March 31, 2015

Opening Day roster takes shape as Twins choose veterans over upside

aaron hicks september1

Some were expected and some were unexpected, but all of the Twins' slew of roster moves skew toward veteran mediocrity. Jordan Schafer is the starting center fielder and Shane Robinson is his backup, with both Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario sent to Triple-A. Tommy Milone is the fifth starter, Mike Pelfrey stays on the roster as a reliever, and Blaine Boyer also has a bullpen spot, with Trevor May, Alex Meyer, and Michael Tonkin all sent back at Triple-A.

When viewed individually the moves have reasonable explanations, but collectively they signal that despite the switch from Ron Gardenhire to Paul Molitor the Twins still fetishize age and experience even when it comes attached to poor performances and nonexistent upside. This is a team projected to finish in last place following four straight 90-loss seasons and they're still doing whatever they can to delay fully turning the keys over to the prospects they've been stockpiling.

Two years ago the Twins traded away Denard Span and Ben Revere in the same offseason and handed Hicks the center field job at age 23 and with zero experience at Triple-A. He'd played very well that spring to help convince them it was the right move, but flopped once the games counted and was one of the worst rookies in Twins history. Last season, following another strong spring performance, the Twins handed Hicks the center field job again and he again struggled.

This time around it seemed like Hicks had the inside track on a third crack at the Opening Day gig, in part because Molitor seemed at least a little bit less fed up with Hicks than Gardenhire had been and in part because the alternatives were lacking. But when Hicks hit .206 this spring and failed to make some plays defensively they decided not to bother, demoting him back to Rochester while splitting center field between a 28-year-old waiver claim and a 30-year-old minor-league signing.

Schafer will get the bulk of the starts in center field after playing well in 41 games last year when the Twins claimed him off waivers from the Braves. Matching that .285/.345/.362 line while stealing bases and playing decent defense would make Schafer a solid regular, but the problem is that there's nothing in his track record to suggest he's anywhere near that capable offensively and his defensive numbers are sub par in center field.

Schafer has 1,400 plate appearances in the majors and has hit .229/.311/.310 with 360 strikeouts and 142 walks. And he was even worse at Triple-A, hitting .225/.278/.294 with 95 strikeouts and 35 walks in 120 games. He's been particularly helpless against left-handed pitching, hitting .167 off them as a big leaguer. If you're going to play Schafer regularly it should be only versus right-handed pitching, so in theory a platoon with the right-handed-hitting Robinson makes sense.

Robinson can't hit either, unfortunately. He's a .231/.303/.308 hitter in 452 plate appearances in the majors and a .266/.331/.377 hitter in 1,130 plate appearances at Triple-A. Spotting him only versus lefties would help Robinson in the same way that, say, only eating McDonald's twice a week would help a diet. If you're going to use Schafer and Robinson a righty/lefty platoon makes sense, but it's still probably going to be a really bad platoon.

Hicks' remaining window of opportunity with the Twins was narrow to begin with because they've got the best outfield prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton, starting the year at Double-A, but the Twins couldn't even stand to let Hicks keep the position warm until Buxton is ready. That doesn't mean Hicks is a totally lost cause any more than handing him the Opening Day job in 2013 (or 2014) meant he was totally ready to thrive, but it does mean he might be done in Minnesota.

As more and more people jump on the "Hicks just can't hit MLB pitching" bandwagon, it's worth noting that he already has hit MLB pitching as long as it's left-handed. Hicks has a .758 career OPS off lefties, which is higher than, among others, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. And the switch-hitter had similar splits in the minors. If there's any role for which Hicks is actually suited it's platooning against lefties, but instead the Twins will use Robinson in that same role.

For all the talk of Rosario having an impressive spring training he ended up hitting .233/.227/.442 with nine strikeouts and zero walks in 17 games. Spring training numbers aren't worth much and there's certainly plenty he could have done outside of actual games to impress the Twins' coaches, but when your batting average is higher than your on-base percentage and your strikeout-to-walk ratio is infinity that suggests there's some more development needed.

Rosario also struggled at Double-A last season, missing the first 50 games while suspended for marijuana and then hitting just .237/.277/.396 with a 68/17 K/BB ratio in 79 games. Perhaps the spring hype surrounding Rosario was mostly driven by the team's lack of faith in Hicks and their hope that Rosario would step forward as an alternative. Instead they saw what his track record shows, which is a talented 23-year-old with lots of rough edges and zero high-minors success.

Tommy Milone Twins

Milone was horrible for the Twins after they acquired him from the A's for Sam Fuld on July 31, but it was revealed later that he was pitching hurt and needed surgery to remove a benign tumor from his neck. Prior to the trade Milone was a solid back-of-the-rotation starter, albeit one with mid-80s velocity and little upside. He's still relatively young at 28 and still relatively cheap at $3 million, but the Twins have younger, cheaper, higher-upside options in May or Meyer.

Pelfrey made it clear that he's upset about being moved to the bullpen, saying the Twins never intended to make the fifth starter competition a fair fight. He might be right, but certainly there was no bias against Pelfrey when the Twins signed him for $5 million and then re-signed him for $11 million. He's given them plenty of reason for bias during the past two seasons by going 5-16 with a 5.56 ERA and getting hurt.

Pelfrey is a 31-year-old former top-10 draft pick who's spent a decade in the majors without ever making more than two relief appearances in a season, so it's easy to see why he'd be against the idea of full-time bullpen work. However, given his lack of success as a starter, durability concerns following multiple injuries, and career-long inability to develop useful secondary pitches to pair with a hard fastball relief work may suit him best. Or at least less bad.

He throws basically one pitch and that tends not to cut it as a starter, which is why Pelfrey has a 4.56 career ERA with 5.2 strikeouts per nine innings. However, being a one-pitch pitcher can be much less of an issue when you're only working an inning at a time and if Pelfrey can follow in the footsteps of many starters-turned-relievers by adding 2-3 miles per hour to his fastball the Twins might have something. Or he might just be a bad pitcher. You know, Occam's razor and all.

May is 25 years old with 400 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, and amid an awful overall debut he posted a 41/9 K/BB ratio in his final 37 innings. Meyer is also 25 and started 27 games at Triple-A last season, leading the league in strikeouts. Neither is a can't-miss prospects by any means, but they've pitched well in the minors, throw hard while generating strikeouts, and unlike Milone or Pelfrey might actually be part of the next good Twins team.

Tonkin and his mid-90s fastball are going back to Triple-A for a third straight season at age 25 despite being good there with a 3.48 ERA and 82/20 K/BB ratio in 78 innings and being good for the Twins when given a chance with a 3.26 ERA and 26/9 K/BB ratio in 30 innings. They opted to keep Boyer, a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 ERA, poor control, and just 191 strikeouts in 274 innings who was signed to a minor-league deal in January.

Spring training presented the Twins with plenty of opportunities to fill the margins of the roster with younger, unproven, higher-upside players, many of whom already have significant Triple-A experience. May and Meyer were viable fifth starter and long reliever options. Hicks and Rosario each could have started or platooned in center field. Tonkin could have taken his first extended shot at a setup role and there were also several other intriguing bullpen candidates.

Instead they'll all keep waiting, often in Rochester for a second or third go-around, in favor of proven veteran mediocrity like Pelfrey, Milone, Schafer, Eduardo Nunez, Boyer, and Robinson. Barring last-minute changes the Opening Day roster will include a grand total of just four players who're 25 years old or younger: Designated hitter Kennys Vargas, shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. Twins will have to keep waiting too.


For a lengthy--and surprisingly heated--discussion of the Twins' roster decisions, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

March 30, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #187: Roster Reactions and Dozier’s Deal

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included the Twins demoting Alex Meyer, Trevor May, Aaron Hicks, and Eddie Rosario to Triple-A, choosing Tommy Milone for the rotation, moving an angry Mike Pelfrey to the bullpen, signing Brian Dozier to a $20 million contract, trusting spring training numbers, what to drink at Mason's Barre, and giving away a pair of 20-game Twins season tickets courtesy of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 187

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

March 25, 2015

Twins sign Brian Dozier to four-year, $20 million contract

Brian Dozier Twins

Second baseman Brian Dozier and the Twins have agreed to a four-year, $20 million contract, which begins immediately by bumping his 2015 salary from the MLB minimum to $2 million and then covers his three arbitration seasons at a cost of $3 million in 2016, $6 million in 2017, and $9 million in 2018. Dozier was already under team control through 2018 and this deal does not include any option years, so he remains eligible for free agency after 2018.

Typically with these types of contracts there's a tradeoff between guaranteed money and team control. In other words, the player is able to lock in multiple years of salaries rather than going year-to-year with the risk of being released at some point and the team is able to secure option years that enable them to push back free agency if desired. Dozier's contract fits only half of that description: He gets the guaranteed money, but the Twins get no added team control.

Instead of going year-to-year with Dozier through his three arbitration seasons at a salary to be determined based on his performance, the Twins have pre-paid for all three seasons. In doing so they gain cost certainty, in case MLB-wide salaries and/or Dozier's production rise dramatically, but they have also committed $20 million more in guaranteed money than was required without gaining any additional team control of Dozier.

Dozier and his agent, Damon Lapa, acknowledged the atypical, seemingly one-sided nature of the deal at the press conference announcing the contract. Lapa was quick to point out that they avoided giving up any additional years of team control to the Twins and Dozier called "this type of contract ... very rare" because it contained "no options, no free agent years." Dozier got what he wanted, which was life-changing money, and he didn't even have to pay the usual toll.

Cost certainty has some value, of course, and the budget-conscious Twins likely feel particularly relieved to avoid the possibility of paying Dozier bigger money in 2017 or 2018, but cost certainty can also turn into a bad thing and the Twins have seen that happen in the past after unnecessarily locking themselves into good but not great players. Dozier isn't Nick Blackburn or Joe Mays, but then again most people wrongly assumed those deals carried little downside at the time too.

Dozier was a very good player last season, making up for a poor batting average with power (21 homers) and plate discipline (89 walks) to produce a .245/.345/.416 line that ranked well above average for second basemen. Toss in solid defense and Dozier ranked among the half-dozen best players at his position. Repeating that performance for the next four seasons would make this contract a bargain for the Twins.

Of course, that can basically be said of any long-term contract because they tend to be handed out to players coming off strong seasons and, in Dozier's case, a season that stands out from the rest of his career. Prior to last year Dozier hit just .240/.297/.384 in 231 games for the Twins and .232/.286/.337 in 48 games at Triple-A. His numbers at Single-A and Double-A were much better, but even those were driven by high batting averages and featured minimal power.

Dozier is a much different hitter now than he was in the minors and because of that it's especially tough to project his future. Right now he looks like a building block-caliber player by combining power and patience at an up-the-middle defensive position. But going back just a couple years shows Dozier as a mediocre prospect who was in the minors until age 25 and that late arrival also meant he was under the Twins' control through age 31.

It's easy to see why Dozier jumped at this deal, but the Twins' motivation isn't as obvious. They could keep him around through 2018 then and they can keep him around through 2018 now, with the only differences being that they've guaranteed him $20 million and no longer have the ability to change their mind if things go poorly for Dozier or a prospect like Jorge Polanco emerges as a younger, cheaper alternative. Hopefully they'll at least save a little money.


This week's blog content is sponsored by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, which is hosting a Twins season ticket giveaway contest on their website, MNFarmTeam.com.

March 23, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #186: Stathead Molitor, Dad Gardy, and Over/Unders

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included Paul Molitor showing stat-head tendencies, Ron Gardenhire going full-on dad mode, gambling on the over/under win totals for AL East and AL West teams, giving away season ticket packages from the Minnesota Farm Growers, top prospects Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios, and Alex Meyer going to the minors, and the best and worst leadoff hitters in Twins history.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 186

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


This week's blog content is sponsored by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, which is hosting a Twins season ticket giveaway contest on their website, MNFarmTeam.com.

March 18, 2015

When should the Twins call up Buxton, Sano, and Berrios?

Sano and Buxton

Putting an early end to all the "will they make the Opening Day roster?" questions, the Twins sent top prospects Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jose Berrios to the minor-league side of camp. All three players are expected to begin the season at Double-A, where they'll likely be joined by fellow top-15 prospects Jorge Polanco, Nick Burdi, and Max Kepler, so Chattanooga Lookouts fans should enjoy their first season as a Twins affiliate.

After years of hearing about their upside it's understandable that many fans are clamoring to see Buxton, Sano, and Berrios at Target Field as soon as possible, but a little more patience is needed. For one thing, none of them look ready for the majors. Buxton was limited to just 31 games last season due to significant injuries and didn't play very well when in the lineup. Sano missed the entire season following elbow surgery. Berrios has pitched all of 43 innings above Single-A.

There have certainly been instances in which the Twins have kept prospects in the minors too long and in fact 25-year-old Alex Meyer may be a current example, but Buxton, Sano, and Berrios don't fit the description. Buxton and Sano are 21 years old, Berrios turns 21 in May, and all three are on track to reach the majors at some point this season. Opening Day jobs would short-change their development and short-change the Twins' team control of three building block talents.

By waiting as little as a few weeks to promote a prospect to the majors the Twins gain an entire additional year of pre-free agency team control over that player. In other words, if Buxton were in the majors for Opening Day and stayed there for good he would become a free agent following the 2020 season. However, if the Twins waited to call up Buxton until May he would become a free agent following the 2021 season. For better or worse, service time is an important consideration.

Even if you think Buxton, Sano, and Berrios are ready to thrive in the majors--and there's little evidence that's the case--why would a team prefer one month of them at age 21 over an entire season of them at age 28? If the Chattanooga Lookouts are destroying the Southern League in June and the Twins still haven't moved their stud prospects up the ladder there will be plenty of reason to complain, but for now their patience is better for everyone involved.

In the meantime the Twins need to evaluate whether Trevor Plouffe is part of their future plans, either at third base if Sano is forced to shift down the defensive spectrum or at another position. And if he's not, then his first-half performance will help determine if he's able to fetch something via trade or looks more like an offseason non-tender candidate. Similarly, the Twins need to figure out whether Aaron Hicks is a lost cause and could let him keep center field warm for Buxton.

Berrios is somewhat different in that the pitcher keeping his rotation spot warm is likely Tommy Milone or Mike Pelfrey, neither of whom have any real upside, but Meyer is still likely ahead of Berrios on the call-up list by virtue of being four years older with 160 more Double-A and Triple-A innings. Plus, it's a mere 14-hour drive from Minneapolis to Chattanooga and after watching the Twins' future on one field you can stop by the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame.


This week's blog content is sponsored by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, which is hosting a Twins season ticket giveaway contest on their website, MNFarmTeam.com.

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