Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Arizona dreaming

Max Kepler in 2013 with Cedar Rapids. The Twins
have a decision to make on the 21-year-old, and his
assignment to the Arizona Fall League figures to
play a role in that decision.
It is a sign of where the Twins are that the most intriguing news of the day Tuesday was the Arizona Fall League assignments.

The highlight of that: Byron Buxton, sidelined now by his post collision concussion, is slated to play for the Salt River Rafters. This is seen as an indication that the Twins expect their top prospect to be ready to roll by October, when the prospect-heavy league gets rolling.

The Twins don't often have players repeat the AzFL, but all three of the position players on this opening list were there last year: Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler. All three have had disappointing seasons, Buxton because of injuries; Rosario with a 50-game suspension and a prolonged behavior-based benching; and Kepler presumably from his rawness.

Kepler is currently on the 40-man roster, but the German hasn't had a particularly strong season at high-A Fort Myers (.257/.330/.386), and the Twins may be considering whether they can risk exposing him to the Rule 5 draft. He remains an intriguing athlete and just turned 21, and the always optimistic Seth Stohs says he's been playing better of late. I expect the Twins will keep him on the 40, but this assignment may be an important test for him.

Rosario is another matter. He had a real opportunity this year to push his way to the majors, and did nothing with it. He's due to be added to the 40 this winter, and the Twins probably will do so, but they can't be pleased with what they've seen from him.

Three pitchers were also assigned to the AzFL: Right-hander Jason Adam (acquired from Kansas City for Josh Willingham) and left-handers Taylor Rogers and Mason Melotakis. All three are currently in Double A.

Adam, shifted this year to the bullpen by Kansas City, is being repositioned by the Twins as a starter, and they presumably want to add innings to his year.

Melotakis, a second-round pick in 2012, may be a dark-horse bullpen candidate for 2015; he certainly figures to have a higher ceiling than Caleb Thielbar.

Rogers has compiled pretty good numbers as a starter the past two years as he climbed from low A to Double A, albeit without imposing strikeout rates. I'm sure the Twins have a reason to send him to the fall league, but I'm not sure what it is. He doesn't appear to need the innings.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Tigers veteran arson squad

Joe Nathan has 27 saves for the Tigers -- and six blown
saves, with an ERA of 5.36. He has one more year
at $10 million left on his contract.
One of my many pet theories is that the bullpen is a measuring stick for an organization's competency. Relief pitching is both fragile and available. Good organizations, my theory holds, are aware of this and constantly re-evaluate their bullpens and seek to rebuild them on the fly. Top-notch managers are usually adept at identifying the failed starters whose strengths lend themselves to relief work and find the proper matchups.

That's the theory, and then there's the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers have dominated the AL Central the past three seasons and remain in the hunt this year, but their bullpens have been more hindrance than help. Given how well general manager Dave Dombrowski has done over the years in other aspects of the roster, that's surprising.

This year's Tigers bullpen is an assemblage of "proven closers" unlike almost any I can remember. Between the 40-man roster and the 60-day disabled list, they have

  • Joe Nathan, 368 lifetime saves, six All-Star teams
  • Joakim Soria, 177saves, two All-Star teams
  • Jim Johnson, 124 saves, one All-Star team
  • Joel Hanrahan, 100 saves, two All-Star teams

That's 769 saves and 11 All-Star rosters among the four of them. And we haven't even gotten to Detroit's passel of veteran setup men: Joba Chamberlain (seven saves), Phil Coke (eight saves), Al Alburquerque (one) ...

Nathan's addition (to a two-year, $20 million deal as a free agent) was supposed to put an end to the late-inning collapses, but the former Twins stopper has had a miserable season. Johnson led the majors in saves in 2012 and 2013 with Baltimore; this year he's been released by Oakland and has an ERA of 7.31. He and the currently DL'd Soira, briefly dubbed the "Mexicutioner" in his glory days with the Royals, were midseason additions. Hanrahan hasn't actually thrown a pitch for the Tigers this year and isn't likely to.

All these guys (except Chamberlain and Alburquerque, each 28) are at least 30 years old, and the resulting cluster of aged firemen-turned-arsonists suggests that somebody in the Detroit organization -- perhaps first-year manager Brad Ausmus. perhaps somebody higher in the organization -- is uncomfortable with the idea of identifying the suitable skill set in somebody unproven in the job.

Given the World Series-or-bust mindset in Detroit, that's understandable. It's also an expensive mistake.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Contemplating Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson staggered through his Sunday start,
unable to complete five innings on a humid day.

A promising season for Kyle Gibson is rapidly decaying.

The former first-round pick has been either very good or very bad. Sunday's outing against Detroit -- 4.2 innings, eight hits, four walks, five runs -- fit in the latter category.

I thought last season that his call-up was timed for failure; it was his first full season back from his Tommy John surgery and he was hitting the fatigue wall. Gibson worked 51 innings for the Twins and 101.2 for Rochester, a total of 152.2. Sunday's start puts the big right-hander at 144 innings on the season, and it's possible that he's wearing down.

Or it's possible that he's just too limited a talent to truly thrive in a major league rotation. What we've seen is a good hard sinker and not much else to get hitters off that pitch. He lacks a swing-and-miss offering -- a consistently sharp breaking ball or a baffling changeup -- so his strikeout rate is subpar, and he doesn't make up for it with stellar control.

What he is, is the latest in the Twins line of sinker-slider righties: Joe Mays, Carlos Silva, Nick Blackburn, Mike Pelfrey. These are back-end of the rotation types, inning eaters. You might get a big year out of these guys, but you won't get much more than one.

The Twins drafted Gibson with the hope that he'd become a front-of-the-rotation guy. He's 26 now, and ace status is not awaiting him. That doesn't make him release bait -- there are bigger problems in the Minnesota rotation -- but it does make him a mild disappointment.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Pic of the Week

Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Jeff Beliveau works
against the Detroit Tigers Tuesday with a bird
perched in the infield. In a domed stadium.

This probably says as much about Tropicana Field, the domed home of the Tampa Bay Rays, as anything.

It's indoors, and there are birds on the field. What a dump.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Twenty to Six

The other day I wrote about the Twins' difficulty hitting left-handed pitchers. So Friday night they faced Robbie Ray, left-handed pitcher, and dough-popped him for six runs in the second innings. And in the sixth inning they stung Ian Krol, left-handed pitcher, for five runs (albeit only one earned run).

Carping about a game won by 14 runs is a bit unseemly, but I find myself a bit alarmed at the difficulties Tommy Milone is displaying so far. Staked to an early 6-1 lead, he suddenly ceased any semblance of effectiveness in the fifth inning after an Eduardo Escobar error. I really expected better than we've seen so far from Milone.

And I was ... bemused, let us say, by the accolades heaped on Escobar for his five-hit game. Let us not forget that he committed two errors and could have been charged with another. It was a rough game in the field for the shortstop, who has generally been pretty solid defensively.

Escobar wasn't the only infielder who had difficulty Friday night. The Tigers made a couple of miscues in the nine-run sixth. Trevor Plouffe committed an error. And, more forgivable, Detroit reserve infielder Andrew Romine gave up a couple gopher balls while mopping up the ninth inning, including Oswaldo Arcia's second flag-pole ringer of the month. (Different flag pole, still impressive, even if it came off a non-pitcher.)

Meanwhile, one has to marvel at what has befallen the Tigers. A month ago they figured to cruise to the division title. Now the Royals are 2.5 games ahead, a starting rotation for the ages is decaying, a bullpen stocked with proven closers implodes with regularity and the revamped defense-first infield can't make plays.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Minors details

The minor league season is winding down, and for several of the Twins top prospects, that's probably a good thing.

We already know that Byron Buxton won't return to action this month after his frightening outfield collision and concussion. The hope is that he'll pass the concussion protocol to play in the Arizona Fall League.

J.O. Berrios and Kohl Stewart, two of the organization's top three starting prospects (the third being Alex Meyer), each missed time at the end of July with shoulder somethings. Yeah, I'm vague. So were the public reports on their issues. Each has returned to action, but not with complete success.

Stewart was pulled from a start Tuesday in the second inning with his velocity, which normally tops out in the mid-90s, lagging in the 88-90 mph range. The Twins called his early departure from that game precautionary, and have said that their exams last month found no structural damage in the shoulder. But ...

For his part, general manager Terry Ryan sounds relatively unconcerned about Tuesday's brief outing and suggested Wednesday that he expected Stewart to start again. (Cedar Rapids is closing in on a playoff berth, something that seemed highly unlikely when I visited CR in early July, so there's a good chance the Kernels will have plenty of opportunities to pitch Stewart.)

Stewart is not yet 20, and he has 87 innings under his belt this season. That doesn't appear to be a particularly heavy workload, but fatigue may still be a factor.

Berrios spent last season at Cedar Rapids, also at age 19. He pitched 103 innings for the Kernels and did not appear in their postseason. So even if Stewart is done for the season, he's only 16 innings behind Berrios' workload at the same level.

This year Berrios was dominant at high A Fort Myers but less so in seven starts (so far) at New Britain. He started Thursday with mediocre results:

Berrios is now at 131 innings for the year, and has had to make a midseason transition from the six-man rotation the Twins employ on their A-ball teams to the five-man rotation at Double A. I suspect, however, that between off days and the late July shoulder scare that he's made few if any starts on four days rest.

Regardless, Ryan has already declared Berrios off limits for the Arizona Fall League. It's less clear if the Twins will let him pitch winter ball in his native Puerto Rico.

Assuming that there are indeed no true injury issues with these two guys, an offseason of rest sounds like a good idea.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Twins attack gone south(paw)

Maybe the Twins couldn't hit T.J. House
because they were puzzled that somebody
named Glenn Anthony goes by the
initials T.J.  Or maybe it's just that he's
T.J. House, Wednesday's starter for Cleveland, came into Target Field with a 1-3, 4.13 record in 11 starts, with peripheral stats that are similarly blah. Naturally he shut the Twins out. Naturally, I say, because he's left-handed.

The Twins hitters have been markedly worse versus left-handed pitchers than against righties: OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) .711 against RHP, .673 against LHP (this entering the Wednesday game).

But when we start digging a bit deeper into this, an oddity emerges:

While the Twins' left-handed hitters are displaying a marked platoon disadvantage against left-handed pitchers (OPS down 63 points), so are the right-handed hitters (OPS down 35 points).

This is essentially inexplicable.

The platoon advantage is real and universal; that the Twins right-handed hitters, as a group, aren't showing it is odd and not indicative of the future. Brian Dozier for his career (1,515 plate appearances) has an OPS vs. lefties of .829, against righties of .662; there's no real reason for him to suddenly be better this season against righties (.757) than lefties (.714).