July 16, 2015

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Pitchers

Glen Perkins Twins

Twins pitching was abysmal from 2011-2014, ranking second-worst in ERA and worst in strikeouts among 30 teams. This year they're 15th in ERA, putting them on pace to allow 145 fewer runs per 162 games. However, they're still dead last in strikeouts and have improved to just 26th in xFIP. Vastly improved defense has played a big part, but luck has been a factor too. Before the second half gets underway here's a pitcher-by-pitcher look at the individual performances ...

Phil Hughes: .287/.303/.495 in 486 plate appearances

Last season Phil Hughes logged a career-high 210 innings and posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. This year the durability and excellent control remain, but Hughes' strikeout rate has plummeted and his home run rate has skyrocketed. On a per-plate appearance basis his strikeouts are down 36 percent and he's served up a league-high 22 homers in 18 starts after allowing a total of 16 homers in 32 starts last season.

Hughes' fastball velocity is down 1.5 miles per hour and hitters have teed off on it, adjusting to his strike-throwing machine approach and/or simply taking advantage of a lesser version of the pitch. Whatever the case, he's gone from No. 1 starter to innings-eating mid-rotation starter, which was the fear when the Twins reacted to Hughes' career-year by handing him a three-year, $42 million extension with two seasons remaining on his original deal.

Kyle Gibson: .241/.305/.371 in 468 plate appearances

Nothing has really changed within Kyle Gibson's secondary numbers compared to last year, but his ERA has improved from 4.47 to 2.85 and he's avoided the blowups that plagued him every few turns in the rotation. His strikeout rate (16 percent vs. 14 percent), walk rate (8 percent in both years), and ground-ball rate (54 percent in both years) are all remarkably similar to last season and he's already given up almost as many homers (11) in 18 starts as he did (12) in 32 starts.

The big change is opponents hitting .165 with runners in scoring position compared to .277 last year, which explains avoiding big innings. At some point those numbers are going to normalize and when they do Gibson looks more like a 3.85 ERA starter than a 2.85 ERA starter, but nothing says his luck has to run out immediately and a 3.85 ERA starter is still plenty valuable. He's been the best starter on a team that handed out $170 million to three free agent starters since 2014.

Mike Pelfrey: .293/.357/.398 in 424 plate appearances

Unhappy about being moved to the bullpen during spring training, Mike Pelfrey got his wish and remained in the rotation following Ervin Santana's suspension. He fared absurdly well early on despite no changes to his poor strikeout and walk rates, constantly getting himself into jams and then wriggling out of trouble. Eventually that caught up to Pelfrey, who finished the first half by allowing 27 runs in his final 32 innings to take his ERA from 2.28 to 4.00 in six starts.

There's been lots of talk about pitching coach Neil Allen convincing Pelfrey to rely on off-speed pitches more, but that storyline loses a little steam when you consider his 4.41 xFIP is no different than his 4.42 xFIP for the Mets from 2008-2012 and his 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings are worse than his 5.0 mark during that span. Pelfrey has taken a somewhat different approach to pitching, but the results ended up in the same mediocre place once the early good fortunate vanished.

Trevor May: .286/.323/.428 in 364 plate appearances

Called up one week into the season to replace the injured Ricky Nolasco in the rotation, Trevor May led Twins starters in fastball velocity, strikeout rate, and xFIP. So naturally he was the starter moved to the bullpen when Santana returned from suspension. May took the demotion in stride, finishing the first half with four scoreless relief innings, but given his performance, raw stuff, and long-term upside the 25-year-old right-hander deserves to be in the rotation.

May was a mess in his first few starts as a rookie, but in his last 25 games dating back to August he's thrown 121 innings with 113 strikeouts and 27 walks. He still has plenty to work on, but May has seemingly solved his control problems in the minors without sacrificing velocity or strikeouts and only needs more patience from the Twins to establish himself as a solid mid-rotation starter three years after they acquired him from the Phillies for Ben Revere.

Tommy Milone: .243/.304/.382 in 276 plate appearances

When the Twins acquired Tommy Milone from the A's in exchange for Sam Fuld last July he was an established mid-rotation starter with a 3.83 ERA in nearly 500 career innings. They never saw that pitcher, as Milone allowed 21 runs in 22 innings before being shut down with a benign tumor in his neck that required surgery. He came into this season with a clean bill of health and secured a spot in the rotation, but was demoted to Triple-A in late April.

Milone toyed with Triple-A hitters, going 4-0 with a 0.70 ERA and 47/3 K/BB ratio in five starts before the Twins brought him back to replace the injured Nolasco. He predictably hasn't been able to continue racking up strikeouts since returning, but Milone posted a 1.84 ERA and 33/12 K/BB ratio in 44 innings during his final seven starts. He'll come back down to earth at some point, but Milone has been out-performing his modest raw stuff for five seasons now. He's a solid pitcher.

J.R. Graham: .265/.324/.445 in 171 plate appearances

J.R. Graham has been an ideal Rule 5 pick, showing long-term upside with a mid-90s fastball and proving useful in the short term when spotted in low-leverage situations. Sixteen pitchers have 10 or more innings for the Twins this year and Graham is the only one with an average fastball above 95 mph. Home runs have been an issue and Graham's command comes and goes, but remove one disastrous May 14 outing from his season totals and he has a 1.85 ERA in 39 innings.

Blaine Boyer: .262/.315/.416 in 164 plate appearances

Who leads the AL in relief appearances? Blaine Boyer, obviously. He came into this season as a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 career ERA and his current secondary numbers are actually worse than his career marks, including just 18 strikeouts in 39 innings. And yet Boyer has a 2.75 ERA while spending much of the season as the Twins' primary setup man, refusing to implode. It hasn't been all smoke and mirrors, but it's been a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Ricky Nolasco: .324/.369/.441 in 149 plate appearances

For the second straight season Ricky Nolasco has been injured and ineffective. This time he made just seven starts, going on the disabled list with an elbow injury in April and an ankle injury in June. After a month of unsuccessful rehab Nolasco underwent ankle surgery that seems likely to end his season, so he'll have a 5.40 ERA in 192 innings halfway through a four-year, $49 million contract. What a disaster.

Glen Perkins: .188/.217/.246 in 143 plate appearances

Already one of the three best closers in Twins history, Glen Perkins set a new team record by converting 28-of-28 save chances in the first half. He also had a 1.21 ERA and 36/5 K/BB ratio in 37 innings while holding opponents to a .188 batting average. Perkins has merged plus raw stuff, impeccable command, and an analytical approach to get extraordinary results in the ninth inning at a time when the rest of the bullpen has often been shaky.

Aaron Thompson: .264/.319/.364 in 137 plate appearances

Aaron Thompson's deal with the devil lasted about six weeks, during which time the 28-year-old journeyman moved up the bullpen hierarchy to earn manager Paul Molitor's trust in a setup role. And then he turned back into a pumpkin, initially being relegated to left-handed specialist duties and then being demoted to Triple-A. Ryan O'Rourke replaced him in the bullpen, but Thompson remains on the 40-man roster and could return in a middle relief role.

Ryan Pressly: .257/.331/.314 in 119 plate appearances

Ryan Pressly was a Rule 5 pick in 2013 and, much like Graham currently, was useful in the short term while showing some long-term upside with a mid-90s fastball. Two years later he has a 3.46 ERA in 133 total innings for the Twins, making up for poor strikeout and walk rates by allowing just eight homers in 556 plate appearances. Unfortunately now Pressly is sidelined by a strained lat muscle.

Casey Fien: .250/.270/.429 in 116 plate appearances

After a three-season run as a quality setup man Casey Fien just hasn't been the same this year while struggling with some arm problems. He put together a couple of good stretches, but even during that success there were obvious red flags. Fien's velocity has been normal for the most part, but compared to 2012-2014 he's lost nearly half of his strikeouts and generated one-third fewer swinging strikes. That's a particularly bad combination for a fly-ball pitcher.


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.

April 15, 2015

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

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

April 3, 2015

Season preview: Are the Twins ready to stop losing?

Paul Molitor

Nearly everyone involved with the Twins, from players and new manager Paul Molitor to general manager Terry Ryan and owner Jim Pohlad, seems convinced the team is poised to take a big step forward. Nearly everyone not involved with the Twins, from national writers and Las Vegas oddsmakers to numbers-driven projection systems and cranky local bloggers, seems convinced the team is headed for another last-place finish and possibly a fifth straight 90-loss season.

Sports Illustrated picks the Twins for last place and 67 wins. ESPN.com picks the Twins for last place and 68 wins. Baseball Prospectus projects the Twins for last place and 71 wins. Bovada sets the Twins' over/under win total at 72.5. FanGraphs projects the Twins for last place and 74 wins. Grantland picks the Twins for last place and "under 75 wins." CBS Sports picks the Twins for last place. Yahoo Sports picks the Twins for last place. You get the idea.

Last year the Twins were 72-90. Then they fired Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager, handed out the largest free agent contract in team history to 32-year-old Ervin Santana at $55 million over four years, brought back Torii Hunter for a $10.5 million reunion at age 39, signed 33-year-old reliever Tim Stauffer for $2.2 million, and bypassed young talent in favor of veteran mediocrity for every roster spot up for grabs in spring training.

Those are all the moves of an organization that's sick of losing and also sick of their plummeting fan morale and season ticket sales. They spent big on veterans and further delayed the arrival of prospects, leading to an Opening Day roster with just four players who're 25 years old or younger in shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, designated hitter Kennys Vargas, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham.

This is a rebuilding team in the sense that the Twins have been very bad and are still attempting to get back on track, but it's anything but a young team. Kyle Gibson is the youngest member of the starting rotation at 27. Graham is the only member of the seven-reliever bullpen under 30. Six of the nine starting position players are at least 28. In terms of their collective average ages, the rotation is 30, the bullpen is 31, and the lineup is 29.

When the reality of the Twins' organizational collapse finally sunk in around mid-2012 or so the idea was that they'd be back to contending by now, but injuries ruined those plans. Joe Mauer's concussion derailed his career and turned him from a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher to a mediocre first baseman. Instead of making their MLB debuts Miguel Sano missed all of last year following elbow surgery and Byron Buxton missed all but 31 games with a wrist injury and a concussion.

Buxton and Sano will begin this season as teammates at Double-A, the Twins sent 25-year-old pitching prospects Alex Meyer, Trevor May, and Michael Tonkin back to Triple-A rather than trust them with roster spots that went to Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, and Blaine Boyer, and after back-to-back Opening Day starts in center field Aaron Hicks is back in Rochester too. Toss in Arcia's development stagnating a bit and it's easy to see where the rebuild sputtered.

The good news is Buxton and Sano remain superstar-caliber prospects, Meyer and May still have enough upside to project as impact pitchers in some role, and there's another wave of prospects coming soon led by Jose Berrios, Jorge Polanco, and Nick Burdi. The bad news is none of that figures to actually help the Twins win many games before the All-Star break. Sadly, being a Twins fan in 2015 is still more about waiting for help to arrive than watching it play at Target Field.

Brian Dozier; Danny Santana

There's a lot of optimism surrounding the Twins' offense after the lineup produced the fifth-most runs in the American League last season, but building on or even duplicating that performance is hardly a sure thing. For starters, Santana was the only hitter on the team to crack an .800 OPS last season, coming out of nowhere to hit .319/.353/.473 as a rookie after batting .273/.314/.388 in the minors while failing to top a .725 OPS at Single-A, Double-A, or Triple-A.

Santana is good enough, young enough, and skilled enough to buy into reevaluating his upside compared to what his minor-league track record suggested, but his rookie success was still driven by an unsustainable .405 batting average on balls in play and came despite an ugly 98/19 K/BB ratio. The combination of a so-so track record, poor plate discipline, and a high batting average on balls in play makes him a prime regression candidate.

Brian Dozier also needs to fight his track record to show his 2014 was for real, albeit to a lesser extent than Santana. He was the Twins' best all-around position player, hitting .245/.345/.416 with 23 homers, 21 steals, 89 walks, and solid defense to rank among the top half-dozen second basemen in MLB. Clearly the Twins buy into Dozier's age-27 breakout, but prior to 2014 he hit just .240/.297/.384 in the majors and .232/.286/.337 at Triple-A.

Kurt Suzuki was another source of unexpectedly strong offense, hitting .288/.345/.383 to make his first All-Star team at age 30. As with Dozier the Twins bought into his resurgence with a new contract, but Suzuki hit .253/.313/.362 in the second half to resemble his measly .237/.294/.357 line from 2010-2013. Jordan Schafer's track record strongly suggests he'll be unable to repeat his 41-game Twins showing and Hunter is fighting father time at age 39.

All of which isn't to say the lineup lacks the ability to improve in spots. Mauer getting back to his usual self would be huge and he hit .300 with a .400 on-base percentage in his final 55 games. Arcia should take a step forward at age 24 and is capable of breaking out with a better approach. But for the most part more hitters are likely to decline than improve, some by wide margins. Of course, Buxton and Sano showing up in May or June ready to thrive could change everything.

Then there's defense, which has played an overlooked part in the Twins' struggles as the focus tends to be on the "pitching" rather than the run prevention of pitching plus defense. Combined from 2011-2014 the Twins ranked 28th in Ultimate Zone Rating at 90 runs below average and 24th in Defensive Runs Saved at 115 runs below average. They've been horrendous, especially in the outfield, which is doubly bad combined with fly-ball, strikeout-phobic pitching staffs.

Infield defense may not be bad because Dozier is solid at second base, Santana has the skills to be a plus shortstop, Trevor Plouffe showed big improvement at third base, and Mauer is fine at first base. However, the outfield is guaranteed to be a major weakness again. Arcia and Hunter were two of MLB's worst defensive corner outfielders last year and it's asking a lot of Schafer (or Hicks) to cover up their mess when he's actually gotten below average marks in center field.

Phil Hughes Twins

Last offseason the Twins gave a four-year, $49 million deal to Ricky Nolasco and a three-year, $24 million contract to Phil Hughes, and this offseason they took the uncharacteristic pursuit of free agent pitching even further by signing Santana for $55 million. Hughes got three years and $42 million tacked on to his previous deal following a breakout 2014 season and the Twins have Pelfrey and Milone under contract for a combined $8.5 million in 2015.

That's a lot of resources devoted to veteran starters and there's also a hidden cost that comes with having pitchers with guaranteed salaries locked into rotation spots that might otherwise be handed over to prospects. Hughes is signed through 2019, Santana is signed through 2018, Nolasco is signed through 2017, and even though Pelfrey and Milone aren't signed beyond this season the Twins were still hesitant to push them aside.

Hughes was a tremendous find on what was a very reasonable free agent contract that the Twins turned into a much bigger commitment. He logged 210 innings and pitched even better than his solid 3.52 ERA, striking out 186 and walking 16 for the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. Asking for a repeat of that performance is wishful thinking, but Hughes seemed like a truly different pitcher last season and enters this year as a clear-cut No. 1 starter.

Santana was signed to take over the No. 2 spot and what he lacks in upside he makes up for in durability, although he's probably more of a No. 3 starter on a contending team. Nolasco looked like a No. 3 starter when the Twins gave him $49 million last offseason, but then pitched horribly for several months before revealing he was hurt and is now a question mark the Twins no doubt regret signing.

Gibson is the lone homegrown pitcher in the rotation and the former top prospect finally broke through last season to throw 179 innings in 31 starts. He was wildly inconsistent, but the end result was a 4.47 ERA in a league where the average starter was below 4.00. Inducing lots of ground balls helps Gibson make up for a lack of missed bats, but at age 27 and with just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings his upside looks limited to the back of the rotation.

Milone beat out Pelfrey and May for the fifth spot and the soft-tossing left-hander will try to show that his awful post-trade performance for the Twins was due to a benign tumor in his neck that required surgery. Milone was a solid back-of-the-rotation starter for the A's, but Oakland's pitcher-friendly ballpark overstated his effectiveness and helped compensate for a mid-80s fastball. He has a 4.80 career ERA in non-Oakland ballparks.

If the goal was to put together a rotation less likely to be a disaster than the 2011-2014 versions the Twins absolutely accomplished that, but the price tags indicate they have much higher hopes and that may be pushing things. This is the worst rotation in the AL Central even if it's assumed Hughes will avoid turning back into a pumpkin and there isn't much upside unless Meyer and/or May hit the ground running soon. And compared to the bullpen the rotation is a strength.

Glen Perkins was one of the elite relievers in baseball for 3.5 seasons before melting down late last year while pitching through an injury. The bullpen desperately needs him to be his pre-injury self or things could get very ugly. Casey Fien is the primary setup man. Brian Duensing, who was a non-tender candidate, is the only lefty. Stauffer and Boyer have prominent roles and the Twins are hoping Pelfrey's one-pitch arsenal fits better in relief. It's an underwhelming group.


This should be the least-awful Twins team since 2010, but that's not saying much and confidence in even that mild statement dropped when they stacked the roster with Pelfrey, Milone, Duensing, Boyer, Schafer, Stauffer, Shane Robinson, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez. That's a lot of self-imposed dreck for a team with better, younger options and there's a depressingly strong chance the same "are the Twins ready to stop losing?" question can be asked 365 days from now.

March 31, 2015

Opening Day roster takes shape as Twins choose veterans over upside

aaron hicks september1

Some were expected and some were unexpected, but all of the Twins' slew of roster moves skew toward veteran mediocrity. Jordan Schafer is the starting center fielder and Shane Robinson is his backup, with both Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario sent to Triple-A. Tommy Milone is the fifth starter, Mike Pelfrey stays on the roster as a reliever, and Blaine Boyer also has a bullpen spot, with Trevor May, Alex Meyer, and Michael Tonkin all sent back at Triple-A.

When viewed individually the moves have reasonable explanations, but collectively they signal that despite the switch from Ron Gardenhire to Paul Molitor the Twins still fetishize age and experience even when it comes attached to poor performances and nonexistent upside. This is a team projected to finish in last place following four straight 90-loss seasons and they're still doing whatever they can to delay fully turning the keys over to the prospects they've been stockpiling.

Two years ago the Twins traded away Denard Span and Ben Revere in the same offseason and handed Hicks the center field job at age 23 and with zero experience at Triple-A. He'd played very well that spring to help convince them it was the right move, but flopped once the games counted and was one of the worst rookies in Twins history. Last season, following another strong spring performance, the Twins handed Hicks the center field job again and he again struggled.

This time around it seemed like Hicks had the inside track on a third crack at the Opening Day gig, in part because Molitor seemed at least a little bit less fed up with Hicks than Gardenhire had been and in part because the alternatives were lacking. But when Hicks hit .206 this spring and failed to make some plays defensively they decided not to bother, demoting him back to Rochester while splitting center field between a 28-year-old waiver claim and a 30-year-old minor-league signing.

Schafer will get the bulk of the starts in center field after playing well in 41 games last year when the Twins claimed him off waivers from the Braves. Matching that .285/.345/.362 line while stealing bases and playing decent defense would make Schafer a solid regular, but the problem is that there's nothing in his track record to suggest he's anywhere near that capable offensively and his defensive numbers are sub par in center field.

Schafer has 1,400 plate appearances in the majors and has hit .229/.311/.310 with 360 strikeouts and 142 walks. And he was even worse at Triple-A, hitting .225/.278/.294 with 95 strikeouts and 35 walks in 120 games. He's been particularly helpless against left-handed pitching, hitting .167 off them as a big leaguer. If you're going to play Schafer regularly it should be only versus right-handed pitching, so in theory a platoon with the right-handed-hitting Robinson makes sense.

Robinson can't hit either, unfortunately. He's a .231/.303/.308 hitter in 452 plate appearances in the majors and a .266/.331/.377 hitter in 1,130 plate appearances at Triple-A. Spotting him only versus lefties would help Robinson in the same way that, say, only eating McDonald's twice a week would help a diet. If you're going to use Schafer and Robinson a righty/lefty platoon makes sense, but it's still probably going to be a really bad platoon.

Hicks' remaining window of opportunity with the Twins was narrow to begin with because they've got the best outfield prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton, starting the year at Double-A, but the Twins couldn't even stand to let Hicks keep the position warm until Buxton is ready. That doesn't mean Hicks is a totally lost cause any more than handing him the Opening Day job in 2013 (or 2014) meant he was totally ready to thrive, but it does mean he might be done in Minnesota.

As more and more people jump on the "Hicks just can't hit MLB pitching" bandwagon, it's worth noting that he already has hit MLB pitching as long as it's left-handed. Hicks has a .758 career OPS off lefties, which is higher than, among others, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. And the switch-hitter had similar splits in the minors. If there's any role for which Hicks is actually suited it's platooning against lefties, but instead the Twins will use Robinson in that same role.

For all the talk of Rosario having an impressive spring training he ended up hitting .233/.227/.442 with nine strikeouts and zero walks in 17 games. Spring training numbers aren't worth much and there's certainly plenty he could have done outside of actual games to impress the Twins' coaches, but when your batting average is higher than your on-base percentage and your strikeout-to-walk ratio is infinity that suggests there's some more development needed.

Rosario also struggled at Double-A last season, missing the first 50 games while suspended for marijuana and then hitting just .237/.277/.396 with a 68/17 K/BB ratio in 79 games. Perhaps the spring hype surrounding Rosario was mostly driven by the team's lack of faith in Hicks and their hope that Rosario would step forward as an alternative. Instead they saw what his track record shows, which is a talented 23-year-old with lots of rough edges and zero high-minors success.

Tommy Milone Twins

Milone was horrible for the Twins after they acquired him from the A's for Sam Fuld on July 31, but it was revealed later that he was pitching hurt and needed surgery to remove a benign tumor from his neck. Prior to the trade Milone was a solid back-of-the-rotation starter, albeit one with mid-80s velocity and little upside. He's still relatively young at 28 and still relatively cheap at $3 million, but the Twins have younger, cheaper, higher-upside options in May or Meyer.

Pelfrey made it clear that he's upset about being moved to the bullpen, saying the Twins never intended to make the fifth starter competition a fair fight. He might be right, but certainly there was no bias against Pelfrey when the Twins signed him for $5 million and then re-signed him for $11 million. He's given them plenty of reason for bias during the past two seasons by going 5-16 with a 5.56 ERA and getting hurt.

Pelfrey is a 31-year-old former top-10 draft pick who's spent a decade in the majors without ever making more than two relief appearances in a season, so it's easy to see why he'd be against the idea of full-time bullpen work. However, given his lack of success as a starter, durability concerns following multiple injuries, and career-long inability to develop useful secondary pitches to pair with a hard fastball relief work may suit him best. Or at least less bad.

He throws basically one pitch and that tends not to cut it as a starter, which is why Pelfrey has a 4.56 career ERA with 5.2 strikeouts per nine innings. However, being a one-pitch pitcher can be much less of an issue when you're only working an inning at a time and if Pelfrey can follow in the footsteps of many starters-turned-relievers by adding 2-3 miles per hour to his fastball the Twins might have something. Or he might just be a bad pitcher. You know, Occam's razor and all.

May is 25 years old with 400 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, and amid an awful overall debut he posted a 41/9 K/BB ratio in his final 37 innings. Meyer is also 25 and started 27 games at Triple-A last season, leading the league in strikeouts. Neither is a can't-miss prospects by any means, but they've pitched well in the minors, throw hard while generating strikeouts, and unlike Milone or Pelfrey might actually be part of the next good Twins team.

Tonkin and his mid-90s fastball are going back to Triple-A for a third straight season at age 25 despite being good there with a 3.48 ERA and 82/20 K/BB ratio in 78 innings and being good for the Twins when given a chance with a 3.26 ERA and 26/9 K/BB ratio in 30 innings. They opted to keep Boyer, a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 ERA, poor control, and just 191 strikeouts in 274 innings who was signed to a minor-league deal in January.

Spring training presented the Twins with plenty of opportunities to fill the margins of the roster with younger, unproven, higher-upside players, many of whom already have significant Triple-A experience. May and Meyer were viable fifth starter and long reliever options. Hicks and Rosario each could have started or platooned in center field. Tonkin could have taken his first extended shot at a setup role and there were also several other intriguing bullpen candidates.

Instead they'll all keep waiting, often in Rochester for a second or third go-around, in favor of proven veteran mediocrity like Pelfrey, Milone, Schafer, Eduardo Nunez, Boyer, and Robinson. Barring last-minute changes the Opening Day roster will include a grand total of just four players who're 25 years old or younger: Designated hitter Kennys Vargas, shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. Twins will have to keep waiting too.


For a lengthy--and surprisingly heated--discussion of the Twins' roster decisions, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

February 6, 2015

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2015: 35, 34, 33, 32, 31

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 36-40.

35. J.R. Graham | Starter | DOB: 1/90 | Throws: Right | Rule 5: Braves

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     A+     17     17     2.63     102.2      88      6      68     17
         AA      9      9     3.18      45.1      35      2      42     17
2013     AA      8      8     4.04      35.2      39      0      28     10
2014     AA     27     19     5.55      71.1      79      2      50     26

Selected by the Twins in the Rule 5 draft, J.R. Graham is a one-time top prospect whose career has been derailed by shoulder problems. Graham was the Braves' fourth-round draft pick in 2011 out of Santa Clara and moved quickly through their system, advancing to Double-A in his second pro season. He fared well there at age 22 and that offseason Baseball America ranked Graham as a top-100 prospect, praising his mid-90s fastball and ability to generate ground balls.

However, the diminutive right-hander broke down in 2013, making just eight starts, and last year Graham posted a 5.55 ERA while being limited to 71 innings back at Double-A due to more arm issues. Once on the fast track, Graham is now 25 years old and has yet to advance past Double-A, spending three years there with increasingly poor results. His fastball has dipped into the low-90s and the Braves thought so little of Graham's upside that they left him off the 40-man roster.

Rule 5 picks must remain in the majors for the entire season or be offered back to their original team. Graham has been a starter throughout his career, but shifted to the bullpen last year and could be stashed by the Twins in a middle relief role pretty easily. They did that with Rule 5 pick Ryan Pressly in 2013, giving him 49 low-leverage appearances, and shifting to the bullpen full time could help Graham stay healthy too.

34. Ryan Eades | Starter | DOB: 12/91 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2013-2

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2013     RK+    10      0     4.60      15.2      13      0      13     12
2014     A-     26     25     5.14     133.0     147     11      98     50

Ryan Eades was the Twins' second-round draft pick in 2013, selected 43rd overall, and the right-hander from LSU signed for $1.3 million. Yet from the moment he was drafted no one seemed to think much of Eades as a prospect. Quotes about him from team employees were tepid, Baseball America didn't include him in their annual top-10 Twins prospects list which often includes top-50 picks from the previous year, and in general he seemed like an afterthought.

It was odd, because Eades was widely viewed as a top-50 talent within the 2013 draft class and while second-round picks are far from guaranteed to succeed teams don't generally throw them away on players they view as marginal prospects. But sure enough he struggled last year in his full-season pro debut, posting a 5.14 ERA in 133 innings as a 22-year-old at low Single-A facing younger, less experienced competition.

Eades struck out just 6.6 batters per nine innings with poor control and allowed opponents to hit .285 with an .800 OPS against him in a pitcher-friendly league where the average OPS was below .700. Less than two years ago Baseball America wrote that Eades "looked the part of a front-line starter" and the cost for the Twins to acquire him was a top-50 draft pick and $1.3 million, but 150 innings later he looks in danger of being a completely wasted selection.

33. Tanner English | Center Field | DOB: 3/93 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2014-11

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2014     RK+    141     .316     .439     .474      3     10     18     27

Tanner English didn't hit much in college, batting .289 with two homers in three years at South Carolina, but the Twins liked his defense, speed, and athleticism enough to draft him in the 11th round. And then he batted .316/.439/.474 in his pro debut at rookie-level Elizabethton, surpassing his 185-game college total with three homers in 32 games and also showing more plate discipline than he displayed against SEC pitching.

College players thriving in rookie-ball isn't really noteworthy, but in this case it stands out a little more than usual because English is good enough defensively in center field that he could make it to the big leagues without hitting much. In their pre-draft scouting report Baseball America called English "one of the better athletes in the college game" and noted that "some evaluators think he could handle center field in the big leagues right now."

English has elite center field range with a very strong arm, and between college and rookie-ball he stole 26 bases in 94 games while being caught just four times last season. If he hits even a little bit English will be a major leaguer, so rookie-ball or not his early showing was worth getting excited about. We should have a much better idea of his overall prospect status after he faces full-season competition for the first time at Single-A this year.

32. Sam Clay | Reliever | DOB: 7/93 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2014-4

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2014     RK+    19      0     5.59      29.0      35      0      44     17

As has become their custom of late the Twins went heavy on college relievers in last year's draft, including Georgia Tech sophomore Sam Clay in the fourth round. Clay had a sparkling 1.26 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 57 innings as a college closer, but the lefty walked 4.6 per nine innings after being a mess as a freshman. He averaged nearly two innings per relief appearance and Baseball America's pre-draft scouting report noted that he "could move into the rotation as a pro."

Clay stayed in the bullpen after signing with the Twins for $400,000 and was awful early on for rookie-level Elizabethton, but finished his pro debut with 16 straight scoreless innings. Even that great stretch lowered his overall ERA to a still-ugly 5.59 and Clay walked 17 batters and uncorked 10 wild pitches in 29 innings while allowing opponents to hit .285. College closers aren't supposed to pitch like that against rookie-ball hitters.

On the other hand, the 16-inning scoreless streak suggests the coaching staff got Clay to address some mechanical issues and within the overall problems he whiffed 44 of the 144 batters he faced for an average of 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Clay also allowed zero home runs, so he was hardly being knocked around. He works in the low-90s with his fastball and his curveball gets the most positive reviews. If they can get him to throw strikes the Twins might have something here.

31. Tyler Duffey | Starter | DOB: 12/90 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2012-5

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     RK+    12      0     1.42      19.0      10      1      27      2
2013     A-      9      9     2.78      58.1      49      5      47      6
         A+     15      9     4.45      62.2      67      3      44     17
2014     A+      4      4     2.82      22.1      22      0      13      5
         AA     18     18     3.80     111.1     104     14      84     19
         AAA     3      3     3.94      16.0      16      3      16      6

Rice University had co-closers in 2012 and the Twins drafted both of them, taking J.T. Chargois in the second round and Tyler Duffey in the fifth round. Chargois stayed in the bullpen and is currently making his way back from Tommy John elbow surgery, whereas Duffey shifted to the rotation and reached Triple-A last season at age 23. He pitched for Fort Myers, New Britain, and Rochester last year, making 25 total starts with a 13-3 record and 3.68 ERA.

Duffey has shown excellent control as a pro, walking just 1.7 batters per nine innings, but he's struggled to generate strikeouts. In fact, he barely has more strikeouts (196) in 259 innings as a pro starter than he had (189) in 153 innings as a college reliever. Duffey shut down right-handed hitters last season, but allowed an OPS that was 200 points higher versus lefties, suggesting that his off-speed stuff needs some work.

Duffey's low-90s fastball also limits his upside, but the Twins certainly value starters who pound the strike zone with mediocre raw stuff and occasionally those guys have decent runs of success. Going heavy on college relievers in the 2012 draft with plans to turn them into pro starters has been a bust for the Twins thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, but Duffey has stayed healthy and shown the potential to contribute in the back of a rotation.


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