November 9, 2015

Examining the Twins’ free agent options: Catchers

Kurt Suzuki signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Twins two winters ago and then parlayed a good first half into a two-year, $12 million extension six months later only to resume being the same terrible hitter from 2010-2013. He ranked 24th among 28 regular catchers with a .610 OPS and posted poor pitch-framing numbers while throwing out 15 percent of steal attempts, which is why the Twins are in the market for catching help despite owing him $6 million in 2016.

Catching is always difficult to find and overpriced on the open market and aside from headliner Matt Wieters there aren't many appealing free agent options this offseason. Suzuki being under contract for much more than a typical backup's price tags means the Twins will likely be looking for a veteran to split time with him behind the plate and there are a handful of free agents who fit that bill depending on which flaws they're willing to overlook.

Matt Wieters headshotMatt Wieters: Coming out of college Wieters was billed as "Joe Mauer with power," but he's been merely a good regular. He does have power, averaging 20 homers per 150 games, but Wieters has hit just .258 with a .320 on-base percentage while cracking an .800 OPS once in seven seasons. He missed most of 2014 and the first two months of 2015 following Tommy John elbow surgery, but looked like his usual self in the second half while hitting .267/.319/.422 and throwing out 31 percent of steal attempts. Wieters is clearly the best free agent catcher, but through age 29 he's been good rather than great and would cost a first-round draft pick in addition to what will no doubt be a huge contract.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia: One of the Twins' pre-Suzuki free agent targets two offseasons ago, Saltalamacchia signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Marlins and then got released a month into the second year. He latched on with the Diamondbacks and hit like he did from 2011-2013 with the Red Sox, batting .251/.332/.474 in 70 games. He has 20-homer pop and draws walks, which is enough to make him an upper-level catcher offensively with a .744 OPS during the past five years, but Saltalamacchia's defensive reputation and numbers are horrendous. As a 31-year-old switch-hitter who can't really hit lefties he'd fit reasonably well in a platoon with Suzuki.

A.J. Pierzynski headshotA.J. Pierzynski: Two years ago Pierzynski bypassed a Twins reunion to sign with the Red Sox and Boston released him in July. He bounced back well with the Braves this season, hitting .300 with nine homers and a .769 OPS in 113 games. Not much has changed about Pierzysnki's game in a decade away from Minnesota. He still swings at everything, rarely walking or striking out, and still can't run or throw. And he's still an above-average catcher. The danger is that if his contact skills decline at age 39 and his batting average dips there isn't much else to prop up his value. He's walking a thin line between useful regular (2015) and out-machine (2014), but his lefty bat would fit in a platoon with Suzuki.

Chris Iannetta: He's coming off a miserable season in which he hit .188 in 92 games, but Iannetta still managed a higher OPS than Suzuki thanks to 10 home runs and 41 walks. Despite being a career .231 hitter he's been above average offensively for a catcher in six of his eight full seasons. He has decent power and draws tons of walks, posting a .342 on-base percentage in four years with the Angels to rank sixth among catchers since 2012. Iannetta is a bounceback candidate at age 33, but a low-average, walk-heavy catcher with a mediocre arm and durability issues seems unlikely to catch the Twins' eye and as a right-handed hitter a platoon with Suzuki wouldn't make sense.

Dioner Navarro headshotDioner Navarro: He's played 11 seasons and been an above-average hitter in just three of them, but Navarro carries more name recognition than a typical journeyman catcher thanks to debuting with the Yankees as a 20-year-old top prospect in 2004. He was Toroto's starter in 2014 before being pushed aside for Russell Martin this year and hit .246/.307/.374 in a part-time role to nearly match his .255/.313/.375 career mark. Those are decent enough numbers for a catcher, but as a switch-hitter who fares better from the right side of the plate Navarro would be a poor fit platooning with Suzuki and their offensive skill sets are somewhat similar in general.

Alex Avila: Once upon a time Avila looked like a long-term building block for the Tigers, making the All-Star team in 2011 at age 24, but knee problems and multiple concussions derailed his career. He's still only 28 years old, but Avila moves like he's 50 and has hit just .216/.326/.351 in 293 games during the past three seasons. He was limited to 67 games in 2015 and parted ways with the Tigers despite his dad Al Avila taking over as Detroit's general manager. Avila has excellent plate discipline and decent power with a strong reputation defensively, but he's hit above .250 once in six years and may simply be worn out physically. As a left-handed hitter he could platoon with Suzuki.

Brayan Pena headshotBrayan Pena: After bouncing around for a decade without getting even 250 plate appearances in a season Pena signed with the Reds and topped 350 plate appearances in both 2014 and 2015. His production didn't improve any, as Pena hit .263/.313/.339 with five homers in 223 games as a regular. Pena's best skill is rarely striking out, which enables him to hit for a decent batting average, but he has very little power and swings at everything. He struggled to control the running game this season at age 33, but has a decent throw-out rate for his career. As a switch-hitter who fares better versus right-handers platooning with Suzuki makes sense, but Pena's career OPS off righties is a modest .684.

Geovany Soto headshotGeovany Soto: As a 25-year-old for the Cubs in 2008 he hit .285/.364/.504 with 23 homers on the way to Rookie of the Year honors, but Soto has hit just .231/.321/.411 in seven seasons since then and was last a starter in 2012. At age 32 he has good power, draws a fair amount of walks, and can throw out runners, but he struggles against right-handers and strikes out a lot if pressed into regular action. This season for the White Sox he hit .219/.301/.406 in 78 games splitting time with Tyler Flowers. Soto fits best as a part-time player starting a couple times per week against left-handed pitching, which is more or less true of Suzuki as well.

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."

November 2, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #222: Torii and Gardy

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode included Torii Hunter's retirement and place in Twins history, Ron Gardenhire finishing runner-up for a job and being a Halloween costume, Justin Morneau on the open market, why "general manager" has a new meaning in some front offices, why Rick Anderson has been AWOL, shaving heads at Mason's Barre, and answering mailbag questions from listeners.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 222

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

Here's what my Halloween costume looked like:

Gardenhire Halloween

This week's blog content is sponsored by Harry's Razors, where you can get discounted razors and shaving supplies delivered to your door by entering in the code "gleeman" at

October 28, 2015

Trevor Plouffe, Miguel Sano, and the Twins’ future at third base

Trevor Plouffe and Miguel Sano Twins

Trevor Plouffe was a high school shortstop from California when the Twins drafted him with the 20th overall pick in 2004. At the time some teams preferred Plouffe's upside as a pitcher, but the Twins viewed him as a shortstop and that's where he played year after year in the minors. In all Plouffe logged 5,400 innings and played 680 games as a minor-league shortstop, including 250 at Triple-A. And then the Twins called him up and it looked like he'd never played the position.

Plouffe played 54 total games at shortstop for the Twins in 2010 and 2011--exactly one third of a full season--and committed 12 errors. Most of them were of the throwing variety, including several routine plays air-mailed into the seats behind first base. In those 54 games Ultimate Zone Rating said he was 10 runs below average and Defensive Runs Saved said he was 15 runs below average. Perhaps at some point he would've improved, but Plouffe simply wasn't a big-league shortstop.

And there's no shame in that. Playing shortstop in the big leagues is incredibly difficult and most shortstop prospects end up shifting to less demanding positions before even reaching the majors. Plouffe's situation stood out only because he'd played so much shortstop in the minors and at the time of his call-up the idea of him playing shortstop for the Twins wasn't viewed as far-fetched. It was, though, and by mid-2011 he was being tried at other positions.

First he got some action at second base, which is where shortstops who lack arm strength often wind up. Brian Dozier is an example of the shortstop-to-second base shift working out well, but Plouffe didn't lack arm strength and was too big/not quick enough to make the transition. Next he got some action in right field and left field, which is where shortstops who out-grow the position often wind up. Plouffe looked fine there, but his bat seemed light for a corner outfielder.

In fact, at the time his bat seemed light in general. In addition to playing shortstop in the minors Plouffe also hit like a shortstop in the minors, which is to say not well. Overall as a minor leaguer he batted .258 with a .405 slugging percentage, failing to crack a .750 OPS in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, or 2010. Everything changed for Plouffe offensively at Triple-A in 2011, as he broke out with a monster 51-game stretch in which he hit .313/.384/.635 with 15 homers.

Plouffe shedding his "light-hitting shortstop" label offensively right around the time he shed his "shortstop" label defensively was likely tied together as part of his physical maturation and was definitely good timing, as it allowed the Twins to give him a long look at third base in 2012. It wasn't a smooth transition, as he struggled to make routine plays and graded out poorly overall, but Plouffe's arm strength, vast shortstop experience, and hard work eventually paid off.

By mid-2013 he no longer looked like a fish out of water at third base and the sudden power he'd shown at Triple-A in 2012 stuck around for good. After a decade as a light-hitting shortstop with shaky defensive chops Plouffe was a strong-armed, power-hitting third baseman. He produced 21 homers per 150 games from 2012-2015 and his defensive stats improved from bad to mediocre to good, making him a solidly above average all-around third baseman.

And that's where Plouffe sits now, at age 30 and with his Twins future in question. To make the transition from light-hitting, poor-fielding shortstop to power-hitting, good-fielding third baseman is remarkable in itself, as evidenced by Plouffe being one of the Twins' best players for the past four seasons. However, his subsequent inability to take the next step offensively by adding other skills to his 20-homer power has caused Plouffe to stagnate.

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
2012     .235     .301     .455     .756
2013     .254     .309     .392     .701
2014     .258     .328     .423     .751
2015     .244     .307     .435     .742

He hit .244/.307/.435 this season, which is nearly identical to his combined .249/.314/.422 line from 2012-2014. His walk and strikeout rates have remained remarkably stable and the biggest change in his performance since 2012 was grounding into a league-high 28 double plays this year. Plouffe is established a .250 hitter with 20-homer power, sub par plate discipline, and poor speed, which adds up to a .725-.750 OPS at a position where the MLB average was a .755 OPS in 2015.

Stagnating as an above-average player is far from the worst thing, but there are other factors at play. For one thing, Plouffe's salary is rising. He made $4.8 million this season and is in line for $8 million or so in 2016 via arbitration. Beyond that, the Twins control him for just two more years. After making, say, $8 million in 2016 and $11 million in 2017, he'll be able to hit the open market as a free agent and potentially leave for nothing. And then there's Miguel Sano.

Sano was a shortstop when he signed with the Twins as a 16-year-old in 2009 and played a few hundred rookie-ball innings there around the time Plouffe was showing he couldn't play shortstop in the majors. Sano quickly shifted to third base, where his massive size led to constant doubts about his ability to remain there long term. Missing all of 2014 following elbow surgery cast even more doubt, but the Twins have consistently insisted that Sano can play third base.

Sano made his long-awaited MLB debut in July and was a revelation, hitting .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers, 17 doubles, and 53 walks in 80 games. He transformed the Twins lineup in one of the best rookie seasons in team history, but he also did so as a designated hitter because of Plouffe's presence at third base. Sano played nine games and logged 77 innings at third base and looked decent, but the sample size is far too small to be worth evaluating.

It seems safe to assume Sano will never be a standout defensive third baseman and based on his size and level of athleticism at age 22 it also seems safe to assume he won't be playing third base, period, by the time he's 30. However, what position he's playing at age 30 is a question for 2020 rather than 2016 and if Sano can play a reasonably competent third base in the short term trading Plouffe becomes a viable option for the Twins.

By trading Plouffe the Twins would accomplish several things. Trade interest is always difficult to gauge, but presumably several teams would pursue Plouffe as a multi-year answer at third base and would be willing to surrender something of short- and/or long-term value. Parting with him would also create $8 million in spending money for 2016 and another $10-12 million for 2017, which could certainly come in handy in the Twins' never-ending search for pitching help.

Going from Plouffe to Sano at third base would hurt defensively, but Plouffe isn't exactly Brooks Robinson and it could also lead to an upgrade offensively. Not only is Sano a better hitter than Plouffe, moving him to third base would open up the DH spot for another big bat. Plouffe's usual .725-750 OPS is solid for a third baseman, but for lineup purposes the Twins would essentially be replacing him with a DH and finding a DH capable of topping a .750 OPS shouldn't be difficult.

In fact, the Twins currently have a logjam of young first basemen, designated hitters, and corner outfielders. Sano falls into that category or perhaps more accurately that category has the honor of including Sano, which is why his being able to play third base could create opportunities that wouldn't otherwise exist for log-jammed hitters like Oswaldo Arcia, Kennys Vargas, Josmil Pinto, Max Kepler, and Adam Walker.

To frame a potential Plouffe trade as the Twins getting rid of him would be misleading, because if there are no appealing offers on the table they should absolutely keep him and feel just fine about doing so. But thanks to Plouffe's growing salary and nearing free agency, Sano's (large) presence, and the abundance of young bats in need of opportunities in Minnesota or elsewhere a trade is a very viable option. It's exactly the type of move a smart team should explore.

For more on the Twins' possible offseason plans, including a potential reunion with A.J. Pierzynski, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

October 26, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #221: Hot Dogs and Sushi

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode included a possible Twins reunion with A.J. Pierzynski, Ron Gardenhire's rejection letters, hot dogs, beer, and sushi at Kyatchi, searching for bullpen help, the first batch of 40-man roster cuts, how to pronounce cauliflower, the magic of Tom Selleck, putting odds on the Twins' rotation next season, and trying to learn some lessons from the playoffs.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 221

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

Here's what the hot dogs, sushi, and baseball mural look like at Kyatchi:

Kyatchi podcast

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."

October 19, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #220: Aaron The Bookie

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode included previewing the offseason by discussing the Twins' future budget, Kurt Suzuki's future platoon partner, Trevor Plouffe's future employer, Eduardo Escobar's future role, Torii Hunter's future salary, Byron Buxton's future location, stuffing maws with Iron Door Pub's food, saving money with Harry's Razors, and answering Twitter questions.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 220

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 Harry's Razors, where you can get discounted razors and shaving supplies delivered to your door by entering in the code "gleeman" at

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