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.

  • Dave_Thompson

    There are Twins veterans that should not have made the team. Duensing and Stauffer showed nothing, and Nunez can’t play defense. However, Boyer and Graham were the two best relief pitchers the Twins had this spring. Pelfrey was probably the best starter, and his only relief appearance turned out pretty good too. From where I sit, Ryan has created a decent bullpen again, from scraps and leftovers. Based on spring training performance, the guy I was sorry to see sent down was Aaron Thompson, not Michael Tonkin.

    As for CF, Schafer and Robinson outplayed Hicks and Rosario. I’m not quite sure what your beef is. The Twins chose performance over upside.

    • The basis of your comment (“the Twins chose performance over upside”) seems to be that spring training performances–10 innings for pitchers or 35 at-bats for hitters–are somehow meaningful. I reject that premise. Those are tiny, random samples of exhibition games that prove, year after year, to mean very little.

      • GameND

        I understand that some of the younger players were not ready, however, however, how can this team not have a better plan B for CF.

        At the beginning of he off season, I was a big fan of adding Colby Rasmus. He ended up signing with Houston for about 8 mil. For more money, they signed Torii Hunter who cannot play CF (or any OF that well) and who is 10 years older.

        If you are going to add replacement level vets, at least add them with some versatility in their skill set.

        • Hope4Change

          A whole summer of watching Jeff Spicoli, er Colby Rasmus play would have been torture. He has some talent, but the flaws and bad body language overwhelm the talent, and at $8 mil, I’d rather watch Aaron Hicks, and I don’t want to watch Aaron Hicks….

      • Dave_Thompson

        Using that logic, you could pick the opening day roster in advance of spring training.

        • cbo26

          You not only could, but, with a few exceptions, you probably should.

      • JMP

        Agreed on the small sample size but Dave isn’t totally wrong. I understand why the Twins didn’t make Rosario the starter (needs way more time in high minors) and I get that they didn’t want to hand Hicks the job since he’s done nothing to earn it. I think the part that AG is right on is why Hicks isn’t the other half of the platoon. He’d be a great late inning defensive sub and they could throw him some ABs against righties to keep him working on that. He’s likely a 4th outfielder anyways at this point.

  • Kavan

    Hey Aaron, I share your frustration on a lot of these moves. I also agree that one or two of them would have been palatable but collectively they are quite disappointing. I think the outfield situation is the worst, I’m not looking forward to trotting one of Schafer and Robinson out there every day. Tim Stauffer and Blaine Boyer don’t make sense to me, any combination of Tonkin, Meyer or May would have been much prefered.

    I think the pitching rotation is a little more understandable. I don’t mind seeing what Milone looks like for 10 or so starts. His career FIP is 4.21, which is what the White Sox starting pitchers collectively produced last year. If he’s OK maybe a contender needs a 5th starter and is willing to toss us a B/C prospect for him or something. I don’t really like that Pelfrey is on the 25 man roster and there’s no trading his contract, but I’m mildly interested to see what he can do out of the ‘pen.

    Regardless, hopefully the 25 man roster looks considerably younger (and more exciting) by the All-Star break… it’s been a long rebuild.

    • JMP

      Disagree about Pelfrey being untradable. He has the profile of a relief pitcher and if he has a good half season he’d be a reasonable trade target
      for a team looking for a power arm with the “upside” that transitioning a mediocre starter to a relief role can have. Not saying it will happen, just that it could.

  • AP

    The Shane Robinson thing bothers me more than anything this team has done since Jason Bartlett because it just such an obviously horrible decision and they act with this air of disdain about it like we’re the idiots.

    Aaron Hicks for all his faults actually hits LH pitching decently. He hit .267 last year and is a career just below .250 hitter against LH. Shaffer is horrible against LH pitching as is Robinson (.220 career).

    So how do they plan to platoon two guys who are both awful at hitting lefties??

    It honestly leads me to think this team believes the definition of platoon is just the act of playing two different guys at the same position randomly not that you fit a players skill set to maximize the result for the better by doing this.

    It honestly makes me want to burn Target Field down

  • mlhouse

    The problem with the Twins approach to rebuilding (besides being 4 years too late) is that sometimes the prospects, like Aaron Hicks, do not work out. If you delay bringing your prospects to the major league level, it just delays the vetting of these players at the major league level.

    In 1982 the TWins began their rebuilding that ultimately delivered two World Series championships. But in the original script Lenny Faedo was the starting shortstop and Jim Eisenreich the centerfielder. It took 5 years to go from 100 losses to WS Champs, but there was experiementing going on the entire time. Puckett eventually replaced Eisenreich in 1984 and Gagne replaced Faedo in 1985.

    You may counter that they tried guys liek Ron Washington and Bobby Mitchell in those positons too. But that was only to stop gap the failed propsects. Move them into the lineup. FInd out if they can play. If they can, like Brunansky (21 years old in 1982), Hrbek (22 years old in 1982), Gaetti (23), Frank Viola (22) years then they will be core players. If they can’t find replacements.

    Look at the Twins 1982 roster and their ages and minor league experiences and consider WHERE they would be in the current Twins organization??? Hrbek would probably be still in A+ Ft Myers, and promoted step by step to AAA in 1984 when in fact Hrbek was the MVP runner up of that season.

    It is ridiculous that high level prospects like SAno and Buxton and Meyer are still in the minors instead of getting the seasoning they need to develop.

    • Kavan

      Sano and Buxton are very different cases from Meyer (and May). Meyer and May are borderline not eligible for prospect status (by whatever definition you want to use) because of their age: both are 25 years old. They should be up on the MLB roster or we shouldn’t be calling them prospects. Buxton and Sano might be in the lineup now if last season hadn’t gone the way it had for them, and even if they had been they would have been extraordinarily young for MLB rookies. Buxton and Sano (21 years old) are both still very young compared to other would be rookies, add to that neither one really played last year and I think most people would agree that some time in the minors would serve them well. Buxton has only 1 game above A+ ball, and Sano struck out 30% of the time in his only stint at AA so far. Lets pump the breaks on those two a little.

      But yes a ‘prospect’ who isn’t MLB ready by age 25 or 26, isn’t really a prospect. They’re a guy who needs to reach the peak of their ability to even break the 25 man roster of a pretty bad team.

    • Chris Holm

      You’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head. Unless you give young players time at the ML level, you will never know if they can be a part of the future. And struggling in your first exposure to MLB is part of the growth process most guys need to go through. The Twins seem to act as though any struggles by young players are a sign of failure and cannot be tolerated. The cores of the WS champ teams and 2000’s playoff squads were promoted through the farm system much more aggressively than the Twins have handled their young players lately.

  • McGivey87

    Just a depressing read.

  • Chris Holm

    The people defending the Twins on their CF decision have obviously been swayed by Twins propaganda. The Facts:

    Career OPS+:
    Schafer: 72
    Robinson: 69
    Hicks: 69

    Career WAR:
    Schafer: -1.9
    Robinson: 0.7
    Hicks: 0.6

    So while Hicks has indeed been bad, why punish him for it and then give the job to two guys who’ve been just as bad but with a lot longer track record of it and far less potential upside?

    • Kavan

      Even worse, career vs lefties, which I assume is where Robinson finds most of his playing time and Aaron Hicks could have:

      Robinson: .220/.308/.283
      Hicks: .244/.349/.409

      Pro tip: only one of those is good.

      Free Aaron Hicks! … as long as a lefty is on the mound.

  • -mike-alto-

    Robinson probably got the benefit of the doubt by being the Cardinals’ backup OF for the majority of the last few seasons. Also, ex Cardinal OFs rate well on the secondary market for some reason. I assume Colby Rasmus will always find a home somewhere. I can only imagine that MLB GMs always assume that any OF who played for the Cardinals must be of quality.

    Schafer’s defense was the deciding factor in him making the final 25. Something that is good enough for me. Hicks has proven that he can’t play CF on a regular basis. The team probably did not want to make him a reserve corner OF and have him play twice a week
    .

    Most importantly, In both cases, Schafer and Robinson have been described as scrappy. Maybe that’s what the twins were going for…IDK.

    Just like everyone else, the Twins have types. Schafer and Robinson are the Twins’ type.

    • Chris Holm

      Hence the reason I truly hate the Twins’ front office. None of what you said actually makes any real sense.

      • -mike-alto-

        I can only imagine that was the reasoning used by the twins management. Pattern behavior on their part.

        They probably have a chart of players whom they consider scrappy “baseball guys”.

    • blindeke

      Seems like losing 90 games a season is the “Twins type.”

  • Robert

    Well, I hear all this but I’d like to give Molitor, in particular, the benefit of the doubt. Here’s how I hope this works: These guys they’ve kept are guys that are playing the way Molitor wants, they are paying attention to detail, they bring the right attitude to the park. Let’s also hope that Schaefer has improved as a hitter and that Boyer, Milone, Pelfrey in the bullpen, and frankly all the pitching moves are built around the philosophy that Neil Allen’s bringing to the table–more change-ups, whatever else he’s teaching. And then, starting in late May, we start to see these other guys arrive here after getting 10-15 starts or 100-200 ABs: May, Meyer, Tonkin, hopefully Buxton, Sano, maybe Rosario. Maybe the space will be created by injuries, or maybe by dealing guys away, but by August we’ll have 5-6 of these other young guys in place. (That said: I can’t understand, even in my rosy scenario, why they signed Robinson and kept Nunez.)

  • Joel Thingvall

    When you put it in those terms, Aaron, I’m with you. Rosario and Hicks being the outfield platoon, learning from Molitor and Bruno and Torii. Meyer and May taking the place of Milone and Pelfrey. If one falters, the other moves from the bullpen to the rotation, or vice versa. And find room for Achter while you are at it…throwing two million at Stauffer. We also have Escobar and his fabulous spring without a position to play. And at this point, might as well give Beresford a shot (no, not Bernier) than drag out Nunez again. None of those mentions would hurt the Twins anymore in the short or long run as the current crop of roster filler. It’s too bad they are on the hook for $12 million for all that fodder.

  • RegularJoe62

    Hicks should be a prime example of why you don’t want to move guys up too fast.

    Oh, and he’s in Rochester not because he’s worse than Robinson, but because he doesn’t appear able to take his job seriously.