July 7, 2015

Who is Ryan O’Rourke and why is he replacing Aaron Thompson?

Ryan O'Rourke Twins

Aaron Thompson was among the Twins' final cuts in spring training, officially being optioned to Triple-A on March 31, but he was recalled and added to the bullpen four days later following Ervin Santana's suspension. Thompson almost immediately worked his way past Brian Duensing to become the primary left-handed setup man and manager Paul Molitor quickly began trusting the 28-year-old journeyman enough to get key late-inning outs against lefties and righties.

For a while it worked, as Molitor used Thompson in 17 of the first 34 games and he posted a 2.11 ERA while holding opponents to a .181 batting average. And then things began to unravel. He had a rough outing on May 17, at which point Molitor ceased relying on Thompson as a setup man and started using him as a situational left-hander. After facing an average of 4.8 batters in his first 18 appearances Thompson faced an average of 2.2 batters in his next 23 appearances.

Despite the altered usage designed to shield him from good right-handed hitters Thompson fell apart. Starting with that May 17 outing and ending with his demotion to Triple-A after Monday's game, he allowed 14 runs in 11 innings with more walks than strikeouts and a .388 opponents' batting average. Thompson heads to Rochester with a 5.01 ERA and 17/11 K/BB ratio in 32 innings, which is more or less what you'd expect based on his underwhelming track record.

However, it's worth noting that while Thompson was exposed in a prominent role and struggled overall he fared well against left-handed hitters by holding them to a .189 batting average, zero home runs, and a .526 OPS in 62 plate appearances. I'm not a big fan of using a roster spot on a situational left-hander unless they're absolutely unhittable in that role, but Thompson did just fine when asked to get lefties out.

In demoting Thompson back to Triple-A the Twins replaced him with Rochester left-hander Ryan O'Rourke, a 27-year-old former 13th-round draft pick with a 4.15 ERA in six seasons as a minor leaguer. O'Rourke has never appeared on my annual list of the Twins' top-40 prospects, went unpicked in the Rule 5 draft despite being left unprotected, hasn't logged 50 innings in a season since 2012, and brings with him an ugly 5.93 ERA in 20 appearances for Rochester.

So why is he now in the big leagues, replacing Thompson in the bullpen? Because the Twins are convinced that having a situational left-hander makes sense and O'Rourke is death to lefties. This year at Triple-A he faced 36 left-handed hitters and struck out 20 of them while allowing five hits. Last season at Double-A he faced 74 left-handed hitters and struck out 42 of them while allowing eight hits. And during that two-year span righties hit .340 off O'Rourke.

Thompson did a perfectly good job getting lefties out, but struggled so much when also asked to consistently get righties out that the team lost faith in him overall. O'Rourke will probably be even worse if asked to face righties on a regular basis given that he couldn't get them out at Double-A and Triple-A, but clearly Molitor has plans to use him in a strict situational left-hander role and if that happens he has a chance to thrive for one or two batters per appearance.

O'Rourke shifted to the bullpen full time in 2012 and since then he's faced left-handed hitters in 247 plate appearances spread across four levels of the minors. He's held them to a .151 batting average and .199 slugging percentage with 115 strikeouts and 19 walks. Or, to put those crazy numbers another way: O'Rourke's matchups with lefties from 2012-2015 resulted in a strikeout 47 percent of the time and a hitter reaching base safely 21 percent of the time.

This season Thompson has held lefties to .189/.262/.264, which is excellent and will be hard for O'Rourke to top. However, that came attached to an unimpressive 11/6 K/BB ratio versus lefties and clearly the Twins don't think Thompson's success will continue to the point that he'll be worth keeping on the roster in a very limited role. O'Rourke has the potential to thrive in that same role, but Molitor playing the correct matchups to put him in a position to succeed will be crucial.


For a lot more about the Twins' recent roster moves and call-ups, including Miguel Sano's arrival, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

July 6, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #202: Say Hello to Santana and Sano

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included the Twins calling up Miguel Sano for his MLB debut, Ervin Santana joining the rotation after an 80-game suspension, demoting Trevor May to the bullpen instead of Mike Pelfrey or Tommy Milone, reviewing the St. Paul Saints' new ballpark, Alex Meyer's quick return to Triple-A, Jose Berrios and Jorge Polanco moving one step closer, and why singing on a podcast is generally a bad idea.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 202

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."

July 2, 2015

Twins call up Miguel Sano to take over at designated hitter

Miguel Sano Twins

Miguel Sano is on his way to the majors and the 22-year-old top prospect will make his MLB debut at designated hitter rather than third base, stepping into a position that has been horribly unproductive for the Twins this season. Six players have started at least one game at DH for the Twins--led by Kennys Vargas with 29 and Torii Hunter and Eduardo Nunez with 11 each--and they've combined to hit .250/.305/.357 with five homers to rank second-worst in the league.

Vargas was the Opening Day starter following a strong rookie showing, but hit just .245/.277/.365 with five homers and an ugly 48/7 K/BB ratio in 47 games and has been sent to Double-A after previously being demoted to Triple-A. Oswaldo Arcia hasn't hit enough in Rochester to convince the Twins he's worth letting out of the doghouse and Josmil Pinto has been sidelined by with a concussion, so Sano is getting the call three weeks after fellow elite prospect Byron Buxton.

Signed out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old in 2009 for a record $3.15 million, Sano's immense power potential was evident from Day 1. He's topped an .850 OPS in all five seasons as a pro despite being very young for each level of competition, including hitting .274/.374/.544 with 15 homers and 18 doubles in 66 games at Double-A this year after missing all of 2014 following Tommy John elbow surgery.

And those extremely impressive Double-A numbers include a terrible April, as Sano struggled to get back on track offensively and defensively. However, since May 1 he's hit .315/.400/.601 with 11 homers, 16 doubles, and 28 walks in 48 games. That's incredible production for a 22-year-old coming off a lost season and why, despite questions about his long-term ability to remain at third base defensively, the Twins feel Sano is ready to make an impact with his bat alone.

Even focusing strictly on his bat Sano is far from flawless. He strikes out a ton, whiffing 149 times in 133 games at Double-A, and as a result his career batting average is a modest .278. Of course, struggling to make consistent contact often comes with the territory for big-time power hitters and Sano balances the strikeouts with lots of walks. That's an important distinction, because it means Sano has shown patience and the ability to work deep counts rather than being a free-swinger.

Cutting down at least somewhat on the strikeouts to keep his batting average closer to .300 than .200 and maintaining a good walk rate are keys to his development, but make no mistake about it: Power is the one tool around which his career will revolve. Sano is a massive human being at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, looking the part of a prototypical middle-of-the-order slugger, and he's averaged 35 homers per 150 games in the minors.

Three years ago as a teenager at low Single-A he led the Midwest League with 28 homers. Two years ago as a 20-year-old playing at high Single-A and Double-A his 34 homers were the most by any Twins minor leaguer in three decades. This season, as a 22-year-old at Double-A coming back from elbow surgery and a year of lost development, his 15 homers in 58 games ranked second in the Southern League.

Sano has 40-homer potential, which is saying something considering Harmon Killebrew is the only player in Twins history to hit more than 35 homers. That type of power combined with lots of walks would be enough to make Sano an outstanding overall player even with a batting average in the .250 range and little defensive value. Getting into the .280 range and contributing positively defensively--at third base or elsewhere--could make him an MVP-caliber monster.

For now the Twins simply need Sano to be better offensively than a group of DHs that combined for a .662 OPS and are willing to put him into a role that takes defense out of the equation save for what figures to be spot starts in the field. Trevor Plouffe will remain the Twins' starting third baseman, Sano will try to establish himself as an impact bat at age 22, and they'll worry about where he winds up defensively and how well he plays there later.


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."

July 1, 2015

Listen to me on the “No Juice” podcast

no juice podcast

I made my annual guest appearance on the "No Juice" podcast with Parker Hageman and Dan Anderson. We discussed Byron Buxton and Brian Dozier, but mostly veered away from the Twins to cover hard-hitting topics like cargo shorts, bachelorette parties and Vince Vaughn. I think you'll like the episode, because we had fun recording it.

"No Juice" podcast with Aaron Gleeman

And of course you can still listen to this week's episode of my own podcast, on which we spent 90 solid minutes talking about the Twins.

June 30, 2015

Byron Buxton and the curse of the elite Twins prospect

Byron Buxton Twins injury

Byron Buxton is expected to miss six weeks after suffering a sprained thumb in his 10th game for the Twins, knocking out the team's best prospect less than two weeks into his MLB career and right when he'd gotten back on the track to stardom following an injury wrecked 2014. Buxton had a trio of significant health problems last year, missing three months with a wrist injury, suffering a season-ending concussion in August, and skipping the Arizona Fall League with a broken finger.

Now he's sidelined by a fourth injury at age 21, which is a shame because it robs Buxton of crucial development time and each physical problem also potentially lowers his upside by putting dents in his immense physical tools. Unfortunately that's nothing new for Twins prospects and in fact it has become the standard fate for the crown jewels of their farm system. Based on Baseball America's annual top-100 prospect rankings, here are the best Twins prospects since 2000:

1. Joe Mauer
2. Byron Buxton
3. Francisco Liriano
4. Justin Morneau
5. Miguel Sano
6. Michael Cuddyer
7. Jason Kubel

You can certainly quibble with the exact order--I went into more detail here--but those are the only seven Twins prospects to be ranked among MLB's overall top 20 at some point since 2000. Six of those seven prospects suffered significant injuries before reaching their peaks and five of those seven prospects suffered significant injuries in the minors or in their rookie years with the Twins. In other words, nearly every elite Twins prospect since 2000 arrived as damaged goods.

Mauer tore the medial meniscus in his left knee while chasing after a foul ball in the second game of his Twins career, undergoing surgery the week before his 21st birthday and missing all but 35 games of his rookie season. Liriano made the All-Star team at age 22 and was having one of the most dominant rookie seasons ever by a pitcher when his elbow gave out, requiring Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entire next season.

Morneau made it to the Twins and reached his peak unscathed only to suffer a concussion in the middle of his age-29 season. At the time he was hitting .345 with a 1.055 OPS through 81 games, but he didn't play again that season, missed most of the next year, and has never been the same. Sano appeared to be on the verge of the majors last spring when he was shut down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss all of last season at age 21.

Kubel hit .352 with power and speed between Double-A and Triple-A at age 22 and then hit .300 in his 23-game debut with the Twins that September, but he suffered a career-threatening knee injury during a gruesome outfield collision in the Arizona Fall League and missed the entire next season before returning as a much different, more limited player. And now Buxton is out for six weeks with a thumb injury after being sidelined by wrist, finger, and brain injuries last season.

Injuries are obviously a part of baseball for all teams, but six of the Twins' seven elite prospects since 2000 suffering major injuries was franchise-altering. Liriano and Kubel were pretty clearly never the same following their injuries at age 22, it's possible that Mauer never truly reached his full potential playing an entire career with a surgically repaired knee, and Morneau was derailed by a brain injury at his absolute peak and never fully got back on track.

Sano is currently playing well at Double-A, but he's also repeating the level after a lost season, the injury lessens his odds of sticking at third base, and at the very least elbow surgery delayed his arrival to Minnesota. Similarly, four injuries in 18 months has stalled Buxton's development and the Twins can only hope that it won't keep him from ultimately reaching his peak or lower his upside whenever he does get there. It's a fate they've seen far too often with elite prospects.


For a lot more about Buxton's injury and the domino effect it has on the Twins' roster, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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