2014 Relief Pitchers

In this last segment of my five-part review of the Twins’ roster, I look at the bullpen. Last year it was the strength of the Twins. Going into spring training it looks like it will again be the strength with competition keen and enough quality pitchers to consider trading one or two to fill other needs before the season begins.

Glen Perkins is the leader of the pen. He has established himself as an effective closer and will continue in that role again in 2014.

Jared Burton has performed well the last couple of years even if wearing down by late season each year, and if he remains healthy, he will again be one of the set-up men.

Brian Duensing was less consistent last year, but still was effect in key spots. His salary, now over a million dollars, probably dictates that he will be on the roster opening day, but he may be used as trade bait.

Anthony Swarzak has established himself as a reliable long relief man, a position that can be important to help save the rest of the bullpen. At times he has been a spot starter, and if the circumstances are right, he could serve in that role again. He also may be a valuable piece in a trade, but I expect him to be the long man with the Twins when the season begins.

Casey Fien has also established himself as a valuable late inning reliever, so if he is not in a trade package, he will be a fixture again this year.

Ryan Pressly, Caleb Thielbar and Michael Tonkin were all in the bullpen the last month of the 2013 season and they will again be competing for a spot, but will have some other competition as well. Two other members of the 40-man roster, Kris Johnson and Edgar Ibarra, will make strong cases to be included when the team goes north to open the season. One other note on Pressly, who was a Rule V pick last year and therefore had to be on the active roster all year, may see a role shift. Although the Twins’ management have not said much about it, he might find himself at New Britain or Rochester in the starting rotation in hopes he would develop into a viable major league starter. The clue as to whether or not this is in the offing will be if he is stretched out during spring training.

Matt Guerrier, recently signed to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, is recovering from elbow surgery, but if he is healthy, he also could be a strong contender.

And, finally, one or more losers of the rotation competition may end up in the bullpen so as not to lose them completely.

Unless something goes greatly awry this year, the relief corps should be solid again. If they are not overworked, they should help the Twins win more games this year.

Early Trade Deadline Speculation

We are less than two months from the waiver-free trade deadline and the Twins are close enough to first place to still be considered in the race. But it is not too early to speculate on what moves they will make if they drop out of the race, a scenario more likely than moving closer to the top.  Detroit has the superior pitching and that makes them the odds-on favorite to win the division and no one is playing well enough – winning enough games – to be serious contenders for a wild card slot, so for the Twins it’s win the division or go home. Therefore, my prediction is the Twins will be in a position to be sellers rather than buyers in the month of July.

With that in mind, let’s consider which Twins might be candidates for the trading block. The most talked about player in this category so far is Justin Morneau. His past record – power hitter, former MVP – and the fact that he is in the final year of his contract make him an easy choice on the surface. Unfortunately for the Twins, Morneau has not been himself yet this year. He is hitting for a decent average and driving in runs, but he is not hitting for power. He has only two home runs as of this writing and that projects to less than 10 for the season even if he stays healthy and in the lineup regularly. Sometimes overlooked with him is his very good defense at first base, which might make him a bit more attractive to a contender that needs a first baseman.

At this point, I see two problems with Morneau’s being on the fast track to another team. First, his performance so far does not make him all that desirable for a pennant run. That means for the Twins, not much in return. Second, the number of contenders that do not have a solid first baseman at least as good if not better than Morneau is quite low. As a result, I expect Morneau to play out his contract with the Twins. In the coming off-season, I expect the Twins to make the minimum offer to him so as to secure a draft pick if another team signs him. I’m guessing no other team will match or exceed that offer, so he will be back next year on a one-year contract.

So, if Morneau is not a likely candidate for the fire sale, who is? The two next most logical are Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit because they would produce the best return as well as open up lineup spots for younger players. Both had their contracts extended last year, but both are quite affordable for teams in the hunt. Doumit’s versatility and recent production at the plate make him the more likely to be sought after by multiple contenders. Willingham has not had a great year so far, and his defense is a detriment, but his power is still going to make him an interesting option for some teams.

Some long-shot possibilities include Jamey Carroll, a true professional utility infielder who would contribute to a team in need of solidifying their infield for the stretch run, and Jared Burton, a now proven set-up man, who could even serve as a temporary closer for a team needing that kind of help in the last couple of months of the season. With the emergence of some younger pitchers in the bullpen, Burton and possibly even Brian Duensing (serviceable lefty) could be expendable. None of this group would produce much in return, so it would only be because the Twins do not see them in the picture for 2014 that any of them would be available. 

Now the question becomes will the Twins make any moves at all. It is more common for them to not make deadline moves and save their changing of the roster decisions until the end of the season. Maybe this time the value of some of these players will be perceived to be substantially higher at the trade deadline than during to off-season. But that is a very subjective judgment. Ultimately, I would not be at all surprised if no big moves are made.

Core of 2013 Roster

As the month of August winds down when a team is out of playoff competition it is almost inevitable that fan focus shifts to the next year. In the case of the Twins, it is too late for there to be any hope for a miracle finish, as if that hope was not already dashed in April, and the way the team has played in recent weeks, waiting for September call-ups to bring new fan interest in watching the games is getting old.

As my first post about 2013, I am going to look at the current set of players and project which ones are most likely to be the core for the coming year. Two factors will be primary in my selecting these players – current/past performance and whether or not they are under contract already for next year. I’ll also consider Ron Gardenhire’s known predilections because, like it or not, they will influence Terry Ryan’s decisions.

Several weeks have passed since the Twins signed Ryan Doumit to an extension, but at the time I saw that as a key move for the 2013 roster. Obviously, Joe Mauer is a given. With his extension, so is Doumit. What may not be as obvious, but I think there is a good case to be made for it, is I believe that signing also all but assures a spot for Drew Butera. I can hear the boos and derision from Twins fans already, but here is the case. Both Mauer and Doumit in recent years have missed a good deal a time due to injuries. Both Mauer (1B and DH) and Doumit (DH and mostly LF) have been in this year’s lineup for many more games than they would have been had they been the number one C with just days off at DH. That has been good for the Twins’ offense. Having Butera as backup and occasionally catching full games has made Gardenhire (here is one of his predilections) feel good about using both of his hitting catchers regularly and not run the risk of giving up the DH in any given ballgame. Keeping only two of these catchers would make them both less productive and Butera is not exactly blocking any other catchers from making the roster. He is not going to get worse as a hitter sitting on the bench and playing rarely. He is a good defensive catcher who calls a good game. Having his weak bat taking up a spot on the bench limiting pinch-hitting options is not enough of a detriment to not keep Butera because of the production of Mauer and Doumit all year. It makes sense to go into 2013 with the same plan. In future years, if better hitting catchers in the system are ready for the major league level, this plan can be altered.

Among the pitchers, very few are what I consider to be core players now. Scott Diamond is the only starter who deserves a guaranteed spot in the rotation. In the bullpen, I see only Glen Perkins and Jared Burton as having spots locked up. That doesn’t mean other current roster members won’t make the team and contribute in positive ways, but it does mean no guarantees for them.

Other position players in the core for 2013 are Josh Willingham, Ben Revere and Jamey Carroll. I list only these three because I see Denard Span and Justin Morneau as important trade bait during the off-season. If they are not traded, they become members of the core group. Perhaps the most controversial choice is Carroll. I name him not because I see him in a starting role, but because he is under contract and serves as an excellent utility player whose veteran leadership/mentoring will be needed if the Twins go with young players as starters in the middle infield.

That is the core for 2013. If others want to become part of that core, they are going to have to earn the spot between now and the end of the season.

First Look At 2014

The game tonight (July 4) marks the midway point (game 81) in the season for the Twins. It also is the third game of the four-game series in Detroit to be followed by a three-game series in Texas to wind up the traditional first half of the season before the all-star break.

The Twins’ record is not good enough to realistically expect them to contend for the division title this year, but they remain close enough to the top (8 games back) to not rule them out completely. For many of the Twins fans who have consoled themselves by looking forward to a pre-trade deadline selling spree, this position is the worst one could hope for. Not close enough (not to mention too weak a rotation) to have real hope for a miracle finish, and not far enough out to trigger the full rebuild most of us believe is going to be necessary for the Twins to be competitive in the future.

Right now, 2013 looks like a bleak year mostly because the starting rotation is a disaster with little on the horizon in the upper minors to make one feel like there are reasonable options. We will know more in the next three to four weeks which direction the Twins are going to go the rest of this year. Most likely, it will be during the off-season that Terry Ryan gets serious about fixing the rotation for next year. That is of course assuming that Ryan remains the GM. All bets are off on that if the Twins collapse the way they did last year.

Just for the fun of it, I’m going to look ahead – beyond next year – and see what 2014 might look like, based on the players currently in the Twins organization who are either under contract extending through 2014 or likely to still be with the Twins. Where I see no close to worthy alternatives, I’ve indicated the need for acquisition via trade or free agency to fill the hole.

  • C Joe Mauer, Chris Hermann
  • 1B Chris Parmelee
  • 2B Brian Dozier
  • SS Pedro Florimon
  • 3B Trevor Plouffe
  • LF Josh Willingham
  • CF Ben Revere
  • RF Oswaldo Arcia
  • DH Ryan Doumit
  • Bench: Alexi Casilla, Darin Mastroianni, utility player
  • Starters: Scott  Diamond, Kyle Gibson, (Liam Hendriks), two or three via trade or free agency
  • Relievers: Glen Perkins (CL), Jared Burton, Alex Burnett, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak, Lester Oliveros, several internal options (Tyler Robertson, Kyle Waldrop, Deolis Guerra, Anthony Slama, Esmerling Vasquez, Jeff Manship, Matt Maloney)

Is There a Plan?

Over the last couple of weeks as the Twins have made some roster moves, I’ve been trying to discern a plan. So far, the closest thing I can come up with is a short-term strategy of trying out some younger players to see how they do. No real long-range plan is clear yet.

Brian Dozier has been very good so far, both at bat and in the field. He looks like a possible long-term answer at shortstop and that is good news. Of course, the sample size is small and we’ll have to see how he handles the inevitable slumps, but he is a promising prospect to help solidify the infield in the future. Whether he is the solution at shortstop for the next five or six years at least will be determined not only by his play, but also by the progress of other shortstops in the system – namely Levi Michael, the Twins’ first round draft pick in 2011 now playing at Fort Myers, and Pedro Florimon, a waiver wire claim in the off-season. Florimon seems to be on a fast track right now as he was promoted from AA New Britain, where he began the season, to AAA Rochester, and is playing well enough to be noticed. I would not be surprised if later this year he is called up to play shortstop and Dozier moves either to third base or second base to make room for him.

As I predicted in my last post, Danny Valencia is no longer on the 25-man roster. He was demoted to Rochester and had a slow start there. It is hard to see him in the long-term plans for the Twins. The best hope they might have now is that he plays well enough to be worth something in a trade. Jamey Carroll continues to be a solid player, now at second base most of the time. At his age, he is destined to be the veteran utility player, but that will be delayed as long as no one else plays better and earns a right to play every day at third base or second base. So far, Alexi Casilla has been too inconsistent to be a regular.

Trevor Plouffe appears to be getting an opportunity to earn a regular spot in the lineup playing third base in the absence of Valencia. He has not been bad in the field at third, but he continues to struggle at the plate. It will be very interesting to see how long they give him to get his act together as a hitter. Almost certainly, the primary reason for a long tryout is the power he showed last year when he hit 15 home runs in a partial season at AAA last year. When the Twins broke camp to open the season, he was pegged as an outfielder, but his play in the outfield (both left and right) has been less than stellar and there is a bit of a log jam there with recently claimed Erik Komatsu and Darin Mastroianni (another off-season, waiver pick-up recently called up from Rochester) showing much better defensive prowess. They both have been decent at the plate so far as well.

Today Justin Morneau will return to the active roster from the DL. Chris Parmelee will be optioned to Rochester to make room for him. Parmelee played well enough in the spring to earn an opening day spot. While he did hit well in spring training, at least one reason he started the season on the 25-man roster was the uncertainty surrounding Morneau and his readiness to play first base. That all is past now. Morneau will return to play first base, meaning Parmelee would be relegated to bench duty, so it will be better for him to go to AAA where he can get his hitting stroke back in order. In some respects, it’s too bad he had to be rushed to the majors because of the Morneau situation, because he really needs time to develop more and he has not spent any time at AAA yet. Now he will get that chance.

Starting pitching has continued to be problematic. The good news has been the way Scott Diamond and P. J. Walters, both recent call-ups from AAA, have pitched. Diamond in particular has impressed with two outings of 7-inning, shutout ball each time. Walters pitched well, but got no run support in his first start. The rest of the rotation has been dismal. What the Twins have in mind for the rest of the year is not at all clear. They appear to continue to hope that Francisco Liriano will regain his dominance while working out of the bullpen for a while so he can return to the rotation, but I do not hold out much hope for that to happen. Carl Pavano and Jason Marquis are just not effective enough to even be the innings eaters they were intended to be. A couple more starts each and if they continue to be bad, they should be let go so younger players can gain some experience. Nick Blackburn pitched a little better the last two times out, but still is missing consistent location of his fastball, which has meant too many home runs. Since he is under contract through next year, I expect he will either remain in the rotation, if he improves, or end up in the bullpen, perhaps as the long man.

Surprising to many, the bullpen has been the bright spot of the season so far. Jared Burton and Glen Perkins have done the job in the set-up role, Matt Capps has converted all save opportunities (although he has blown two tie games that he came in and took the loss), and the others have pitched better than expected. Perkins, Burton, and Alex Burnett are probably keepers for the near term. Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak are being kept stretched out enough that they could be options for the rotation, although both seem better suited to bullpen use, as that is where they have excelled this year.

The whole pitching situation is still muddled enough that it is premature to project long-term. The next month or so will probably provide some clarity as to what the Twins’ powers that be are planning.

For now, my speculation is on which players are most likely to be on the trading block this summer. Topping my list are Denard Span, Matt Capps (if he remains effective as a closer), Francisco Liriano (if he does reasonably well in the pen), Ben Revere (no longer seems to be in the long-term plan) and Justin Morneau (if he returns and hits well with power). My off-the-wall guess is Morneau will be traded to Toronto for a starting pitcher filling needs for both teams and giving Justin an opportunity to play in his native land, Canada.

Time will tell if any of my thoughts are anywhere close to what the Twins have in mind. I look forward to the next few weeks to see how the rebuilding process plays out.