Monday, November 29, 2010

Expectation for Tsuyoshi Nishioka

After doling out $5.3 million to try to talk Chiba Lotte’s shortstop into moving from the Far East to the Midwest, the Twins are in the midst of a 30-day negotiating process with Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s agents. What fans are interesting in is what may be expected from what could be the Twins’ newest import.

While we live in an age where you can just about anything you want from the annals of the internet (including videos of, ahem, well, subtract an “n” from one of the words prior to this parenthetical…), we still do not have a comprehensive data available for imports from Japan. There are no sites like or that carries over the pertinent Nippon Professional Baseball information – like batted ball splits or platoon splits –needed to making analysis on what a player’s conversion rate might be. If there were, it might have been possible for the Mets to vet Kaz Matsui before acquiring him (although, by some ratings systems, he is still ranks as the fourth-best player ever in Japan)

For the most part, the common accepted belief is that the NPB is a step below major league caliber play – at best, a AAA with a half-A. Still, with the exception of Hideki Matsui, there has not been a player from Japan whose power skills made the trip across the Pacific with him. (Of course, the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium was very welcoming for Matsui who went from 50 home runs in Tokyo to 16 in NYC his first season.) Both Akinori Iwamura and Kaz Matsui hit over 30 home runs while in the Nippon league but failed to hit out of the single-digits in the majors. It would appear that power is a high tariff in the United States on goods from Japan.

Perhaps because Nishioka does not possess that particular skill but has several other universal skills like line drive tendencies and a strong zone acumen that he would find greater success than his other two infield predecessors – who have since returned back to their homeland as their careers on this side of the globe has fizzled. With little hard data available on Nishioka’s career, we can use this video that has circulated around recently, to see what it might reveal about his potential.

Old-fashioned scouting with new fangled video techniques:
As you will see below, he attacks the pitch well with a level swing from both sides of the plate. His hands/weight remains back while he takes a large stride and his hips and hands explode at the same pace through the zone up to the point of contact – which is out in front in both examples.

Unlike the Matsuis or the Cubs’ Kosuke Fukudome – three of Japan’s power-hitting imports - Nishioka stays relatively low while the other three remain upright with a short stance before the pitch. They all share the same leg-lift and stride, however, Nishioka’s appears to be longer (especially from the left-side), setting up a wider base during his swing. Clearly, he’s not trying to leverage the ball for elevation like the other trio did in Japan, rather, he’s hitting the ball on a rope.

With the torque and involvement of his lower-half, you get the impression that these are not fliners (fly ball/liner combination) or slapped grounders but rather inciting some charge in the ball. He also gets out of the box faster than a man who has just been discovered by a jealous husband so with good speed he probably beats out numerous infield hits. As such, without any access to batted ball data to base this upon, making the assumption based on his mechanics, Nishioka is probably above-average in the line drive and ground ball categories – propelling him to that fairly impressive .293 career batting average.

Reviewing just the video of his highlight clips, it would appear that Nishioka is adept at using the entire field (perhaps a little more pull-happy from the left-side of the plate judging from the way he opens up his hips quickly). Again, I cannot stress enough on how these videos are hand-picked and do not tell the entire story, however, from the small-sample clips we can see that Nishioka is spraying foul pole to foul pole with line drives from both sides of the plate.

Based upon his mechanics in the video, this appears to be a common occurrence rather than cherry-picked moments because, as I noted above, he keeps his weight/hands back extremely well. This, I believe, will play favorably for the Twins.

Without the availability of data (platoon splits, batted ball numbers, etc) to marry along with the visual report, it’s hard to paint an accurate picture of Nishioka’s true potential. Still, I believe we can make a few assumptions on what is future will be stateside.

In addition to posting his career-high marks in 2010, Patrick Newman at noted that Nishioka’s overall BABIP was .389 last season. Without context of how that fits in with the Japanese standard, it is a number that is absurdly high over here. Only two MLB players finished the season with better BABIPs than that – the reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton and Austin Jackson. Typically, major leaguers have a BABIP near the league norm of .294. The natural conclusion is that Nishioka will likely experience some drainage in his BABIP in converting to the professional ranks on this side of the Pacific, resulting in a depression of his overall batting average as well as shaving off some points from his on-base percentage. Because of this, Newman believed that Nishioka’s batting line would probably resemble that of either Ryan Theriot (.284/.348/.356 career hitter) or Chone Figgins (.287/.359/.376). Both hitters are archetypal high contact, high line drive/ground ball tendencies with little power behind their swings but practice zen-like zone judgment. Essentially, they are above-average at avoiding outs but will not be a contributing power factor.

While Newman points to Theriot and Figgins as Nishioka’s potential comparables, after reviewing Nishioka’s video, I’m not entirely convinced these are appropriate comparisons. For one, Theriot is strictly a right-handed hitter and has not had a career full of success against same-sided pitching. With Nishioka able to exercise a platoon advantage over Theriot, there is ample room for better numbers. Figgins, meanwhile, has never shown any semblance of home run power, even in the minors. Whereas Nishioka has hit home runs in the teens the past three seasons in Japan, the most Figgins ever hit in development leagues was 7 in a very hitter-friendly atmosphere of the Pacific Coast League (AAA). Figgins, on the other hand, doesn’t use much of his lower extremities when it comes to his swing. Like a Denard Span, Figgins utilizes quick, strong wrists to hit his line drives. While I wouldn’t anticipate Nishioka popping off for 12 or 15 home runs, especially given the configurations of his potential new ballpark, he does have more power generation in his mechanics and could come close to reaching double-digits.

Furthermore, the line drive/groundball-oriented Nishioka will also have to contest with the natural environments that are found at the stateside stadiums and ballparks. While playing in the Pacific League, Nishioka’s venues included stadiums that were all decorated with artificial surfaces – assisting in the acceleration of groundballs past helpless infielders. This faux-grass undoubtedly aided in his .293 career batting average in Japan (and possibly added a few extra base hits that split the gaps and whistled into corners of the plastic field). His transition into a league that has only two stadiums with artificial turf will likely cause some of those carpetburners to slow up in the grass. After all, considering that both Joe Mauer and Denard Span – two of the lineup’s most prevalent groundballers – lost a significant chunk off of their groundball BABIPs after relocating from the Metrodome to Target Field (Mauer’s 38 points lower while Span’s 54 points was significantly lower), it is not a stretch to assume that Nishioka could befall the same fate on a similar scale.

While that portion of the landscape may hinder his numbers, there may be some benefit to the structure off of Twins Way.

Minnesota has quickly learned that power is rendered almost useless 81 days a year at Target Field. Because of that, signing/acquiring someone with marginal power is not a sound solution. Unless a dead-pull power hitter is available, anyone that utilizes the gaps and center as their land spot will have serious troubles trying to maintain their current home run pace. This would wreak further havoc on their overall numbers if that player isn’t a line drive hitter that direction.

For example, last year Danny Valencia found Minnesota to be a safe haven – hitting .387/.461/.561 at Target Field. This is because his style of play fits well within the confines. According to Inside Edge, Valenica sent 21.3% of all his in play balls to center field. Of those hit towards center, 22% were line drives and resulting in a .376 BABIP in that direction (well-above the .263 league-average). With the extra vacant land in center, it is no small wonder Valencia gained additional hits there. Likewise, Denard Span was also markedly better on his home turf. Despite road woes and troubles getting groundballs for hits, Span hit .301/.371/.390 at the Target Field. Like Valencia, Span also favors smacking line drives to center field (21.7%) and wound up with an above-average BABIP in that direction too (.286). If Nishioka can continue hitting to all fields like it appears in his video, he may replicate Valencia and Span’s success.

Needless to say, Newman is correct in anticipating some degeneration of his Nippon career numbers as he acclimates to the improved competition and new surfaces not made of polypropylene. However, because Target Field appears to reward players that use the middle of the yard for line drive demonstrations, the Twins and Nishioka could find his new home extremely accommodating to his style of hitting. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gibson ousts Hicks as Baseball America's Twins top prospect

This morning, Baseball America announced their selection for the Top Ten Twins prospect for the 2011 season:
This shouldn’t be viewed as an affront to Hicks, the previous season’s anointed number one prospect for the Twins. After a rather gruff introduction at low-A Beloit, hitting .251/.350/.382 (732 OPS) in 297 plate appearances, he bounced back in his 20-year-old season at the same level. In 518 plate appearances, Hicks posted a .279/.401/.428 (829 OPS) batting line thanks in part to a bump in his walk rate (13.5% to 17.1%) combined with a significant spike in his BABIP (from .307 to .362) in spite of a slight decline in his line drive rate. Because of his growth in walk rate, it’s not surprising to find that Hicks was deemed the player with the organization’s Best Strike-Zone Discipline in addition to being labeled Best Defensive Outfielder and Best Defensive Arm.

With these kinds of skills, Hicks could be a top three prospect in most organizations across the league. However, with high-A Ft Myers as his next stop in this development process, he is still fairly far away from contributing at the major league-level. Barring any unforeseen acceleration, the earliest we will see him in a Twins uniform is probably 2012.

That may be why Gibson draws an slight advantage over Hicks. Baseball America submits this disclaimer as their basis for their selections:
“Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel.”

John Manuel, editor at Baseball America, frequently has had Major League-ready pitching talent topping his list. In 2008, Manuel surprised many by anointing the 26-year-old Nick Blackburn the team's top prospect. Blackburn, a contact-oriented righty who had finished the ’07 season going 10-6 with an 83/21 K/BB ratio in 160.1 innings split between New Britain, Rochester and the Twins, was hardly universally accepted as a blue-chip talent. In an interview with, Manuel said that he “stuck his neck out” with that selection. When Carlos Silva left via free agency, Blackburn indeed cracked the rotation in the spring, leading the team in starts, innings pitched and was even tapped to start the decisive Game 163 against the White Sox in Chicago. Manuel, rather pleased with his choice’s career thus far, also sponsor’s Blackburn’s page.

All things considered, Blackburn was the only member of that class of prospect to contribute at the major league-level in '08 while Jeff Manship and Brian Duensing provided some innings in '09. Going back to Baseball America's citation of a player's "long-term worth", Blackburn clearly fulfilled that requisite by leading the Twins in innings pitched for two consecutive seasons and earning a four-year extension. 

Like Blackburn in ’08, Kyle Gibson figures to be a contributor in the near future, possibly by midseason in 2011. 

After being drafted in ’09, the 22-year-old Gibson stormed through the system in his first year of professional ball, rendering hitters at three different levels punchless and finished the season with an 11-6 record with a 2.96 ERA and a 126/39 K/BB ratio in 152 innings pitched. While his strikeout rate declined as he rose in the organization, his penchant for inciting groundballs remained relatively consistent – from 68% in high-A, 54% in AA and 57% in AAA. The right-hander has impressed people with his poise and his polished repertoire including what the folks at Baseball America consider the system’s Best Slider and Best Changeup.

Dropped from the prior year’s top ten rankings are Wilson Ramos (traded to Washington), Danny Valencia (promoted to Minnesota), Angel Morales, David Bromberg and Max Kepler. Meanwhile, added to the list are Liam Hendriks, Alex Wimmers (2010 draft pick), Adrian Salcedo and Oswaldo Arcia. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

OtB Twins Notes

The Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rogers wonders aloud if the Twins might be willing to swing a trade with the Boston Red Sox. It is no secret that the Sox are shopping shortstop Marco Scutaro, and Rogers speculates that it might take just a bullpen arm to land him.
Stepping back for a second, I’m not sure what “bullpen arm” Rogers believes it will take to get Scutaro. Right now, the Twins do not have three of their main arms under contract including Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain. If the Sox were that interested, they’d just sign them. As far as Scutaro goes, the Sox overpaid for Scutaro’s beefed up numbers in 2009 when he hit .282/.379/.409 while scoring 100 runs and playing serviceable defense at short. Signed to a two-year, $10 million deal, Scutaro had a rough first season in Fenway. In addition to a reduction in his offensive-output – at a right-handed friendly home ballpark no less – Scutaro didn’t wow anyone with his defense as fans gave him very poor marks on the Fans Scouting Report. Predictably, dishing out deals to 33-year-olds who produce career-highs is often ill-advised. Trading for them would be an even bigger gaff.
In a conversation with Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson, St Paul Pioneer Press’s Charley Walters notes if the Twins do not bring back free agent Carl Pavano (who has strong interest from the Nationals and the Brewers), Anderson said his rotation “appears” to be Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey.
“Appears” is the operative word here. While moving forward with this group wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world however given the interest in Japan’s Hisashi Iwakuma and possibly Brandon Webb, the Twins do not emit the appearance of a team set with their rotation. The current crop of free agent arms is not highly thought of. If you are not landing Cliff Lee, you are relegated to either overpaying on potential (Jorge De La Rosa) or gambling on reclamation projects (Webb, Chris Young, Jeff Francis). In speaking about his option to finding another starting pitcher to replace Webb, Arizona GM Kevin Towers recently commented: “The starting pitching market is fairly weak this year. To me it's minor league free agents, trades. You're more apt to find that guy via trade vs. getting major league free agents." The Twins may just be following this philosophy as well having seemingly avoided the major league free agent market – targeting Iwakuma while signing the likes of minor league arm Eric Hacker, who the Twins considered the best six-year minor league free agent available.
MLBFanhouse’s Jeff Fletcher tweeted from the GM Winter Meetings that Jim Thome had not given any indication to the Twins’ Bill Smith if he was interested in playing again next year.
Back in the beginning of November, Smith told Reusse & Mackey that he was very interested in bringing Thome back. Of course, Thome’s response at the conclusion of the Twins’ 2010 post-season run was that he was going to spend some time with his family before making a decision. With the 600 home run mark in sight, all but solidifying his Hall of Fame candidacy, Thome’s return is probably assured.
Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle says it now appears unlikely that the A’s and Hisashi Iwakuma will come to terms within their 30-day negotiating period as Iwakuma has been requesting “Barry Zito type deal” (7-years, $126 million).
Two weeks ago, it was announced that the Twins had submitted a bid on the 29-year-old Hisashi Iwakuma but were ultimately trumped by the Oakland Athletics who paid roughly $15-16 million for just the negotiating rights. It looks as if that even had the Twins outbid the A’s, they would have little hope of signing him. For a ballclub like Oakland whose payroll was $32.1 million in 2010 and practices fiscal restraint like a religion, there seems to be little chance that Iwakuma lands in Oakland. The good news for the A’s is that they will be reimbursed their posting fee.
The Baltimore Orioles have contacted the Twins in regards to J.J. Hardy reports the Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Zrebiec.
There is no update as to how far the talks extended, just that Zrebiec noted that the Orioles did not know what the Twins wanted in return. The Twins sentiment on Hardy is anything but confidence inspiring for the 28-year-old shortstop as front office personnel and management have hid their intentions with a thinly-veiled euphemism of “looking to get faster” or “injecting speed”. According to 1500ESPN’s Phil Mackey, Ron Gardenhire said on Reusse & Mackey that “We like Hardy a lot. He's a great guy, great teammate, and we believe when he's healthy he's solid at shortstop. But when you start looking at speed and everything, and other options, that's one of the areas we're going to look at options at and see if we can find more speed -- a little more versatility out there.” How’s that for writing on the wall? Because of the uncertainty of the bullpen, the Sun’s Dan Connolly thinks that the Twins could target David Hernandez. The 25-year-old Hernandez throws 93.6-mph with a supurb curve and eventually could become a team’s closer. He is, however, erratic (42 walks in 79.1 innings in ’10) and hittable (72 hits allowed). If the team is really set on moving on without Hardy, trading him would be a much better option versus non-tendering him by the December 2 deadline.
Amongst their cavalcade of minor league signings last week, Joe Christensen tweeted that the team has re-sign first baseman Justin Huber, who was with the organization in 2009.
While spending most of the season in Rochester, Huber provided a dash of shock and awe, batting .273/.356/.482 with 22 home runs in 506 plate appearances. After a one-game cameo with the Twins, the right-handed hitting former Baseball America Top 100 Prospects of ’03 and ’06 signed with the Hiroshima Carp – where he did not fare well at all. According to, Huber’s failed to provide the team the power they anticipated, hitting .220/.340/.378 with 7 home runs in 209 plate appearances. Currently playing for the Melbourne Aces of the Australian Baseball League, Huber hasn’t demonstrated much in his native country – going 2-for-29 (.152) in his first eight games. With the release of Brock Peterson, Huber is likely Peterson’s replacement for the Red Wings but with his history of handling left-handed pitching well, Huber is potentially a call-up candidate if he can put up some solid numbers in the spring. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Twins bid on Tsuyoshi Nishioka

We may know as soon as Tuesday if the Twins are the recipients of a new middle infielder. Having indicated that they are indeed bidding on Japanese shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Bill Smith and company are now playing the waiting game to see if they are awarded the rights to negotiate with Nippon’s Pacific League batting champion.

Because the Chiba Lotte Marines, Nishioka's Nippon Professional Baseball team, filed for posting on the 17th, we likely won’t have an answer until November 22nd or 23rd if the Twins actually have the highest bid as the Marines have four days to review the submitted bids. What we do know that considering the weak middle infield market this offseason, multiple teams are interested including the Giants, Cardinals, Orioles and Mets. For what it is worth, by Nishioka’s own admission, he has indicated that he would prefer to play on West Coast.

The Star-Tribune’s Joe Christensen pegs the Twins’ chances of landing Nishioka to be fairly low:
“The chances of the Twins actually acquiring Nishioka seem slim, but their interest is telling. Manager Ron Gardenhire wants more speed in the lineup, and the team has identified the middle infield as the most logical place to add it.”
While described as a “speedster”, Nishioka is fast but isn’t exactly a wunderkind on the base paths. While he led Nippon Baseball League in stolen bases in ’05 and ’06 when he was 20 and 21 years old, he’s been pegged routinely in his attempts. According to Paul White’s USA Today article on him, in the past six years Nishioka has averaged 26 stolen bases but also averaged 12 caught stealing (a 68% success rate). His career stolen base percentage resides at 71.6%, which is borderline considering that the success rate should be closer to 75%. His success rate notwithstanding, Nishioka would be a definite upgrade in speed for the lineup.

It is unclear however exactly what the Twins intentions are with Nishioka and how his potential acquisition would affect future team-building. While a shortstop in Japan since 2006, many scouts and analysts feel that Nishioka is better suited for second base – a position he played for his first three seasons.

Because the Twins have a vacancy at second and the possibility of opening one up at short (if the Twins win the bid on Nishioka, they could conceivably decline to offer Hardy a contract or arbitration before the November 23rd December 2nd deadline), targeting Nishioka appears to provide the team with added flexibility this winter. After all, they could straight-up exchange Nishioka for J.J. Hardy at short, put Nishioka at second in the place of Orlando Hudson and keep Hardy leaving Alexi Casilla as a backup option or drop Hardy and slot Nishioka at second and move Casilla to short where reports say he’s more comfortable and natural.

While one of the better defensive shortstops in the league with a second-half surge offensively, some within the organization have seem to have grown dissatisfied with what J.J. Hardy brings to the table.’s Kelly Thesier postulates that the incumbent, JJ Hardy, could be non-tendered due to both his injury concerns and his continued upward mobility in the income category. On Wednesday afternoon, the Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan added another level and said on Reusse & Mackey Show that he got the impression that Hardy’s requests for days off drove Ron Gardenhire crazy.

Giving further credence to the notion that the Twins would dump Hardy if they acquired Nishioki is the fact that they would be compensated about the same in 2011. According to MLBFanhouse’s Tom Krasovic, the posting fee (paid to the Chiba Lotta club) for Nishioka will exceed $4 million while his salary will be roughly $2 to $3 million per year. This would mean that the Twins would spend at least $6 million in 2011 for Nishioka’s services, roughly the equivalent cost of keeping Hardy.
And although Nishioka posted outstanding numbers in 2010, taking home the Pacific League’s batting title with a .346 average, there is a question about how he might perform after crossing the pond. Purveyor of NPB Tracker, a site that follows Japanese baseball, Patrick Newman notes at that:
“[Nishioka] posted a career highs in all three slash categories, at .346/.423/.482 easily eclipsing his previous bests of .300/.366/.463. Nishioka’s batting average was backed by a robust .389 BABIP, so regardless of what league he plays in next year, it will remain to be seen whether his 2010 performance was the result of luck, a genuine step forward, or good health.”
Without being able to examine his batted ball tendencies more thoroughly, I would speculate that given the chance that his numbers regress because of a severe spike in his BABIP and considering the adjustment for Major League pitching, we can expect his numbers to revert towards his career numbers (.293/.364/.426) or lower. Even so, that sort of product would best what an even a favorable estimate of Alexi Casilla would provide (who Bill James pegs to have a .268/.335/.333 season in 2011). As a switch-hitter with speed and on-base abilities, Nishioka would likely nestle in nicely to the number two spot in the batting order, filling the opening left by Orlando Hudson, and giving the Twins a solid one-two combination along with Denard Span.  

The most important take-away from this is that the Twins appear to have a sound philosophy this winter. Rather than overpay for a rental on the free agent market, the front office has made an attempt at solving a long-term problem more creatively. First, instead of re-signing Carl Pavano at his three-year asking price, they tried, unsuccessfully, to land the younger Hisashi Iwakuma. Now with an opening in the middle infield, they are targeting a young player versus trying to sign one of the drecks available on the free agent market. Whether or not the Twins find themselves in position to negotiate with Nishioka early next week, you have to applaud their thinking this offseason. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Twins will find it difficult to replace Pavano

Unlike the San Francisco Giants who won the World Series on the shoulders and elbows of pitchers they developed themselves, it appears that the Twins are showing signs that they not quite comfortable moving forward with their crop of homegrown starters in 2011.
Last week, Bill Smith admitted to trying to land one of Japan’s top pitching talents. On Sunday, Joe Christensen revealed that the Twins remain in contact with Carl Pavano:
“Twins General Manager Bill Smith spoke to Pavano's agent, Tom O'Connell, last week, expressing the desire to keep the righthander. Pavano would love to return, but he also wants to test the market.”
The Twins realize that allowing Pavano to walk – with or without offering arbitration – means the rotation loses the starter that consumed the most innings for them. In addition to the sheer total of innings, he worked deep into the games, averaging 6.9 innings per start, saving an often overworked bullpen that was forced prematurely into active duty after numerous Kevin Slowey (5.5 innings per start, third-lowest in AL) and Scott Baker starts (5.8 innings per start). Furthermore, with the team’s rash of injuries and ineffectiveness in 2010, it would be difficult to have the utmost confidence that the in-house starters can pick up the slack Pavano would leave behind.
Replacing or upgrading Pavano simply isn’t that easy. To begin, the starting pitching free agent pool is murky at best. After Cliff Lee, the offerings grow questionable. Jorge de la Rosa has some swing-and-miss stuff but is erratic with his control and wants a four year deal. He’s also had just one season of 30 starts. Javier Vazquez is one season removed from his Cy Young-caliber year in Atlanta but battled through injuries in New York and was left off postseason roster when his velocity dropped from 91 to 88 miles an hour. Jon Garland has worked 190 innings each season dating back to 2002. Garland was also smacked around consistently in the American League before finding solace in the National League West. In the end, none of these bachelors have a greater appeal than retaining Pavano.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the team couldn’t explore other alternatives.
Because the free agent starting pitching market is filled with damaged goods, the Twins attempted to acquire one of Japan’s best starters. Targeting the 29-year-old Hisashi Iwakuma made complete sense from the team’s perspective. Like Pavano, Iwakuma was primarily a groundball pitcher who didn’t allow many walks while chewing through a ton of innings. So for the roughly the same cost as meeting Pavano’s three-year, $30 million request, the Twins would get a pitcher with the exact same skill set as Pavano except five years younger. That potential acquisition, of course, turned out to be a moot point as the Oakland A’s trumped whatever the Twins’ offer was to Iwakuma’s ballclub, paying the Rakuten Golden Eagles $17 million to initiate the negotiation with the pitcher.   
While the free agent market may be a crapshoot, the trade market appears just as bleak as well.
Twins fans that dream of landing the younger Zack Greinke to replace Pavano’s innings are in for a rude awakening. According to’s Jayson Stark, because the Royals are in no hurry to trade their number one starter who is not a free agent until after 2012, a source told Stark that the Royals are informing those clubs that are inquiring on his availability:
“(A) they would need to "win" the deal, (B) they would have to get the kind of four-for-one haul the Rangers got for Mark Teixeira to pull the trigger, (C) they need a bunch of "front-line, winning, quality players" in return, and (D) at least one of those players has to be a pitcher capable of turning into the next Zack Greinke in a couple of years.”
For the Twins, this would spell a complete drain of organization’s top prospects, as they would presumably have to surrender some combination of Kyle Gibson, Ben Revere, Aaron Hicks, Angel Morales, David Bromberg and Joe Benson. As good as Greinke could be and how perfectly he would fit in to the rotation, he is simply not worth scorching the entire farm system over.
Without a clear replacement and the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to their impending free agents just seven days away, this leaves Bill Smith and company with little time to decide whether they want to experience the financial ramifications of retaining him or the potential performance ramifications of not re-signing him.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Move the fences in or let hitters adapt?

The Twins recently announced several adjustments to Target Field for 2011 but apparently they missed an opportunity to appease one of their biggest sluggers. According to Joe Christensen and LaVelle E Neal, Justin Morneau told them that he had lobbied to team officials to move the fences in from right-center to left-center field.
"Right-center to left-center is ridiculous. [It's] almost impossible for a righthanded hitter to [homer to the] opposite field and very difficult for lefties. It affects the hitters a lot, and you start to develop bad habits as a hitter when you feel like you can only pull the ball to hit it over the fence. You take those habits on the road."
Of course, I’m certain if you asked the pitching staff, they would have the exact opposite opinion.
This request echoes that of then-Detroit Tiger Juan Gonzalez’s demand to have the newly opened Comerica Park’s fences brought in. At the time, the Tigers’ home field had a power alley in left field 398 feet from home plate with a distance of 365 down the line. Gonzalez had one of the worst seasons of his career and left for Cleveland the following year as a free agent. The Tigers have since moved in the configurations, shorting the distance in the power alley to 370 and moving the left field corner in to 345.
The Mets, who play at the power-detracting Citi Field, have also toyed with the idea of moving their fences in (by moving home plate closer). Also noted, plenty of other teams over baseball’s history have made alterations to their home fields, including the launching pad of USCellular Park in Chicago, who moved their fences up in 2001.
Morneau wasn’t the only left-handed hitter to notice the need to adjust to hit a home run in Minneapolis. Jason Kubel had moved up on the plate during a home series against Milwaukee in hopes of achieving more power. After hitting three home runs and not much else, Kubel went back to his old style. Right-handed hitting Delmon Young admitted he stopped trying to hit the ball to the opposite field at home. After their series in May, the Yankees Nick Swisher told Pat Borzi this:
“You’ve got to be a grown man to hit it out of there. I’ve got to go down the lines, you know?”
To be sure, Morneau’s assessment has been correct. That is one cavernous area of land out there which is further amplified by the wind effect that has been pushing balls back towards the playing surface. Using spray charts supplied at, we can see that just five of the 116 home runs hit at Target Field escaped the clutches of the field in that direction all season:  

There is an element of hitters learning to adapt to the playing surface that you call home. In a recent article in Baseball America by columnist Tracy Ringolsby, Atlanta’s Chipper Jones had made comments regarding the advantage Rockies players have at Coors Field. This incited Ringolsby to rehash a 1984 story of George Brett. Brett’s Royals had been playing the Detroit Tigers in the Championship Series and Brett was asked if he liked Tiger Field’s layout with the short right field porch.
Brett replied:
“I’d probably have had a Darrell Evans type of career, hitting 40, 45 home runs a year with a .260 average. The reason I became the type of hitter I am is because of Royals Stadium. As a hitter, you adjust to your home park to take advantage of what it has to offer. Remember, you play 81 games a year, half your schedule in that park.”
Morneau went on to note that the team had been built for power and offense, which the home park stymied in someways. Of course, gap hitters like Denard Span flourished in the spacious field. After witnessing the park’s home run-thwarting abilities, rather than change the physical surroundings, the team may consider swapping some of the personnel. This fact may validate the need to find speed over power as Bill Smith alluded to earlier in the off-season.
In the end, Morneau’s comments are warranted. Of course, it doesn’t mean his (and other teammates’) demands should or will be met. Nor does it appear that the Twins sound willing to accommodate in the near future.
If that isn’t good enough for the Canadian slugger, I guess there is always the new clock in right field to count the minutes remaining on his current contract.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A's outbid Twins for Japanese starting pitcher

After the Oakland A’s were the announced winner to the bidding rights for 29-year-old Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma , Joe Christensen reported that the Twins had actually submitted a bid for the starter as well:
“The Twins made a bid to sign Japanese starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, General Manager Bill Smith said today, but according to, the winning bid went to Oakland.”
This is now the Twins’ second attempt to extract a pitcher from the Japanese leagues. A year ago, the team tried unsuccessfully to sign Colby Lewis to a two-year deal after Lewis tore through the Far East competition. Lewis ultimately decided to sign with the team that drafted him, the Texas Rangers, and helped lead the team into their first World Series appearance in franchise history.

Had Lewis opted to sign with Minnesota over Texas, this signing would have proven to be quite fruitful for the Twins. In spite of a 12-13 record, Lewis threw 201 innings while posting a 196/65 K/BB ratio and a 3.93 xFIP. Furthermore, Lewis would have been locked down through the 2011 season ($3 million) and a reasonable option for a third year ($3.25 million in 2012), negating the need to haggle over the status of Carl Pavano or pursuing other free agent options.

Iwakuma, like Lewis, has a lot of traits that the Twins covet that plays to their current strengths. For those that witnessed his performance in the World Baseball Classic, viewers were subjected to a pitcher that threw a fastball/sinker just 32% of the time in his outings according to Josh Kalk’s scouting report. Instead, he relied heavily on a splitter/slider combination. This pace is questionable for a major league pitcher (the least amount of fastballs thrown was by Toronto’s Shaun Marcum who threw it 45% of the time), but this method incited tons of groundouts for Iwakuma. From the video here, you can see that Iwakuma has excellent downward motion in his movement, living at the bottom of the zone. With a potentially strong infield defense in 2011 (assuming that J.J. Hardy is retained), a groundball-oriented pitcher would be preferable.

What is interesting about this revelation is that the Twins may have had to bid upwards of $10 million or more to the Rakuten Golden Eagles to simply obtain the rights to negotiate with Iwakuma’s agent. It probably would have cost another $10 million in order to sign him to a contract. This means the organization figures to have up to $15 million available for the 2011 season – an amount they would have been willing to dedicate to one player.

As noted above, Iwakuma possesses numerous qualities that the team values and like Lewis last season, the Twins may have wound up with a great part for a reduced price than if they were attempting to purchase it on the free agent market. Considering that after Cliff Lee, the free market is a mish-mash of hodge-podge. Even Jorge De La Rosa, by most accounts the second-best free agent starter, figures to have some warts as he has yet to make an entire season’s worth of starts and is expecting a four-year deal. As good as Carl Pavano’s been, he’s turning 35 in January and may want to start discussing a multi-year deal. Clearly, the Twins tried to solve the problem without having to break the bank or trade off prized prospects. 

Friday, November 05, 2010

Twins Offseason Blueprint

This week, we at TwinsCentric have subjected you to our individual ideas and suggestions to improve the Twins organization for 2011 and beyond. Below, I present my blueprint for next season. As you can ascertain over the past few days, while we are a like-minded group, we all have had different opinions and proposals on how to better this team - not unlike the conversations that undoubtedly occur among the actual front office itself in the off-season.
Like the TwinsCentric team, Bill Smith will listen to his own staff’s recommendations. Some possibly will say to secure starting pitching. Another will say a right-handed bat. Fill the need through a trade. Sign a free agent. More speed. Less Punto. Tastes great. Less filling. In the end, Smith will have to marry their outlines into one cohesive plan of attack and he will have to do so with a real world budget and consequences.
Needless to say, this is just one potential solution to mull over when piecing together the 2011 puzzle. Extract what you will from each and hopefully determine your own blueprint:

The Twins front office has a multitude of problems that need addressing this offseason. Several questions need answers including:
  • Where can we find another number two-hitter?
When the Twins signed Orlando Hudson last offseason they didn’t just obtain a great defensive second baseman, they nabbed a high performing two-hitter that hasn’t worn a Twins uniform since Rich Becker roamed the Metrodome’s clubhouse wearing a Sony Discman and jamming out to some Hootie and the Blowfish. For most of the season, Hudson gave the Twins the medicine they needed (he maintained a .360 on-base percentage as late in the season as August 28th) but faltered greatly in September and October (hitting .202/.252/.253 in 108 plate appearances) and wound up with mundane numbers overall. How do you find someone that helps get those totals back to (I can’t believe I’m going to write this) Becker respectability?
  • Can we realistically replace Carl Pavano with a mid-level earner who eats innings?
Let’s face it, it’s cute and all to believe that Pavano will accept the Twins’ offer of arbitration, and that he’ll buy a little rambler in St Louis Park and work on bettering the community through increased mustache-hygiene awareness and live here forever.
However, his agent will advise him to decline arbitration and wait until the Cliff Lee Singles’ Mixer is over and Lee leaves with the gentleman in pinstripes from the Bronx. Meanwhile, the rest of the aroused owners will be looking around at the remaining talent only to find that it is like an Iowan outlet center filled with damaged goods and irregulars.
When Pavano came back after his tryst with the free market last offseason, there was an understood mutual deal that Pavano needed to prove one more time that he wasn’t a fluke and the Twins needed his services. Now, after two seasons of throwing 420.1 innings with a 264/78 K/BB ratio while winning 31 of his 65 starts, he’s likely one of the top starters on the market and entitled to be compensated as such. In that time, his xFIP has been 3.97, 12th best among qualified AL starters. He’s pitched well enough to be the third-best available pitcher on the market behind Lee and the younger Jorge de la Rosa.
The Twins will need to analyze their options - either hope his replacement can come from an internal source, that a trade can be made to bring someone in or that the team can somehow reach into the bottom of the bin at ShopKo and extract a find like the Pavano.
  • How can we backfill the bullpen?
I had fewer questions at the end of Inception than the Twins have with their bullpen this offseason.
Starting with the closer’s position, Joe Nathan is far from a sure bet in 2011. After all, consider that both Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek flopped in their first seasons back from Tommy John you have to suspect that this year could be filled with similar trials and tribulations for Nathan. That means a contingency plan needs to be in place.
On top of that, key arms in Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Jon Rauch are free agents. Ditto for Brian Fuentes and Clay Condrey (remember him? That guy who was like your freshman year roommate that you saw once on move-in day then never saw again until the end of the year move out?).
And what about Matt Capps? He’s in line for a raise because he had more saves the past three years than David Hasselhoff had during the entire run at Baywatch. I’m not sure which was more overrated. Capps is clearly a very good reliever - throwing strikes, occasionally missing bats – but he just shouldn’t be compensated like a great one because of one statistic. As someone that was non-tendered last offseason by the Pirates, he’s probably willing to negotiate in exchange for some security.
The bullpen is going to have quite a few layoffs this winter and, frankly, it’s going to be a bloodbath.
  • What about Denard Span’s drop-off?
While most players suffer through sophomore slumps, Span struggled in his junior season. The scouting report emerged that Span was taking regularly on the first pitch so opponents responded by throwing more strikes from the get-go. With more 0-1 counts, Span ultimately drew fewer walks and that, coupled with a sharp regression in his batting average on balls in play, saw his on-base percentage drop precipitously.
On top of that, all things considered, Span’s outfield play was good not great. While his UZR and Plus/Minus are indicative of a rangy player, he routinely stopped short on plays, kowtowing to the corner outfielders, and allowed handful of hits to fall in instead of aggressively pursuing those balls himself.
The Twins may need a true replacement available that can handle both center field duties as well as man the leadoff spot if Span cannot turn his performance around in 2011.
Recommended Solutions:
1. Trade Ben Revere (or similar prospect) to Oakland for Coco Crisp.
The Twins should also look for a fourth outfielder that can contribute in multiple capacities – unlike Jason Repko who was limited to just a defensive upgrade. Coco Crisp can provide the Twins will multiple tools rather than just a late-inning replacement.
Because the circumstances are not clear yet whether the Oakland A’s will be activating Crisp’s 2011 option ($5.5 million), he may be available on the free market (which, as John pointed out, could be dicey as he’s the lone “true” center fielder). However, if the A’s keep him, Trader Beane may be willing to swap Crisp for a prospect or two as he’s got plenty of outfield replacements as is.
The Twins would like an addition like Crisp because he gives them a dynamic player that was missing in 2010. He supplies above-average speed on the bases (32 stolen bases in 35 tries), switch-hits (killed lefties last year), doesn’t strikeout while taking some walks. This makes him a very good replacement for Hudson in the two-spot. On top of that, he gives Gardenhire versatility with his lineup and defense. Crisp can move Span over to left field (a position that is more suited for Span’s arm strength) or play a corner position himself so we won’t have to watchThe New Adventures of Old Delmon Young in the outfield every day.
In any event, Crisp, if able to stay healthy, would improve the Twins on both sides of the ball at a reasonable price.
2. Promote Alexi Casilla to second base, sign him for $800,000.
In his 170 plate appearances this year, Casilla posted a .276/.331/.395 batting line. When all was said and done, Hudson finished with a rather disappointing .268/.338/.372 batting line. Casilla can provide that sort of production (or better) while adding the element of speed.
And for a team that went around the bases like cars on 494 at rush hour, Casilla’s speed is a significant upgrade. After all, Hudson never stole any bases because it meant ending the conversation with the first baseman. Admittedly, as a stats-oriented person I realize that stolen bases are a gamble that isn’t worth taking often, but let’s not forget that a pitcher/catcher tandem increases the number of fastballs thrown if someone is on with a potential stolen base opportunity. So even if the runner has no intention of going, Casilla’s presence just got the subsequent hitters more fastballs over breaking balls.
There’s a reason Casilla was kept around last year despite being a candidate for a non-tendering – he’s got enough of a minor league pedigree and talent to be a big contributor. The Twins need to use him more next season.
Speaking of the infield, J.J. Hardy should be retained (one-year, $6.5 million) to complete the double-play combo. Considering what the shape of the shortstop market looks like, re-signing Hardy for his last season of arbitration appears to be a sound decision. His offensive surge in the second-half, hitting .304/.363/.442 in 206 plate appearances, possibly foreshadowing what his 2011 numbers could be.
Additionally, to save cost, Matt Tolbert will become the new Nick Punto. Nobody will notice.
3. Re-sign Jesse Crain (three-years, $9 million), Matt Capps (two-years, $7.5 million). Every other free agent is excused.
Jesse Crain provided some of the best bullpen work in the second-half of the season, going 33.2 innings with a 2.14 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP in that time. He did that by throwing his AL-best slider that was 14.6 runs above average. Getting that kind of help on the open market might cost the Twins several million dollars more.
As much as I want to cringe at signing Capps over the move attractive options on the market, like J.J. Putz or Grant Balfour, Capps clearly fits in with the Twins philosophy: throw strikes, lets hitters get themselves out. Also, unlike a substantial number of those free market relievers, Capps has no history of injury to speak of (unlike the aforementioned Putz and Balfour who have recently had knee and pitching coach-wrestling injuries, respectively). If Capps’s willing to do so, lock him in a less expensive rate for two years and let him know that he’s the understudy to Nathan if the veteran cannot rebound to form. If Capps doesn’t settle on a two-year deal, go ahead and nab any one of the power arms in the free market that will happily accept that kind of money.
Also, bring back Jose Mijares, Jeff Manship and Pat Neshek while finding a left-handed arm to replace Brian Duensing who has graduated to the rotation. I would recommend seeing what Brian Fuentes is asking as he absolutely tore left-handed opponents a new one, but I suspect he’ll have plenty of suitors. Randy Choate will do just fine (hey, he was with the organization before…).
4. Sign Russell Branyan to a one-year, $2.5M deal.
Replacing Thome’s production (and all-around charm, tater-mashery, etc) will be a chore but given the team’s limited choices, nabbing Branyan at a fraction of the cost to Jimmers could workout swimmingly. He’s Thome Lite.
Although not nearly as impressive as Thome, Branyan has crushed right-handed pitching, hitting .241/.340/.501 in his career. Branyan’s signing would give the Twins a first base replacement for Morneau if the concussion’s effects are still lingering early next season. While the right-handed bat sounds desirable (especially after the whooping those Yankee southpaws put on the Twins) since right-handed pitchers are a larger demographic than their left-handed counterparts, targeting a right-handed killer like Branyan makes sense.
If the team eventually needs a right-handed stick, one could be obtained at the trade deadline or waiver wires (similar to how the Giants nabbed Pat Burrell and the Braves landed Derrek Lee).
5. Offer arbitration to Francisco Liriano (one-year, $4.5M) and Kevin Slowey (one-year, $2.5M).
Liriano is a candidate for a long-term contract but given his injury history and one additional season left under club control, the organization can roll the dice to see if the lefty can maintain the pace he set in 2010. Given that he has performed like an ace, he’ll certainly be compensated like one next offseason.
Likewise, Slowey has some proving to do to live up to expectations. He’ll be a key to the success of this rotation.
C: Joe Mauer ($23M)
1B: Justin Morneau ($14M)
2B: Alexi Casilla ($800K)
3B: Danny Valencia ($450K)
SS: JJ Hardy ($6.5M)
LF: Delmon Young ($5.25M)
CF: Denard Span ($1M)
RF: Michael Cuddyer ($10.5M)
DH: Jason Kubel ($5.5M)
(Approx $67M)
C: Drew Butera ($450K)
IF: Matt Tolbert ($450K)
OF: Coco Crisp ($5.5M)
OF: Russell Branyan ($2.5M)
(Brendan Harris $1.75M for 2011.)
(Approx $10.65M)
SP: Francisco Liriano ($4.5M)
SP: Scott Baker ($5M)
SP: Brian Duensing ($450K)
SP: Kevin Slowey ($2.5M)
SP: Nick Blackburn ($3M)
(Approx $15.45M)
CL: Joe Nathan ($12.5M)
RP: Jesse Crain ($3M)
RP: Matt Capps ($3.75M)
RP: Pat Neshek ($800K)
RP: Jose Mijares ($450K)
RP: Randy Choate ($1M)
RP: Jeff Manship ($450K)
(Approx $21.9M)
The 2011 Twins will be a faster, more versatile roster than their predecessor. The name of the game is depth and this proposal has clearly given the team another level.
By adding Crisp and Casilla to the everyday lineup, we’ll probably see more first-to-third action than a Jersey Shore after-bar party. Likewise, by adding Crisp alone, you have provided the manager with a good amount of depth and the ability to improve the outfield defense in the spacious Target Field. Meanwhile, Branyan also gives Gardenhire options to pinch hit late in games (like Thome did) as well as an insurance policy (albeit a cut-rate one) for Justin Morneau.
The Twins will certainly miss the stability of Carl Pavano but the internal options appear just as competent to acquire his innings. Nabbing another arm to complement Liriano would be ideal however the cost would be substantial either through a trade or on the market.
Similarly, while the bullpen may seem like the biggest concern, the Twins have been particularly adept at finding useful arms that have given the team quality innings at a low cost (Rauch, Fuentes, etc). If things go sour for Nathan and Neshek, I have faith that the front office will react accordingly.