April 30, 2015

Casey Fien’s injury opens the door for Michael Tonkin in Twins’ bullpen

Michael Tonkin Twins

It's unfortunate that it took an injury to the team's best setup man for this to happen, but with Casey Fien headed to the disabled list the Twins have called up Michael Tonkin from Triple-A. Rochester's bullpen is packed with intriguing relievers, several of whom look like better options than members of the Twins' bullpen, but based on the combination of minor-league track record, major-league track record, and raw stuff Tonkin appears to be the best bet.

Known first as Jason Kubel's brother-in-law, then as a decent starter prospect, and now as a good reliever prospect, Tonkin has thrived since shifting to the bullpen full time in 2011 and the 6-foot-7 right-hander should have cracked the Opening Day roster rather than be sent back to Rochester for a third straight season at Triple-A. By the time Fien is ready to pitch again hopefully Tonkin will have convinced the Twins he's ready to stay in Minnesota for good.

Tonkin is huge and throws hard, averaging 94 miles per hour with his fastball in the majors, but unlike most reliever prospects who fit that description he actually throws strikes too. Overall at Triple-A he's handed out just 18 non-intentional walks in 85 innings along with 92 strikeouts and just six homers allowed for a 3.39 ERA. And when given a chance in the majors he's logged 30 innings with a 3.26 ERA and 26/9 K/BB ratio.

His fastball is late-inning caliber, his mid-80s slider generates lots of swinging strikes, and at age 25 there's no reason for Tonkin to continue dominating Triple-A hitters for another season. Fien's shoulder injury leaves the bullpen without its only reliable setup man and we've already seen how ugly things can get when that happens this season, but Tonkin has the potential to be as good or better than Fien and it's well past the time for the Twins to give him an extended opportunity.

This also seems like a good time to appreciate the good work Fien has done for the Twins since they signed him to a minor-league deal in 2012. At that point he was a 27-year-old journeyman with 14 runs allowed in 14 innings as a big leaguer, but Fien's minor-league track record showed he was capable of more and sure enough he emerged as a durable, strike-throwing reliever with more bat-missing ability than his modest raw stuff suggested.

Called up in mid-2012, he's logged 171 innings with a 3.59 ERA and 159 strikeouts versus 24 non-intentional walks. As an extreme fly-ball pitcher Fien has some issues keeping the ball in the ballpark, but 20 homers allowed in 686 plate appearances isn't terrible and he's held opponents to a .235/.268/.379 line while being equally effective against righties and lefties. Among all Twins relievers with at least 100 innings since 2000 he ranks first in walk rate and K/BB ratio.


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April 27, 2015

Twins Notes: Mauer, Hughes, Gibson, Perkins, Santana, and Gardenhire

Joe Mauer beard

• He's still not showing any power, but Joe Mauer is doing his usual thing (.299 batting average, .392 on-base percentage, 11/11 K/BB ratio) despite dramatically changing his approach at the plate by being more aggressive early in counts and pulling more balls in the air. Whether it will ultimately lead to a better overall performance remains to be seen since it's tough to improve upon a lifetime .318 AVG and .401 OBP, but the new approach is more likely to generate power.

• Mauer is 13-for-34 (.382) against left-handed pitchers this year and has hit .296 with a .368 on-base percentage off lefties for his career. Among everyone since 1965 the only left-handed hitters with a higher career batting average and on-base percentage vs. left-handers than Mauer are Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, Todd Helton, Larry Walker, and Wade Boggs. So three Hall of Famers and two near Hall of Famers who called Coors Field home. No platoon needed.

Phil Hughes hasn't pitched particularly well, but his 0-4 record is misleading thanks to awful run support and he's performed better than he did through four starts last season:

YEAR    GS      ERA     IP     SO     BB     HR
2014     4     6.43     21     20      6      3
2015     4     4.39     27     22      2      6

Keeping the ball in the ballpark has been a career-long struggle for Hughes, so serving up six home runs in four starts certainly isn't a positive thing, but everything else is encouraging and Hughes really didn't start rolling last season until May.

Kyle Gibson continues to be difficult to evaluate because for all the talk of his raw stuff being good he can't generate strikeouts and his control has been poor. Through four starts he has twice as many walks (12) as strikeouts (6) in 22 innings and his career strikeout rate of 5.1 per nine innings in a high-strikeout era puts him in the same category as guys like Scott Diamond, Joe Mays, and Nick Blackburn who couldn't sustain their early success.

Casey Fien returning from a minor injury has really helped stabilize the bullpen after what was a horrendous start to the season. Not only is Fien clearly the best non-Glen Perkins option in the bullpen--he has a 3.47 ERA and 159/31 K/BB ratio in 169 innings for the Twins--counting on him as the primary setup man has allowed manager Paul Molitor to push replacement-level relievers like Blaine Boyer back into lower-leverage roles.

• On a related note, the sample size is very small but Perkins looks like his usual, pre-injury self after struggling mightily and then being shut down in September last season. His velocity is up, he's generating swinging strikes, and he's allowed just one run in eight innings while striking out eight and walking zero. Perkins, who's under team control through 2018, has a 2.84 ERA and 332 strikeouts in 317 career innings as a reliever.

Danny Santana hit .319 as a rookie, but his inflated batting average on balls in play, bad plate discipline, and underwhelming track record all suggested he was over his head. Sure enough he's turned back into a pumpkin, hitting .210 with 20 strikeouts and zero walks in 15 games. Santana has 118 strikeouts and 19 walks in 116 total games for the Twins after averaging 91 strikeouts and 23 walks per 116 games at Double-A/Triple-A. That's not the approach of a leadoff man.

• Santana "leads" all American League hitters by swinging at 50 percent of the pitches he's seen outside of the strike zone. Kennys Vargas and Torii Hunter have swung at 40 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, giving the Twins three of the league's nine worst hackers. Santana is still very young and has plenty of talent, but there's a reason his rookie success came as such a big surprise after he hit just .273/.317/.391 in the minors.

Ron Gardenhire is officially looking for another managing gig. He hired an agent for the first time in two decades and is said to be "willing to consider virtually any position." He's still being paid by the Twins in the final season of his contract, but Gardenhire figures to be a popular name brought up by fans and media members to replace managers on the hot seat. He has a 612-685 (.471) record, one 90-win season, four 90-loss seasons, and zero playoff wins since 2007.

• No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton and No. 2 prospect Miguel Sano are both hitting below .200 at Double-A after injury wrecked 2014 seasons, so don't expect to see that particular cavalry arriving at Target Field anytime soon. However, there's plenty of potential lineup and bullpen help playing well at Triple-A, including Aaron Hicks, Josmil Pinto, Michael Tonkin, and Lester Oliveros.

• Right-hander Kohl Stewart, who was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 draft and ranked No. 5 on my annual list of Twins prospects this year, has been shut down with elbow problems.

Joe Nathan needs Tommy John elbow surgery, which at age 40 means his career may be over.


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."

April 15, 2015

Don’t act surprised: Twins build bad bullpen, get bad relief pitching

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox

As part of the frustrating decision-making process that led to choosing the older, lower-upside option to fill nearly every up-for-grabs roster spot coming out of spring training the Twins now have a bullpen stocked with marginal big leaguers. To make matters worse their best setup man, Casey Fien, has been hurt and their lone standout reliever, Glen Perkins, continues to be in a role reserved for "save" situations that severely limit his overall usage.

All of which has added up to new manager Paul Molitor turning to an assortment of replacement level-caliber arms and repeatedly watching them fail, often in high-leverage spots. Twins relievers have combined to throw 21 innings with a 5.91 ERA and nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (10). Among all MLB teams the Twins' bullpen ranks either worst or second-worst in ERA, xFIP, strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and opponents' batting average.

Assuming that Fien's shoulder issues prove minor he'll soon be taking on a lot of the late-inning setup work that's been going to lesser options and in general the Twins' bullpen isn't as bad as it's looked so far because basically no bullpen is that bad. However, when you bypass better, younger, higher-upside options to give jobs to mediocre, low-upside veterans a bad bullpen is exactly what you get. No one, least of all the Twins, should be surprised by the early results.

This offseason 32-year-old left-hander Brian Duensing was a non-tender candidate because his inability to neutralize right-handers made him ill-suited for a setup role, but the Twins retained him for $2.7 million and kept him in a key role. They also spent $2.2 million on 33-year-old free agent right-hander Tim Stauffer, whose nice-looking raw numbers for the Padres came attached to a 90-mph fastball and included a 4.28 ERA away from MLB's most pitcher-friendly ballpark.

When the Twins signed Blaine Boyer to a minor-league deal in January it seemed like a move made mostly for organizational depth, because he's a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 ERA in the majors and a 5.31 ERA at Triple-A, but he ended up making the team largely on the basis of a half-dozen spring training innings. Another former minor-league signing, 28-year-old journeyman Aaron Thompson, was chosen as the third lefty despite an underwhelming track record.

If healthy Perkins is a good closer and Fien is a decent setup man, but the Twins chose to fill the other five bullpen spots with Duensing, Stauffer, Boyer, Thompson, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. And in creating that seven-man bullpen in which the only pitcher under 30 years old is there via the Rule 5 draft Molitor and the front office passed over several younger, cheaper, higher-upside relievers already in the organization.

Michael Tonkin is 25 years old and has pitched well in a few brief stints with the Twins, posting a 3.26 ERA and 26/9 K/BB ratio in 30 innings while averaging 94 miles per hour with his fastball. He was sent back to Rochester for his third straight season at Triple-A, where Tonkin has a 3.39 ERA and 85/21 K/BB ratio in 80 innings. He's young and cheap, he throws hard and misses bats, and he's fared well at Triple-A and in Minnesota.

Caleb Thielbar spent most of the past two seasons in the Twins' bullpen and pitched well as the third lefty, throwing 94 innings with a 2.59 ERA and 74/30 K/BB ratio. Ryan Pressly also spent much of the past two seasons in the Twins' bullpen, posting a 3.60 ERA in 105 innings. Pressly's secondary numbers were much less impressive, but he averaged 93 miles per hour with his fastball in the majors and has pitched well at Triple-A. They were both demoted to Rochester.

Lester Oliveros was acquired from the Tigers in the Delmon Young trade and missed most of 2013 recovering from elbow surgery. He returned last season to split the year between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 1.64 ERA with 88 strikeouts and zero homers allowed in 66 innings. At age 27 his upside is limited and Oliveros' control can be iffy, but he throws in the mid-90s and has averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his minor-league career.

Using the $5 million they spent on Duensing and Stauffer to acquire better relievers is something the Twins could have done this offseason, but even ignoring that possibility they had no shortage of intriguing, cheap, in-house bullpen options deserving of an opportunity and/or extended stay in the majors. They chose to give roster spots to none of them and the early results are what that flawed decision-making process deserves.


For a sadness- and anger-filled discussion of the Twins' rough opening week, check out the latest "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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.

January 26, 2015

Arbitration settlements and taking a guess at the Opening Day roster

brian duensing twins

Last time the Twins actually completed an arbitration hearing with a player was Kyle Lohse in 2005 and 2006, so not surprisingly they reached pre-hearing settlements with six of their seven arbitration-eligible players and released the seventh, Anthony Swarzak. They'll pay a total of $14.225 million to Trevor Plouffe, Tommy Milone, Brian Duensing, Jordan Schafer, Casey Fien, and Eduardo Nunez, bringing their projected 2015 payroll to around $106 million.

That slots in between their franchise-record $113 million payroll in 2011 and $100 million payroll in 2012, representing a sizable increase from the sub-$90 million payrolls of 2013 and 2014. After back-to-back seasons in which general manager Terry Ryan declined to spend big chunks of the allotted payroll space approved by ownership it's a positive step, although there's room to quibble with the value of dropping about $17 million on Torii Hunter, Duensing, Milone, and Nunez.

With revenues across MLB skyrocketing past $9 billion in 2014 and the Twins trying to avoid a fifth straight 90-loss season amid plummeting fan interest it's at least nice to see ownership spending a reasonable amount of their revenue instead of simply pocketing it while giving the "we don't want to spend money just to spend money" excuse. And thanks largely to long-term contracts handed out to veteran starting pitchers they already have $70 million committed to six players for 2016.

In addition to pushing the payroll past $100 million the six arbitration settlements also put into focus the likely Opening Day roster, although there are definitely a few places where the Twins could surprise. Below is my best current guess at the 25-man roster, with the caveat that they're able to release any of the arbitration-eligible players during spring training while being on the hook for only 30 percent of their salary. First, the position players:

   LINEUP
C  Kurt Suzuki
1B Joe Mauer
2B Brian Dozier
SS Danny Santana
3B Trevor Plouffe
LF Oswaldo Arcia
CF Aaron Hicks
RF Torii Hunter
DH Kennys Vargas

   BENCH
C  Josmil Pinto
IF Eduardo Escobar
IF Eduardo Nunez
OF Jordan Schafer

New manager Paul Molitor has made it clear that he views Danny Santana as a shortstop and not as a center fielder, and since it's hard to imagine the Twins benching Santana or demoting him back to the minors after he hit .319 as a rookie that means he's the favorite to supplant Eduardo Escobar at shortstop. Based on his 2014 performance alone Escobar certainly doesn't deserve to lose the job, but his track record suggests a part-time role might be a better fit anyway.

Escobar slotting into a utility man role makes retaining Nunez look even iffier, but they seem to think all the evidence showing him as a poor hitter and poor fielder are wrong. Schafer played his way into the 2015 plans with a good 41-game stint after being claimed him off waivers and using him in center field is possible if they pull the plug on Aaron Hicks. Josmil Pinto is the presumed backup catcher, but they bailed on him in that role quickly in 2014. Now the pitchers:

   ROTATION
SP Phil Hughes
SP Ervin Santana
SP Ricky Nolasco
SP Kyle Gibson
SP Tommy Milone

   BULLPEN
CL Glen Perkins
RH Casey Fien
RH Tim Stauffer
RH Ryan Pressly
RH Mike Pelfrey
LH Brian Duensing
LH Caleb Thielbar

Milone is signed for $2.775 million when the Twins had the option to non-tender him and Mike Pelfrey is under contract for $6 million, so my assumption is they'll fight for the final rotation spot and the loser will wind up in the bullpen. Trevor May and Alex Meyer are higher-upside options for the rotation or bullpen, and in general there are no shortage of alternative bullpen options including Michael Tonkin, Blaine Boyer, Lester Oliveros, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham.


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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