April 22, 2015

The art of platooning: Molitor vs. Gardenhire and Arcia vs. lefties

oswaldo arcia twins

Paul Molitor barely has his feet wet as Twins manager, but one noticeable change from Ron Gardenhire is the willingness to platoon. In his 13 seasons as manager Gardenhire essentially never platooned based on handedness, instead treating left-handed bats like Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel as everyday players despite their inability to handle left-handers and ignoring the potential value mediocre right-handed bats like Danny Valencia had as lefty mashers.

Molitor platooned more in his first couple weeks than Gardenhire did in some seasons, regularly benching Oswaldo Arcia and Jordan Schafer against lefties. That's a positive sign in the sense that platooning is a very straightforward, commonplace method of squeezing the most value out of non-stars and putting players in a position to succeed, but in this case the Twins constructed such a weak bench that their platoon options are pretty unappealing.

Not playing Schafer against lefties is a good idea, but Shane Robinson is such a weak overall hitter that his right-handedness barely makes a difference. Not playing Arcia against lefties is also a good idea, at least in the short term, but if the Twins still hold out any hope of him developing into an everyday player he'll need playing time versus lefties eventually and Eduardo Escobar, while better than Robinson, isn't exactly an ideal platoon-mate for a corner outfielder.

Mostly, though, it's just nice to see a manager willing to embrace a common, effective tactic after more than a decade of watching lefties flail away against left-handed pitching, potentially useful righties cast aside because they struggled in everyday roles, and batting orders remain unchanged regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitcher. And if the Twins' bench ever contains better options Molitor could do some interesting things with the lineup.

It'd be great to have nine everyday players and just trot them out in the same lineup spots no matter who was on the mound, but it's hard to find teams that wouldn't benefit from at least some platooning. Nearly every left-handed hitter in baseball history with a sizable track record has fared better against righties than lefties, often to an extreme degree. Because of that, with a lefty on the mound even good left-handed hitters are often worse than mediocre right-handed hitters.

For instance, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are MVP-winning left-handed bats and two of the best hitters in Twins history. However, looking strictly at production against left-handed pitching they both have a lower career OPS than mediocre right-handed hitters like J.J. Hardy, Delmon Young, and Trevor Plouffe. Having the platoon advantage makes a huge difference. Here are the career splits for the Twins' most-used left-handed hitters of the Gardenhire era:

CAREER OPS           vsR      vsL
Joe Mauer           .915     .749
Justin Morneau      .894     .705
Jason Kubel         .813     .676
Denard Span         .751     .726
Jacque Jones        .816     .628
Corey Koskie        .870     .707

On average those six left-handed hitters have an .843 OPS versus righties and a .699 OPS versus lefties for a collective decrease of 17 percent and everyone but Denard Span sees their OPS drop more than 125 points. Those decreases are larger than typical across MLB, but in general lefties tend to be 10-15 percent worse versus lefties. Of course, some lefty bats are good enough overall that they warrant keeping in the lineup against lefties even with the decreased production.

Put another way: Mauer's production against lefties drops 18 percent, but he's still decent with a .749 OPS. However, not many lefties are as good as Mauer overall and so most warrant benching at least semi-regularly. Gardenhire obviously didn't agree. Jones hit .230/.278/.350 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him leading off. Kubel hit .233/.305/.375 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him in the middle of the lineup. You get the idea.

It's possible that Arcia will improve versus lefties and/or become productive enough overall that he's worth playing every day and because he's still just 24 years old it's certainly worth investing some more time into finding out. More likely is that he's ultimately a platoon or quasi-platoon player, which is less a knock on Arcia specifically and more just the way things tend to go with good but not great left-handed hitters.

Considering his poor defense Arcia needs to put up big numbers to be worth having in the lineup at an offense-heavy position. So far he's hit .221/.262/.340 off lefties, which is 25 percent worse than his .249/.322/.489 line off righties. Even if Arcia gets better versus righties and turns that 25-percent drop versus lefties into, say, a 15-percent drop it shouldn't be all that hard for the Twins to find a random right-handed hitter capable of better against lefties.

Aaron Hicks, while hugely disappointing overall, has posted a .758 OPS off lefties in the majors and has always hit lefties much better than righties in the minors. Hicks may never develop into a quality regular, but he's already a quality platoon option. With a lefty on the mound he's a viable center fielder and/or better than Arcia offensively and defensively in left field. And that's the magic of platooning, which turns useless into useful by separating strengths from weaknesses.

Molitor has shown the mindset required to improve a lineup via platooning, but the Twins need to actually give him the pieces to make those moves worthwhile and a four-man bench of Robinson, Escobar, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez doesn't qualify. Still, after 13 years of learning to view hitters strictly through Gardenhire's binary "everyday player or not" lenses it's refreshing to consider how open-minded managing might take better advantage of useful but flawed options.


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April 3, 2015

Season preview: Are the Twins ready to stop losing?

Paul Molitor

Nearly everyone involved with the Twins, from players and new manager Paul Molitor to general manager Terry Ryan and owner Jim Pohlad, seems convinced the team is poised to take a big step forward. Nearly everyone not involved with the Twins, from national writers and Las Vegas oddsmakers to numbers-driven projection systems and cranky local bloggers, seems convinced the team is headed for another last-place finish and possibly a fifth straight 90-loss season.

Sports Illustrated picks the Twins for last place and 67 wins. ESPN.com picks the Twins for last place and 68 wins. Baseball Prospectus projects the Twins for last place and 71 wins. Bovada sets the Twins' over/under win total at 72.5. FanGraphs projects the Twins for last place and 74 wins. Grantland picks the Twins for last place and "under 75 wins." CBS Sports picks the Twins for last place. Yahoo Sports picks the Twins for last place. You get the idea.

Last year the Twins were 72-90. Then they fired Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager, handed out the largest free agent contract in team history to 32-year-old Ervin Santana at $55 million over four years, brought back Torii Hunter for a $10.5 million reunion at age 39, signed 33-year-old reliever Tim Stauffer for $2.2 million, and bypassed young talent in favor of veteran mediocrity for every roster spot up for grabs in spring training.

Those are all the moves of an organization that's sick of losing and also sick of their plummeting fan morale and season ticket sales. They spent big on veterans and further delayed the arrival of prospects, leading to an Opening Day roster with just four players who're 25 years old or younger in shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, designated hitter Kennys Vargas, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham.

This is a rebuilding team in the sense that the Twins have been very bad and are still attempting to get back on track, but it's anything but a young team. Kyle Gibson is the youngest member of the starting rotation at 27. Graham is the only member of the seven-reliever bullpen under 30. Six of the nine starting position players are at least 28. In terms of their collective average ages, the rotation is 30, the bullpen is 31, and the lineup is 29.

When the reality of the Twins' organizational collapse finally sunk in around mid-2012 or so the idea was that they'd be back to contending by now, but injuries ruined those plans. Joe Mauer's concussion derailed his career and turned him from a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher to a mediocre first baseman. Instead of making their MLB debuts Miguel Sano missed all of last year following elbow surgery and Byron Buxton missed all but 31 games with a wrist injury and a concussion.

Buxton and Sano will begin this season as teammates at Double-A, the Twins sent 25-year-old pitching prospects Alex Meyer, Trevor May, and Michael Tonkin back to Triple-A rather than trust them with roster spots that went to Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, and Blaine Boyer, and after back-to-back Opening Day starts in center field Aaron Hicks is back in Rochester too. Toss in Arcia's development stagnating a bit and it's easy to see where the rebuild sputtered.

The good news is Buxton and Sano remain superstar-caliber prospects, Meyer and May still have enough upside to project as impact pitchers in some role, and there's another wave of prospects coming soon led by Jose Berrios, Jorge Polanco, and Nick Burdi. The bad news is none of that figures to actually help the Twins win many games before the All-Star break. Sadly, being a Twins fan in 2015 is still more about waiting for help to arrive than watching it play at Target Field.

Brian Dozier; Danny Santana

There's a lot of optimism surrounding the Twins' offense after the lineup produced the fifth-most runs in the American League last season, but building on or even duplicating that performance is hardly a sure thing. For starters, Santana was the only hitter on the team to crack an .800 OPS last season, coming out of nowhere to hit .319/.353/.473 as a rookie after batting .273/.314/.388 in the minors while failing to top a .725 OPS at Single-A, Double-A, or Triple-A.

Santana is good enough, young enough, and skilled enough to buy into reevaluating his upside compared to what his minor-league track record suggested, but his rookie success was still driven by an unsustainable .405 batting average on balls in play and came despite an ugly 98/19 K/BB ratio. The combination of a so-so track record, poor plate discipline, and a high batting average on balls in play makes him a prime regression candidate.

Brian Dozier also needs to fight his track record to show his 2014 was for real, albeit to a lesser extent than Santana. He was the Twins' best all-around position player, hitting .245/.345/.416 with 23 homers, 21 steals, 89 walks, and solid defense to rank among the top half-dozen second basemen in MLB. Clearly the Twins buy into Dozier's age-27 breakout, but prior to 2014 he hit just .240/.297/.384 in the majors and .232/.286/.337 at Triple-A.

Kurt Suzuki was another source of unexpectedly strong offense, hitting .288/.345/.383 to make his first All-Star team at age 30. As with Dozier the Twins bought into his resurgence with a new contract, but Suzuki hit .253/.313/.362 in the second half to resemble his measly .237/.294/.357 line from 2010-2013. Jordan Schafer's track record strongly suggests he'll be unable to repeat his 41-game Twins showing and Hunter is fighting father time at age 39.

All of which isn't to say the lineup lacks the ability to improve in spots. Mauer getting back to his usual self would be huge and he hit .300 with a .400 on-base percentage in his final 55 games. Arcia should take a step forward at age 24 and is capable of breaking out with a better approach. But for the most part more hitters are likely to decline than improve, some by wide margins. Of course, Buxton and Sano showing up in May or June ready to thrive could change everything.

Then there's defense, which has played an overlooked part in the Twins' struggles as the focus tends to be on the "pitching" rather than the run prevention of pitching plus defense. Combined from 2011-2014 the Twins ranked 28th in Ultimate Zone Rating at 90 runs below average and 24th in Defensive Runs Saved at 115 runs below average. They've been horrendous, especially in the outfield, which is doubly bad combined with fly-ball, strikeout-phobic pitching staffs.

Infield defense may not be bad because Dozier is solid at second base, Santana has the skills to be a plus shortstop, Trevor Plouffe showed big improvement at third base, and Mauer is fine at first base. However, the outfield is guaranteed to be a major weakness again. Arcia and Hunter were two of MLB's worst defensive corner outfielders last year and it's asking a lot of Schafer (or Hicks) to cover up their mess when he's actually gotten below average marks in center field.

Phil Hughes Twins

Last offseason the Twins gave a four-year, $49 million deal to Ricky Nolasco and a three-year, $24 million contract to Phil Hughes, and this offseason they took the uncharacteristic pursuit of free agent pitching even further by signing Santana for $55 million. Hughes got three years and $42 million tacked on to his previous deal following a breakout 2014 season and the Twins have Pelfrey and Milone under contract for a combined $8.5 million in 2015.

That's a lot of resources devoted to veteran starters and there's also a hidden cost that comes with having pitchers with guaranteed salaries locked into rotation spots that might otherwise be handed over to prospects. Hughes is signed through 2019, Santana is signed through 2018, Nolasco is signed through 2017, and even though Pelfrey and Milone aren't signed beyond this season the Twins were still hesitant to push them aside.

Hughes was a tremendous find on what was a very reasonable free agent contract that the Twins turned into a much bigger commitment. He logged 210 innings and pitched even better than his solid 3.52 ERA, striking out 186 and walking 16 for the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. Asking for a repeat of that performance is wishful thinking, but Hughes seemed like a truly different pitcher last season and enters this year as a clear-cut No. 1 starter.

Santana was signed to take over the No. 2 spot and what he lacks in upside he makes up for in durability, although he's probably more of a No. 3 starter on a contending team. Nolasco looked like a No. 3 starter when the Twins gave him $49 million last offseason, but then pitched horribly for several months before revealing he was hurt and is now a question mark the Twins no doubt regret signing.

Gibson is the lone homegrown pitcher in the rotation and the former top prospect finally broke through last season to throw 179 innings in 31 starts. He was wildly inconsistent, but the end result was a 4.47 ERA in a league where the average starter was below 4.00. Inducing lots of ground balls helps Gibson make up for a lack of missed bats, but at age 27 and with just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings his upside looks limited to the back of the rotation.

Milone beat out Pelfrey and May for the fifth spot and the soft-tossing left-hander will try to show that his awful post-trade performance for the Twins was due to a benign tumor in his neck that required surgery. Milone was a solid back-of-the-rotation starter for the A's, but Oakland's pitcher-friendly ballpark overstated his effectiveness and helped compensate for a mid-80s fastball. He has a 4.80 career ERA in non-Oakland ballparks.

If the goal was to put together a rotation less likely to be a disaster than the 2011-2014 versions the Twins absolutely accomplished that, but the price tags indicate they have much higher hopes and that may be pushing things. This is the worst rotation in the AL Central even if it's assumed Hughes will avoid turning back into a pumpkin and there isn't much upside unless Meyer and/or May hit the ground running soon. And compared to the bullpen the rotation is a strength.

Glen Perkins was one of the elite relievers in baseball for 3.5 seasons before melting down late last year while pitching through an injury. The bullpen desperately needs him to be his pre-injury self or things could get very ugly. Casey Fien is the primary setup man. Brian Duensing, who was a non-tender candidate, is the only lefty. Stauffer and Boyer have prominent roles and the Twins are hoping Pelfrey's one-pitch arsenal fits better in relief. It's an underwhelming group.


This should be the least-awful Twins team since 2010, but that's not saying much and confidence in even that mild statement dropped when they stacked the roster with Pelfrey, Milone, Duensing, Boyer, Schafer, Stauffer, Shane Robinson, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez. That's a lot of self-imposed dreck for a team with better, younger options and there's a depressingly strong chance the same "are the Twins ready to stop losing?" question can be asked 365 days from now.

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.

September 3, 2014

Meet the Twins’ September call-ups

aaron hicks september1

September 1 roster expansion means an assortment of new and sort-of-new players added to the Twins' roster for the final month of the season, so here's a look at the call-ups:

Aaron Hicks, 24-year-old outfielder

Hicks has been bad enough in 129 games for the Twins--hitting .194 with poor defense--that his status as a top-100 prospect as recently as last season is easy to forget, but there's still a decent chance he becomes a useful regular. Whether that comes in Minnesota or elsewhere is unclear, because Byron Buxton's presence means the window for someone else to play center field is a small one and Hicks hitting enough to be an asset as a corner outfielder is a stretch.

Hicks' primary strength as a hitter has always been plate discipline, but he's been more passive than patient in the majors and even in the minors as a prospect he struck out a lot and posted mediocre batting averages. Demoted to Double-A in mid-June and once again a switch-hitter, he batted .297/.404/.466 with more walks (28) than strikeouts (27) in 43 games and then batted .278/.349/.389 in 24 games at Triple-A following an August promotion.

Overall between the two levels Hicks hit .291/.387/.441, which is plenty solid for a 24-year-old and nearly identical to his .286/.384/.460 line at Double-A in 2012 that wrongly convinced the Twins he was ready for the big leagues. Obviously his stock has plummeted since then, but they'd be smart to give Hicks another extended opportunity down the stretch. His skill set is such that he can provide reasonable value hitting .240 and as awful as he's looked that's still doable.

Josmil Pinto, 25-year-old catcher/designated hitter

By signing Kurt Suzuki to a two-year, $12 million contract extension the Twins made it clear they don't think Pinto's defense is good enough to be a starting catcher. He can still provide plenty of value as a part-time catcher and part-time designated hitter, but his upside in that role would be considerably lower and the emergence of Kennys Vargas means Pinto's future at DH could be cloudy as well.

Pinto's month-long slump led to the Twins casting him aside for Kendrys Morales in mid-June, which was questionable at the time based on their respective track records and proved to be a horrendous move when Morales hit like a backup shortstop for six weeks. Pinto has been in the minors since then, hitting .279/.376/.457 in 60 games at Triple-A after hitting .309/.400/.482 between Double-A and Triple-A last season.

It might take Vargas slumping for Pinto to get another extended opportunity, but a 25-year-old with a .265/.349/.464 line through 64 games in the majors to go along with a strong track record in the minors deserves a much longer leash than he's received so far. Pinto has plenty of power potential, he can draw walks, and his OPS in the majors (.813) is nearly the same as Vargas' (.830) right now. He just needs a chance to show the slump was merely a slump.

Michael Tonkin, 24-year-old right-hander

After pitching well in an 11-inning Twins debut last season Tonkin seemed likely to have a sizable role at some point this season, but instead the bullpen in Minnesota was rarely a big problem and he spent most of the year in Rochester. Combined between this year and last year Tonkin has a 3.48 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 78 innings at Triple-A, and unlike most hard-throwers his control has actually been good with only 16 non-intentional walks.

Tonkin struggled in a month-long stint with the Twins this season, but the 6-foot-7 right-hander has averaged 94 miles per hour with his fastball in the majors and has the minor-league track record to match. He throws strikes and misses bats with quality raw stuff and should emerge as a late-inning bullpen option in 2015. Counting the minors and majors Tonkin has 228 strikeouts in 195 innings since moving to the bullpen full time in 2012.

Lester Oliveros, 26-year-old right-hander

Oliveros was acquired from the Tigers in the 2011 trade for Delmon Young and missed most of 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He returned better than ever, starting the season at Double-A before moving up to Triple-A. Overall he threw 66 innings with a 1.64 ERA, including 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings and a .187 opponents' batting average with zero homers in 272 plate appearances. (Naturally he allowed a homer to the first MLB batter he faced Tuesday.)

Oliveras has always had a big fastball, averaging 94 miles per hour as a big leaguer in limited pre-surgery action. He's also always had iffy control, with nearly four walks per nine innings in the minors. His rebuilt elbow can still reach the mid-90s consistently and Oliveros made some minor strides with his control when a lot of pitchers see their walk rate rise after surgery. At age 26 he looks like an intriguing 2015 bullpen option.

A.J. Achter, 26-year-old right-hander

Achter was a 46th-round draft pick out of Michigan State in 2010 and posted a 4.52 ERA in 2011 as a starter at low Single-A, but he shifted to the bullpen in 2012 and has a combined 2.10 ERA in 213 innings as a reliever since then. That includes a 2.17 ERA and 80-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 79 innings between Double-A and Triple-A this season, which was enough to get him added to the 40-man roster for September.

However, his shiny ERAs come with good but not exceptional strikeout rates and Achter's control is mediocre. He's done an amazing job limiting hits, including a .173 opponents' batting average this season, but that was driven by an unsustainably great .228 batting average on balls in play. Toss in underwhelming velocity and his odds of sticking in the majors don't seem particularly good, but at age 26 he warrants a "why not?" look.

Aaron Thompson, 27-year-old left-hander

Not technically a September call-up, Thompson was added to the roster on August 31 when the Twins lost Sam Deduno on waivers to the Astros. Ron Gardenhire talked up Thompson's work against left-handed hitters in Rochester and sure enough he held them to a .186 batting average, but a 13/7 K/BB ratio hardly displayed dominance and last season, also in Rochester, he allowed lefties to hit .267 compared to .265 by righties. In other words, it looks like a fluke.

Thompson is a 27-year-old journeyman with a 4.33 ERA in a decade as a minor leaguer, including a 3.52 ERA and thoroughly mediocre 107-to-51 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 120 innings at Triple-A. He's a former first-round draft pick, but that no longer matters much considering it was the same year (2005) the Twins selected Matt Garza three picks later. Deduno is certainly no big loss, but he has higher odds than Thompson of being a valuable reliever for the Twins.

Logan Darnell, 25-year-old left-hander

Darnell fared well at Double-A to begin last season, but has a 3.82 ERA in 172 innings at Triple-A along with a poor strikeout rate and mediocre control. He got knocked around in a brief stint with the Twins earlier this season while averaging just 90.3 miles per hour with his fastball and looks unlikely to be stick as a starting pitcher thanks to an inability to hold right-handed bats in check. Like most competent lefty starters he could have a future in the bullpen as a southpaw specialist.

Chris Herrmann, 26-year-old catcher/outfielder

In theory Herrmann brings versatility to the bench, but he's really a catcher in name only and doesn't hit enough for a corner outfielder. In fact, among all Twins hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in the Gardenhire era of 2002-2014 he has the third-worst OPS ahead of only Drew Butera and Tsuyoshi Nishioka. He actually hit well in 60 games at Triple-A this season, but he's 26 years old with a sub-.400 slugging percentage between Double-A and Triple-A.

Doug Bernier, 34-year-old infielder

Bernier spent the second half of last season with the Twins in a utility infielder role, logging just 64 plate appearances in two-plus months. He was dropped from the 40-man roster, re-signed on a minor-league contract, and has now been added back to the 40-man roster for a September stint. Presumably the 34-year-old journeyman will be dropped again after the season, but Bernier can play all over the diamond defensively and had a solid season at Triple-A hitting .280/.348/.396.


For a lot more about the Twins' plans for September and what their offseason shopping list may look like, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

July 17, 2014

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Hitters

mauer dozier bartlett

After getting on base at a .353 clip and averaging 5.5 runs per game in April to inspire talk of a new, ultra-patient offensive approach the Twins have a .310 on-base percentage and 3.9 runs per game since May 1. Overall they're in the middle of the pack in offense, walking a lot and hitting a bunch of doubles but struggling to hit for average or home run power. Before the second half gets underway here's a hitter-by-hitter look at the individual performances ...

Brian Dozier: .242/.340/.436 in 424 plate appearances

I once mocked people for thinking Brian Dozier had star-caliber upside, because he was elderly for a prospect and never showed power in the minors, but now at age 27 and three seasons into his Twins career he's one of the best all-around second basemen in baseball. And a power hitter, too. In the minors Dozier was a high-contact, low-power hitter with a .298 batting average and a grand total of 16 homers in 365 games, but he's taken the opposite approach in the majors.

Dozier has hit just .242 with 79 strikeouts in 92 games, which no doubt played a part in his being overlooked for the All-Star game, but that comes with 18 homers and 52 walks for a .777 OPS. Among the 27 players to start at least 50 games at second base this year Dozier ranks 11th in on-base percentage, seventh in slugging percentage, and seventh in OPS. And in Twins history his 115 adjusted OPS+ is the highest by a second baseman since Todd Walker in 1998.

Being among the top 5-10 offensive second basemen in MLB is impressive enough for a guy who hit just .232/.286/.337 in 48 games at Triple-A as recently as 2012, but Dozier has also made the transition from poor-fielding shortstop to good-fielding second baseman. Add it all up and Dozier ranks fourth among all MLB second basemen in Wins Above Replacement behind only Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler, and Chase Utley. He was the Twins' best player in the first half.

Joe Mauer: .271/.342/.353 in 339 plate appearances

Joe Mauer's move from catcher to first base was supposed to keep him healthier and hopefully lead to an increase in offensive production, but instead he struggled throughout most of the first half before going on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle. Mauer's first half was ugly overall, but the injury came at a particularly bad time because he was quietly starting to turn things around and look like his old self.

In the 20 games prior to going on the disabled list Mauer hit .320 with nine doubles, including a 12-game hitting streak that he took with him to the DL. Those are baby steps, of course, and Mauer's increased strikeout rate and surprisingly unimpressive defense at first base suggest that perhaps last year's season-ending concussion may still be an issue. Brain injuries don't just vanish with the start of a new season, after all, and so far he's been a replacement-level first baseman.

Trevor Plouffe: .245/.317/.409 in 334 plate appearances

He looked like a totally different hitter in April, sacrificing power for batting average and plate discipline while using the opposite field far more than ever before, but Trevor Plouffe eventually turned back into Trevor Plouffe. He batted .218/.272/.379 with 48 strikeouts and 15 walks in 53 games after May 1 and his overall mark of .245/.317/.409 is nearly identical to his .243/.305/.414 line from 2011-2013.

What has changed are Plouffe's defensive numbers. Ultimate Zone Rating previously pegged him among the majors' worst fielders, but he graded out slightly above average in the first half. As an average defender with a .725 OPS he's a decent starting third baseman, but I'd bet on his UZR dipping into the negatives by season's end and he's now a 28-year-old career .241/.304/.411 hitter after hitting .258/.320/.405 in the minors. Funny how that works.

Kurt Suzuki: .309/.365/.396 in 311 plate appearances

Available for a one-year, $2.75 million contract this offseason because he hit just .237/.294/.357 from 2010-2013 while struggling to throw out base-stealers, Kurt Suzuki posted career-highs in batting average, on-base percentage, and OPS in the first half on the way to making his first All-Star team at age 30. He also received a ton of credit for "handling" the Twins' pitching staff, but the numbers and particularly pitch-framing data don't really back up that notion.

Suzuki was a promising young catcher for the A's, but quickly wore down after huge workloads early in his career. My theory is that playing his way out of a full-time gig actually helped him physically, so it'll be interesting to see what happens if he starts 5-6 times a week in the second half. The signing has worked out better than anyone could have expected, especially since the Twins' other free agent catching targets, A.J. Pierzynski and John Buck, have had brutal years.

Eduardo Escobar: .271/.313/.404 in 274 plate appearances

After beginning the season in a utility role Eduardo Escobar took over for Pedro Florimon as the starting shortstop and hit .328/.362/.479 through the end of May. That came as a complete shock from a guy who hit just .228/.280/.307 in the majors and .269/.319/.358 in the minors prior to this season. And sure enough Escobar's magic wore off and he finished the first half by hitting .221/.269/.338 in his final 37 games.

Even with the predictable slide to end the first half Escobar was an above-average hitter for a shortstop and graded out well defensively according to Ultimate Zone Rating. Still, his terrible track record and ugly 57/16 K/BB ratio this season are strong reasons for skepticism that he can be a starting-caliber shortstop, although given the Twins' underwhelming alternatives he should get a chance to prove himself one way or another in the second half.

Josh Willingham: .212/.362/.410 in 199 plate appearances

Josh Willingham got hurt right away and then returned from the disabled list on fire in late May, hitting .316/.467/.632 with five homers and 14 walks in his first 17 games. Then he went into a prolonged slump that carried into the All-Star break, hitting .122 with 33 strikeouts in his final 26 games of the first half. Even with that brutal stretch his season totals are still decent, but when combined with terrible defense he's been a below-average corner outfielder.

Investing three years and $21 million in Willingham looked like a brilliant move after one season, but in the next two seasons he's hit .209/.348/.380 while missing 96 of a possible 256 games. He's a prime example of why multi-year contracts for mid-30s players are so sketchy and it's hard to imagine the Twins getting anything of value for him in trade. That ship sailed two offseasons ago, when they refused to consider moving Willingham coming off a career-year.

Oswaldo Arcia: .222/.312/.371 in 189 plate appearances

Oswaldo Arcia, much like Willingham, was injured one week into the season and then performed very well upon coming off the disabled list in late May only to slump horribly. His slump can be traced back to an ankle injury, although certainly Arcia has shown himself to be capable of extreme ups and downs without any other factors playing a part. His power remains very good, but he's yet to show any semblance of plate discipline or ability to handle left-handed pitching.

The good news is that he's still just 23 years old. The bad news is that even in the minors he couldn't hit lefties or control the strike zone. Through his first 143 games as a big leaguer Arcia has hit just .221/.266/.331 off lefties and his overall K/BB ratio is a pathetic 173/39. He continues to possess a ton of long-term upside, but tapping into it will prove difficult unless he makes some big strides in those two areas.

Chris Colabello: .246/.295/.427 in 183 plate appearances

Chris Colabello got off to an extremely fast start, fell into a brutal slump that got him demoted back to Triple-A, and has fared well in limited action since rejoining the team following Mauer's injury. Blended together he's been a slightly below average hitter with good power and horrible strike zone control, posting a 56/11 K/BB ratio after debuting with a 58/20 mark in 55 games last season. At age 30 he's a marginal big leaguer best suited for a part-time role.

Jason Kubel: .224/.313/.295 in 176 plate appearances

After making the team out of spring training and hitting .400 through 10 games Jason Kubel batted .168 with zero homers and 49 strikeouts in the next 36 games before being released in early June. Providing a home for his comeback attempt wasn't an idea without merit and the price was certainly right, but he looked totally washed up and by the end had trouble simply making contact at the plate. And yet Kubel still has a higher OPS than Kendrys Morales.

Sam Fuld: .285/.367/.380 in 159 plate appearances

Picked up off the waiver wire in mid-April as an Aaron Hicks alternative, Sam Fuld has exceeded expectations offensively while showing that he still has the wheels to be a standout defensively at age 32. He's definitely played well over his head, but thanks to his speed and defense Fuld has generally been a solid backup outfielder and with Hicks looking like more of a question mark than ever the Twins figure to give him plenty of action in the second half.

Josmil Pinto: .222/.323/.407 in 158 plate appearances

After an excellent September debut Josmil Pinto picked up where he left off this year as one of the Twins' best hitters, but then he fell into the first slump of his career and immediately got demoted to Triple-A so the team could make room for Morales. Pinto's defense may be bad enough that he'll never stick as more than an emergency catcher, but he's a 25-year-old career .265/.349/.464 hitter through 64 games as a big leaguer and deserved a much longer leash.

Aaron Hicks: .198/.338/.262 in 156 plate appearances

For the second straight season the Twins handed Hicks a starting job without any backup plan and for the second straight season he hit below .200 to lose the gig. Along the way this time he gave up switch-hitting only to take it back up again weeks later and is now at Double-A, where his performance in 2012 convinced the Twins he was ready to make the jump to the majors. Hicks has shown that he can draw walks, but everything else--including defense--is in major question.

Chris Parmelee: .271/.304/.400 in 148 plate appearances

It's time to give up on Chris Parmelee developing into an impact player. For all the optimism that surrounds any decent stretch the former first-round pick puts together he's a 26-year-old career .251/.318/.396 hitter in 800 plate appearances and hasn't shown the ability to control the strike zone versus big-league pitching. There's probably a role for him in the majors as a platoon first baseman or corner outfielder, but that's always a very deep player pool.

Danny Santana: .328/.366/.448 in 143 plate appearances

Called up from Triple-A in early May despite hitting just .268/.311/.381 with poor plate discipline, Danny Santana hit .330 for the Twins while also being thrust into center field duties with little previous experience at the position. Before suffering a knee injury he showed a great arm, elite speed, and surprising pop, but a 27/7 K/BB ratio hints at the same overall lack of readiness that his minor-league numbers did even if there's no denying his first 37 games were impressive.

Kendrys Morales: .229/.254/.328 in 138 plate appearances

Morales' strong first week quieted talk of his being rusty after sitting out two months waiting for a better contract, but since then he's hit .198 with a 17/3 K/BB ratio in 27 games. There was always good reason to wonder if he was even an upgrade over the demoted Pinto and so far he certainly hasn't been, although recently Morales has at least shown some signs of life. At a cost of $8 million the Twins overestimated how good they'd be and how good Morales would be.


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."

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