Quiet January

The Twins made very few moves this past month. That is a little surprising to me because we keep hearing about not being done yet with the roster make over.

I doubt if anyone would consider the signing of Matt Guerrier to a minor league deal and granting Andrew Albers his unconditional release so he can sign with a South Korean team for 2014 as significant action. Yet those are the “big” moves of the month.

There were some other transactions made by the Twins, so I’ll report them all. They issued invitations to several non-roster players to spring training and they signed second baseman Eric Farris and pitcher Daniel Turpin to minor league contracts. Nothing earth shattering.

Now the big question is, with less than two weeks to catchers and pitchers reporting, will the Twins sign any more free agents, manage any trades, or make other roster adjustments before spring training opens.

I’ll be disappointed if they do not, because as currently constituted, the Twins are not a winning team. At best they are a fourth place in the division team again. A few more wins will not suffice to keep fans engaged unless they move up in the standings and are genuinely competitive in the middle to late season.

Here’s hoping for some action in the next ten days.

Post-Winter Meeting Thoughts

With the winter meetings now history, this is as good a time as any to put together some thoughts about how much progress has been made so far this off-season. I’ve been more than a little lethargic the last couple of months when it comes to thinking about the Twins. It has been difficult to get too excited because the roster has so many needs of upgrades and my confidence in their willingness to address enough of them to field a competitive team in 2013 has so far been low.

Activity at the winter meetings has changed that. Realistic or not, the moves made by Terry Ryan this past week have been exciting enough to recharge the enthusiasm at least a little bit. Trading Denard Span was not unexpected, but I must admit I was a little disappointed in the return – prospect Alex Meyer – not because he is not a very good prospect, but because I was hoping for the first move by Ryan to be a signal that he was putting together a respectable starting rotation for 2013 and not just beyond. Trading Ben Revere did come as a surprise because I have been speculating that he would be the starting center fielder for the Twins for a year or possibly more while we waited for Aaron Hicks to be ready. The more I think about and and review what was received in return, the more I really like the move. One slot in the rotation is now filled with the acquisition of Vance Worley. Another excellent pitching prospect, who will likely start the season at Rochester, in Trevor May, sweetens the deal if he progresses as hoped for. And finally, the Rule 5 selection of Ryan Pressly may prove to be a good choice if he makes the 25-man roster upgrading one slot in the bullpen.

There was only one dark spot in the Rule 5 process and that was the loss of recently acquired pitcher, Tom Boleska, in the AAA Rule 5 draft. It remains to be seen just how large a loss that will be, but the fact that he was a free agent when he was signed November 20, means he was not highly valued by his previous franchise.

It is clear the Twins are not finished yet with off-season moves. Rumors have Justin Morneau as the next possible trade bait and that may well happen if Ryan can secure more major league ready starting pitching in the process. With some offers out to free agent starting pitchers, according to Twin Cities media reports, one or more starters may be acquired that way. It will certainly be interesting to see how that all turns out in the next few weeks.

Even as early as it is in the off-season, I am going to go out on a limb and project Darin Mastroianni as the opening day center fielder. I was impressed with him this past season and think he will be a very good fourth outfielder eventually, but an adequate fill-in until Hicks is ready – most likely mid-season 2013. Mastroianni is very similar to Revere in many respects, but with a better arm. If Revere was going to be an adequate outfielder for the short term, Mastroianni will be also. I’m expecting him to win the battle for opening day starter over Joe Benson and Aaron Hicks, although if Benson has a hot spring, he may make the opening day roster at least as the fourth outfielder. Hicks needs to play every day so will almost certainly start the season in Rochester.

I’m going to wait a little while before posting too many projections for 2013, but at least the roster actions of the past week have stirred some interest again.

Nishi Gone?

It looks like the Tsuyoshi Nishioka era is over. One can certainly not blame the Twins if that is the case. He has been anything but what they had envisioned when they bid for the rights to negotiate with him before the 2011 season. He only had an opportunity to play in three games last week after being called up to replace Danny Valencia who was traded to the Red Sox, but in those three games he played so badly he did not deserve any more playing time. Now with the return of Trevor Plouffe from the DL, Nishi has been optioned to Rochester.

Speculation began almost immediately after those three ill-fated games as to what the Twins would do with him. Some complained he should have never been promoted this year. Most anticipate he will be eventually released if a termination deal allowing him to return to play in Japan cannot be worked out first. Many castigated the Twins management for signing him in the first place citing his play as never having demonstrated the skill to be a major league player.

Before laying all the blame on the scouts, senior management, etc., I think at least one other factor should be considered as contributing to his failures. Although I am not a mental health professional, from all I have read about the syndrome, I think Nishi shows all the classic symptoms of Performance Anxiety. It is entirely possible that he is much more capable than he appears when in a Twins uniform. He may well have been very good in Japan, showing promise for success here. I believe the scouts and minor league management when they say he did show markedly better performance in Rochester after he settled down there this spring. No scout, manager or coach can predict which players are going to suddenly develop serious anxiety issues. But it is not too difficult to understand how it is possible to put an incredible amount of pressure on oneself to perform on the “big stage”. In his time with the Twins, he has never really relaxed or managed to settle in to a groove. Classic Performance Anxiety.

While I think it was a reasonable decision to call him up this time (for a lot of reasons), I do not think it was wise to put him right into the starting lineup at Cleveland where he had played so badly last year contributing to the infamous Pavano meltdown. Anxiety often is triggered by returning to settings of previous disasters. All the sights, sounds, smells, etc. of a place can evoke the same feelings of anxiety that existed previously. He might have adjusted to his return to the major league team better if he could have watched from the dugout for a game or two, maybe entering late in the blowout game just to let him get his feet under him. I doubt he would have felt quite as much pressure on the first ball hit his direction if it occurred with an 11 run lead rather than the very first play of the ballgame.

Unfortunately, that is moot now. He is once again off the major league roster, though at least for now he remains on the 40-man roster. With all the media and fan reaction to how poorly he played this time around, it is difficult to imagine him ever returning to the Twins. One can only wonder if his career could have been salvaged if the Twins had a good sports psychologist who could have helped him work through all the issues he has had to deal with, from adjusting to a foreign culture to high-profile divorce to severely broken leg to media frenzy including many from Japan.

The brutal fact remains: Nishi is not ready for major league baseball. For the Twins that means one more year of his guaranteed $3 million salary eating up valuable payroll cash that could be used to improve the starting rotation next year. Whether he remains on the Twins’ extended roster or not is still to be seen, but I expect him to be removed sometime during the off-season, if not before, to make room for some prospects who need to be added.

I must say I am disappointed because I thought having a player from Japan would add some interest and an additional international flavor to the franchise. With his failure, it may be a while before the Twins dip their toes into that water again.

Twins and Trade Deadline

Now that the hullabaloo of the non-waiver trade deadline has passed without the Twins making any deals, other than the trade this past weekend of Francisco Liriano to the White Sox, it might be time to enjoy a little baseball again.

Following the various speculations and rumors of trades via Twitter this year was at times almost hilarious. The hyperventilation of some fans and bloggers/commenters, unseemly as it was, provided a window into what the baseball world in conjunction with social media looks like.

Although my first reaction was a bit of disappointment for how little the Twins got in return for Liriano, after more thought remembering he was going to be too expensive to keep under any circumstances and understanding the new CBA rules regarding compensatory picks, etc., I think the Twins got about the best they could get. Unlike a number of sports writers and bloggers, I do not think Terry Ryan blew this one. The market for a very inconsistent pitcher – despite his talent – is not very high when his salary is about to become outrageous. No matter how well he does with the White Sox, I expect him to test the free agent market and I do not think he will get anything near the $12.4 million the qualifying offer would have to have been. Right now my bet is he will get a two-year deal with some team for less than $12 million per year.

Likewise, I am not at all disturbed the Twins were unable to work out any deals approaching the deadline today. All of the players who were in some sort of demand are under contract for at least one more year. The Twins did not have to sell low as they did with Liriano. Judging from my cursory review of the flurry of trades, the Twins were not offered enough for what they would have to give up. The Twins need major-league or major-league ready starting pitching. Most teams do not have enough of that themselves, so their asking price is going to be high. I think the Twins will have a better chance for a good, balanced deal during the off-season than pulling the trigger now.

Meanwhile, tonight we get the intriguing match-up of Liriano vs. Nick Blackburn – two pitchers who have been wildly inconsistent and highly disappointing this year.

Tail Spin and Call-ups

Wow! This Twins team is looking like it might continue to set records of futility. First time in the modern era of baseball that a team has so few hits in four consecutive games. Starting pitching remains awful.

Any hope on the horizon? The news that Brian Dozier and Scott Diamond will be joining the team for the next game at least will bring some new faces to the mix. With Dozier’s promotion in particular, the signal is the process of rebuilding has begun. He will play shortstop and that means Jamey Carroll will get a little bit of rest and then we shall see how the infield rotation works out.

My bet is Danny Valencia is not going to be with the team all that much longer. I hope he gets traded so he has another opportunity to get it together, but it is also possible that he will be demoted to make room for Ben Revere or Rene Tosoni when either one is ready to return.

Scott Diamond will get a chance to earn a spot in the rotation. If he does well the rest of the year, he is a lock for a spot in 2013, but that is a big if. His stuff is not spectacular so he will have to win by location and good defense.

I am finding my interest in continuing to follow the Twins now focused on the future. Following the younger players in the minors more closely has generated a bit of enthusiasm for the long haul even while watching the disaster that is developing at the major league level this season.

Two Out of Three So Far

As the deadline for submitting expectations and offers approached Tuesday, the Twins settled two slots in the pitching ranks by signing one-year deals with Glen Perkins ($1.55 million) and Francisco Liriano ($5.5 million).

That leaves just one arbitration possibility in Alexi Casilla. The Twins and Casilla’s agent exchanged numbers ($1.065 million vs. $1.75 million) and we now wait to see if they can meet somewhere in the middle before a hearing.

It is not surprising that the Twins have come to these agreements. Perkins is a bargain at that rate if he pitches as well as he did last year, and at this point there is no reason to believe he won’t. If he continues to pitch with the confidence and velocity he did last year, he will again get a few opportunities to pick up a few saves while serving mostly as a setup man. We might even see him take over the closer role if Matt Capps falters, although the reported pending agreement with Joel Zumaya would add a real flame thrower to the mix presuming he is able to recover from his injuries. How ever it works out, Perkins is a good signing.

Liriano is a risky investment at that price, but one the Twins had little choice in accepting. This is the final year for him before he becomes eligible to be a free agent and after the bad year, in spite of throwing a no-hitter in 2011, his value is down, so trading him was not going to bring what the Twins would need in replacement. Likewise, releasing him to save money would have almost certainly meant losing him to another team that would be more than willing to take a chance that he would rebound to be the dominant ace he was projected to be in 2006. We are left to hope that return to excellence comes for the Twins.

I must say that Liriano is an example of how the arbitration system is less than optimally structured. If it worked the way it should, he would not get a raise and might even be looking at a cut due to poor overall performance. Instead he gets a raise larger than Perkins’. With a new collective bargaining agreement just approved, the system is not going to change anytime soon, so we will just have to live with it even if it doesn’t make much sense.

I look for Casilla and the Twins to settle at around $1.3 million or so before any hearing is commenced. They are not far enough apart to risk all the potential ill will that comes from taking it all the way to an arbitrator’s decision.

Interesting Week Ahead

After a dry spell on Twins news, this week promises some action that will fuel significant chatter in the Twins blogosphere.

Today a brief story first appeared on MLB.com reporting the Twins have agreed to sign Joel Zumaya to an incentive laden non-guaranteed major league contract. According to the report, it will be Thursday or Friday that he will have his required physical, so official confirmation from the Twins will not come until after that.

A persistent rumor linking the Twins to Roy Oswalt also is likely to be clarified or confirmed in some form this week. Lindsay Guenzel was the first to report the Twins were talking with Oswalt on her Twitter feed. Apparently Oswalt’s first choice is to sign with the Texas Rangers, but if they sign Yu Darvish, he will sign with the Twins. This week is the deadline for Darvish and Texas to complete a deal, so we should know relatively soon if Oswalt is a realistic option for the Twins.

More activity is in the works this week with the arbitration deadline approaching. The Twins have three players left who are eligible for arbitration this year – Alexi Casilla, Glen Perkins and Francisco Liriano. Seth Stohs has a post detailing what he expects to happen. It will be very interesting to see whether or not the Twins sign any of these players to extensions.

Already there has been a good deal of discussion on Twitter about Zumaya and Oswalt. Both would be risks because of their recent history with injuries, but both have what everyone calls significant “upsides”. Right now we all presume that Zumaya will fill the final slot on the 40-man roster. So far no one is talking much about or speculating on which current roster member will be designated for assignment, released or traded to open up a slot if Oswalt is also signed.

By the end of the week we will all know a lot more about the Twins, their roster and payroll level. I’ll have more to say if and when signings are confirmed.

Starting Rotation Becoming More Clear

My earlier guess that the Twins were not likely to make any more moves until January has proven to be inaccurate. Today they announced the signing of Jason Marquis to a one-year, $3 million contract.

With that signing the starting rotation now appears to be tentatively set. Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn are the other four with Brian Duensing presumably returning to the bullpen where he had success before becoming a regular in the rotation late in 2010.

The latest addition to the Twins most recently pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks briefly before his 2011 season ended with a broken fibula. Most of last season he was with the Washington Nationals and pitched reasonably well there. He is known as a ground ball pitcher who fits the typical Twins’ pitcher profile, a “pitch-to-contact” pitcher.

I am less than enamored by this signing, but must recognize that in today’s MLB, he comes cheap. He also is not a long-term liability with only one year signed. If he has a great first half and the Twins flounder, he will be decent trade bait. If he fails miserably, he can be released without too much lost. And, if he performs at about the level he has in the past, he will be a decent innings-eater along with Pavano to help give the bullpen some rest. With improved infield defense, this might work out alright.

If this is the starting rotation, we are going to have to hope for decent comeback years from Baker, Liriano, and Blackburn for 2012 to be successful for the Twins.  All three were on the DL in 2011 with assorted arm problems. Blackburn had surgery this off-season to correct a problem with a pinched nerve. There certainly is no guarantee that all of them will rebound, so the Twins will need to have at least a couple of other options for starters. Right now they would seem to be Liam Hendriks and Anthony Swarzak, but Terry Doyle might work himself into the mix depending on how well he pitches in spring training. If Doyle does not make the 25-man roster on opening day he needs to be returned to the White Sox because he was a Rule-5 pick this off-season. If the Twins like him enough, they may swing a deal to keep him, but that all remains to be seen. If he makes the roster, he will likely be one of the bullpen guys, possibly as the long reliever giving Swarzak a starting rotation spot at Rochester.

It is hard to have much confidence in this rotation because of how inconsistent they have been over the last few years. Put that together with the tough schedule the first 40 games and the Twins may once again dig too deep a hole to climb out of. On the other hand, if all pitch to a level they have done at their best in the past, this could be a very good group 1 through 5.

We’ll hope for the latter.

Twins Free Agents Resolved

Today the official announcement of Jason Kubel’s passing the physical and signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks completes the Twins’ free agent picture.

Going into the off-season the Twins had four players who were destined to become free agents either by the Twins not offering arbitration or by rejection of an arbitration offer. Only one – Matt Capps – has be re-signed.

Earlier in the off-season if I had been told only one of the four would return as a Twin, I would have bet it would be Joe Nathan. If not Nathan, then Michael Cuddyer or Kubel. Surprise! We now know that those three were more highly valued in the market place than the Twins could or would afford.

I find myself more sad about Kubel’s departure than either Nathan or Cuddyer. And I am more or less resigned to the fact that Capps will be the closer, although I do not like it very much.

Yesterday I posted a blog projecting the outfield for 2012 based on the free agent defections. Unless and until some other transaction occurs to change that, I expect spring training to open with that set of players penciled in.

Capps is supposed to fill the closer gap left by Nathan’s departure. That leaves some gaping holes in the pitching staff yet to fill. Obviously there is still plenty of time to flesh out the pitching roster so it is not time to get too concerned. There is even some room in the payroll to address the needs.

Given the time of year, I expect things to be quiet now until January when the old hot stove will be re-stoked again.

Willingham Official

Today the Twins confirmed what had been widely reported for several days. Josh Willingham passed the physical and signed a three-year agreement for $21 million with a $1 million incentive clause that increased the salary from by that amount if he has 525 plate appearances in 2013.

He will play a corner outfield position to be determined later as rumors are still rampant that Michael Cuddyer may yet return to the Twins to play right field. Officials have also been reported as saying the Twins have not closed the door completely on bringing Jason Kubel back either.

This signing fills an important hole left by the trade of Delmon Young – that of a right handed power bat. From all reports of his hitting style – dead pull hitter – he should do fine in Target Field. If Cuddyer is not re-signed, Willingham will most likely be in right field, but it is too soon to tell. Spring training will be the ultimate test of whether or not Plouffe and/or Revere will crack the starting lineup and who plays where.

I’ve been mulling over the outfield options and how they might play out, but am going to delay posting those ideas at least until the Cuddyer situation is resolved. If rumors heat up about Kubel, I may wait until he is declared gone.