September 10, 2014

Twins Notes: Santana, Escobar, St. Peter, Thorpe, Mauer, and May

Danny Santana Twins

Danny Santana picked a bad season to be a .320-hitting rookie center fielder, because White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu is hitting .317/.378/.590 with 33 homers and will run away with the Rookie of the Year award. However, assuming that he doesn't go into a prolonged slump down the stretch Santana's performance would be enough to make him a deserving Rookie of the Year winner in quite a few previous seasons. Last season, for instance.

Last season's winner, Wil Myers of the Rays, hit .293/.354/.478 in 88 games as a right fielder. Santana has hit .320/.358/.475 in 84 games as a center fielder/shortstop. They've been nearly identical as hitters and Santana has large edges in base-running, defense, and positional value. Looking at Twins history, Marty Cordova won the award in 1995 while hitting .277/.352/.486 in 137 games as a left fielder in a much higher era for offense.

Here's where Santana currently ranks among Twins rookies in Wins Above Replacement during the Ron Gardenhire era of 2002-2014:

                    YEAR     WAR
Francisco Liriano   2006     4.5
Lew Ford            2004     4.5
Denard Span         2008     4.3
Bobby Kielty        2002     2.7
DANNNY SANTANA      2014     2.7

Longtime readers of this blog will probably remember that I thought Bobby Kielty was destined for stardom. He was not.

• Santana was thrust into center field without ever playing there regularly before and has done reasonably well, but assistant general manager Rob Antony recently said: "I think he's going to be our shortstop of the future. Any opportunity we get to play him at shortstop is a good thing." Which is fine, except with Aaron Hicks back in the majors the Twins are still going out of their way not to play Santana at shortstop, even using Eduardo Nunez there instead of him.

• On a related note: Since a strong start Eduardo Escobar has hit just .247/.292/.365 in his last 85 games. He's now a career .253/.299/.363 hitter in 761 plate appearances as a big leaguer.

• For most of the past four years the Twins' bullpen has been a strength amid the team's overall struggles, but now the relievers are struggling too. In the first half the bullpen had a 3.21 ERA with a 13-10 record. In the second half they have a 4.92 ERA with a 6-10 record, including a 5.81 ERA during the past month. Their season totals now include ranking 22nd in ERA, 29th in xFIP, and dead last in strikeout rate. Of course, the rotation has still been worse.

• Twins president Dave St. Peter apparently didn't mind Keith Olbermann ripping the team to shreds on ESPN, but he predictably did mind me saying their brand survey was "tone deaf." On a related note, we spent a large portion of this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode discussing the Twins' increasing assurances of "we get it" in the face of mounting evidence that they don't.

• Pitching prospect Lewis Thorpe, an 18-year-old left-hander from Australia with 144 strikeouts in 116 career innings and one of the highest-upside arms in the Twins' farm system, has been diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. For now the Twins are insisting he'll be fine, but UCL injuries are what lead to Tommy John surgery.

Jose Berrios had one of the 10 best starts by any pitching prospect this season, according to Baseball America.

Joe Mauer has a .405 on-base percentage with more walks than strikeouts in 28 games since returning from the disabled list. During that time he's got an .848 OPS. His career OPS is .861.

Kurt Suzuki has hit .235/.279/.337 in 27 games since his two-year, $12 million extension. He hit .237/.294/.357 in 477 games from 2010-2013.

Tommy Milone allowed 21 runs in 21 innings for the Twins after coming over from the A's in exchange for Sam Fuld and now he's hurt. (Fuld has hit just .218/.269/.307 in 35 games since the trade.)

• Since his disastrous MLB debut Trevor May has a 24/12 K/BB ratio and three homers allowed in 27 innings. It'll take a while for his ERA to not be hideous, but he'll be just fine.

• After nine seasons as the Twins' minor-league hitting coordinator and 14 total seasons in the organization Bill Springman has been let go.

• At one point this season the Twins were 23-21. Since then they are 39-61.


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May 7, 2014

Who should be the Twins’ starting shortstop?

eduardo escobar and pedro florimon

Pedro Florimon started 127 games at shortstop for the Twins last season and began this season in the same role, but now the 27-year-old defensive specialist finds himself mostly on the bench in favor of Eduardo Escobar. Ron Gardenhire has said that he plans to mix and match, but with Florimon hitting .109 and Escobar hitting .348 it seems safe to assume that Escobar will get an extended opportunity to claim the gig as his own.

Florimon was always ill-suited to be an everyday player because he just can't hit and his defense, while very good, is not at the elite level needed to cancel out his lack of offense. For his career he's hit .208/.268/.306 in 678 plate appearances as a big leaguer and .250/.317/.352 in 1,150 plate appearances at Double-A and Triple-A. For some context, consider that bad-hit, good-glove role model Nick Punto's career OPS is 73 points higher than Florimon's mark in the majors.

On defense Florimon makes lots of slick-looking plays, but he also botches his fair share of routine plays and overall Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him as 3.4 runs above average per 150 games. That's good but not great and when combined with a terrible bat makes him a utility man-caliber player being pushed into a larger role because the Twins lack other decent options. Or do they? Escobar is hitting .348 and delivered a game-winning homer Monday night, after all.

Of course, even with his good work in a small sample of action this season Escobar is still a career .244/.295/.335 hitter in 383 plate appearances as a big leaguer. He also hit just .266/.312/.376 in 875 plate appearances at Triple-A, which is basically what Florimon did with slightly more power. However, it's worth noting that Escobar is a couple years younger than Florimon and has recently shown some actual signs of improvement offensively.

In addition to hitting .348/.380/.522 in 53 plate appearances for the Twins this season Escobar also hit .307/.380/.500 in 188 plate appearances at Triple-A last season. That's still far too small of a sample to get particularly excited about, especially when the good overall production comes along with poor strike zone control, but unlike with Florimon there's at least a little something on which to base some level of optimism for Escobar's bat.

Defensively he's logged a grand total of just 375 innings at shortstop in the majors, so it's tough to make any real judgments, but Ultimate Zone Rating shows Escobar as 11.3 runs above average there per 150 games. Toss in the consistent praise he received defensively in the minors and it seems fairly safe to say that Escobar probably has at least an above-average glove there. So he's younger than Florimon, can't be any worse offensively, and may be as good defensively.

That's enough to convince me Escobar should be above Florimon on the shortstop depth chart, but then again they aren't the only two options. Eduardo Nunez, who was claimed off waivers from the Yankees last month, has plenty of experience as a starting shortstop in the majors subbing for Derek Jeter and the Twins seem convinced that he has offensive potential at age 26. Sadly, his defensive numbers are historically awful and there's little evidence that he's not a terrible hitter.

For his career Nunez has hit .268/.314/.379 in the majors and .272/.315/.365 in the minors, including .275/.318/.360 in 716 plate appearances at Triple-A. He's a better hitter than Florimon and might be a slightly better hitter than Escobar, but Ultimate Zone Rating pegs Nunez as 33.9 runs below average per 150 games at shortstop. Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt and cut that number in half Nunez isn't so much a shortstop as a guy who has played shortstop.

And then there's Danny Santana, a 23-year-old prospect called up from Triple-A way ahead of schedule because injuries left the Twins short-handed. Santana has gotten a surprising amount of prospect hype for someone who hasn't actually done much to deserve it. He's posted some decent batting averages in the minors, which along with good speed and athleticism tend to get lots of people excited, but he's also never cracked a .750 OPS in a season and makes a ton of errors.

Last season at Double-A he hit .297 with 30 steals in 137 games, but he also managed just two homers and 24 walks in 587 plate appearances. This season at Triple-A prior to being called up Santana hit .268/.311/.381 with zero homers and a 28-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 games. He's clearly not close to being MLB ready and there's plenty of reason to question whether he'll ever be ready to contribute as more than a utility man.

In the short term Escobar over Florimon seems like a fairly easy choice for Gardenhire and in the slightly longer term perhaps Santana will emerge as a viable option late this season or next, but as has been the case for more than a decade now the Twins lack long-term shortstop options that look capable of being assets both offensively and defensively. Their next good shortstop probably isn't in the organization, assuming such a person has even been born yet or will ever exist.


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April 16, 2014

Twins Notes: Dozier, Plouffe, Buxton, Mauer, Burton, Nunez, and Hughes

brian dozier and trevor plouffe

It doesn't make a lot of sense to attempt any meaningful analysis after just two weeks, but here are some random observations I've had while watching the Twins start 6-7 ...

• Last year Brian Dozier set the Twins' record for homers by a second baseman with 18, which came as a surprise after he totaled just 16 homers in 365 games as a minor leaguer. There was evidence that Dozier changed his approach at the plate to pull the ball more, and he's already gone deep four times in 13 games this year. I'm still not convinced he's a top-of-the-order bat, but 15-20 homers along with a solid glove would make him a long-term solution.

• It took 13 games for Trevor Plouffe to homer, but that might not be a bad thing because he looks like a much different hitter. He came into this season with a lifetime .240 batting average and 289/89 K/BB ratio, but so far he's hit .314 with an 8/8 K/BB ratio. His batting average will obviously go down soon enough, but Plouffe has been much more willing to push pitches to the opposite field and assuming at least some of the power remains that's a positive change.

• I'm not a big Alex Presley fan because he's stretched defensively in center field and stretched offensively in a corner spot, but as backup outfielders go he's a decent one. Losing him on waivers for nothing left the Twins lacking in outfield depth and injuries to Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia quickly made that a problem. When it's still early April and you're starting replacement-level talent like Chris Herrmann in an outfield corner something went wrong in the offseason planning.

• With that said, given their current options the Twins might as well continue to trade defense for offense by using Jason Kubel and Chris Colabello in the outfield corners. For one thing their intended corner duo of Willingham and Arcia is brutal defensively anyway. Beyond that by using Kubel and Colabello somewhere other than designated hitter it also allows Josmil Pinto to get into the lineup and his long-term development could be one of the biggest keys of the season.

• Back when Miguel Sano underwent Tommy John elbow surgery I wrote about how so many of the best Twins prospects of my lifetime have suffered major injuries early in their careers, ruining the chance to see what they were fully capable of becoming without any road blocks along the way. On a sadly related note, Byron Buxton hasn't played since injuring his wrist diving for a ball on March 16 and the Twins announced that he won't see game action until at least May 1.

• I'm curious to see if Joe Mauer is more vocal arguing balls and strikes with umpires as a hitter now that he no longer has to help pitchers get calls from them as a catcher. That certainly seems to be the case so far, although being on the wrong end of a couple incredibly obvious terrible calls could be skewing the small sample size. Thanks in large part to Mauer's patience at the plate, the Twins lead the league in walks.

Jared Burton has had back-to-back brutal appearances despite nearly a week off between outings. Tuesday night he walked three consecutive hitters with two outs and then served up a grand slam, which really should have its own name along the same lines as a "golden sombrero" for hitters. Burton also struggled down the stretch last season, so it might be time to let him get some low-leverage work with plenty of days off mixed in.

Ron Gardenhire and assistant general manager Rob Anthony had some odd quotes about Eduardo Nunez after acquiring him from the Yankees, saying stuff like "we know he can swing the bat" and calling him an "offensive-oriented player." Meanwhile, he's 26 years old and has hit .267/.313/.379 in 270 games as a major leaguer after hitting .272/.315/.366 in 712 games as a minor leaguer.

Phil Hughes' results haven't been very good so far, but he's managed to keep the ball in the ballpark in two of his three starts and a 17/5 K/BB ratio in 15 innings will definitely work over the long haul. On the other hand even with Hughes racking up plenty of strikeouts the Twins' rotation as a whole ranks dead last among MLB teams with 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings. By comparison, four rotations are averaging more than 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings.

• For anyone going to Target Field: I highly recommend the Butcher and The Boar rib tips. They're new this season in right field around Section 140 and one of the best things I've ever eaten at a baseball game. Plus for $5.50 you can get a shot of Knob Creek bourbon with them.

• For a lot more about Mauer, Nunez, Willingham, Arcia, Dozier, Plouffe, and Buxton--plus the sad story of how I tore my ACL--check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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April 8, 2014

Twins acquire Eduardo Nunez from Yankees for Miguel Sulbaran

eduardo nunez yankees

Just a few years ago a not-insignificant number of people in New York talked up Eduardo Nunez as the Yankees' heir apparent to Derek Jeter at shortstop, but that was always pretty far-fetched and now that Jeter is actually ready to retire it looks downright delusional. Nunez's stock dropped so much that last week the Yankees designated him for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot and yesterday the Twins acquired him for their No. 28 prospect, Miguel Sulbaran.

Nunez proved to be a horrible defensive shortstop when filling in for Jeter, making 30 errors in 1,150 innings (including 124 starts) at the position while Ultimate Zone Rating pegged him as an astounding 31 runs below average. New York also played him occasionally at third base, but his glove rated nearly as poorly there and as a career .267/.313/.379 hitter with even worse numbers at Triple-A his bat is hardly good enough to be an asset at a corner spot.

So what exactly do the Twins want with Nunez? Well, for one thing the price was right. Sulbaran isn't totally without upside, but he's also a Single-A pitcher they acquired from the Dodgers nine months ago in exchange for Drew Butera. Beyond that Nunez is still relatively young at 26 and under team control through 2017, so while he's really only a "middle infielder" like I'm a "radio broadcaster" there's some chance he could be not-horrible at second base or third base.

Mostly, though, the Twins' infield depth is so lacking and the MLB-wide standard for a serviceable backup infielder is so low that it wouldn't take much for Nunez to capably fill the role. He also has a minor-league option remaining, which means for now the Twins can stash him at Triple-A while deciding if they'd rather have Nunez on the roster than, say, the hollowed out remains of Jason Bartlett's skill set.

Nunez isn't a player I'd have given up anything to acquire--can't hit, can't field, and base-stealing isn't worth much on its own--but in general the Twins should be looking to add infield depth and clearly they think his speed and athleticism can still translate into something useful. If the Twins think Nunez represents a viable alternative to Pedro Florimon at shortstop they're likely to be disappointed upon closer inspection, but searching for a viable alternative is a good idea.


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