Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Too many pitchers?

Liam Hendricks (center) will be
in major-league camp, but he
figures to be an easy and early
demotion to the minors.
It is as if the Twins, having realized they needed a needle, purchased a haystack.

Their 40-man roster contains 23 pitchers. They have 25 non-roster invitees coming to camp as well, with nine of them being pitchers.

Thirty-two moundsmen are to descend upon the Hammond Stadium complex in a bit more than two weeks. That's almost enough to fill out not just the major league pitching staff, not just the Triple A staff, but the Double A one as well.

And those are just the guys in major league camp. Reporting a few weeks later to minor-league camp will be at least three pitchers with major league experience, and a fourth who was on the 40 last spring.

It's hardly rare for teams to find useful pitchers in the discard pile. The Twins picked up Matt Guerrier when the Pittsburgh Pirates decided he wasn't worth a spot on their 40-man roster, and he had a pretty good multi-season run in the Minnesota bullpen. Carl Willis, the second-best man in the 1991 bullpen, was a non-roster invitee.

But it's going to take a keen eye and quick judgment for the Twins to find a Guerrier in this crowd, because there are so many arms to look at, and only so many useful innings in which to eye them -- and a lot of innings that, of necessity, can't be used to give marginal guys a chance to show off their abilities, because the guys who are locks to be on the roster have to get ready for the season.

Start the sorting process there. The Twins have five starting pitchers with salaries of $3 million or more: Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis. If they're healthy -- no sure thing, as four of them spent time on the disabled list last season -- that's the rotation.

I see six other "starting pitchers" on the 40-man roster: Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak, Scott Diamond, Liam Hendricks, Terry Doyle and Matt Maloney. Maybe Jeff Manship belongs in that list too, but I think the Twins now view him as bullpen material. Hendricks isn't going to be in the Minnesota bullpen, but any of the others might.

Phil Dumatrait is
one of nine
non-roster pitchers
invited to the Twins
major league camp.
Matt Capps, Glen Perkins and Joel Zumaya -- again, assuming they're healthy -- have the end game roles in the bullpen secured. With Duensing and Swarzak front-runners for two other spots, that leaves two openings for the remaining 21 pitchers to scrap for.

Nineteen, really. Hendricks is going to be in a minor league rotation, getting innings. Tyler Robertson, a lefty relief prospect added to the 40 during the winter, has had just a taste of Triple A and is probably not deemed ready for the show just yet.

Nineteen pitchers for two jobs is still a lot.

The ones on the 40-man roster have a leg up on the non-roster invitees, but it may not be that decisive. Some of those on the 40 are use-or-lose -- Swarzak, for example, is out of options, and some of the additions may be. Doyle is a Rule V guy. Such players either make the 25-man roster or get cut from the 40, which would make room for a non-roster invitee. I expect at least one such move during camp.

Still, the challenge is twofold. The pitchers (particularly those with whom Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson are unfamiliar) need both to impress early, and to do so without overextending themselves. And the talent evaluators need to keep in mind that matchups early in camp against marginal hitters aren't necessarily revealing.

Dusty Hughes, after all, overwhelmed people in the first few weeks in Fort Myers last winter. It didn't carry over to the regular season.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Scott Boras, "business partner"

Scott Boras has found a sucker in Mike Ilitch, and has
convinced Ilitch that's a good thing.
This piece from the Detroit Free Press, contains a Scott Boras quote that cries out for some analysis:

"I told (Tigers owner Mike Ilitch), 'This is never easy, sir, because you're going to have to sign contracts that people are going to tell you aren't good contracts. My job is to make them good contracts by getting those players to perform and help you.' "

Since that purported conversation after the Tigers 119-loss season in 2003, the Tigers (and Ilitch) have been a favored landing place for Boras clients. And the Tigers have been to a World Series (2006) and won a division title (2011), which is certainly an improvement over 119 losses.

But have the Tigers' deals with Boras' clients been "good contracts?" It depends on how you want to define good. Some cases: 

Magglio Ordonez pulled in a bit less than $100 million for Ilitch and Co. over the past seven seasons; he had one huge season, a few good ones, and was a part-time player in three. Good contract or bad?

Ivan Rodriguez got $48.5 million over five years from the Tigers, including the three biggest salaries of his illustrious career; his production sank like a stone during that time. 

Rick Porcello, billed as an instant ace, got a record-setting $11.1 million deal coming out of high school. He has turned into Nick Blackburn — a low-strikeout back-of-the-rotation guy. (He also has a different agent now.) And now he's turning really expensive.

Last week Boras stuck Ilitch with Prince Fielder, a nine-year solution to the Tigers' one-year problem (the injury that will keep DH Victor Martinez out for 2012). Fielder's bat may make him worth his bloated salary for a while; like Mags and Pudge, he'll be a liability later in the deal.

Ilitch is willing to run pretty big operating deficits in pursuit of a few more wins. Boras is quite willing to help him run up those deficits, just as he helped Tom Hicks run the Texas Rangers into bankruptcy. The Rangers didn't grow into the two-time AL World Series representative that they are now until they shook their addiction to Boras clients. 

Odds are the Fielder deal won't swamp Ilitch financially in the way the Alex Rodriguez contract did Hicks. But Ilitch seems to me too much a sucker for Boras' sales pitch. Boras ain't his partner; he's the employee of some of his employees. Boras' goal is to extract Ilitch's money.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Sunday Funnies

Tom Sheehan had a relatively brief major league career as a pitcher, but a long one in professional ball -- 65 years all told as player, manager, coach and scout. And as a storyteller.

One of his tales, from his extensive minor league days: He's trying to finish up a game in the twilight in a park with no lights. The opposition had men on base and a top slugger up, and Sheehan is weary, but it's getting dim.

He throws strike one -- and holds his position in front of the mound when he takes the catcher's throw. He pitches from the same spot; strike two. Again he holds his ground, so he's now two strides in front of the rubber, and nobody notices in the dim. He throws his best fastball past the swinging bat, strike three, game over.

The hitter says to him: "You sure had something on that last pitch."

And Sheehan replies: "Yeah, and if I had to throw another, I'd have hit you in the eye with my fist."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Twins Fest weekend

Justin Morneau is at Twins Fest this year. Last winter
it was decided to have him skip the event while he tried
to recover from his concussion.
The rhythm of the offseason ticks on. The Twins Caravan wrapped up this week (the Mankato stop this year featured Bert Blyleven, Danny Valencia and Drew Butera), and this weekend the Metrodome will be packed with fans, vendors, exhibits and about 60 past, current and future Twins signing autographs.

About three weeks to spring training, folks.

With so much of the team around, and with the season fast approaching, there are plenty of stories popping up. 

Alexi Casilla had a good winter ball season in the Dominican -- hit better than .330 in their regular season and almost .400 in 17 playoff games -- and told the Strib's Joe Christensen: "Oh my god. I was on base too much." I hope he has that problem all season.

Justin Morneau has spent the winter rehabbing from various surgeries -- neck, knee, foot, wrist -- and letting his concussion heal itself. Joe C.'s story took an optimistic tone, but reading between the lines, one wonders. Morneau hasn't had concussion symptoms since December -- which means he was having them into last month -- and he hasn't yet been cleared to hit (that related to his wrist surgery). He still lacks feeling in his left forefinger; that's from the pinched nerve in his neck. It all adds up to: This was one hurting puppy last season, and this season is no certainty.

To whatever extent Morneau was inclined to feel sorry for himself, that notion was doubtless dissipated when he and a handful of other players visited Jack Jablonski, the high school hockey player paralyzed by a check in the back. Also visiting Jabs: Matt Capps, Glen Perkins, Butera and newcomer Jason Marquis.

In probably better health news: Nick Blackburn reports he'e feeling fine and ready to go after his latest surgery. Denard Span says this is the best he's felt in two years, and Ron Gardenhire says Span (not Ben Revere) is his center fielder. Joe Mauer is raring to go.

A Kent Hrbek statue is coming to Target Field. At this rate the plaza will be so filled with bronze there'll soon be no room for the kettle corn stand.

And the Twins moved the stoic Tom Kelly to tears with the announcement that his No. 10 will be retired this year. Deservedly so.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Prince Fielder, Mike Ilitch and the quest for value

Prince Fielder and Mike Ilitch: One is rich, the other is richer.
Now that Prince Fielder is officially a Detroit Tiger ...

The Tigers owe Fielder $214 million over the next nine seasons. They owe Miguel Cabrera $86 million over the next four seasons. They owe Justin Verlander $60 million over the next three seasons.

That adds up to $360 million for three players.

According to Forbes, which each spring publishes estimates of the worth of each major league franchise, the entire Tigers franchise was worth $385 million as of 2011. (Forbes valued the Twins at $490 million.)

Frankly, I'm over my head when it comes to numbers like these. I'd be a fool to think that I know more about finances than Tigers owner Mike Ilitch; he and his family have built an empire of pizza and pro sports and casinos and who knows what else that's worth at least $2 billion, and I ... haven't.

I don't even know if extremely pricey players such as Fielder, Cabrera and Joe Mauer count as assets or as liabilities when Forbes estimates a team's worth. There may be no real connection between payroll and worth.

But it feels out of balance for a team to have essentially its entire value tied up in three players.

Certainly Ilitch runs his team differently than do the Pohlads. Forbes consistently estimates that the Tigers operate at an annual loss of more than $20 million; the Fielder signing pretty much guarantees that will continue. The Pohlads have, I'm sure, subsidized the Twins from time to time, but in the main they expect the team to pay its own way.

The Pohlad approach seems to me the more stable way to operate.

Like the late Carl Pohlad, Ilitch has offspring who are active in the family empire, and it would seem likely that there is a succession plan in place — likely that the Tigers will not, when the 82-year-old Ilitch dies, enter the bizarre world of probate that ensnared the Red Sox and Royals when their big-spending owners passed on.

Still: The Tigers have a major market payroll and small market revenues. At some point, that contradiction is going to bite them.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reconsidering the Slowey transactions

Kevin Slowey
is back in the
AL Central.
Last week I critiqued this winter's sequence of moves that has resulted in Kevin Slowey joining the Cleveland Indians.

While I remain convinced that the Twins mishandled Slowey last year (and Slowey, no doubt, played a role in the fiasco), I am not now so certain that the Twins have come off the worst of the three teams involved in this offseason's trades.

To recap:

  • In early December the Twins traded Slowey to Colorado for minor league pitcher Daniel Turpen.
  • Last week the Rockies traded Slowey and cash to Cleveland for pitcher Zach Putnam.

Putnam is generally regarded as a better prospect that Turpen. But the cash -- which I overlooked in delivering Friday's critique -- is not insubstantial ($1.25 million).

Look at it this way: Would the Twins swap Turpen and $1.25 million for Putman? I can't be certain, but I doubt it. Both right-handers are a secondary pitch shy of establishing themselves as major leaguers, much less as impact players.

Then there's this: Putnam is on a 40-man roster. Turpen is not. The Twins traded Slowey when they did to open a spot on the 40 before the Rule V draft, and it seems reasonable to assume that they didn't want somebody who would have to be on the 40.

Who, then, comes off best in this sequence? My sense is Cleveland, which gets Slowey at a substantial discount. I think Slowey is a better pitcher than his disastrous 2011 indicates. If he pitches in 2012 as he did when healthy in his previous seasons with the Twins, the Indians have a very good back-of-the-rotation starter.

Next would be the Twins, who rid themselves of what seemed to be a poisonous situation. And at the bottom is Colorado, which got a minor upgrade in prospects at the cost of $1.25 million and some roster flexibility.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Prince Fielder to the Detroit Tigers

Detroit will pay a king's ransom for Prince Fielder.
Well, I sure didn't see this coming.

Prince Fielder landed with the Tigers — nine years, $214 million, pending a physical (which will doubtless find that he's one really heavy dude).

Long, huge contracts are always a risk, and once this one becomes official it will be the fourth largest ever. It's longer and more costly than even the Joe Mauer contract, and the Twins are probably far less comfortable with that one just one year in than they ever imagined. And Mauer isn't lugging around a big belly.

If you're going to spend $200 million-plus on a player, best that it be one of Fielder's age. It would also be preferred that it not be on one of Fielder's body type.

Fielder can certainly hit. He and Miguel Cabrera figure to be as imposing a pair of back-to-back hitters as one could hope for -- as was Fielder and Ryan Braun in Milwaukee. But both Fielder and Cabrera have been first basemen for several seasons now, neither is particularly agile, and neither wants a steady diet of DHing.

Cabrera, who was moved from third base in 2008 after embarrassing himself with five errors in 14 games, is supposedly to return to the hot corner. Considering that the Detroit shortstop, Jhonny Peralta, was moved to third base by the Cleveland Indians because of his lack of range, and that their patchwork at second base frequently involves a transplanted outfielder (Ryan Raburn) and this has the very real possibility of being the worst defensive infield I'll ever see in the majors.

But the Tigers are heavy on power pitchers, and if anybody is equipped to play with an infield of Iron Gloves, it would be a staff led by guys like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Rick Porcello, not so much.

The middle of the Tigers lineup certainly won't be fun to pitch against the next few years, so in the short run, the Fielder signing may work. In the long run, guaranteeing a player with Fielder's conditioning issues that much money for that long a term is lunacy. But Mike Ilitch, the pizza magnate and former minor leaguer who owns the Tigers, is in his 80s. In the long run, he's dead. He wants a World Series first.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dissecting the Bill Smith Era: Final thoughts

Bill Smith: Still part of
the front office, but
not the man in charge.
I had to laugh (quietly). The Puckett's Pond blog (currently on the siderail) does a weekly links post, and that compilation has frequently picked a "Dissecting Bill Smith" segment. At least once the poster called it his favorite series of the winter. And then last week's link at least hinted that it had gone long enough.

And it has. This series ran away from me. This will be the 23rd post in the series, and more than half of them were about trades. That explicitly wasn't my intent. As I said in the introductory post, trades are a prominent part of a general manager's job, but there are many other facets. And even the visible part of the trading game -- the trades that are made -- may be dwarfed by the hidden part -- the trades that aren't made.

Smith is not a popular figure with the fans. But after reviewing his tenure, I come away believing that in at least one crucial aspect, the organization improved during his reign.

Smith inherited the job at a time -- after the 2007 season -- when the minor league system was becoming exhausted. The Twins had been drafting in the bottom half for more than five years. They had been unwilling/unable to compete for talent in the hotbeds of foreign baseball, and unwilling/unable to "break slot" for talented players in the draft who fell because of their bonus demands. And with the team continually in contention, the trades of veterans for young talent had largely dried up.

The upper levels provided a few useful pieces early in Smith's reign -- Denard Span, Nick Blackburn -- but the lower levels were relatively barren.

That problem is being felt now. The Twins' Triple A affiliate, Rochester, is coming off back-to-back seasons of more then 90 losses, and it is not graduating impact players to the big club. That failure is rooted in the final years of Terry Ryan's first tenure.

And yet we can see a new foundation rising through the bottom rungs of the organization. Miguel Sano. Eddie Rosario. Oswaldo Arcia. Levi Michael. Kyle Gibson is more advanced, and sidelined by injury, but he fits the pattern too -- he fell in the draft, the Twins took him and went over slot to get him signed.

Player development is like an aircraft carrier; it doesn't turn on a dime. But if/when the Twins infield consists of Rosario at second, Sano at third and Michael at short, it should be remembered that Smith was the man at the helm when they came on board.

And, to be sure, that Ryan was back in charge when they were turned from prospects to players. Reading between the lines, it appears that Ryan is more effective than Smith at setting and enforcing standards.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On the future of this blog

I work, as you probably know, for The Free Press, the daily newspaper in Mankato, Minn. My job is copy editing and page design. The weekly in-season baseball column is something extra. So is this blog.

In the early months of 2007, I came to Joe Spear, the managing editor of The Free Press, and said: I want to start a baseball blog. If you want it on our website, great; if you don't, that's OK too, but I want to do this somewhere, somehow. He immediately said he wanted it on The Free Press site.

Our then-webmaster fairly quickly set up a crude blog platform within our site. It allowed no comments and required me to write out the html commands to create hyperlinks. It was clumsy and inconvenient and not all that accessible. And I used that for a bit more than two years. Perhaps that setup would have been improved with time, but the webmaster left our employ, and there was no successor.

By 2009 a few other staffers were blogging. They weren't using the in-house platform that had been set up for me; they were using Blogger, with links from the Free Press homepage to the blogs. I was, let us say, "encouraged" to shift to Blogger also. I was wary of the change, largely because I was not impressed by the tone of comments on Free Press stories, but in May I made the jump. (And the comment problem has not been an issue here; thank you.)

The new platform was easy and versatile. It also isn't really part of The Free Press website. Today, in the middle of the offseason, I'm drawing (according to Google Stats) about 8,800 visits a month; very few are coming through my employer's site, which means The Free Press isn't gaining much from all my blog activity.

All this is relevant because sometime this month The Free Press will install a paywall. (Here's the publisher's explanation.) Let me say here that I have absolutely no quarrel with this decision; I favor it, and have for some time. The give-it-away model isn't working financially for newspapers in general and The Free Press in particular, and isn't going to. 

As matters stand, of course, this would have little effect on this blog. Most of you don't come here through The Free Press site. You come from other blogs, through bookmarks, through search engines ... and as long as the Outsider is on Blogger, those alternative routes are going to be there.

But that may not last much longer. Two thousand-plus visitors a week, many/most of whom are otherwise not Free Press customers, has an obvious attraction. Given that Jim Santori specifically mentions the blogs as something to be affected by the paywall, I assume this blog is likely to move once more. 

I'll let you know when I know.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

More from BA on Twins prospects

The move to the
bullpen agreed with
Deolis Guerra.
Baseball America followed up its Top 10 Twins prospects list with a chat on Friday for subscribers.

A few highlights from John Manuel, the BA co-editor who does the Twins list:

  • Alex Wimmers' control problems last spring were rooted in a lack of conditioning. Another high draft pick whose conditioning is an issue is Hudson Boyd, who weighed nearly 280 pounds when he arrived at instructionals. He's supposedly back under 250 now.
  • Manuel last year thought the Twins should give up on Deolis Guerra. Now he sees Guerra as just shy of Top 10 status and expects Guerra to pitch in the Twins bullpen this year. 
  • If Guerra's stock is up, Jorge Polanco and Angel Morales are down.
  • Manuel defends the Twins on their shortage of power arms. The Twins have drafted power arms, he notes, but they've gotten hurt or haven't developed. 
  • Manuel is much higher on Joe Benson than on Ben Revere. 
  • David Bromberg is not in BA's Top 30 Twins prospects.
  • Travis Harrison, drafted as a third baseman, is likely to wind up at first base. Manuel thinks Miguel Sano can stick at third.
  • Manuel expects shortstop Niko Goodrum to repeat in the Appy League. 

The Sunday Funnies

The '62 Mets. Really, is it possible to compile a series of amusing baseball anecdotes without including something about their famous inepitude? So here goes ...

Richie Ashburn is the center fielder for the Mets, in the last year of his stellar career. Elio Chacon is the shortstop, for reasons unknown to history. Chacon is from Venezuela, and his English is exceedingly limited, and he and Ashburn keep colliding in the pursuit of popups.

Another Met tells Ashburn that the problem is that Chacon doesn't understand when Ashburn yells "I got it." He suggests that Ashburn yell "Yo ma tengo" instead, and Chacon will pull up.

It makes sense to Ashburn, who practices the pronunciation for a while and decides he's ready to roll with it.

Game's going on, and a pop-up is hit into short left center. Ashburn comes in, Chacon goes out. Ashburn yells "Yo ma tengo!" Chacon pulls up and gives Ashburn plenty of room. The center fielder reaches up to catch the ball ...

And gets plowed over by Frank Thomas, the 200-plus pound left fielder, who speaks no Spanish.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Back to the Basics (Blame Nishi)

Tom Kelly recently cited players from outside
the Twins system as a reason for the misplays of 2011.
Tsuyoshi Nishioka was the most prominent of them.
We're less than a month away from the opening drills of the Twins spring training. Let the fundamentals hype begin.

The organization's "play-the-game-the-right-way" mantra tends to stick in the craw of the blogosphere, but I have no doubt that Ron Gardenhire and Co. are sincere in prioritizing that approach. And after the debacle that was 2011, there is no dispute that the Twins have fallen off in that department (as in many others).

The question becomes: What are they going to do about it?

Here's Gardy, as quoted earlier in the week by LaVelle Neal (Star Tribune), raising more questions than he answers:

I've talked to (Tom Kelly) at long time on the phone. Conversations I thought I could never get into with T.K. We spent an hour on the phone one day, talking about different things we should do in spring training, which way to go and how I should have done different things. It's actually been good. Tom has helped me out a bunch.

A fascinating paragraph there, with potential followup questions springing from every sentence. As curious as I am about what spring training changes loom, as interesting as Kelly's critique of Gardenhire may be, I find myself stuck on the second sentence. Gardy was Kelly's right-hand man for more than a decade, T.K.'s designated successor. Kelly's been a prominent presence at spring training throughout the Gardenhire years. They are mentor and protege. And there were baseball conversations Gardy didn't think they could ever have? Really?

Kelly may be an even more prominent figure in Fort Myers this spring. This Tom Powers (Pioneer Press) column certainly implies so. 

It also contains a phony scrapegoat for 201l's sloppy fundamentals -- too many players from outside the organization:

In the past, the Twins were fortunate to have fairly stable batches of minor leaguers who played together, learned together and advanced together. Last year, there was a huge influx of players from other organizations. All those new guys, with all their different ways of doing things, struggled to mesh. They reverted to their old ways too many times.
"All this mixing and matching was too much," Kelly said. "You take Nishi (Tsuyoshi Nishioka). He was learning everything from scratch. It was all really different for him. We don't know what he's going to do. Is he going to revert back like he did things in Japan?"

That sounds logical. It isn't factual, at least not for the major league team. That "huge influx" of players from outside the Twins system simply didn't happen. The Twins used 22 position players in 2011 (counting Jim Thome, who was strictly a hitter). Only Nishioka and two catchers, Rene Rivera and Steve Holm, were new to the Twins organization. Of the rest, only Drew Butera, Alexi Casilla, Jason Repko, Thome and Delmon Young have ever played for any other organization, majors or minors, and Butera, Casilla and Young had been in the Twins system for at least three years apiece entering 2011.

Kelly cites Nishioka as an example, but when you really look at it, you discover that Nishioka is really the only available example. The vast majority of playing time went to players theoretically well-steeped in The Twins Way. 

The fundamental failures of 2011 -- the sloppy rundowns, the dumb baserunning, the given-away at-bats -- are better laid to a rot in the organization, or to a lack of talent, than to too many outsiders. It is to be hoped that Kelly and the others recognize that but are merely unwilling to publicly criticize the minor league staff. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Slowey moves on to Cleveland

Kevin Slowey was 39-29
with a 4.66 ERA in his
time with the Twins —
including 0-8, 6.67 in
When the Twins traded Kevin Slowey to Colorado, about the only good thing in it for the pitcher was that it got him out of what had become a poisonous situation in Minnesota.

Coors Field isn't a prime place to pitch to begin with, and it's particularly inhospitable for an extreme fly-ball pitcher such as Slowey. The Twins, if they were trying to punish him with the trade, picked the right destination.

But things change. The Rockies recently traded outfielder Seth Smith to Oakland for two starting pitchers, giving them a surplus of arms with which to fill out their rotation. Meanwhile, Cleveland starter Fausto Carmona turned out not to be Fausto Carmona. He's really Roberto Hernandez Heredia, and he's really 31, not 28.

There's some speculation that the Indians may seek to negate Carmona/Heredia's contract. At the very least, it's going to be a whole lot more difficult for the pitcher to get his visa.

So the Indians today traded for Slowey. And whereas the Twins netted a pitcher (Daniel Turpen) who didn't fare so well in Double A, the Rockies got Zach Putnam, who (a) has reached the majors; (b) pitched well in Triple A and (c) was ranked by Baseball America as Cleveland's No. 10 prospect.

This situation appears a whole lot better for Slowey. And it also appears, again, that the Twins found another way to mishandle him.

Dissecting the Bill Smith Era: Other trades of 2011

Jose Morales hit .297
in his three partial
seasons with the Twins.
When: Dec. 16, 2010
What: The Twins sent catcher Jose Morales to Colorado for left-handed pitcher Paul Bargas
Value: Bargas not only hasn't reached the majors, he didn't pitch at all in 2011 because of a brain tumor. Morales opened the season as the Rockies' No. 2 catcher but had only 71 plate appearances (-0.1 WAR, 1 win share). He was nontendered this offseason and signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Twins motivation: Open a spot on the 40-man roster

The Twins traded Morales because they needed roster space to re-sign Jim Thome and Carl Pavano, because he was out of options and would have to clear waivers to be sent to the minors, and because they had decided they prefered Drew Butera's defensive chops to Morales' batting average.

Bargas reported to camp with an obvious health problem and was quickly found to have a brain tumor. Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune earlier this month wrote about Bargas, who expects to be in camp this spring. (As a sign of how much I like the piece, I link to it despite the Strib's paywall). I don't know enough about Bargas' talent to be optimistic about his future as a pitcher, but I sure will root for him. (Update: Fixed the link.)

When: Jan. 26, 2011
What: Claimed left-handed pitcher Dusty Hughes off waivers from the Kansas City Royals
Value: Hughes was awful with the Twins (9.95 ERA in 12.2 innings; -0.4 WAR, 0 win shares)
Twins motivation: What I call Craig Monroe Syndrome: He had gotten Twins lefties out while with K.C., and the Twins took this as an indication of his talent.

I still remember seeing one particularly wicked breaking ball Hughes threw in a spring training game to freeze Carl Crawford; that single pitch had me briefly convinced he was a shrewd pickup (and a silly discard by the Royals). He didn't throw enough such pitches, however.

He was outrighted in May. He has signed a minor league contract with Atlanta.

Rob Delaney wasn't
even deemed worthy
of a draft pick as an
amateur player
When: Jan. 28, 2011
What: Lost right-handed pitcher Rob Delaney on waivers to Tampa Bay
Value: Delaney made four appearances for the Rays with an ERA of 10.80; no win shares and -0.2 WAR
Twins motivation: Created a spot on the 40-man roster for Hughes.

Delaney, like Anthony Slama, put up good numbers in the minors for the Twins, but the Twins were unwilling to give him a real chance in the majors. The Rays designated Delaney for assignment in September to open a spot for phenom Matt Moore; it's unclear to me if Delaney is still in their system or if he's a free agent he signed this month with Miami.

When: March 20, 2011
What: Lost right-handed pitcher Pat Neshek on waivers to San Diego
Value: Neshek worked 24.2 innings for the Padres with an ERA of 4.01; more tellingly, he walked 22 (and struck out 20) in those 24.2 innings. He had 1 win share and 0.0 WAR.
Twins motivation: They wanted to open a spot on the 40-man roster.

It was significant that the Twins dumped Neshek even though he still had an option left; that indicates that the organization either had concluded that he was unlikely to regain his pre-injury effectiveness and/or didn't want him around.

He was up and down with the Padres, and he is currently a free agent.

When: Aug. 25, 2011
What: Lost designated hitter Jim Thome on waivers to Cleveland
Value: He had 13 win shares total for the season, 0.5 WAR with the Indians.
Twins motivation: Cleared his salary off the books for the last six weeks or so of the season, gave him a chance to be at least in the fringes of a pennant race and an opportunity to make amends with the fans of his first major league team.

Jim Thome pretended
to play third base for
one pitch against the
Twins in a September
Big name, exceedingly minor deal. It was originally announced as a player-to-be-named trade, but once it was obvious that the Indians weren't making the postseason they changed it to straight cash and not much of it.

Thome has signed with Philadelphia for 2012, and the Phillies are making noises about playing him at first base on occasion. Good luck with that.

When: Sept. 27, 2011
What: Claimed right-handed pitcher Esmerling Vasquez off waivers from Arizona
Value: The Twins did not add him to the active roster for the final week of the season.
Twins motivation: He's a power arm bullpen possibility.

The Diamondbacks needed to clear space on their 40-man roster, and lopped Vasquez, who has pitched in 141 major league games for the D'backs (137 innings, 80 walks, 120 strikeouts). Good arm, uncertain control. The Twins are collecting a bunch of this kind of arm and hoping one of them can figure it out.

When: Oct. 31, 2011
What: Claimed right-handed pitcher Jeff Gray off waivers from Seattle.
Value: Has not pitched for the Twins
Twins motivation: Another bullpen option.

I'm including this transaction and the following one with the 2011 season because they came just before Bill Smith was removed from the general manager's job, and they ought to be included.

Gray is a knock-around reliever who has been in the majors with Oakland, the Cubs, the White Sox and Seattle. I'm not particularly enthused about him, and would expect that Vasquez and Lester Oliveros (and others) are ahead of him on the totem pole, but Gray is on the 40-man roster, so he's got a chance to make the team this spring.

When: Oct. 31, 2011
What: Claimed left-handed pitcher Matt Maloney off waivers from Cincinnati
Value: Has not pitched for the Twins
Motivation: Provides some depth for the starting rotation.

Maloney hasn't established himself as a major leaguer, and his stuff isn't all that impressive, but he's put up good numbers in Triple A. Maybe he's what's derisively known as a Quadruple A pitcher, but I suspect he'd be an improvement over Nick Blackburn if given a shot. Of course, Blackburn has two more years and some $10 million left on his contract, so he's got dibs on the rotation berth.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Implications of Joel Zumaya

Joel Zumaya made
one spring training
appearance in
2011, then had
fresh surgery on his
2010 elbow fracture.
The Twins announced Wednesday that Joel Zumaya passed his physical. Given his extensive injury history, that was no mere formality, but the power pitcher is now on the 40-man roter.

Let us assume that Zoom-Zoom is sufficiently sound-sound to pitch coming out of spring training. The assumption here is that he'll immediately join holdover Glen Perkins as the primary bridges to closer Matt Capps. But ...

  • Ron Gardenhire likes to use his relief pitchers on consecutive days;
  • and that may not be optimal or even practical with Zumaya.

One of Gardenhire's strengths over his decade-plus as manager has been his ability to get production out of his bullpen. His two weakest seasons in that regard were 2008 and 2011 -- and those were the post-operative seasons of Jesse Crain and Joe Nathan, respectively. In both years, Gardy was reluctant to use his post-op power guy on back-to-back days, and the limitation forced him to go to less optimal (and less successful) match-ups.

The Twins, therefore, will still be looking seriously at their flock of unestablished right-handed hard throwers, looking for one who can harness his talent and strike out righties in big spots. Alex Burnett, Lester Oliveros, Esmerling Vasquez, Deolis Guerra, Jeff Gray ... even with Zumaya on board, the door to a key bullpen role is still wide open for these guys. And so is the door back to the minors.

Zumaya is certainly Plan A. But few Plan A's come with so much uncertainty, or with such (probably) limited unavailability. A Plan B is always wise; in this case, it's necessary, even if the Zumaya addition meets its ambitions.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Dissecting the Bill Smith era: The Delmon Young trade

Delmon Young hit some
big home runs for Detroit in
the postseason.
When: Aug. 15, 2011
What: In a waiver deal, the Twins sent outfielder Delmon Young to the Detroit Tigers for right-handed pitcher Lester Oliveros and left-handed pitcher Cole Nelson.
Value: Young had 10 total win shares in 2011; he had 0.1 WAR with the Twins and -0.1 with the Tigers. Oliveros had 1 win share for the season, 0.1 WAR with the Twins. Nelson, a Minnesota native, spent the season in high-A ball.
Twins motivation: They dumped a veteran they weren't planning to retain for two young pitchers (Oliveros is 23, Nelson 22).

This deal was the white flag, the moment at which the Twins conceded that they were not making a run at another AL Central title. This was the first -- and last -- time Bill Smith traded away a veteran for prospects in mid season; his previous in-season trades had gone the other way.

Young had a bizarre season. He displayed almost no power with the Twins (slugging percentage .357), with four homers in more than 300 at-bats, but the defensive metrics depicted an excellent left fielder. He hammered eight regular season homers in less than 170 at-bats with Detroit, and the metrics paint him as a disaster in the outfield there. The Baseball Reference version of wins above replacement actually has him playing better for the Twins than with the Tigers.

So brutal was Young in the outfield with Detroit that by season's end there was speculation that the Tigers would non-tender him (which is what the Twins would likely have done had they not traded him). That didn't happen, perhaps because Young bashed another five homers during the Tigers' two playoff rounds. (He and the Tigers reached an agreement on Tuesday, avoiding an arbitration hearing, for $6.75 million.)

One interesting aspect of this trade is that Jim Leyland installed Young in the No. 3 spot in the batting order, right in front of MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera. Even in 2010, in what appeared to be a breakout season, Young seldom got out of the bottom half of Ron Gardenhire's lineups.

Oliveros is in the mix for a bullpen role in 2012; like many Tigers prospects, he throws hard with uncertain control. (Baseball America says his is the best fastball in the Twins organization.) Nelson is another power arm, albeit further from the majors.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jesus Montero, Michael Pineda and Francisco Liriano

Jesus Montero can flat out hit,
but his defense is lacking. He may
wind up at first base or  DH.
Michael Pineda faded in the
second half last year, but still
struck out more than a batter
an inning.

An interesting trade made this weekend (pending physicals): the Yankees swapped hitter-without-a-position Jesus Montero to Seattle for young power starter Michael Pineda.

Interesting because the trade involves two guys widely viewed as future stars. Montero is nominally a catcher, but there is a great deal of doubt that he can stick behind the plate. But there is no doubt that he can hit, and the M's, who have done pretty well at developing starting pitchers, are sorely lacking in impact bats. And the Yankees have a wealth of catching prospects and no real other place to put Montero in the lineup.

And interesting because last spring, when there was a flurry of rumor that the Twins were shopping Francisco Liriano around, Montero struck me as one trade target that I would not complain about.

This trade strongly suggests that the Yankees wouldn't have made such a deal even up.

Pineda has one year of service time, which means he has two years before he even becomes arbitration eligible. Lirano last spring was two years away from free agency. Even if one regards Liriano, as of the end of the 2010 season, and Pineda today as equivalent talents, the difference in financial leverage makes Pineda far more valuable.

Ken Davidoff of Newsday reported this weekend that the Cubs were after Montero PLUS talent from the Yankees in exchange for Matt Garza. Again, Garza is two years from free agency; Pineda is more valuable.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Joel Zumaya lottery ticket

Joel Zumaya fractured his elbow
throwing a pitch against
the Twins in 2010. He has
since had two surgeries on the
damaged joint.
The Twins have reportedly reached an incentive-laden contract agreement with Joel Zumaya.

You wanted a power arm in the Minnesota bullpen? Now, THAT's a power arm.

The problem, of course, is that Zoom-Zoom was only available-available because he's frequently hurt-hurt. He didn't pitch at all last year, and he hasn't thrown even 40 innings in any season since his rookie year of 2006.

A 100-mph fastball does nobody any good if its possessor can't take the hill.

Still, buying this particular lottery ticket is a good risk. It's a relatively low risk deal -- according to the StarTribune, while Zumaya gets a spot on the 40-man roster, the contract itself is not guaranteed -- and it's a potentially significant payoff if it hits. (The deal itself is not official until Zumaya passes a physical, which in itself may prove a hurdle.)

A healthy Zumaya, if there is such a thing, would give the Twins a first-rate right-handed power arm to pair with Glen Perkins get out of late-inning jams and set up Matt Capps.

The attached photo comes from the last game Zumaya pitched, which prompted part of this post

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Sunday Funnies

Casey Stengel is courting his future wife Edna, and she finally comes from California to New York to see him play.

In the first inning, Casey lays down a bunt and beats it out with a head first slide into first. He then steals second base with a beautiful hook slide. A couple pitches later, a curve bounces in the dirt, and Stengel takes third on a close play and another slide. Then he scores on a short fly ball, with yet another slide.

As the game progresses, Stengel makes a couple diving catches in the outfield — and his run stands up. They win 1-0.

Stengel showers, dresses, dashes off to meet Edna. He's bursting with pride -- the hero of the game, and his girl got to see it.

But she doesn't seemed impressed, and Casey tries to coax a complement out of her. "Well, what did you think?"

"Oh, I know you won," Edna says, "but why did you keep falling down out there?"

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dissecting the Bill Smith era: Scott Diamond

Scott Diamond in 2011: 1-5, 5.08 in
Minnesota, 4-14, 55.5 in Rochester.
When: Dec. 9, 2010 and March 28, 2011
What: The Twins selected left-handed pitcher Scott Diamond from the Atlanta Braves system in the Rule V draft on the first date, traded right-handed pitcher Billy Bullock for his rights on the second date.
Value: Bullock spent 2011 in the minors, mostly in Double A with a one-inning taste of Triple A. Diamond spent most of 2011 in Triple A, but made seven starts for Minnesota in the second half of the season. Diamond earned one win share and 0.1 WAR.
Twins motivation: Discerning that is pretty much the point of this post.

The acquisition of Scott Diamond doesn't currently fit my criteria as a major deal. Yet it's getting the full treatment here because:

  • It was complex;
  • It involves a second-round draft pick (Bullock);
  • It could become significant, if Diamond emerges as a member of the starting rotation or Bullock becomes a standout reliever;
  • It says something about the scarcity of left-handed pitching;
  • I like Diamond for non-objective reasons; and
  • It's my blog and you can't stop me.

Diamond appeared a highly sensible Rule V pick when the Twins plucked him. But he got only limited exposure in exhibition play and didn't display the command his scouting reports said he had. He didn't force his way onto the 25-man roster, and Rule V guys have to be on the active roster or returned whence they came.

The Twins didn't want to give him up, and they surrendered 2009 second-rounder Bullock to get Diamond's unfettered rights and then sent the lefty to Triple A.

This deal was not well-received in the Twins blog community. And considering the rate in subsequent months with which the Twins collecting potential power arms for relief work (Lester Oliveros, Jeff Gray, Esmerling Vasquez ...) since dealing the hard-throwing Bullock, it remains a curious decision.

A good part of what happened here, I have become convinced, is that the Twins found themselves bereft of left-handed starters in the upper minors. Left-handed pitching is inherently valuable -- it's why you so often hear the phrase "left-handed and breathing" used to explain why marginal hurlers get so many chances -- and the Twins were willing to risk overpaying for a southpaw for the Rochester rotation who might also serve as a Plan C for the major league rotation.

And besides, hard-throwing bullpen prospects aren't all that hard to come by. Hard-throwers with command, that's another thing.

Bullock didn't have a particularly great season in the Atlanta organization. He did pile up the strikeouts (more than 12 Ks per nine innings), but he also piled up the walks (more than six walks per nine innings). Diamond didn't shine in 2011 either, and in the majors displayed a Kevin Slowey-like tendency to pitch acceptably well for four or five innings before crumbling.

But judging a starter on his first seven major league starts is a fool's game. Greg Maddux had an ERA above 5 in his first full season in a big league rotation.

I don't expect either Bullock or Diamond to open 2012 with their respective parent club. I don't know that either is all that likely to grow into a key performer in the majors. Bullock is too wild; Diamond's stuff is marginal.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A pitcher named Silva

The Twins apparently have a new Venezuelan pitcher named Silva — not Carlos, who signed a minor league deal earlier this month with the Red Sox, but a 16-year-old named Mauricio, who has signed with Minnesota for $370,000.

According to Baseball America, the young right-hander

pitches in the low 90s and has topped out at 93 mph with heavy sink. He also flashes a power curveball in the high 70s with occasional hard bite. His changeup gets mixed reviews, but he shows a feel for the pitch with some deception.

All of which is well and good, but the key thing to remember right now is: He's 16 years old. Which means he's a long time away from Target Field.

One thing we can take away from this: The Twins have cut back on their presence in Venezuela, but they haven't abandoned it. As they continue to expand their efforts to find international talent, that's a definite plus.


Bud Selig had said, repeatedly, that his current term as commissioner was it, that he was going to retire.

On Friday he was given, and accepted, a new two-year contract.

We may never be rid of him.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Contemplating Justin Morneau

Justin Morneau's
last two seasons have
been cut short by
Justin Morneau's health remains a matter of uncertainty. He told the Pioneer Press this week that he has not begun baseball activities, but that the concussion symptoms that ended his 2011 season are less severe than they were at this point the previous winter.

This passes for optimism in the Twins world. The Twins are, for better or worse, committed to Morneau, not merely for 2012 but for 2013 as well.

I have suggested here a few times that Morneau might be restricted to DH. Morneau -- with Terry Ryan in agreement -- dismisses that notion, saying that if he is indeed too concussion prone to play in the field he ought not play at all. There is a good deal of sense in that position, both from the viewpoint of Morneau's health and as a practical matter for the team.

The truth is, the Twins are not really set up to have Morneau as a full-time DH. If, as desired, Chris Parmelee plays at Triple A, the non-Morneau options for first base figure to be the catchers (Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit), Trevor Plouffe and perhaps Luke Hughes, none of whom have a great deal of experience at the position.

If Morneau is forced to go on the disabled list, Parmelee figures to be Plan B. But if Morneau is merely in and out of the lineup, or DHing five days a week, Parmelee is unlikely to be on the major league roster.

Imagine a line representing Morneau's playing time, with the point on the extreme left standing for 162 games at first base and the point on the extreme right standing for him missing the full season, and all the points between represening some combination of games at first base, games as designated hitter and games sat out.

The Twins, as I see it, will be better equipped to handle a spot on either extreme than a spot in the middle.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Baseball Minnesota -- er, America

Miguel Sano, wearing No. 24, moves for
a ground ball during spring training drills.
A fresh issue of Baseball America showed up in my mailbox Tuesday, and it's loaded with Twins-specific stuff, starting with the cover shot of power-hitting prospect Miguel Sano (with the cover line Manchild Miguel Sano could be the best Twins prospect since Joe Mauer).

Also inside:

  • A Jerry Crasnick column on the return of Terry Ryan. (This, I'm sure, is a slightly revised version of one of Crasnick's pieces for ESPN.com).
  • A Jerry Manuel column on Gene Glynn and the importance of winning at Rochester this year. This is, I'm convinced, a bigger deal than most of us fans realize. Keeping Rochester as their Triple A affiliate is very important to the organization, and the contract is up after the 2012 season.
  • The Twins top 10 prospects story. The issue is built around the prospect ratings for the five AL Central teams, including the Twins.

A few things gleaned from the rankings:

  • Last summer's first-round draft pick, infielder Levi Michael, was known to be playing with an injury as North Carolina made it to the College World Series. Michael signed late and not only didn't play in the minors last season, he didn't play in instructionals either. BA says Michael's injury was "initially misdiagnosed."
  • A reason to try to get to some Midwest League games next summer: The Beloit Snappers infield is likely to have Sano (prospect No. 1) at third base, Eddie Rosario (No. 3) at second base and Michael (No. 6) at shortstop. That could be the infield in Minnesota by the end of 2014.
  • BA is not as high on Chris Parmelee (No. 9) as I am. Their write-up on him concludes: "He'll have to improve against lefties to be more than a second-division regular or platoon player."
  • Those of us eager to see Brian Dozier (No. 10) get his shot in the Twins middle infield in 2012 may be disappointed. BA's summary on him is "Dozier is similar to Jamey Carroll, whom the Twins signed for two years this offseason. He could replace Carroll at the end of that contract, or learn under him as a utility player before that."

The Twins' top 10 prospects, according to Baseball America:

Sano; outfielder Joe Benson; Rosario; outfielder Aaron Hicks; outfielder Oswaldo Arcia; Michael; pitcher Liam Hendricks; pitcher Kyle Gibson; Parmelee; Dozier.

It's all worth checking out.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A history lesson: Collusion and 12-man pitching staffs

The Twins Geek, John Bonnes, on Sunday had a post puzzling over who the 25th man on the 1987 Twins postseason roster was.

The answer, which I am old enough to know, is: Nobody. In 1987 -- and in a handful of surrounding seasons -- there was a "gentleman's agreement" among the teams to go with just 24 players on the active roster. Officially, they could have 25; nobody did.

It was part of the sorry collusion episode, in which the owners, led by then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, sought to undermine the collective bargaining agreement with the players union. Most prominent was the agreement not to pursue other team's free agents.

The collusion attempt proved costly in a variety of ways. The players union won massive damages in three grievance hearings. The stiff penalties prompted two rounds of expansion, as the owners sought to recoup the losses by dunning outsiders. The episode also further poisoned the waters for future labor talks, helping set up the strike of 1994.

Now the teams are required to have 25 players on their active roster.

But the effects are still evident on rosters. Follow me here: For years teams typically carried 10 pitchers and 15 hitters. Managers in the late 1980s, forced to trim a player, universally opted to keep 10 pitchers and 14 position players.

After four years of that, they'd become accustomed to that size bench. They had gotten used to the limitations of five (in the American League) bench options, had become used to making sure they had at least one Swiss Army knife of a multi-position player on hand.

And when the de facto rosters expanded, Tony LaRussa -- of course -- used the 25th spot for an extra pitcher. Memory tells me he initially used the slot to carry a Rule V selection; eventually he used to add somebody he actually wanted to use. He won. Other teams followed his example.

Tony LaRussa: Father of the expanded pitching staff
Perhaps the expansion of pitching staffs would have happened anyway. There were other influences, in particular the rise of pitch counts, and certainly the expansion didn't stop at 11. But LaRussa's realization in 1990 that he didn't need that 15th position player got the ball rolling.

Now there are managers suggesting that rosters should be expanded to 26 players -- which, if it should happen, would probably mean 13-man pitching staffs.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hall of Fame: Barry Larkin is in

Barry Larkin is the 25th
shortstop elected to the
Hall of Fame.
It took three years, but the baseball writers finally elected Barry Larkin to the Hall of Fame.

Now if they'd just wise up to Alan Trammell and Tim Raines ...

Jack Morris got 66.7 percent, a new high for him, 48 votes short. That historically would be a very good sign for his eventual election -- it's more support than Larkin got last year -- but the historic precedents don't know what loaded first-year classes lie immediately ahead, and I suspect this will be Morris' high-water mark. He only has two more years on the writers' ballot.

Other former Twins on the ballot: Brad Radke got two votes, and Terry Mulholland, Phil Nevin and Ruben Sierra got shut out. The closest thing to a surprise there is that Radke got two votes. All four, obviously, are one and done on the ballot (players need at least 5 percent to stick).

Jorge Posada vs. Ted Simmons

Jorge Posada hit 275
career home runs.
The word during the weekend was that Jorge Posada has decided to retire rather that try to extend his career with some team other than the New York Yankees.

Which raises the immediate question with a (minimum) five-year wait for an answer: Should he go into the Hall of Fame?

My immediate answer is yes. He had a 17-year career as a key component of a great team. I think the 1996-2001 Yankees have be best claim of any squad as the greatest dynasty in baseball history. It deserves more plaques in the Hall that "just" Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

And then I thought of Ted Simmons.

Simba and Posada strike me as similar players. They weren't great defensive catchers, but they were good enough to stick behind the plate, and at the dish they were definite pluses for their lineups. Both were switch hitters; neither was reckoned the best catcher in his era, but Simmons was a contemporary of Johnny Bench, and Posada's career overlapped with Ivan Rodriguez and Joe Mauer.

Ted Simmons hit 248
career home runs.
Simmons made nine all-star teams in his 21-year career and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting three times; Posada made five all-star teams and had two top-10 MVP years. Posada's career slash stats look better than Simmons', but the 1970s (Simmons' era) was a much tougher time for hitters.

Posada's career OPS+ --on-base plus slugging, adjusted for park effects and compared to his league -- is 121, meaning that he was 21 percent above league average. Simmons' OPS+ is 117.

Simmons appeared on just one Hall of Fame ballot, in 1994, and got just 3.7 percent of the vote. That's not necessarily the biggest travesty of recent balloting, but it's up there.

Posada will be a worthy inductee when his time comes. I don't know that he's all that much more worthy than Simmons.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Sunday Funnies

It's 2000. Rickey Henderson approaches his Seattle teammate John Olerud with a question: Why do you wear a batting helmet in the field?

Olerud explains that he had a brain aneurysm while in college and wears the helmet to protect the place in his skull where the surgeons went in to repair it.

"That's cool," Henderson says. "I had a teammate last year with the Mets who did the same thing."

"Yeah," Olerud replies. "That was me."


For the record, Olerud has said that conversation never occurred. He also said it's a plausible story because it's Rickey Henderson.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dissecting the Bill Smith era: Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Bill Smith looks on as Tsuyoshi Nishioka dons
his Twins jersey during his signing press conference.
When: December 17, 2010
What: Completed the acquisition of infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka from the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese Pacific League. The Twins paid the Marines $5.3 million in a posting fee for the rights to negotiate with him, and signed Nishioka to a three year deal worth $9.25 million, plus a fourth-season option.
Value: He had 3 win shares and a WAR of -1.8 in an injury-shortened 2011.
Twins motivation: They were looking for a cheaper, long-term anchor for their middle infield.

Many things went desperately wrong for the Twins in 2011. One of the biggest was the failure of the Nishioka signing.

As I said at the time, he wasn't going to be a star. But he was simply not close to a quality major league regular. He didn't hit; he lacked the arm strength to play shortstop; he suffered a broken leg in the first week of the season on the double play pivot as a second baseman.

Terry Ryan has said frequently since assuming the general manager's job that the Twins were giving Nishioka a mulligan. He had the early injury, he had the cultural transition, he had a hamstring problem in September. It was a lost season -- but the Twins still have an investment in him, and some $6 million yet to pay him. So they'll hope that a winter's rehab will solve the leg problems that bedeviled him last year, and that a sounder leg will mean a sounder player.

The Twins allowed him plenty of leeway in 2011. They treated him as an established star, which he was in Japan. I doubt he'll get the same hands-off treatment this time around. The financial investment probably means he'll open the season on the major league roster, but he'll enter camp behind newcomer Jamie Carroll and holdover Alexi Casilla -- and if he plays to last season's low level, he won't keep even the bench job all that long.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The malign influence of Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Tsuyoshi Nishioka may have done more than anybody
to make American teams wary of Japanese players.
Nobody involved in it is a fan of the posting process by which Japanese players generally come to the States. It remains largely because nobody's come up with an alternative that (a) gives the player involved some say before uprooting his career/life to another culture on another continent and (b) protects the Japanese team, which stands to lose a presumably valuable on-field asset.

Quite a few Japanese stars have migrated to the U.S. side of the Pacific over the past couple of decades, lured by the combination of better money and tougher competition. Some -- Ichiro Suzuki being the primest of examples -- have been outright stars in the States. Several have been useful regulars, at least for a few years, even if more was originally expected of them. Some have been outright busts.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka's one season in the United States was not merely a notable bust. It appears to have changed the way American teams deal with posted players in ways other disappointments (such as Kenji Johjima and Kei Igawa) did not.

A couple of examples being played out this offseason:

  • The Milwaukee Brewers won the posting rights to outfielder Norichika Aoki but, with time dwindling to sign him, won't get serious about it until after they've run him through a private workout in Arizona this weekend. The front office, we can assume, doesn't want to commit the money until they've seen something of his skills with their own eyes.
  • The Yankees and infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima failed to come to terms at all. (The Yankees posting rights expire today, but they announced Thursday that talks were ended). Nakajima, 29, is a career .302 hitter in Japan, but the Yanks viewed him as strictly backup material behind Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, and a rumored sign-and-trade deal never materialized, probably because there was no American team that thought him worth installing as a regular.

Nishioka's failures in 2011 are reflecting back on his peers. Had Nishioka been the competent major league regular I anticipated, the American teams might not be this cautious. Teams aren't looking at Nakajima as the next Taz Iguchi or Akinori Iwamura, both of whom were second base regulars for World Series teams; they're fearing the next Nishioka.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Conspicuous by their absence

David Bromberg was
the Twins' minor league
pitcher of the year
in 2010.
One might think that 25 non-roster invites would pretty much cover everybody in the Twins organization worth considering, but there are two names not on the list released Tuesday worth noting: David Bromberg and Anthony Slama.

The two right-handers were in camp last spring -- both were then on the 40-man roster -- but had injuries during the season. They were removed from the 40 after the season and passed over during the Rule V draft.

And neither will be in major league camp this spring.

I wasn't surprised when the Twins moved them off the 40, and at least in Bromberg's case I didn't, and still don't, read into it a deeply diminished status for the player. I saw it, in both cases, as a calculated risk. The Twins gambled that other teams wouldn't claim either off waivers or Rule V because of their 2011 injuries, and they were right.

Bromberg, a starter, wasn't reckoned major-league ready entering camp last year, and certainly after a season lost to a fractured forearm (hit by a line drive) he wasn't going to be a serious candidate for the major league roster this spring either.

Anthony Slama has
walked seven men in
his seven major
league innings.
Slama, a reliever, is another matter. He was never as highly regarded (at least by the organization) as Bromberg -- his good minor league numbers written off as the fluky result of a delivery that wouldn't deceive major league hitters -- but by last spring he was as ready to pitch in the majors as he was ever going to be.

But the Twins had other options they liked better, and Slama started experiencing arm problems in spring training. He got a little big-league time in the summer, but was shut down by August with elbow woes. He avoided surgery, but lost his 40-man roster spot. He's been pitching winter ball in Mexico, and reportedly doing well, but ... the Twins still didn't see fit to invite him to camp.

Slama has three seasons of Triple A ball on his record, and an ERA with Rochester of 2.59, but the Twins don't trust his stuff or his command. If they're not going to look at him this spring, with as many holes as they have in the bullpen, they never will.