Offseason Targets

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+.


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.

More thoughts on Ty Wigginton and Brandon Lyon

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

Some follow-up thoughts after hearing the Twins won’t aggressively pursue Ty Wigginton but have expressed interest in Brandon Lyon:

(*) Wigginton does not play third base well enough to be the everyday guy for the Twins. Brendan Harris is a better defensive third baseman and equally versatile. Both bat righthanded. Harris will make about $500,000 next season. Wigginton will make at least $6 million.

Wigginton was a force at Houston’s Minute Maid Park last season and finished with an impressive batting line: .285/.350 (OBP)/.526 (SLG). But after June 17, Harris quietly batted .300/.362/.495.

As La Velle has noted, the Twins finished with 91 RBI from their third basemen last season, even with Mike Lamb chewing up all those early season at-bats. A Harris/Brian Buscher platoon might not be perfect. There are reasonable questions about whether Buscher can repeat his performance against RHP from last season: .316/.362/.432.

But the answer is not Wigginton, who isn’t a 500 percent upgrade over Harris.

(*) Lyon’s best pitch is his breaking ball. He is not overpowering but mixes his pitches well, not unlike Matt Guerrier. I know some readers will write him off after that comparison, completely forgetting Guerrier’s 2.35 ERA in 2007 and 2.83 ERA through June 7 last year.

Why add Lyon if the Twins already have a version of him in Guerrier? Lyon has been a closer and an eighth-inning guy. He was 26-for-31 in save opportunities last season. The Twins might not be upgrading, but they’d be adding depth. The presence of a pitcher with late-inning experience could really help Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares get comfortable in their roles.

Through July 18 last season, Lyon held opponents to a .238 batting average, but they hit .392 off him the rest of the way, as he lost his closing job with Arizona to Chad Qualls. His agent, Barry Meister, said Lyon is fully healthy.

In 2007, Lyon was terrific in a setup role, going 6-4 with a 2.68 ERA. He made $3.125 million last year. There is some thought that he’d take a one-year deal to rebuild his value before hitting the free agent market again next fall.

Ty Wigginton: A closer look

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Still no indications the Twins have expressed interest in Ty Wigginton, though we’ve been told they like him. La Velle reported Sunday that the Giants, Pirates and Indians are all in the mix.

A few facts about Wiggy, who was featured in our 2007 Trade Target Series, when he was playing for Tampa Bay:

Age:  31 (Turns 32 on Oct. 11)

Bats: Right

Salary: He made $4.35 million this year and the Astros non-tendered him because he was due to make about $7 million through arbitration. Wigginton is now a free agent and is probably looking for a three-year deal.

2008: He batted .285/.350/.526 with 22 doubles and 23 homers with the Astros, very impressive. An OPS+ of 128. He was limited to 111 games because of injuries to his left thumb, rib cage and groin.

Inside those stats: Big red flag here, as Wigginton thrived at Minute Maid Park, which is especially friendly to righthanded hitters. He batted .343/.390/.691 at home, compared to .234/.316/.380 on the road.

Defense: I’ve read mixed reviews, but I believe there’s a reason he has not been handed an everyday third base job and told to run with it. One of his assets is his versatility, as he can also play second base and first base. He started 74 games at third base for Houston this year.

More names emerge on Twins offseason target list

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

The Twins ranked 21st out of 30 major league teams in OPS at third base last season, at .730. Mike Lamb was just plain terrible before Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris eventually gave the Twins a serviceable platoon.

Still, Twins 3B combined to hit seven homers, ranking 29th in the majors.

The Twins were 24th in OPS at shortstop, at .648. Adam Everett was injured and even less productive than expected before Nick Punto took over, quietly turning in a bounce-back season from his miserable 2007.

With six homers from their SS, the Twins ranked 22nd in the majors.

Punto is a free agent, but the Twins are determined to upgrade offensively at both positions on the left side of their infield. Besides Garrett Atkins, they have targeted Casey Blake, J.J. Hardy and Yunel Escobar, as we learned Friday.

Kevin Kouzmanoff could very well be on that list, though no one mentioned that name specifically.

There are pros and cons to each player, but each is a righthanded hitter with pop in his bat. A quick thumb-nail sketch on each:

Garrett Atkins, Rockies 3B

Age: 28 (turns 29 on Dec. 12)

Contract: Made $4.4 million this year in his first year arbitration, and will likely be in the $6m-$7m range next year. Will be eligible for free agency after 2010.

Stats: Batted .286/.328/.452 (.780 OPS) with 21 homers, 32 doubles and 99 RBI this year. Since 2007, he has batted only .244/.303/.415(.718 OPS) away from Coors Field.

Casey Blake, Free agent 3B

Age: 35 (turns 36 on Aug. 23)

Contract: Made $6.1 million this year and will likely get a three-year deal on the free agent market.

Stats: Batted .274/.345/.463 (.808 OPS) with 21 homers, 36 doubles and 81 RBI this year for the Indians and Dodgers. He has averaged 596 plate appearances over the past six seasons, a testament to his durability. 

J.J. Hardy, Brewers SS

Age: 26 (turns 27 on Aug. 19)

Contract: Made $2.65 million this year in his first year of arbitration and will likely approach $5m by next season. Will be eligible for free agency after 2010.

Stats: Batted .283/.343/.478 (.821 OPS) with 24 homers, 31 doubles and 74 RBI.

Yunel Escobar, Braves SS

Age: 26 (turns 27 next Nov. 2)

Contract: Made $402,500 this year in his second major league season and will get only a slight raise for next year. A strong Super-2 arbitration candidate by next year at this time, but he won’t be eligible for free agency until 2013.

Stats: He batted .288/.366/.401 (.767 OPS) with 10 HR, 24 doubles and 60 RBI this year. As a rookie in 2007, he batted .326/.385/.451 (.836 OPS) in 94 games.

Kevin Kouzmanoff, Padres 3B

Age: Age 27 (turns 28 on July 25)

Contract: Made $410,000 in his second full major league season and won’t be arbitration eligible until after 2009. He’ll be eligible for free agency after 2012.

Stats: He batted .260/.299/.403 (.702 OPS) with 23 HR, 31 doubles and 84 RBI. Petco Park is tough on hitters. For his career, he’s batting .243/.290./.390 (.680 OPS) at home, and .282/.330/.488 (.818 OPS) on the road.