June 30, 2015

Byron Buxton and the curse of the elite Twins prospect

Byron Buxton Twins injury

Byron Buxton is expected to miss six weeks after suffering a sprained thumb in his 10th game for the Twins, knocking out the team's best prospect less than two weeks into his MLB career and right when he'd gotten back on the track to stardom following an injury wrecked 2014. Buxton had a trio of significant health problems last year, missing three months with a wrist injury, suffering a season-ending concussion in August, and skipping the Arizona Fall League with a broken finger.

Now he's sidelined by a fourth injury at age 21, which is a shame because it robs Buxton of crucial development time and each physical problem also potentially lowers his upside by putting dents in his immense physical tools. Unfortunately that's nothing new for Twins prospects and in fact it has become the standard fate for the crown jewels of their farm system. Based on Baseball America's annual top-100 prospect rankings, here are the best Twins prospects since 2000:

1. Joe Mauer
2. Byron Buxton
3. Francisco Liriano
4. Justin Morneau
5. Miguel Sano
6. Michael Cuddyer
7. Jason Kubel

You can certainly quibble with the exact order--I went into more detail here--but those are the only seven Twins prospects to be ranked among MLB's overall top 20 at some point since 2000. Six of those seven prospects suffered significant injuries before reaching their peaks and five of those seven prospects suffered significant injuries in the minors or in their rookie years with the Twins. In other words, nearly every elite Twins prospect since 2000 arrived as damaged goods.

Mauer tore the medial meniscus in his left knee while chasing after a foul ball in the second game of his Twins career, undergoing surgery the week before his 21st birthday and missing all but 35 games of his rookie season. Liriano made the All-Star team at age 22 and was having one of the most dominant rookie seasons ever by a pitcher when his elbow gave out, requiring Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entire next season.

Morneau made it to the Twins and reached his peak unscathed only to suffer a concussion in the middle of his age-29 season. At the time he was hitting .345 with a 1.055 OPS through 81 games, but he didn't play again that season, missed most of the next year, and has never been the same. Sano appeared to be on the verge of the majors last spring when he was shut down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss all of last season at age 21.

Kubel hit .352 with power and speed between Double-A and Triple-A at age 22 and then hit .300 in his 23-game debut with the Twins that September, but he suffered a career-threatening knee injury during a gruesome outfield collision in the Arizona Fall League and missed the entire next season before returning as a much different, more limited player. And now Buxton is out for six weeks with a thumb injury after being sidelined by wrist, finger, and brain injuries last season.

Injuries are obviously a part of baseball for all teams, but six of the Twins' seven elite prospects since 2000 suffering major injuries was franchise-altering. Liriano and Kubel were pretty clearly never the same following their injuries at age 22, it's possible that Mauer never truly reached his full potential playing an entire career with a surgically repaired knee, and Morneau was derailed by a brain injury at his absolute peak and never fully got back on track.

Sano is currently playing well at Double-A, but he's also repeating the level after a lost season, the injury lessens his odds of sticking at third base, and at the very least elbow surgery delayed his arrival to Minnesota. Similarly, four injuries in 18 months has stalled Buxton's development and the Twins can only hope that it won't keep him from ultimately reaching his peak or lower his upside whenever he does get there. It's a fate they've seen far too often with elite prospects.


For a lot more about Buxton's injury and the domino effect it has on the Twins' roster, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

June 12, 2015

What happened to Joe Mauer?

Joe Mauer Twins

Joe Mauer's accomplishments as a catcher through age 30 are nearly unmatched in the history of baseball. As a 23-year-old he became the first AL catcher to win a batting title, the first catcher in either league to win a batting title in six decades, and the first catcher in MLB history to lead all of baseball in batting average. As a 25-year-old he won another batting title and as a 26-year-old he became the first catcher in baseball history to win three batting titles.

In that age-26 season he hit .365 with a .444 on-base percentage and .587 slugging percentage on the way to being named MVP. He was the first catcher in baseball history to lead the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage--the sabermetric triple crown--and his .365 batting average was the highest by any catcher since 1901. Mauer also made three other strong runs at batting titles, finishing third at age 27, fourth at age 29, and second at age 30.

Overall from debuting as a 21-year-old in 2004 through his age-30 season in 2013 he totaled one MVP award, three batting titles, three Gold Glove awards, five Silver Slugger awards, and six trips to the All-Star game while hitting .323 with a .405 OBP and .468 SLG, logging 8,000 innings at catcher, and throwing out 33 percent of stolen base attempts. Add it all up and Mauer produced the fifth-most Wins Above Replacement by any catcher in MLB history through age 30:

CATCHER             WAR
Johnny Bench       63.9
Gary Carter        55.5
Ivan Rodriguez     50.4
Ted Simmons        44.8
JOE MAUER          44.2
Mike Piazza        41.5
Mickey Cochrane    40.7

Unfortunately he's no longer a catcher, being forced to move out from behind the plate following an August 19, 2013 concussion that ended his 2013 season and left him with symptoms months into the offseason. Mauer was given a clean bill of health for 2014 and switched positions, going from one end of the defensive spectrum to the other, but now he's a 32-year-old first baseman who looks like a shell of his former self.

Mauer got off to a slow start last season, which is never unexpected for a player returning from a season-ending brain injury. When he started doing his usual .300-hitting, walk-drawing thing in June--and for the most part kept that up through the rest of the season despite being interrupted by a strained oblique muscle--it looked like Mauer was fully recovered from the concussion and ready to resume being an on-base machine in 2015.

Optimism was further fueled by reports of Mauer working with hitting coach Tom Brunansky to be more aggressive at the plate and pull more pitches in an effort to unearth more power. There were some signs of progress early on this season, as Mauer turned on pitches and lined balls into right field and right-center field more often than he did previously, but his overall production has fallen even further from his underwhelming 2014 production.

Mauer was having a typical Mauer season at the time of the concussion, hitting .324 with a .404 OBP and .476 SLG compared to his nearly identical .323/.405/.468 career mark from 2004-2012. He has not been the same hitter since, whether due to the lingering effects of a brain injury or to the normal effects of aging, the latter of which are often more rapid for longtime catchers. Mauer has hit .272 with a .348 OBP and .366 SLG in 178 games since the concussion.

                  AVG    OBP    SLG    SO%    BB%    ISO
Pre-concussion   .323   .405   .468   11.2   12.2   .146
Post-concussion  .272   .348   .366   17.6   10.5   .095

For a player whose hitting revolved so much around eyesight, handeye coordination, and reflexes rather than brute strength the possibility that the concussion still hurts Mauer by robbing even a fraction of those skills seems plausible. Whatever the case, the Twins now have a 32-year-old first baseman with more than $80 million remaining on his contract who has just narrowly managed to be an average all-around hitter for the past 178 games.

Mauer has always lacked power, or at least power relative to his 6-foot-5 frame and unrealistic expectations for how he might develop into a perfect, flawless player, but even his modest power has vanished. Once good for a ton of doubles and 10-15 homers per season--including 28 homers in his MVP-winning 2009 campaign--Mauer has just six homers in 178 games since the beginning of 2014.

Isolated power is a statistic that subtracts batting average from slugging percentage to show how much raw power is present. Mauer's isolated power since the concussion is .095. By comparison, his isolated power from 2004-2013 was .146 and dipped below .115 just once. He has essentially lost half of his power since the concussion and the result is the type of player--a punchless singles hitter--that Mauer's critics often unfairly labeled him as throughout his career.

In the past two seasons MLB hitters as a whole have an isolated power of .140 and first basemen have a collective isolated power of .185, which means Mauer has produced 31 percent less power than the average hitter and 48 percent less power than the average first baseman. To get a sense for just how rare it is for a first baseman to have such little power here's a list of the lowest career isolated power totals by regular first basemen in the past 20 years:

FIRST BASEMAN        ISO
Daric Barton        .118
Casey Kotchman      .125
James Loney         .129
Doug Mientkiewicz   .134
Conor Jackson       .136
Scott Hatteberg     .137
Sean Casey          .145

Mauer's pre-concussion isolated power of .146 would have been among the worst by regular first basemen since 1995, but his post-concussion isolated power of .095 is basically unheard of at the position. There's a subset of left-handed-hitting, slick-fielding first basemen like James Loney, Casey Kotchman, and Doug Mientkiewicz that always seems to have a couple starters across MLB each season, but even those guys typically manage an isolated power in the .130 range.

Mauer going from mediocre power to non-existent power would be somewhat easier to live with if he were still hitting .325 with tons of walks, but even that has changed. Mauer's strikeout rate was on the rise even before the concussion and since returning from the brain injury he's whiffed in 18 percent of his plate appearances compared to 11 percent from 2004-2013 and less than 10 percent in some of his best seasons.

Whereas most players sacrifice strikeouts in the name of making harder contact Mauer's batting average on balls in play this season is a career-low .302 and his .328 batting average on balls in play since returning from the concussion is 20 points below his career mark. He's putting fewer balls in play and fewer of the balls he does put in play are dropping for hits, which is a very bad combination.

After constant complaints that he's too passive at the plate--which, to be clear, always struck me as absurd for a player hitting .325 and winning multiple batting titles--Mauer has indeed become more aggressive. He's swung at 44 percent of pitches this season after never cracking 40 percent in a season previously, which includes career-highs in swings on pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone.

Mauer has pulled 31 percent of the balls he's put in play this season, compared 27 percent for his career. However, his rate of "hard hit" balls is 27 percent, which is the second-lowest mark of his career. His rate of "soft hit" balls is 16 percent, which is the second-highest mark of his career. He's tried to change his approach, both in terms of being more aggressive and pulling more balls in the air, but it's not clear that the net result to those changes in a positive one.

Joe Mauer Twins

Basically everything about Mauer's hitting has gotten worse since he suffered the concussion. He's striking out more and walking less. He's swinging through more pitches and hitting pitches softer when he does make contact. Pitchers are also throwing him more strikes, in general, which is to be expected at some point when the league starts to grasp that the .325 hitter has now been a .275 hitter for 18 months.

The only saving grace, at least so far this season, is that Mauer has been incredible with runners in scoring position and in high-leverage situations. That's actually nothing new, but the difference now is that Mauer has thrived in those spots while not being good in other spots. He's hitting .432 in high-leverage situations and .397 with runners in scoring position, which is how he's on pace for nearly 100 RBIs and leads the Twins in Win Probability Added despite just two homers.

It seems clear that the combination of a normal aging curve plus logging 8,000 innings behind the plate through age 30 and multiple significant injuries, chief among them a concussion in August of 2013, has led to Mauer being a shell of his former self at age 32. Because he's a great athlete with amazing hand-eye coordination who ranked as one of the best all-around players in baseball for a decade he's still able to be a reasonably productive player in his diminished state.

However, the shift from catcher to first base was going to take a big chunk of his value away even if his offensive performance stayed constant and instead it has deteriorated rapidly. Perhaps he'll have a resurgence like former Twins teammate Justin Morneau and other prominent hitters have had several years after being derailed by a concussion, but in the meantime he ranks as a below-average player at his position after a decade of ranking as the best player at his position.

The hope with Mauer's move to first base was that getting out from behind the plate would help him stay healthier and more durable, enabling him to up his production enough to be one of MLB's better-hitting first basemen in the Joey Votto mold. Short of that, a reasonable expectation was that Mauer's hitting would remain unchanged from his catching days, turning him into a very good but not spectacular offensive first baseman in the John Olerud mold.

Instead it's been a worst-case scenario. He's hitting worse than ever at a position with the highest bar offensively, derailing Mauer so far off course from a Hall of Fame path at catcher that he fits into the Mientkiewicz/Loney mold at first base. It's a sad change and one that's been difficult for everyone to wrap their heads around, but based on the information we have about Mauer since his concussion the odds of him returning to the 2004-2013 version seem slimmer by the day.

It's important to remember that Mauer struggling after age 30 doesn't take away from what he accomplished through age 30. He was a truly elite catcher, a .325-hitting on-base machine with a strong arm who ranked as one of the best handful of players at his position in baseball history. At the same time, Mauer being a Hall of Fame-caliber player through age 30 doesn't change the fact that he now needs significant improvement simply to be an above-average player at age 32.

April 27, 2015

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

Joe Mauer beard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

April 22, 2015

The art of platooning: Molitor vs. Gardenhire and Arcia vs. lefties

oswaldo arcia twins

Paul Molitor barely has his feet wet as Twins manager, but one noticeable change from Ron Gardenhire is the willingness to platoon. In his 13 seasons as manager Gardenhire essentially never platooned based on handedness, instead treating left-handed bats like Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel as everyday players despite their inability to handle left-handers and ignoring the potential value mediocre right-handed bats like Danny Valencia had as lefty mashers.

Molitor platooned more in his first couple weeks than Gardenhire did in some seasons, regularly benching Oswaldo Arcia and Jordan Schafer against lefties. That's a positive sign in the sense that platooning is a very straightforward, commonplace method of squeezing the most value out of non-stars and putting players in a position to succeed, but in this case the Twins constructed such a weak bench that their platoon options are pretty unappealing.

Not playing Schafer against lefties is a good idea, but Shane Robinson is such a weak overall hitter that his right-handedness barely makes a difference. Not playing Arcia against lefties is also a good idea, at least in the short term, but if the Twins still hold out any hope of him developing into an everyday player he'll need playing time versus lefties eventually and Eduardo Escobar, while better than Robinson, isn't exactly an ideal platoon-mate for a corner outfielder.

Mostly, though, it's just nice to see a manager willing to embrace a common, effective tactic after more than a decade of watching lefties flail away against left-handed pitching, potentially useful righties cast aside because they struggled in everyday roles, and batting orders remain unchanged regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitcher. And if the Twins' bench ever contains better options Molitor could do some interesting things with the lineup.

It'd be great to have nine everyday players and just trot them out in the same lineup spots no matter who was on the mound, but it's hard to find teams that wouldn't benefit from at least some platooning. Nearly every left-handed hitter in baseball history with a sizable track record has fared better against righties than lefties, often to an extreme degree. Because of that, with a lefty on the mound even good left-handed hitters are often worse than mediocre right-handed hitters.

For instance, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are MVP-winning left-handed bats and two of the best hitters in Twins history. However, looking strictly at production against left-handed pitching they both have a lower career OPS than mediocre right-handed hitters like J.J. Hardy, Delmon Young, and Trevor Plouffe. Having the platoon advantage makes a huge difference. Here are the career splits for the Twins' most-used left-handed hitters of the Gardenhire era:

CAREER OPS           vsR      vsL
Joe Mauer           .915     .749
Justin Morneau      .894     .705
Jason Kubel         .813     .676
Denard Span         .751     .726
Jacque Jones        .816     .628
Corey Koskie        .870     .707

On average those six left-handed hitters have an .843 OPS versus righties and a .699 OPS versus lefties for a collective decrease of 17 percent and everyone but Denard Span sees their OPS drop more than 125 points. Those decreases are larger than typical across MLB, but in general lefties tend to be 10-15 percent worse versus lefties. Of course, some lefty bats are good enough overall that they warrant keeping in the lineup against lefties even with the decreased production.

Put another way: Mauer's production against lefties drops 18 percent, but he's still decent with a .749 OPS. However, not many lefties are as good as Mauer overall and so most warrant benching at least semi-regularly. Gardenhire obviously didn't agree. Jones hit .230/.278/.350 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him leading off. Kubel hit .233/.305/.375 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him in the middle of the lineup. You get the idea.

It's possible that Arcia will improve versus lefties and/or become productive enough overall that he's worth playing every day and because he's still just 24 years old it's certainly worth investing some more time into finding out. More likely is that he's ultimately a platoon or quasi-platoon player, which is less a knock on Arcia specifically and more just the way things tend to go with good but not great left-handed hitters.

Considering his poor defense Arcia needs to put up big numbers to be worth having in the lineup at an offense-heavy position. So far he's hit .221/.262/.340 off lefties, which is 25 percent worse than his .249/.322/.489 line off righties. Even if Arcia gets better versus righties and turns that 25-percent drop versus lefties into, say, a 15-percent drop it shouldn't be all that hard for the Twins to find a random right-handed hitter capable of better against lefties.

Aaron Hicks, while hugely disappointing overall, has posted a .758 OPS off lefties in the majors and has always hit lefties much better than righties in the minors. Hicks may never develop into a quality regular, but he's already a quality platoon option. With a lefty on the mound he's a viable center fielder and/or better than Arcia offensively and defensively in left field. And that's the magic of platooning, which turns useless into useful by separating strengths from weaknesses.

Molitor has shown the mindset required to improve a lineup via platooning, but the Twins need to actually give him the pieces to make those moves worthwhile and a four-man bench of Robinson, Escobar, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez doesn't qualify. Still, after 13 years of learning to view hitters strictly through Gardenhire's binary "everyday player or not" lenses it's refreshing to consider how open-minded managing might take better advantage of useful but flawed options.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

April 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.

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