transform into a legitimate big-league prospect.

9. Carlos Gutierrez, RP | Class-AA New Britain (NR)
Last year, Gutierrez just missed making this list, as I noted that he'd performed well in an initial stint at Ft. Myers but added that I'd "need to see more from him before I'm willing to call him a Top 10 prospect." Well, Gutierrez showed plenty in his first year with the Miracle, utilizing his boring fastball to induce ground balls 68.6 percent of the time while holding opponents to a measly .196 average and posting a 1.32 ERA and allowing only one home run. Gutierrez stalled after a midseason promotion to Double-A, posting a 6.19 ERA and 1.64 WHIP over 52 1/3 innings, which keeps him from ranking higher on this list, but his sinker is for real and he deserves credit for reaching New Britain in his first year as a pro in the first place.

8. David Bromberg, SP | Class-A+ Ft. Myers (NR)
A tall and burly right-hander who the Twins picked in the 32nd round of the 2005 draft, Bromberg has quietly risen through the ranks at a steady pace while posting surprisingly strong numbers for a guy who lacks dominating stuff. Bromberg has led his respective league in strikeouts for three consecutive years, including last season in the Florida State League when he went 13-4 with a 2.70 ERA and 148-to-63 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the Miracle. Bromberg's lack of outstanding velocity and control will be put to the test as he delves into Double-A this year, but you can't argue with his results up to this point.

7. Danny Valencia, 3B | Class-AAA Rochester (5)
After ranking fifth on this list last year, Valencia came out of the gates fast in New Britain with a .284/.373/.482 hitting line that earned him a midseason promotion to Rochester. There, Valencia continued to hit for a strong average (.286) with solid power (.454 SLG, 7 homers and 24 doubles in 282 PA). It was a bit troubling to see Valencia's OBP drop to .305 thanks to a 37-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but it's worth noting that the third baseman posted a 70-to-18 mark in that category after being promoted to Double-A in 2008 only to adjust and post a 40-to-31 ratio there in the first half last year. If he can make those same adjustments in Rochester this year, it'd be no surprise to see him manning the hot corner for the Twins in the second half this season, especially if Brendan Harris and/or Nick Punto struggle in the early months.

6. Angel Morales, OF | Class-A Beloit (9)
Morales seems to be one of those players that steps into the batter's box, closes his eyes and swings as hard as he can. The result is a lot of strikeouts (104 in 418 plate appearances last year for a 24.9 percent rate that was actually an improvement on his 33 percent rate from 2008) and a lot of power. In a league that generally suppresses offensive numbers, Morales ripped 13 homers, 22 doubles and five triples, leading to a .455 slugging percentage in spite of his pedestrian .266 batting average. He also displayed good speed, swiping 19 bases in 25 attempts and continuing to impress scouts with his work in the outfield. Morales' lack of plate discipline raises some major red flags, but it's tough not to get excited about an outfielder with his kind of athleticism and raw power who, by the way, is still only 20 years old.

5. Miguel Angel Sano, SS | N/A (NR)
As far as prospects go, Sano is an interesting case. On the one hand, most of us have never seen him play and we don't even have any professional numbers to work off of in assessing him. On the other hand, he was perhaps the most highly sought international prospect last year and he came to the Twins on a massive $3.15 million signing bonus that easily ranks as the largest in franchise history for a foreign prospect. Additionally, scouts rave about his almost limitless offensive upside. If all the talk is true, Sano could easily shoot to the top of this list very quickly, but first he'll have to show us something. That's why he'll be a very interesting player to follow this season.

4. Ben Revere, OF | Class-A+ Ft. Myers (3)
I've been fairly skittish on Revere for some time now. Last offseason, I made a case that the Twins might be wise to move him while his value was high, as he'd just come off a stellar season in which he'd led all the minors in batting average. While most people ranked him first or second on their preseason prospect lists prior to the '09 campaign, I had him third for fear that if his sky-high batting average come down his overall numbers would start to look rather ordinary. As it would turn out, that's just what happened. Revere's average dropped from .379 to .311, and as a result his OPS dropped from .930 to .741. He's still a highly disciplined hitter with excellent speed on the basepaths and great range in the outfield, but unless Revere can add some semblance of power to his game, he'll project as more Juan Pierre than Carl Crawford in the big leagues.

3. Kyle Gibson, SP | N/A (NR)
With Matt Garza, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and others, the Twins have proven incredibly adept at using high picks to draft polished college starters and moving them quickly through the minors. Gibson looks like he might fall right into this mold. A dominating starter at the University of Missouri, Gibson was projected by many as a top-10 draft pick but he fell to the Twins at No. 22 overall due to questions about a forearm injury suffered during his senior year. Fortunately, he seems to have put the injury behind him and will start the season in Ft. Myers, where he'll seek to follow a similar path to Garza, who went from Single-A to the majors in a single season.

2. Wilson Ramos, C | Class-AA New Britain (2)
Injuries cut Ramos' 2009 season short, limiting him to just 54 games and 214 plate appearances with the Rock Cats, but when he was in the lineup he posted an excellent .317/.341/.454 line while cutting down significantly on his strikeout rate from the previous year and continuing to impress with his work behind the plate. He didn't slow down a big in winter ball, where he carved up opposing pitchers with a .332/.397/.582 hitting line to go along with 12 homers and 49 RBI in 54 games. Still just 22 years old, Ramos is quickly establishing himself as one of the game's best upcoming backstops. Unfortunately, he's in one of the worst organizations to do so.

1. Aaron Hicks, OF | Class-A Beloit (1)
After ranking on top of this list a year ago, Hicks put forth a somewhat underwhelming season in 2009. He spent the first half the year in extended spring training, and when the Twins finally sent him to Beloit the outfielder hit just .251 with four homers in 67 games while going just 10-for-18 on stolen base attempts. Of course, Hicks was also only 19 years old, and he did manage to draw an impressive 40 walks (against 55 strikeouts) in 297 plate appearances, proving that the advanced plate discipline he displayed in his rookie debut was no mirage. Recently ranked as the No. 19 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, Hicks has immense tools and seems poised to unleash them this year as he takes on his first full season of competitive pro baseball.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

TwinsCentric on

No new entry here for today, but feel free to go and check out my introductory post over at the brand spankin' new TwinsCentric blog on the Star Tribune's website.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2010 Spring Training Preview

Pitchers and catchers have reported to Ft. Myers and spring training is officially underway for the Twins. This year's kickoff carries with it even more excitement than usual, as the Twins had a busy offseason and are preparing to open a brand new stadium when the regular season starts in April. Before we get to meaningful baseball at Target Field, though, we've got five weeks of practice and exhibition play to get through down on Florida. And these weeks should contain plenty of intrigue in their own right.

This year's iteration of spring training will feature a number of high-profile new faces (a rarity for the Twins) as well as a number of key players looking to prove that they're healthy after missing significant time last year. Today, we'll go over a few stories to follow as well as breaking down some of the roster battles that will be taking place.

Worth Keeping an Eye On...

* Justin Morneau's back. Morneau missed the stretch run last year due to a stress fracture in his lower back, and he also had a minor surgery on his hand during the offseason. The official word is that both issues are now behind Morneau, but after seeing Morneau's performance drop off a cliff in the week's preceding his being shut down last year, fans might need to see him comfortably driving balls over the fence again before they can fully regain confidence in them.

* Francisco Liriano's command. We've all heard the stories and seen the numbers from winter ball. Liriano dominated the competition and had scouts raving that he is looking a lot like the stud who took the league by storm back in 2006. But carrying that success back the states will be a major test for Liriano, and if he can't locate his fastball and get ahead in the count he's likely to experience many of the same problems from last year, even if his velocity has almost fully returned.

* Pat Neshek's elbow. He missed much of the 2008 season after injuring his elbow, and missed all of the '09 campaign after that injury ultimately required Tommy John surgery. Now, like all TJ survivors, Neshek must relearn how to throw and get out big-league hitters after a long layoff. The bullpen is fairly crowded, so Neshek will really have to wow the coaching staff in order to earn a spot on the Twins' roster out of spring training. The more likely scenario is that he starts out in Rochester.

* Joe Mauer's contract status. I thought it would be done by the start of spring training. Obviously, that hasn't happened. I still think it will get done before the start of the regular season, but now the clock is ticking on that deadline as well. Undoubtedly, the Twins and Mauer would love for the thing to just get taken care of, as the barrage of media attention focusing on Mauer's contract will only serve as a distraction from what he and the team are seeking to accomplish this year.

* Jose Mijares' baggage. Another year, another set of issues with Mijares, who continues to give the team unwanted headaches. This year, he missed the reporting date for pitchers and catchers because he once again failed to get his visa issues straightened out. A history of other issues, both on and off the field, has to have the organization's patience wearing thin.

Position Battles

Starting Third Baseman
The acquisitions of Hudson and Hardy leave third base as the only infield position that is up for grabs as we head into spring training. Nick Punto enters with an early edge given his strong finish last year and Ron Gardenhire's unabashed affinity for him, but the team made a substantial commitment to Brendan Harris by handing him a two-year contract this winter. The best guess is that these two will split starts at the hot corner, but the performances of Harris and Punto this spring might help decide who gets the Opening Day nod and who gets the lion's share of playing time early in the season.

Favorite: Nick Punto

Fifth Starter
Right-handers Scott Baker, Carl Pavano, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn are essentially locked into the top four slots in the rotation, leaving southpaws Brian Duensing, Glen Perkins and Liriano to battle for the final spot. Perkins is currently on shaky ground with the organization and trying to battle back from an unproductive and injury-plagued season, so he definitely enters this contest as the long-shot (assuming he doesn't get traded within the next month). Duensing performed very well after joining the rotation, giving him an advantage, but Liriano's excellent work in winter ball gives him some momentum. If Liriano is mowing down hitters in the Grapefruit League like he was in the Dominican Winter League, I don't see how he misses out on a rotation spot.

Favorite: Francisco Liriano

Backup Catcher
Thanks to his strong offensive performance in limited duty with the Twins last year, Jose Morales would be the odds-on favorite if all things were even, but he underwent wrist surgery late last month and still had a cast on when he arrived in Ft. Myers. That cast is scheduled to be removed next week and Morales still could conceivably win the backup job if he gets up to speed quickly, but defensive specialist Drew Butera appears to be the more likely candidate at this point. Wilson Ramos has an outside shot at coming north with the club, but he's 22 and hasn't played above Double-A. Plus, it wouldn't make a ton of sense to start Ramos' big-league service clock just so he can play once a week or so as Mauer's caddy.

Favorite: Drew Butera

Final Bench Spot
Nine starting position players and five starting pitchers leaves 11 remaining roster spots to be divvied up among the bullpen and the bench. Ten of those spots are effectively claimed, leaving one spot available. It's not clear right now whether the Twins will choose to fill that spot with another reliever or an additional bench player. If it's a reliever, it will likely be the loser of the battle for the fifth rotation spot, or perhaps Neshek. If it's a bench player, it would likely be an outfielder who could back up Denard Span in center, with Jacque Jones and Charlton Jimerson standing as the lead candidates. For now, I'll guess that Gardenhire favors additional bullpen flexibility, particularly since none of the current members of the pen seem suited for long relief.

Favorite: Brian Duensing


With all that in mind, here's my early (and probably not very accurate) guess at how the Twins' 25-man Opening Day roster will shake out:

C: Joe Mauer
1B: Justin Morneau
2B: Orlando Hudson
3B: Nick Punto
SS: J.J. Hardy
LF: Delmon Young
CF: Denard Span
RF: Michael Cuddyer
DH: Jason Kubel

C: Drew Butera
IF: Jim Thome
IF: Brendan Harris
IF/OF: Matt Tolbert

SP: Scott Baker
SP: Carl Pavano
SP: Kevin Slowey
SP: Nick Blackburn
SP: Francisco Liriano

RP: Joe Nathan
RP: Matt Guerrier
RP: Jose Mijares
RP: Jon Rauch
RP: Jesse Crain
RP: Clay Condrey
RP: Brian Duensing

Your own guesses are welcome in the comments section.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wrist Management

Last June, some friends and I made a baseball road trip and one of our stops was St. Louis to see the Twins play the Cardinals in a Saturday afternoon contest. It was a sweltering hot day, with a heat index well over 100 degrees, and the sweat soaking into our clothes subtracted somewhat from our enjoyment of the beautiful Busch Stadium. Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of the day, though, was watching Kevin Slowey struggle against the Cards lineup.

Slowey had entered the game on a roll, having posted a Quality Start in seven of his past eight outings while starting to look like a top-of-the-rotation stalwart. Yet, in his last turn he'd issued four walks -- most since his fourth major-league start back in 2007 -- and on this day something was clearly amiss. Slowey, who typically places all his pitches with exceptional precision, was missing his spots often and offering up far too many hittable pitches. He needed 58 pitches to get through three innings, during which he allowed six hits, including a pair of homers to Albert Pujols. Ron Gardenhire did not send Slowey out for the fourth. The right-hander would go on to make one more start, another three-inning dud against the Tigers, and then his season was done. After an unsuccessful rehab stint, Slowey underwent wrist surgery in early August, seeking to finally solve a problem that had been bothering him since he was hit by a line drive late in the '08 season, and began planning his return for the 2009 season.

The Twins' rotation struggled to replace Slowey's production until the team traded for Carl Pavano, who essentially performed like a Slowey clone following his arrival. Now, the hope is that the Twins' rotation can flourish with both Pavano and Slowey present to complement Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and whoever ends up in the fifth slot. With a well constructed lineup and a relatively deep bullpen, the Twins seem poised for success this year but the rotation remains a concern and much depends on Slowey's ability to prove that his wrist is completely healed. Despite the lengthy recovery time, that isn't a given.

Gardenhire mentioned in January that Slowey had experienced some swelling in that right wrist during the offseason. The team, naturally, downplayed the magnitude of this concern but we all know how these things can go. Should Slowey's wrist continue to be a problem, not only would it take away one of the club's only pitchers realistically capable of blossoming a legitimate frontline starter, it could force them to lean on unproven players like Anthony Swarzak and Jeff Manship in his stead.

If Slowey's wrist is fully healed, he's a prime candidate for a breakout year. His career MLB numbers up to this point are hardly overwhelming, but he's only 25 and is reaching the point in his career where many younger pitchers turn the corner. Slowey combines elite command with a legitimate ability to miss bats, a combination which led to incredible success during his minor-league career. If he can cut down on the hits allowed and make that recipe work a little better in the majors, there's no reason he can't build upon the success he found in 2008 and turn into one of the American League's better starting pitchers.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Spring training is fast approaching! Plenty of analysis headed your way over the next couple weeks, but for now let's get caught up on a few notes and some housekeeping...

* Twins' pitching coach Rick Anderson recently related that Scott Baker has been tabbed as the team's Opening Day starter. Baker was also slated to start the season opener last year before a shoulder injury shelved him for the first couple weeks of April. He got off to a rocky start after coming off the disabled list, allowing 14 homers over his first nine starts, but settled in to allow only 14 homers in his final 24 starts while going 13-3 with a 3.67 ERA. Over the past three years, he has easily been the Twins' most consistent starter.

* I have been confident throughout the offseason that the Twins would get a Joe Mauer extension done before the start of spring training. Now, suddenly, that date is less than a week away. Will a deal be completed this week or will the Twins allow the distraction to carry over into the spring schedule?

* If you haven't ordered your copy of the Maple Street Press Twins Annual yet, I strongly recommend doing so. I recently received my copy and have read it front-to-back. The magazine features of great content from an amazing lineup of writers. At just $12.99, you won't be disappointed.

* Many folks have been calling for some sort of gathering/tweet-up amongst Twins fans and bloggers. Now, those calls have been answered. Majors in Apple Valley has kindly offered to host the first TwinsCentric Viewing Party on Saturday, March 13 during the Twins' televised exhibition game against the Phillies. John Bonnes, Parker Hageman, Seth Stohs and myself will be overseeing the event, which will feature specialized food/drink specials, giveaways and much more. All are welcome. I'm sure I'll be posting reminders as the date nears, but if you're interested in getting together with some like-minded fanatics and checking out some March baseball, make sure to set the date aside on your calendar.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Distinctly Punto

There are a lot of things that can be said about Nick Punto. (And today, I'm sure a lot of things will be said.) But one undeniable truth is that he plays the game about as hard as anyone in the league. Type his name into a Google image search and you'll find picture after picture of him diving face-first into a base, falling over after fielding a ball and making an off-balance throw while fully horizontal, or sliding hard into a base to break up a double play. A grimace routinely adorns his face in these photos as he exerts his full energy to make things happen on the field. At times this wreckless style has played against Punto -- unnecessary slides into first base and a lengthy history of injuries come to mind -- but it's hard not to respect a guy who is seeking to get the most out of his relatively limited skill set and help the team win at all costs.

I've had an up-and-down relationship with Punto, to be sure. I was one of his most staunch defenders early on, routinely arguing with folks over at SBG and other places about his potential value to the club, and I felt vindicated after he took over third base duties from Tony Batista in 2006 and pieced together a very strong campaign while helping push the Twins to a postseason berth. Of course, Punto followed up that season with one of the worst offensive showings in major-league history in 2007, causing him to wear thin with most Twins fans, including myself. Many have never forgiven him for that brutal season, and over the past two years I've seen more vitriol directed toward Punto than any other player from local fans.

To me, Punto is what he is at this point: a versatile player who can provide a lot of value to a club if utilized correctly but who is stretched in an everyday role. Too often, Ron Gardenhire has struggled to find the proper role for Punto, letting his unabashed adoration for the utility man's aforementioned maximal effort cloud sound managerial judgment. At times it became incredibly painful to see Punto's name continually written into the lineup during that '07 season, and the same can be said for last year, when he posted similarly terrible offensive numbers.

But, through it all, Punto has been a stout defender around the field and a consummate teammate. When he's going good offensively, he can be a solid contributor with the bat, and recently he has evolved his plate approach and become a much more patient hitter. Punto's diminutive size and hunched batting stance provide opposing pitchers with a reduced strike zone; this combined with his willingness to watch a lot of pitches has turned Punto into something of a walk-taking machine. From July 1 to the end of the season last year, Punto walked in 15.8 percent of his plate appearances (it should go without saying that none of those walks were intentional). For comparison, Joe Mauer drew unintentional walks in 9.2 percent of his plate appearances during that same span. Given that Mauer possesses one of the league's most discerning eyes and was amidst an MVP season that had pitchers routinely trying to pitch around him, that's awfully impressive.

Punto's outstanding ability to draw free passes enabled him to post a respectable .337 on-base percentage last year despite a dreadful .228 batting average and .284 slugging percentage. If he can rebound to some degree in the latter categories this year -- as he did in 2006 and 2008 -- while maintaining his new found ability to draw walks at an excellent rate, Punto can become a quality offensive contributor and an asset to the lineup when his defense is factored in.

What's nice is that the pressure on Punto this year is exceedingly low. While he figures to draw regular starts at third base -- an offense-oriented position -- he'll be batting ninth in a lineup that looks to be pretty strong one-through-eight. The average AL No. 9 hitter batted just .245/.305/.349 last season, and that mark certainly seems achievable for Punto (albeit with a higher figure in the OBP column and a lower figure in the SLG column). Plus, Brendan Harris' presence gives the Twins a solid backup option -- which they lacked at third base in 2007 and at shortstop for much of 2009 -- and should allow Punto to move around the field and capitalize on his defensive versatility.

By no means is Punto a great player, and many teams around the league wouldn't even view him as a starter. But he has a distinct style and he plays hard, which is why I've always enjoyed watching him and why I've been in his corner more than most folks during his tenure with the Twins. It's very possible that he'll break his even/odd year trend and put forth another dud offensive season this year, but there are encouraging trends to be drawn from his second half last season. With his strong glovework and his patient plate approach, he seems poised to be a valuable contributor to this team even if his offensive game doesn't return to the level it was at in '06 and '08. And if it does return to that level, fans should have no trouble forgiving that disastrous 2007 campaign, or his final gaffe last October that left fans with a sour taste in their mouths:

For better or for worse, Nick Punto will be throwing his body around and doing all he can to help the team win this season. Just as he always has.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sizing Up Nick Blackburn

Nick Blackburn chose the right time to put together his best stretch of baseball last season. In his final four regular-season starts, he went 2-0 with a 1.65 ERA and dazzling 18-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, leading the Twins to a 4-0 record and helping propel them to a postseason berth. He added another tremendous outing against the Yankees in the ALDS, helping cement his reputation as a big-game pitcher and sending Twins fans into the offseason with a very favorable impression of his game.

The outstanding clutch performance down the stretch helped fans forget about the rough patch that had preceded it. In the 11 games prior, Blackburn had gone 1-7 with a 7.36 ERA. Opponents hit .356 against him during that span, pounding 13 homers in 55 innings. The ugly string of games included one in which Blackburn helped blow a 10-run lead against the Athletics -- perhaps the year's most painful game -- and several others in which he lasted only a few innings and gave his team almost no chance to win. At times during these grueling couple of months, Blackburn seemed downright incapable of getting major-league hitters out.

As he has often done during his time with the Twins, Blackburn bounced back from this troubling stretch and made the adjustments necessary to get back on track. But his brutal run following the All Star break served as a reminder of the fickle nature of pitchers who fall into Blackburn's mold: low-strikeout, low-walk hurlers who allow a great deal of contact. Since Blackburn doesn't overpower hitters, he relies on the balls they hit off of him being converted into outs. And since he doesn't induce ground balls at an overwhelmingly high rate, his control over what happens with balls in play is limited.

It wasn't long ago that the Twins had a pitcher similar to Blackburn manning their rotation. It might be tough to remember at this point, but early in his time with the Twins Carlos Silva was indeed the same type of effective strike-throwing righty who relied on a sinking fastball to induce weak contact. Like Blackburn, Silva tended to allow a lot of hits, but his ability to limit walks and homers while drawing the occasional double play enabled him to be a successful pitcher during his first couple years in the Twins' rotation. In fact, comparing Silva's first two years with the Twins to Blackburn's two years in the rotation helps illustrate the similar styles:

Silva, 2004/05: 23-16, 3.84 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 3.4 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, .301 BAA
Blackburn, 2008/09: 22-22, 4.04 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 4.4 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, .291 BAA

Of course, we all know what happened to Silva in his third year with the Twins. He imploded, posting a 5.94 ERA while coughing up 38 home runs in 180 1/3 innings of work. Silva followed up that disastrous campaign with another solid season in '07 before signing a lucrative four-year deal with the Mariners, which ended up being an utter disaster for Seattle as Silva quickly ceased to be even remotely usable.

To be perfectly clear, this post is not meant to suggest that I expect Blackburn to meet the same fate as Silva. Plenty of pitchers have found prolonged success while posting middling strikeout rates and inducing grounders around 45 percent of the time (Joe Blanton is a good example). Furthermore, Blackburn is a good pitcher; he has put together three consecutive impressive seasons and has demonstrated that he can overcome his lack of overpowering stuff by making adjustments while pitching aggressively and fearlessly against big-league lineups.

But, Blackburn's post-break slump last year, along with Silva's 2006, should serve as a reminder that pitchers in this mold tread a rather thin line and don't have a whole lot of margin for error. If something is even slightly off, major-league hitters will take full advantage.

The Twins currently sport a solid rotation one-through-five, but they don't have much quality depth to speak of, so if Blackburn's game goes south it could mean trouble. For that reason, we'll all have to hope that the guy who takes the hill for the Twins this year is a lot more similar to that bulldog who took the team on his shoulders in the waning weeks of the 2009 season than the guy who was shelled repeatedly in the two months prior.

I think he will be.

Monday, February 08, 2010

An Offseason for the Ages

I find myself at something of a loss. It seems I've grown so accustomed to being disappointed with the frugal Twins and their aimless winters that when an offseason as exciting and well executed as this one comes along, I don't even know how to react. From trading for J.J. Hardy to re-upping Carl Pavano to signing Jim Thome and now adding Orlando Hudson, there's not one move I can take issue with. These were good, aggressive steps aimed at addressing legitimate needs.

I've written in the past about this organization's tendency to become complacent after successful seasons. Shortly after the 2009 campaign concluded, I drew a comparison between the '09 and '06 seasons, noting that the team's lack of foresight following that impressive but clearly unrepeatable 2006 season led to a disappointing finish in '07. It would have been no huge surprise to see the Twins take care of their internal business and sit back on their laurels this winter, given that they made the playoffs last year and will be getting a few key players back from injury in the upcoming season. Instead, they have aggressively sought to address areas of need while showing an uncharacteristic lack of hesitation to open the pocket book. While this is doubtlessly attributable in no small part to looser financial restrictions from the ownership thanks to the increased revenue that will come along with the new park, credit should also be given to the embattled general manager.

Bill Smith got off to a rough start in his capacity as Twins' GM. During his first offseason in the role, he traded Johan Santana, Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for extremely underwhelming returns. He dealt for Craig Monroe and spent way too much money to employ the outfielder as a marginal bench player. He also handed out ultimately regrettable free agent contracts to Livan Hernandez, Mike Lamb and Adam Everett. I think that in some circles Smith shoulders too much of the blame for the early blunders, as he walked into an awfully tough situation, but there's no question that poor judgment was exercised by the front office on numerous occasions during his early days as head honcho.

Lately, though, Smith has been on a hot streak. Since the middle of the 2009 season, Smith has displayed a level of aggressiveness that we rarely saw during the Terry Ryan era, and the results have been strong. Midseason trades for Orlando Cabrera, Ron Mahay, Jon Rauch and Pavano helped propel a middling club to an improbable playoff berth, and two of those players (Rauch and Pavano) figure to be key contributors once again this season.

Now, Smith has played this offseason to damn near perfection. He snatched up Hardy, who had been widely viewed as one of the hottest trade chits on the market this offseason, before any other team really had a chance to enter the bidding. He wisely offered arbitration to Pavano, locking up a solid but injury-prone pitcher on a somewhat spendy but still low-risk one-year commitment. And perhaps most impressive in light of this organization's historical ineptitude in free agency, he slow-played the market and jumped all over opportunities to acquire Thome and Hudson at bargain prices. Those signings have been hailed by analysts as two of the best by any team this winter.

It seemed there was a good chance that the Twins were essentially done spending when they signed Thome to his deal a couple weeks ago, but my sense is that they decided to push the budget a little more than planned when the Hudson opportunity emerged and made all the sense in the world. With the payroll now hovering around $95 million (a whopping $30 million increase over last year's Opening Day mark) I suspect the Twins are finished done adding salary at this point. And that's OK. The Joe Mauer contract situation still needs to be resolved -- and I think it will -- but at this point Smith has done plenty to shore up holes and satisfy this particular fan.

In the October article I linked above, I concluded with the following assessment: "Adding solid depth and filling lineup holes with adequate supporting players could go a long way toward protecting the Twins against the type of drop-off that struck that 2007 team." Smith's moves this winter have done just that, and as a result, this is shaping up to be one of the best offseasons in the history of the franchise. With a new stadium set to open and a roster that features several superstar core players amidst their primes, the timing could not be better.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Homing In On Hudson

I spent plenty of time last offseason dreaming about the possibility of Orlando Hudson landing in a Twins uniform. (See here, here and here.) Hudson qualified as a Type A free agent and the Twins have historically coveted their draft picks, so it didn't surprise me to see the team express little public interest in the second baseman despite his going unsigned through the first three months of the offseason. When Hudson ultimately inked a one-year deal with the Dodgers that guaranteed only $3.4 million -- an incredible bargain -- I let out a frustrated sigh but was hardly taken off-guard.

One year later, Hudson finds himself in a similar situation. Once again, he's entered the month of February without a contract and -- with few legitimate suitors -- he is coming to terms with the reality that he won't be getting the type of contract he'd hoped for.

That is unfortunate news for Hudson, who has been victimized by a tough free agent market over the past couple winters. But it's potentially very good news for the Twins, who now actually appear to be showing interest in signing him. Bill Smith and Co. have been quiet on the Hudson front for most of the offseason, but recent reports have been connecting the free agent with the Twins more frequently, and's Ken Rosenthal reported through one of his sources today that the team's pursuit of Hudson has "intensified."

This is excellent news, because Hudson makes as much sense for the Twins this year as he did last year, if not more. The lineup is well constructed but clearly lacking one key piece: a hitter who can slide into the No. 2 spot between Denard Span and Joe Mauer to provide the bat-handling capabilities that Ron Gardenhire requires of a player in that role while also providing enough offensive production to merit such a high spot in the batting order. Hudson, a switch-hitter with a .282/.357/.431 career hitting line (which he basically matched last year), reaches base enough to be an asset in the two-hole and sprinkles in some power as well. Additionally, he was used in the small-ball capacity more than ever with the Dodgers last year, setting a career high with nine sacrifice hits.

Hudson is no longer the defender that his trophy case and its four Gold Glove Awards would suggest that he is, but he's more than competent at second base. His addition would solidify the Twins' infield, giving them three quality full-time starters and allowing Nick Punto to return to the super-utility role he's best suited for while also splitting time with Brendan Harris at third.

Adding Hudson is almost a no-brainer from a competitive standpoint, so really this all comes down to dollars and cents. The Twins have stretched their budget thin already and Joe Christensen opined earlier this week that the Twins would not spend even $3 million on the second baseman. Yet, Hudson's options are running low and multiple reports have his choices narrowed down to Washington and Minnesota. If the Twins are willing to match Washington's offer (or come close) and Hudson is forced to choose between playing for the Nationals, who won an MLB-low 59 games last year and won't come close to sniffing the playoffs this year, or the Twins, who made the playoffs last year and will be favored by many to return this year while playing in a brand new stadium, it's hard to imagine he'd opt for the Nats. Then again, there's no way of knowing right now whether the Twins are willing to offer the same deal, or whether Hudson has some particular aversion to playing here (Christensen mentioned in another blog entry that he'd "been told Hudson had little interest in the Twins in the past").

At this stage it's unclear what will happen with the Twins and Hudson. But reading multiple reports that the team is finally showing serious public interest in him qualifies as a very encouraging sign. I've coveted Hudson for a long time, and right now he looks like the potential missing piece for a club that seems poised to make a deep run this season. Here's hoping that Smith and the Twins realize this and show some willingness to stretch the budget a little bit accordingly.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Future of Casilla

Earlier this week, the Twins removed infielder Steve Tolleson from the 40-man roster to make room for the recently acquired Jim Thome. Tolleson, who grabbed the 10th spot on my list of the Top 10 Twins prospects a year ago, has seen his prospect status drop rapidly over the past 12 months. Last year was sort of a make-or-break season, as he was 25 years old and reaching the point where he needed to make a name for himself at the highest level of the minors. Coming off a 2008 campaign in which he'd posted an excellent .300/.382/.466 line at Class-AA New Britain, Tolleson seemed poised to do just that, but instead he went on to hit just .266/.340/.380 between Double-A and Triple-A. Now 26, Tolleson will look to catch on with the A's, who claimed him off waivers from the Twins.

Losing Tolleson is hardly devastating. While I probably liked him more than most, borderline major-league infielders of his ilk are none too difficult to come by. Speaking of borderline major-league infielders, let's talk about a guy who survived this particular cut but remains on tenuous ground in the Twins organization: Alexi Casilla.

At one point, Casilla was the heir apparent at second base for the Twins. Having been acquired from the Angels in the J.C. Romero trade, Casilla hit .318/.385/.398 and went 50-for-60 on stolen base attempts between Single-A and Double-A during the 2006 season, his first as a member of the Twins organization. Just 22 years old, Casilla was establishing himself as a top-of-the-lineup presence who could eventually step in to replace the rapidly aging veteran Luis Castillo.

The Twins gave Casilla that chance midway through the 2007 season, when they traded Castillo at the deadline and handed Casilla the everyday gig at second. Unfortunately, Casilla failed to seize the opportunity, batting .219 with only eight walks and five extra-base hits in 159 plate appearances from July 31 to the end of the year.

The 2008 season represented a rebound for Casilla, as he shook off a slow start and performed well for the Twins when he was called up in May out of roster-depleted desperation. Casilla's .313/.351/.424 hitting line over his first 62 games after being called up that season restored the organization's faith in him, but he was derailed by a wrist injury in July that cost him a month and saw him bat just .225 the rest of the way after he returned in late August.

The late struggles in '08 unfortunately carried forth into 2009, where Casilla hit just .202/.280/.259 -- essentially a repeat of his brutal 2007 campaign. Furthermore, Casilla no longer has age on his side, as he'll turn 26 this August. The Twins are also running out of ways to keep him around, since he's out of options and the club is already going to be short on roster spots now with Thome's addition.

If he could live up to his potential, Casilla is precisely the kind of guy Ron Gardenhire would like to have manning second base. He is viewed as a strong defender (although he scores very poorly on the UZR metric) and fits Gardy's mold as a No. 2 hitter with his speed and bunting proficiency. I suspect that fact -- combined with his impressive work as a younger player in the low minors -- is why he continues to hang around. Yet, unless Casilla has an explosive spring, it's difficult to see how the Twins will justify keeping him. He has already fumbled away multiple opportunities to grasp a starting gig, and seeing as how he lacks Matt Tolbert's versatility (namely the proven ability to play third base), it's tough to see him winning the back-up infielder job if there is only one available. Even if Casilla sneaks onto the roster, the Twins aren't likely to exercise a lot of patience with him given his inability to show any meaningful, sustained progress over the 900 plate appearances he has already amassed at the major-league level.

If he could come anywhere close to matching his .298/.371/.375 minor-league line at the big-league level, Casilla could yet transform into a valuable contributor for the Twins. But the odds of that happening have grown increasingly slim as he has continued to fail in his auditions with the big-league club. As it stands, Casilla is a 25-year-old infielder with a .244 career average, a complete lack of power and a lower major-league walk rate than Brendan Harris, who no one would mistake for a prototypical table-setter. It's not hard to see why the Twins have been patient with Casilla up to this point in his career, but given that they're clearly trying to make their push, and given that his lack of options is forcing their hand, can they really afford to remain patient any longer?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

False Alarm, Very Real Hope

Citing a source close to the situation, WCCO's Mark Rosen reported yesterday that the Twins and Joe Mauer had come to agreement on a 10-year contract, with the financial terms undisclosed. The rumor hit the Internet and predictably spread like wildfire; the phrase "Twins & Joe Mauer" had become a trending topic on Twitter within minutes of the first report I saw. This, of course, led numerous other baseball reporters to check in with their own Twins-related sources, who unanimously declared that Rosen's report was not in fact accurate and no deal was officially in place.

Not surprising. The report seemed a little odd, mainly due to the length. I was told by some that I was stretching it when I predicted that the Twins would strike an eight-year deal with Mauer this winter. A 10-year contract would not only be unprecedented in Minnesota Twins history, it would be pretty close to unprecedented in baseball history. Only two players have ever signed deals of such an exorbitant length, and they're both currently on the Yankees' payroll. Considering his youth, his talent and his extraordinary list of accomplishments already, it would hardly be absurd for Mauer to join Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter as the only players to ever receive decade-long baseball contracts, but for the Twins to be the team handing out such a massive pact? Tough to imagine.

Nevertheless, yesterday proved a promising one for Twins fans. That's because even though multiple reporters shot down Rosen's report after checking in with their own team sources, the denials consistently came with caveats that a deal is close to being done, or that team officials are confident a deal would get done. The Twins have a massive PR department in place; if the organization was not completely confident this extension was going to get done -- and soon -- they would be trying harder to downplay expectations of fans. (Think back to Torii Hunter and Johan Santana.) I've seen no indication that they're trying to do this.

Even if a deal didn't become official yesterday, I find myself more confident that the Twins will announce an extension within the next few weeks and that Mauer's future here in Minnesota will be ensured.