Sano and Third Base

Missed on the prediction that Miguel Sano would start the season in Rochester. He will instead be in rehab.

While many fans are gnashing their teeth at the Twins medical staff for “once again failing to diagnose correctly”, I think that is an unfair characterization. According to at least one report, Sano got a second opinion that concurred on the recommendation to rest the elbow. As young as he is, the healing process often is done with rest.

Either way, he will be undergoing Tommy John surgery in the next couple of weeks and they will be on the long road of recovery – estimated to be about eight months. There seems to be some optimism on some fronts that he could DH toward the end of the minor league season then play in the Arizona Fall League or the Dominican winter league. That all remains to be seen.

The result for the Twins in 2014 is third base could be a major hole if Trevor Plouffe does not develop into the all-round player needed at that position. There are no real alternatives for anything other than stop-gap play unless the Twins trade for someone to fill the hole and give Plouffe some genuine competition, something he has not really had since being put at third base.

The more I think about the situation, the more I believe it is time to trade for an alternative. In fact, I would decide now to convert Sano to a first baseman so when he begins rehab he can begin to work on the position change. His elbow would not get near the stress in that position and his bat could get into the big league lineup quicker. How to juggle the Twins lineup and roster to make that happen can be discussed later, but I find it difficult to see how keeping Sano at third base does him or the Twins much good.

 

Standard Stories Surfacing

We are just a few days away from the beginning of spring training and already the typical “he’s in the best shape of his life” stories are beginning to show up in the media. (By media, I should hasten to say in this case I am using the term in the broadest possible sense – including bloggers, Twitter comments, etc.)

Some of the beat reporters are on the scene in Ft. Myers already, no doubt settling in to their temporary living quarters and starting to scope out which players, coaches and family members have arrived already. That inevitably leads to sightings of players who have put in some extra work and conditioning in the off-season and as a result become subjects of the common stories.

Those of us who are fans who follow the team closely during the off-season welcome any stories that  help us get a feel for what the coming season will bring. For example, hearing today that Vance Worley has lost 25 lbs is an intriguing bit of news that will be worth following as he battles for the 5th rotation spot or even a position in the bullpen. Will the weight loss improve his strength and help his accuracy or will it diminish his velocity making his pitches even more inviting to major league hitters. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does.

Apparently, Trevor Plouffe has also arrived early and is reportedly bulked up a little in hopes of improving his power. And, some of the younger players, not surprisingly have also added some weight during the off-season.

So, the count down to Monday’s first workouts for the pitchers and catchers continues.

2014 Corner Infielders

To make this series of posts more manageable, I’ll divide the infielders into two groups beginning with the corner infield positions.

First base and Joe Mauer is a good place to start. As all Twins fans know by now, the inevitable switch to another position from catcher was decided last fall shortly after the 2013 season ended. Unless he is unfortunate enough to sustain some kind of injury, he will be the everyday first baseman and there will be few opportunities for any others except to give him a day off. I expect Mauer’s offensive production to be similar to what it was last year, with the possible exception of a little more power as he continues to work with Tom Brunansky, hitting coach, developing a more powerful stroke. Defensively, I expect him to develop quickly into a very good first baseman. His overall athletic ability will aid him, and his work ethic may well eventually produce a Gold Glove.

Only two others are listed on the 40-man roster as first basemen, and of the two, only Chris Colabello has any major league experience. He saw some playing time last season after the departure of Justin Morneau in August. Although he struggled some at the plate, his power potential is high and that may be enough for him to be on the opening day roster. He will probably need to beat out Chris Parmelee to make the roster because there are simply not enough slots for everyone.

The other first baseman added to the 40-man roster last fall is Kennys Vargas. He is a promising young player with good power potential, but he will not be a factor at the major league level this year.

Max Kepler could also be on this list, as last year he played a majority of the time at first base, but I’ve already discussed him in yesterday’s post.

One of the most interesting anomalies of the full roster is only one player – Trevor Plouffe – is listed as a third baseman as his primary position. I’m not sure he is good enough to be considered the only contender for the position, but so far this off-season no challengers have been added to provide any competition. A few other players have made spot starts at third for the Twins over the last couple of years, but generally they are considered primarily middle infielders and I’ll discuss them in that context.

This will definitely be the year Plouffe must establish himself or he will quickly become a utility player. I am not confident he will ever develop the consistency that is needed at the position, either offensively or defensively, but this year will tell the tale.

One non-roster player invited to the major league camp this spring, who must be considered is Miguel Sano. He played at New Britain last year and demonstrated his power and general hitting prowess such that he is considered the fourth best prospect in baseball. But when spring training ends, I expect him to be at Rochester to gain some more experience before making an appearance either in June (if Plouffe falters) or, at the latest, in September.

Another Lost Season

With now less than a week before September is upon us, it is time to consider some options for September call-ups. A third lost season in a row leads one to be thinking more about the future than how the Twins will do the rest of the way this season. As a result, the September call-ups this year are more likely to see some extended playing time than simply being an extra bat on the bench or arm in the bullpen.

Starting pitching has been the most significant weakness this season for the Twins and right now there are some iffy members of the rotation to even complete this season.  Apparently the Twins are monitoring Mike Pelfrey’s innings count as he is in his first year back from surgery. I find that a bit odd in that he will become a free agent at the end of the season. As a result, the Twins’ caution with him may turn out to aid some other team.  Also, Samuel Deduno has had some arm issues that may end up limiting his starts the rest of the way.

Kyle Gibson pitched today for AAA Rochester and is scheduled for one more regular season start for them.  If the Red Wings make the playoffs – currently leading for the wild card slot – Gibson might get a start in the postseason, but with his innings limit, he may also be shut down the best of what New Britain has to offer called up for the playoffs to replace him in the rotation.

Liam Hendriks had another dismal outing and simply does not look like a viable option for next year’s rotation, although given the Twins’ propensity for second chances, he will probably be given another chance to earn a spot next spring. It is unlikely that he will be sent down now unless he is deemed useful in a Rochester play-off run.

As best I can tell, Scott Diamond is close to pitching his way back into the good graces of the major league team, but it also would make some good sense to keep him with Rochester in the event of their wild card or division championship. There is something to be said for playoff experience and “learning how to win”.

Two pitchers currently on the New Britain Rock Cats who have major league experience might be options for recall. They are Cole De Vries and Pedro Hernandez. Either might also be selected for Rochester if Gibson is shut down for the playoffs. Neither one has been stellar this season. Both have been injured and somewhat limited as a result. For the 2014 rotation, it would surprise me if either one is considered a front runner for the Twins. A highly touted prospect, Alex Meyer, may have a chance to crack the 2014 rotation, but I see him as unlikely for September, maybe more likely for the Arizona Fall League.

In the bullpen, Michael Tomkin is a very probable September call-up candidate, but only after Rochester is finished playing. He could gain some valuable experience as closer if they make the playoffs.

My best guess right now is the following will be part of the September rotation to evaluate their potential roles for 2014.  Kevin Correia is the only current starter with a two year contract, so he will stay. Andrew Albers has earned an extended look. If he remains healthy, Samuel Deduno has done well enough at times to deserve a longer look. As soon as Rochester is done, Scott Diamond will get his chance to redeem himself and return to a 2014 rotation option. That would leave Pelfrey and Hendriks as the next in line, maybe even going to a six-man rotation.

In the position player ranks, I’m guessing Eduardo Escobar, Darin Mastroianni are very probable with Chris Parmelee a long shot. If in the next few days Justin Morneau ends up being traded, his chances improve some. Aaron Hicks might get the call, but he has struggled so much both with injuries and in effectiveness since he was sent down, that I expect he will have to wait until spring to see if he can make the opening day roster again. Although it is very unlikely, I’d like to see Deibinson Romero called up and given full time at third base. In my opinion, Trevor Plouffe has been given enough time and has not produced consistently enough to count on him.

All in all, that is not a very exciting lineup of players for us to get excited about in September and for the future. We’ll have to hope for an active off-season for the Twins to bolster their chances to compete next year.

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.

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.

First Roster Adjustment of 2012

In the last couple of days, the Twins made what some might have thought an odd waiver claim. Clete Thomas was placed on waivers by the Detroit Tigers and the Twins claimed him. In doing so, the Twins had to make a corresponding set of roster moves.

To create a spot for Thomas on the 40-man roster, Scott Baker was put on the 60-day DL. That is no surprise as Baker will be out for the season following his elbow surgery. What came as a mild surprise to fans who had hopes for a starting spot this year for Ben Revere was his being sent down to AAA Rochester.

The moves make sense in the bigger context. Rochester has had some injuries to outfielders and Revere needs more regular playing time if he is to continue to develop. He is still quite young and has some upside, so the opportunity to play every day is important.

Thomas is a capable, versatile outfielder who is used to a bench role and is not seen as losing much by not getting playing time regularly. In fact, his role will likely be limited to defensive replacement most of the time. With the pressure off Gardenhire to play Revere enough, the right field situation becomes less of a log jam and Trevor Plouffe is almost certainly going to get more time on the field than he has to this point.

I am hoping this will also improve the outfield defense at least a bit. So far, Ryan Doumit has been adequate at best in right field and Josh Willingham has been less than that in left field.

Probably the most disappointing thing for me so far this season has been Willingham on defense. He has been exciting to watch as a hitter, but quite an adventure – similar to the foibles of Delmon Young – in the field. My disappointment stems less from his weakness as a defender and more because he seems to be so lackadaisical in his effort so often. To give credit where it is due, he has made a few nice running catches, some in foul territory, so he appears more capable than he has played at times. In spring training, I noticed he did not run out ground balls and otherwise seemed to lack hustle. In the field, he has looked very much like he doesn’t care much if he gets to a ball in time or even throws to the right base with much authority. Again, credit where it is due, he did once make a nice foul territory catch and a subsequent great throw to home to get a runner trying to score, but one good play has been overshadowed by some very weak play.

This bears watching, because right now, the Twins seem to have too many DH types and not enough defensive players. As it looks currently, I would not be surprised to see a shift in alignment to Morneau at first base, Parmelee in right field, Plouffe and Doumit platooning in left field with Willingham as the full time DH. It may just be marginal improvement, but I think in the long run Willingham is a tremendous liability in the cavernous left field of Target Field.morn

Mid-Spring Assessment

According to my count, looking at the spring game schedule, today’s game marked the midpoint of spring games. So it seems a logical time to do an assessment of how things are going so far and who might be winning the “open” spots on the 25-man roster.

One of the overall positives to note is the relative health of the team. Other than one notable exception, the loss of Joel Zumaya, the Twins have had only minor bumps and bruises so far. The latest is Trevor Plouffe’s slight strain of a hamstring that Terry Ryan says is not serious. He may miss only a couple of days. Especially positive is the fact that Mauer and Morneau have been healthy and available without any known setbacks.

A second positive to note has been the number of relief pitchers stepping up, pitching well and making it a difficult decision as to which ones will make the team going north.

Also, some of the younger players who will almost certainly begin the season at Rochester, have played well giving some hope for the future, and maybe more importantly  to Red Wings fans, giving the AAA team some roster strength that will allow them to be more competitive at least, if not playoff contenders.

On the less positive side, Tsuyoshi Nishioka is not impressing anyone yet. Sports beat-writers covering the Twins this spring have reported that he is making progress in work with coaches, but so far that is not translating to play in games. They also have noted the absence of any talk from the Twins about where he might end up if not on the opening day roster. It is as if that subject is taboo, at least for now.

Biggest surprise so far? The hitting of non-roster invitee infielder Mike Hollimon. It would be a real long-shot for him to make the big club, but he certainly has solidified his utility-man status for Rochester.

Most concerning so far? Starting pitching. While it is encouraging that Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano have done well and appear to be on track to be ready for the season, Jason Marquis has not looked good and Scott Baker has a tender elbow that has pushed back his next start. If it flairs up again, he probably will be on the DL to open the season.

Roster spot battles at this point look to be – third catcher, middle infielder/utility player, and bullpen. I’m still projecting Drew Butera and Nishioka, mostly by default, but have revised my ideas on the bullpen based on some good work by some of the pitchers signed during the off season.

Here is my latest opening-day roster projection.

Everyday lineup:

  • C Joe Mauer
  • 1B Justin Morneau
  • 2B Alexi Casilla
  • SS Jamey Carroll
  • 3B Danny Valencia
  • LF Ben Revere/Trevor Plouffe
  • CF Denard Span
  • RF Josh Willingham
  • DH Ryan Doumit

Bench:

  • C Drew Butera
  • INF Luke Hughes
  • INF Tsuyoshi Nishioka
  • OF Trevor Plouffe/Ben Revere

Pitchers:

  • S Carl Pavano
  • S Scott Baker
  • S Francisco Liriano
  • S Nick Blackburn
  • S Jason Marquis
  • Long Relief Anthony Swarzak
  • Closer Matt Capps
  • LHP Brian Duensing
  • LHP Glen Perkins
  • LHP Matt Maloney

and two of the following three:

  • RHP Jared Burton
  • RHP Kyle Waldrop
  • RHP Jeff Manship

Outfield Projection

Slowly but surely the Twins outfield situation for 2012 is beginning to take shape.

Michael Cuddyer is gone to Colorado and Josh Willingham is signed to be the primary right fielder. Denard Span is expected to be in center field with Ben Revere the occasional backup.

Today in an interview on 1500 ESPN Radio with Jim Souhan and Tom Pelissero, Terry Ryan confirmed what I have been suspecting. If the Twins do not have any other personnel changes, Ben Revere and Trevor Plouffe will begin the season platooning in left field.

Ryan did say that while the highest priority right now is to find a veteran starting pitcher, he was still looking for another outfielder as well. No names were mentioned and it was more or less assumed that pitching was much more likely to be the focus. If a starter is not found, then one more reliever will be signed to fill out the bullpen.

If by some happenstance another outfielder is signed to be the regular left fielder, presumably Revere will end up beginning the season at Rochester because Plouffe is out of options.

The Revere/Plouffe makes a good deal of sense if the roster remains the way it is now. The Twins need to find out if Plouffe can be an adequate outfielder and get his bat going consistently at the major league level. He also is a DH option if all the regulars are able to play their positions and Doumit is ailing.

Revere needs to continue to develop as a hitter and playing at least semi-regularly should help him. If he does not improve his on-base percentage, he will end up being just a role player and will not be as useful in the long run as one might hope. His arm also limits him greatly, but the team can compensate by sending infielders out a little deeper to get the relays.

If this scenario is what becomes the reality for the Twins in 2012, the team will again be offensively challenged. Presumably Revere will get the majority of starts in left field because he hits from the left side and most starting pitchers are right handers. In addition, it will be much more likely for Revere to replace Plouffe for late inning defense than the other way around. Given that situation, the Twins outfield will most often have two low power players in the lineup. Not a scenario that bodes well for scoring runs.

We shall see.