SweetSpot: Brian Duensing
We're back with more divisional position rankings for 2012. You can scream, you can holler, you can protest and call me names. But just because I rated your player lower than you think he deserves doesn't mean I hate your team.
(Here are the NL East and NL West rankings.)
1. Alex Avila, Tigers
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Carlos Santana, Indians
4. Salvador Perez, Royals
5. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox
The AL Central might not be baseball's glamor division, but it may have three of the top five catchers in the game if Mauer bounces back from his injury-plagued campaign. Since we're not certain of his health, I'm going to give top billing to Avila, who had the best hitting numbers of any catcher outside of Mike Napoli and plays solid defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Santana explodes; with his power-and-walks combo, all he has to do is raise his average 30 points and he'll be one of the most valuable players in the game. Considering that his average on balls in play was .263, there is a good chance of that happening. Perez hit .331 in 39 games; OK, he won't do that again, but he doesn't turn 22 until May and puts the ball in play. There's no shame in being fifth in this group but that's where I have to place Pierzynski, who keeps rolling along and is now 36th on the all-time list for games caught.
1. Prince Fielder, Tigers
2. Paul Konerko, White Sox
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Justin Morneau, Twins
5. Matt LaPorta, Indians
In 2009, when Morneau played 135 games, he hit .274 AVG/.363 OBP/.516 SLG. Even if he replicates that line, he may rank only fourth. Konerko has hit a combined .306 with 70 home runs the past two seasons. He's 104 home runs from 500 but turns 36 in March, so he's probably four seasons away; not sure he'll hang on that long, but who knew he'd be this good at this age. If Hosmer improves his walk rate and defense and Konerko declines, Hosmer could climb past him. If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen next. The most similar batter to him at age 21: Eddie Murray.
1. Jason Kipnis, Indians
2. Gordon Beckham, White Sox
3. Johnny Giavotella, Royals
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins
5. Ramon Santiago, Tigers
Well, this isn't exactly a Robinson Cano/Dustin Pedroia/Ben Zobrist debate, is it? Kipnis' bat is a sure thing, as evidenced by his excellent play after his call-up (.272 average and .507 slugging in 36 games). His glove was once a question mark but now appears solid enough that he looks like a future All-Star to me. Can anybody explain what has happened to Beckham? He's second mostly by default; he's gone downhill since his superb rookie season in 2009 but is only 25, so there's hope that he'll find those skills again. Giavotella has some potential with the bat (.338/.390/.481 at Triple-A), which is more than you can say for Casilla and Santiago.
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians
4. Danny Valencia, Twins
5. Brent Morel, White Sox
We'll go with the idea that Cabrera is Detroit's starting third baseman, although I predict he'll end up starting more games at designated hitter. Manager Jim Leyland will end up doing a lot of mixing of his lineups, but for this little exercise we have to choose a starter. Moustakas didn't tear up the league as a rookie and I worry about his ability to hit lefties (.191, homerless in 89 at-bats), but he showed more than fellow rookies Chisenhall and Morel. Valencia doesn't get on base enough and he rated poorly on defense in 2011. I hope he's at least good in the clubhouse. Morel was terrible all season and then exploded for eight of his 10 home runs in September and drew 15 walks after drawing just seven the previous five months. Maybe something clicked.
1. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
2. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3. Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
4. Alcides Escobar, Royals
5. Jamey Carroll, Twins
Peralta had the best 2011 season, but he's a difficult guy to project. He had an .804 OPS in 2008 but dropped to .691 in 2009. He had a .703 OPS in 2010 and then .823 in 2011. I just don't see a repeat season, at the plate or in the field. Cabrera didn't rate well on the defensive metrics, and after a strong start he wore down in the second half. Ramirez has turned into a nice player, with a good glove and some power, and he even draws a few walks now. Escobar is a true magician with the glove. Carroll is actually a useful player who gets on base (.356 career OBP), but he's pushed as an everyday shortstop and he'll be 38. He'll be issued the honorary Nick Punto locker in the Twins' clubhouse.
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
2. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
3. Ben Revere, Twins
4. Michael Brantley/Shelley Duncan, Indians
5. Ryan Raburn/Don Kelly, Tigers
I'm not sure what to do here. After Gordon, I just get a headache. We'll pretend to believe in De Aza after his impressive stint in the majors (171 plate appearances, .329/.400/.920). He's hit in Triple-A for three seasons now, and while he's not going to post a .400 OBP again, he should be adequate. Revere is one of the fastest players in the majors, but he's all speed and defense; he hopes to grow up to be Brett Gardner, which isn't a bad thing, but he'll have to learn to get on base at a better clip. Brantley doesn't have one outstanding skill so he'll have to hit better than .266 to be anything more than a fourth outfielder; Duncan provides some right-handed pop as a platoon guy. The Tigers have Delmon Young, but I'll slot him at DH. That leaves supposed lefty masher Raburn and utility man Kelly to soak up at-bats; both had an OBP below .300 in 2011, although Raburn has hit better in the past.
1. Austin Jackson, Tigers
2. Denard Span, Twins
3. Grady Sizemore, Indians
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
5. Alex Rios, White Sox
I can't rate Sizemore any higher since he's played just 104 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn't had a big year since 2008. Rios was terrible in '09, OK in '10 and worse than terrible in '11. I'm not betting on him.
1. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
2. Brennan Boesch, Tigers
3. Jeff Francoeur, Royals
4. Josh Willingham, Twins
5. Dayan Viciedo, White Sox
Choo would like to forget 2011, but there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back and play like he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was one of the 10 best position players in the AL. I don't expect Francoeur to deliver 71 extra-base hits again, but maybe he'll surprise us. Viciedo is apparently nicknamed "The Tank," which makes me wonder how much ground he can cover. He did improve his walk rate last season in the minors and turns 23 in March, so there's still room for more growth.
1. Billy Butler, Royals
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Ryan Doumit, Twins
4. Delmon Young, Tigers
5. Adam Dunn, White Sox
Has there been a bigger prospect disappointment than Young in the past decade? I mean, yes, there were complete busts like Brandon Wood and Andy Marte, but those guys had obvious holes in their games, while Young was viewed as a sure thing, a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. But his bat has never lived up to its billing. Other than one decent year in Minnesota, he has low OBPs and he clearly lacked range in the outfield. His career WAR on Baseball-Reference is minus-0.2 (1.6 on FanGraphs), meaning he's been worse than replacement level. He's just not that good, Tigers fans.
No. 1 starter
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. John Danks, White Sox
3. Justin Masterson, Indians
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
5. Carl Pavano, Twins
Masterson was better than Danks in 2011, and I do believe his improvement was real. He absolutely crushes right-handers -- they slugged an anemic .259 off him. Danks had two bad months but has the longer track record of success. Even in his "off year" he had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than Masterson. If you want to argue about Hochevar versus Pavano, be my guest.
No. 2 starter
1. Doug Fister, Tigers
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
3. Gavin Floyd, White Sox
4. Francisco Liriano, Twins
5. Jonathan Sanchez, Royals
Yes, sign me up for the Doug Fister bandwagon club. Jimenez's fastball velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season but the positives are that his strikeout and walk rates were identical to 2010; he'll be better. Floyd isn't flashy but he's now made 30-plus starts four years in a row, and he'll become a very rich man when he becomes a free agent after this season. Sanchez won't have the luxury of pitching in San Francisco (and to eight-man NL lineups).
No. 3 starter
1. Max Scherzer, Tigers
2. Scott Baker, Twins
3. Philip Humber, White Sox
4. Bruce Chen, Royals
5. Josh Tomlin, Indians
I could be underrating Baker, who was excellent last season, but only once in his career has he made 30 starts in a season. Tomlin's fans will disagree with this ranking, but he's a finesse guy who relies on the best control in baseball (21 walks in 26 starts). He's the kind of guy you root for, but the league seemed to figure him out as the season progressed.
No. 4 starter
1. Felipe Paulino, Royals
2. Rick Porcello, Tigers
3. Jake Peavy, White Sox
4. Derek Lowe, Indians
5. Nick Blackburn, Twins
Scouts still love Porcello's arm and I know he's just 23, but he's made 89 big league starts and shown no signs of getting better. His WHIP has increased each season and his strikeout rate remains one of the lowest in baseball. Paulino has an electric arm -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball -- and is getting better. How could the Rockies give up on him after just 14 innings? How could the Astros trade him for Clint Barmes? Anyway, kudos to the Royals for buying low on the guy who may turn into their best starter. Peavy can't stay healthy. Lowe has led his league in starts three out of the past four seasons, but I'm not sure that's a good thing anymore. Blackburn is a poor man's Lowe, and I don't mean that in a good way.
No. 5 starter
1. Chris Sale, White Sox
2. Jacob Turner, Tigers
3. Aaron Crow/Danny Duffy, Royals
4. Fausto Carmona/David Huff/Jeanmar Gomez, Indians
5. Brian Duensing/Jason Marquis, Twins
Welcome to the AL Central crapshoot. Turner and Sale have the most upside, but one is a rookie and the other is converting from relief. Crow will also be given a shot at the rotation, but his difficulties against left-handed batters (.311 average allowed) don't bode well for that transition. Even if the artist formerly known as Carmona gets a visa, what do you have? A guy with a 5.01 ERA over the past four seasons. Duensing is another typical Twins pitcher, which means he at least throws strikes. His first full season in the rotation didn't go well, so of course the Twins brought in Marquis, yet another guy who doesn't strike anybody out.
1. Jose Valverde, Tigers
2. Joakim Soria, Royals
3. Matt Thornton, White Sox
4. Chris Perez, Indians
5. Matt Capps, Twins
Four good relievers plus Matt Capps. I do admit I'm a little perplexed by Perez, however. In 2009, he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. In 2010, that figure fell to 8.7 but he posted a pretty 1.71 ERA. In 2011, it was all the way down to 5.9, but without much improvement in his control. Perez blew only four saves but he did lose seven games. He survived thanks to a low .240 average on balls in play. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher but didn't serve up many home runs. Bottom line: I'd be nervous.
1. Indians -- Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Nick Hagadone
2. Royals -- Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares
3. Tigers -- Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Al Alburquerque
4. White Sox -- Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod
5. Twins -- Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros
If you're starting to think I'm not high on the Twins for this season, you would be correct.
4. White Sox
I like the youthful exuberance of the Royals, plus the likelihood of improvement from the young players and the possibility of some midseason reinforcements from the minors. The depth of the bullpen will help bolster a shaky rotation, and this just feels like an organization that is finally starting to believe in itself. The Indians are riding last year's positive results and enter the season knowing they might get better production from Choo and Sizemore and full seasons from Kipnis and Chisenhall. I'm not knocking the Tigers here, but they do lack depth in the pitching staff and the pressure is on them.
The final tally
1. Tigers, 65 points
2. Royals, 55 points
3. Indians, 54 points
4. White Sox, 46 points
5. Twins, 35 points
No surprise here: The Tigers will be heavy favorites to win the division with a lineup that should score a ton of runs. I don't think it's a lock that they'll win -- Verlander, Avila, Peralta and Valverde will all be hard-pressed to repeat their 2011 campaigns, for example. But the Royals and Indians appear to have too many questions in the rotations, the White Sox have serious lineup issues, and the Twins have a beautiful ballpark to play their games in.
In fact, the Twins became so successful that they became a big-market franchise. They began 2011 with a higher payroll than the Tigers, Cardinals, Dodgers, Rangers or Braves. At $112 million, the payroll was up $15 million from 2010 and up $47 million from just two years ago.
And that payroll has produced one of the worst seasons in Twins history. The Royals are about to catch them in the AL Central. The Twins' run differential of minus-147 is just seven runs better than the Astros ... a team now running out lineups with five or six rookies on a regular basis. Long a team built around pitching and defense, the Twins have allowed the most runs in the American League. The defense has been so bad, the fundamentals so poorly executed, that the team will start spring training three days earlier next year to work on more defensive drills. Even Joe Mauer has been booed and now faces criticism for a series of ads he did for a local fitness gym. Local columnists are calling for him to improve his offseason conditioning.
Mauer made $23 million this season and has started just 45 games behind the plate. He'll be making $23 million per season through 2018. Justin Morneau, the former MVP making $14 million, has hit four home runs in his return from last July's concussion. He has battled injuries along the way, including a sore shoulder that kept him out of Monday's game.
But the Twins' problems run much deeper than the bad seasons from their two best players. For years, they've relied on a formula of finesse pitchers who throw strikes. Carl Pavano won 17 games a year ago despite one of the lowest strikeout rates among AL starters. His ERA has predictably risen nearly a run this year. Soft-tossing Brian Duensing fooled big league hitters a year ago; they caught up to him in 2011. Nick Blackburn was signed to a four-extension in spring training of 2010 and he's posted a 4.98 ERA the past two seasons, not surprising given that he has the second-lowest strikeout rate among all pitchers with at least 500 innings since 2008. Matt Capps had two good months with the Twins so they signed him to a $7 million contract. Predictably, he's been mediocre.
It may be time to scrap that strikes-and-defense approach. What we learned this year is how much the Twins relied on Mauer and Morneau. And if they don't return to their previous levels, this is a franchise that has a lot of rebuilding in front of it. None of the younger players on the team project as stars and the farm system isn't highly rated. The new riches were spent carelessly in 2011.
I'm trying to find a silver lining here, but I don't think three extra days of fundamentals drills are going to solve the Twins' problems.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
The other big difference between that dimension and ours? In that dimension, wiseacres like me are questioning Ron Gardenhire's choice of Brian Duensing to start a game the Twins absolutely had to win (in this dimension, anyway).
Duensing posted a 2.63 ERA this season. Granted, he started only 13 games this season. But including last season, Duensing has started 22 games in the major leagues, and in those games he's 12-3 with a 2.93 ERA. You can't blame Duensing's manager for being impressed by those numbers. In this or any other dimension.
Still, it's not clear that Duensing is the Twins' third-best starter. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio is solid: 2.27. He's also left-handed, which is little help against the Yankees' right handed (and switch) hitting lineup. Meanwhile, Scott Baker entered 2010 as the Twins No. 1 starter, is a righty, and his 3.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season was the sixth best in the American League.
In a parallel dimension, the Twins picked up a couple of key hits Saturday night. They still lost, though, because Duensing gave up five runs. In that same universe, Baker actually relieved Duensing and fared quite a bit better. And guys like me wondered why Baker didn't just start the game, as his entire career suggested he should have.
In this dimension, though? The Twins could manage just one run against Phil Hughes, Kerry Wood, Boone Logan, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera. In this dimension, Gardenhire was irrelevant.
There are not many experienced free agent closers available, meaning the Twins might have to turn to their farm system or make a trade if they chose not to promote another reliever from within the bullpen.
Jon Rauch, a 6-foot-11 right-hander, has the most experience closing games of anyone in the Twins' bullpen, with 26 career saves over five major league seasons. He split 2009 between the Twins and Arizona Diamondbacks, finishing with a 7-3 record, a 3.60 ERA and 17 holds in 75 appearances.
Matt Guerrier, another right-handed reliever, went 5-1 last season with 33 holds and a 2.36 ERA in 79 appearances.
Other candidates on hand include Pat Neshek, Clay Condrey, Jose Mijares, and Jesse Crain. Without running through the pros and cons associated with each, we can instead simply say this: It doesn't matter which of them gets the job.
OK, it does matter a little. But none of those pitchers -- not one of the six -- is a good bet for an ERA in 2010 much lower or higher than 4.00. "But how can that be true?" you might be saying. "In 2009, Mijares and Guerrier both finished with ERA's lower than 2.50, and Condrey was dead on 3.00 with the Phillies."
Unfortunately, none of those guys have demonstrated the skills necessary to maintain ERAs that low.
It's not that one of the Twins' relievers won't finish this season with an excellent ERA; it's just that it's almost impossible to know which one. Which of course makes it difficult for Ron Gardenhire to somehow divine the identity of his best closer candidate.
I'm sure he'll try, though.
Joe Nathan took over as the Twins' closer in 2004. Before him, Everyday Eddie Guardado was the every-day closer. Before him, it was LaTroy Hawkins, who lost his job to Guardado only because of an ERA approaching 6. To find a season in which the Twins didn't have a firmly established closer, you have to go back to 2000, when Tom Kelly never quite decided between Hawkins (14 saves) and Bullet Bob Wells (10), both of them right-handers.
My point being that Ron Gardenhire is probably going to choose someone this month, or in April, and stick with him for a while. Which isn't the worst thing in the world. But the best thing would probably be to let the left-handed Mijares get some save opportunities in left-heavy ninths, with one (or more) of the righties getting the others.
That would leave Gardenhire short a left-handed setup man; in fact, the only other left-handed candidate to even win a roster spot is Brian Duensing, who's been a starter throughout his professional career. But Duensing is fighting for the No. 5 slot in the rotation, and sliding him into the bullpen would seem a relatively easy move.
The American League Central is weak enough that the Twins could win it without doing anything at all unorthodox. Just hand the closer chores to Guerrier or Rauch, and beat out the White Sox for the division title by two or three games. But they could improve their chances just a bit by doing what managers used to do as a matter of course: thinking.
Personally, I fell in love with Brian Duensing last season. It wasn't exactly the same type of love I have for Man Muscles... it was more like a proud admiration.
Duensing faces some tough competition this Spring with Glen Perkins having a ton more experience over the past two seasons before hurting his shoulder, and Francisco Liriano fresh off a strong winter ball performance.
So my question to you is this: does Duensing have what it takes to somehow find his way into the rotation this season?
It's been an odd few years for Duensing.
The lefty reached Triple-A in 2007 and went 11-5 with a 3.24 ERA. The Twins didn't bring him up in September.
In 2008, again in Triple-A, he went 5-11 with a 4.28 ERA. The Twins didn't bring him up in September.
In 2009, once again in Triple-A, he went 4-6 with a 4.66 ERA ... and the Twins brought him up in July. In late August they stuck him in the rotation and he thrived, going 5-1 with a 2.64 ERA in eight starts. It's probably not a stretch to suggest that without Brian Duensing the Twins wouldn't have won the division. Remember, once you got past Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn, the Twins' other starters included Francisco Liriano (5-13, 5.80), Glen Perkins (6-7, 5.89) and Anthony Swarzak (3-7, 6.25). For a while it got ugly, and Duensing's starts did much to calm those pitching seas.
It's not surprising that he occupies a special place in Suzanne Solheim's heart. If I loved the Twins he would be somewhere in mine, too.
The problem is that Duensing doesn't have the underlying skills that might suggest a long and happy career as an American League starter. He just turned 27 this week, and his Triple-A performance (as we've seen) hasn't been thrilling. If he ever strikes out twice as many hitters as he walks, it'll be an upset.
It's possible that Duensing discovered last year how to keep from giving up deep fly balls -- he allowed only nine homers in 159 professional innings -- but good luck seems a bit more likely.
Really, it's simple: If Duensing's a ground-ball pitcher, he's got a chance to stick as a No. 5 starter. If not, he goes to the back of the line and has to spend the next few years fighting for scraps. That said, at the moment the Twins don't have a lot of great candidates for that slot; Swarzak is raw, Perkins problematic. If I have to bet, I'm betting on Duensing.
Just not for long. If you love him, be sure and enjoy him while you still can.
You would be wrong.
This is a massive mismatch, my friends.
Verlander's ERA doesn't do him justice. He leads the majors in strikeouts, and is fourth in the American League in strikeout-to-walk ratio and fifth in home runs allowed per nine innings. Qualitatively, he's been just as good this season as Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez and everybody else in the league but Zack Greinke. If you have to pick one American League pitcher to start one terribly important game, Justin Verlander should be among your top five candidates.
And Brian Duensing? Not so much.
While Verlander probably is among the American League's top five pitchers, six months ago Brian Duensing wasn't generally regarded as one of the Twins' top five pitching prospects.
After signing with the Twins four years ago, Duensing dominated rookie-level hitters. But (as often happens) his strikeout rate fell as he moved up the ladder: seven per nine innings in Class A, six per nine innings in AA, and finally around five per nine innings in Triple-A. He's inched his strikeout rate higher in the majors, but with a concomitant increase in walks. Granted, he's been stingy with the long ball. Qualitatively, though, Duensing is probably two runs worse than Verlander every nine innings.
Like I said, it's a mismatch.
Fortunately, they don't play the games on paper. Which is why I'll be watching.