Twins Notes: Lamb chopped, 100 RBIs and two strikes

Lost in Eddie Guardado‘s return to Minnesota is that the Twins cut Mike Lamb loose to make room for him on the roster. Signed to a two-year, $6.6 million contract this winter, Lamb is still due around $3.5 million for the remainder of this season and all of next year. Between the $3.5 million still owed Lamb and the money due to both Craig Monroe and Juan Rincon after they were released, the Twins have eaten approximately $6.5 million in dead money.

That total doesn’t include another $6.5 million paid to those three players while they were actually on the team or $7.5 million spent on fellow free-agent busts Livan Hernandez and Adam Everett, whose contracts weren’t eaten. Add it all up and the Twins committed $21 million to the veteran fivesome of Hernandez, Lamb, Rincon, Everett and Monroe, each of whom were released (Monroe, Rincon, Lamb), dumped on another team (Hernandez) or benched after nearly being cut loose (Everett).

An inexplicable rebate on Hernandez courtesy of the Rockies drops that total to around $20 million, but the point remains. Not all five of those signings were likely to be disasters, although certainly anyone who read my blog during the offseason saw plenty of objections to the $11 million in contracts handed to Hernandez, Rincon, and Monroe. On the other hand, the $9 million spent on Lamb and Everett struck me as reasonable, and those two signings turned out just as badly as the other three.

Everett’s value has always been completely dependent on his being an elite defensive shortstop, so season-long shoulder problems leaving him with a noodle arm go a long way toward explaining why he’s been a bust. Lamb is the opposite in that his value has always come almost strictly from his bat, but unlike with Everett, there’s no simple explanation for why he suddenly ceased hitting. Prior to joining the Twins, Lamb spent four seasons with the Astros, hitting .281/.342/.464 in 1,435 plate appearances.

That strong four-year run with Houston included Lamb hitting .289/.366/.453 in 353 plate appearances last season as a 31-year-old, yet he never showed anything resembling that sort of bat with the Twins. He started regularly at third base through mid-June but lost the job to Brian Buscher after hitting just .226/.265/.305 in 211 trips to the plate. Lamb then spent the next two months as a little-used reserve, batting a total of 49 times in 10 weeks while hitting .267/.327/.400 (and growing a spectacular beard).

Signing Hernandez, Monroe, and Rincon all struck me as mistakes immediately, but bringing in Lamb and Everett seemed like reasonable decisions. Unfortunately, Hernandez, Monroe, and Rincon were as bad as expected, while Lamb stopped hitting and Everett stopped fielding to see their value vanish by both failing on the one side of the ball that they previously thrived. Lamb is far from the first mediocre veteran to prove worthless after joining the Twins of late, but he’s a rare multi-year mistake.

Lamb is highly unlikely to be handed another starting job, but should find a bench spot somewhere. Hitting .233/.276/.322 in 261 plate appearances as a 32-year-old is ugly, but he’d be a decent reserve for a team that doesn’t have left-handed hitters like Buscher and Justin Morneau starting at the infield corners. For the Twins, there’s zero need for a left-handed hitter backing up Morneau, and Buscher is essentially a younger, cheaper version of the player they thought they were getting in Lamb.

Lamb has hit .277/.334/.418 in 2,937 career plate appearances and has poor range with a decent arm at third base. Buscher has hit .288/.332/.392 in the majors and .280/.349/.404 in the minors, and has decent range with a poor arm at third base. Going with a 27-year-old version instead of a 32-year-old version makes lots of sense, but sadly it cost the Twins $6.6 million and 261 plate appearances in the process. After cutting Lamb, Ron Gardenhire pulled no punches assessing his time with the Twins:

His energy level wasn’t what we expected. He’s more of a veteran, laid-back guy, and we play at a different level. We like to run. We like to do all kinds of things. He’s a veteran off-the-bench type of guy; that’s what he looks like to me, and we were looking for something a little different. That’s probably why it didn’t work out.

Gardenhire usually takes that stance regarding young players rather than a veteran, but his suggesting that someone’s personality is to blame for their struggles comes as no surprise. In reality, Lamb not hitting is “probably why it didn’t work out.” If he’d hit .289/.366/.453, like he did with the Astros last year, being a “laid-back guy” who doesn’t “like to run” likely wouldn’t have been an issue. To Lamb’s credit, he handled the news and Gardenhire’s subsequent comments pretty well:

I’m embarrassed for having gotten fired. I wish it had turned out better. Bill [Smith] and Rob [Antony] stuck their necks out for me. I hope it’s not held against them. If [his laid-back attitude] was a problem, I wish someone would have told me. I would have thrown stuff if I needed to.

As a player who doesn’t “battle his tail off,” Lamb simply needed to hit, and he didn’t.

Justin and Harmon

By going 3-for-4 with a homer, a double, and three RBIs Sunday afternoon, Morneau joined Harmon Killebrew as the only hitters in Twins history to crack 100 RBIs in three straight seasons. After driving in 130 and 111 runs during the previous two years, Morneau has knocked in 102 runs through 130 games this season, putting him on a 127-RBI pace. Here’s how Morneau’s current three-season run compares to what Killebrew did from 1969-1971:

G PA AVG OBP SLG OPS HR RBI
Killebrew 466 1998 .267 .409 .534 .943 118 372
Morneau 443 1895 .299 .368 .520 .888 85 343

Morneau is great, but Killebrew was a monster. In fact, the 55-point gap in OPS is actually wider than it looks because Killebrew posted those numbers in an environment that was much less conducive to big offense. From 1969 to 1971, the AL as a whole hit just .248 with a .319 on-base percentage and .371 slugging percentage, as the average team scored 4.04 runs per game. From 2006 to 2008, the AL as a whole has hit .272 with a .338 OBP and .427 SLG, as the average team scores 4.88 runs per game.

In other words, compared with Killebrew, Morneau is playing in an environment that boosts slugging by 15 percent and ups overall scoring by 21 percent. If you take Killebrew’s production from 1969 to 1971 and adjust it to the offensive levels that Morneau has experienced from 2006 to2008, his line jumps to .295/.435/.615 with an average of 150 RBIs per year, giving him a 160-point edge in OPS. And those weren’t even the three best years of Killebrew’s career. Not even close. Here’s Morneau on Killebrew:

He’s a Hall of Famer, 573 homers. He’s the guy who’s got all the power records in our organization. To have my name next to him is pretty nice, but I’ve still got a long way to go to come close to what he did.

Baseball-Reference.com has a stat called OPS+ that takes a hitter’s production and compares it with the offensive environment that he played in. A 100 OPS+ is exactly average, Babe Ruth holds the all-time career record at 207, and Barry Bonds set the single-season record at 268 in 2002. Morneau’s career OPS+ is 121 and he had a personal-best 140 OPS+ in his MVP-winning 2006 season. Killebrew has a 143 OPS+ for his 22-year career and topped a 140 OPS+ nine times. Killer could hit just a little bit.

Two strikes
Watching Carlos Gomez end two innings by striking out on down-and-away sliders Sunday made me wonder whether he’s more helpless than most hitters once the count has two strikes. Gomez has had two strikes in 239 of his 503 plate appearances, and he’s hit .143 while striking out 49.4 percent of the time. To put that in some context, consider that the AL as a whole is hitting .195 while striking out 35.4 percent of the time with two strikes.

In other words, everyone is awful once they have two strikes, but Gomez is really awful. He’s 27 percent worse than the league average while striking out 40 percent more often. Actually, not everyone is awful once they have two strikes. Joe Mauer is hitting .272 while striking out in just 18.6 percent of his 210 plate appearances with two strikes and if you remove Gomez’s awful two-strike work from the mix, the rest of the Twins are hitting .218 on two-strike counts.

Bass, Daigle and Finch
After keeping Brian Bass on the roster all season because he was out of minor-league options and they were irrationally afraid of losing him on waivers, the Twins finally removed him from the 40-man roster over the weekend. In what likely surprised no one except the Twins, the 26-year-old rookie with a 4.87 ERA in the majors after posting a 5.10 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A went unclaimed and reluctantly accepted a demotion back to Rochester.

Less than a week after Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a lengthy, well-done article about Casey Daigle‘s career and marriage to Jennie Finch, the Twins released him to make room on the Triple-A roster for Bass. Jensen ended the piece with this Finch quote: “He’s young still and I think he has a long career ahead of him, but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and we’ll be there for him.” She also had a tough week, as the dominant U.S. women’s softball team lost the gold medal to Japan.

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