October 14, 2015

My hypothetical Twins MVP ballot

Miguel Sano and Brian Dozier Twins

After four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins re-emerged as a competitive team, going 83-79 and remaining in the Wild Card hunt until the final weekend of the season. Here's my attempt to rank the most valuable individual performances behind the team-wide turnaround:

1. Miguel Sano

It's difficult to be the most valuable player on a team when playing only 80 of 162 games, but two things make Miguel Sano a special case. One is that he was great in those 80 games, ranking as one of the best hitters in baseball and repeatedly coming through with key hits in key spots. Two is that none of the Twins' full-time, season-long players had particularly outstanding years, leaving Sano's great half-season to compete against good but not great full seasons.

Called up from Double-A on July 2 after the Twins went 11-17 in June, he was immediately the best, most patient hitter in the lineup. Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers and 53 walks in 80 games, including a 1.055 OPS with runners on, a 1.028 OPS with runners in scoring position, and a 1.100 OPS in close-and-late situations. He easily led the team in the context-dependent stat Win Probability Added and ranked 17th in the entire league despite not playing in April, May, or June.

At age 22 he forced pitchers to throw strikes and punished them when they gave in. An incredible 28 percent of Sano's plate appearances went to a full count, compared to the MLB average of 12 percent, and he posted a 1.281 OPS on 3-2 pitches. He also batted a ridiculous .700 with a 1.650 slugging percentage when putting the first pitch in play, punishing get-me-over strikes too. Sano's rookie season wasn't just good or even great for a rookie, it was one of the best in Twins history.

Sano's adjusted OPS+ of 146 ranked seventh in the AL behind only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion. Sano tied with Chris Davis, who led the league in homers for the second time in three seasons. Within the context of team history, the only other Twins hitters to top an OPS+ of 145 during the past 20 seasons are Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jim Thome. None of them did it more than once. Sano is 1-for-1.

As a proponent of cumulative production, defense, and positional adjustments being big factors in player value the idea of a half-season designated hitter being team MVP is a tough sell, but Sano had a truly special half-season that was elevated even further in "clutch" situations and it seemed odd not to prefer 80 games of that compared to 150 games of slightly above-average. Sano was the Twins' best player for every moment he wore a Twins uniform and that gets my MVP.

2. Brian Dozier

Brian Dozier appeared to be having a breakout year when he followed up a very strong 2014 season with an even better first half, hitting .256/.328/.513 with 19 homers, 48 total extra-base hits, and 34 walks in 88 games to make his first All-Star team. Seemingly established as one of MLB's best second basemen, he then collapsed in the second half and hit just .210/.280/.359 to finish with worse overall numbers than he posted in 2014.

Starting strong only to fall apart in the second half in back-to-back years is worrisome and calls into question whether Dozier's durability is actually a strength, but the end result was still plenty valuable. He led all MLB second basemen in homers (28), extra-base hits (71), and runs scored (101), ranked second in RBIs (77), walks (61), and total bases (279), and posted a .751 OPS compared the MLB average of .711 for the position.

Toss in up-the-middle defense that rates slightly below average according to most metrics and Dozier was one of the top 10 second basemen in MLB this season. It may have been less jarring for Twins fans to watch if he'd simply been a .750 OPS hitter all year instead of being an All-Star in the first half and replacement-level in the second half, but in assessing all-around value for the season as a whole Dozier has a reasonable argument for being team MVP.

3. Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson took a step forward this year, staying healthy with a full-season workload again and upping his strikeout rate by 25 percent while maintaining nearly identical rates everywhere else. Last season he walked 2.9 per nine innings, induced 54 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play. This season he walked 3.0 per nine innings, induced 53 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play.

Those are remarkably similar numbers and Gibson was able to up his strikeouts from 5.4 to 6.7 per nine innings. He's unlikely to ever be a high-strikeout pitcher, but in both 2014 and 2015 his ground-ball rate ranked among MLB's top 10 and pairing that with even a decent strikeout rate can lead to big things. This year for Gibson that mix--along with better bullpen support and fewer blowup starts--led to slicing his ERA from 4.47 to 3.84 while leading the Twins with 195 innings.

4. Trevor Plouffe

Trevor Plouffe had a typical Trevor Plouffe season, hitting .244/.307/.435 with 22 homers, 35 doubles, and a 124/50 K/BB ratio in 152 games while playing above-average third base defense. His production was nearly identical to his combined 2012-2014 line of .249/.314/.422 and in four seasons as the Twins' starting third baseman his OPS has never been lower than .701 or higher than .756. He is what he is, except for one big difference this year: Double plays.

Plouffe grounded into 28 double plays, which led the league and tied for the most in Twins history. His previous career-high was just 12 double plays. Whether it was a one-year fluke or not, making two outs at a time so often--and in so many key, rally-crushing situations--took a big chunk out of Plouffe's value. Compared to all MLB third basemen he was almost exactly average--slightly below offensively and slightly above defensively.

5. Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario was called up from Triple-A to replace the injured Oswaldo Arcia on May 6 and never went back, hitting better than his recent minor-league track record suggested he would and impressing defensively with excellent range and a strong arm. Rosario's total lack of patience held him back, as he swung at everything on the way to a ghastly 118/15 K/BB ratio and .289 on-base percentage, but his other skills mostly made up for all the hacking.

Rosario hit .267 with 13 homers, 18 doubles, and a league-high 15 triples on the way to a sturdy .459 slugging percentage. He nearly led the league with 16 outfield assists and tracked down fly balls that many recent Twins left fielders wouldn't have even gone after. Long term Rosario risks failing to fulfill his potential if he doesn't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but this season his extra-base power, speed, and defense made him an above-average regular at age 23.

6. Trevor May

Demoted to Triple-A at the end of spring training, Trevor May moved into the rotation following Ervin Santana's suspension and posted the best secondary numbers of any Twins starter through early July. His reward was being moved to the bullpen, where May took the role change in stride despite wanting to remain a starter and logged 31.1 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 37/8 K/BB ratio while emerging as the team's primary setup man.

When the Twins needed a starter, May stepped in and did a good job for three months. When the Twins needed a reliever, May shifted to the bullpen without putting up a Mike Pelfrey-like fuss and did a good job for three months. There's added value in that versatility, not unlike a position player with the ability to handle multiple spots defensively, and May finished his first full season in the majors with a 4.00 ERA and 110/26 K/BB ratio in 115 innings overall.

7. Eduardo Escobar

Eduardo Escobar was as a square peg in a round hole when the Twins gave the shortstop job to Danny Santana and regularly used Escobar way out of position in left field. They finally came to their senses in July thanks to Santana's ineptitude and Escobar picked up where he left off as one of the AL's better shortstops. His overall value is tough to gauge because he struggled in left field and thrived at shortstop, but Escobar certainly isn't to blame for the team misusing him.

He ended up starting 71 games at shortstop compared to 34 in left field or at designated hitter, plus nine more at second and third base. Overall he hit .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits in 127 games. For some context his .754 OPS was 70 points higher than the average shortstop and slightly below average for corner outfielders, which is why Escobar's early usage was so silly and why his finally replacing Santana at shortstop made such a big impact.

8. Ervin Santana

Suspended for the first 80 games, Ervin Santana initially fared well upon joining the rotation in early July before having a brutal six-start stretch from late July through late August in which he allowed 33 runs in 30 innings. At that point he had a 6.05 ERA and the four-year, $52 million signing looked like a disaster, but then Santana fixed his mechanics and was one of the league's best starters down the stretch with a 1.62 ERA and 47/14 K/BB ratio in his final 50 innings.

There was nothing special about Santana's overall performance, which included a 4.00 ERA and 82/36 K/BB ratio with 12 homers allowed in 108 innings, but he was an above-average starting pitcher for 17 starts and that carries significant value just the same as it would if he'd been a prospect called up at midseason rather than a veteran banned from participating in the team's first 80 games.

9. Tommy Milone

An afterthought for most of the season--including a month-long demotion to Triple-A despite being 28 years old with 500 innings as a big leaguer--Tommy Milone started 23 games and logged 129 innings with a 3.92 ERA. It wasn't always pretty and it was never flashy, but Milone had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Gibson, Santana, and Pelfrey while ranking second among all Twins starters in Win Probability Added behind only Gibson.

10. Tyler Duffey

It was only 10 starts, but Tyler Duffey saved the Twins' rotation by throwing 58 innings with a 3.10 ERA and 53/20 K/BB ratio down the stretch as veteran starters were dropping like flies and May was working out of the bullpen. After getting knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut Duffey joined Santana as the only reliable starters for the final six weeks, completing at least six innings and allowing two or fewer runs in each of his last five starts.

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October 6, 2015

Eight big positives to take from the Twins’ half-full, half-empty season

Miguel Sano Twins

There are half-full and half-empty ways to view the Twins' season. On the half-full side they won 83 games compared to a Las Vegas over/under of 72.5 and local optimism topping out around 78, emerging as a contender ahead of schedule. On the half-empty side they made plenty of decisions on playing time, player evaluation, and call-ups that seemed iffy at the time and now stand out as especially damaging within the context of missing out on a Wild Card spot by just three games.

Whichever side you lean toward from a team-wide perspective, there's no doubt that looking at the Twins' season from a player-by-player view leads to an abundance of half-full glasses and a few that are overflowing. I've identified eight players whose 2015 performance stood out in a very positive way, both for this season and for the Twins' long-term plans. There are more, of course, but these eight made me feel the best about what happened this season on the way to 83-79.

Miguel Sano: I've spent the past three months obsessively posting Sano statistical porn on Twitter, so I'll try to keep this #SanoPorn somewhat brief. Sano arrived from Double-A on July 2 as a fully formed middle-of-the-order monster and one of the most extreme Three True Outcomes bats of all time, hitting .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers, 17 doubles, 53 walks, and 119 strikeouts in 80 games at age 22. He was a revelation, shattering the typical Twins hitting mold.

He's not without flaws, including a strikeout rate that will make posting decent batting averages difficult, but Sano's power and patience are both 99th percentile skills and his debut was one of the best in Twins history. Actually, that's underselling it. Sano had the 12th-highest OPS (.915) in MLB history among 22-year-old right-handed hitters, taking his spot on the list directly after Hank Aaron (.923) and Alex Rodriguez (.919). His long-term potential is drool-inducing.

Eddie Rosario: Despite little in his 2013 or 2014 performance to suggest he was ready for the majors Rosario was the first outfielder called up when reinforcements were needed in early May and never went back to the minors. He swung at everything on the way to 118 strikeouts and 15 walks in 122 games to match the idea that he wasn't ready, but Rosario also batted .267 with 46 extra-base hits and plus defense to show Paul Molitor was right to believe in his raw talent.

There's no doubting Rosario's tools, which include an extremely quick bat, very good speed on the bases and in the outfield, and a strong arm that killed 16 runners when stubborn teams refused to stop testing him. None of that will mean much if Rosario can't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but in terms of debuts for 23-year-olds there was a ton to like and even with the undisciplined approach at the plate he was an above-average player as a rookie.

Trevor May: May was sent down to Triple-A at the end of spring training, but Ricky Nolasco immediately getting hurt opened up a rotation spot and he had the best strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, and xFIP among Twins starters through mid-July. And then the Twins moved May to the bullpen, where he took the unwanted and undeserved role change in stride and thrived as a reliever with a 2.87 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 31 innings.

Like most starters May's velocity and raw stuff went up a tick or two as a reliever, giving him the potential to be a late-inning setup man or closer. However, he's also shown enough as a starter to think he can help the Twins more logging 200 innings in the rotation instead of 70 innings in the bullpen and May has made it clear he wants to start. Whatever happens, May took a huge step forward this season at age 25 and gives the Twins' pitching staff a much-needed building block.

Eduardo Escobar: For whatever reason the Twins were very hesitant to trust Escobar as their starting shortstop despite a strong 2014 in that role, first handing the Opening Day job to Danny Santana and then waiting three months to give it back to Escobar when Santana flopped. Escobar ended up starting 71 games at shortstop--along with way too many games miscast as a left fielder and designated hitter--and batted .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits.

For his Twins career Escobar has started 187 games at shortstop and hit .281/.328/.480 in those games, which is the best shortstop production in team history and should be more than enough to make him the 2016 starter. Escobar is a free-swinger, but he's got rare power for the position and offers solid, sure-handed defense too. At age 26 he's under team control through 2018, so they may have stumbled into a shortstop solution after two decades of unsuccessful searching.

Tyler Duffey: Entering the year as a mid-level prospect with questions about his durability and bat-missing ability, Duffey finished it as arguably the Twins' best starter. Called up in early August as a short-term rotation patch, Duffey got knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut and then went 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA and 52/18 K/BB ratio in 56 innings over his final nine starts while giving up just two homers in 229 plate appearances.

Duffey was even stingier with the long ball in the minors this season, giving up just one homer in 138 innings and 559 plate appearances at Double-A and Triple-A before the call-up. Because he's not an extreme ground-ball pitcher those low homer totals figure to be somewhat of a fluke long term, but Duffey has good command of a low-90s fastball and his curveball is a swing-and-miss weapon. At age 25 he deserves a full-time shot in the Twins' rotation next season.

Aaron Hicks: All but left for dead as a prospect after back-to-back awful seasons in the majors, Hicks earned his way back to Minnesota by dominating Triple-A for six weeks and finally showed the skills that made him a first-round draft pick and four-time Baseball America top-100 prospect. With a revamped approach at the plate that dialed up aggression and converted passiveness into patience, he hit .256/.323/.398 with 11 homers in 97 games.

Hicks also looked much better defensively in center field, making his usual assortment of standout plays without mixing in as much shaky route-running, and went 13-for-16 stealing bases too. He slumped down the stretch and it remains to be seen if the switch-hitting Hicks can handle right-handers well enough to thrive as an everyday player, but he was an above-average all-around center fielder at age 25 and that's a remarkable turnaround given how far his stock had fallen.

Jose Berrios: Setting aside whether or not the Twins should have called up Berrios to the big leagues this season--in July or August would have been my preference--his performance while spending the entire year in the minors firmly established the 21-year-old right-hander as the organization's best pitching prospect since Matt Garza in 2006. Berrios began the season at Double-A, moved up to Triple-A in early July, and was one of the best pitchers in both leagues.

Overall he threw 166 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 175/38 K/BB ratio while limiting opponents to a .223 batting average and 12 homers. His handling may have been frustrating to Twins fans, but it was a fantastic season for an excellent prospect and one that would have gotten Berrios to the big leagues in most organizations. Pitching prospects fail at a remarkably high rate, but Berrios looks MLB-ready and projects as a potential front-line starter. His development in 2015 was impressive.

Max Kepler: Prior to this season Kepler's prospect status was based more on his physical tools and youth than actual production, which was mostly mediocre thanks in part to a bunch of injuries keeping him off the field. That all changed in a huge way this year, as Kepler stayed healthy and crushed Double-A, hitting .322/.416/.531 with 54 extra-base hits, more walks (67) than strikeouts (63), and 18 steals to be named MVP of the Southern League at age 22.

Kepler is 6-foot-4 and significantly stronger than when the Twins signed him out of Germany as a 16-year-old in 2009, but still has enough range to occasionally play center field and figures to be a plus defender in a corner spot. Much like with Berrios, in most organizations Kepler likely would have been called up to the big leagues for more than a September cup of coffee, but regardless of that his season was a true breakout and thrusts him into the Twins' long-term plans.

For a lengthy discussion of the highs and lows of the Twins' season and Paul Molitor's first year as manager, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

July 14, 2015

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Hitters

Brian Dozier Twins

Last season the Twins ranked fifth among AL teams in both OPS and runs scored, but the lineup has taken a step backward. They've hit .254/.307/.399 to rank 11th out of 15 teams in OPS, but the offense has out-performed those overall numbers to rank seventh in runs scored thanks to hitting .283 with runners in scoring position and .241 without runners in scoring position. Before the second half gets underway here's a hitter-by-hitter look at the individual performances ...

Brian Dozier: .256/.328/.513 in 393 plate appearances

Two seasons ago Brian Dozier dramatically altered the trajectory of his career at age 26, going from light-hitting fringe shortstop prospect to starting-caliber second baseman. Last year he made another big jump, emerging as one of MLB's best all-around second basemen by combining power, patience, speed, and defense. This season he's again taken a huge leap, ranking among the best dozen players in the entire league during the first half.

Dozier is often overlooked, in part because his turning into a star came as such a surprise and in part because many people still misguidedly focus on batting average. But make no mistake: He had a spectacular first half. Dozier played 88 of 89 games, leading the league in extra-base hits (48) and ranking second in runs scored (67), third in doubles (26), seventh in homers (19), and 10th in slugging percentage (.513) while grading right around average defensively.

He's developed into one of the best power hitters in the league, which is amazing for a 5-foot-11 middle infielder who had a grand total of 16 homers in 365 games as a minor leaguer. In addition to crushing high fastballs Dozier draws walks, steals bases, and plays good defense at an up-the-middle position, which is why FanGraphs pegs him as the eighth-best all-around position player in the league at 3.3 Wins Above Replacement. He was, without question, the Twins' first-half MVP.

Joe Mauer: .271/.336/.387 in 366 plate appearances

Joe Mauer had a solid April, slumped badly from May 1 through mid-June, and finished the first half by hitting .320 with four homers in his final 25 games. The end result is an underwhelming .271/.336/.387 line that looks much like his underwhelming .277/.361/.371 line last year and has me wondering whether the .320-hitting on-base percentage vanished the moment he suffered a concussion in August of 2013.

His strong recent play puts those thoughts on hold for now and Mauer's actual impact out-paced his raw numbers thanks to hitting .380 with runners in scoring position and .400 in high-leverage spots. Mauer leads Twins hitters in Win Probability Added by a wide margin because he was great in game-changing situations even while being mediocre overall. Counting on that to continue is optimistic to say the least and Mauer was a below-average first baseman in the first half.

Trevor Plouffe: .259/.320/.449 in 354 plate appearances

Because he went from light-hitting shortstop prospect to good-hitting third baseman, whenever Trevor Plouffe puts together a good stretch offensively many people are quick to expect further development. Instead he's been remarkably consistent since becoming an everyday player and this season's production (.769 OPS) is very close to his numbers in 2012 (.751 OPS) and 2014 (.756 OPS). He's basically been a .250/.315/.440 hitter now for four years.

What has changed is that Plouffe went from being very rough defensively at third base to being solidly above average at the position, which is perhaps what should have been expected from a career-long shortstop making the transition in the majors. This season, like last season, Plouffe has been above average offensively and defensively to rank as one of the dozen best all-around third basemen in baseball. He was the Twins' second-best position player in the first half.

Torii Hunter: .257/.312/.444 in 333 plate appearances

Torii Hunter continues to hold off father time, putting together the same type of season for the Twins at age 39 that he had for the Tigers last year. He's been slightly above average offensively, making up for a 30-point drop in batting average with increased power and more walks (24) than he drew all of last season (23). Hunter has been extremely streaky, with a handful of huge games surrounded by mediocrity, but a .750 OPS at age 39 is as good as anyone should have expected.

Defensively he's rated somewhere between mediocre and poor, but either is a huge upgrade over the awful numbers he had as the Tigers' right fielder. Paul Molitor has also given Hunter plenty of time off from fielding with 11 starts at designated hitter. Slightly above average offensively and slightly below average defensively equals an average all-around player. That doesn't come close to matching the Hunter-as-savior hype train, but it certainly tops my modest expectations.

Kurt Suzuki: .235/.291/.313 in 271 plate appearances

Kurt Suzuki parlayed a good first half last season into his first career All-Star appearance and a two-year, $12 million contract extension from the Twins, at which point the magic wore off and he resumed not hitting. Suzuki has played 112 games since signing the deal, hitting .240/.291/.333 to basically match his .237/.294/.357 mark from 2010-2013, and this season his .604 OPS ranks 22nd among the 25 catchers with 200 or more plate appearances.

Suzuki's defensive reputation has always been excellent, but his defensive numbers have always been terrible and this season is no exception. He's thrown out 20 percent of stolen base attempts, his pitch-framing rates below average, and while he's been charged with few passed balls Twins pitchers have racked up tons of wild pitches with him behind the plate. Add it all up and Suzuki has been one of the league's worst regulars.

Danny Santana: .225/.245/.313 in 239 plate appearances

Danny Santana's great, out-of-nowhere rookie season carried with it several red flags, including a bad strikeout-to-walk ratio, unsustainably high batting average on balls in play, and iffy track record in the minors, but no one could have expected this type of collapse. His batting average is down 100 points, his power has been sliced in half, and his strike zone control has gone from bad to horrendous with 59 strikeouts and four walks. He's been one of the five worst hitters in MLB.

And he's been nearly as bad defensively despite moving back to his natural position of shortstop after being forced into action as a center fielder last year. Santana has committed 13 errors in 58 games at shortstop and Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, and Plus/Minus agree that he's been 5-10 runs below average. Santana made lots of errors and hit .274/.317/.397 with bad K/BB ratios in the minors and that's no longer masked by a shockingly good rookie campaign.

Eduardo Escobar: .254/.285/.403 in 216 plate appearances

Eduardo Escobar is a good-fielding shortstop with a decent bat for the position, but he's been asked to play mostly left field and designated hitter with predictably poor results. He's made 33 starts at left field/DH compared to 17 at shortstop, which has changed the perception of Escobar's value. Playing shortstop while hitting .254/.285/.403 would make Escobar an average regular, but a sub-.700 OPS looks totally different in left field and his outfield defense isn't pretty either.

Escobar is held back by terrible plate discipline, which includes a 48/8 K/BB ratio this season, but the bar for offense at shortstop is low enough that hitting .250 with gap power and non-existent strike zone control is perfectly reasonable when combined with solid defense. It makes no sense to play Escobar at a position where his bat and glove are both weaknesses, especially when Santana has been a mess at shortstop. Escobar is who he is. His team needs to utilize his skills better.

Eddie Rosario: .284/.310/.418 in 205 plate appearances

Molitor and the Twins were convinced that Eddie Rosario was more ready for the majors at age 23 than his mediocre numbers in the minors suggested and through 55 games his .284/.310/.418 line narrowly tops his .255/.300/.400 line at Double-A and Triple-A. His inability to control the strike zone in the minors has carried over with an ugly 47/8 K/BB ratio, but thanks to the smooth swing that Molitor and company rave about he's still been able to hit .284 with decent power.

Offensively he's been below average and more Triple-A time to work on plate discipline and trying to hit left-handed pitching might make sense, but Rosario has held his own enough to avoid being a weakness. And he's been very good defensively, showing plus range and a strong arm shifting between left field and right field. Rosario has plenty of rough edges to smooth out if he's going to become a great player, but he's already pretty close to being a good one.

Kennys Vargas: .245/.277/.365 in 166 plate appearances

Kennys Vargas was handed the Opening Day designated hitter job, lost it, reclaimed it, lost it again, and got demoted to Triple-A and then to Double-A, all within three months. In between he hit .245/.277/.365 with a hideous 48/7 K/BB ratio in 47 games to lose the Twins' faith. As a rookie his 63/12 K/BB ratio in 53 games wasn't much better, but no one seemed to care because he hit .274 with plus power. He has a lot to prove if he's going to re-enter the Twins' long-term plans.

Aaron Hicks: .266/.333/.387 in 138 plate appearances

After horrible rookie and sophomore seasons the Twins overhauled Aaron Hicks' approach at the plate and sent him to Triple-A. He thrived there to earn another chance and the results have been a mixed bag. Hicks looks like a different hitter--less patient, more aggressive--and his production is up recently, but he continues to be a switch-hitter with an extreme platoon split. His defense and baserunning have improved, but it's still unclear if he's a good part-time or a starter.

Shane Robinson: .243/.296/.304 in 126 plate appearances

Signed to a minor-league contract after a decade in the Cardinals organization, Shane Robinson made the team out of spring training and has played a bigger role than expected while starting 30 games. He hit .343 in April, but quickly turned back into a pumpkin and has hit .195 since May 1. Robinson's overall numbers match his underwhelming career marks and there's no reason for him to be starting games as a corner outfielder for a team struggling to score runs.

Eduardo Nunez: .290/.330/.477 in 116 plate appearances

Eduardo Nunez has hit and fielded better than ever, posting the second-best OPS on the team and even rating as a neutral shortstop after previously having some of the worst numbers at the position in baseball. His limited playing time means viewing all of that skeptically and the Twins still don't seem to trust him as an appealing shortstop option. Nunez may finally be taking a step forward at age 28, but more likely is that performances vary wildly in small samples.

For a lot more talk about the Twins' first half, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode featuring our MVP ballots and player-by-player breakdowns.

May 20, 2015

Twins demote Kennys Vargas to Triple-A

Kennys Vargas Twins

Last season when the Twins dumped Kendrys Morales and his remaining salary on the Mariners in late July they called up Kennys Vargas to replace him as the starting designated hitter. It was an unexpected move because Vargas was a good but not great prospect putting up good but not great numbers at Double-A as a 23-year-old. Vargas arrived with a hot bat, hitting .330 with four homers, seven doubles, and an .875 OPS in his first 25 games despite an ugly 29/4 K/BB ratio.

Vargas then cooled off considerably by hitting .223/.276/.402 with 34 strikeouts in his final 28 games, but he finished the season with solid overall numbers and faced little competition for the Opening Day designated hitter job this spring. He got off to a brutal start this year, hitting .172 in April, but the Twins stuck with Vargas and he hit .366 with two homers, two doubles, and a .956 OPS through a dozen May games ... at which point they demoted him to Triple-A.

There was some writing on the wall, as manager Paul Molitor repeatedly benched Vargas during his hot streak, but demoting a player in the midst of a productive stretch following an extended slump is odd timing to say the least. Odder yet, Vargas' good stretch came immediately after the Twins worked with him to adjust his swing mechanics. It paid off, as Vargas notched 14 hits in 10 starts this month and also delivered a pinch-hit homer. And now he's in Rochester.

Vargas' strike zone control absolutely needs improvement after striking out 93 times compared to just 17 non-intentional walks in 82 games for the Twins and further developing that skill against minor-league competition could be a good idea. Which is why it was surprising when the Twins promoted Vargas from Double-A to majors last year and why the timing of this year's demotion, rather than the demotion itself, is what stands out now.

What also stands out now is the Twins' lack of other appealing designated hitter options. Several times Molitor benched Vargas in favor of Eduardo Nunez and Eduardo Escobar, a pair of utility infielders who each have a career OPS below .700 in the majors and the minors. Now that Vargas is out of the mix Nunez and Escobar figure to see even more action as left fielders and designated hitters, which is a weird thing to do intentionally.

Here's how Vargas, Nunez, and Escobar have hit in their respective Twins careers:

                    AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Kennys Vargas      .266     .309     .425     .734
Eduardo Nunez      .265     .291     .403     .694
Eduardo Escobar    .260     .300     .379     .679

In performing poorly enough to get demoted back to the minors Vargas still easily out-produced Nunez and Escobar. And unlike either Nunez or Escobar, there's actually evidence within Vargas' track record as a minor leaguer to suggest he's capable of producing more. Torii Hunter spending more time at DH is also likely in Molitor's plans, but that mostly just opens up an outfield spot for Eddie Rosario and there's little to indicate he's ready to out-produce Vargas either.

It'd be one thing if the Twins demoted Vargas and replaced him with another young hitter with DH-caliber potential like Josmil Pinto or if Oswaldo Arcia was due to return from the disabled list shortly and they wanted to work him back into the lineup at DH. But to demote Vargas now, when he was seemingly getting on track, and to give his at-bats to a pair of utility infielders and Rosario is a thought process begging to be questioned.

For a lengthy discussion of the Twins' decision to demote Vargas, plus talk about how long Aaron Hicks might stick around, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

May 12, 2015

Third time’s a charm? Twins call up Aaron Hicks from Triple-A

Aaron Hicks

Last week, when the Twins needed a fill-in for the injured Oswaldo Arcia, they bypassed Aaron Hicks in favor of Eddie Rosario despite the latter's struggles dating back to last year and vastly inferior Triple-A production in the same Rochester outfield. Now with Shane Robinson having a family emergency the Twins have called up Hicks, who hit .336 with a .415 on-base percentage and .561 slugging percentage in 27 games at Triple-A to lead the International League in OPS.

In both 2013 and 2014 the Twins handed Hicks the Opening Day center field job and he flopped. This time around the deck was stacked against him getting a third crack at the gig. During spring training the prospect getting all the hype was Rosario, not Hicks, and the Twins eventually settled on splitting center field duties between the journeyman duo of Jordan Schafer, a 28-year-old waiver wire claim, and Robinson, a 30-year-old minor-league signing.

It hasn't worked out well, predictably. Robinson has done a quality job in a limited role, playing good defense and hitting some singles while facing mostly left-handed pitching. Schafer has come back down to earth after a good 46-game showing with the Twins last season that stood out from the rest of his sub par track record. Combined the Twins' center fielders have hit .257 with a .284 on-base percentage and .289 slugging percentage in 32 games.

As bad as Hicks has been in the majors his career on-base percentage and slugging percentage for the Twins are both higher than the Schafer/Robinson duo has produced in center field this season. He also has significantly more upside than Schafer or Robinson, although certainly far less so than the Twins hoped when they had him jump from Double-A to the majors as a 23-year-old in 2013. However, at age 25 and after crushing Triple-A pitching he deserves another opportunity.

Hicks is only one year older than the Twins' "young" trio of Arcia, Danny Santana, and Kennys Vargas. He's already shown the ability to be an asset against left-handed pitchers, posting a solid .750 OPS off them for the Twins in 2013/2014. Within his overall struggles last season Hicks drew lots of walks on the way to a .341 on-base percentage in 69 games. And in addition to thriving at Triple-A this season he hit .291/.387/.441 in 67 games at Double-A and Triple-A last season.

It's not a mystery why the Twins were hesitant to give Hicks another chance. He hasn't hit right-handed pitchers, his defense in center field has been very shaky, and the team publicly called into question his work ethic and instincts. Those are facts and I'm not writing this from the perspective of a huge Hicks believer. Even when he was a top prospect I was never particularly high on him, although obviously I expected him to perform a lot better than he has so far.

However, when a 25-year-old former top prospect two seasons removed from being rushed into an Opening Day job shows signs of progress giving him another--and perhaps a final--shot makes sense. At his worst, which is what we've seen so far, Hicks is still as good as the Schafer/Robinson duo. At his best, which is mostly hypothetical, Hicks still has the potential to be a useful regular. Of course, it may be a moot point if Hicks' stay only lasts until Robinson returns in a few days.

For a lot more about the Twins' roster decisions and surprising, emphatic climb above .500 check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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