Friday, December 15, 2006
The one-year anniversary comes up on January 11, which gives me another four weeks or so to shed weight. As of this morning I have officially cracked the 90-pound mark. I realize that few of you likely care enough about me losing weight to read updates about it, but forcing myself to keep a running sidebar tally of my progress on the "Fat-O-Meter" has helped motivate me and giving a more in-depth progress report once in a while has also served to push me in the right direction.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2007: 30, 29, 28, 27, 26
Previous Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2007: 31-35, 36-40
30. Alex Burnett | Starter | DOB: 7/87 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2005-12The Twins grabbed Alex Burnett out of a California high school in the 12th round of the 2005 draft and started the six-foot right-hander out in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he posted a 4.10 ERA and 33-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 48.1 innings. Burnett moved up to the rookie-level Appalachian League in 2006 and improved dramatically despite being just 18 years old for much of the season, although his 4.04 ERA in 13 starts is certainly nothing spectacular.
What's impressive about Burnett's second pro season is that he improved his control dramatically, walking just 13 batters in 71.1 innings, yet also managed to rack up 71 strikeouts while holding opponents to a .242 batting average. Secondary numbers like strikeouts, walks, and opponent's batting average are more important than ERAs or win-loss records when it comes to evaluating pitching prospects, and particularly teenagers, making Burnett a very intriguing player at this stage.
The 2007 season will be a big step for Burnett, as he moves past rookie-ball for the first time despite not turning 20 years old until late July. However, even a modest year at low Single-A would keep him on the right track, which is shown by the fact that just one pitcher in these top-40 rankings is younger than Burnett. I hesitate to rank a pitcher with zero experience above rookie-ball much higher than this unless he's an absolute stud, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Burnett a dozen spots higher in a year.
29. Denard Span | Center Field | DOB: 2/84 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2002-1I've been slow to write off Denard Span, but he admittedly has little room for error at this point. Span is extremely fast and athletic, which is why the Twins used a first-round pick on him in 2002, but he's yet to turn that speed and athleticism into great defense or baserunning. He looks like a leadoff hitter and the Twins have molded him into a ground-ball machine, but he doesn't make great contact despite zero power, doesn't draw many walks or steal tons of bases, and doesn't hit for huge batting averages.
All of which leaves him as more of a bottom-of-the-order hitter than a table-setter, and bottom-of-the-order hitters who aren't great defenders are dangerously close to being bench players. Span was considered the Twins' "center fielder of the future" from the moment they drafted him and many still cling to the idea of him as Torii Hunter's eventual replacement, but at this point he's simply among a handful of banjo-hitting center-field options the Twins will be sorting through in 2007.
In fact, the Twins' most advanced center-field prospects all profile as some variation of Jason Tyner and they also have the actual Tyner on the big-league roster, but sadly baseball is the wrong medium for quantity to trump quality. Span is younger than Trent Oeltjen and ahead of Brandon Roberts on the organizational ladder, so if someone is going to emerge from the pack it'll probably be him. However, Span has a long way to go before that happens.
28. Jose Mijares | Reliever | DOB: 10/84 | Throws: Left | Sign: VenezuelaSigned out of Venezuela in 2002, Jose Mijares made his pro debut in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2004, posting a 2.43 ERA and 25-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29.1 innings as a reliever. He split the 2005 season between low Single-A and high Single-A, bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation while posting a 3.80 ERA and 95-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 66.1 innings. Mijares spent all of last season at Fort Myers, again split between starting and relieving.
In his five starts there, Mijares went 0-4 with a ghastly 8.00 ERA, walking a dozen batters in 18 innings while allowing a .296 opponent's batting average. When working out of the bullpen, Mijares was 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA and 57-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 45 innings, holding opponents to a measly .195 batting average. The starter-reliever splits are huge, but not surprising, because there have long been concerns about the six-foot, 230-pound southpaw's control, weight, work ethic, and stamina.
He seems destined to end up as a full-time reliever and certainly has the raw stuff to be a late-inning setup man, with a big-time fastball-slider combination that racks up tons of strikeouts and has held opponents to a .210 batting average over the past two years. However, even if the concerns about Mijares' work ethic prove overblown, he has a lot of work to do in terms of consistently throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the ballpark. At 22 years old, he's a boom-or-bust prospect.
27. Jay Sawatski | Reliever | DOB: 5/82 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2004-8Jay Sawatski went 10-3 with a 3.38 ERA as the swing man for a University of Arkansas team that advanced to the College World Series in 2004 and the Twins took him in the eighth round of the draft that June. He signed quickly and posted a 1.59 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 34 relief innings between rookie-ball and low Single-A. Sawatski continued to work strictly out of the bullpen in his first full season, posting a 3.94 ERA and 50-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61.2 innings at high Single-A.
Sawatski made the jump to Double-A last season, was briefly sent back to Fort Myers to get some work in as a starter, and then returned to New Britain to finish with a 2.87 ERA and 69-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 75.1 total innings while holding opponents to a .241 batting average. A ground-ball pitcher who features a fastball-slider combination, Sawatski allowed just three homers in 83 total innings between the two levels, including zero long balls over the final three months of the season.
Sawatski turns 25 years old in May and projects more as a middle reliever than late-inning setup man, but he's bordering on major league-ready and could emerge alongside Dennys Reyes as a second left-hander in the bullpen at some point in 2007. While Mijares has a much higher ceiling, Sawatski has a better chance to simply become a solid big leaguer. Trying to find a balance between those two things is the toughest part of prospect analysis, but in this case I lean (slightly) toward the surer thing.
26. Garrett Olson | Third Base | DOB: 3/85 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2006-4Taken in the fourth round of last June's draft out of Division II Franklyn Pierce College, Garrett Olson is unique in that he played his college ball in a wood-bat league. Olson hit .367/.425/.663 as Franklyn Pierce's everyday shortstop last season, dominating marginal competition by posting huge numbers without the aid of metal bats. He smacked 14 homers and 38 total extra-base hits in 59 games, showing impressive power that unfortunately didn't translate to his first pro season.
Olson signed quickly and reported to rookie-level Elizabethton, where he batted .313/.396/.381 with zero homers in 49 games. He also moved from shortstop to third base, which is considered his likely long-term position, making his lack of power even more of an issue. The Twins clearly like Olson a lot, using an early-round pick on a Division II player, and coming out of the gates by hitting .313 against significantly better competition than he's used to is a mark in his favor, even if it was a powerless .313.
Olson's defense at third base is reportedly good enough that his playing second base at some point might not be out of the question and his on-base skills look pretty solid, but he'll have to start hitting for some power to emerge as a legitimate factor in the team's long-term plans. Olson turns 22 years old in March and as always the Twins are short on young infield talent, so he could move quickly if his bat holds up. I'm cautiously optimistic, but 2007 will give a much clearer picture of where Olson stands.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Report: Twins to Sign Cirillo
The Twins are reportedly expected to sign Jeff Cirillo to a one-year contract later this week, which qualifies as their first major move of the offseason as long as you don't mind stretching the limits of "major move" to include bringing in a 37-year-old bench player. I didn't expect much in the way of significant free-agent signings this winter (or any winter), but Cirillo is at least the type of player I was hoping the Twins would go after to fill out the roster.
Cirillo is a (presumably) low-cost veteran capable of playing multiple infield positions defensively and has hit well enough to be relatively useful under the right circumstances. If the Twins decide to keep Ken Harvey and Luis Rodriguez at Triple-A, Cirillo can serve as the backup at both third base and first base, while also providing some emergency depth at second base behind Luis Castillo and either Rodriguez or Rule 5 draftee Alejandro Machado.
Once one of the better third basemen in baseball, Cirillo's play declined when he was traded from Milwaukee to Colorado in 1999 and then fell off a cliff when he was sent from Colorado to Seattle in 2001. He batted .249/.301/.328 in 146 games for the Mariners in 2002, was even worse while hitting .205/.284/.271 in 87 games the next year, and was dumped on the Padres prior to the 2004 season. Cirillo batted just .213/.259/.293 in 33 games with San Diego before being released in August.
At 34 years old and with his last decent season coming four years earlier, Cirillo looked all but finished as a big leaguer. Instead, he signed with the Brewers for the league minimum, hit .281/.373/.427 in 77 games as a reserve in 2005, and then followed it up by hitting .319/.369/.414 while making 52 starts spread over 112 total games last season. Milwaukee chose to retain Tony Graffanino over Cirillo, opening the door for him to come to Minnesota.
Here's what Cirillo has done since being let go by the Padres in 2004:
G PA AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SOThose certainly aren't huge numbers, but they compare favorably to Nick Punto's .290/.352/.373 hitting line from last season, giving Ron Gardenhire an alternative option at third base or at least making Cirillo a good fall-back plan should Punto struggle in 2007. Cirillo's bat contained only "doubles power" even at his peak and most of that pop is gone at this point, but he's batted .304 over his last 509 plate appearances and controls the strike zone extremely well.
Breaking the above numbers down even further, here's what Cirillo's splits look like:
PA AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SOCirillo has destroyed lefties to the tune of a .408 batting average over the past two seasons, while hitting a modest .261/.324/.365 against right-handed pitching. It's highly unlikely that his "true" split is anywhere close to that extreme given the sample-size issues at play, but the bigger point is that Cirillo is a solid platoon player against southpaws who likely won't be a disaster in limited exposure against righties.
Here's how Brewers fan and friend of AG.com Al Bethke described Cirillo's hitting to me last night:
He hits lefties like nobody's business, which I'm sure you've noticed. He gives righties tough at-bats and works the count extremely well, but hasn't hit them for several seasons.Punto doesn't need to be benched against lefties (at least any more than he does against righties), but Gardenhire should be able to put Cirillo into the lineup in place of Morneau or more likely Jason Kubel when the Twins are facing a tough southpaw. Whether through an injury to Punto or Castillo (with Punto sliding over to second base), Cirillo is also capable of stepping into the lineup on a regular basis at third base and providing good on-base skills and solid defense.
That's not an ideal situation any more than having Punto as the starting third baseman is an ideal situation, but signing Cirillo gives the Twins significantly more depth at a spot they were very thin at. There were any number of better bats available on the open market this year, whether as options at designated hitter or bench players, but Cirillo is a solid player who fits the roster well while falling into the Twins' price range.
It's been a long time since I was delusional enough to believe the Twins had any chance to bring in big-name free agents, so instead these are the types of moves I hope for. Signing Cirillo isn't going to make headlines or sell tickets, but he'll help the Twins win games and it beats the hell out of Tony Batista. Cirillo has already fallen off a cliff once in his career and is at an age where it could happen again at any time, but I like his chances of putting together 300 solid plate appearances. Nice move.
UPDATE: The Twins officially signed Cirillo to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, while also non-tendering Luis Rodriguez and Willie Eyre. Rodriguez and Eyre may be re-signed to minor-league deals, but are free to look around for better opportunities in the meantime and no longer occupy spots on the 40-man roster. As things stand now, Machado is all but guaranteed a place on the Opening Day roster and a bench of Mike Redmond, Machado, Cirillo, Lew Ford, and Jason Tyner appears likely.
Monday, December 11, 2006
Winter Meetings Twins Moves
As expected, the Twins made zero major moves during last week's Winter Meetings. However, they did make a few minor moves that are at least somewhat intriguing to those of us who like to micro-analyze every aspect of the organization whenever possible. After all, during an offseason in which re-signing Rondell White may be one of the biggest headline-grabbers, you take what you can get in the middle of December.
In their annual quest to find bench bats and bullpen depth while collecting potential reinforcements for Triple-A Rochester, the Twins signed Ken Harvey, Carmen Cali, and Mike Venafro to minor-league contracts. Actually, if you really wanted to stretch things a bit in an effort to turn something the Twins have done this offseason into an important-looking move, "Twins sign former All-Star" is probably the way to go.
You see, back in 2004 Harvey was an All-Star. Seriously. Thanks to the stupid one-player-per-team rule and the fact that "All-Star" is for some reason often defined as "guy having a good first half," Harvey was selected to the American League team in a season that saw him bat .287/.338/.421 in 120 games splitting time between first base and designated hitter for the Royals. Meanwhile, Tim Salmon will retire having never made a single All-Star team. But, I digress.
Once upon a time, several years before he was an undeserving All-Star, I ranked Harvey as the 36th-best prospect in baseball heading into the 2002 season. Here's what I wrote about him at the time:
If you went to "Central Casting" and asked for a designated hitter, they would probably show you Ken Harvey. He is big, fairly unathletic and, most importantly, he can hit. Harvey came into the season with a career minor-league batting average in the .350s, but focused on improving his power in 2002. The end result was mixed. Harvey hit a career high 20 homers and also added 30 doubles, but saw his batting average drop to .277, over 75 points below his career average.Harvey never became the hitter I thought he'd be, batting a combined .274/.332/.411 in 271 games with the Royals spread over four seasons, before injuries set his career back even further. He missed the entire 2006 season after tearing his Achilles' tendon, but could emerge as a potential platoon partner for Jason Kubel if healthy. Harvey has zero defensive value and doesn't hit right-handed pitching very well, but has batted .303/.342/.487 in 330 plate appearances against southpaws as a big leaguer.
While Harvey will be trying to prove he's healthy enough to be an option at designated hitter on days a left-handed pitcher takes the mound against the Twins, Cali and Venafro will be trying to prove they can be the second left-handed reliever out of the Twins' bullpen. Dennys Reyes is the team's primary lefty after a great 2006 season and Ron Gardenhire told me last week that Glen Perkins won't be working out of the bullpen in 2007, which means there might be an opening for another southpaw out there.
Cali has always had above-average raw stuff, but he was knocked around to the tune of a 9.45 ERA in two stints in the majors with the Cardinals and has struggled at Triple-A for two straight seasons. He pitched well after a demotion to Double-A last year, but prior to that had posted a 5.46 ERA, 64-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .300 opponent's batting average in 85.2 innings at Triple-A between 2005 and 2006.
The good news is that Cali is still just 27 years old and held left-handed batters to .235/.297/.284 with 27 strikeouts and zero homers even while struggling overall last season, suggesting there could be a decent LOOGY hiding in the ugly numbers. Much like Reyes, Cali's ability to become a dependable major-league pitcher will depend on whether or not pitching coach Rick Anderson can mold him into something he likes.
Meanwhile, Venafro has plenty of experience as a big-league LOOGY, throwing 253.1 innings with a 4.09 ERA in parts of seven seasons in the majors. However, he's 33 years old and last pitched a full big-league season in 2002, which is why the Twins were able to grab him with a minor-league deal. A quick glance at his career numbers against righties and lefties shows why the Twins think he could fit as the bullpen's second southpaw.
AVG OBP SLG OPSThe above numbers are from over 1,100 big-league plate appearances, but what Venafro did as a 27-year-old in 2001 doesn't really say much about what he could do as a 33-year-old in 2007. A side-arming lefty, Venafro posted a 2.35 ERA in 56 Triple-A appearances last season, with a 28-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .206 opponent's batting average in 38.1 innings. As you'd expect, he was particularly tough on left-handed hitters, holding them to a .188 batting average and zero homers.
The Twins have smartly avoided LOOGYs over the years, instead relying upon relievers capable of getting both righties and lefties out. Reyes was the only lefty in the bullpen for most of last season, yet it was among baseball's best because Gardenhire trusted Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek, and even Reyes for entire innings. Given multiple lefties to work with late in the year, Gardenhire often over-managed himself into unfavorable spots by getting cute mixing and matching lefties and righties.
Venafro fills the LOOGY role well and Cali might do a similarly good job shutting down lefties, but I'd rather see the Twins use a bullpen spot on someone capable of working in less rigid situations. Rather than carrying someone like Venafro, who might be good for one batter an outing a few times per week, I'd prefer using that spot on someone capable of tossing 65 innings. Not only would that keep Gardenhire from getting into trouble, it might lead to discovering the next Neshek or Matt Guerrier.
In addition to signing Harvey, Cali, and Venafro to minor-league contracts last week, the Twins also snatched Alejandro Machado from the Nationals via Thursday's Rule 5 draft. The Twins paid $50,000 to select Machado and now must either keep him on the major-league roster for the entire season or offer him back to the Nationals for $25,000. Most Rule 5 picks end up being sent back to their original teams, which is why the event itself probably gets more attention than it deserves.
For instance, none of the four players taken by the Twins in Rule 5 drafts this decade made it past spring training, as Ryan Rowland-Smith, Jason Pridie, Jose Morban, and Brandon Knight were all offered back to their original teams. On the other hand, the Twins ended up with none other than Johan Santana in the 1999 Rule 5 draft and also snagged Shane Mack in the 1989 Rule 5 draft. Machado has no chance to be an impact player like Santana or Mack, but there's reason to think he could stick.
Many Rule 5 picks are spent on inexperienced players who have what are perceived to be relatively high upsides, which is why most of them don't make it through an entire season on the major-league roster. Machado is different, in that he's already played two full seasons at Triple-A and is apparently being looked at to fill a specific role. At this point, it looks like Machado will battle Luis Rodriguez to be the Twins' utility infielder.
Machado is considered a good defensive middle infielder, which gives him a leg up on Rodriguez, who's stretched defensively at shortstop. The question will be whether the Twins think Machado can hit enough to warrant a roster spot, because slick-fielding infielders who can't hit aren't particularly difficult to find. Of course, given how long the Twins stuck with Juan Castro over Jason Bartlett, the odds may be in Machado's favor regardless of whether his bat looks capable in spring training.
Here's what Machado has done in the minors recently:
YEAR LV AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SOMachado posted some big numbers in the low minors, but since arriving at Double-A he's been more or less a .280/.350/.350 hitter over three seasons in the high minors. He makes good contact, draws a lot of walks for someone with zero power, and has enough speed to swipe 15-20 bases at a decent clip. Those are no doubt the type of skills the Twins look for in a backup middle infielder and they didn't have many major league-ready options within the organization, so it was a decent pick.
However, before you get too excited about Machado's solid on-base percentages and decent overall hitting numbers, take a look at the following comparison:
G AVG OBP SLG OPS"Player A" is Machado's career hitting line in 233 games at Triple-A, while "Player Z" is Rodriguez's career hitting line in 385 games at Triple-A. In case you're curious, Rodriguez has batted .255/.327/.359 in 335 major-league plate appearances, which is more or less what you'd expect from his Triple-A numbers. In other words, Machado looks like a faster version of Rodriguez who can handle shortstop defensively, which isn't so bad.
I question whether Machado will be able to maintain a solid on-base percentage in the majors, because his plate discipline will only take him so far against big-league pitchers who aren't afraid to groove a powerless hitter fastballs over the plate. If he can continue to make good contact on the way to batting .280 or .300, like he did in 2004 and 2005, he'll have enough value offensively to be a solid bench player. If his batting average drops to .260, as it did last season, Machado is an iffy big leaguer.