Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Look Back: Recent Twins Draft History, Part II

With the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft on the horizon, this is the second of two articles looking at the Twins' most recent drafts. The first part looked at the first round picks of the last fifteen years and how they are faring (or have fared) in professional baseball. This week I will look at the Twins minor leagues and how the draft has been used to stock the Twins system.

In the last five years the Twins have drafted 59 players in the first ten rounds. Of those 59, 45 are currently playing (or on rosters) within the Twins organization (76%). Breaking these picks down by position shows the Twins love of young arms. 30 pitchers, 4 catchers, 6 first basemen, 6 second basemen/shortstops, 3 third basemen, and 10 outfielders were taken. This pitching fixation peaked in 2004 when 11 of the 14 players taken in the first ten rounds were pitchers. Sorting the draft picks by current level in the minors gives the data shown in the chart below:

Not surprisingly, the recent draft picks populate the low echelons of the minors. All in all it seems to be an orderly progression through the minors. Except when it comes to pitching.

Level (# of top picks)
Major Leagues (5) - Slowey, Baker, Crain, Neshek, Perkins

Rochester, AAA (6) - 3 pitchers
New Britain, AA (7) - 6 pitchers
Fort Myers, A (10) - 4 pitchers
Beloit, A (10) - 2 pitchers

If the Twins draft and sign a pitcher early in the draft, chances are they will be progressing more rapidly through the system than the other positions. From the 60 picks of our data set, the only prospects to reach the majors are pitchers, and of the four non-pitchers closest to the bigs (Span, Moses, Deeds, Plouffe), barring injury at the major league level, none have a realistic shot at significant major league experience this year. Is this evidence that the Twins scouting staff is significantly better at evaluating pitching talent than hitting prospects? Or is this just another effect of the fact that you will always need good pitching? I want to go with the second option, but the Twins farm system doesn't seem to be producing quality hitters where the major league club has its biggest holes. Even from that previous list of the four highly drafted prospects closest to the majors, I wouldn't characterize any of them as a legitimate major league bat at this point.

Other interesting notes are that none of the 2002 draft class are populating the minor leagues at a level lower than AAA. Apparently you have 3 or 4 seasons to prove yourself or you're out. That means things don't look good for David Shinskie (Ft. Myers, drafted '03) or Johnny Woodard (Beloit, drafted '03). I don't know for sure the rules about service time and minor league free agency, but I'm pretty sure that plays a role in this.

Of course, the draft is about more than just the top few picks. The Twins current farm system is littered with players drafted by the Twins in rounds after the tenth. 93 players in the system from the A level to the major league club were originally drafted by the Twins, including 17 who were signed as undrafted free agents. Over half of those 93 are at the A level (either Beloit or Fort Myers), where nearly the entire rosters are made of recent Twins picks. The full distribution is shown below.

Level (# of draft picks)
Major League (14) - Cuddyer, Hunter, Kubel, Mauer, Miller, Morneau, Slowey, 4 pitchers mentioned above, and 3 undrafted free agents (DePaula, Rincon, Rodriguez)
Rochester, AAA (11) - 1 undrafted free agent
New Britain, AA (18) - 5 undrafted free agents
Fort Myers, A (22) - 3 undrafted free agents
Beloit, A (28) - 5 undrafted free agents

Again, it's notable that players drafted before '02 are not a significant presence in the minors. This is probably a good thing for the organization, as career minor leaguers do very little to help the success of the major league club.

Throughout the system, the Twins draft picks are used as the main source of players for every level. Of course there are those picks that will fall by the wayside on their progression from the lower levels to the top levels, but the Twins have shown the ability to keep enough of their draft picks around so that they form a nucleus around which the upper levels of the organization are built. For an organization with financial restrictions like Minnesota, this an important skill that has no doubt fueled the recent success of the franchise.

This is not a look forward at what kind of draft the Twins are looking to have this year, but through these looks back we can see that the Twins have relied on their draft to provide a large part of their talent pool in the recent history. Thus, it is easy to conclude that many Twins fans will have a vested interest in the results of the upcoming draft.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Recap 5/29/2007 Twins 9, White Sux 2

I could complain. I could point out that the Twins once again struggled at times to drive in runners in scoring position as I've stated all year. They weren't terrible, going 5-14, but especially in the later innings missed out on multiple looks with the bases loaded. Nick Punto in particular choked, going 0-3 with runners in scoring position.

That said, the Twins still drubbed the White Sux 9-2, and once again, it was a total team effort. The big guys, Cuddy, Justin, and T. Hunt went 6-10 with three doubles, a homerun, four walks, four runs and four steaks. Not bad. The little guys, Luis, LNP (who Batgirl fans will know is 'lil Nicky Punto), and Bartlett went 6-15 (and yes, they were again all singles) with a couple walks and two steals. And of course there are the in-between guys, Red Dog, Q-Ball (Thanks Nelson), and Cirillo who went 4-12 with a double, a homerun, three runs, three steaks, and a walk. It should be noted that Q-Ball also had about his fifth 380 foot out. The only guy who didn't have a hit was Lewwww Ford. He was 0-1 as a late game defensive replacement. All told, the Twins pumped out 16 hits and drew 7 walks.

Worth noting, Morneau (who I was calling More-not at one point this season) is now hitting .293, with his average steadily climbing over the past two weeks, along with his overall performance. Being that I'm lazy, perhaps someone would look up his stats before and after May 15th, it would be interesting to see if he's always been a 'late-bloomer' like Santana with a stick. It also suggests that perhaps his .320+ average last year wasn't as big of a fluke as I thought and that the Twins may have cost themselves a few million per year more by not getting him signed long-term right away.

Also worth noting, Cuddybear has seen a similar spike in his productiveness over the past couple weeks, with his average rising from the .270 range to .298. He hasn't hit with quite as much power as Morneau, but he's doing a great job bring the boys home. It's hardly without coincidence that their surges in offensive production have coincided with the teams recent winning ways. It also highlights how, despite the people who laid so much of the blame of the top and bottom of the order, the real lynch-pins of this offense are the guys in the middle. When they hit, we win. Obviously it's sad that we don't have anyone else who can pick the team up besides the four guys in the middle (I'm counting Mauer) but such is the life of a middle to low budget team.

The other obvious highlight, other than the offensive drubbing that got laid down, was yet another solid effort from The Boof. Coming into this season I was quite skeptical about Bonser, having seen him live plenty last year I questioned whether or not his stuff would be enough to get him by. But the Boof I see this year is one who is much more aggressive, especially over the last month. He's using his fastball to get ahead and has really developed his curveball into a true out-pitch. His bases loaded strikeout of notorious Twins killer Jim Thome late in the game was huge. Had Thome managed to drive a ball into a gap or heaven forbid, the seats above the baggie, things would have suddenly gotten far too interesting. Instead Boof went right at him, challenging him down in the zone and making him miss. The only real downer I have about The Boof tonight was his bases loaded walk of Jermaine Dye. falling behind 3-0 is just not acceptable in that situation.

Tomorrow night Scott Baker and the Boys go for the sweep against Jon Garland, a woman I have a particular distaste for on a personal level. Nothing serious or anything, I just hope his kids are born premie and die. Just kidding?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Recap 5/28/2007 Twins 10, White Sux 4

Another night, another dominant performance by... Jason Miller? You didn't see that coming did you? That's just how I roll.

Ahh the joys of winning. It's been quite some time (about 5 weeks) since the Twins have legitimately been going in the right direction, but after taking series wins from the Brewers, Rangers, and Blue Jays and taking game 1 from the White Sox, I think it can be legitimately said that perhaps the ship is beginning to get righted as the club has now won 7 of their last 10. It hasn't had a ton of effect on the standing though as the club is still 6.5 games back of the Indians. However they are only 4 games out of the wild card lead.

While the past couple wins have been delivered largely on the backs of Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, and Torii Hunter, tonights game came courtesy of the "piranha's" a term I use only because our opponent was Ozzie Guillen. The combination of Castillo, Punto, Bartlett, and Tyner went 8-14 (yes they were all singles) with three walks. They drove in three runs, and scored five more.

Of course the Twins also got some big hits from Redmond (bases clearing double), Kubel (two doubles), a RBI single from Cuddybear and three more hits from Hunter, who I accused of cooling off last night. Thats why Kristen always reminds me that when I talk, theres a better chance than not that I'll say something stupid.

That Santana guy was pretty decent too, going eight innings while striking out seven, walking one, and allowing four runs on seven hits. The first two runs also came on solo homers, so for a point the last five runs Santana had allowed had come on solo homeruns. With most pitchers I'd say I was worried, but seriously it's Santana, El President, Supernatural (thanks Bat-Girl!). Another strong outing from the man has really allowed our bullpen to get rested up. With the Twins using only Jason Miller in relief. Miller has been far from dominant over his two Major League innings, but he's a lefty who's recording outs and not allowing baserunners. Something this team is desperate for. Whether or not he'll continue to be this good is in doubt, but if he can provide a good inning 2/3 times I'll be pleased.

The only real disappointment tonight was Justin Morneau as he went 0-5 and left 10 guys on base but after his recent hot streak I'll forgive him, which I know will mean a lot to him.

TWIT: You Say You Want a Revolution

Weekly Roundup

I could hardly be happier. On the heels of a week where the Twins actually finished with a winning record, taking two out of three from a pair of craptastic opponents, I wake up on a sunny holiday Monday to this bombshell from the Strib:

“The Twins haven't officially announced anything, but all indications are that righthander Ramon Ortiz, who has a 10.97 ERA this month, will be demoted to the bullpen.

That would open the door for Class AAA Rochester righthander Kevin Slowey to step into the rotation.”

Eep! Eep! I could not be any more satisfied to be right in reading the Twins front office, correctly predicting that they were waiting to the 40-50 game mark to sit down for a family meeting and start sorting through these difficult issues. Ortiz actually looked pretty good for about four or five innings on Saturday, then he once again forgot that he was supposed to be pitching in a game and not a homerun derby. Toronto went HR-2B-HR against him, and there were two 350+ foot foul balls in the sequence, as well. I don’t know whether Ortiz is tiring, losing focus, or just coincidentally missing pitches the third time through the order, but with the organizational depth in the AAA rotation paired with the recently swiss cheese’d bullpen, it seems like it is about time to put Ramon on mop-up duty. Encouragingly, Ortiz has a sterling history as a reliever, going back to his last stint in the DH league in 2004 when the Angels became similarly frustrated with the fact that he cannot retire batters. That year, he made 20 relief appearances, limiting his ERA to 2.76 (compared to 5.47 as a starter). The most important change was the fact that his homerun rate dropped from 1.48 as a starter to 0.92 as a reliever. While 49 innings is a pretty limited sample size, the fact that anyone who has watched Ortiz this year knows that he struggles deeper into games lends credence to the idea that he would better serve the Twins in a relief role.

Replacing Ortiz with Kevin Slowey is not a lame duck move, either. Slowey has dominated AAA with a 1.54 ERA in 64.1 innings this year, compiling an absolutely jaw dropping 57-5 K/BB ratio along the way. If minor league numbers mean anything, he should step in and contribute right away. His future is bright, as well, with PECOTA projecting him to be worth 114 runs of VORP over the next five seasons, maintaining about a 40% chance to play at a “star” level across that period. The knock on Slowey in scouting circles is that his tremendous fastball command has compensated for the lack of an out pitch in the minors, but it will leave him vulnerable to getting smacked around in the majors. Kevin Goldstein, the most scouting-oriented writer at Baseball Prospectus wrote that, “Slowey’s pure stuff is middle-of-the-road, which already ran him into occasional trouble in Double-A, and leaves many observers wondering what his major league out pitch will be.” And while the K/BB ratio is impressive, the fact that he isn’t even striking out a batter per inning in the minors seems to confirm that suspicion. Still, if Slowey ends up being a solid 3-4 starter instead of a 1-2 guy, nobody is going to complain. Right now, all he needs to do is keep his ERA under 5.00, and nobody will say boo.

Biggest Success

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Mike Cuddyer needed to get himself back into slugger’s form, and that other members of the offense needed to start supporting Justin Morneau a little more until Joe Mauer returns from injury. Cuddyer’s .400/.556/.700 line with 2 HR, 7 R, and 7 RBI certainly qualifies him for success. Luis Castillo getting 9 singles for a .333 average and .379 OBP also helps. Morneau, though, has been an absolute beast, coming up with the right hits at the right times, and making one beautiful belly flop onto first base to beat out a chopper on Sunday. Morneau clearly lead the team for the week, hitting .400/.444/.900 with 4 HR, 13 RBI, and 23 total bases. He only drew one walk for the week, but there’s a big difference between an empty .300 hitter and an empty .400 hitter, and with all of those homeruns, he’s not even falling into that category. The most encouraging part is that Morneau has seemingly recaptured the heady approach at the plate that brought him so much success last year, going the opposite way when the pitchers are trying to avoid him, such as that bases loaded, two out chopper that plated two runs against A.J. Burnett.

Biggest Disappointment

It might be silly to keep piling it on Ortiz, and I want to give Jeff Cirillo (.143/.250/.214) a grace period, even though I have high hopes for his season. I give this award, then, to the sloppiness that turned what could have been an inspiring win on Saturday night into a depressing 13 inning loss that taxed an already exhausted bullpen. Scott Ulger ran the Twins into two outs at the plate that were not even close to scoring runs, one of which came with only one out in the inning and was followed by Mike Cuddyer’s two (woulda been 3) run homer. Later in the game, Torii Hunter tried to stretch a completely run-of-the-mill leadoff single into a double for no particular reason, getting himself thrown out by about a full second. Then, during their comeback in the ninth, Hunter batted with runners on first and second with nobody out, and grounded into a weak double play that squashed the chances for a walkoff hit. Those four scoring chances would have given them the win in regulation, but instead they stretched it out and lost in 13. All of that and I haven’t even mentioned the shining star that is Jorge DePaula. I know he must have thrown strikes at some point in his life to get here, so there are probably nerves at play. Nonetheless, giving up 8 runs on 6 hits, 5 walks, and a hit batsman in a single inning pitched (over two games) is completely inexcusable. I mean, that is Rafael Betancourt level failure out of the bullpen. Forget it, I’m going to stay positive this week.

On the Horizon

More home games to start the week, with three against the White Sox followed by the start of a six game Left Coast road trip at Oakland and Anaheim. The White Sox series could be interesting, because the Twins enter Monday’s game two back of the Pale Hoes in the standings. I’m a little concerned about the status of the bullpen, though, as Neshek had to work two on Saturday, and Rincon and Nathan had to pitch on both Saturday and Sunday. If ever there was a day for a Johan Santana CG, it will be Monday afternoon’s series opener. Catching Oakland right now is not such a bad thing, either. Like the Twins and Blue Jays, they have been decimated by injuries, although they knew it was coming by stacking their outfield with guys they could get on the cheap because their ability to stay healthy did not match their ability to play baseball. Kotsay, Snelling, Stewart, Bradley… no wonder they are walking wounded. Justin Duchscherer may return by the end of the week, so the Twins might not have the pleasure of facing new closer Allen Embree, who is 67 years old, but the A’s bullpen is in rough shape anyway.

The Big Picture

I already covered the major issue in the introduction, with 20% of the starts possibly going to a competent pitcher rather than an incompetent one. The bullpen should be better, as well, with Nathan, Rincon, and Neshek being backed up by Ortiz and Guerrier, then the less inspiring fresh faces down the road. The top-level guys have great career numbers against lefties, so the lack of a LOOGY should not doom the team in high leverage situations.

The Twins also moved ahead of Chicago in the adjusted standings since the Twins are +6 for the year in run scoring and the Sox are -17. With Mauer set to come back later in the week, the offense is poised to improve upon their 7th place rank in the league for runs scored and with the more optimistic forecast for the starting rotation, the run prevention could move up a bit from its current 5th place rank. With Chicago continuing to scuffle and Detroit finally suffering due to their inability to prevent runs from crossing the plate (3rd worse in the AL), the Twins have a good opportunity to get back into the race over the next couple of weeks. Now, I finally believe they have the right alignment of their personnel to make that happen.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Recap 5/27/2007 Twins 4, Black and Blue Jays 2

Looking for their third series win in as many series, and after a night spent scalding the ball almost all game long when they pumped out 17 hits and about 10 hard hit outs, the Twins bats couldn't put much of anything together against Jays "ace" A.J. Burnett. I say ace because with with Roy Halladay on the shelf for a few more days, Burnett was the best the jays had and he came in on a roll. He kept it up going eight innings and allowed the Twins just three hits and a few walks. Thankfully to say he also made a costly throwing error that led to a couple Twins runs and made a one on mistake to Justin Morneau that MVP deposited in the upper deck in right. Speaking of MVP...

I spent the first month + of this season ragging on Justin Morneau and overwhelmingly placing the blame for many of the Twins losses this season squarely on his shoulders. While I wont back off of my assessment that his lack of clutch hitting cost the Twins a number of wins in April, I must say tonight was just the most recent fantastic performance of his this May. Last night I extolled the performance of cleanup hitter Michael Cuddyer and his brilliant late May performance, today we'll look at Morneau.

In the 18 games since his first multi-homer performance of the season on May 8th he's hit .315 with 9 homeruns, and most importantly, 22 RBI's. Whats more, they're finally coming on hits that don't leave the park. He's begun to start singling and doubling guys in. His ability to do just that last year is what made him the AL MVP and if he can continue to do that and drive in the runners the Twins get on base, he and the team will be much better off. Obviously.

Whats been especially nice is that with the Twins lacking the ability to produce throughout the lineup, and with Torii Hunter beginning to cool off a bit, he and Cuddyer have really begun to carry the team and have on their own either won games or kept the team in games that may otherwise have been blowouts. Perhaps its unfair that we as fans and the Twins as an organization heap so much responsibility on those three, but with their payroll and the lack of bats in the minors, it's all they can reasonably afford. That said, with the Twins top and bottom of the order hitters littering the bases with runners all season, they have done a good job of trying to make the jobs of those three as easy as possible. The team has lead the league nearly ll season in at-bats with runners in scoring position and continues to do so with 467 such at-bats.
The difference in the team over the past couple weeks has been their ability to drive those runners in, as they are now hitting a slightly more respectable .253. Hopefully that upward trend will continue, and if it does, I'll certainly expect this team to finish at third in the AL Central this season. Regretfully to say I'm mostly convinced that this seasons chances to make the playoffs are almost nil, as neither Detroit, and especially Cleveland will likely come back to the rest of the division.

Another point of note was the quality of Carlos Silva's start tonight. His previous long outing of the year was a seven inning performance May 4th against Boston. Tonight with the Twins having used each and every one of their bullpen pitchers last night, the team really needed someone to go deep into tonights game. Silva did just that going 7 1/3 innings and did a fantastic job keeping the team in the game and working out of the few Jams he did get himself into.
He started the eighth inning but gave up a leadoff homerun and getting an out before allowing a crisp single to #2 hitter Lyle Overbay.

In relief the Twins brought on Juan Rincon, one of the few relievers who didn't throw at least 20 pitches last night. I for one was concerned from the start because Juanny seemed like he wasn't quite comfortable in his uni and spent the better part of a full minute adjusting himself. When he allowed a past ball in the Wells at-bat all I could think was, "here we go." Thankfully to say all of my paranoia was unjustified and Rincon got Wells to pop up and the inning ended one batter later on a long fly out by Stairs. Nathan nailed down the ninth and the Twins had their third series victory in a row.