Twins fire sale heats up

Francisco Liriano is gone. Could Justin Morneau and Denard Span follow him out the door?

Liriano was predictably dealt on Saturday, as the Twins shipped their left-handed starter to the division-rival Chicago White Sox for a couple of minor leaguers.

Minnesota is at 42-58, just a game ahead of Kansas City in the battle for worst record in the American League. At 55-45, Chicago is trying to hold off Detroit and Cleveland for the AL Central division title.

Tuesday marks the non-waiver trade deadline, so the Twins still have two more days to shop some of their veteran players. Liriano was certainly no surprise. I named him most likely to be traded on WDAY radio just a couple weeks ago.

With only two months left until free agency, there was really no reason for the Twins to hold onto him, especially now with the compensation changes made in the latest collective bargaining agreement. Getting draft picks for departing free agents is much tougher to do.

The Twins didn’t get much for Liriano, but what could be expected when trying to trade two months’ worth of an all-too-often erratic starter? Minnesota received infielder Eduardo Escobar and pitcher Pedro Hernandez.

Escobar is a no-hit infielder that by some accounts does a nice job defensively. Hernandez has put up solid minor league numbers, though like so many Twins pitchers, he’s not a high-strikeout guy. Some say the Twins didn’t get much; others argue that they were lucky to get anything.

The big question is: Who will be next? Disabled list stints by pitchers Matt Capps and Carl Pavano complicate any potential deals, though both could be shipped prior to the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline.

While Span has a reasonable contract and plays in a position of strength for the Twins’ organization, I actually think he’ll be on this team still on Aug. 1. He is only having an OK year and I think other teams are still wary of his previous concussion concerns of a year ago.

If the Twins do make any more deals before Tuesday, I think Morneau could be the next commodity moved.

The former AL MVP is hitting just .253 with 12 homers this year. But if used right on a contending team, Morneau can likely still put some nasty numbers. His season stats are being dragged down because of his struggles against southpaws. But his .306 average and .935 OPS against righties means that he can still be easily put in a position to succeed if the team acquiring Morneau has a right-handed hitter to platoon him with.

And Morneau – who is under contract through next season – has the pedigree of a left-handed hitter capable of hitting lefties too. As he continues to progress from the concussion issues that plagued him in late 2010 and throughout 2011, he can get better.

Kubel shines in first year in the desert

The move from Target Field to Chase Field has been huge for former Minnesota Twins outfielder Jason Kubel. And his peers can see that just by looking at the league leaders.

After hitting three homers and driving in six runs for the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday, Kubel now leads the National League in RBIs with 70. He’s closing in fast on his career-high mark of 102 set with the Twins in 2009.

Kubel played parts of seven seasons in Minnesota from 2004 to 2011 before leaving for Arizona last offseason.

And it’s been a good situation for Kubel, who now finds himself hitting third in the Diamondbacks order. Arizona is just 46-48 this season entering Sunday, so he had flown under the radar for much of the season. But he probably won’t anymore after Saturday’s big showing.

The biggest change for the lefty slugger is the home ballpark.

Prior to the Twins’ move to Target Field for the 2010 season, Kubel had become a much better hitter at home than on the road. Here’s a look at his last two years at the Metrodome:

2008

  • Home (AVG/OBP/SLG) – .290/.360/.516
  • Road – .248/.311/.430

2009

  • Home – .321/.370/.586
  • Road – .279/.367/.494

That all changed at Target Field, where his home numbers sunk. And in 2011, he was actually a better hitter on the road.

2010

  • Home – .254/.326/.419
  • Road – .244/.320/.433

2011

  • Home – .254/.314/.377
  • Road – .288/.345/.476

The South Dakota native signed a two-year, $15 million deal with Arizona prior to this season, changing his home address to the much friendlier confines of Chase Field.

ESPN.com’s Park Factors lists Chase Field as a top-10 offensive ballpark every year dating back to 2002, with a second-place showing this year. Target Field is a surprising eighth this year, but its previous two years was in the bottom half of the league.

Even if Target Field’s place in the league is a bit up in the air since it’s only going on three years old, it’s easy to see that the park has been extremely tough on non-Thome left-handed hitters.

And Chase Field has been kind to Kubel this season:

  • Home – .331 BA, 15 HR, 50 RBI, .412 OBP, .713 SLG
  • Road – .257, 5 HR, 20 RBI, .320 OBP, .414 SLG
  • Totals – .294, 20 HR, 70 RBI, .368 OBP, .566 SLG

Kubel’s road numbers this year are actually below his career averages. But he has been an absolute mashing monster at home this season, with his home slugging percentage leading the major leagues.

The departure of Michael Cuddyer garnered much of the offseason headlines for the Twins. But my guess is Twins fans are talking more about the loss of Kubel by now.

Hard to say what Kubel would have done if he would have stayed with the Twins. Two years of Kubel splits at Target Field isn’t a huge sample size by any means.

As good as Kubel has been, I have my doubts he would be putting numbers anywhere near what he’s done this season had he stayed in Minnesota.

Joe Mauer and the value of offensive-minded catchers

It wasn’t all that long ago that Joe Mauer was getting booed at Target Field. I was in attendance during the finale of the team’s first home series of the year when he was jeered heavily after failing to drive in a runner from third base in two straight at-bats.

In his next at-bat, he homered.

And that’s been the theme of the season for Mauer. The hometown star from St. Paul who was placed on a pedestal by many fans after winning the first of three batting titles suddenly became the target of those same fans’ frustrations.

Whether or not you believe that the bilateral leg weakness that sidelined him last year was legit or not, the 2011 season was a strange one for him. Injuries are nothing new to Mauer, but in just 82 games last season, he posted career lows in batting average (.287), on-base percentage (.360) and slugging percentage (.368).

Minnesota Twins catcher/first baseman Joe Mauer is hitting .329 this season. Associated Press photo

But Mauer has bounced back in a pretty big way in 2012. His 1-for-3 effort on Thursday left his batting average at .329 for the season. He has six homers this season, which isn’t much. But three have been hit at Target Field, where Mauer had hit only one career homer coming into this season.

His OBP is a league-leading .415, putting his OPS at .870.

The big question is: Is Mauer earning his keep? After signing an eight-year deal worth about $23 million per season entering 2011, is his performance justifying the salary?

Last year, it certainly wasn’t. But this year, you might be surprised. FanGraphs.com, which tracks a player’s value in terms of dollars, has Mauer’s current 2012 production worth $13.6 million already this season. And that number is only going to go up.

If he remains healthy, he might actually end up at $23 million when the season is over. And I’m pretty confident that number takes into account that he’s only made about half of his starts at catcher.

But even just sharing duty at catcher, Mauer’s value as the second-best hitter in terms of average in the AL can’t be overstated. After all, the average big league catcher this season is hitting .247 with an OBP of just .315. Mauer has that last number beat by 100 points.

The Twins have been bad this year. You can blame management for not drafting and developing enough young pitching. But you can’t blame Mauer … at least, you can’t blame him too much.

REVISED: Thanks to “RC” for reminding me how I should not go strictly off memory when blogging. Details early in post are cleared up.

Timberwolves move on from Batum

The Minnesota Timberwolves made the shooting guard position a top priority this offseason. But the guy they wanted most of all won’t be going anywhere.

The Portland Trail Blazers matched the four-year, $45 million offer sheet given to Nicolas Batum by the Minnesota Timberwolves, which will keep the 23-year-old Frenchman in the Pacific Northwest.

The Wolves can take some consolation in the fact that they were able to get a conference foe to spend lots of money. But at the same time, Wednesday’s news was no doubt disappointing for the club.

Many experts agreed that Batum’s style of play would have been a great fit for head coach Rick Adelman‘s system in Minnesota. Batum averaged 14 points per game last season, and he has shown the ability to use his 6-foot-8 frame on defense to give the opponent fits.

As the Batum saga has drawn out, the free-agent pool for shooting guards has thinned. Courtney Lee is among the better shooting guards available, having scored 11 points per game and made 40 percent of his 3-point attempts last season for Houston.

With Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio (who is rehabbing from injury), the Wolves have two key building blocks going forward. But I still think they need one more significant piece. Could they go out and trade for Philadelphia guard Andre Iguodala and his massive contract? And would Iguodala be that piece?

Twins down on the farm

The Minnesota Twins will remarkably use their 11th different starting pitcher this season when Samuel Deduno takes the mound against the Texas Rangers tonight.

Deduno has been dubbed an atypical Twins starter in that he has been a high strikeout guy in the minor leagues, but his control gets away from him at times. In nine Triple-A starts, he has a 2.14 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 42 innings, but has walked 22.

Speaking of the minor leagues, I thought – considering how often the Twins have turned to Triple-A this year for help – now would be a good time to see how some of the minor leaguers are performing so far this year.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Triple A Rochester)

The former Japanese batting champ has carried his 2011 big league struggles into the minor leagues this season. The middle infielder is hitting just .227 with one home run and six steals in in 60 games. He has just six hits in his last 32 at-bats.

Aaron Hicks (Double-A New Britain)

The 2008 first-round pick has had plenty of ups and downs at the plate, but many continue to rave about his tools in the outfield. He started strong in April before enduring a lengthy May slump. But he’s heating up again in July, with 8 hits in 21 at-bats this month, including a homer last night. For the season, he’s hitting .266 with eight homers and 18 steals to go with a .359 on-base percentage.

Joe Benson (Double-A New Britain)

It’s been a difficult year for Benson, who parlayed a strong 2011 season at Double-A into a September call-up with the Twins last season. Hopes were high for Benson this year, but he finds himself back at Double-A after hitting just .179 in 28 games at Triple-A earlier this year. And so far, it’s gotten worse at Double-A, with an average of just .156.

Oswaldo Arcia (Double-A New Britain)

The power-hitting outfielder played well enough at Single-A Fort Myers to earn a call-up to Double-A. Between the two levels, he’s hitting .303 with 8 HRs and 45 RBIs in 73 games. His numbers – notably slugging percentage – has dipped significantly since the move to Double-A.

Levi Michael (Single-A Fort Myers)

The 2011 first-round selection is off to a rough start to the 2012 season. The shortstop from the University of North Carolina is hitting just .229 in 72 games this season.

Miguel Sano (Single-A Beloit)

What can be said about this prospect that hasn’t already been said? The third baseman is unpolished defensively and at the plate, but wow, what power! He’s missed the past few games with a thigh strain. And while his modest .244 average may not drop jaws, you don’t see many players at this level slugging over .500. But Sano is. In 80 games, he has 18 homers and 57 RBIs to go with a .509 SLG. He has homered in three of his previous four games before suffering the thigh strain.

Byron Buxton (GCL Twins)

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft has played in 13 games in rookie ball. But he has his biggest performance Saturday, hitting his first professional home run in a two-hit performance. For the season, he’s hitting .159 in 44 at-bats.

Free agency power play works for Wild

Has there ever been a bigger free agency splash by a Minnesota pro sports team than the one that occurred yesterday?

That’s what Grand Forks Herald reporter Brad Schlossman asked in this column that he penned for today’s editions.

The Minnesota Wild signed arguably the top two free agents available in the NHL this offseason, adding forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million deals for each. Minnesota hasn’t made the playoffs for four straight years, but everyone including Moorhead’s own Matt Cullen acknowledges that the bar has now been raised. 

It’s a pretty crazy scenario, really. Besides money and an extremely loyal fan base, it just doesn’t seem to me like the Wild have a whole lot to sell to free agents. It didn’t hurt that Parise is a Minnesota native and Suter’s wife has family in the state. And the Wild have the money to allow both players to play alongside each other.

It’s been a pretty forgettable decade-plus of existence, with one incredible playoff run in 2002-03 surrounded by years of flops. And during that time, at least until now, there’s been very few marquee players developed or signed by the team.

But that all changed on Wednesday. Parise and Suter are two of the best American-born players in the game. Parise is a good-scoring winger who once finished third in the NHL in goals scored in a season. Suter is an outstanding all-around defenseman who frequently is among the league leaders in assists at his position.

A lot of credit needs to be given to the Wild front office. By many of the accounts I’ve come across today, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher and Co. did a tremendous job selling the franchise’s future to Parise and Suter.

I heard one man call into a Twin Cities radio show and draw the inevitable comparison to LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh. They took their talents to South Beach, and Parise/Suter are taking their talents to the south beach of Lake Minnetonka, he said.

It’s a funny line. But hockey is not basketball, and two players can’t on their own elevate a franchise to the sport’s elite on the ice the way it can on the court. Minnesota will need other players to develop.

But having said that, the Wild should be a playoff team next season. And as the Los Angeles Kings showed as the No. 8 seed last season, all you need is to get into the playoff field.