- Jason Kubel homers twice in Twins’ 7-1 victory over Cleveland
Jason Kubel apparently wants to remain in the cleanup spot once Mauer returns to the lineup (which might be as early as Tuesday), blasting a pair of home runs in today’s game against the Indians. Kubel’s been on a tear recently, batting .316/.350/.789 in his past five games, with an OPS of 1.139 and, of course, a pair of home runs. And then there was this performance against the Angels. Kubel has certainly been batting like a cleanup-hitter, but leaving him in that spot means that the Twins would have four left-handed hitters in a row. Which actually might not be much of a problem. The M&M boys certainly hit lefties pretty well (though not as well as righties), and lead off hitter Denard Span has had a lot of success against left-handed pitching, too. Still, I can’t imagine Ron Gardenhire going with such a lefty-centric lineup for any extended period of time, so most likely Mauer will bat third and everyone else will move down in the lineup.
- Oh, yeah, Kevin Slowey pitched ok, too
Actually, he was masterful. Painting the corners. Changing speeds. Throwing his breaking pitches whenever he felt like it (even on a 3-2 count), and just doing all of the little things necessary to keep hitters off balance. Slowey shut out the Indians for eight innings, giving up just eight hits and striking out seven. The lone Cleveland run came in the ninth, when Slowey was lifted after giving up three straight hits to load the bases. Luis Ayala came in and surrendered an RBI single to Kelly Shoppach before getting Tony Graffanino to ground into a game-ending double play.
It appears as though the pitching staff has finally figured out the secret to winning games: keeping the ball in the ballpark. Oh, and not walking anybody, either. That always helps. Nick Blackburn pitched a gem of his own against Cleveland on Friday, allowing one run on six hits in seven innings, without walking anybody or giving up a home run. Although, Blackburn kind of owns the Indians, so I guess his performance wasn’t all that surprising. Still, after watching the starters give up what seems like a gazillion home runs the past few weeks (and the most walks in the league so far this season), it was fun to watch a couple of well-pitched ballgames for a change.
He has two batting titles. He has a Gold Glove. He has his own theme song. And since today is his 26th birthday, I’m going to make the case that Joe Mauer might be, if not the best, certainly one of the most irreplaceable players in any position in the league.
Mauer has consistently ranked near the top of the league in two of the best measurements of a player’s value to his organization: VORP and Runs Above Average. Last season, Mauer was fourth in the league in VORP, and his 43.0 RAA was the best for a catcher in either league. He’s also ranked in the top five pretty consistently throughout his career, with his worst year coming in 2007, when he was limited to 109 games due to injury. However, the problem with both VORP and RAA as statistical measures is that they both weigh each plate appearance exactly the same. For example, a solo homer when the team is up (or down) by ten runs is equal to a walk-off home run, when one clearly affects the outcome of a game more than the other. Thankfully, we also have Win Probability Added, which takes such things into account. Last season, Mauer’s 4.88 raw WPA led the entire league, and once again, he ranks near the top pretty consistently.
Of course, one of the biggest problems with all of those metrics is that they only measure offense and fail to account for a player’s defensive contributions. While there are some pretty good metrics for evaluating defense, each have their own limitations and there is little consensus as to which metric is really the most accurate. Basically, all of these defensive metrics attempt to measure a position player’s defensive contributions by determining how many runs per game he saves, and despite their limitations, they are pretty good at evaluating defense for most position players. Except for catcher, that is. Since so much of a catcher’s defense depends upon the pitcher, it’s really difficult to determine just how many runs per game a catcher actually saves. But it’s interesting to note that, whichever metric you use, Mauer once again consistently comes out near the top for catchers, and a good case could be made that he is one of the best defensive players at any position in baseball. He is also very good at throwing out baserunners (about 36% of them), though he isn’t the best in the league. I sometimes wonder if his reputation sort of precedes him and guys are simply less likely to run on him in the first place, which in and of itself might be more valuable than his actual ability to throw runners out.
One has to wonder why Joe Mauer is so consistently overlooked as an MVP candidate, even though he puts up better numbers than anyone else on the team (and most of the league, especially when adjusted for position) and is arguably one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. Justin Morneau is often considered the most dangerous hitter in the lineup, but other than his power numbers, Morny isn’t significantly better than Mauer in most offensive categories (he’s actually a bit worse in some of them). And while Morny is certainly a very good hitter, his career numbers are actually pretty average for a first baseman. This is an issue that has been explored in depth by other, smarter Twins bloggers (and Joe Posnanski), so I’m not going to go into much detail on the subject. I tend to think that voters (and opposing teams) are dazzled by Morneau’s raw power and all of the RBI he racks up and tend to undervalue Mauer’s ability to simply put the ball in play with runners in scoring position.
The Twins have Joe Mauer locked up until after the 2010 season, and there is a lot of debate among fans as to whether or not it would be worth the estimated $150 million to keep him. Although Mauer is much more durable than people give him credit for, he plays a physically demanding position and doesn’t have the greatest health history. He missed much of his rookie season with knee surgery, missed most of 2007 with leg problems, and so far has missed the first few weeks of this season with back problems. Having said all that, I do think the Twins would be wise to extend Mauer’s contract. Yes, it’s a lot of money for a small-budget team to risk on a player with his health history, but his bat has been so invaluable in the lineup that I think it is a risk worth taking. Even if the Twins end up moving him to a position where he would be less injury-prone, like third base, Mauer is athletic enough that he should make the transition successfully. And though a 3B who hits .317/.399/.457 certainly isn’t as valuable as a catcher who does, it’s possible that Mauer’s power numbers might improve if he were in a less physically demanding position. But there’s also the distinct possibility that, with the move into the outdoor stadium, his health will no longer be such an issue. Either way, signing Mauer to a long-term contract would be in the best interest of the organization.
- There’s the Kevin Slowey we know and love: Twins defeat Angels 9-2
Kevin Slowey rebounded from his awful first couple of starts, in which he gave up ten earned runs on twenty-three hits in 11.1 innings. Slowey was coming off of his worst start of the season on Monday night, when the Blue Jays smacked him around for five earned runs on thirteen hits in 5.1 innings. Other than one mistake to Torii Hunter in the second, Slowey managed to shut down the Angels for seven innings, giving up just two earned runs on six hits and striking out five. Of course, it helps that the offense managed to provide some much-needed run support, b
eating up the Angels’ bullpen for nine runs in two innings.
And um, I guess until the pitching staff has a game like this one, maybe I should stop complaining about them so much. Yikes.
Jason Kubel had another good night at the plate, going 4-for-5 with a double and 2 RBI. This is his second consecutive four-hit game, and the first time a Twin has had back-to-back four hit games since Mauer did it against the Dodgers in 2006.
Lefty reliever Craig Breslow continued to struggle with his command, walking the first batter he faced, but settled down and pitched effectively enough to keep the Angels of the scoreboard in the eighth. Juan Morillo made his debut with the Twins in the ninth, and his 94 mph was as good as advertised. Morillo has been working with pitching coach Rick Anderson on his command, and whether or not he’s put his control issues behind him is still a huge question, but he certainly wasn’t having any problems finding the strike zone last night. He retired the first two batters he faced before giving up a harmless single to Juan Rivera.
Oh, and as much as I love both baseball and hockey, even I think that this is an abomination.
- Carlos Gomez: Go-Go was the only player sent over in the trade who spent the entire season with the big club. While he showed tremendous range in the outfield, and has great speed on the basepaths, his offense left something to be desired. I have already covered Go-Go’s offensive struggles in greater detail here. However, he spent the offseason developing a better eye at the plate and his work does seem to be paying off so far this spring. Go-Go is hitting .256/.341/.615 with 3 home runs in 39 ABs, though he still strikes out nearly three times as often as he walks. Gomez is currently competing with Denard Span (who has had his own struggles at the plate during camp) for the CF job. Whether or not he wins the starting job in the outfield depends on his continued success at the plate.
Actually, there is a really good article about Go-Go in today’s Star Tribune.
- Philip Humber: Humber didn’t make the team out of camp last year, and spent most of the season in Rochester. He struggled during the first half of the season, but eventually settled down and finished with an ERA of 4.56 and a WHIP of 1.42 which was good enough to earn him a September call-up. Unfortunately, his audition didn’t go particularly well, as he gave up six runs on eleven hits in 11.7 innings pitched. He’s been having a very good spring so far, with his worst appearance coming against the Reds when he gave up four runs on four hits in a single inning. Since then, his ERA has plummeted to 1.13 in eight innings and is considered a top candidate for the long-relief job vacated by Boof Bonser.
- Kevin Mulvey: Mulvey spent the entire season in Rochester last year, and posted a decent 3.77 ERA and 1.35 WHIP, though he didn’t earn a September call-up. Although he was a having a pretty good spring, giving up three earned runs on eight hits in seven innings, there just isn’t any room for him in the rotation at this point. Mulvey was just reassigned to minor league camp so he can get some more work in before reporting to Rochester. He might see some time in the big leagues if one of the starters goes down with an injury.
- Deolis Guerra: Guerra shows the most promise of all of the pitchers who came from the Mets’ organization. He struggled a lot during the season with the Ft. Myers Miracle, posting a 5.47 ERA and an even 71 walks and strikeouts. Most of his problem stems from a drop in velocity, most likely from the Twins’ attempts to tinker with his mechanics. Guerra’s only 19, though, and still has tremendous upside. If he can regain his lost velocity, he might eventually live up all of the hype.
Update: here is video of Guerra and his delivery, which explains the drop in velocity:
- In other news:
Matt Macri, Luke Hughes, and Luis Matos were all reassigned. Hughes and Macri were optioned to AAA Rochester, and Matos was sent to minor league camp. Macri is a decent utility infielder, and is mostly a victim of a lack of roster space as Brendan Harris, Brian Buscher, and Matt Tolbert are all competing for the final spot on the bench. Hughes is a very promising 3B prospect, and he hit very well during camp (and in the WBC for Team Australia), but he still needs to work on his defense. He’ll probably see time at second and in the outfield while in Rochester this year to try to find the best fit. Matos is a former Orioles prospect who has never really panned out. At 30, it’s pretty obvious that he never will. Matos batted .125 during camp and will probably have to fight for playing time in Rochester.
- Frankie Says Relax:
Francisco Liriano says he’s working on his command and is almost ready for the regular season. Liriano is coming off of his worst start of the spring, in which he gave up three runs on four hits in five innings, though he still struck out five and only walked two. Frankie has been struggling with his command a bit during camp, as he’s walked eight batters in 21.1 innings. However, he still has a 2.95 ERA and 1.03 WHIP even with his control issues. This is his second full season after having Tommy-John surgery in 2006, and whatever lingering questions about Frankie and his place in the rotation will probably be answered.
By the way, Wild rookie Cal Clutterbuck now has the NHL record for hits in a single season, collecting his 317th against the Islanders last night. Hits are a subjective stat, so it’s not like anyone collected his elbow pads to put in the Hall of Fame or anything. And the kinder, gentler NHL doesn’t exactly approve of that kind of thing anyway. Also, after igniting a firestorm of (not undeserved) criticism for fighting with his visor on, Clutterbuck simply threw his helmet off before tangling with Sean Avery during Tuesday’s loss to the Rangers:
This is the final installment in this series, since I’ve already covered the starting rotation, the infield, the outfield, and the bullpen. The Twins are very lucky in that they have a lot of depth at catcher. Most baseball teams struggle to find one decent backstop and the Twins have three: an All-Star in Joe Mauer, a very good backup in Mike Redmond, and a top prospect in Wilson Ramos. Here is a look at all three:
- Joe Mauer: Mauer obviously handles most of the catching duties for the Twins. I have already written about Mauer and how remarkable he is here. Last season he won his second batting title, and if he’s healthy will probably be contending for a third. And I do think he’ll be healthy this year even though he had minor kidney surgery during the offseason. His doctors recently cleared him to resume running and lifting, so he might not be in game shape just yet but should be ready by Opening Day.
According to this article on the Twins’ homepage, owner Jim Pohlad is willing to pony up the cash to sign Mauer to a contract extension. While this is good news in a way, I’m not sure about Pohlad’s reasoning behind this decision. Apparently he is willing to give Mauer a legacy contract, meaning he would shell out big bucks for a guy simply because he’s a fan favorite and a Minnesota native. It’s no secret that I adore Joe, but he’s going to command a deal somewhere in the ten-year, $150 million range. That is a large chunk of payroll to devote to one player simply because the fans like him. I would like to see the Twins keep Joe, but only if they don’t think his health will be an issue. Mauer is athletic enough to move to third if he has to, but a third baseman who hits .328/.413/.451 with a mere 7 home runs certainly isn’t worth $150 million.
- Mike Redmond: Red Dog is the other half of the Twins’ amazing backstop duo. He pretty much only sees any playing time when Gardy decides to give Mauer the day off, and that makes his offensive production even more incredible. Redmond batted .287/.321/.333 in 129 plate appearances last year, and is a career .292/.348/.365 hitter. He’s no slouch defensively either, and did a great job helping to handle the young pitching staff last year. Red Dog is in the final year of his contract with the Twins, and whether or not he’ll re-sign with the team is unclear at this point. Since he will be 38 this year he might decide to retire once the season is over. Considering that he always gets clunked in the head with either a bat or a foul ball whenever he starts, I wouldn’t blame him one bit.
- Wilson Ramos: Wilson Ramos is the heir apparent to the backstop throne should the Twins decide that Joe Mauer is expendable. Ramos is currently a top prospect for the Twins’ FSL affiliate, the Ft. Myers Miracle, and is slated to start the season in AA New Britain. He batted .288/.346/.434 with 13 homers for the Miracle last season, which is very respectable when you consider that the entire Florida State League only hit .256/.329/.376. More recently, he played a crucial role in Venezuela’s Caribbean Series championship, where he batted .385 and drew four walks, reaching base four times during the clinching game against Mexico last Friday. Baseball America currently has Ramos as the third-ranked prospect in the Twins’ farm system, and it will be very interesting to see how he develops in the next few seasons. No doubt the front office will be keeping a very close eye on him to determine if they can get by without Mauer after all (and save themselves several hundreds of millions in guaranteed money over the next ten years).
So that’s the entire projected roster for the 2009 season. It looks exactly like the 2008 roster, only without the dead weight known as Mike Lamb and Adam Everett. I think the Twins will win at least 85 games this year since Cuddyer should be healthy and most of the young talent should show improvement offensively. Whether or not this will be good enough to win the division remains to be seen.
PS: I know it’s Valentine’s Day, but I don’t care. I don’t celebrate holidays invented by marketers to get you to buy things. It does, however, give me an excuse to post a Lemonheads video:
Oh, what the heck. Here’s Pete Townsend and Eddie Vedder singing “Heart to Hang Onto”, too. Happy Valentine’s Day everybody!
Ok, maybe not, but clearly the offense needs a little help. Baseball prospectus has recently projected the Twins to finish with a 79-83 record, second in the division behind the Cleveland Indians. Their reasoning is pretty sound, as historically teams that have had a great deal of success based on a statistical anomaly (such as the Twins’ high BA with RISP last season) tend to fall to the norm the next season. It’s not likely that the Twins are going to repeat last year’s offensive production, in which they scored 829 runs on 111 home runs. However, if some of their young talent begins to show its potential to hit for power (particularly Delmon Young and Jason Kubel), then the Twins will likely win 90 games. Otherwise, 79 wins sounds about right.
The front office hasn’t made any moves to upgrade offensively, and it appears that they’re gambling on the fact that the young talent will improve rather than regress. For once, I’m actually not going to criticize Bill Smith for this, since there hasn’t been much out on the market that looked like it would be a good fit. There were rumors that the Twins were going to trade for either Garrett Atkins or Kevin Kouzmanoff, but neither would be a significant enough upgrade at third to be worth the cost (reported to be Kevin Slowey AND Denard Span, plus a top prospect). Casey Blake wanted too much money, and also wasn’t enough of an upgrade over the Harris/Buscher platoon. Joe Crede would have been a great fit, since he would provide the right-handed power bat the Twins need as well as Gold-Glove caliber defense. However, his health is a major concern, and considering that he is seeking a one-year deal worth $7 million the Twins are probably wise to pass.
Come to think of it, certain Twins players have experimented with banned substances in the past. And failed miserably at it, too. Suspected doper Bret Boone was acquired down the stretch in 2005, and batted an anemic .170 in 14 games before being released. Howie Clark and Rondell White were both known HGH users, and both were busts during their tenure with the team. Obviously the performance-enhancing substances these guys were using weren’t having the desired effect. But then again, all of these guys were suspected users while they were on other teams and had probably stopped by the time they signed with the Twins.
Apparently the front office has it backwards: they need to get these guys while they’re still using and then release them after they get caught.
Actually, the only player who was busted for using banned substances while he was with the team was relief pitcher Juan Rincon. Rincon was one of the league’s premier set-up men, until he tested positive for a banned substance in 2005. Of course, he denied that he was taking anything stronger than a supplement he bought over-the-counter at GNC. But considering that he really hasn’t been the same pitcher since serving his suspension, I’m not so sure. He was released by the Twins last season, after posting an awful 66 ERA+ in 24 appearances. Now, he is the Detroit Tigers’ problem, having signed a minor-league deal with the ballclub during the offseason.
Well, I’m not going to throw in the towel on the season just yet, especially since it hasn’t even begun! And who knows, maybe our guys will exceed everyone’s expectations and win another World Series title. After all, baseball is a crazy game and anything can (and will) happen. The Twins weren’t projected to win more than 79 games last season, and they won 88 (and nearly made the playoffs, too). Maybe they can do it again, even without any umm…help.
The outfield is very crowded going into Spring Training, and it was rumored during the offseason that the Twins were looking to trade one of their outfielders to fill some of their holes. There wasn’t really much available that was really worth getting excited over, and so the front office decided to stand pat. Whether or not this is a wise decision remains to be seen, but with all of the injuries the team suffered last season maybe having depth is a good thing.
- RF, Denard Span: Span really had a breakout season last year, finishing with a .294/.387/.432 line and drawing 50 walks in the leadoff spot. Span wasn’t too impressive when he first came up, and didn’t show a great deal of plate discipline, However, when he was sent back down to Rochester in early May, it was as if a light went off in his head. When he was called back up at the end of June to fill in for an injured Michael Cuddyer, he began spraying the ball all over the field. There is some question as to whether or not he’ll be able to repeat those numbers, since he never displayed much patience at the plate in the minors, but who knows? As one of our trio of speedsters (he, Gomez, and Alexi Casilla), it would be a shame to lose him in the lineup.
- RF, Michael Cuddyer: Cuddyer is probably the closest thing the Twins have to a bad contract on their books, and at 3 years and $24 million that’s not really saying much. He has had to deal with injuries much of his career, but in 2008 he was really unlucky. First, there were all of the unfortunate hand injuries earlier in the season. Then, while completing a rehab stint in Rochester, he was hit in the foot with an errant line drive and ended up missing almost the entire second half due to a broken foot. Cuddyer has more power than Span, but Span is the superior outfielder, so it will be interesting to see who wins the starting job. There has been talk of moving Cuddy to third, where he played most of the 2005 season, but I don’t think this will work. He obviously didn’t stick there in the first place, and at age 30 guys don’t usually make the transition from the outfield to the hot corner very well.
Cuddyer is also famous for performing magic tricks. Here he is showing a card trick to Denard Span during Spring Training last year:
- CF, Carlos Gomez: I have already written a lengthy piece on Go-Go here. I have to say, Go-Go and his
.360 slugging percentagepenchant for annoying opposing pitchers have really grown on me. He once told Justin Verlander that his mind was “not good“. He also rattled Cliff Lee so badly with a bunt attempt that he lost focus and gave up five runs in one inning. It will be interesting to see what he does this year.
By the way, Peter Gammons wrote in an article for ESPN that Gomez is the best defensive centerfielder in the league. I don’t agree with this assessment just yet. Gomez certainly has tremendous range, but his, um, youthful exuberance makes him commit a lot of silly errors. If he matures and learns to focus, then yes, he will probably be the best defensive centerfielder in the league.
- LF, Delmon Young: I have also written a lengthy piece on Young, too. Young’s spot seems to be the most in jeopardy, considering how bad he was both defensively and offensively last year. However, I think that having to compete for a starting job will be good for him, and might give him the motivation he needs to improve.
- OF/DH, Jason Kubel: Kubel has played in the outfield, but he’s mostly in the lineup as the DH. Kubel was once a very promising prospect who was absolutely killing the ball in the minor leagues. Unfortunately, he suffered a debilitating knee injury in winter ball during the 2004 season, and ended up missing all of 2005. This injury cost him a year of development at a crucial point in his career, and he is just now starting to recover from it. Last season he posted a respectable .272/.335/.471 with 20 homers, which makes him the third-best hitter on the team. He
has shown steady improvement in every one of his major league seasons, and he’s young enough that he likely hasn’t hit his ceiling yet. Hopefully he’ll finally have his breakout year.
The organization decided to reward Kubel with a multiyear contract during the offseason. Of course, we all know how I feel about that:
Unlike the infield, the outfield is hardly set. The best defensive outfield would be comprised of Span, Gomez, and Cuddyer. The best offensive lineup, though, would consist of Young, Span, and Cuddyer. Nobody is exactly a lock to win the starting job, and it will be interesting to see how all of this plays out.
Next in the series: the bullpen
On Deck: the catchers
Spring training opens next week, and since the front office has apparently decided that the roster is 90% set, I guess now would be as good of a time as any to
pick it apart analyze it in a detailed and thoughtful manner. I’ve already covered the starting rotation so let’s look at the infield:
- 1B, Justin Morneau: There’s really not much to say about Johnny Canuck that I haven’t said before. Morny had a pretty good season last year, though his power numbers were down a bit. Oh, I don’t know, maybe he’ll finally have his breakout season and hit 40 homers. And rob Derek Jeter of yet another MVP award.
There is one Justin Morneau story I forgot to mention last time. When he
was still just a young pup in 2005, he got into an argument in the club-
house with Torii Hunter. Hunter thought his young teammate needed an
attitude adjustment, so he threw a haymaker at him. Unfortunately he missed and
nailed poor Nick Punto (or Lew Ford. There are some conflicting reports as to who actually got the errant punch) instead. The two sorted everything out after the altercation and didn’t have any other major incidents afterwards.
- 2B, Alexi Casilla: Casilla and his buddy Carlos Gomez were two of the most electrifying players the Twins have had in a long time. Their energy was infectious, and the two would often provide the spark that would get the whole team going. Having said that, I’m not completely sold on Casilla as the everyday second baseman just yet. He put up decent numbers last year (.281/.333/.374), and absolutely killed the ball in AAA, but was terrible in his rookie season. After being called up from Rochester in 2007, he put up an abysmal .222/.256/.299 while playing atrocious defense and was promptly sent back down. Casilla is only 24 and should continue to improve, but his performance this season will be an indication as to whether or not he is the answer at second base.
- SS Nick Punto: Punto is the Martin Skoula of Twins baseball (Skoula is a Wild defenseman whose occasional brain farts have earned him the nickname “f***ing Skoula”), except in this case it’s his habit of grounding into double plays that gets fans so hot and bothered. Little Nicky put up decent numbers last season, but he’s very inconsistent. He’s been great in the seasons he’s had to battle for a roster spot (’06 & ’08) but terrible when he’s been guaranteed a starting job (’05 & ’07). Since the Twins inked him to a two-year, $8 million deal during the offseason, it will be interesting to see which Punto shows up this year: Good Punto or f***ing Punto.
- 3B Brendan Harris/Brian Buscher: Meh, the two combined will probably be about as productive as Casey Blake, but will be about $16 million cheaper. Harris is better defensively than Buscher, but neither one is really a liability at the position. I have already covered the Twins’ third base situation in greater detail here.
The Twins are lucky in that they do have some infield depth. Matt Tolbert won the starting shortstop job out of Spring Training last year, and was putting up decent numbers before he went down with a torn ligament in his thumb. Matt Macri also did a very good job filling in for an injured Adam Everett last season, and could make a good utility man if Nick Punto takes to the shortstop position. Third base prospect Luke Hughes will probably get a look sometime this year too, since the organization really needs to see what they have in him before committing a lot of money to a free agent.
The infield as it stands looks pretty good right now, and I can live with it. Though I would love to see an upgrade at third base, there isn’t anyone I find all that exciting currently available through trade or free agency. There are rumors that the Twins are interested in Joe Crede, but his injury history and the fact that he would have to play on Field Turf makes it seem unlikely that they will actually sign him (especially not for the $5 million he is reportedly asking). He’ll probably go to the Giants instead.
Next up in the series: the outfield.
On deck: the bullpen
In the hole: catcher