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.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Casper mattresses, which offers a 100-day free trial with free shipping and returns. And you can get an extra $50 off by going to Casper.com/Gleeman and entering in the promo code GLEEMAN.

May 27, 2015

Wait, the Twins are winning? How did that happen?

Glen Perkins and Paul Molitor Twins

Coming off four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins were projected to finish in last place by nearly everyone, myself included, but instead they have the third-best record in the American League at 27-18. Since a brutal opening week of the season in which they went 1-6 and were outscored by 33 runs the Twins are 26-12 with a run differential of plus-52 and they've won 22 of their last 31 games. They're winning and they're winning a lot. But how? Here are three big reasons:

Scoring In Bunches

There's nothing impressive about the Twins' overall hitting numbers. They've batted .257 with 35 homers and 112 walks in 45 games, ranking 20th among MLB teams in both on-base percentage (.311) and slugging percentage (.388). They also haven't done much running under new manager Paul Molitor, stealing just 18 bases while being thrown out 11 times. And yet they've scored the eighth-most runs in baseball, including an AL-best 5.1 runs per game since their 1-6 start.

As a team the Twins have hit .257 with a .699 OPS overall, but with runners in scoring position they've hit .294 with an .806 OPS. When the bases are empty they've hit .240 with a .654 OPS, but with runners on base they've hit .282 with a .760 OPS. Whether you want to chalk up those huge differences to clutch performances, pure luck, or something in between it's easy to see why the Twins' lineup has scored a lot more runs than the overall numbers would suggest.

They've also done an exceptional job of clustering their hits together, exploding for big, multi-run innings to knock out the opposing starting pitcher or put a game out of reach. That's partly tied to the aforementioned significant uptick in production with runners on base and especially runners in scoring position, but it goes beyond that to an offense that has focused an unusually high portion of its damage within one inning per game.

Or, put another way: If a team averages nine hits per game they'll score a whole lot more runs if five or six of them are clustered together in the same inning than they would with a more even distribution of 1-2 per inning. Again, whether you want to chalk up the clustering of hits to clutch performances, pure luck, or something in between anyone who's watched the Twins this season can tell you their ability to explode for a big inning has been remarkable to see.

This year the Twins have scored four or more runs in an inning 15 times in 45 games, which is a pace of 54 times per 162 games. On average from 2011-2014 the Twins scored four or more runs in an inning 29 times per 162 games. So they've upped their OPS by 100 points with runners in scoring position, they've maximized a modest amount of overall damage by clustering it together, and they've exploded for a huge inning to put a game out of reach 2-3 times per week.

And that's how a lineup that ranks 20th in OPS can rank eighth in runs scored.

Late-Inning Relief

This season, like last season, the Twins' bullpen ranks dead last among all MLB teams in both strikeout rate and xFIP. Their rank in ERA is essentially unchanged from 23rd to 21st. However, within that all-too-familiar sub par performance from Twins relievers is some very good work in the late innings of close games. They've been bad overall, but in high-leverage situations where giving up a run could change the outcome of a game they've actually been quite good.

Glen Perkins is responsible for a lot of that. His excellence in the closer role is nothing new--he's already one of the three or four best relievers in Twins history--but he's been nearly flawless this season by converting 17 of 17 save chances with a 1.25 ERA and 21/2 K/BB ratio in 22 innings. Perkins ranks third among all relievers in Win Probability Added, which accounts for the situations in which performances occur within games and how that impacts the team's odds of winning.

His primary setup men have also thrived in high-leverage spots, which is shocking considering his primary setup men are journeyman minor-league signings Blaine Boyer and Aaron Thompson. Boyer is 32 years old and came into this season with a 4.63 ERA in the majors and a 5.31 ERA at Triple-A. He was terrible during the opening week, giving up runs in each of his first four games. And since then he's allowed a grand total of one run in 20 innings.

Thompson didn't even make the Opening Day roster, but quickly leapfrogged Brian Duensing and Caleb Thielbar in the hierarchy of lefty setup men. At age 28 he came into this season with 15 innings in the majors and 980 innings in the minors. And now he leads the American League with 23 appearances, 14 of which have come in "close and late" situations, and he's been nearly unhittable in those spots while holding lefties to a .094 batting average overall.

Thompson and Boyer both crack the top 10 in Win Probability Added among all American League non-closers and no trio of relievers in the league has a higher cumulative WPA total than Perkins, Thompson, and Boyer. They've combined for a WPA of 3.23 and the rest of the Twins' bullpen has a negative WPA, because in "close and late" situations the bullpen has held opponents to a .211 batting average and .536 OPS compared to a .314 batting average and .907 OPS in other spots.

And that's how a bullpen that ranks 21st in ERA can rank third in Win Probability Added.

Non-Disastrous Starting Pitching

Make no mistake, the rotation hasn't been good and Twins starters again rank dead last among all MLB teams in strikeouts. However, even being "not good" is actually a step up from the disastrous 2011-2014 rotation that ranked dead last in strikeout rate, ERA, xFIP, Wins Above Replacement, and opponents' batting average. For four years the Twins' rotation was a dumpster fire on which each new starter would pour more gasoline and now it's merely a standard bag of trash.

Depth has played a big part. Instead of constantly dipping down into the minors for a parade of replacement-level (or worse) starters the Twins actually have more decent rotation options than actual rotation spots, which is why Tommy Milone is currently dominating Triple-A hitters and the team is a month away from facing a tough decision when the biggest free agent signing in franchise history, Ervin Santana, returns from an 80-game suspension.

Twins starters rank 25th in xFIP thanks largely to the lack of strikeouts, but because they've been better at wriggling out of jams and limiting damage within troublesome innings the rotation sits right in the middle of the MLB pack in ERA at 15th. Whether you choose to put your faith in ERA or xFIP, going from dead last by a wide margin to somewhere within the realm of respectability has a huge impact on a number of fronts.

Compared to 2011-2014 the rotation is remaining in the game nearly 10 percent longer per start and surrendering 20 percent fewer runs per inning. Not as many games are already out of reach within the first few innings due to the starter blowing up and exiting early, which in turn leads to a less-taxing workload for the bullpen's middle relief underbelly and more of an opportunity for the Twins' lineup to explode for big, game-breaking innings of its own.

And that's how a rotation that ranks 25th in xFIP can still be a massive improvement.

To hear two podcast hosts try to figure out how to feel optimistic about their favorite team again, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

April 8, 2015

Ervin Santana suspended 80 games, Twins turn back to Mike Pelfrey

Ervin Santana Twins

Well, at least Mike Pelfrey is happy again.

This offseason the Twins signed Ervin Santana to a four-year, $55 million deal that stands as the largest free agent contract in team history and now, before he could even throw a pitch in a game that counts, he's been suspended for half the season. Santana tested positive for a substance on MLB's banned performance-enhancing drug list called Stanozolol, which he claimed in a statement entered his system without his knowledge:

I am frustrated that I can't pinpoint how the substance in question entered my body. What I can guarantee is I never knowingly took anything illegal to enhance my performance. That's just not me, never has been and never will.

I serve as a role model for many kids in my home country who dream of playing at the highest level. I would never put baseball, my family, or my country in a position where its integrity is jeopardized. I preach hard work and don't believe in short cuts. Moving forward, I need to be more careful on what I consume in my home country. I will be more vigilant of medications I take so that I don't commit another mistake.

Whatever. I'm not someone who cares about the moral implications of performance enhancement, so Santana using the common excuse of not knowing how a banned substance got into his body just means he's claiming ignorance and bad luck rather than malice. He either took a banned substance in an effort to improve his performance and got caught or took a banned substance unintentionally with no ties to performance and got caught. Either way he's suspended until July.

Santana's suspension is without pay and the Twins will receive a $6.7 million refund on his $13.5 million salary for this season. Instead of owing him $55 million for four years they owe him $48.3 million for three-and-a-half years, which is arguably an even worse deal because teams typically are willing to overpay free agents at the end of their contracts in order to get strong performances at the beginning. Oh, and the Twins still forfeit a second-round draft pick for signing Santana.

Rather than use Santana's suspension as an opportunity for the rotation to get younger the Twins stuck with their frustrating spring training approach of giving every open roster spot to the older, more expensive, lower-upside option. Pelfrey, who lost the fifth-starter battle to Tommy Milone and supposedly also finished behind Trevor May, moves back into the rotation after voicing his displeasure with a bullpen role. May remains at Triple-A, with Alex Meyer.

There's a tendency to overstate the impact of a suspension like Santana's for the same reason many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion that MVP-caliber players are worth "only" six or eight wins above a replacement-level player. However, if you dig into the numbers even a little bit it's pretty clear that being without Santana for three months isn't going to wreck the team unless the team was already a wreck.

Santana is 33 years old and has a 4.17 career ERA, including 3.95 last season (in the NL) and 4.06 from 2012-2014. Most projections for 2015 pegged Santana between 4.00 and 4.75. Even assuming he'd have stayed healthy and thrown 90-100 innings during the 80-game suspension the difference between Santana with, say, a 4.25 ERA and his replacements with, say, a 5.50 ERA is 10-15 runs. Typically every 10 runs is worth about one win.

Or instead think of it this way: Last season the Twins went 70-92 (.432), including 50-80 (.385) in games not started by Phil Hughes. Based on that to go .500 in Santana's starts would seemingly be a positive outcome. That means 8-8 during an 80-game suspension. If his replacements are two full games worse the team would be 6-10 (.375) in those same starts. To be four full games worse would mean a 4-12 (.250) record, which is really, really bad. Even for Pelfrey.

Anything can happen, of course, but that "anything" also means the replacements could perform better than Santana. Whether in terms of runs allowed or in terms of the team's record in his starts, it seems realistic to say Santana's suspension is most likely to cost one or two wins. That certainly hurts, but for the Twins the embarrassment and frustration probably hurts more than the actual lost games and they're choosing to inflict even more pain by turning back to Pelfrey.

For a lengthy discussion about the Santana suspension, plus the Twins' rotation plans in the short and long term, check out this week's "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.

December 12, 2014

Twins sign Ervin Santana to four-year, $55 million contract

Ervin Santana Twins

Last offseason Ervin Santana turned down the Royals' one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer in order to hit the open market as a free agent. Once there he found most teams unwilling to give him a multi-year contract for big money and forfeit a top-60 draft pick, so he ended up settling for a one-year, $14.1 million deal with the Braves. He had a solid year in Atlanta, but it was worse than his 2013 season in Kansas City, yet this time around the process played out differently.

Santana again turned down a one-year qualifying offer, this time worth $15.3 million from the Braves, but instead of settling for another one-year contract the Twins forfeited a second-round draft pick and gave him a four-year, $55 million deal that includes a fifth-year option for 2019. It is now the largest free agent contract in Twins history, surpassing the four-year, $49 million deal handed out to Ricky Nolasco last offseason.

Nolasco's first season in Minnesota was a mess, but at the time of the signing last offseason his resume was relatively similar to Santana's resume now. Nolasco was 31 years old and coming off a season in the National League during which he threw 199 innings with a 3.70 ERA, 3.58 xFIP, and 165/46 K/BB ratio. Santana is 32 years old and coming off a season in the National League during which he threw 196 innings with a 3.95 ERA, 3.47 xFIP, and 179/63 K/BB ratio.

Back then Nolasco had a 4.37 ERA with 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, including a 4.29 ERA with 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his three most recent years. Santana has a 4.17 ERA with 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, including a 4.06 ERA with 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his three most recent years. It's not a perfect comparison. Santana has more time in the American League and throws harder, among other differences. But you get the idea.

Nolasco was not at the top of my list for preferred pitching targets last offseason, but a four-year, $49 million commitment seemed reasonable within the context of the free agent pitching market. It obviously looks terrible now in large part because Nolasco pitched hurt for much of the season while hiding the injury from the Twins, but $49 million for four seasons of a previously durable mid-rotation starter was more or less the going rate.

And now the same is true of $55 million for four seasons of Santana, who has started at least 30 games and thrown at least 175 innings in five consecutive seasons. In four of those five years he posted an ERA under 4.00, with the exception being a miserable 2012 season with the Angels book-ended by two solid years on both sides. His fastball velocity has remained stable at 91-93 miles per hour and he leans very heavily on a low-80s slider, particularly as a strikeout pitch.

Among the 101 starters with at least 250 innings during the past two seasons Santana ranks 48th in ERA, 38th in xFIP, 45th in strikeout rate, 54th in walk rate, and 55th in ground-ball rate. Toss in durability and Santana has fit solidly into the No. 2 or No. 3 starter category depending on your definition of that label. His control can be spotty and as a fly-ball pitcher keeping the ball in the ballpark can be an issue, which is how Santana allowed an MLB-high 39 homers in 2012.

Santana signing for $55 million now, much like Nolasco signing for $49 million then, are examples of the Twins paying reasonable, market rates for good but not great veteran players to address an area of clear weakness for the present team. That doesn't mean the signings will necessarily work out positively, as Nolasco has shown so far, and it doesn't mean the biggest investment will have the biggest payoff, as Phil Hughes and his three-year, $24 million contract has shown so far.

Santana makes the Twins better and while it's possible to quibble about whether he's worth $55 million versus, say, $40 million or $70 million, they haven't come close to maximizing payroll in recent years anyway. Giving up a draft pick to make a four-year commitment to a 32-year-old is the risk, particularly with Hughes, Santana, and Nolasco locked up for multiple years in a rotation that may soon want to make room for guys like Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios, and Trevor May.

In the short term the rotation seems set. Hughes, Santana, and Nolasco have multi-year deals, Kyle Gibson isn't going anywhere after a decent showing at age 26, Mike Pelfrey is still under contract for $6 million, and the Twins somewhat surprisingly tendered Tommy Milone a contract at a projected arbitration salary of $2.8 million. Barring a trade or a change of heart the Opening Day rotation looks to be Hughes, Santana, Nolasco, Gibson, and either Pelfrey or Milone.

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