Friday, July 29, 2011

Trade Deadline Chatter

A few thoughts on the midseason hot stove, as seen from 1 Twins Way:

* Unsurprisingly, the wayward Twins haven't been prevalent in trade speculation with the non-waiver deadline approaching on Sunday. One annoying rumor that wouldn't go away was that the Twins and Nationals were discussing a swap of Denard Span and Drew Storen. The rumblings stemmed from a Ken Rosenthal report and picked up steam when Jim Bowden tweeted that the two sides were "working hard" on getting a "multi-player deal" done.

I don't really understand how such a move would make sense from either side. After suffering a concussion earlier this season, Span's health status is very much in flux. The Nationals would have to feel pretty confident in his recovery to offer up something worthwhile.

Assuming that's the case, the Twins are not in a position to trade yet another valuable up-the-middle starter for a relief pitcher. While Storen would certainly represent an ideal long-term closing solution, Span isn't really an expendable piece at this point.

The center fielder is under control through 2015 on a very team-friendly contract, while Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are on the verge of free agency and Delmon Young will be heading into his final year of arbitration eligibility.

Span ranks third on the team in on-base percentage. In 2009, he ranked first. In 2008, he ranked second. Setting aside his mediocre 2010 campaign, Span has basically been an ideal leadoff hitter, whereas last night in his absence the Twins started Ben Revere (.294 OBP) and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (.269 OBP) in the first and second spots preceding Joe Mauer. Yuck.

While I like Ben Revere, the jury is out on whether he can be an everyday player in the majors, much less a leadoff man. By unloading Span, the Twins would risk creating the type of headache in center field that they've already created at shortstop and catcher through similarly misguided moves.

* Ultimately, I'd guess that the chatter regarding Span's trade availability has mostly come out of Washington's corner, and the center fielder will stay put through the weekend. I do, however, expect that Kevin Slowey will be gone by Monday.

I'd prefer to the see the Twins try and utilize Slowey rather than moving him, but at this point it seems clear that bridges have been irreparably burnt. If he has to go, I just hope something palatable can be had for him.

The Twins could certainly do worse than right-handed reliever Rafael Betancourt, whom La Velle E. Neal III mentioned as a possible target in noting that the Twins and Rockies have discussed a Slowey deal.

Betancourt's 4.28 ERA this year understates his effectiveness. He holds a fantastic 43-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40 frames, and over the past three seasons he's posted a 3.47 ERA while averaging 11 strikeouts and two walks per nine innings.

A reasonable $4.25 million option in 2013 makes Betancourt, 36, especially desirable considering the Twins' bullpen uncertainty going forward.

Still, it'd be a shame to lose a good young talent like Slowey for him.

* I wrote earlier this week about the miserable options Ron Gardenhire is facing at the shortstop position. Now, with Alexi Casilla landing on the disabled list after pulling a hamstring on Wednesday night, the manager's dilemma grows even more gruesome.

Meanwhile, J.J. Hardy has bashed four home runs this week, pushing his season total to 18. Hardy is hitting .280/.330/.519 for the Orioles, making Bill Smith's offseason decision to dump the shortstop for little return look predictably awful.

Also, for all the grumbling about how "injury-prone" Hardy is (and all the chiding I received when he landed on the DL with an oblique strain back in April), he's played in more games than all but three Twins players.

(Oh, and for the swarms of people who are sure to complain about another reference to Hardy: his name hasn't been mentioned in a post on this blog since April. Simmer.)

* One additional note: next Wednesday I'll be participating in a sports trivia contest at Gabe's by the Park in St. Paul. Also competing will be Tim Allen of the Timberwolves blog Canis Hoopus, Nathan Eide of the Wild blog Hockey Wilderness, and David Erickson of Minnesota Vikings Chat.

The event will feature food specials and opportunities for the audience to take part in the action, so if you've got no plans, come on by and watch me finish last.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Buy or Sell?

Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline is just three days away, which has Twins fans everywhere pondering that age-old question faced by clubs sitting on the fringe of contention in late July: buy or sell?

In each of the past two years, we've seen Bill Smith pull the trigger on deadline deals, acquiring shortstop Orlando Cabrera for the stretch run in '09 and closer Matt Capps a year ago. To Smith's credit, both those moves paid short-term dividends, helping the team charge to a division title. (To his discredit, the Capps trade may ultimately go down as one of the worst in franchise history, but I digress…)

This year's Twins team presents a paradox. They seemed destined for a totally non-competitive season after going 17-36 in the injury-ravaged months of April and May, but charged back with an excellent June to move within shouting distance of the division lead.

Optimistic fans desperately want to believe that the "true Twins" are the ones from June who seemingly couldn't lose, but it's more likely that what we saw that month was a natural correction after those first two miserable months. What goes up must come down, or vice versa in this case.

Since the end of June, the Twins have played .500 ball and held steady between 5-7 GB in the Central. It's easy to pump out excuses for their lackluster overall record, but at the end of the day they hold a 22-41 record against teams with a winning record and their pitching staff -- which has largely been healthy -- has allowed more runs than all but two AL clubs.

We need to accept the fact that this just isn't a very good ball club, and dumping valuable resources to make incremental short-term improvements for a mediocre team with a slim chance at a postseason berth is foolhardy. The notion of aggressively buying should be out the window.

Then again, just because they're heavily flawed doesn't mean the Twins should be written off. The AL Central is particularly unimpressive this year and this is a squad that has shown the ability to rattle off wins in bunches.

Trading a key player like Joe Nathan or Jason Kubel would likely put the kibosh on whatever shot the Twins have at closing the deficit in the Central, and I don't think the return on such players would be enough to justify that. Nathan's contract (still owed a chunk of his $11.25M salary, plus an expensive buyout for next year's option) and Kubel's specific utility (righty-mashing DH type on the verge of FA) limit their values to the point where I don't think a lot of impact talent could be had for them. Meanwhile, the Twins have made it very clear that their best trade chip, Michael Cuddyer, isn't going anywhere under any circumstances.

With that being the case, why not stand pat and hope for the best? Other "sell" candidates like Delmon Young and Francisco Liriano remain under team control through next year, so decisions can be made on them in the offseason. Might as well see if those two, along with a number of other underperforming team members, can get it going in the final months and at the very least keep things interesting.

If I were the GM, I'd sit tight and focus on minor moves that won't take usable talent out of the organization, even if those moves come after the July 31st deadline (typically when Smith has done his best work).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Patience for the Wrong Reasons

In the second inning of a scoreless game last night, Tsuyoshi Nishioka came to the plate with no outs and runners on second and third. There are a lot of ways to push a run across in this situation, but Nishioka -- characteristically -- failed to come through.

On a 2-1 pitch, he hit a grounder directly to the drawn-in first baseman, allowing the Rangers to easily cut Delmon Young down at home plate. In spite of Roy Smalley's mysterious praise on the FSN telecast, this was one of the worst things Nishioka could have done.

In the top of the ninth, he came to the plate in a similar situation and managed to bounce a weak grounder past the pitcher's mound, plating the tying run and even landing Nishioka on first base thanks to a bobble by Elvis Andrus.

Better results, but same ugly approach. On the night, Nishioka went 1-for-5 (his only "hit" was a grounder straight at the third baseman that should have been scored an error) and can consider himself lucky to reach twice as he didn't hit the ball out of the infield.

It's been a season filled with bad offensive outcomes for the Japanese import, who is hitting .220/.276/.248 through 42 games. He's looked so utterly overmatched in this league that fans are increasingly beginning to wonder just how long his leash will be.

It's still too early to give up completely on Nishioka, and one can point to a significant leg injury suffered just six games into his MLB career as a possible explanation for his struggles, but there aren't really any promising signs to be drawn from his performance.

He was bad before the injury, he's been bad since the injury, and frankly he's only getting worse. In his past 12 games, he's collected seven singles in 41 at-bats (.171) with 10 strikeouts and zero walks.

The lack of other appealing options in the organization and the fact that games may soon lose relevance could be deemed reasons for letting Nishioka play through his struggles, but a demotion to Triple-A might be beneficial for both team and player.

At this point it's not at all clear that Nishioka is the shortstop of the future, so the Twins should take this opportunity to get a look at some other players at the position. It's hard to imagine the team being worse off by letting Trevor Plouffe try to play through his throwing yips, but if they're truly uncomfortable with his arm there they could let Alexi Casilla slide over to short and try Plouffe at second.

With the trade deadline approaching, there's been some debate about whether the Twins should be focusing on their present or their future. But whichever of the two they're focusing on, getting an extended glimpse at Plouffe in the middle infield -- where his offense is a whole lot more intriguing than at right field or first base -- should take precedence over continuing to trot the dreadfully overwhelmed Nishioka out day after day solely because of his contract.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Liriano's Self-Inflicted Wounds

The Twins have dealt with their fair share of uneven performances from the starting rotation this year. It's safe to say that, outside of Scott Baker, no pitcher has been as consistent as they'd like.

For the most part, that's the nature of the beast. When Nick Blackburn or Brian Duensing turns in an ugly start, it's tough to get too worked up, because most people understand that they're contact pitchers who invariably are going to have stretches where their pitches flatten out or their luck catches up with them.

Francisco Liriano's struggles have been more inexplicable and far more aggravating. Here we have a 27-year-old with an electric arm coming off a breakout season who has basically managed to undo all the positive progress he'd made since returning from Tommy John surgery four years ago.

In what figured to be the defining season of his career, Liriano showed up to spring training with a sore shoulder -- allegedly the result of a failure to keep up with his offseason workout regimen -- and since then the left-hander's campaign has been a hideous mess, spotted with random spectacular highlights.

One of the biggest reasons that I projected a monster year for Liriano was that he suffered from horrible batted ball luck in 2010, which caused his superficial core numbers to underplay his truly dominant performance. If he could simply repeat what he did last year with neutral luck, I pegged him to rank as one of the league's finest starters.

Sure enough, Liriano's BABIP has dropped from .335 in '10 to .280 in '11, and as a result he's averaging only 7.9 hits allowed per nine innings -- his lowest rate since the surgery. Unfortunately, he has more than offset this by completely losing his ability to throw the ball over the plate.

Last year, Liriano threw 64 percent of his pitches for strikes and averaged 2.7 walks per nine innings. He issued more than three free passes in a start only four times all season.

This year, he's throwing only 57 percent of his pitches for strikes and is averaging 5 BB/9IP, which is the worst rate of his career (worse even than his disastrous 2009). He's issued four or more walks in eight starts, including three of his past four.

If he were simply throwing garbage and getting crushed, Liriano's laborious outings would be easier to accept. But what's truly infuriating is that he's actually been pretty damned effective outside of the control problems. He's hitting the mid-90s with his fastball and his slider is as nasty as ever. His swinging strike percentage of 11.9 ranks second in all of baseball. Opponents are hitting line drives only 15.7 percent of the time against him, a career low that helps explain the drop in BABIP.

When Liriano is on, he's almost unbeatable, and we've seen that on a few all-too-rare occasions this year. For the most part, though, he's been completely out of sorts, often seeming to have no idea where the ball is going when it leaves his hand.

The southpaw's self-inflicted wounds are beyond frustrating to watch, and they leave the Twins in a difficult situation going forward. Do they continue to try and help him work through these recurring mental blocks -- a game they've been playing for far too long -- or do they cut bait and let him try to figure things out elsewhere, knowing full well that if he can recapture the command he had a year ago he could easily become one of the most dominant pitchers in the league?

I'm interested to hear what the masses think. I've always been a huge supporter of Liriano, but what I'm coming to realize is that I'm in love with the left arm a lot more than the rest of the package. I'd vote for hanging onto him through next year at least, if only because he remains the organization's sole chance at a true ace in the near future, but at this point I can only shake my head while watching him waste his talent and help crush the Twins' 2011 chances.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dose of Reality

After stumbling to a horrendous 17-37 start, the Twins were able to turn things around and win 24 of 35 games leading up to the All-Star break. Amazingly, just six weeks after standing 16.5 games out of first place, they had put themselves in position to potentially overtake first place with an extremely successful homestand to open the second half.

Unfortunately, the 12-game stretch against division foes that came to a close yesterday could not be described as extremely or even moderately successful. It can only be viewed as a bitter disappointment. Given the opportunity to gain vital ground on two AL Central frontrunners while playing at Target Field -- where they'd gone 14-4 since the start of June -- the Twins failed to take advantage, despite sporting a roster that is as close to full-strength as it's been in months.

They won only six of the 12 games and went 3-5 against the division-leading Tigers and Indians.

By avoiding total catastrophe in the homestand (which seemed possible after they dropped their first two against both Cleveland and Detroit), the Twins remain fringe contenders, but this was a costly whiff. They now sit seven games out, with three teams in front of them and a rough 10-game road trip through the AL West on deck.

At this point it seems far more plausible that the Twins will consider themselves sellers by the time July 31st rolls around than that they'll be close enough to first place to justify the expense of valuable resources for a short-term upgrade.

That's a tough dose of reality, but the Twins have no one to look at but themselves. When you get past all the excuses, there's one number that really stands out as the reason they find themselves in their current position: a 1-8 record against the Tigers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Programming Note

I just wanted to toss up a quick post apologizing for the lack of fresh content here lately. The internet at my house has been down for about a week now (thanks Comcast!), which has prevented me from being able to get much blogging done. Hopefully the situation will be resolved soon and I can get back to updating this space on a semi-regular basis.

Until then, I recommend amusing yourself by watching this trailer repeatedly and throwing darts at a Matt Capps poster.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Another Relief Option

Shuffling the roles for Joe Nathan and Matt Capps at the back end of the bullpen may help alleviate some of the frustrating ninth-inning meltdowns, but -- as Ron Gardenhire noted -- the Twins are still going to have Capps lined up to throw a lot of high-leverage innings. If he can't get on track the team will still be hurting for right-handed relief late in close games.

The Twins recognize this, and reports that they "have had internal discussions about bringing back Jon Rauch," whose personality they couldn't get rid of fast enough during the offseason, would seem to offer a glimpse into their desperation.

Without a doubt, the front office is going to need to identify a reliable right-handed arm to serve in a setup role, and unless he can find his command Capps won't be adequate. As the Twins scour the trade market for palatable options, they ought to give consideration to one option that's already within their organization: 23-year-old Kyle Gibson.

Gibson, who emerged as a top pitching prospect last year with a spectacular season in the minors, impressed the coaching staff so much during spring training that some felt he was ready to pitch in the majors.

Instead, he headed to Rochester with the expectation that he'd be up to help the big-league club at some point during the summer.

As it turns out, while their lineup has been ravaged by a staggering number of injuries, the Twins' rotation has (knock on wood) remained mostly healthy. For his part, while he's doing a good job of getting strikeouts and grounders, Gibson has turned in short start after short start in Triple-A. Only once in 16 turns has the righty completed seven innings, and he's gotten through six just twice in his past 10 starts. For an organization that strongly emphasizes starters pitching deep into games, that's not a good way to force yourself into the rotation picture.

Could Gibson make an impact in the bullpen, though? His lacking stamina would not be an issue there, and he might be able to maximize his stuff in short stints the way Glen Perkins has. Gibson's repertoire has played well in Rochester, as he's averaging a strikeout per innings and has been especially tough on righties, holding them to a .266 average with a 52-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

The Twins view Gibson as a starter in the long term, but they've often worked their best pitching prospects into the majors in relief roles in the past. If they feel that this approach wouldn't hurt Gibson's progression, it would make an awful lot of sense to give his highly touted arm a shot before trading more assets away for a guy like Rauch who probably isn't any better.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Power Infusion

In 89 games this year, the Twins have hit 54 home runs. Among AL teams, only the Athletics, with 50, have hit fewer. Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays has hit 31 on his own.

If they maintain their pace through the rest of the season, the Twins won't even reach 100 home runs as a team; it would be their first time failing to reach triple-digits in a full season since 1980. No team has made the playoffs while hitting fewer than 100 homers since the '88 Dodgers (who, ironically, would see Kirk Gibson hit one of the most famous home runs of all time in the World Series).

Fortunately, there are a number of reasons to believe that the Twins will beat their current 98-homer projection handily. Two of those reasons just rejoined the roster after Sunday's game.

When the All-Star break ends, the Twins will be carrying Delmon Young -- returning from a sprained ankle -- and Trevor Plouffe -- returning after terrorizing Triple-A for several weeks -- in place of Rene Tosoni and Rene Rivera.

Young had hit only two home runs in 217 plate appearances when he landed on the disabled list after an awkward collision with the outfield wall in Milwaukee, but he blasted 21 last year and is known as a player whose bat picks up as the season goes on.

His abysmal production this year after seemingly beginning to realize his immense power potential in 2010 has been baffling, but something clearly hasn't been right with the left fielder. Whatever it is, hopefully it was remedied along with his ankle during this latest DL stint. Young did homer twice during a nine-game rehab assignment in Ft. Myers, which is a good sign.

Meanwhile, Plouffe leads the organization in home runs by a wide margin this year with 18.  Michael Cuddyer, who is pacing the Twins in gopher balls and appeared in last night's All Star Game, has hit 13.

Plouffe has already rocketed past his previous career-best homer total of 15, which he set last year. Granted, he's been spending his fourth season in Triple-A, so it's not clear how much stock can be put into this shocking power outburst, but the former first-round pick did go deep three times while posting an impressive ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) of .183 in 18 games with the Twins back in May.

There are no guarantees with either of these players, but if Young can turn things around and Plouffe can just continue to do what he's been doing, they will add a serious infusion of power to this roster, which would go a long way toward bettering the Twins' slim postseason odds.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Can History Repeat?

On June 1st, the Tigers completed a sweep of the Twins at Comerica Park. After that loss, Minnesota sat 16.5 games out of first place with a miserable 17-37 record.

Since then, they have gone 24-11 and gained 10 games on Detroit in the standings. While a 6.5-game deficit at the All-Star break is daunting, it's not insurmountable. Ron Gardenhire has been there before.

In 2003, the Twins lost 12 of 13 games heading into the break and sat 7.5 out when the Midsummer Classic rolled around. Coincidentally, it was at that very point that their season turned around completely.

Over that All-Star break, Terry Ryan traded for Shannon Stewart, who assumed lead-off duties for a team that suddenly became the hottest in baseball. The Twins went 45-23 the rest of the way, finishing with 90 wins and taking the division handily.

If this year's Twins could match the .660 post-break winning percentage achieved by that '03 club, they would finish with 89 wins, which could very well be enough to come out on top.

The second-half surge in '03 was made possible by strong starting pitching, a capable lineup and a crummy division. All those factors would seem to be in place at present. The missing ingredient, though, is an external jolt.

While it makes for a tidy storyline to claim that Stewart came aboard and single-handedly carried the club to the playoffs, it wasn't that simple. Many other players contributed heavily in the comeback, including some kid named Santana who (finally) got a shot in the rotation. But Stewart did address a significant weakness on the roster, and his arrival did send a signal to fans and players alike that the front office was in it to win it despite the sizable deficit.

I don't think we'll see any players brought in via trade during this year's All-Star break, but the Twins must be considered buyers at this point and already are making moves to strengthen their roster by adding Trevor Plouffe and Delmon Young. These moves will be the subject of the next post here.

Thursday, July 07, 2011


When Joe Mauer first landed on the disabled list back in April, I tweeted that if he "can't get healthy and productive, this situation has potential to turn into one of the biggest catastrophes in franchise history." A lot of people accused me of hyperbolizing.

Up to this point, however, that potential has been fully realized. Mauer spent a whopping two months on the DL trying to strengthen his legs and the entire ordeal hasn't yielded any apparent benefits.

After sitting out yesterday's game due to "general soreness," the backstop shared with reporters that he was "pretty beat up" after catching three consecutive days, while also acknowledging that he's still not generating any power with his back leg (the same affliction that bothered Mauer last year, and which December's surgery and multiple lubricant injections during spring training were supposed to alleviate).

If you read Phil Mackey's somber piece linked above, you can find three separate instances in which Mauer refers to what a "grind" he expects the rest of the season to be, basically letting fans know that we probably won't be seeing him at 100 percent the rest of the way, which unfortunately is what the Twins need more than anything to jolt their patchy offense and make a surge in the standings.

Unlike a certain local columnist, I'm not angry at Mauer and I'm not going to belittle him for being unable to get on the field. More than anything, I feel sorry for him. His body is inexplicably breaking down on him at the age of 28, and he's letting a lot of people down.

That can't be a good feeling.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Closer Controversy

It's been a rough month of July thus far for Matt Capps.

On Saturday night, the right-hander entered to protect a three-run lead against Milwaukee in the ninth, only to yield four runs on five hits while recording two outs, giving away the remnants of what was once a seven-run edge.

The following day, he came on with a two-run lead, but gave up two quick hits while recording only one out and was replaced with Glen Perkins, who closed out the win.

Last night, Capps came on in a 3-1 ballgame, immediately surrendered a home run, then surrounded two outs with a hit and a walk before once again being pulled in favor of Perkins, who once again finished the job.

That's three consecutive multi-run leads that Capps has been unable to close out. Not exactly what you're looking for in a closer, especially when your offensively challenged club needs to play .630 ball the rest of the way in order to have a realistic shot at the postseason.

Ron Gardenhire is publicly maintaining that Capps is still the Twins' closer, but there's no doubt that his confidence has waned. Gardy's given the righty an uncharacteristically short leash over his past two outings (for which the manager deserves a lot of credit), and Capps hadn't been particularly effective prior to this month, converting only 13 of 18 save chances.

At this point, fans are calling for Capps' head (I think I learned some new cuss words sitting out by the bullpen at Target Field last night) but the reality is that he's a good -- not great -- reliever that's going through a slump. It's sort of similar, in fact, to the skid that struck Jon Rauch in July of last year, prompting the Twins to trade for Capps in the first place.

Since that swap, Capps has gone 29-for-37 in save opportunities. That 78 percent conversion rate is decidedly mediocre and is actually exactly the same as Rauch's rate over the past two years with Minnesota and Toronto. Similar results for similarly good-but-not-great relief pitchers.

What many said at the time has now been unequivocally proven: there was no mystical quality to Capps' "closing experience," for which the enamored Twins gave up their top catching prospect at the deadline last year and overpaid wildly in arbitration this year. They got suckered.

But there's no use in beating a dead horse. Right now I can only hope that the Twins' decision-makers have learned their lesson, and that they're prepared to swallow their pride and get somebody in the ninth inning who can throw the ball past a hitter once in a while.

It's not his last three outings that have made it obvious Capps is a bad fit in the closer role. It's his 5.3 K/9IP rate on the season. Consistent success is almost unachievable for a reliever allowing that much contact.