December 2008

Twins need a third baseman who can play defense, too

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

The Twins have a reputation as one of the best defensive teams in the majors, but last season, they sure didn’t live up to it.

They committed 108 errors, their highest total since 2001, and ranked third to last in the American League with a .982 fielding percentage.

Carlos Gomez showed tremendous range in center field, but he made eight errors, and Delmon Young made another eight errors in left field. Other trouble spots included second base, where Alexi Casilla made 12 errors in 833 innings, and third base, where Brian Buscher made 10 errors in 519 innings.

The Twins scored 829 runs, third most in team history, despite hitting just 111 home runs, fewest in the American League. An argument can be made that they need more power at third base or shortstop, and they probably need setup relief help the most.

But here’s another quiet truth: The defense needs to get better, not worse. This is one reason they drew a line and refused to offer three guaranteed years to Casey Blake, and this is a big reason they’re not making more of a push for Ty Wigginton.

In my time covering the Twins (since 2005), here’s what I’ve learned:

(*) Michael Cuddyer’s third base defense in 2005 was considered a disaster — by Manager Ron Gardenhire and by Cuddyer himself. Cuddyer said he felt a huge weight lifted off his shoulders when Gardenhire moved him to right field, and his offensive numbers supported the theory. But others in the organization wish they hadn’t given up on that experiment so quickly.

(*) After the Tony Batista experiment in 2006 — now that was a disaster — the Twins were thrilled with Nick Punto at third base, but he pressed when handed the everyday third base job out of spring training in 2007.

A look back at the numbers, with help from The Hardball Times:

Michael Cuddyer

2005 — Innings at third base (816), errors (8 throwing, 7 fielding), fielding percentage (.942), revised zone rating (.717), balls fielded outside of zone (49).

(Putting numbers to a player’s defense is an inexact science, but one of the best metrics is The Hardball Times’ revised zone rating. In Cuddyer’s case, this means he successfully fielded 71.7 percent of the balls hit into the third base zone — zones, defined as the areas on the field where 50 percent of balls hit are converted into outs –and fielded an additional 49 balls outside the zone. Studying those two numbers help tell you how fielders are on balls they should get to, and how many they’re getting to that they shouldn’t.)

As a 3B, Cuddyer batted .255 with 11 HR, 34 RBI and a 92 OPS+. (OPS+ adjusts for league and park averages, with 100 being an average performance.)

Tony Batista

2006 — Innings at third base (434), errors (3 throwing, 3 fielding), fielding percentage (.954), revised zone rating (.652), balls fielded outside of zone (15).

As a 3B, Batista batted .236 with 5 HR, 21 RBI and a 72 OPS+.

Nick Punto

2006 — Innings at third base (766), errors (5 throwing, 4 fielding), fielding percentage (.962), revised zone rating (.773), balls fielded outside of zone (24).

As a 3B, Punto batted .289 with 1 HR, 39 RBI and an 82 OPS+.

2007 — Innings at third base (828), errors (4 throwing, 2 fielding), fielding percentage (.973), revised zone rating (.708), balls fielded outside of zone (29).

As a 3B, Punto batted .226 with 1 HR, 22 RBI and a 56 OPS+.


Even now, Nathan’s deal looks like a smart investment

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

In studying Cleveland’s signing of Kerry Wood for my Sunday column, I thought about how Joe Nathan’s contract looks in retrospect for the Twins.

I was a proponent of giving Nathan an extension last spring, and the Twins got it done, giving Nathan a four-year, $47 million deal.

I think it sent a great message to the team, that management was committed to winning in 2008, despite letting Torii and Johan go. Nathan had a rough second half, by his standards, and still posted an otherworldly 1.33 ERA.

Francisco Rodriguez took a 2.24 ERA (and his record 62 saves, of course) into a tough free agent market. Several closers were available in a tough economy, and the Mets were the only big-market team in the bidding. K-Rod, who turns 27 next month, managed a three-year, $37 million deal.

Cleveland gave Wood, 31, a two-year, $20.5 million deal, but if he finishes 55 games in either of the next two seasons, it triggers an $11 million option for 2011.

Wood finished 56 games last year for the Cubs, so basically if he does what the Indians are paying him to do, he’ll have a three-year, $31.5 million deal.

Wood has been on the DL 12 times in the past 10 years. Nathan, 34, hasn’t been on the DL since becoming the Twins closer in 2004 (knock on wood). He has three years, $35.75 million remaining on his contract.

The Twins did that contract in a different contract climate — remember, Kyle Lohse got a four-year, $41 million deal from the Cardinals in September — and I still think Nathan was a great investment.

Cleveland needed the Wood signing to match Nathan’s back-of-the-bullpen presence. Wood’s injury history makes it risky to be sure, but at least he didn’t cost the Indians their first-round draft pick. He was a Type A free agent, but the Cubs did not offer him arbitration.

(Juan Cruz seems like a good setup option for the Twins, but he’s a Type A free agent and would cost them next year’s first rounder, so they’re not interested.)

There’s always a risk when teams invest in pitchers, but Nathan paid big dividends in 2008, and I think he’s paying big dividends now.

If the Twins are having this hard of a time adding setup help, imagine if they needed to add a closer, too.

Twins explore international market for pitching help

Friday, December 19th, 2008

Three Twins topics from Thursday, and I wrestled with how to organize the news in today’s notebook, not wanting to over-hype the fact they’d expressed interest in Japanese pitchers Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara.

So I gave top billing to Randy Ruiz signing a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays, followed by news of four minor-league signings by the Twins (Luis Matos, Sean Henn, Bob Keppel and Joe Gaetti).

If we had heard the Twins were deep into negotiations with one of the Japanese righthanders, that would have been the lead, but it only takes one phone call or one meeting with an agent to express interest.

To my knowledge, the Twins never have signed a Japanese player to a major league contract, though I know they had serious interest in Akinori Iwamura before he landed with Tampa Bay.

Kawakami, 33, probably will get a two-year, $10 million contract or 3/15 to be a starting pitcher somewhere. Right now, the Twins don’t need a starter, but that could change if they make a trade.

Uehara, 33, could wind up with a three-year, $9 million deal to be a reliever. So far, the Orioles are the only known team offering a starting job. He was the closer for Japan in the 2007 Asian Championships and also spent one year closing for the Yomiuri Giants.

I’ve been told he has a great split-fingered fastball and good command, but his velocity is down. The Orioles, Rangers and Cardinals are among the teams interested.

Bonus Note: Also heard Thursday that the Twins have expressed interest in Brett Tomko, who got released by the Royals and Padres last season. Tomko, 35, has been used as a starter and a reliever in recent years. He is 95-99 with a 4.68 ERA in his major league career.

Twins make another run at Escobar

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

The Twins checked back with Atlanta about shortstop Yunel Escobar’s availability this week, when it appeared the Braves were close to re-signing shortstop Rafael Furcal, a person familiar with the discussions told the Star Tribune.

The talks didn’t go very far. At the time, Atlanta planned to use Escobar and Furcal, by moving Furcal to second base. Now, Furcal has pulled back and agreed to a three-year, $30 million deal with the Dodgers. So it appears Escobar is staying put as the Braves’ shortstop.

The Twins continue to explore shortstop options even though they have re-signed Nick Punto. Manager Ron Gardenhire said Punto would be the starting shortstop if he re-signed, but Punto’s versatility is well-known, and the Twins don’t want to limit their their search to the frustrating third base market.

They still have strong interest in Milwaukee’s J.J. Hardy, but so far, the pitching-depleted Brewers have not expressed a willingness to trade him. If the Twins can’t find a satisfactory trade, they are willing to move forward with Punto at shortstop and a platoon of Brendan Harris and Brian Buscher at third base.

And now, for some offseason entertainment…

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will be a special guest tonight on FSN’s broadcast of the Wild vs. the Flames.

Gardenhire will be on the pregame show, which starts at 6:30 p.m., and he’ll be part of the first-intermission “Faceoff,” debating baseball and hockey-related topics.

The topper will come on the postgame show, as Darby Hendrickson and Kevin Gorg try to teach Gardenhire the finer points of the game in an on-ice demonstration.

Gardy, an Oklahoma native, has never skated in his life.