Thursday, June 30, 2011

Nishioka or Plouffe? It's an easy call for me

I'm going to chalk this one up to the shortened attention span of the wired generation.

It hasn't always been pretty, but Tsuyoshi
Nishioka has played a better shortstop than
Trevor Plouffe.

There's a growing demand by Twins bloggers (some of whom are smart enough to know better) for the Twins to recall Trevor Plouffe and reinsert him at shortstop in Tsuyoshi Nishioka's stead.

Plouffe is hitting well at Rochester. Fine. Maybe the Twins will find some sucker to take him off their hands.

The truffe about Plouffe is that, hot streak aside, he's not a good enough hitter to play any position other than shortstop, and he can't play short worth a summary sentence to Hades.

I'm not declaring Nishioka to be the answer at shortstop. I am declaring that Plouffe has, in roughly 700 professional games at the position, conclusively proven that he's not the answer.

The assertion, made in two of the above links, that Nishioka is at least as poor defensively as Plouffe is simply preposterous. Yes, Nishioka has made errors. My eyes tell me Nishi's range is visibly superior to Plouffe's. I believe that two of Nishka's boots came on balls up the middle that Plouffe would simply never have touched.

More objectively — and this is a very slender reed to put any weight on — the metrics agree with me. The Bill James Match-ups widget on my iPad says that in his 15 games at short, Plouffe was -5 in plus-minus (meaning he was giving away a play as compared to the average shortstop every three games), -4 in runs saved. Nishioka, in his first eight games at the position (for some reason the stats haven't been updated this week) is 0 in plus-minus, -1 in runs saved.

Again: These numbers don't mean much. It's 15 games for Plouffe, eight for Nishioka, and even the most devoted adherent of defensive metrics will say you need three years of them to draw conclusions.

But the Twins have seen Plouffe for more than those 15 games. Remember: He's been in their farm system since he turned pro in 2004. They know what he is better than the rest of us do. And they know what he isn't.

They don't have that history with Nishioka, which is reason to remain patient with him.

The joy of deferred contracts

Two winters ago, during the run-up to the Joe Mauer contract extension, Jim Pohlad said there would be no deferred money in any contract. You have to pay the money at some point, he said, and it might as well be during the time that the player is providing the services contracted for.

That attitude is not universal around baseball, and this week has given us two examples of teams that have significant deferred money pending -- and are in financial trouble.

$21 million for this? Really?
First, we have the Los Angeles Dodgers, who filed Monday for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The list of unsecured creditors is dominated by current and former players, led by Manny Ramirez. The King of Female Fertility Drugs has $21 million coming. Andruw Jones, now two teams removed from his tenure in L.A., is owed $11 million. Marquis Grissom, who last played for the Dodgers almost a decade ago, is owed $2.7 million.

Then there's the marvelous saga of Bobby Bonilla and the New York Mets. Back in 2000, the Mets brought out the $5.9 million owed for the final season of his contract.

The buyout put off the pay off for 11 years -- but charged the Mets 8 percent interest. As a result, the Mets, beginning on Friday, are to pay Bonilla slightly less than $1.2 million. Every year for the next 25 years. Over the next quarter-century that deferred money will total more than $29 million.

What the linked-to Wall Street Journal story doesn't get into is how the Mets figured they were going to pay for that. They invested the money ... with Bernie Madoff. Yes, the Bonilla deferred money is part of why the trustee in the giant Ponzi scheme is after $1 billion from the Mets owners.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Into the bullpen

Joe Nathan's best stat this season:
17 strikeouts in 17.1 innings.

Brian Duensing left a lot of heavy lifting to the bullpen Tuesday night, and the 'pen came though.

Alex Burnett got four outs. Glen Perkins, with some help from the umpires, got two outs. Joe Nathan was impressive in the eighth, striking out two. Matt Capps wobbled though the ninth.

It totalled four shutout innings, although Perkins didn't legitimately retire any of the three men he faced. I'll forgive him, though, as he's been the best relief pitcher on the staff.

Nathan was the story there. He threw 19 pitches, 12 for strikes, and displayed better command than he had before his DL stint.

The velocity really isn't any better than it was, and I don't expect to see the old mid-90s Nathan again. If he does recover his old velocity, it certainly won't be this year.  But low 90s is sufficient if it comes with command and movement. On Tuesday, he had the command and the movement.

Tuesday's use suggests that Nathan returned to a more prominent role than I expected. I thought Burnett would remain the top right-handed set-up man, but he entered in the sixth inning, while Nathan got the eighth. I still rate Perkins ahead of Nathan in the pecking order, however:

Closer: Capps
Setup 1: Perkins
LOOGY 1: Jose Mijares
Set-up2/MR 1: Nathan
MR2: Burnett
LOOGY 2: Phil Dumatrait
Long man: Anthony Swarzak

Dumatrait has allowed six runs in his last 3.1 innings, which has taken his ERA from 2.00 to 5.84. (It's only 12.1 innings). I'm not sure why he's been ahead of Chuck James this season — he was called up before James, he was kept up when James was optioned back out, he was used in higher leverage situations when they were both on the roster — but he's got to be the bullpener on the thinnest ice right now.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Degrees of embarrassment

Losing is bad.  Losing six straight is worse. Maybe losing 15-0 is worse yet.

This play was the difference between
trailing by 10 runs and trailing by nine. 
It's impossible to lose 15-0 and yield 25 hits and look good. The Twins on Monday night didn't look professional. Or even attentive.

It was back to the days of April and May, when ground balls rolled through the infield, the baserunners were prone to blunders and more rundowns were botched than productive.

Getting thrown out at home when down 10-0? What's the point, Alexi Casilla?

Then there was the first-inning rundown that took forever. The infielders were so wary of getting close to Matt Kemp that I figured he had some communicable disease. The rundown problem had disappeared during the hot streak — remember when the Twins won 15 of 17? — but it sure looked bad again Monday.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka was charged with one error. He was, for a while, charged with a second, but the ruling was changed after the game. Having watched the replay, I don't really understand changing the ruling. Yes, the ball was hit hard, but (a) he didn't field it cleanly and (b) made a bad throw.

Whether it's a hit or an error, that play underscores the issue for a shortstop with a less than optimal arm. Shortstops have the infield's longest throws, so there is a premium on fielding the ball cleanly. When Nishioka played that hard hop off his chest, he had little chance of getting the out because his arm isn't good enough to make up the difference.

Tuesday is another day. May the home team not fleece the paying customers again.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Spin Control: About the Prince Fielder at-bat

Prince Fielder and Joe Mauer react to Fielder"s
game-winning double in the seventh inning Friday.
It was a pretty lousy weekend in Milwaukee for the Twins. They got swept; the offense produced six runs in the three games; it became known that Justin Morneau needs surgery for the pinched nerve in his neck; Delmon Young suffered what appears to be, at the very least, a significant ankle sprain (regard this with all the disrespect my lack of medical training merits, but I will be very surprised if a mere sprain is all he did to his ankle).

And there was a bit of clubhouse backbiting over a failed pitch sequence Friday, the one game of the series the Twins had a legitimate chance to win. That episode was heavily second-guessed immediately after the game and reverberated at least into Sunday's game. It merits further examination.

The setup: Bottom of the seventh inning, Twins lead 3-2. Scott Baker has interspersed two outs with two singles, and Prince Fielder comes up with men on first and third. Ron Gardenhire goes to the bullpen for Jose Mijares.

Question: Why not leave Baker in? My answer: He had thrown 107 pitches, he was laboring a bit, the platoon advantage lay with Fielder in that matchup.

Question: Why Mijares, who has not had a particularly good season? My answer: Mijares has been Gardenhire's primary LOOGY since 2009. He has a good track record against lefties. Glen Perkins is a better pitcher in total, but Mijares is more effective against lefties. And Phil Dumatrait has the same command problems as Mijares does, without a history of success. If you're not letting Baker face Fielder with the game on the line, it's got to be Mijares.

The pitch sequence: Mijares, against left-handed hitters, essentially uses two pitches: A four-seam fastball, which is the high-velocity version of the pitch but with less movement, and a slider. (Much was made this spring of adding a two-seam, or sinking, fastball to his arsenal, but that was always in the context of giving him another weapon against right-handed hitters, against whom the slider is less effective.)

He and catcher Joe Mauer go after Fielder with the traditional approach: Use the fastball to get ahead in the count, then the slider to finish him off.

The problem, of course, is that Mijares doesn't get into a breaking ball count. He misses with three straight fastballs.

Question: Now that he's behind in the count, why not just walk Fielder? (Bert Blyleven, at either 2-0 or 3-0, said something about second base being open, and in the wake of the at-bat confirmed that it was a serious observation.) My answer: Walking people is not the Twins mindset. Walking a left-hander, even one as dangerous as Fielder, ought not be in Mijares' mindset at all. To twist a later Gardenhire comment on the situation, if he wanted Fielder walked, he could have used a right-hander. Mijares is in the game to get a left-hander out.

Plus: Walking Fielder means moving the go-ahead run to second base. With Fielder up, it takes an extra-base hit to put Milwaukee ahead; walk him, and Casey McGehee needs only a single to put the Brewers up.

Finally: Walking Fielder intentionally in such a situation (as was done frequently with Barry Bonds) is an implicit act of surrender. It says We have no idea how to get this guy out. Fielder is a very good hitter, but he can be pitched to.

Jose Mijares' OPS vs.
lefties this season: .608.
For his career: .570.
He's still an effective
Left-handed One Out
Back to the sequence: Mauer calls for, and Mijares throws, two more fastballs. Fielder takes both for called strikes, although the second is probably outside. That call, in retrospect, was crucial: One, it meant the already-speedy Nyjer Morgan will be off with the 3-2 pitch; second, it suggests that the umpire is inclined to give Mijares the benefit of an outside pitch.

Mauer calls for a sixth fastball and sets up outside. (Tim McCarver has said it so often that it gets lost in his aural buzz: What you throw on 3-1, you throw on 3-2.) Mijares misses the location and leaves it over the middle of the plate. Fielder slams it down the right-field line for a double and two runs.

The aftermath: Mijares tells reporters that Mauer only called for fastballs. Mauer says he called for a fastball, but not down the middle. Gardenhire implicitly raps Mauer's pitch selection, saying that if he wanted fastballs thrown to Fielder he could have used a right-hander.

Saturday: Gardenhire holds a clubhouse meeting and revisits the issue with the reporters. He wants no more public backbiting from the players, reserves the right to publicly critique pitch selection to himself, and explicitly says that Mijares bears the ultimate responsibility for which pitch he throws.

Sunday: Mauer doesn't start but catches after pinch-hitting for Drew Butera. Mijares pitches. Fielder comes up. The first pitch is a slider. Fielder singles to center for an RBI.

Gee, do you think he knew it was coming?

My take: I tend to favor the Brad Radke Rule of Pitching: Any pitch will work if you throw it well enough. Gardenhire prefers to see his left-handed relievers "spin it" to left-handed hitters, but I think Mauer was justified in sticking with the fastball when Mijares fell behind.

We'll never know what would have happened had Mijares thrown a slider on 3-2; nor will we know what would have happened if his fastball had been properly located. What happened didn't work for the Twins, but that doesn't mean the thinking was faulty.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Pic of the Week

Glenallen Hill, the Rockies' first base coach, awaits play
in Denver's Coors Field.
I chose this one purely for the light and shadow. It has a definite painting-like quality.

Glenallen Hill's a coach now? As a player, he seemed to be without nuance. I remember him as a big slugging outfielder who pulled (or tried to pull) every pitch he swung at, didn't run that well and had poor strike zone judgment. He played for seven teams in 13 seasons in the majors and qualified for the batting title once.

That's a simplistic evaluation of him, colored no doubt by his later years.  He was mobile enough in the mid 1990s to play some center field and to have consecutive seasons of 19 and 25 stolen bases.

He was probably more a student of the game than I realized.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mourning Morneau's injuries

Justin Morneau in 2009.
The older I get, the more I realize that time is the enemy of an athlete.

Everybody's time is limited, of course, but unlike a copy editor/blogger, a first baseman has only a few years to do his thing.

And Justin Morneau's prime years are slipping away from him.

2009: Stress fracture in his back. Missed the September stretch run after having a terrible August because of the back.

2010: Suffered a concussion in early July, missed remainder of season.

2011: Struggled through 55 games with a variety of problems, now is to have surgery on a pinched nerve in his neck. He's expected back in August, or so they say.

From the All-Star break 2009 to All-Star break 2011 (which hasn't year arrived), roughly two seasons of play, Morneau has had a half season of quality time. The rest of it, he's either been on the shelf or a shell of what we've come to expect.

He's on the wrong side of 30 now, and he's lost a year and a half of what figured to be peak performance  — a season and a half he'll never get back.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Notes, quotes and comments

Fans in San Francisco count Tim Lincecum's strikeouts.
This just in: Tim Lincecum is a pretty good pitcher.

There's no real embarrassment in being shut down by Lincecum, but the lineup Thursday afternoon was, of necessity, so overloaded with right-handed hitters that his domination was very predictable.

The Twins have built their strong June (they're 15-5 for the month even after losing their last two games) on run prevention — pitching and defense. For the season, they're 10-8 in pitcher's duels — game in which the two teams combine for five runs fewer — and they've somehow managed to win four games in which they could score just one run.

Minnesota pitched (and defended) well enough to win two of the three games in San Francisco. They only hit well enough to win one, however. And unless and until some of the big bats get back into the lineup, it will be difficult for this team to continue to climb.


Jim Riggleman has managed
four teams — San Diego,
Chicago Cubs, Seattle and
Washington — with a
record of 662-824.
There are only 30 major league managerial jobs, so it's always surprising when an incumbent decides to leave — especially when his squad has won 11 of 12.

But that's what Jim Riggleman did Thursday — resign from the Washington Nationals job. His explanation, in a nutshell: He wanted a contract extension, and general manager Mike Rizzo wouldn't talk to him about it.

Riggleman probably figured that this hot streak — the lowly Nats are now above .500, despite not having their best player for most of the season — gave him prime leverage right now. Rizzo figured he was bluffing, and Riggleman went Johnny Paycheck on him: Take This Job and Shove It.

Rizzo has blasted Riggleman for walking out, and I have a certain sympathy with Rizzo. But I also figure that the relationship between the two men couldn't have been very good, and Rizzo probably shares the blame for that.

And at least Riggleman took a direct and honest approach to it. He could have turned passive-aggressive on Rizzo, could have taken the attitude of "you don't want to deal with my concerns, I won't deal with yours." That could have been more damaging to the organization.

Riggleman has gotten a bit of a reputation as a professional interim manager — not necessarily a long term guy, but a stabilizing figure.  Walking out in midseason pretty much wrecks that image.


As expected, Jim Hoey is going back to Rochester to make room for Joe Nathan in the Twins bullpen. No move yet to active Jim Thome.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Expecting reinforcements

Even before the Twins took the field on Wednesday, it was made known that Joe Nathan and Jim Thome will rejoin the team Friday in Milwaukee.

Joe Nathan: Opened
as the closer, now not
even the best set-up
man in the bullpen.
Watching Ron Gardenhire reach into his bench for pinch-hitters Wednesday night and finding nobody with a 2011 batting average above .200 makes re-activating Thome, even without the DH rule in effect this weekend, a pretty easy call.

I would expect one of the catchers not named Joe Mauer to be shipped back to Rochester to make room for Thome. Assuming that Seth Stohs is correct in saying that Rene Rivera has an option left, it could be either; if the Twins have expose Rivera to waivers to send him out, Drew Butera should be the one sent down. Really, they're pretty interchangeable talents. (Rivera started Thursday's day-game-after-a-night game).

Nathan is another matter. He is said to have hit 93 on the radar guns in his rehab outings; I'm not impressed. We've heard inflated gun numbers from Triple A in the past. But he's getting $12 million plus; he's going to pitch if healthy.

I don't expect him to rank ahead of Matt Capps or Glen Perkins in the bullpen hierarchy, and I'm not sure he deserves to rank ahead of Alex Burnett right now either.

I would think Jim Hoey will be the demotee on this move. Anthony Swarzak has a well-defined role (long man) for which he is uniquely qualified among the current bullpenners, and I don't think Hoey has made himself more reliable in a leverage role than Phil Dumatrait.

Late night: Giants 5, Twins 1

Bobble, bobble, boot and trouble: Cody Ross is safe
at second base as Alexi Casilla fails to catch a throw
from Tsuyoshi Nishioka.
Box score here

Game story here

The sloppiness returned, at least for one game.

The Twins infielders committed three errors, two of which created unearned runs — and that understates the damage done.

In the second inning, with one on and one out, Brandon Crawford — the former Mankato MoonDog -- hit what appeared to be a double play ball to Tsuyoshi Nishioka. But Alexi Casilla dropped Nishioka's flip, and instead of being out of the inning, Nick Blackburn had two on with one out — and promptly surrendered a triple.

The scoring rules being what they are, only one run was unearned (the rules say you can't assume the double play). But really, neither should have scored.

Then in the eighth inning, Nishioka (who had played a fine game in the field to that point) bobbled a slow grounder with two out and a man on third. That error created an unearned run charged to Jim Hoey. It also makes three errors charged to Nishioka in six games at shortstop.

Even if we could wipe all three runs off the ledger, the offense mustered only one run itself, and that came on what was originally scored as an error. (The ruling appears to have been changed after the game.)

So the winning streak ends. And the three teams ahead of the Twins (Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago) in the AL Central all won. Not a good night for the Twins.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Late night: Twins 9, Giants 2

In just 25 pitches, Madison Bumgarner's ERA
inflated from 3.21 to 4.06.
Box score here.

Game story here.

Madison Bumgarner is now 3-9 on the season. He is, in truth, a really good young pitcher who had a really bad start on Tuesday night.

This game was decided, really, before I turned the game on. The first eight Twins got hits, alternating singles and doubles. All eight scored, the first time that's happened in the majors since 1990.

Cleveland and Detroit both lost Tuesday; the White Sox won. The Twins are now 6.5 games behind the Indians, 5.5 behind the Tigers, 2 back of the Sox.

A few random comments:

*Late in the game, Joe Mauer had a Joe Mauer double to the gap in left-center. That was maybe the first time I've seen him drive a ball the opposite way since his return.

*Tsuyoshi Nishioka went deep into the hole for a nice fielding play but didn't get off a strong enough throw to get the out. Bert Blyleven shrugged it off, saying his back foot slipped. Blyleven said Nishioka has enough arm for shortstop, but I don't regard him as a truly objective observer.

*At least Nishi reached that ball. Miguel Tejada played short for the Giants, and displayed minimal -- or non-existent -- range. Why Tejada and not former Mankato MoonDog Brandon Crawford, of whom I wrote a bit more than a week ago? Because in his last nine games he's 3-for-30, all singles, with one walk.

Crawford is a superior defender to Tejada, but he's got to contribute something with the bat. (But then, so does Tejada, whose on-base and slugging percentages are both below .300.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shortstops past, present and future

At most positions, the first question about a prospect is: Can he hit? At shortstop (and catcher, and to a limited extent center field) the question is: Can he handle the position?

Tsuyoshi Nishioka
dodges a San Diego
Shortstop in particular is seen as the athlete's position. The best athlete on a high school team is probably going to be the shortstop. He needs the quickness to get to balls, the hands to field the grounders cleanly, the arm to make the infield's longest throws, the grace and body control to put it all together. And, to top it off, he needs the intelligence/instincts to know what the play is.

It's a high set of standards, and it's worth remembering that Greg Gagne — probably the best defensive shortstop the Twins have ever had and certainly the most reliable — was not certain to stick at the position as he made his way through the Twins system, that there were those in the organization who thought he should be a third baseman.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka has played four games at short for the Twins. To the naked eye, he has displayed impressive range and a suspect arm. He's been charged with two errors — one on a bobbled grounder, the other on an off-target throw — which gives him an ugly fielding percentage. To the (very limited) extent that the defensive metrics have anything to tell us, he's an average shortstop (0 in plus-minus, 0 in runs saved), which still puts him ahead of the other three men who've played shortstop for the Twins this season. Realistically, the stats from four games tell us nothing. Subjectively, he appears capable of handling the position.

Levi Michael was the 30th
overall pick earlier this month.
Also over the past few days, we've had an opportunity to observe Levi Michael, the Twins first round draft pick, playing short for North Carolina in the College World Series. The Twins say they expect Michael to stick at short; I suspect that's a minority opinion.

I haven't drawn any conclusion from what I've seen about Michael's shortstop future. I did see him come in for a grounder and make the play to first — a truly routine play, except that I have three times this year (once in spring training, twice in regular season) seem Trevor Plouffe play such balls into infield singles.

Michael knows how to come in grounders? Hey, right there he's ahead of Plouffe.

Monday, June 20, 2011

All-Star speculation

Each team is guaranteed at least one player on the All-Star team. It's been quite a while since the Twins needed to use that mercy rule -- not since 2000 -- but this time around Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan, three fixtures, aren't realistic candidates.

Much of Denard
Span's value is in
his defense, and
that gets short shrift
for All-Star selections.
The Twins best all-around player this season, at least according to the statistical analysts, has been Denard Span. But Span (a) is out indefinitely with concussion syndrome and (b) looks better in the analytic stats than in the traditional ones. He's a singles-hitting center fielder who is rated highly in Wins Above Replacement in large part because of his defense (Baseball Reference's version makes him the best defensive player in the AL, the third best position player and the fifth best overall, but more than half that value comes from his glove).

Jason Kubel has had a good season at the plate, but (a) he's currently on the DL also and (b) has considerable competition among corner outfielders and DHs. Those kinds of players populate the leaderboards, and he's not there.

Pitchers? Scott Baker has been Minnesota's best starter, but a 5-4 record and 3.24 ERA isn't standing out this year. Francisco Liriano has the no-hitter, but he also has a 4-6 record and an ERA well above 4.

Few set-up men get
All-Star bids, but
Glen Perkins has been
stellar for the Twins.
This might be a good team for Ron Washington to think "need" from. What might he need on his roster in the game? A lefty specialist in the bullpen? Glen Perkins would not be a traditional All-Star type of selection, but he might be somebody to call on if Ryan Howard's up in a big situation with a right-hander on the hill. If Washington wants a pinch-runner, or a defensive sub in his outfield, Span makes sense (assuming he's available to play).

And, of course, there's Bud Selig's insistence to the managers that they have a multi-position player on their roster. Michael Cuddyer would fit that bill. But so would Michael Young, who is one of Washington's players and is hitting his usual .300+.

Bottom line: There isn't an obvious choice from this team, and who is picked will probably depend on what the All-Star roster needs after the election winners are in place.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Pic of the Week

Two umpires with but a single thought: You gotta go.
This double barrelled ejection came in the seventh inning
last Sunday.
How many umpires does it take to toss Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle?

In this case, two. Or, subjectively, one good ump (Jerry Layne, left) and one poor ump (Bob Davidson, right).

"Balkin' Bob" Davidson may not be the worst umpire in the majors, but if he isn't he's certainly in the running. Davidson was the ump on Friday who missed the call on Ben Revere's diving catch. No real surprise there — Davidson can't seem to get through a series without messing something up.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Recalibrating the bullpen and other items

Glen Perkins was one of two Minnesota natives to return to active duty with the Twins Friday — more on the other guy later — and Ron Gardenhire immediately plugged him back into the eighth inning role he vacated when he pulled his oblique.

Alex Burnett, meanwhile, had a rough seventh inning (which made Perkins' scoreless eighth vital). I still see Burnett as the team's best right-handed set-up choice, but that's not saying much.

Joe Mauer singles home a run in the first
inning Friday night.
The current bullpen roles:

Closer: Matt Capps
Setup 1: Glen Perkins
LOOGY 1: Jose Mijares
Setup2/Middle reliever 1: Burnett
LOOGY 2: Phil Dumatrait
Middle reliever 2: Jim Hoey
Long Man: Anthony Swarzak


Much to the disappointment of certain talk-radio-addled columnists, Joe Mauer was greeted Friday with an ovation at Target Field.

First at-bat, RBI single, followed by a run scored. Not quite like his belated 2009 debut, when he homered in his first AB, but plenty good.

No. 7 is back in the lineup and behind the plate. The Twins have won 12 of 14. Things are looking up.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Nishioka at shortstop, Game 1

I watched a good bit of Tsuyoshi Nishioka's Target Field and shortstop debut Thursday, and the Japanese import got quite a few chances.

My take on his performance:

He bobbled one grounder, a routine double-play chance, and didn't even salvage one out on the play.

He showed a lot of range to both the left and right. Going left — behind second — is probably his strong suit as a shortstop.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka takes the field for
his home debut. I don't know what the leap's
The acid test for a shortstop's arm — which is the scouting rap on Nishioka as a shortstop, that his arm is a bit weak—is the backhand play in the hole between third and short. Nishioka got to those balls well, but after that ...

The first one was a grounder by Paul Konerko, a slow right-handed hitter. Nishioka skipped the throw to first, and Konerko beat it out. It looked to me as if Nishioka was trying the "turf throw" popularized in the 1970s by Davy Concepcion, who figured that artificial turf added velocity to the first bounce. He would throw the ball to get one long bounce to the first baseman, counting on the turf to provide a true bounce. Most of the stadiums in Japan have artificial turf, and Nishioka may have had the turf throw in his repertoire.  It's not going to work in Target Field.

He had another backhand play in the hole later in the game — Carlos Quentin — and made the throw in the air. It was a close play; the ump ruled Quentin safe, but the replay suggested the throw beat him. Still, it was easy to see why Nishioka's arm strength has been questioned.

There was a third play that impressed me. In the ninth inning, Alex Rios chopped a grounder to Nishioka's right, not so far as to demand a backhand play. Nishioka did a good job of "getting around" the ball so that he was to the right of the ball and had his momentum going in the direction of the throw.

It's a subtle play, one that Greg Gagne excelled at, and one that seems to elude Trevor Plouffe.

My sense off this one game: He appears to have the range for shortstop. He doesn't have Cal Ripken's arm, but neither did Ozzie Smith,  and nobody complained about Smith's defense.  I think he throws better than David Eckstein, and the Angels won a World Series with Eckstein at short.

I'm  not sure he's a better shortstop than Alexi Casilla (at least the Casilla of the past two weeks), but if this keeps him from getting blindsided by baserunners, it's a worthwhile tradeoff.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Think fast

The third of Michael Cuddyer's three steals on Wednesday
against the battery of Gavin Floyd and A.J. Pierzynski.
The Twins stole five bases Wednesday night against the Chicago White Sox -- three by that noted speedster Michael Cuddyer, one each from Alexi Casilla and Ben Revere.

This came hours after the Chisox held a lengthy tutorial on cutting off the running game. 

A.J. Pierzynski's take on the track meet: 

We all know where we stand with the running game when Gavin (Floyd) is out there. Everyone knows where we stand, and it’s just part of the game.

The numbers for the Sox are rather grotesque, and Pierzynski, as the regular catcher, is taking heat for it. According to the above link, Chicago opponents are 61 for 75 in steal attempts -- and eight of the caught stealings are the result of pickoffs. 

I don't know that it's all Pierzynski's fault, although throwing is not the strongest part of his game. The opposition is 15 for 15 against Floyd, 14 for 15 against Edwin Jackson, 5 for 6 against former Twin Philip Humber, 3 for 4 against Jake Peavy (now on the disabled list). That's 37 for 40 against Chicago's four right-handed starters.

But don't look for the Twins to run wild this afternoon. Mark Buerhle is slated to start today, and nobody runs on him. (Seven attempts, two successes, five caught stealings.) Buehrle -- and the Sox' other southpaw starter, John Danks (5 for 10) -- can make even Pierzynski look good.


Regarding Cuddyer's steals:

The first came on the back end of a double steal, with Casilla taking third on the play. Cuddyer deserves credit anyway, since he was the guy Pierzynski threw for.

The other two came on breaking balls in the dirt -- pitches difficult enough to catch cleanly, much less get off a throw afterwards. Selecting those specific pitches on which to send Cuddyer wasn't luck but acumen.

Reasons to drag out the rehab process

As I suggested earlier Wednesday, Tsuyoshi Nishioka came off the DL to replace Justin Morneau on the active roster, and Dusty Hughes was outrighted to Rochester, which takes him off the 40-man roster (creating room for Nishioka there).

It is, apparently, all systems go for reactivating Joe Mauer on Friday. LaVelle Neal has, in that link, this comment:

(Reporter's note: What the heck is up with the different standards? Nishi and Nathan have to go to Rochester and Mauer doesn't? Who needs it more?)

It's fairly obvious, really. Mauer will be displacing one of two catchers, Rene Rivera or Drew Butera, who are doing a good job behind the plate but are collectively hitting under .200. Mauer is certainly going to be an immediate upgrade over either.

Nishioka and Nathan, on the other hand, aren't fixing something that's broken.

Alexi Casilla, in particular, is playing very well at short, and now he's going to shift to second to make room for Nishi.. Matt Tolbert, who will be displaced at second by Casilla, isn't hitting as well as Casilla, but the infield turned four double plays Wednesday night.

Matt Tolbert, who is about
to lose playing time, is hitting
under .200 this season
Is Nishioka going to make the team better? It's debatable.

Same with Nathan. He says he's ready to return, but (a) he wasn't pitching well before going on the DL and (b) the bullpen has stabilized in his absence. I figure Jim Hoey will be the guy to lose his spot when Nathan returns, and again, I'm not sure the 2011 version of Joe Nathan improves the team.

It gets tricky. Nathan has a distinguished track record, a big contract and diminished skills. Nathan probably has his idea of how and when he should be used, and his abilities right now may not match that idea.

Alex Burnett has been handling the primary set-up role fairly well -- I say "fairly" because he's been protected. The starters are going deeper into games than we're accustomed to seeing, and Burnett is not facing many left-handed hitters or crossing innings. When Glen Perkins is activated (which may be today), Perkins figures to become the primary set-up guy. He had earned the role before his oblique injury, and he doesn't need the protection.

So: Perkins in the eighth, Burnett and Jose Mijares getting outs in the seventh as needed ... where's the late inning role for Nathan? How does swapping Hoey out for Nathan make the team better?

If you think this team can still win the division title -- and I would expect the manager still has that as his primary goal -- it's difficult to justify replacing parts that are working for other parts that are uncertain. If you think 2012 and beyond is a more reasonable concern, trying Nishioka at short makes sense. Nathan, I fear, doesn't really fit either goal.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The DL shuffle

The Twins news from a rainy Tuesday:

Justin Morneau's left hand/wrist is being immobilized (amid chatter that it was injured in a display of ill temper after a strikeout; he told the Pioneer Press he doesn't know how it happened), and the first baseman is going on the disabled list. Tsuyoshi Nishioka (and Glen Perkins) are scheduled to return to the Twin Cities today. Both are to be re-evaluated today and are expected to be activated no later than Thursday.

Justin Morneau's
batting average is 120
points lower than
last year.
Nishioka for Morneau isn't a straight-forward swap, however, because Nishioka is coming off the 60-day disabled list, which means he isn't currently on the 40-man roster. Somebody has to be removed.

Brian Dinkleman is a possible target; he may be more useful than Rene Tosoni, but he's probably more likely to pass through waivers unclaimed. But designating Dinkleman for assignment would open another spot on the 25-man roster, and there aren't many position players left on the 40 to fill that spot.

More likely is waiving Dusty Hughes, which would open a spot on the 40 for Nishioka, while disabling Morneau will open a spot on the 25 for Nishioka.

Reactivating Perkins is considerably more straight forward. Seth Stohs reported Tuesday night that Jose Mijares and Phil Dumatrait are both out of options, but Chuck James isn't. While I have more confidence in James right now than in the other two, it is also true that Ron Gardenhire is using Mijares and Dumatrait in game situations, but not James. So James returns to Rochester.

Brian Dinkleman's
time in The Show is
probably running out.
Stohs also says that Rene Rivera and Jason Repko have options left, which has roster implications as more A team guys come off the disabled list in coming days. Either can be sent to Rochester without going through waivers.

Rivera (or Drew Butera, who also has options) isn't going anywhere until Joe Mauer returns, which may come this weekend. And like Nishioka, Mauer isn't on the 40-man roster. This may be where Dinkleman gets waived -- especially if somebody else is ready to come off the DL at the same time. Mauer replaces Dinkleman on the 40, replaces Rivera or Butera on the 25, and whoever is ready by Friday replaces Dinkleman on the 25.

Confused yet?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Now that it's fixed, fix it again

Alexi Casilla was handed the shortstop job this spring,
lost it, won it back, and now is to be stripped of it yet again.
When Tsuyoshi Nishioka reported to Fort Myers to rehab his fractured leg more than a month ago, the Twins chose to work him at shortstop, not second base.

That made eminent sense. Shortstop at the time was a gaping wound. Alexi Casilla had fumbled the job away; the organization has never taken Matt Tolbert very seriously as a shortstop candidate; Trevor Plouffe, who hadn't impressed anyone in years of Triple A ball, was about to get a look in the majors and demonstrate why he hadn't impressed anyone in years of Triple A ball.

Today Nishioka is with the Triple A team himself, apparently just days away from rejoining the major league team.

And shortstop is no longer a gaping wound. Casilla has been one of the keys to the team's 10-game surge. He's playing a cleaner game at short now than he did in April, and he's raised his batting average more than 90 points since his last game in April (.167 then, .263 this morning). Had he hit .260 and played this well in the field in April, I doubt the Twins would have worked Nishioka at short for six weeks.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Twins are about to violate that bit of wisdom by pulling Casilla out of the shortstop job, and there are good reasons to do so.

Making Nishioka the second baseman was a snap decision made early in spring training on little direct evidence. He got hurt making a double play pivot, which was something the Twins had grown concerned about as the exhibition schedule progressed and they saw signs that he was leaving himself vulnerable to aggressive slides.

If he can handle shortstop, the Twins are in better shape moving forward into 2012 and beyond.  Even if Casilla's surge proves to be just another tease, second base is easier to fill than shortstop.

The risk is if Nishioka can't handle short, if the Twins find themselves back in their April-May nightmare of unmade plays in the middle infield. Then the current sense that this team is about to make a summertime run back up the standings will prove illusionary.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Better than great

A good day's work, Frankie;
take the ninth inning off.
It was like 2006 all over again.

During that magical summer, I frequently pondered on my afternoon walk to work how I would handle the story if Johan Santana or Francisco Liriano did something historic in that day's game. No hitter? Twenty strikeouts? Anything seemed possible enough that a little game-planning in advance didn't seem like idle fantasy.

Sunday I watched Liriano for five innings at home, then walked to work thinking about how to play it — what should be the headline for a perfect game?

He didn't get the perfect game, of course, didn't get the no-hitter, didn't get the shutout, didn't even finish the game.

No matter. Francisco Liriano had a no-hitter earlier this season, and that was just luck. He didn't, in truth, pitch any better than he had been, and he had been awful. He entered that game with an ERA of 9.13, and after his next start was at 7.07. He was no cinch to remain in the rotation.

He's had four starts since. Four starts, 26 innings, four earned runs (ERA 1.38), eight walks, 29 strikeouts.

That's 2006 all over again.

Sunday wasn't. Even in 2006, we never saw Liriano with such control, such command, of everything. He's always been hit-or-miss with the fastball, always leaned on the slider to get him out of trouble when he fell behind in the count with the fastball. On Sunday, he threw strikes at a 2-1 ratio (97 pitches, 64 strikes, 33 balls).

2006 all over again?  No. For this one game, he was better.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pic of the Week

Former Mankato Moondog Brandon Crawford has
taken over the shortstop job for the defending
World Series champions.
The San Francisco Giants celebrated their World Series triumph by bidding farewell to their two veteran free agent shortstops. Juan Uribe signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Edgar Renteria with the Cincinnati Reds.

The Jints — who prospered in 2010 by adding guys who appeared to be over-the-hill — picked up former American League MVP Miguel Tejada, who has been in decline for a while.

The old-guys approach didn't  work in this case. Tejada was awful.

Brandon Crawford was called up —not from the high levels of the Giants farm system, but from A ball — and installed at shortstop late last month, and the former Mankato Moondog has wowed Giants fans with his defensive skills.

So far, he hasn't been overmatched at the plate either.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Preparing for the return of Joe Mauer

Joe Mauer has spent most of the past two months in
Fort. Myers, Fla., on a rehab assignment.
This jab at the AL All-Star voting has a more subtle implication as well: It illustrates how much better Joe Mauer is than the rest of the league's catchers. Mauer has played in nine games this season, and he still leads all backstops in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) year-to-year.

Speculation has Mauer's return to the lineup near -- perhaps as soon as Tuesday -- and that, in turn, has me wondering how the Twins will make room on their roster.

Obviously, one of the two current catchers will be removed from the 25-man roster. I don't know what Rene Rivera's option status is, but I'm sure Drew Butera has options left. It would be easy to clear space off the active roster by demoting Butera.

But there's more to it than that. Mauer is on the 60-day disabled list, which means he's not on the 40 man roster. To put him on the 25 he has to be on the 40, and right now there's no room for him.

If the Twins (a) prefer Butera to Riviera and (b) doubt anyone would claim Rivera, they could designate Rivera for assignment. I think it more likely that they'll waive a pitcher (Dusty Hughes would be a prime candidate) and option out Butera. That will let the Twins keep control of both.

I wish, however, to point out that Butera now has a seven-game hitting streak (yes he does),  including three doubles, a home run, six runs scored and six RBIs. This burst of heavy hitting leaves him with a slash line of .174/.207/.261, which is still pretty pathetic.

Rivera isn't a great hitter either -- if he were. he wouldn't have washed out with Seattle, wouldn't have gone five years between major league appearances -- but he's better than Butera. Butera probably has better defensive skills than Rivera, but Rivera is a good receiver too.

If Mauer's sound, either is an acceptable reserve.

Friday, June 10, 2011

On the disabled list

Denard Span was cleared by a physician in Kansas City
after this collision, but now has been diagnosed with
a concussion and whiplash.
Denard Span was put on the seven-day concussion disabled list Thursday night. This makes 12 members of the Twins' Opening Day roster — 12 of 25 — to go on a DL this season, and it's just June 10.

I'll assume this is some sort of record, partly because it is far more common now for players to go on the disabled list than it was 50 or even 20 years ago — more common not because the players today are wimpier or more injury prone, but because it's a lot easier for teams to use the DL and because it improves the quality of play for injured players to heal.

I'm not sure when a formal mechanism to replace an injured player temporarily was established. I know there was a disabled list in 1961, because in his diary book of the Cincinnati Reds' pennant winning season (Pennant Race), pitcher Jim Brosnan makes reference to his roommate, Howie Nunn, going on the disabled list. By the time I started paying attention to such things, sometime in the 1970s, there were two disabled lists — a 10-day and a 21-day, and teams could have no more than two players on the 10-day DL. There may well have been a limit on the 21-day DL.

Caps on the disabled list inevitably meant that players played, often poorly, with injuries. (Atlanta's Chipper Jones this week complained that teammate Jason Hayward should be playing hurt; 80 percent of Hayward is better than most players, Jones claimed. I doubt that; I suspect that Justin Morneau is playing at a bit more than 80 percent of his ability, but the missing 20-15 percent is the difference between being a star and his current, readily replaced, level of production.)

About 20 years ago the 10- and 21-day DLs were abolished and replaced with the current standard 15-day DL. There's also a 60-day DL for long-term injuries, which removes the player from the 40-man major league roster (Joe Mauer and Tsuytoshi Nishioka are on the 60-day DL); the seven-day concussion DL (new this year); and two forms of "family leave," a five-day bereavement leave for a death in the family and a three-day paternity leave for births.

The shorter the period of absence, the easier it is for a club to put a player on the DL. That's the reason for the new concussion list, to make it less risky for the team to sideline a player with a concussion. If Span's symptoms clear in another two days, the Twins will still have him back three days later; if they had put him on the 15-day DL, they'd be stuck without him.


Twins from the Opening Day roster to hit the disabled list this season:

Jason Kubel*
Francisco Liriano
Joe Mauer **
Jose Mijares
Joe Nathan*
Tsuyoshi Nishioka**
Glen Perkins*
Kevin Slowey*
Denard Span***
Jim Thome*
Jason Repko
Delmon Young

*= currently on the 15-day DL
**= currently on the 60-day DL
***= currently on the concussion DL

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On firing managers and coaches

It is, apparently, that time of year.

The Texas Rangers and Florida Marlins fired their hitting coaches this week. This morning the Oakland Athletics fired their manager, Bob Geren.

Bob Geren was 334-376
in four-plus seasons as
Oakland's manager.
Even though the Twins have to be the most disappointing team in baseball, I would be flabbergasted if  any of the coaches got the ax midseason, or if Ron Gardenhire got fired at any point. The Pohlad-era Twins don't operate that way.

Minnesota last fired a manager in 1986 (Ray Miller). Coaches have come and gone, some on their own volition, some because their bosses wanted a change — but those moves always came in the cool of the offseason, not in the heat of competition.

Geren got the ax, it appears, partly because of the losing and partly because he was losing the clubhouse. While there are plenty of outside critics of Gardenhire, I see little reason to think the players no longer trust or respect his leadership or decisions.

But it occurs to me that since Al Newman was jettisoned, the Twins coaching staff has not had a former middle infielder directly responsible for working with that aspect of the game. Gardenhire was an infielder, but he's got other duties; Joe Vavre played infield in his minor league days, but his job is working with hitters, not refining double play pivots. Jerry White was an outfielder, Scott Ullger a first baseman, Rick Anderson a pitcher, Steve Liddle and Rick Stemaszek catchers.

No true infield coach -- and the quality of the team's infield play has slipped over time. Coincidence, or correlation?

Optimism and reality

The Twins have now won six of their last seven.

They still have the worst record in the majors, still sport the worst run differential in the majors, still have much of their payroll on the disabled list or obviously playing hurt. They're still 11.5 games out of first place, and 10 games behind one of the teams seen at the start of the season as a divisional contender.

They have a long way to go to realistically be back in the hunt.

More days like Wednesday -- when the Twins were the only AL Central team to win -- and I might start taking the notion seriously.

Phil Dumatrait has
pitched nine innings
with the Twins
with three hits,
six walks and two
A few more comments on the Cleveland series:

* Are the left-handed components of the Minnesota bulllpen really that reliable, or are the Indians are simply that vulnerable to lefties? My guess is the latter. The biggest bats in the Cleveland lineup are either left-handed (Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo) or switch-hitters (Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana), and Ron Gardenhire leaned heavily on his southpaws. And they got outs.

Even Jose Mijares, who has had problems throwing strikes all season, was effective.

* Phil Dumatrait got the save with a scoreless 10th inning Wednesday, lowering his ERA to an even 2.00, but ... it's only nine innings, and the peripheral stats aren't that good.

* File this one under "about time": Gardenhire finally used Jason Repko as a defensive sub for Delmon Young.

* The Twins offense, productive against Kansas City in the sweep there and in the first game in Cleveland, sagged in the last two  -- not surprising considering the lineups look like spring training road games,

* The Twins have had just 21 home games so far, by far the fewest in the majors. They're scheduled to play 30 of their next 40 games at Target Field, starting tonight with the opener of a four-game series with Texas.

With no disrespect to the Cleveland Indians, the Texas Rangers right now pose a more significant challenge to the Twins newfound sense of competence.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Notes, quotes and comments

Day Two of the draft (rounds 2-30) for the Twins followed their recent form more closely than Day One did. There was an early emphasis on college pitchers, mostly hard-throwers reckoned more suited to eventual bullpen duties than starting.

Their third-rounder, left-hander Corey Williams of Vanderbilt, is deemed by Baseball America to be a "tough sign" as a redshirt sophomore. He's definitely tough: As a freshman, he was hit in the knee by a line drive, which cleaved the knee cap in half. He retrieved the ball and threw the batter out. Video and the x-ray of the kneecap here. As the headline on the link says, he's tougher than you are.

Also of note: The Twins drafted a couple more college shortstops in rounds 5 and 9, ... Their sixth round pick, Ivan Dereck Rodriguez, is the son of Pudge, the great catcher whose career is probably winding down. Baseball America lists the young Rodriguez as an outfielder, but some see him as a better pitching prospect

There's another day to go in the draft, but the deeper they go (50 rounds) the less likely the player is to sign.


Francisco Liriano on Tuesday:
34 balls, 47 strikes, three walks
and seven strikeouts in five innings.
Francisco Liriano did OK Tuesday night in his return from the DL. He was held to 81 ptiches, and his control wasn't great, but then it seldom is. One unearned run allowed.

He was followed by two more southpaws, Chuck James and Phil Dumatrait, who contributed three scoreless innings. I'm curious who'll be out of a job when Glen Perkins returns.  I don't see the Twins carrying four lefties in the pen, and James and Dumatrait have been more effective than Jose Mijares, but it's been Mijares used to protect leads of late. If somebody has options left, that may settle it.


Gotta be concerned about Denard Span, whose head isn't right. He sat out a couple of games after his minor-appearing home plate collision in Kansas City, played Monday and said his at-bats were blurry. They sent him back to the Twin Cities for further examination.

Adding to the concern is that he says he hasn't been completely symptom free since his 2009 problems with dizziness.

I would expect Span to join much of the Opening Day roster on the DL today. He has been, combining offense and defense, the Twins best player.


Delmon Young is still showing up in some defensive metrics as a very good left fielder — John Dewan's plus-minus system has him at +9 with 6 runs saved -- but our eyes tell us that he's still brutal out there. His misplay Tuesday night set up the only run of the game.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

First name, last name?

A silly early morning thought: All three of the Twins' draft choices Monday could switch their names around.

Levi Michael, or Michael Levi.
Travis Harrison, or Harrison Travis.
Hudson Boyd, or Boyd Hudson.

Drafting for a need

It's probably not fair to describe the Twins' selection of Levi Michael in the first round of the amateur draft Monday as a "need pick." He was generally reckoned to be worth a mid first-round pick, and the Twins got him near the end of the first round, about 10 picks lower than most mock drafts had him projected.

He may well have been "the best player available," impossible to gauge as that is in a field of amateurs of various ages, skill sets and experience.

But the choice is being well-received in Twins blogdom BECAUSE he is a collegiate shortstop, and thus perceived as (a) nearly major-league ready (b) at a position at which the major league team is searching for an answer without a clear option in the upper levels of its farm system. (OK, here's a lukewarm reception.)

Which sure sounds like a need pick.

Point B is clearly true. The Alexi Casilla tease is back on -- Casilla's hot streak at the plate has jacked his batting average above the .250 mark, and he's making good decisions at short. Had he played in the field in April and May the way he has in the past week, shortstop would not be reckoned a disaster area. But one week of stellar play doesn't override the long stretch of lousy play, and Casilla has lost the benefit of the doubt. Tsuyoshi Nishioka is playing shortstop on his rehab assignment, and he's going to get the job when he's activated.

Point A -- that Michael is close to ready -- is far from established. He is young for a college pick -- he graduated high school a semester early, and spent what would have been his senior season of high school ball playing second base for North Carolina. He has one (injury-hampered) season at short in college, and the scouts are apparently not completely sold on him as a shortstop.

He'll start, once he signs (which won't be immediate), in the intermediate levels of the farm system, possibly at high A Fort Myers. There he'll not only have to display the physical tools to play shortstop but the judgment.

It's the latter that probably matters most. A shortstop only needs enough ability to make the plays that are there to make and the judgment to know what that play is. It was judgment that made Greg Gagne an outstanding shortstop; it is judgment that wins Gold Gloves for Derek Jeter. And it is a lack of judgment that has repeatedly undermined Casilla and Trevor Plouffe.

If Michael displays that judgment once he enters the system, he may well rocket up the ladder. But the Twins have been stocking the lower levels of their minors in the past year or so with shortstop possibilities, many of them as foreign signees, and some of them (James Beresford and Brian Dozier) are at or above the level at which Michael will enter.

In short, Michael faces more competition in the system that most of us realize.

Monday, June 6, 2011

And the Twins select ... Levi Michael

North Carolina's Levi Michael has been slowed this season
with an ankle injury, but it is not viewed as a long-term
concern, according to Baseball America.
Surprise: A college infielder.

It's been a while since the Twins used a first round pick on a collegiate hitter of any position. Michael breaks their mold — he's a switch hitter who started at second base as a freshman at North Carolina, at third base as a sophomore and this year at shortstop.

From Baseball America:

He's been a reliable defender at all three spots, and scouts are warming up to the idea that he could stay at shortstop at the pro level.  ... A patient hitter with a good eye from both sides of the plate ... hits to all fields and could hit at the top of the batting order, though he shows pop and is naturally stronger from the right side.  ...  Defensively, he has good actions and enough arm strength for shortstop. The only concern is his range ...

BA's mock drafts had him going well ahead of the Twins.

BA's Jim Callis tweets: Did not think Joe Panik would go ahead of Levi Michael. Michael has been banged up, so Twins get a bargain at 30.

Sean Gilmartin, by the way, was picked by Atlanta at No. 28. Panik, referenced by the Callis tweet, is a left-handed hitting infielder from St. John's taken by the Giants at No. 29; he's probably limited to second base in the pros because of a shoulder injury, which is why Callis expected Michael to go higher.

If Michael is indeed a bona fide shortstop, the Twins will be grateful he lasted so long in this draft.


The Twins drafted a high school third baseman, Travis Harrison, with their first compensation pick, and another high schooler, right-handed pitcher Hudson Boyd, with their second comp pick.

Harrison is a power prospect — this might be what I've called the Mathew LeCroy Memorial Pick. The Twins frequently use a supplemental or second round selection on somebody whose main tool is power, often without any other significant attribute — LeCroy, Henry Sanchez, Danny Rams. Harrison may not be able to play third in the pros, and there is divergent opinions on his ability to hit for average.

Boyd is a big body (6-3, 235 pounds), which means he's not "projectable"  -- he is physically what he is. His fastball velocity is in the low 90s, and probably not going to improve. (He's also from Fort Myers, Fla., the Twins spring training base.) Good breaking ball, change-up needs work —which is to be expected of a high schooler.

For what it's worth, Baseball America ranked Michael the 22nd best player in the pool, Boyd 58th and Harrison 78th.

More pre-draft stuff

Baseball America's final mock draft still has the Twins taking Sean Gilmartin. The commentary says the organization is targeting "strike-throwing lefties" and would prefer Tyler Anderson of Oregon, but they have Anderson going 16th overall (to the Dodgers).

No players from Minnesota are going to be taken tonight (all they're doing today are the first round and the supplemental first round, which is made up of extra picks awarded for lost elite free agents). None of the Minnesota players BA gives scouting reports on are from the Mankato area.

The Twins pick 30th, then pick at 50, 55, 87, 117, 148 and 178, and so on. They got compensation picks for Jesse Crain and Orlando Hudson, because the Twins offered those two arbitration, but not for Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes or Jon Rauch, because they didn't offer them arbitration. And, of course, they re-signed Carl Pavano, so no picks for him.

I said repeatedly last winter that I'd rather have the picks than Pavano, and nothing that has happened this season has changed my mind. I thought not offering arbitration to Guerrier, Fuentes and Rauch was the wisest thing to do, and certainly the lowest risk, and I'm starting to wonder about that judgment, at least in Guerrier's case.

A multi-year contract with a 30-something free agent relief pitcher is a bad bet, but arbitration is a one-year deal. Guerrier landed a three-year deal for $12 million from the Dodgers, and I don't blame the Twins for avoiding that bullet. But they did give Pavano a two-year deal for $16.5 million, and that's a bigger bullet.

The risk in offering arbitration to Guerrier was that he would accept arbitration and wind up awarded a one-year, $5 million deal. That was a real possibility, because as a Type A free agent offered arbitration he would be a very costly signing. The Dodgers probably don't offer him the deal he got if he also cost them their first-round pick tonight.

But if he had accepted, the Twins probably wind up walking away from Pavano, and they wind up with (a) less money being paid out; (b) a rotation spot for Kevin Slowey and (c) an established, reliable middle reliever. And if Pavano signed elsewhere, the Twins would have a pick from his departure, and if Guerrier HAD signed elsewhere, the Twins would have two picks from HIS departure.

But they didn't want to take the chance of both accepting. I believe they also expected Slowey would fit neatly into Guerrier's old role. That. obviously, didn't happen

I have the evening off, so I will monitor the draft and post a quick comment on whoever the Twins select tonight.

Feeling the draft

Sean Gilmartin is
projected by Baseball
America's Jim Callis
to be picked by the Twins
in tonight's first round.
The annual baseball draft begins today. Because the Twins won 94 games last season -- yes, they did, you can look it up -- and because there are some bonus first round picks awarded to teams that failed to sign first-round selections last summer, the Twins pick 30th in tonight's first round.

It's pretty much impossible to forecast the draft accurately that deep, but I'll give you a name anyway: Sean Gilmartin, left-handed pitcher, Florida State University. If he's available with the 30th pick, the Twins will take him.

The Twins in recent years have generally used their first-round pick(s) on college pitchers (Kyle Gibson, Alex Wimmers) or high-school outfielders (Aaron Hicks, Ben Revere). In the pitching department, they favor the arms with quality command and change ups already built in. Gilmartin fits that description. Plus he's left-handed, which is a definite plus. He's got a chance to last until 30 because he doesn't have overpowering velocity.

He would not be a "need" pick. The Twins farm system needs, more than anything, quality middle infielders. But the shortstops who deserve to be first-rounders will be long gone before the Twins pick, and amateur second baseman are risky (guys who wind up at second base in the majors are almost always shortstops in high school or college). And there's always room in any system for another quality arm.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pic of the Week

Fans at a Los Angeles Dodgers game
react to the business end of a broken
bat flying into the seats.
"Spectators assume all risks and dangers incidental to the game of baseball ..."

I really haven't anything to say about this one. I like the faces, and I'm not sure what the guy at bottom center is reaching for, but beyond that, nothing.

But while I'm here, a quick jab at Dick Bremer's new hobby of scoreboard watching:

Knock it off, Dick. Obsessing over the Twins' opportunity to shave a game off Cleveland's lead is insulting your audience.

We know the Twins have the worst record in baseball. We know that if they win 14 in a row -- which would be a very impressive winning streak -- they would still be below .500.

If the Twins ever get above .500 this season, if they should somehow pull within eight or so games of the lead, sure, then the margin is of interest.

Until those unlikely events come to pass, it's irrelevant. Don't pretend the Twins are in the race. They aren't, and we know it.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Contemplating Anthony Swarzak

Anthony Swarzak hurdles the foul line on his way to
the dugout after his seventh no-hit inning on May 28.
Anthony Swarzak has made two strong starts in place of Francisco Liriano, but with Liriano expected back for Tuesday's start, Swarzak is headed back to the bullpen.

Which is the right move. Yes, he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning a week ago today, and yes, his ERA is under 3.50. And so what? It's just 21 innings — 21 innings in which he has struck out just six men.

That's hardly enough to dislodge one of the incumbent starters. It shouldn't be enough to rank him ahead of Kevin Slowey either, although Slowey's status with the organization isn't very high.

I heard Ron Coomer on the radio the other day talking about how Swarzak has better "tilt" and "angle" on his pitches than in the past. Until Swarzak starts missing bats, I'm going to regard such talk as mere buzzwords, and I'm going to remain skeptical of him as a major league pitcher. (He was pitching better at Triple A this season than he has before in the high minors, with the best control and strikeout rates he's had since he was in A ball, so there may be some true improvement in him.)

Regardless of whether Swarzak is the team's sixth starter or seventh starter, shifting him back to the bullpen does give them a legitimate long man. And the Greg McMichael Rule — if you get outs, they'll find a role for you — always applies, never more so than with this troubled bullpen.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Greg Gagne and Trevor Plouffe

The optimistic projection for Trevor Plouffe had him developing into a Greg Gagne-type shortstop.

Greg Gagne's 1987 card.
He would go on to drive
in the winning run in Game
7 of the World Series that year.

There are points of similarity. Both were/are angular shortstops, so slender as to appear taller in their pinstriped uniforms than they really are. (Gagne was listed as 5-11, 185 pounds; Plouffe at 6-2, 200.) As batters, both were/are low-average hitters who draw relatively few walks but with enough power to hit 10 or so home runs a year. Both sport(ed) powerful throwing arms (when Plouffe was in high school, some scouts liked him more as a pitcher than as a shortstop).

There the similarities end. Plouffe, in his brief opportunity to be the Twins regular shortstop, proved to be an erratic thrower and uncertain fielder. Neither was a surprise to those who saw him during spring training. Gagne, on the other hand, was blessed with both an accurate arm and almost perfect judgment.

Bill James on Gagne:

He had wonderful positioning at shortstop, sure hands, excellent arm with a slingshot motion and the best judgment I ever saw in a shortstop. If he thought he could make a play at second, he'd make the play at second, and he just never seemed to misjudge those kind of things. He was aggressive without making mistakes.

I said Gagne was "blessed" with those skills, but that is probably the wrong verb,. It describes the polished talent. Gagne doubtless had to work with great diligence to develop those skills -- to master the body control that allowed him to field grounders cleanly and rapidly release a powerful, accurate throw, to hone the awareness that led to executing the right play without hesitation. It was not a given that Gagne would be a major-league shortstop; as late as 1984, he had more playing time at third base with the Twins Triple-A team than at short.

The next year, at age 23, he split playing time in the majors at short with Ron Washington and Roy Smalley; he took over the regular job in '86, and held it through 1992, through two World Series runs. Gagne played 369 minor league games at shortstop to prepare for his 14-season major league career.

Plouffe, age 24, already has almost 300 more minor league games at short than Gagne did, and with his demotion Thursday is destined for more. 

Plouffe perhaps remains young enough to develop, but if 667 games at short aren't enough to mold him into a usable major league shortstop, I don't know how many it will take.