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 25, 2015

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

Brian Dozier Twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

October 9, 2014

My hypothetical Twins MVP ballot

Brian Dozier and Danny Santana

Most Valuable Player of a 70-92 team isn't the most prestigious award, but within their struggles the Twins had plenty of good individual performances. Here's my attempt to rank them:

1. Phil Hughes

I've always found arguments against pitchers being MVPs lacking, because while they don't pitch every day their influence on the games they do pitch is huge. For instance, Phil Hughes started 32 games, threw 210 innings, and faced 855 batters. By comparison, Brian Dozier led the Twins with 707 plate appearances. Add in defensive plays and position players re-take the lead, but the point is that saying "pitchers only play once every five days" short-changes their influence.

All of which is a long way of saying that Hughes is an easy choice for team MVP. He had a great year by traditional standards, going 16-10 with a 3.52 ERA in 32 starts while the rest of the Twins' rotation was 32-60 with a 5.53 ERA in 130 starts. Oh, and he had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball with an incredible 186 strikeouts versus 16 walks, standing atop of this star-studded list:

                    YEAR     SO/BB
PHIL HUGHES         2014     11.63
Bret Saberhagen     1994     11.00
Cliff Lee           2010     10.28
Curt Schilling      2002      9.58
Pedro Martinez      2000      8.88
Greg Maddux         1997      8.85
Pedro Martinez      1999      8.46

Hughes was hurt by the Twins' terrible defense, which allowed a .324 batting average on his balls in play for the second-highest rate of any pitcher in the league and a much worse rate than his career average of .296. That and some mediocre bullpen support caused his ERA to rise to 3.52 compared to an xFIP of 3.18 that ranked eighth among AL starters. Here's a list of the best xFIPs by a Twins starter in the Ron Gardenhire era of 2002-2014:

                     YEAR     xFIP
Francisco Liriano    2006     2.54
Francisco Liriano    2010     2.95
Johan Santana        2004     3.01
Johan Santana        2005     3.12
Johan Santana        2006     3.16
PHIL HUGHES          2014     3.18

Hughes had the most strikeouts (186) and highest strikeout rate (8.0) by any Twins starter in the Gardenhire era except for Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano. Hughes walked zero batters in an MLB-leading 19 of 32 starts and walked one or fewer batters in an MLB-leading 30 of 32 starts, with a season-high of three walks in his second outing of the season on April 9. He led MLB in walk rate with 0.69 per nine innings, which is the second-best rate in Twins history.

Wins Above Replacement for pitchers is calculated in two manners. One, by Fan Graphs, focuses on secondary numbers and has Hughes tied with Jon Lester and David Price for third-best in the league behind Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez. The other, by Baseball-Reference, focuses on raw totals and has Hughes ninth-best in the league. That large disagreement stems from treating defensive support and luck differently, but either way Hughes had a fantastic year.

2. Brian Dozier

If you're vehemently against pitchers being MVP candidates then Dozier is the obvious choice. His power vanished in the second half, but he still broke his own team record for homers by a second baseman with 23. He also added in 33 doubles, stole 21 bases at a decent clip, and drew 89 walks for the second-most by any Twins player during the Gardenhire era behind Joe Mauer with 90 in 2012. His poor .242 batting average doesn't even begin to show Dozier's offensive production.

And he did all of that at an up-the-middle position where the MLB average was a .313 on-base percentage and .372 slugging percentage, beating the average OPS by 77 points. Dozier led all MLB second basemen in homers, walks, and runs. He also ranked second in extra-base hits and Isolated Power, third in times on base and Runs Created, fourth in on-base percentage, total bases, OPS, and steals, sixth in slugging percentage and RBIs, and seventh in doubles.

Defensively he always looks good and makes plenty of highlight plays, particularly when going to his left, but Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved show him as slightly below average. He played 156 games, logged 1,400 innings at second base, and joined Denard Span in 2010 and Justin Morneau in 2008 as the only Twins to top 700 plate appearances under Gardenhire. Add it all up and here's where his 5.2 WAR ranks among hitters in the Gardenhire era:

                    YEAR     WAR
Joe Mauer           2009     7.8
Joe Mauer           2010     5.9
Joe Mauer           2006     5.8
Joe Mauer           2008     5.6
Jacque Jones        2002     5.4
Joe Mauer           2013     5.3
BRIAN DOZIER        2014     5.2

Helluva season.

3. Danny Santana

After posting a .719 OPS in 131 games at Double-A last season and a .692 OPS in 24 games at Triple-A to begin this season Danny Santana was called up by the Twins on May 5 and batted .319/.353/.472 with 41 extra-base hits and 20 steals in 101 games as a 23-year-old playing a new position. In a lot of seasons that would have gotten Santana serious consideration for Rookie of the Year, but White Sox slugger Jose Abreu figures to win the award unanimously.

Defensive metrics pegged Santana as below average in center field and he certainly looked raw there after spending nearly his entire career at shortstop, but he still had the fourth-highest WAR by a Twins rookie in the Gardenhire era behind Liriano in 2005, Lew Ford in 2004, and Span in 2008. If you prorate his WAR to, say, 155 games, Santana would rank 10th among AL position players and top Dozier for the team lead.

There are strong reasons to be skeptical of Santana's rookie showing being for real, including his mediocre minor-league numbers and ghastly 98/19 K/BB ratio in the majors, but on a per-game basis he was arguably the Twins' best player this season. He places third on this ballot because he was not in the lineup for 38 percent of the Twins' games while Hughes never missed a start and Dozier sat out just six games.

4. Trevor Plouffe

Coming into spring training it seemed like Trevor Plouffe would be keeping third base warm for however long it took Miguel Sano to convince the Twins he was ready, but instead Sano missed the entire season following elbow surgery and Plouffe had a career-year. He struck out a little less, walked a little more, and traded four-baggers for two-baggers on the way to 40 doubles. The end result was an adjusted OPS+ of 110, compared to his OPS+ of 97 from 2011-2013.

His offense improved, but Plouffe's biggest gains came defensively. After three years of rating him horribly at third base both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved showed him as solidly above average. Who knows if the better glove is for real--it's not so much different than Santana hitting .319--but Plouffe was one of the 10 best all-around third basemen in baseball after just barely being better than replacement level in his first three seasons.

5. Kurt Suzuki

Defensively his poor numbers are basically the opposite of his sterling reputation and predictably he came back down to earth late, but Kurt Suzuki started 115 games and hit .288/.345/.383 compared to MLB catchers as a whole batting .249/.309/.380. Not trading Suzuki and giving him a two-year extension is questionable, but he was a great pickup on a one-year, $3 million deal and kept the Twins above average at the position post-Mauer.

6. Glen Perkins

If not for his late-season collapse while trying to pitch injured Glen Perkins would have ranked a spot or two higher. As of August 25 he had a 2.44 ERA and 64/9 K/BB ratio in 55 innings, but then he gave up five homers in eight games after giving up a total of seven homers in his previous 116 games. It's a self-inflicted shame, because Perkins was having a fourth straight dominant season while converting saves at the same rate as Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan.

7. Eduardo Escobar

Little in Eduardo Escobar's track record suggested he was more than a utility man-caliber hitter, but when Pedro Florimon flopped he stepped in at shortstop and batted .275 with 43 extra-base hits in 133 games for a .721 OPS that's 43 points above average for the position. Defensive stats failed to reach a consensus, but he looked decent and if you think his glove was actually a plus Escobar had the best all-around season by a Twins shortstop since Jason Bartlett in 2006.

8. Kyle Gibson

After a putrid rookie showing Kyle Gibson bounced back to throw 179 innings. He managed just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings and the awful defense turned all those balls in play into too many undeserved hits, leaving Gibson with a 4.47 ERA compared to the AL average of 3.92 for starters. However, his ground-ball rate of 54.4 percent ranked fifth among AL starters and he allowed just 12 homers in 31 starts. If given average defensive support xFIP pegs his ERA at 3.99.

9. Joe Mauer

After missing the end of last year with a concussion Mauer got off to a terrible start and then, just when he was starting to get rolling, an oblique strain sidelined him for a month. There's no way to spin his season as anything but a major disappointment, but Mauer hit .300 in his final 63 games and overall his .361 on-base percentage was 30 points above average for first basemen. Even with his extreme lack of power Mauer was basically an average all-around player at his new position.

10. Kennys Vargas

Promoted from Double-A on August 1 after the Kendrys Morales salary dump, Kennys Vargas hit .337 with a .906 OPS in his first 23 games and .225 with a .665 OPS in his last 30 games. He was good but not great overall, with a .274 average and .456 slugging percentage versus a 63/12 K/BB ratio and .316 OBP. He also played only 53 games, compared to 101 for Santana and 120 for Mauer. He was very fun to watch and dropped a lot of jaws with his smooth, easy power.


For a lengthy discussion of the Twins' ongoing manager search, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode with special guest Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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."

July 9, 2014

Twins Notes: Nolasco, Buxton, Sano, Gordon, Parmelee, and Dozier

ricky nolasco and ron gardenhire

• In signing Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million contract the Twins touted his durability as a major selling point, as the 31-year-old right-hander had started at least 30 games and logged at least 185 innings in five of the previous six seasons. Now, just four months into his Twins career and with an ugly 5.90 ERA in 18 starts, Nolasco has been shut down with elbow soreness that he's apparently been pitching through since spring training.

If everyone involved is to be believed that news came as a surprise to the Twins, which means either Nolasco went out of his way to hide the injury from trainers and coaches or those same trainers and coaches went out of their way not to investigate his season-long struggles. Or maybe a mixture of both. Certainly if he was hiding the elbow injury that has to be very frustrating for the Twins and Nolasco is absolutely at fault.

However, it's also worth noting that the Twins--from the front office to manager Ron Gardenhire and his coaching staff--have created and repeatedly fed into a culture in which acting like a tough guy and playing through pain is considered noble rather than stupid or irresponsible. Even in discussing how Nolasco hid the injury from the team Gardenhire almost couldn't help acting as if there was something positive about the so-called "old school" approach taken by the pitcher.

Meanwhile, seemingly every season one or two key players try to tough their way through injuries with disastrous results and no one ever seems to learn a lesson from it. Who knows whether that played a role in Nolasco pitching through pain, but it certainly didn't play a role in convincing him to do otherwise. When can we end this outdated, shortsighted approach of letting hugely valuable athletes risk their short- and long-term health and productivity in the name of being tough guys?

If you're a player and you're hurt, tell someone in charge. And if you're someone in charge and a player tells you he's hurt, don't let him continue playing. As simple as those two directives sound, they've been sadly lacking for the Twins in recent years. This time around it led to their trotting out an injured pitcher for 18 horrible starts and putting at risk a $48 million investment. If that's "old school" then everyone flunked out.

• Worst single-season adjusted ERA+ in Twins history among pitchers with 100 or more innings:

68 - Jim Deshaies, 1994
66 - Ricky Nolasco, 2014
71 - Boof Bonser, 2008
72 - Ray Corbin, 1974
72 - Joe Mays, 2003
72 - Jim Hughes, 1976

Helluva list.

• MLB starting pitchers have a combined 3.90 ERA. Twins starters have the following ERAs:

3.70 - Phil Hughes
4.17 - Kyle Gibson
4.79 - Kevin Correia
4.98 - Yohan Pino
5.90 - Ricky Nolasco
6.52 - Sam Deduno
7.99 - Mike Pelfrey

As a group Twins starting pitchers rank 29th among MLB teams in ERA, ahead of only the Coors Field-inflated Rockies. Last season they ranked 30th in ERA and in 2012 they ranked 29th in ERA, also ahead of only Colorado.

Byron Buxton finally returned from a wrist injury after sitting out the first three-plus months of the season and despite all the missed time Baseball America's midseason update still ranked him as the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. Miguel Sano also ranked No. 9 even though the Twins just announced that he'll miss the entire season following elbow surgery and pitchers Jose Berrios, Kohl Stewart, and Alex Meyer also cracked Baseball America's updated top 40.

• Meyer looks to be back on track at Triple-A after some struggles last month. He struck out 10 last night and has a 2.00 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 18 innings over his last three starts.

• No. 5 overall draft pick Nick Gordon has hit .359/.408/.500 with five extra-base hits and four stolen bases through his first 15 pro games for rookie-level Elizabethon.

Chris Parmelee is 26 years old and has batted .235 with a .299 on-base percentage and .370 slugging percentage in 677 plate appearances since his big September debut, so it's probably time to stop getting excited whenever he has a decent week.

• His batting average isn't pretty, but Brian Dozier's current 112 adjusted OPS+ is the best by a Twins middle infielder since Todd Walker in 1998 and Chuck Knoblauch in 1994-1996.

• He's a deserving All-Star, but it's odd to hear Kurt Suzuki endlessly praised for "handling" a pitching staff that ranks 28th in ERA, especially when pitch-framing stats show him as poor.

• This offseason the Twins were believed to be deciding between Suzuki and John Buck as their veteran catcher addition. Buck hit .226/.293/.286 for the Mariners and just got released.

• I looked this up after watching him leg out a single Monday evening: Kendrys Morales has 48 career infield hits, including at least 10 in three different years. Imagine that.

Eduardo Escobar was hitting .314/.357/.473 on June 15. Since then he's 9-for-66 (.136) with 17 strikeouts and 2 walks. Track records: Trust 'em.

Hisashi Iwakuma owns the Twins, with a 5-0 record and 0.00 ERA in five starts against them.

Vance Worley has a 2.28 ERA and 18/5 K/BB ratio in four starts for the Pirates, who think they've fixed whatever ailed him with the Twins last season.

Pat Neshek, who has a 2.39 ERA since being waived by the Twins in 2011, made his first All-Star team at age 33.

Lew Ford, now 37 years old, is hitting .372 with a .445 on-base percentage and .568 slugging percentage in the independent Atlantic League. And he's the team's hitting coach too.

• One-time Twins minor leaguer Yangervis Solarte turned back into a pumpkin after a big April and May for the Yankees.


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."

Older Posts »