Thursday, August 31, 2006

Get To Know: September callups

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Minnesota Twins acquire Phil Nevin (RH-1B) from the Chicago Cubs for a Player To Be Named Later (PTBNL)
Minnesota Twins announce they will call up Scott Baker (RHP), Chris Heintz (RH-C) and Alexi Casilla (2B-SH)

As is often the case, one of these moves is going to get most of the attention, and it's the wrong one. Nevin is a good clubhouse guy who is limited defensively, supposedly can provide a productive right-handed bat as a designated hitter, but is hitting just .214 in the American Lea -- hold it, don't we have one of those already?

So why would the Twins go out and acquire another Rondell White? Well, most importantly, the price was probably right. But having Nevin also means there is a right-handed bat with some pop on the bench, whether White or Nevin is the designated hitter.

That's of value for two reasons. First, while we love the Piranhas, there are times you might want to replace one with someone who can go yard. Secondly, with Luis Castillo hurt, Luis Rodriguez will likely be pressed into duty at third base, and he's really only of use on the left side of the plate. White or Nevin can replace him late in a game for a high value at-bat, and then the Twins will play, well, umm, someone probably. Cuddy, better warm up that glove...

The bigger story is the recall of Scott Baker. A couple of days ago, we detailed why including him in the rotation should inspire some hope, but I'll list one more reason why this is a good idea; the Twins need to sort through some of these guys for 2007. Next year, they're losing Brad Radke, they'll have a four million option on Carlos Silva, and they'll likely be wondering if they can count on Francisco Liriano. That sounds a lot like a recipe for doing something silly, like picking up Silva's option, or committing money toward some Hell(ing) - ish contracts. It would be nice to know if they can count on an in-house option.

Baseball wonks may make a big deal about calling up Chris Heintz, because that will supposedly allow Joe Mauer to DH more, but it's a move that's about two months too late. I'd love to talk about how this allows the Twins to significantly upgrade the DH spot with Mauer because Jason Kubel has been so horrific lately, but Mauer has been equally horrific. Besides, right now, when Mauer isn't catching, he needs to heal.

And finally we get to Alexi Casilla, who I readily admit, I'm WAY to excited about. Casilla hit around .300 from both side of the plate, drew just about as many walks as strikeouts, and stole 50 bases in 60 attempts. OK, it was between High A and Double A ball. What can I say? I'm a sucker for speed freaks.

That's it for this week. We'll see you on Monday.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Gone, but not Forgotten

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How bad is it? Yesterday the Royals were the first team in the major leagues to be officially eliminated from the playoffs. Before September. About a week before any other team.

If the Royals don't play .500 ball the rest of the year, they will still finish with 100 losses. For the fourth time in the last five years. That’s more 100-loss seasons in the 21st century than the Cubs had in the 20th century. And the nineteenth century. Combined.

They spent $21 million dollars on new players during the offseason. Wanna hear the names of the superstars? Scott Elarton, Doug Mientkiewicz, Mark Grudzielanek, Paul Bako, Reggie Sanders, Joe Mays and Mark Redman.

Even more wretching is that a good chunk of those salaries will eat up payroll dollars next year, too. This year the Royals spent about $48 million in payroll, and for next year, $35 million of that is already spoken for by six players:
  • Mike Sweeney ($11 M) - 33-year-old with a bad back who has hit four home runs this year

  • Odalis Perez ($7.75M) – LH Pitcher who has a 6.11 ERA in the 88 innings he’s pitched in 2006.

  • Sanders ($5M) – 38-year-old outfielder who barely has 600 at-bats in the last two years.

  • Elarton ($4M) – 5.34 ERA this year. On pace for about 150 innings, total.

  • Grudzielanek ($4M) – 36-year-old second baseman, who is also under contract for 2008.

  • Angel Berroa ($3.25M) – Shortstop who is hitting .237. Also under contract through 2008.

The problem isn’t that these guys can’t help a team….OK, actually that is the problem. But it’s also that they’re guaranteed about 75% of the Royals likely payroll next year, and there are still nineteen spot to fill out on the roster.

While the jury is out on new GM Dayton Moore, the Royals have taken at least one step in a positive direction, because any step away from former GM Allard Baird has to be considered positive. ButBaird's legacy is still in force. Baird didn’t just sacrifice the previous six years with his incompetence, he likely sacrificed 2007 as well, and maybe further, depending on your view of the Royals minor leagues.

The Royals aren’t just bad, they’re historically bad, and it wouldn’t be shocking if they got worse before they got better.

On the Hill

Royals: Jorge De La Rosa(3-3, 8.13 ERA)
  • 2005: 2-2, 42.1 IP, 42 K, 4.47 ERA

  • 2006: 52 IP, 56 H, 48 K, 36 BB, 10 HR

  • De La Rosa was a left-handed reliever on the Brewers who was sent to the minors to rehab a cracked nail and blister. (How great is that?) He looked awfully good there, and so the Royals traded for him at the deadline when the Brewers asked for Tony Graffanino. So far, he hasn’t carried that success with him to the majors, as evidence by his 7.48 ERA as a starter with the Royals.

Thursday: Johan Santana (15-5, 3.01 ERA)
  • 2005: 16-7, 231.2 IP, 238 K, 2.87 ERA. Led league in strikeouts, second best ERA, third place in Cy Young voting.

  • 2006: 191.1 IP, 157 H, 196 K, 39 BB, 21 HR

  • So, what does the Cy Young scoreboard look like? He’s first in ERA, first in Ks, and second in wins (that blown save by Nathan on Saturday kept him from moving into first). He’s also first in batting average against, and on-base percentage against, and second in innings pitched. Roy Halladay is having a great year, and there’s still time for a late stretch move, but as they round the bend, Santana is in the lead by at least a length.

Links of the Day

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It's amazing how a 1/2 game lead in the wildcard can make the Twins a lock for the playoffs. I wonder if our new 1.5 game deficit makes us long shots?

Tuesday's loss to Kansas City was a bit of a downer coming off of an emotional series in Chicago. Garza made his case for being Radke's replacement next year by chalking up a quality start and still losing the game. News from one of Bat-girl's sources has explained he Twins inexplicable offensive ineptitude against Mark Redman last night, it has the making for a good sit-com. It's a relief, I was worried that the Twins came down with another case of the ass-bats.

In case you missed it, both Aaron Gleeman and Will Young have made their cases for the MVPs and weakest links of the team. They both used WPA and revealed some surprising conclusions, notably that Torrii Hunter's value on the team is roughly the equivalent of a Carlos Silva- albeit an expensive equivalent. A players value to a franchise can not be summed up by one statistic, but I wonder how much these sorts of numbers affect the front office's assessment of a player's value.

As far as I can tell the Twins stadium past it's final hurdle yesterday. Like it or not, we appear to be past the point of no return.

The Silver Linings

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One of the least covered disadvantages of being a small payroll team is that they can develop a great player, and it means nothing in the larger scheme of things. If a competitive team like the Red Sox develops a young player, that player is a contributor to a winning team. If the Royals develop a young player, he’s just another guy on a 100-loss ball club. Which is a shame, because the Royals have some success stories.

The most obvious is the play of third baseman Mark Teahen. Teahen surprised everyone last year when he replaced Chris Truby as the regular third baseman as a 23-year-old. He surprised the opposite way when he struggled early this season due to a shoulder injury. He was demoted back to Omaha in May, recalled in June, and hasn’t stopped hitting. Since his recall, he’s hitting .323 with 17 home runs in just 284 at-bats. He’s exactly what the Royals need – a solid hitting youngster who won’t be expensive for another couple of years.

Except that that he plays third base, which is also the position of their top prospect, Alex Gordon. Gordon is one of the top offensive prospects in baseball, and was just drafted last year, as the second overall pick. The 22-year-old is currently beating up AA pitchers, hitting .323 with 27 home runs an a 1018 On-base Plus Slugging percentage (OPS). Maybe most surprising is that he won’t receive a September callup, and won’t skip AAA next year. That’s a bit of a departure from the previous regime’s tendency to rush players to the majors.

As you'll see tomorrow, the Royals have exactly one long-term contract that isn't a loadstone. It belongs to David DeJesus, the 26-year-old center fielder who continues to be productive in his third year in the majors, hitting .303 with a .379 on-base percentage (OBP) and an 824 OPS. The Royals still try to hide him occasionally versus southpaws, but he’ll have some time to work on that. He’s signed through 2010 for a little more than $3 million per year, and the team has an option on 2011, too.

Over the past few years, the Royals have had their success stories offensively, but have had precious few for their pitching staff. There still aren’t many, but there are some positive signs to build on. Luke Hudson seems to be overcoming his traditional control issues with a new sinker, and has been very solid for the Royals the second half of the season. Zach Greinke seems to have overcome his personal issues and had pitched well enough in AA to warrant a September call-up. And 2006 #1 overall draft pick Luke Hochevar is signed and pitching in Low A ball. It wouldn’t be inconceivable for him to see time in the Royals rotation in 2008. They’re mild success stories, but this franchise will take them.

On the Hill

Wednesday: Luke Hudson (6-5, 5.94 ERA)
2006 (AAA): 2-0, 35.1 IP, 21 K, 2.80 ERA
  • 2006: 63.2 IP, 75 H, 38 K, 27 BB, 4 HR

  • Those stat lines are deceptive. He started the year in the Royals bullpen and struggled throughout April, finally being sent to AAA with an 8.74 ERA.

  • After having success in Omaha, he was promoted as a starter and has been very good except for one outing that you may have seen on SportsCenter. On August 13th he took the mound versus Cleveland and gave up 11 runs in 1/3 of an inning. Throw out that start and he has a 3.65 ERA since July 1st as a starter.

  • Twins: Boof Bonser (3-4, 5.18 ERA)
    • ‘05 (AAA):11-9, 160.1 IP, 168 K, 3.99 ERA

    • ‘06 (AAA):49.1 IP, 33 H, 47 K, 20 BB, 3 HR

    • ‘06: 57.1 IP, 66 H, 46 K, 17 BB, 13 HR

    • On the one hand, he’s improved in each start since his recall, and he’s faced some very good offenses.

    • On the other hand, he’s still giving up way too many home runs, especially as he starts to tire and the ball starts to elevate. It would be nice if I could say that he’s surviving because he’s keeping people off the bases, but that isn’t true either. They just haven’t been on base when he’s giving up the home runs.

    • Keep the ball down. Keep the ball down. Keep the ball….

    Twins Takes
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    A couple of note on last night's game which I was lucky enough to attend (Happy Birthday Dave!):

    • Just four days ago I woke up after a critical win realizing that the rest of the season was in question because a starting pitcher looked done. Today I woke up after a critical loss realizing the rest of the season was promising because a starting pitcher looked wonderful. And I gotta say, I liked the other way better.

    • That said, Matt Garza DID look wonderful last night, or at least he did from down the first base line. Early on we were watching the radar gun to see if his offspeed stuff was being called for strikes, and it was, and we knew we were in for a treat. He lived up to expectations.

      But about midway through the game, I started to wonder if the umpire's strike zone didn't have something to do with that. Not because I could actually see the umpire's strike zone, but because Mark Redman, who has struggled with his control, looked like he was nibbling the corners perfectly. (By the way, kudos to La Velle E. Neal III for pointing out that Redman didn’t walk a batter last night, and addressing the question with Ron Gardenhire.)

      Which led to another realization last in the game, which is that the Win statistic which we’re so fond of ridiculing might have made a lot more sense fifty or seventy years ago, when strike zones likely were a little more variable. In fact, it might just make a lot more sense as a statistic for a single game, and our mistake is trying to make them mean something when we aggregate them.

      None of which means that they should be the biggest single factor in awarding the Cy Young Award. But still, maybe we should lighten up on that poor stat a bit.

    • While we’re on the subject of pitching, it’s worth noting that the Garza’s two runs were given up on a long line shot to center field that Torii Hunter couldn’t reach, but 60% or center fielders could. Is there any pitcher who has been hurt more by Hunter’s lack of range than poor Garza? Jason Tyner, unless he’s playing extraordinarily shallow, catches that ball and Garza carries his own shutout into the eighth inning.

      It is absolutely stunning that this point has not been made a single time in a daily here, but Hunter should NOT be playing center field until he’s healed. If Tyner is going to be out there anyway, why the hell isn’t he playing center field? It is maddening that Gardenhire hasn’t figured out a way to tactfully handle this kind of situation.

    • Which brings us to the next situation he isn’t handling, which is having an obviously hurting Joe Mauer batting third in this lineup. The only reason Mauer didn’t ground into four double plays yesterday is because three of the times there was either nobody on first or there were two outs. It’s gotten to the point where he should consider changing his uniform number to 4-3.

      Let’s be clear: there is a reason this goofy lineup of “piranhas” and sluggers works, and it’s because the bridge between them is so damn good, and that bridge has been Mauer in the #3 spot. And right now, because of something physical, that bridge is broken. There is no shame in moving an obviously hurting player to a different part of the order until they regain their health. There are at least four guys hitting better than Mauer right now, and maybe more, and until he gets healthy, he needs to switch spots with one of them.

    • Like I said, we were pretty in touch with radar readings last night, so maybe I just never noticed before, but does Pat Neshek’s fastball really top out at 87 mph? The way a couple of Royals tagged the ball last night, I’m afraid that isn't supposed to be the case.

    Huh. Lotta negativity in this post. So be it, I guess. Anyone leaving the Metrodome last night must’ve felt a little empty, unless they were a Royal. Shake it off boys, and I will, too. See you tomorrow.

    Monday, August 28, 2006

    Old Name, Old Lesson

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    The whole year has been a forced exercise in trusting youth. Will anyone really be surprised if the Twins need to trust another unproven rookie to carry them if Brad Radke’s shoulder doesn’t respond?

    Most Twins fans will likely shudder a little if that means trusting Scott Baker again. But though Baker has struggled this season, one need not go back very far to remember exactly how much promise this 24-year-old holds. How about April, when he was the Twins second best pitcher? Or last year, when he posted a 3.35 ERA in his 10 major league starts? If you want to go further back, you might recall that two years ago he was the 2004 version of Matt Garza, racing from A-ball to AAA-ball in his first full year in professional baseball. There were legitimate reasons why this guy ranked above Francisco Liriano in the pecking order this spring.

    There’s no indication from his stats in Rochester that he’s taken a step backwards. In Baker’s dozen starts there, he has a 2.67 ERA, and isn’t showing any of the gopher ball tendencies he’s shown in the majors. We’ve heard a lot about how some minor leaguers can coast through AAA on their fastball, but Baker’s never had that kind of “stuff”. His reputation is that of a control pitcher, whose strength has been throwing off-speed pitches.

    When we step back and look at Baker’s profile, we see the same lesson that we’ve learned a dozen times already this season – it would be damn foolish to think that this kid can’t succeed. Or that he would somehow be less successful over the next month then a scrap-heap rent-a-pitcher that Terry Ryan might pick up before the final trade deadline on Thursday.

    What to Look For

    The town is giddy over the performance of the bullpen, and for good reason considering they’ve carried this team for the last two weeks. Also, nobody is reporting any injuries or concerns in the media, so maybe there really is nothing wrong with Juan Rincon. On the other hand…

    In two of his last three outings, he’s given up a couple of runs before getting a second out. In the other outing, he was only asked to throw eight pitches. And twice more in the last week Ron Gardenhire has relied on Jesse Crain to pitch an eighth inning that traditionally belonged to Rincon. While everyone worries about overworking the bullpen, Rincon has pitched just 1.1 innings in the last three series.

    The usage is surprising. The silence is more surprising. And I’ll be surprised if we don’t hear about some health concerns by the end of the week.

    On the Hill

    Royals: Mark Redman (7-8, 5.85 ERA)
    • 2005: 5-15, 178.1 IP, 101 K, 4.90 ERA

    • 2006: 129.1 IP, 158 H, 57 K, 52 BB, 17 HR

    • Ladies and Gentlemen, posting a 5.85 ERA and 57 strikeouts, the All-Star representative for the Kansas City Royals! Let’s hear it!

    • Redman probably holds the distinction of being the worst trade that Ryan ever made. In 2001, Ryan tried to complete three trades that would have upgraded the team’s pitching (Rick Reed for Mark Redman), its outfield (Shannon Stewart for Matt Lawton) and its bullpen (gaining Todd Jones). Ryan completed two of the three trades, but couldn’t finish the deal for Stewart with Blue Jays GM Gord Ash. That preceded an incredible collapse as the team finished six games behind the Indians.

    Twins: Matt Garza (1-2, 6.59 ERA)
    • 2005: (between rookie and low-A affiliates): 4-4, 3.59 ERA, 75.2 IP, 89 K, 67 H

    • 2006 (minors): 14-4, 135.2 IP, 154 K, 1.99 ERA

    • Garza carries a mid-90’s fastball, a change up and a couple of breaking balls.

    • One bad start, followed by a mediocre one, had people wondering. But these players have histories beyond our exposure to them. It may take a couple of weeks for him to settle in, but 95+ mph fastballs have a way of buying time for a prospect to adjust. His history suggests he’ll do just that.

    • Watch the radar readings. When they’re under 90, is he throwing strikes? If so, he’s fine. If not, the Royals will wait for the cheese.

    Links of the Day for 8/28/06

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    After reading some of the following links, you’ll see why I intern for the Geek rather than have my own Twins’ blog—the quality of the writers who devote time to posting on Twins’ blogs is unparalleled. There’s a reason why many of them spend their non Twins time getting paid to write about other subjects. All talent like that needs is inspiration, and, well, I think we can all agree that the games the Twins and Sox gave us on Friday and Saturday are about as inspirational as they come—We’re talking Jesus’ final gathering with his disciples and French ponds full of water lilies level inspiration Those games were art my friends, they were art. And all of our favorite bloggers delivered:

    Batgirl’s choices for Boyfriend of the Day on Friday and Saturday combined her amazing writing skills with the exuberance of her commenters to create posts that are worth visiting again later, especially when the snow is falling in January and February and Spring Training seems so very far away.

    Mr. Baseball No 1 might be a newcomer this year, but his writing measures up with the big names amongst the bloggers. Like some great artists, he used a small part of an image to capture the feel of the whole. Though he did forget to mention Morneau’s groin popping stretch. Maybe he needs to be sent down to Rochester to work on his leadership skills.

    The beat writers haven’t yet figured out stats like Win Probability Added, but luckily for us, Will Young has, and he broke down Friday's and Saturday’s instant classics this weekend. And, if you want to look back at one of the few games the Twins have played that was as exciting, you can find his WPA for the Rivera game here.

    And finally, some quick links:

    • Looks like the Twins don’t mind their fans booing A.J. And my guess is his actions this weekend changed some fans stances from love to hate of the trash talking catcher.

    • If you were wondering, Pat Neshek did enjoy striking out A.J. on Saturday. I’m guessing he wasn’t the only one.

    • It seems like baseball is not the only sport with doping problems. Wonder what’s taking the national media so long to pick up on it?

    • The Skip Bayless Era is over at Page 2. Thank God.

    Sunday, August 27, 2006

    A Baseball Town

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    This weekend, as Joe Nathan attempted to coax that last strike, the crowd stood up and started clapping. Most were adorned wearing their favorite team’s colors. When the umpire signaled the last out, a cheer erupted, fans flooded the aisles, and congratulatory high fives were shared between strangers.

    Nothing unusual about that, right?

    Except that this game was played on the road. The colors that fans were wearing were purple, not blue pinstripes. And this happened in a bar in downtown Minneapolis, not the Metrodome. How could it, when the Vikings had just wrapped up a preseason game there? That game had ended an hour earlier, and now the town belonged to a different team, and if there were any concerns about divided loyalties, they weren’t apparent.

    They weren’t apparent the next night, either, when the scene repeated itself in a restaurant in Edina. The patrons’ outfits were different – ties replaced gold beads and suit coats substituted for jerseys. There was a wedding reception elsewhere in the restaurant, which was half empty as fifteen to twenty Twins fans congregated in the bar to see if Willie Eyre could close out the eleventh inning. The explosive cheer that confirmed a game ending double-play wasn’t what diners were accustomed to hearing during their meals.

    That’s because the Twin Cities really aren’t baseball towns. Both cities have a long history, but the passion in this area if for football and hockey, not baseball. That only changes, if we’re lucky, a couple of times per year, and we are entering that time right now.

    There’s nothing in American sports that compares to baseball’s pennant race. In other sports, there’s inevitably some downtime between games, used to review the last game, prepare for the next game, or even to generate hype to help pass the time. But time isn’t a luxury afforded pennant race participants or their fans. There is not time to digest. The slowest and most genteel of the major professional sports demands that fans surf along from wave to wave.

    As a result, there is nightly drama that can be seen on multiple stages. So do yourself a favor when the Twins aren’t in town – go out to catch a game. Stop at one of the bars around the stadium, or eat dinner at a sports restaurant, or invite some buddies over for some tailgating in the backyard. Feed your city’s appetite for baseball.

    Because if you’re a baseball fan, this is your time. We may not live in a baseball town eleven months out of the year, but we did this weekend.