Twins notes: Casilla, Slowey, Ruiz and Morneau

With Tuesday night’s victory the Twins pulled to within a half-game of the White Sox in the AL Central, but their road to the playoffs actually became significantly tougher with the announcement that Alexi Casilla has a torn tendon in his right thumb. Casilla suffered the injury while diving into second base Monday night and is scheduled to undergo further testing, but he’s already been placed on the disabled list and there’s a strong chance that he’ll miss the remainder of the season.

After a forgettable 2007 season and putrid 32-game stretch at Triple-A to begin this year, Casilla was called up from Rochester in mid-May and quickly took over as the everyday second baseman while helping to jump-start the offense. He provided the lineup with a speedy, patient, switch-hitting on-base threat in front of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, batting .313/.351/.424 with 19 extra-base hits and a 25-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio while driving in or scoring 77 runs in 62 games.

With Casilla out indefinitely the Twins will make Nick Punto the starting second baseman while playing Brendan Harris at shortstop. That’s backward in the sense that Punto has significantly more range and is simply a better defensive shortstop, but Ron Gardenhire feels that Harris’ inability to consistently turn double plays as a second baseman makes him a better option at shortstop, poor range and all. To fill Casilla’s spot on the roster, the Twins have activated Adam Everett from the DL.

Everett has been out since mid-May with a shoulder injury and was on the verge of being designated for assignment before news of Casilla’s injury hit. Now he’ll rejoin the team as a reserve while trying to show that his shoulder is healthy after the once-elite defender struggled to make even routine throws early this season. A healthy Everett can make up for his awful bat with his great glove and be a decent option at shortstop, but he’s useless at less than full strength. Casilla will definitely be missed.

Kevin Slowey was clobbered by the White Sox on June 8, coughing up eight runs while watching his ERA soar from 3.76 to 5.15 in three innings. He also began July with three straight rough starts against the Indians, Tigers, and Yankees, allowing 15 runs over 15 innings. All of which made Monday night’s complete-game shutout of the White Sox all the more impressive. Slowey needed just 102 pitches to record 27 outs, scattering six singles and one walk while inducing a career-high 14 ground balls.

Slowey also tossed a complete-game shutout against the Brewers on June 29 and is now tied for the league lead as one of just five AL pitchers to have two such outings this season. If you’re curious, Scott Baker has one complete-game shutout in 64 career starts, Livan Hernandez hasn’t had one since July 30, 2004, and Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins and Boof Bonser have zero in 97 starts between them. Here’s how Slowey’s numbers in the majors compare to his time at Double-A and Triple-A:

 

PA

SO%

BB%

HR%

BIP

AA/AAA

785

21.4

4.2

1.5

.270

Majors

684

17.0

3.9

4.2

.282

Slowey made a name for himself in the minors with pinpoint control and amazing strikeout-to-walk ratios, and for all the reactionary talk of his supposed lack of an “out-pitch” that’s exactly what he’s done in the majors. With just 27 walks in 163.1 innings his control has actually been even better than it was in the high minors and while his strikeout rate has fallen 20 percent, it remains above the AL average. A huge increase in homers allowed is the biggest change for Slowey, but that was to be expected.

Monday’s ground-ball fest against the White Sox not withstanding, he’s always been an extreme fly-ball pitcher and warning-track outs in the minors tend to become homers in the majors. From Brad Radke, Johan Santana and Eric Milton to Slowey, Baker, and Perkins, the Twins’ rotation has long been filled with fly-ball pitchers who in turn struggle to keep the ball in the ballpark. Homers are Slowey’s biggest weakness, but the many fly balls also help account for his low batting average on balls in play.

Denard Span continues to impress both offensively and defensively, flashing outstanding range in center field while subbing for a banged-up Carlos Gomez and launching his first career homer Monday night off left-hander Mark Buehrle. Span has predictably come back down to earth somewhat, losing 40 points of batting average and 80 points of OPS during the past two weeks, but keeps displaying an excellent, patient approach at the plate while showing more power than expected.

After breaking free from his track record by hitting .340/.434/.481 with 15 extra-base hits and a 36-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40 games at Triple-A to begin this year, Span has hit .313/.403/.446 with 10 extra-base hits and a 19-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 36 games in the majors. His trip back to earth likely isn’t done yet, but with each game he looks more like a legit leadoff man and less like a fourth outfielder. With Casilla out, the Twins desperately need him to keep getting on base.

Much has been made, both here and elsewhere, about how losing Pat Neshek has hurt the Twins’ bullpen tremendously. Without Neshek around to put out fires and with Gardenhire choosing not to change his strict usage of Joe Nathan, the rest of the bullpen has taken on added responsibility with mixed results. Since Neshek went down in mid-May, the non-Nathan relievers in the Twins’ bullpen have a 4.53 ERA and 137-to-70 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing 201 hits in 184.2 innings.

Even with Nathan’s brilliant work thrown into the mix, the bullpen has a 4.09 ERA in 213 post-Neshek innings. That’s certainly not disastrous, but Twins relievers had a 3.42 ERA when Neshek was part of the bullpen and AL relievers as a whole have a 3.92 ERA this season. In other words, without Neshek around the bullpen has declined significantly while being worse than the AL average. That’s obviously not a good sign and it’s also not something the Twins have had to deal with recently.

A huge part of the Twins’ success this decade has come from outstanding, deep bullpens featuring an excellent closer and multiple quality setup men. Because of that they haven’t had a bullpen ERA above 3.99 since 2001, posting an average ERA of 3.59 during the past six seasons. Unfortunately, since losing Neshek nearly three months ago the bullpen has been mediocre at best and ranks as arguably the Twins’ worst relief corps since Gardenhire took over as manager.

Ideally the Twins would acquire a top-notch setup man to replace Neshek, pushing the other relievers back into their previous, lower-leverage roles. That’s a possibility, but Jon Rauch and Damaso Marte are already off the market and it’s unlikely that the Twins will meet the asking prices for someone like Huston Street or Brian Fuentes. Instead, the Twins figure to stand pat, call up a reliever from Triple-A, or go after an inexpensive veteran.

Standing pat would leave Nathan closing, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain as the primary setup men, and Dennys Reyes as the situational left-hander, with Craig Breslow, Brian Bass and Bonser in low-leverage roles. No bullpen with Nathan in the ninth inning can be that bad, Guerrier is a solid setup man, and Bonser still has a chance to be useful in relief, but that’s not really a confidence-inspiring group and doesn’t look particularly capable of being an elite bullpen down the stretch.

A call-up from Triple-A would seemingly point to Francisco Liriano, who racked up nine strikeouts Sunday night and has been screaming for a promotion via his recent performance. He’s 10-0 with a 2.93 ERA and 80-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 71 innings spread over his last 11 starts, but the Twins have indicated that they don’t want to use him as a reliever. Instead, if Liriano rejoins the rotation that would likely lead to the Twins shifting Perkins, Blackburn, or Hernandez to the bullpen.

Hernandez hasn’t worked in relief since his MLB debut in 1996 and opponents have clobbered him to the tune of .336/.363/.500, so he wouldn’t be any more bullpen help than Bass. Blackburn has more bullpen experience than Hernandez and would obviously be a better bet, but pitching to contact isn’t a great fit in the late innings. Perkins’ first 24 big-league appearances came out of the bullpen after he was strictly a starter in the minors, but Reyes and Breslow have been solid getting lefties out anyway.

Beyond calling up Liriano to start while moving Hernandez, Blackburn, or Perkins to relief, the staff at Rochester includes quite a few potential bullpen candidates in Bobby Korecky, Philip Humber, Danny Graves, Tim Lahey, Mariano Gomez, Ricky Barrett, Carmen Cali, Julio DePaula and Casey Daigle. Neshek showed two years ago that a reliever can come up from Triple-A and immediately thrive in a high-leverage role, but unfortunately there’s no Neshek at Rochester this season:

PA FIP SO% BB%
Bobby Korecky 226 2.85 22.6 6.2
Mariano Gomez 227 3.16 15.4 6.2
Ricky Barrett 226 3.16 28.3 12.4
Tim Lahey 217 3.66 20.7 6.5
Carmen Cali 247 3.82 18.2 6.9
Casey Daigle 265 4.30 20.8 9.4
Danny Graves 304 5.30 7.2 5.9
Julio DePaula 282 5.46 18.1 12.8
Philip Humber 396 5.64 15.2 9.8

If you’re curious, Neshek had a 1.95 ERA and 87-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 60 innings at Triple-A when the Twins called him up in mid-2006. That adds up to a 2.48 FIP, which is 13 percent better than anyone on the above list has managed this season. Of course, there’s no shame in a Triple-A reliever being worse than Neshek and Korecky’s 2.85 FIP at Rochester is still plenty solid. Korecky has a 3.35 ERA and 51-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 53.2 innings as Rochester’s closer.

He also has a similarly strong minor-league track record in previous seasons and held his own in nine games with the Twins earlier this year, so if they want to add a bullpen arm from Triple-A it should be Korecky. With that said, he’s more middle man than setup man, so there likely won’t be any filling of Neshek’s shoes. Gomez and Barrett would be options as situational left-handers if the Twins didn’t already have Reyes and Breslow, and Lahey doesn’t project as more than a decent middle reliever.

Cali and Daigle have ugly stats in brief MLB stints and are pretty standard organizational filler at this point, DePaula has fallen apart after previously looking like a decent relief prospect, and Humber has been a huge disappointment since coming over in the Johan Santana trade. Graves is a recognizable name because of his two All-Star appearances as the Reds’ closer, but he’s now 33 years old, hasn’t had success in the majors since 2004, and has been anything but impressive at Rochester.

Rochester is home to no shortage of potential middle relievers and mop-up men–which is yet another reason why hanging onto Bass all season makes such little sense–but unless the Twins change their mind about Liriano’s short-term role Korecky is probably the only option there for adding a potential impact bullpen arm for the stretch run (and it’s debatable if he even qualifies).

Aside from the fact that he’s simply not a very good hitter, one of my objections to the Twins signing Craig Monroe to a one-year, $3.82 million contract was that the minor leagues are flush with players capable of filling his role for a fraction of the cost. One such player is Randy Ruiz, who signed a minor-league deal with the Twins during the winter. When Ruiz failed to make the Opening Day roster despite an impressive spring training, here was my take:

A 30-year-old veteran of nine seasons and over 3,600 trips to the plate in the minors, Ruiz has yet to get even a sniff of the big leagues despite a .300/.370/.522 career hitting line. … He has a lengthy track record of success in the minors and looks capable of filling a specific niche in the majors as a right-handed platoon bat, but unfortunately for Ruiz he picked the wrong year to make the Twins.

I’d argue that signing a scrap-heap bat like Ruiz for $350,000 makes more sense than handing $3.8 million to Monroe, but that ship sailed months ago. … Strictly in terms of hitting ability, the only real difference between Monroe and Ruiz is that the Tigers gave Monroe a chance in 2003 after he put up a string of impressive seasons in the minors. Ruiz has yet to get that chance and probably won’t.

Monroe has hit .202/.274/.405 in 179 plate appearances with the Twins. Ruiz has hit .313/.360/.514 in 442 plate appearances at Triple-A. He’s far from a potential star and has plenty of flaws, but Ruiz is on track for his 10th straight season with an OPS above .800 in the minors and would have been a fine fit as a right-handed platoon partner for Jason Kubel at designated hitter. Instead, the Twins spent an extra $3.5 million on Monroe, who’s now hit .234/.285/.431 over his last 1,200 plate appearances.

Morneau has drawn 17 walks in 23 games this month after drawing a total of just 31 free passes through 83 games, but it looks like the sudden spike in his walk rate is due at least as much to teams pitching around him as it is improved plate discipline. Four of his 17 walks this month are intentional, which makes sense given that he’s crushing the ball to the tune of .372/.485/.705 in July while lesser hitters like Monroe, Kubel, and Delmon Young bat behind him.

Beyond that, Morneau continues to swing at pitches outside the strike zone at a remarkably consistent rate. From 2006-2008, he swung at non-strikes 30.7, 31.1, and 30.4 percent of the time. While walking like crazy over the past month, he’s swung at pitches outside the strike zone 30.9 percent of the time. Morneau isn’t suddenly laying off more non-strikes. Instead, he’s being thrown more non-strikes and because he’s always avoided swinging at them 70 percent of the time, he’s drawing more walks.

Over the past three seasons, 49.1 percent of the pitches thrown to Morneau have been inside the strike zone, but during the past month that number has dropped to just 41.7 percent. One area where he’s definitely improved in July is making contact on pitches both inside and outside the strike zone. This month he’s connected on 96.0 percent of his zone swings and 70.4 percent of his non-zone swings, both of which are up considerably from his pre-July rates this year and for his career.

Morneau has hit .320/.393/.526 with 17 homers, 26 doubles, 48 walks, 64 runs, and 82 RBIs in 106 games. At this same point during his MVP-winning 2006 season, he was hitting .319/.367/.596 with 28 homers, 20 doubles, 30 walks, 62 runs, and 88 RBIs. Given that offense is down seven percent across the league this year compared to 2006–a difference that equals 30 points of OPS or one-third of a run per team, per game–a good argument can be made for his current run being even more impressive.

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