Monday, April 20, 2009

Can we play the blame game?

The timing of Juan Morillo's acquisition could not have come at a more appropriate time.  With the news that set-up man Jesse Crain will enter the 15-day DL with an inflammed shoulder and if you thought the Twins were in need of bolstering prior to Crain's injury, post-Crain's DL stint the bullpen is waffer thin.  This past offseason the Twins had a couple opportunities to nab hard-throwing set-up men, notably David Aardsma and Juan Cruz.  Instead of trading a non-prospect like the Mariners did for Aardsma's employment or surrendering a draft pick and two year contract for Cruz, the Twins patiently waiting until the first couple weeks of the season passed then they claimed Morillo from the Colorado Rockies*.  Little did he know how immediate his impact on this bullpen needed to be. 
(*The Rockies have reached new levels of talent mismanagement within their organization.  Prior to losing Morillo to the Twins, the Rockies lost AAA first baseman Joe Koshansky to the Texas Rangers.  Last season Koshansky batted .300/.380/.600 with 31 home runs and 121 RBIs at Colorado Springs but had been block steadily by the aging Todd Helton.  Like Morillo, the Rockies tried to sneak him through the waivers but were thwarted by Texas.  Neither player may actually amount to a hill of beans but the sheer fact that there was a commodity within their system that could have been swapped for lower level prospects to replenish the developmental leagues but instead they are lost for nothing.)
The severity of Crain's injury is still an unknown.  Recovering from surgically repaired shoulders has a far greater likelihood of failure than those who are subjected to Tommy John surgery.  Frequently, those pitchers who do come back often re-tear their labrums since even when healthy a pitcher's shoulder experiences various levels of pain and swelling.  Admittedly, Crain's could be a simple case of inflammation where rest and anti-flammatory drugs will help get him back into the bullpen (but at which point Ron Gardenhire should let up on the throttle). 
Is this a clear case of poor monitoring of someone who was obviously a strong candidate to re-injure his shoulder?  In a four day span, Gardenhire used Crain three times, allowing him to pitch 3 1/3 innings as he threw 69 pitches (this does not include warmup pitches which probably put the workload into the 100+ pitch count).  On April 16th, Crain's average fastball velocity was at 94.2 miles per hour and he needed 11 pitches to get through three batters.  One day later, Crain needed 30 pitches to get just one out.  His fastball's velocity dropped to 92.7 on average and was on the disabled list by Monday afternoon.  Clearly this is a taxing workload for the healthiest of arms let alone someone who had gone through labrum repair. 
It is hard to outright blame the coaching staff as they were playing the cards they were dealt and it was apparent to even your most casual fan that Crain was the best option between the starting pitcher and Joe Nathan.  Why didn't the front office address this need in the offseason?  The company line has been that the Twins need a stable of outfielders in the event of injury.  How about the bullpen?  The team loses Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser and the front office does not flinch.  The opportunity to stabilize a crumbling relief staff was missed in the winter. 
Still, Morillo's addition and Jose Mijares's recall from Rochester in lieu of Crain's injury presents a chance for the Twins to recover from what could have been disastrous.  Keep in mind that there are plenty of other arms that could get cycled into the 'pen at AAA Rochester including Anthony Swarzak, who has a two-pitch repertoire that would play well in short inning work, and below that at AA New Britain is Anthony Slama who has nine strikeouts in five innings of work in 2009.  Yes, Swarzak and Slama are a good internal pair to have in the event of another arm emergency (along with a handful of others) but the Twins needed to solidify things in February rather than making on-the-fly adjustments in April.            

OTB Twins Notes (04.20.09)

Patrick Ruesse comments on the bulldog nature of Twins left-hander Glen Perkins.  After cruising through the first six innings, the Angels’ Bobby Abreu sent a line drive screaming back up the middle that deflected off of Perkins’ lower quad area.   The ball scooted towards Brendan Harris at third who made a nice recovery play to retire Abreu at first.  Perkins would shake off the blow and then finish off the seventh and eighth innings, needing only 84-pitches to earn his first victory of the year.  His strikeout per nine innings is still treading in the unimpressive 4.5 area but he has now entered the 8th inning in all of his three starts without getting shelled.  On 11 occasions in 2008, Perkins worked past the seventh inning and faced a total of 58 batters where he would serve up five home runs as opponents .346 off of him.  So far this year, he has faced a pool of 22 batters and have kept them to a .181 batting average. 

The latest news from the Joe Mauer camp indicates that the defending batting champ will be beginning rehabilitation games on Monday – starting with a handful of simulated games, then a stint with the GCL Twins and six with the Class A Fort Myers Miracle.  The Twins could use his defensive and offensive prowess behind the plate.  In 117 innings, Mike Redmond and Jose Morales have combined to allow 15 stolen bases - a 12% caught stealing percentage (2-of-17) - while hitting .238/.319/.286 in 47 plate appearances.   If all goes well in the upcoming minor league games for Mauer, he could be back in a Twins uniform on May 1st to face the Kansas City Royals. 

After going 8-for-10 with seven RBIs in the first two games against the Angels, Jason Kubel finally failed to reach base safely on Sunday but stung the ball around the field in some very hard hit outs.   Tom Powers points out that Kubel’s bat is one that has survived the trip north from Fort Myers, keeping his production consistent with the numbers he had in Florida this spring.  Kubel’s contributions to the lineup are often overlooked and underestimated; recently both Dave Cameron and Rob Neyer took the Twins to task for signing Kubel to a two-year contract (with a third year option).  What they failed to realize is how much of a barometer his offensive production is for the team.  When the Twins won 18 out of 21 games from June 13 to July 6 last season, Kubel batted .322/.391/.610.  His 2009 season is starting to resemble that stretch as up to yesterday’s game, when Kubel was batting .366/.395/.634.  With his line drive tendencies and occasional clout, there is no reason not to think that slugging above .500 is out of reach for him in 2009.   

Phil Miller reports that Torii Hunter has told Twins minor league director Jim Rantz that he would like to finish his career with the Minnesota Twins.  Hunter still has four years and $71.5 million remaining on his current Angels contract so the soonest he would be available to return to the Twin Cities would be in 2013 at which point Hunter will be 37 years old.  Hunter’s center field skills are already eroding, winning the last two Gold Gloves on reputation and a handful of highlight reel catches, meaning that if Torii does return it won’t be to play center for the Twins.  He does possess the ability to detonate left-handed pitching (.285/.342/.492 vs LHP) so if he plays out his current contract and retains this trait while decreasing in earning power to Griffey-levels (1-year, $2 million), he would be welcomed back in a smaller capacity role.

Miller also fills us in on relief prospect Jose Mijares, who was shipped to AAA Rochester to work on throwing strikes after a brutal spring training.  Ron Gardenhire told reporters that Mijares is throwing 93-mph now and that the Rochester club is working on bringing Mijares back up to better physical condition after the left-hander showed up to Fort Myers out of shape.   In 6 1/3 innings of work so far this year, Mijares has struck out four and walked just one while allowing two hits and no runs.  With current Twins left-handed reliever Craig Breslow having difficulties finding the strike zone (throwing 29% of his pitches for strikes) Mijares’s progress will undoubtedly be monitored closely by those in Minnesota. 

After 20 teams passed on the Rockies’ Juan Morillo, the Twins claimed him on Friday and designed Philip Humber for assignment.  The hard-throwing right-handed was given the opportunity to showcase his velocity in front of Ron Gardenhire on Saturday, which pitch f/x shows that he was hitting 98-mph at times.  Morillo’s lack of control was an issue for the Rockies as they put him on various minor league assignments to work on his command after they converted him to a reliever.  Colorado had tried to include Morillo in a trade along with Willy Taveras to the Nationals’ for Tim Redding but Washington ultimately balked at the deal, suggesting there were medical concerns with Morillo.  Morillo has the raw capabilities and at 25-years-old, he’s still a young pup.  Control is a problem, the lack of movement on his 100-mph fastball is a problem and his lack of a secondary pitch is also a problem.   Still, for the waiver fee, the Twins grabbed the type of pitcher that they were looking for in Juan Cruz during the offseason.  A combination of Mijares and Morillo in the backend of the bullpen would greatly increase the Twins late innings success. 

Looking at pitching prospect Anthony Swarzak’s 0-2 record at Rochester might raise an eyebrow, but that is the only thing that doesn’t look good about his numbers so far.  Jim Mandelaro reminds us that the Red Wings have not been able to score a run in either of Swarzak’s two starts meanwhile Swarzak has allowed just one earned run while striking out nine and walking one in his 11 inning in April.   A starter by nature, the Twins might consider bringing Swarzak up for test ride if any members of the pitching staff suffer injuries or wind up ineffective.

John Sickels looks at what he considers his all-time top five left-handed pitchers with the Minnesota Twins.   The first four might be somewhat obvious but the last, Tom Hall, is interesting.  Hall stood about six-foot even and weighed 144 pounds earning himself the nickname “Blade”.   Drafted in 1966, Hall reached the big club by 1968 and became a swingman for the team, going 25-21 in four years with the Twins and posting a respectable 3.00 ERA while striking out 431 in 455 1/3 innings pitched in that duration.  Hall’s greatest contribute to the Twins came in September of 1970.   At the end of August, the Twins were clinging to a four game lead over California and a six game lead over Oakland.  Manager Bill Rigney decided to move Hall into the rotation in the last month and Hall responded by going 5-0 in seven starts as opponents hit just .160 and struck out 61 times in 53 2/3 innings of work, averaging a game score of 71 in each of his starts.  Hall would later be traded to Cincinnati for closer Wayne Granger (who would be traded the following year for Larry Hisle). 
Josh Johnson examines the final game of the Angels series that resulted in the Twins' first sweep of the year.
Justin Murphy provides a solid write-up of This Week in Twins History at Baseball Digest.