June 6, 2012

Twins follow Byron Buxton pick by loading up on hard-throwing pitchers

Using their highest pick since 2001 to choose Georgia high school center fielder Byron Buxton over Stanford right-hander Mark Appel will understandably be the focus of the Twins' draft, but along with the No. 2 pick they also had five other top-100 selections in one of the most stacked collections of early picks in draft history. That included No. 32 and No. 42, which are essentially first-rounders and not far off from where they've usually made their first picks.

For instance, last year their top choice was No. 30 and from 2002-2011 they chose higher than No. 20 just once. This year, thanks to a combination of last season's 63-99 record and losing Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel to free agency, they had picks at 2, 32, 42, 63, 72, and 97. That provided a unique and much-needed opportunity to restock the farm system and after taking the best player available in Buxton the Twins loaded up on high-velocity pitchers.

Buxton being the focus of everything means No. 32 pick Jose Berrios will get considerably less attention than No. 30 pick Levi Michael received last year, but in a draft where Carlos Correa became the first Puerto Rican player to be the top pick Berrios also became the highest drafted Puerto Rican pitcher of all time. Berrios threw a no-hitter against Correa's team in April and the Twins snagged the high school right-hander sooner than most draft analysts expected.

Baseball America ranked Berrios as the 49th-best player, including 25th among pitchers, while ESPN.com ranked him 73rd overall and 27th among pitchers. That suggests the Twins may have reached a bit for him, although that's much more common in MLB than the NFL or NBA and the scouting reports on Berrios are encouraging. Baseball America noted that he added significant muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame and "his fastball now sits in the 93-95 mph range."

ESPN had a similar review of his raw stuff, noting that "he'll touch 96 and works at 92-94 with a hard downward-breaking curveball at 80-82 and a straight changeup in the same range." While watching the first round of the draft unfold Monday night it became apparent that there weren't many top-ranked college pitchers left on the board for the Twins at No. 32 and that may have played a part in choosing Berrios, but he certainly sounds like a high-upside arm.

Ten picks later the Twins took Georgia Tech reliever Luke Bard, who'll be given a chance to start. His brother, 2006 first-round pick Daniel Bard, emerged as a top setup man for the Red Sox before struggling in a move to the rotation. Luke doesn't quite have Daniel's overpowering raw stuff, but in ranking him as the 93rd-best player Baseball America noted "plenty of power in his fastball, at times sitting 93-95 mph" and "a power breaking ball with depth and late bite."

Bard's college numbers were fantastic, with a 0.99 ERA and 26-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings to go along with zero homers allowed, but he missed much of the season with an injured lat muscle that ESPN.com speculated may have kept him out of the first round. Twins scouting director Deron Johnson called the injury "a low to moderate risk" and expressed optimism that Bard can develop his changeup enough to be an effective starter.

Berrios was compensation for losing Cuddyer and Bard was compensation for losing Kubel, so with their own second-rounder the Twins took Northwestern State reliever Mason Melotakis with the 63rd pick. ESPN actually ranked Melotakis higher than Berrios and Bard at No. 63 while Baseball America rated the left-hander No. 88 following a junior season in which he threw 62 innings with a 3.63 ERA and 70-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Melotakis made the occasional start in college, but Baseball America calls him "a true power relief arm" with "short arm action" who works in the mid-90s and has an inconsistent but potentially solid slider. ESPN calls him "one of the best potential left-handed relievers in this draft" and offers more praise for "a hammer curveball" while suggesting that he might have a future as a starter, so like with Bard the Twins may let him try it in the low minors.

With their second compensatory pick for losing Cuddyer the Twins selected yet another college reliever in Rice right-hander J.T. Chargois, whom Baseball America rated 77th and ESPN rated 64th. As a junior Chargois threw 38 innings with a 2.15 ERA and 38-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and according to ESPN he has the mid-90s fastball, sharp-breaking slider, and high-effort delivery "that virtually demands he get to the majors as quickly as possible."

Chargois also played first base for Rice and hit .323 with a .411 on-base percentage, but he failed to homer in 51 games and his future is on the mound. Unlike with Bard and Melotakis there's no chance of Chargois starting and concerns about his mechanics appear in every scouting report, but ESPN says he's "someone to sign and send right out to Double-A" and praises his slider for being "almost comical in how quickly it appears to dive down out of sight."

After selecting three consecutive college pitchers the Twins used their third-round pick on a college hitter, taking Jacksonville first baseman Adam Walker with the 97th pick. Rarely have the Twins used high picks on college sluggers, but the Wisconsin native whose father was a replacement player for the Vikings in 1987 apparently caught their eye by hitting .343 with 12 homers, 14 doubles, and a .581 slugging percentage in 56 games as a junior.

And he was even better as a sophomore in 2011, hitting .409 with a .682 slugging percentage in 61 games. Unfortunately all that power came with 110 strikeouts in 117 games, which along with far fewer walks than strikeouts is often a red flag for a college bat. Sure enough, Baseball America notes that Walker "struggles to lay off breaking pitches or fastballs up and out of the zone." Despite that they rated him as the 58th-best player in the class.

After snagging a potential power bat in Walker the Twins went back to the well for more college relievers, using their fourth-rounder on San Jose State right-hander Zack Jones and their fifth-rounder on Rice right-hander Tyler Duffey. Jones started occasionally, but Baseball America says "scouts view him as a reliever" because he lacks a quality third pitch to go with a mid-90s fastball and hard slider. As a junior he threw 54 innings with a 60/17 K/BB ratio.

Twins scouts apparently saw a lot of Rice games, because Chargois and Duffey were the Owls' co-closers and now they have both of them. Duffey can't match Chargois' dominant raw stuff, but Baseball America says he throws in the low-90s with a good slider and his numbers were even better with a 1.93 ERA and 68/21 K/BB ratio in 51 innings. And unlike Chargois there's apparently some hope that Duffey's changeup is good enough to make it as a starter.

Stepping away from the college ranks the Twins took Florida high school left-hander Andre Martinez and Puerto Rico high school catcher Jorge Fernandez in the sixth and seventh rounds, but then went to college with their next eight picks. That included big, hard-throwing College of Charleston right-hander Christian Powell and good-hitting, iffy-fielding Connecticut second baseman L.J. Mazzilli, whose father Lee Mazzilli played 14 seasons in the majors.

They went high school heavy at the top, putting their faith in Buxton over Appel and using the No. 32 pick on Berrios, but the Twins took college players with 14 of their next 16 picks. And within all those college players the theme is clear: After years of hoarding low-velocity strike-throwers the Twins have finally focused on adding more big-time velocity and bat-missing ability. Powers arms is what the fan base has wanted and powers arms is what they got.

Unfortunately this wasn't a deep draft for high-end college starters and by the time the Twins were ready to start picking again after Buxton the cupboard was pretty bare, so they went heavy on college relievers. Normally that's not a great investment in the top 100, but the lack of highly touted college starters available beyond the first round forced their hand and they seem confident that at least some of those college relievers can develop into starters as pros.

This group isn't the amazing collection of high-upside talent you'd like to see come from such a stockpile of early picks, but that has more to do with the weak draft class than any decisions the Twins made. They deserve credit for addressing the organization-wide pitching issues, albeit several years later than they should have and with relievers instead of starters. It'll be years before we can properly pass judgment on this draft, but the approach was a good one.

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19 Comments »

  1. While the draft is kind of a crap shoot, and like was said it will be years before we can properly analyze the results, everyone has to be happy that there appears to be a change within the organization. Hopefully power bats over light hitting punto’s will be next.

    Comment by dl3mk3 — June 6, 2012 @ 7:29 am

  2. The only way this works is if we adopt an all-reliever strategy. Scrap the concept of starting pitchers. Use a bunch of relievers every game. Mix and match. Could be a cheap alternative since starting pitchers are more expensive than relievers, especially relievers that aren’t going to rack up big save numbers. It could be Terry Ryan’s version of Moneyball.

    But somehow I doubt the Twins are that innovative.

    It’s something I’d like to see a team explore, however. Most relievers can pitch 3 out of 4 days anyway. Knowing they will only have to throw 15-25 pitches each night, they could give it everything they have with every pitch. Why pay big time starting pitchers if you can develop a bunch of Glen Perkins and not give any one of them too many save opportunities? No more dreading a Nick Blackburn start or Jason Marquis start. You have a legitimate chance to win every night. It all makes too much sense. Some team needs to do it.

    Comment by Matt #3 — June 6, 2012 @ 9:19 am

  3. Never too early to look ahead to next year, and the big question is, how’s the 2013 draft class look? Seems like we’ll have a high pick then too….

    Comment by Leon — June 6, 2012 @ 9:32 am

  4. As you stated, Aaron, their willingness to take high upside power arms with K ability is so very refreshing. Is this front office finally agreeing that the power arms model clearly is what works in todays game? Lets hope so. I already cannot wait for the 2013 draft!

    Comment by Kurt E. — June 6, 2012 @ 9:41 am

  5. Matt #3:
    Agreed. I believe Tony LaRussa tried this on an A’s team a long time ago when they didn’t have a dominant starter. I’ve only been able to glean info from Baseball Reference, rather than seeing detailed recaps if it worked or not.

    But yes, the principle being to save $$ on starters and closers, apply those saved $ to signing a better offense, and try use 3-man pitching platoons that pitch 3 innings every three days (e.g. 3 platoons of 3 guys = 9 pitchers) with a couple more pitchers that are ‘cleanup’ should one of your guys get into too much trouble in an early inning.

    If I were a billionaire and bought a team I would make my GM try it it! But I agree with you, would like to see that implemented somewhere. Tampa Bay is ripe with starting pitching, but should they lose their depth in a couple years, I could totally see them being a team to try it.

    Comment by BC — June 6, 2012 @ 9:44 am

  6. BC, I like your 3-3 idea. I was thinking 4 and 4. The first guy is the better guy and faces each batter twice. The second guy faces the order once. They pitch every four days because they are only pitching 60-70/25-40 pitches every four days. Then you have 4 extra guys for late inning situations. 12 pitchers and 13 position players. Hey, if you have no chance at winning the division or wild card, why not give it a try?

    Comment by Large Canine — June 6, 2012 @ 10:10 am

  7. Large Canine (and Matt #3):
    Exactly! I mean, different basketball, football, soccer teams play different defenses (think zones vs. M2M, 3-4 versus 4-3, or the multitude of formations in soccer) … why is every professional baseball defense (pitching) constructed the same way: 5 starters, middle relief, and a closer? There are no ‘surprises’ to offenses that way!

    So why not attempt to play a different brand of defense (like other sports) in the name of exploiting potential inefficiencies? If it doesn’t work, GM/owner/manager can just point to the LaRussa A’s, which ended up having a not so terrible 4.something staff ERA back then — at least from the limited info I could pull up, I don’t think it was too bad.

    Evidence has shown that opponent’ BAA goes up for (most) all pitchers in the 2nd and 3rd times facing the batters, as the batters get extra looks at the pitchers, right? So hypothetical GM leaves a dude in for only one time through the order, letting his platoon-mate ‘surprise’ them with a different look/arsenal, not to mention probably higher velocity because you can go ‘all out’ on fewer pitches, a point Matt#3 raised.

    Comment by BC — June 6, 2012 @ 10:29 am

  8. Not to mention that if you have several left handed and right handed options, you can really mess with a team that tries to put a lefty or righty heavy lineup in there too.

    Comment by D-Luxxx — June 6, 2012 @ 11:14 am

  9. I’ve thought of the strategy you all are discussing numerous times and wondered why it hasn’t been tried (except perhaps for those Larussa A’s). My own twist would be to use times through the order rather than innings, since I’ve seen data that show Batting Average Against goes up each time through the order. So, let each pither have 1 time through the batting order, using 4-5 pitchers per game. Perhaps you could give your best pitchers (or whatever pitchers seems to be hot) 2 times through the order so that you only use 3-4 pitchers per game.

    Comment by Dave — June 6, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  10. All of those ideas are something I’d be on board with. My original thought is to just limit each pitcher to approximately one inning. You could carry a staff of 12 Jesse Crain/Glen Perkins clones (but younger and cheaper). If 8-9 guys pitch each game, they can certainly use a majority of those guys again the next day. After a guy has pitched maybe 2-3 games in a row, then he gets a day off. But with 12 pitchers on staff, it shouldn’t be a problem to get these guys the rest they need – especially considering they are only throwing 15-20 pitches per game. If a game does get out of hand one way or another, I’d lean towards burning those innings with a Drew Butera clone. No need to waste pitching roster space when you’re already wasting space with a 3rd catcher. Make that 3rd catcher serve another purpose.

    Comment by Matt #3 — June 6, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

  11. When I was younger, Tom Kelly used to be on the radio every week with Sid. Every once in a while, people would call in with wild suggestions and TK would just go nuts. I would love to be in the room when the new billionaire owner tells Gardy and Terry Ryan that they are now going to implement the new plan of pitching only relievers. I think it would blow their mind, and their reaction would probably not be much different than TK’s derision and eye rolling. With that being said, I would love to see the Twins try it.

    Comment by Tom W — June 6, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

  12. eye roll…

    Just kidding.

    Comment by birdwatcher — June 6, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

  13. I like these ideas about non-traditional rosters like all-relievers, but I’m wondering if you would run into real-world problems signing guys up for that.

    Think about the pitchers who turned down offers from the Rockies because they didn’t want Coors Field tainting their statistics, and thus their ability to sign large contracts later in their careers (and their HoF chances, I guess). Would the Twins run into difficulty convincing the most talented guys in that pack of relievers that there will be no consistent wins and saves for their agents to brag about when negotiating their next contract?

    Comment by Rob S — June 6, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  14. Rob, I’ve thought about that too, so you would rely mostly on homegrown relievers that are still cheap. When they get to free agency, they can walk.

    Only agents can screw this up by telling their HS or college guy to not sign with the Twins. But for the right guys, fireballing middle relievers, the Twins (or whatever team does this) would be a great fit for the beginning of their careers. Then they can move on to the big closer $ somewhere else after they’ve made a name for themselves.

    Comment by Matt #3 — June 6, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

  15. “When I was younger, Tom Kelly used to be on the radio every week with Sid. Every once in a while, people would call in with wild suggestions and TK would just go nuts. I would love to be in the room when the new billionaire owner tells Gardy and Terry Ryan that they are now going to implement the new plan of pitching only relievers. I think it would blow their mind, and their reaction would probably not be much different than TK’s derision and eye rolling. With that being said, I would love to see the Twins try it.”

    I actually called in one Sunday morning back in the 90s to specifically address this issue. This was when Randy Johnson was coming back from the DL and was being used in middle relief. Johnson, of course was dominant in that role, including against the Twins. I made my case to Kelly: on a pitching poor team, why wouldn’t a team (at the time) like the Mariners use their best player and future HOFer in the high-leverage, middle-inning lock down the win (3-4 ininngs situations, say 5-6 times per two weeks, virtually assuring wins in almost 35-45% your games? This instead of having your best pitcher only being involved in 20% of your potential wins.

    To my surprise, Kelly thought it was a great idea, but it would get nixed by the agents and upper management who would both never agree to try it out, both sides would have too much to lose.

    Comment by jokin — June 6, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

  16. I’ve always enjoyed discussing alternative roster construction ideas like this, but since its never going to happen, how can one justify drafting so many relievers?

    I like going for power arms instead of the standard control types the Twins have preferred. But a reliever can only be so valuable (Mariano Rivera aside.) And relievers are the easiest position to fill on the cheap on the free agent market.

    Comment by Brian — June 6, 2012 @ 8:26 pm

  17. I know they’re taking a lot of heat for drafting relievers instead of starters, and perhaps deservedly so. I’m just hoping against hope that they’re being sneaky smart, not stupid. One way of looking at it is an arm is an arm, and they might be picking up potential starters that were undervalued by their previous usage.

    Just as closers can be overvalued compared to other relievers based on their collection of meaningless saves–meaning that you can pick up undervalued relievers who just happen to have been used in the “wrong” innings–isn’t it possible there’s a similar Moneyball-type inefficiency to the market that could be exploited by picking up pitchers who arbitrarily have been used as relievers instead of starters, reducing their perceived value?

    Certainly there are some college pitchers who have been used as relievers for a reason. Some might not be good enough to start. But what if they are, and just haven’t been? What if they have two good pitches now, but could be taught a third? How many young pitchers have mastered a changeup before they enter pro ball?

    If the Twins think their coaching staff is especially good at teaching the changeup, which there is some evidence may be the case, why not pick up people with good velocity and control, but no changeup, and teach it to them? Velocity is the one thing you can’t teach (with control perhaps being a close second). But changeups can. Maybe one of these guys that looks one dimensional now will be a future Johan Santana.

    There was at least one guy they drafted who the scouting reports say shouldn’t start because his mechanics are a mess and he’d instantly get injured. But for the rest of them, who knows. Maybe the Twins are pulling a Billy Beane here. Not likely, I admit, but it’s possible. And if worse comes to worst, at least they should get a decent bullpen out of it. Or as the above discussion suggests, a full game’s worth of short stints. Incidentally, someone always gets credited with a win anyway, so there would be plenty of W’s to go around, and maybe even some saves.

    Comment by by jiminy — June 7, 2012 @ 11:00 am

  18. Maybe the Twins reached on Berrios and intend on offering him money at his ranking (rather than pick number) so they can give more money to Buxton. Given the new rules on slot signing they may need to do something to give a little more to their top pick.

    Re: Twins staff being able to teach the changeup. They had a perfect person to teach it to in Jim Hoey. 100 mph fastball with a changeup could have been devastating.

    Re: LaRussa experiment: at the bottom of this article http://www.livewild.org/bb/pitchingstaff/index.html

    Comment by Scott — June 7, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

  19. Ill be interested to see if the twins sign 14th round florida state outfielder Jake Proctor. Reports are he has bigtime power but he may opt for his final year of college eligibility to improve him draft stock. An interesting article would be a pick by pick analysis of the likelihood these picks are signed into the fold. 2011 was not a good signing haul in comparison to past drafts and with the new budgetary rules implemented by the MLB getting talented players to sign is exceedingly important. I like the Adam Brett Walker and LJ Mazzili picks as potential impact bats. If Buxton turns into a home run and Sano continues his development tear he’s been on (big power numbers!!) the twins could have a great core coming up in several years.

    Comment by Brian — June 7, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

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