Written by Andrew Kneeland | 16 July 2010

I had the opportunity to chat with John T. Meyer, the Twins MVB, this morning. You can find it below. (I need to calibrate my mic better, as I was very loud. Sorry about that.)

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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 15 July 2010

After starting the season with most everything clicking, the Minnesota Twins have experienced a rough couple of months. Injuries, rotten luck, and even simple incompetence has contributed to the Twins' drop to third in the AL Central, and the future doesn't look any better.

Of course, as does every blogger, I know exactly how to fix the team. Here are three steps Minnesota needs to take in order to have a successful second half of the season.


1. Send Kevin Slowey, Aaron Hicks, Carlos Gutierrez, and Yangervis Solarte to Arizona for Dan Haren

There were two major consequences of the Cliff Lee trade, and both aren't beneficial to the Twins: Lee will not be in a Minnesota uniform in 2010, and his trade significantly raised the current going rate for starting pitchers.

Texas essentially gave up a switch-hitting Justin Morneau for two or three months of Lee, which is far more than the Twins would have been willing to surrender. Now that a precedent has been set, Arizona will demand much more for Dan Haren.

The Diamondbacks need tons of help, especially in the pitching department. Slowey has proven to be an adequate middle-to-end of the rotation starter in the American League, and could be a solid #3 option on the Senior Circuit. Gutierrez has plenty of upside and will be a great relief option in a year or two. And Hicks' incredible amount of unproven upside will be very appealing to Arizona's depleted minor league system.

Minnesota gives up plenty, but will receive at least two and a half seasons of an above-average starting pitcher. (Possibly three and a half; Haren has a $15.5 club option for the 2013 season.) Haren's switch from the National League to the American League should cause some concerns, but the 29-year old has three years of AL experience under his belt.

Haren spent the 2005-2007 seasons with the Oakland Athletics and posted a combined ERA of 3.64. He struck out an average of 7.2 per nine innings, and walked just 2.1 per nine. Stats such as HR/FB, BABIP, and LOB percentage show that Haren wasn't benefitting from many lucky breaks, either.

Despite his slow start to the 2010 season, Haren would be a good top-of-the-rotation starter with the Twins and could help Minnesota re-take the division.


2. Move Delmon Young up to fifth in the batting order

Delmon Young has played in all but seven of the Twins' games so far this season. In 83 percent of the games he has played in, though, Young has batted in the 6-7-8 positions. Now, Young is no superstar and is certainly not worthy of usurping Morneau from the clean-up role, but there is no reason why the 24-year old isn't batting fifth.

In five of the six most common lineups this season, the Twins have batted Young seventh, behind both Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. Young (842 OPS) has been a better player than both Kubel (787) and Cuddyer (766) this season, and should be moved up to the 5th spot in the batting order in order to give him more RBI opportunities.


3. Sit back and wait for the magic of regression to take effect.

I'm not excusing poor performances when I say that the Twins have suffered from a great deal of bad luck so far this season.

It's a fact that the Tigers and White Sox have benefitting from outstanding and very unsustainable performances from Paul Konerko, Alex Rios, Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch, and Miguel Cabrera. These players' performances will almost certainly decrease to something more along the lines of what they have put up over the course of their careers.

The Twins, meanwhile, have dealt with poor performances due to bad luck (see: Mauer, Joe) and poor performances due to injury (see: Hardy, J.J.; Hudson, Orlando).

There are still a lot of games left in the season, and there is a good chance things will eventually even out. Minnesota is still the most talented team in the division.

But adding a front-line starting pitcher would make things a whole lot easier.

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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 12 July 2010

Jesse Crain is a polarizing figure among Minnesota fans. Outside of Nick Punto, there perhaps isn't a player who so divides Twins Territory. Either you want to give the flame-throwing right-hander a second chance or you want him cut.

Back when he first came to be with the Twins, Crain was a ground-ball machine, relying almost solely on his blazing fastball. After he recovered from rotator cuff and labrum surgery, though, Crain was a different pitcher. The velocity of his fastball was still excellent, but he was extremely hitable.

While still relying on his fastball the vast majority of the time, Crain saw his ERA and home run rate go sky-high. Crain was even demoted to Rochester for a few weeks last year, putting Minnesota's Crain Experiment in jeopardy of an abrupt end.

Minnesota gave Crain an extension for the 2010 season, though, giving the 28-year old former second-round pick one more year to stick in the Big Leagues. It was an ultimatum, of sorts. If Crain didn't prove to be a useful reliever in 2010, the Twins would need to pull the plug. The pieces were in place for a World Series run, and the team simply doesn't have time to invest in developmental projects.

Judging from his results so far this season, Crain apparently got the message.

Through 34.1 innings, Crain has an acceptable 3.93 ERA with a healthy strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's certainly not pitching like the guy who finished 8th in Rookie of the Year voting in 2005, but Crain has escaped the danger of being cut – at least for now.

How is the young right-hander succeeding after so many years of being known as the “Crain Wreck?” Increased reliance on off-speed pitches.

Through his career, nearly 65 percent of Crain's offerings have been fastballs. Someone must have told him that those fastballs, while fast, are simply too straight to fool opposing batters, as that number is down to 48.2 percent in 2010. His fastballs are being utilized less, and Crain's slider is being thrown much more often.

According to FanGraphs, Crain's slider – thrown 207 times this year – is the 10th-best among relievers with at least 30 innings pitched. His curveball – tossed 58 times – is the best in the major leagues, according to FanGraph's algorithm.

Now, there are flaws with FanGraph's pitch value stat, it puts far too much value on the deciding pitch in an at-bat, but it is clear that Crain's off-speed pitches have been excellent this year. His success has largely been due to a decreased reliance in his fastball and an increase in his off-speed offerings.

If Crain can keep up this success and continue fooling opposing batters, he will solidify his place in a Minnesota bullpen in need of a reliable late-inning option.

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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 10 July 2010

Compared to most fans in Twins Territory, I can be considered an optimist. When things on the field start looking bad, I can usually find a silver lining.

Who am I kidding? I'm the kind of guy who would be whistling Bobby McFerrin's “Don't Worry, Be Happy” during a nuclear holocaust.

We haven't quite reached that point yet, but things are looking dismal for the Minnesota Twins. Joe Mauer's batting average has dropped below .300, Justin Morneau suffered a concussion and has missed three straight games, at least four members of the starting rotation have proven themselves to be unreliable, at best.

Here is a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don't worry be happy

While the Twins have struggled, the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox have soared to take the division lead. Minnesota is sitting in the middle of the AL Central, despite having the most talent in the division.

In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don't worry, be happy......

Cliff Lee, a symbol of hope to Minnesotans for the past few weeks and months, recently signed with the Texas Rangers for a king's ransom of young talent. The Twins had no chance of matching Texas' offer.

Ain't got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
Don't worry, be happy

In this space, after spending time detailing the Twins' struggles, I would usually provide a sentence or two or reassurance. This time, I've got nothing. Minnesota is drastically under-achieving.

Let's hope they right the ship before too long.

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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 06 July 2010

Another series of rumors took the Internet by storm last night. According to a Detroit radio station's Twitter account, the Twins and Mariners agreed to a deal that would send Cliff Lee to the Minnesota in exchange for Wilson Ramos and Aaron Hicks.

Eventually, various beat writers and reporters shot down the rumors but did confirm that the two teams were in serious discussions. At this point, I think it's time we draw some conclusions, in order of confidence:

  1. The Twins are interested in trading for Lee.

  2. The Twins will not be able to re-sign Lee after the 2010 season.

  3. Ramos will be included in any package coming from Minnesota.

  4. An outfield prospect will be included in any package coming from Minnesota.

  5. The Twins will not include both Ramos and Hicks in a deal for Lee.

I certainly wish I could move that fifth bullet point higher on the list. Giving up both Ramos and Hicks would be a costly mistake, even though it would bring two (hopefully three) months of Lee's pitching to Minnesota's rotation.

According to ERA, the Twins have a slightly below-average starting rotation. According to the stat xFIP, Minnesota's combination of starting pitchers are the third best group in MLB. The Twins have a high BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which should help decrease the team's ERA over the second half of the season.

Despite the great sabermetric reviews, the Twins remain without an ace. In a short series, few teams would want to face Lee, Francisco Liriano, and Carl Pavano on consecutive days. I don't blame them.

Before Minnesota can even get to the postseason though, they will have to win the AL Central, which remains as competitive as ever. The Twins are in the thick of the race and should be willing to pay top dollar for every extra win they can log. Minnesota will pay a lot more for Lee than, for example the Houston Astros, simply because every added win greatly contributes to their postseason chances.

While the Twins would be willing to pay more for Lee than most teams—is a Ramos/Hicks package too much?

As much as I would love to see Mauer, Morneau, and Ramos combine to form one of the best C/1B/DH trios in the league. It's clear that Ramos is expendable. In fact, Ramos is perhaps the most blocked and tradable prospects in baseball. As for Hicks, he is the most talented of the several athletic outfield prospects the Twins have in their farm system. There will be a log jam of outfielders in the future if the Twins don't deal some away, though Hicks is the 9th-best prospect in the minor leagues, according to ESPN's Keith Law.

I'd be more than willing to deal Ramos and Hicks together in a deal for Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren, both of whom are under contract for more than just a few months. But for a rental, I'd have to think Ramos and Hicks would be too much.

To play devil's advocate, here's a tweet from @chrisandersonis :

“Don't understand why people would be up in arms about Hicks & Ramos for Lee. #Twins have farmed players for 19 years w/ 0 titles.”

This is true. At some point, giving up young talent in order to win now is the best course of action. But the line between going for broke and reckless spending is often times a tricky one to maneuver.

What do you think? Should the Twins deal Ramos and Hicks for Lee, or hold out for a better deal?

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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 02 July 2010

In a pitcher's duel, it doesn't take much to shift the balance of the game. For the Minnesota Twins Friday night against the Tampa Bay Rays, two key base hits provided a lead that they would refuse to relinquish.

Minnesota's Scott Baker managed to scatter several hits from the potent Ray's offense with minimal damage on the scoreboard. Working an effective slider and a fastball with plenty of bite, Baker managed to keep the Rays at bay, with the exception of a run scored on a ground-rule double in the first inning.

Hits were much tougher to come by against David Price. The former first-overall selection had his deadly fastball/curveball combination working like a gem, and the Twins only managed four hits the entire game. Half of those hits came in the bottom half of the seventh inning for Minnesota, which game them a 2-1 lead.

Delmon Young, the oft-maligned Twins outfielder who could be the most over-qualified 7th batter in the league, followed up a Jason Kubel single with a game-tying double to left-center field. He was knocked home with a base hit to center field off the bat of rookie Danny Valencia.

The Twins relied upon Brian Duensing and Jesse Crain to get them through the 8th inning before putting the ball in the hands of impromptu closer Jon Rauch.

Rauch, 6''11' and 290 lbs, was given the 9th-inning role when it was discovered that Joe Nathan needed season-ending surgery. Although Twins fans lack confidence in the towering 31-year old, his sub-3.00 ERA and 18 saves speak volumes to Rauch's ability. That being said, Rauch's success also shows how over-rated the closer position is; if Rauch can thrive in the high-leverage 9th inning, so can most relievers.

With the win, Minnesota evens the four-game series with Tampa at one apiece. Tomorrow, the Twins' top-performing starting will take the mound in Target Field. Francisco Liriano has solidified his place in Minnesota's starting rotation this season via several excellent starts and a 3.47 ERA that is well above-average.

Liriano's mound opponent will be Wade Davis, who has struggled this season despite a low BABIP, low line-drive percentage, and high strand rate. Although it appears that Davis is a prime candidate to give up a 10-spot to the Twins this afternoon, the 24-year old righty has an ERA of 2.65 in his last three starts and appears to be settling down.

If Minnesota can notch another victory, they will guarantee themselves a series split against one of the tougher teams in the league. The Twins are coming off a rough month of June and a series split would be a fine way to get back on track. Winning three of four from the Rays, though, would be an even better way for the Twins to shake off the rust and get back to their winning ways.

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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 30 June 2010

Originally published at TwinsMVB.com.

After a satisfying series victory over the divisional rival Detroit Tigers, the Twins will end their homestand with a four-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Tampa Bay started the season off on an excellent note, perching themselves atop the American League East while the Yankees and Red Sox tried to re-group. Now, though, the Rays have struggled to maintain their pitching prowess, and have slipped in the standings.

Still one of the best teams in baseball, though, the Rays will be trying to accomplish the same thing as the Twins during this series: closing the door on a rotten June in an attempt to get back on track in July.

Game One – Jeff Niemann (6-2, 2.72) vs. Carl Pavano (9-6, 3.33)

Niemann, 27, was a major factor into Tampa Bay’s incredible start to the season, posting a 2.38 ERA through the month of May. Like his team, though, Niemann took a step back in June. This step back has been minimal, but could be the start of a major regression.

Despite coming off two successful starts against National League squads, Niemann is a classic example of a pitcher with artificially impressive stats. With an extremely low BABIP, a low line drive percentage, and a very high strand rate, it’s not a question of whether or not Niemann will regress; it’s a question of when.

While he’s certainly not as good of a pitcher as his stats suggest, Niemann may not return to earth for quite a while. The longer he keeps up this façade, though, the harder his fall will be.

Pavano’s success, meanwhile, appears to be more a result of ability. Although he has the benefit of a low BABIP and high strand rate, Pavano hasn’t given up any fewer line drives than is usual for the 34-year old. His overall talent level is probably worse than his current 3.33 ERA, but to expect a 4.00 ERA on the season would be fair.

Though not the case for most Twins, the month of June has been extremely friendly to Pavano. Coming off two consecutive complete games, Pavano has an ERA of 2.25 through 40 June innings. Pavano (and teammate Francisco Liriano) have been paramount to Minnesota’s ability to avoid a free-fall this month.

Both BJ Upton and Carl Crawford have dealt with minor bumps and buises these past few days, and they may miss a game or two during this series.

Game Two – David Price (11-3, 2.44) vs. Scott Baker (4-7, 4.97)

A few weeks ago, David Price was in the same boat as Niemann; a lucky pitcher who would likely plummet back to a more realistic realm. Instead of regressing, though, Price seems to be finally tapping into his incredible potential.

Price, 24, has marginal success last year with basically two pitches: a four-seam fastball and a slider. This season Price has introduced two new pitches: a curveball and a two-seam fastball. With the ability to better deceive opposing batters, Price has had great success in 2010. His ERA won’t stay below 2.50 for too long, and he won’t be able to strand nearly as many runners as he is now, but Price, the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, has started to realize his potential. Which should frighten batters across the American League.

Baker has been one of the most disappointing players for Minnesota this season. A career 4.36 ERA pitcher, Baker’s near-5.00 ERA this season has angered many fans. Looking at the stats, though, shows that Baker has BABIP slightly higher than is usual for the right-hander, and that more fly balls than usual are ending up as home runs. Both of these will likely regress eventually, though, Minnesota fans could be treated to a start along the lines of Baker’s most recent.

Game Three – Wade Davis (5-9, 4.68) vs. Francisco Liriano (6-6, 3.47)

When looking at opposing pitchers in these series previews, I usually make sure to mention whether or not that pitcher has had “luck” on their side. In Davis’ case, though, his poor stats are simply because he hasn’t pitched very well.

Whether his issues are mental or mechanical isn’t necessarily known, but he has garnered far fewer swinging strikes than in the past. This lack of deception has greatly hurt his stats, and Price could be replaced by top prospect Jeremy Hellickson very soon.

Liriano has been one of the best pitchers in the American League this season, and “luck” hasn’t played too big a factor in his success. He will give up more home runs per fly ball than he is now, but all signs point back to the biggest reason for Liriano’s success: his improved slider.

Game Four – James Shields (6-8, 4.76) vs. Nick Blackburn (7-5, 6.02)

On the face of things, it appears that Shields has been unimpressive this season. When trying to root out the reason for this mediocrity, though, I can’t find any glaring abnormalities. Most of his batted-ball and plate discipline stats have remained the same from years past, as Shields is still inducing plenty of ground balls and getting ahead in the count at a very impressive clip.

So why is the ground-ball pitcher struggling? For one, his BABIP is slightly higher, but something intangible is also a likely culprit. In any case, Shields hasn’t been very effective this season, and there is no reason to believe that his mediocrity will end against the Twins.

Blackburn has also struggled to get batters out this year, but we can pinpoint exactly what is ailing the 28-year old righty: He just isn’t very good. He is dead-last in the league in strikeouts per nine innings, and when he throws a pitch in the strike zone, opposing batters make contact an astounding 96.6 percent of the time, which is also tops in the league.

Marginally successful for the past few years, Blackburn relied upon his extremely accurate arm to paint the corners of the plate and walk very few opposing batters. This year, however, it appears the league knows that most of Blackburn’s pitches are hittable.

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