Sunday, February 13, 2011

OtB Twins Notes

Ron Gardenhire told Sid Hartman and Mike Max on WCCO on Sunday that Scott Baker experienced a setback in his rehab stint following his off-season elbow surgery.
With five spots for six pitchers and now one shrouded with questions, this may have sealed the fact that no one is getting moved this off-season. Earlier in the interview, Gardenhire also somewhat dismissed Joe Christensen’s story regarding a potential trade of Liriano – insinuating that the source was not GM Bill Smith and that Smith had no intentions of moving the lefty in the near future.

While the extent of the setback is unknown, the manager said Baker’s unlikely to go full speed, at least not at the beginning of spring training. It is unfortunate for the Twins if Baker cannot enter the season at full strength as he is arguably the second-best arm in the rotation when healthy.
The Pioneer Press’s John Shipley also caught up with Gardenhire who indicated that Alexi Casilla is not necessarily a shoe-in for a starting job in 2011.
The manager made it clear that Tsuyoshi Nishioka will indeed be a fixture in the middle of the infield next season but left it open-ended when asked about Casilla’s role. Said Gardy:
We'll let Lexi get out there and see what happens. I have other kids I want to see, too, like (Trevor) Plouffe and (Luke) Hughes — we haven't seen him much, but all indications are he can play. So we have people coming in who can play some roles for us, and I'm not by any means tied into anything. I'm hoping Lexi gets it done with Nishi, but I'll look at all the kids. Nothing is a given. I'll put the best team out there I can.
There has been plenty of apprehension surrounding Casilla’s capabilities. He’s produced respectable numbers in his minor league career but hasn’t sustained that at the major league level, often seeming a bit overwhelmed and taking that on to the field with him. In his limited capacity last season, he appeared to be much more in tuned.

It’s hard to imagine Gardenhire spending the winter extolling the virtues of adding speed to his lineup then choosing Plouffe or Hughes over Casilla. If he is able to impress this spring, Casilla could give the Twins additional quickness in the infield and a legitimate base-stealing threat – one who is 34-for-39 on his career.
According to one of John Bonnes’s sources, the Twins had pursued reliever Hideki Okajima before the Red Sox re-signed the left-hander to a one-year, $1.75 million dollar contract with $550,000 in potential performance bonuses.
In December, I urged the Twins to consider the Orioles Keji Uehera as a bullpen arm in order to help Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s transition into America go a little more smoothly with a fellow countryman on the roster. Uehera, who enjoyed his stay in Baltimore, eventually re-signed with the Orioles for a one-year, $3 million deal that includes a vesting option for 2012.

The alternative to Uehera was the other Japanese relief free agent, Hideki Okajima.
Okajima was coming off a down year with the Red Sox, one in which he reportedly described as feelings of complete loneliness and isolation with the team compounding that was his on-field struggles – finishing the year with a 4.50 ERA in 43 innings.  Okajima’s performance against lefties slipped considerably in 2010 and he lacked command of the zone that he showed in his prior years. Because of this, his stock plummeted and the Red Sox were able to convince him to stay in Boston at a million dollar discount.
If able to rebound to his previous numbers, the 35-year-old Okajima would have been a valuable complement to Jose Mijares in the bullpen.
Also, in a somewhat related story, the Twins recently hired Okajima’s translator from last year, Ryo Shinkawa, to be Nishioka’s translator for the 2011 season. In addition to working as a translator for the Red Sox, Shinkawa also did some writing at, becoming yet another blogger (a well-educated, well-trained one at that) to work for a major league team.
Fox Sport’s Ken Rosenthal reports that the Twins are not looking at Chad Durbin for relief help.
Since 2008, Durbin’s .204 batting average allowed against right-handers is the 12th-best among relievers. While he’s pretty adept at striking out his same-sided brethren, he’s also successful at avoiding hard contact too. His 16% line drive rate against righties is one of the lowest in the league over that same period of time. From that perspective, he may have been a decent target – especially at a low cost.
Charley Walters says that the Twins will likely keep their three center field prospects - Ben Revere, Joe Benson and Aaron Hicks – at three different levels to start the season.
That sounds about right.

With three very good outfield prospects, the Twins are fortunate in this respect.  With Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel free agents at the end of the 2011 season, it’s likely that one of the three will emerge as a starter in the outfield in 2012. With a taste of the bigs last year, Revere is the most likely candidate to wind up with the club as a starter in ’12 yet he could use the additional seasoning.
Revere’s season at the double-A level demonstrated once again that he’s got little in the clout department, slugging just .363, but maintained a very good average (.305) and an even more impressive on-base percentage (.371). With his speed, he could eventually develop into a solid base-stealer, one that could turn those singles into doubles by swiping the next base, but for now, he’s exercising a borderline success rate (73% in 2010). Likewise, although his speed is definitely an asset in the outfield, his arm is a concern – to the point where it will probably evict him from center. According to La Velle E Neal, the Twins were having Revere “redistribute his muscles” attempting to have him avoid further bulking up his upper body which some think effects his throwing. You can’t help but lust after that on-base percentage and speed in the outfield (something that has been severely lacking with the Twins), but Revere isn’t quite ready to contribute at the major league level, at least not anything beyond an occasional defensive replacement and Jim Thome’s personal pinch runner. Staying at Rochester in 2011 will help him hone his base-stealing acumen and see if the personal training hired to de-bulkify him actually improves his arm.         
Always a low-average, high strikeout hitter, Joe Benson displayed good secondary skills including above-average power and a decent ability to coax a walk, however, he’s continually been hampered by injuries. This past season, his slow start at double-A got him demoted back to Ft Myers in efforts to improve his contact rate and work on his ability to handle breaking pitches before being sent back up to New Britain. While the strikeout rate remained consistent, when he made contact, Benson showcased some outstanding power, hammering 23 home runs in double-A and finishing the year with an 881 OPS as a 22-year-old. In addition to great foot speed, Benson is also a right-handed hitter who has a strong track record against left-handed pitchers. Given his struggles early on last year and the Twins insistence he improve his contact rate, starting him at New Britain again in 2011 is a good idea.

Of the three, the switch-hitting Aaron Hicks is probably has the highest ceiling of the three but the furthest to go climbing the ladder. Hicks is often on top of most analysts’ prospect list for the Twins and turned in a fairly respectable 2010 season in the Midwest League, hitting .279/.401/.428 in 518 plate appearances as a 20 year old in his second tour of duty with Beloit. From the right-side of the plate, Hicks crushed left-handers to the tune of .362/.449/.664 with six of his nine home runs in 116 at-bats. He struggled some from the left-handed box, losing a lot of pop when facing righties, hitting just .248/.383/.339 in 307 at-bats. Undoubtedly, the Twins would like to see him curb his strikeout rate which jumped to 21% in 2010, but this will be a challenge if he begins the 2011 in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Florida State League.  
If all three advance to the major-league level, it could be one athletic outfield. However, with Denard Span signed through 2015, it’s not difficult to reach the conclusion that one of the three is probably going to wind up a trade candidate when/if the teams needs additional support in other positions.