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Twins Notes: Bonser, Gomez, Blackburn and Cuddyer

Boof Bonser turned in his fourth Quality Start in five outings this season by tossing six innings of two-run ball against the A’s last night, but his record fell to 1-4 when the Twins once again failed to provide him with decent run support. After being shut out last night, the lineup has produced a grand total of seven runs in Bonser’s five starts, and he also ranked second-to-last among AL starters in run support last year. In Bonser’s last 35 starts, the Twins have scored more than four runs just 11 times.

Carlos Gomez had a memorable Twins debut — doubling, bunting for a single, walking and stealing two bases on Opening Day — and hit .326 with five steals through his first 10 games. Unfortunately, he’s been completely lost at the plate since, batting 6-for-44 (.136) with zero walks in 10 games. Gomez went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts Tuesday before mercifully receiving last night off, but his problems offensively shouldn’t come as a surprise given his various projections heading into the season:

Baseball Prospectus.249.301.361.662
Baseball Think Factory.241.299.346.645
The Hardball Times.247.293.337.630

Gomez was handed an everyday job in the majors as a 22-year-old despite having a month’s worth of experience at Triple-A, and his minor-league track record suggested that he was anything but ready to thrive against big-league pitching. Sure enough, he’s hitting .230/.247/.310 with a horrendous 24-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 20 games, underperforming even those modest projections and making him a .231/.272/.307 hitter in 78 career games once his time with the Mets last season is included.

He’s drawn a total of eight non-intentional walks in 228 career plate appearances while striking out 51 times, which isn’t the type of ratio that lends itself to being a quality leadoff man, especially when it accompanies a .272 on-base percentage. Nearly one-fourth of Gomez’s career hits have come via bunts, and he’s unsuccessfully laid one down plenty, which leaves him as a .202 hitter with a measly .278 slugging percentage and 50 strikeouts in 203 plate appearances when he swings away.

That works out to a strikeout in 25 percent of his non-bunt plate appearances, which would’ve ranked as the eighth-highest strikeout rate among AL hitters last year. Even with the bunt attempts included, Gomez has whiffed in 22 percent of his career trips to the plate, which would’ve ranked 14th-worst among AL hitters last season. Gomez’s speed makes him plenty exciting, but he’s been rushed to the majors, despite having huge holes in his game, and has predictably been overmatched at the plate.

Gomez can wreak havoc once he reaches base, but that rarely happens because he has horrible plate discipline, struggles to make consistent contact and possesses little power. He has loads of potential and has shown flashes of brilliance, but isn’t an MLB-caliber hitter at this stage of his career, let alone an MLB-caliber leadoff man. Perhaps the Twins feel that he’ll learn more in Minnesota than Rochester, but in the meantime, he’s burning through pre-free agency service time while dragging the lineup down.

Michael Cuddyer is scheduled to return from the disabled list Friday and figures to resume batting third in the lineup, which hopefully means that Ron Gardenhire will move Joe Mauer back into the No. 2 spot. Sliding Gomez to the bottom of the order while making Brendan Harris the leadoff man would also make sense given that Harris is hitting .297/.352/.406 this year and batted .286/.343/.434 last season. Of course, as LaVelle E. Neal III of theStar Tribune reports, it’ll never happen:

Gardenhire said he’s against moving Gomez from the leadoff spot, reasoning that he needs at-bats and he’ll be better off down the road if he stays at the top of the order.

Gomez would still get plenty of plate appearances at the bottom of the lineup, and staying at the top of the order won’t help anyone involved if he doesn’t actually perform well enough to warrant being there. Gardenhire views speed as having tremendous importance atop the lineup, and regardless of what you think of that stance, Gomez’s wheels do have plenty of value, but Harris figures to get on base about 20 percent more often and that’s far more important.

Had Cuddyer’s finger injury been more serious, it would have made sense for the Twins to pursue Frank Thomas after the future Hall of Famer was released by the Blue Jays earlier this week. Thomas would have provided an upgrade to the Twins’ lineup, but with the team committed to playing Cuddyer, Delmon Young and Jason Kubel nearly every game and Craig Monroe already around to take starts against left-handers away from Kubel, there would’ve been limited work available.

Interestingly, Thomas is rumored to be negotiating a return to Oakland, where he’d presumably replace Mike Sweeney as the A’s designated hitter. Sweeney revealed yesterday that he “had some talks with the Twins early in the offseason” and “was pretty excited about the possibility” of coming to Minnesota before “talks calmed down” and he signed with the A’s for just $500,000. He then went 2-for-3 with a homer and two RBIs in the A’s 3-0 victory last night, improving to .309/.391/.418 on the year.

Monroe was in the starting lineup Tuesday because of his previous success against A’s starter Joe Blanton and went 3-for-4 with a homer, a double, and three RBIs to raise his OPS from .656 to .897. He was back in the lineup last night, but without Blanton to smack around went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. Monroe costs nearly eight times as much as Sweeney, but when not facing Blanton this season, he’s 6-for-29 (.207) with 12 strikeouts and a .310 slugging percentage.

Nick Blackburn turned in 7.2 scoreless innings Saturday against the Indians, continuing to make Baseball America look good and me look bad (shocking, I know). BA picking the 26-year-old Blackburn as the Twins’ No. 1 prospect prior to the Johan Santana trade was criticized over at my blog, but he now has a 2.49 ERA and .681 opponent’s OPS through four starts, locking himself into the rotation for the foreseeable future.

Blackburn racked up 11 strikeouts through his first two starts, which was completely out of character based on his minor-league track record, but has gotten into character by totaling one strikeout in two starts since. He’s made up for the lack of missed bats by inducing 26 ground-ball outs over that stretch and has induced a grounder on 55.3 percent of his balls in play overall. Unlike some low-strikeout pitchers who experience immediate success, Blackburn hasn’t gotten lucky on balls in play.

The defense behind him has actually converted balls in play into outs at a slightly below-average rate and because of that his .289 opponent’s batting average is subpar. He’s limited the damage of those hits by serving up zero homers and handing out just three walks in 103 plate appearances. Blackburn allowed eight hits Saturday against the Indians but didn’t issue a walk, kept the ball in the ballpark and wriggled out of trouble repeatedly by coaxing four double plays.

It was an outing straight from the Carlos Silva tight-rope-walking handbook. Blackburn issued just 19 free passes in 148.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season, so his control is legitimately outstanding. A dozen strikeouts in 25.1 innings is also about what should be expected based on his track record. In other words, he’ll keep pounding the strike zone and pitching to contact, which leaves Blackburn’s ground-ball and home-run rates as the big variables.

Inducing 55 percent grounders all year would make him one of the most ground-ball-heavy pitchers in baseball and give him a strong chance for continued success, but his ground-ball rate was 50 percent in the minors over the past two seasons, and facing MLB hitters tends to equal more fly balls. It seems unlikely that Blackburn can continue to induce so many grounders and either way he’ll eventually serve up some homers, but he’s certainly been impressive enough to make me look silly thus far.

Adam Everett‘s defense has been one of this season’s biggest disappointments. Long considered a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop who for years has ranked among the truly elite defensive players in all of baseball regardless of position, Everett was shaky from Opening Day on after signing a one-year deal with the Twins this winter. His range looked solid but unspectacular — perhaps because of the broken leg that sidelined him for three months last year — and his arm was both weak and erratic.

Everett’s throwing problems now make sense after the Twins placed him on the disabled list Saturday afternoon with right shoulder tendinitis. Everett called the shoulder injury “a little shocking” because he’s never experienced previous arm problems while starting for the Astros over the past five seasons, adding: “I don’t feel like anybody’s seen me really play yet because I don’t feel like I’ve been 100 percent healthy, so maybe I can get back and show you guys that I can actually play the shortstop position.”

In case you’re curious, Jason Bartlett is hitting just .212/.235/.242 in 18 games and has already made four errors — including a huge one against the Twins last week — as the Rays’ starting shortstop.

Justin Morneau began the season 1-for-16 with zero extra-base hits and tons of grounders, which along with his powerless second half last year had people concerned. Since then, he’s 19-for-59 (.322) with five homers and 14 RBIs in 16 games. It’s nice to see Morneau recover from a brief season-opening slump, but early power has never been a problem. From 2005-2007, Morneau slugged .554 with one homer per 15 at-bats in the first half, compared with .441 with one homer per 28 at-bats in the second half.

Mauer’s durability is questioned by fans, media members and self-proclaimed tough guys who sit with sore toes, but he’s started 18 of the first 21 games, catching 158 of a possible 185 innings. He’s on pace to catch 1,220 innings, which is noteworthy given that Jorge Posada led the AL by catching 1,111 innings last year. Even his limited rest hasn’t been optimal, as Mauer has started four of the five games against lefties while two of Mike Redmond‘s three starts have come against righties.

While Gomez struggles, Jacoby Ellsbury has been great for the Red Sox, hitting .308/.456/.538 in 20 games. Ellsbury was my preferred position player from the various Santana trade rumors this winter, and including last season’s playoffs has now hit .342 with a fantastic 23-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio while going 19-for-19 stealing bases in 64 career MLB games. On the other hand, my preferred pitcher from the Santana talks was Phil Hughes, and he’s 0-3 with an 8.82 ERA for the Yankees.

Wayne Krivsky‘s underwhelming stint as Reds general manager ended yesterday, as Terry Ryan‘s former right-hand man was fired after two-plus years on the job. Cincinnati went 161-184 (.467) under Krivsky, who hired Dusty Baker as manager, despite his being horribly miscast to lead a young team, and too often filled the roster with players like Juan Castro after honing his love for veteran mediocrity in Minnesota. Krivsky is respected enough to land on his feet, but hopefully not back with the Twins.

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