March 1, 2016

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2016: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Also in this series: 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

5. Nick Gordon | Shortstop | DOB: 10/95 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2014-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2014     RK+    255     .294     .333     .366      1     11     11     45
2015     A-     535     .277     .336     .360      1     31     39     88

Selected fifth overall in the 2014 draft out of a Florida high school and signed for $3.85 million, shortstop Nick Gordon followed up a solid pro debut at rookie-ball with an up-and-down first full season at low Single-A. Gordon got off to a rough start, hitting .230 in 45 games through the end of May. He played well from then on, hitting .304 in 75 games after June 1. His overall .696 OPS looks modest, but was actually above the Midwest League average of .682 as a 19-year-old.

Through two seasons Gordon has shown his natural ability with a .282 batting average, but has shown his inexperience with a 133/50 K/BB ratio and his iffy power potential with two homers in 177 games. Also of note is that Gordon grounded into 29 double plays--including a league-leading 20 last season--which is an incredibly high total for a speedy 19-year-old left-handed hitter who stole 36 bases during that same time. He's putting the ball on the ground a lot.

Simply holding his own offensively as a teenage shortstop at low Single-A is an accomplishment for Gordon, whose father Tom Gordon and brother Dee Gordon have both been All-Stars in the majors. He was named the best defensive shortstop by Midwest League managers, although some reviews wonder if he'll be able to handle the position long term or will need to shift to second base eventually like his brother did. He'll take on high Single-A this year.

4. Byung Ho Park | First Base | DOB: 7/86 | Bats: Right | Sign: Korea

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2013     KBO    556     .318     .437     .602     37     54     92     96
2014     KBO    571     .303     .433     .686     52     70     96    142
2015     KBO    622     .343     .436     .714     53     89     78    161

As a 29-year-old with two MVP awards and four home run titles in Korea he's far from a standard prospect, but Byung Ho Park is technically an MLB rookie and thus qualifies for this list. Signed to a four-year, $12 million contract after the Twins won the bidding for his exclusive negotiating rights for an additional $12.85 million, Park is slated to be the Opening Day designated hitter and occasional first baseman. And hopefully a middle-of-the-order bat.

Park's numbers in Korea were incredible, including hitting .343/.436/.714 with 53 homers in 140 games last season to top a 1.000 OPS for the third straight year. His power potential is massive and his spray chart suggests he's capable of going deep from foul pole to foul pole. Park also hit for big batting averages in Korea, but in doing so he struck out a ton and because of that it'd be tough to expect that to continue for the Twins without a change in approach.

Numbers-based projections for Park are highly encouraging, viewing him as a legit slugger who draws enough walks to offset a poor batting average, but because there are so few KBO-to-MLB or MLB-to-KBO data points on which to rely the confidence levels are low. Given the Twins' relatively modest investment Park simply being an average hitter would pay big dividends and the potential is there for him to be much more.

3. Max Kepler | Right Field | DOB: 2/93 | Bats: Left | Sign: Germany

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2013     A-     263     .237     .312     .424      9     23     24     43
2014     A+     407     .264     .333     .393      5     31     34     62
2015     AA     482     .322     .416     .531      9     54     67     63

Max Kepler's raw talent has rarely been in question since the Twins signed him out of Germany for $800,000 as a 16-year-old, but injuries and underwhelming on-field production kept him from emerging as a top prospect. That all changed in a huge way last year, as he hit .322/.416/.531 in 112 games at Double-A to lead the Southern League in OPS and be named MVP as a 22-year-old. He debuted with the Twins in late September, collecting his first career hit off Johnny Cueto.

Kepler's performance was nearly flawless. He hit .323 off righties and .318 off lefties, walked more than he struck out, went 18-of-22 stealing bases, and did all that while facing pitchers older than him 90 percent of the time. His homer total was modest, but Kepler smacked 54 extra-base hits in fewer than 500 at-bats and his solid 6-foot-4 frame should lead to more bombs. While they were Chattanooga teammates Kepler had a .947 OPS and Miguel Sano had a .918 OPS.

Kepler has been primarily a center fielder in the minors, which speaks to his athleticism, but long term he projects as a corner outfielder with plus range. If the power develops Kepler has a chance to be a star and even if he tops out at 10-15 homers per season his all-around skill set is enough to make him a very good everyday player. He'll begin this season at Triple-A and could force his way to Minnesota by the All-Star break. Kepler would be the No. 1 prospect for a lot of teams.

2. Jose Berrios | Starter | DOB: 5/94 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2012-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2013     A-     19     19     3.99     103.2     105      6     100     40
2014     A+     16     16     1.96      96.1      78      4     109     23
         AA      8      8     3.54      40.2      33      2      28     12
2015     AA     15     15     3.08      90.2      77      6      92     24
         AAA    12     12     2.62      75.2      59      6      83     14

Jose Berrios was selected by the Twins out of a Puerto Rico high school with the 30th pick in the 2012 draft--28 spots after they snagged Byron Buxton--and four years later he's on the verge of the majors. Actually, he seemed on the verge of the majors this time last year, but the Twins took an extremely conservative approach to handling Berrios by sending him back to Double-A for the first half and then citing workload limits for a lack of August or September call-up to Minnesota.

Instead of making his MLB debut Berrios logged 166 innings at Double-A and Triple-A with a 3.03 ERA and 175/38 K/BB ratio as a 21-year-old, leading all of minor-league baseball in strikeouts while facing hitters older than him in 655 of 667 plate appearances. Despite a slight frame Berrios has mid-90s velocity, plus a pair of quality off-speed pitches that allowed the right-hander to fare better versus lefties than righties in 2015.

Berrios has improved his strikeout rate, walk rate, and durability on an annual basis while moving up the organizational ladder and from both a statistical and raw stuff standpoint he shines as the best Twins pitching prospect since Matt Garza in 2006. Many teams would have called up Berrios last year, but the Twins will send him back to Triple-A for even more seasoning while delaying the start of his service time. If he's not one of the Twins' best starters by June something went wrong.

1. Byron Buxton | Center Field | DOB: 12/93 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2012-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2013     A-     321     .341     .431     .559      8     33     44     56
         A+     253     .326     .415     .472      4     16     32     49
2014     A+     134     .240     .313     .405      4     10     10     33
2015     AA     268     .283     .351     .489      6     25     26     51
         AAA     59     .400     .441     .545      1      5      4     12
         MLB    138     .209     .250     .326      2     10      6     44

Because he struggled and got injured in his MLB debut a too-large segment of Twins fans soured on Byron Buxton, but soon enough he'll make those same people impossible to find. There's no disputing that Buxton had a rough first taste of the majors and has had trouble staying healthy, making him an imperfect prospect. However, hitting .305/.367/.500 at Double-A and Triple-A as a 21-year-old center fielder with jaw-dropping speed also solidified his status as a great prospect.

Buxton's inability to control the strike zone led to an ugly 44/6 K/BB ratio with the Twins, but his plate discipline wasn't awful so much as misguided. He actually showed decent patience, but too often laid off hittable pitches only to chase two-strike junk. It's a common problem for rookies and Buxton's track record shows he's anything but an undisciplined hacker. It may take a little more time, but if Buxton controls the strike zone the rest of his skill set screams superstar.

His range is spectacular, his arm is well above average, and he's one of MLB's fastest players. All of which means he doesn't need to be an impact bat to have huge value, but Buxton might be an impact bat too. In the minors he's hit .301 with a solid walk rate and once his lanky frame fills out 20 homers per year is doable along with tons of triples. Don't let a lack of current polish fool you into thinking Buxton is anything but an elite prospect with massive all-around upside.

October 6, 2015

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

Miguel Sano Twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 1, 2015

Meet the Twins’ September call-ups

Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas Twins

September 1 roster expansion means an assortment of new and sort-of-new players added to the Twins' roster for the final month of the season. Top pitching prospect Jose Berrios remains in the minors, where he's started 26 games and thrown 161 innings this season while the Twins compete for a Wild Card spot with a shaky rotation. It's possible Berrios and others will be added later, but for now here's a look at the first wave of September call-ups:

Kennys Vargas, 24-year-old first baseman

Kennys Vargas was the Opening Day designated hitter on the strength of his 54-game rookie showing, but when he struggled the Twins demoted him to the minors. Twice, actually. First they dropped him to Triple-A and then to Double-A. He fared well at both levels, hitting .283/.414/.496 with 13 homers in 73 total games. That's actually better production than Vargas had at Double-A in 2014 when the Twins called him up the first time, but things have changed.

Miguel Sano is now the starting designated hitter and even if Sano shifts to third base in the future to open up the DH spot it's not clear the Twins view Vargas as the best candidate for the job. In the minors he's combined big-time power with good plate discipline, but Vargas swung at everything in the majors while compiling an ugly 111/19 K/BB ratio in 100 games. By comparison he drew 26 walks in just 38 games at Triple-A. Vargas can hit, but so can lots of DHs.

Danny Santana, 24-year-old shortstop

Danny Santana burst onto the scene with one of the best rookie seasons in Twins history, hitting .319/.353/.472 in 101 games while being thrust into center field as a career-long shortstop. Both his mediocre minor-league track record and underlying MLB numbers suggested it was largely a fluke performance, but Santana's regression was even steeper than expected. He was a disaster offensively and defensively, and the Twins finally demoted him to the minors for good on July 31.

Santana played well at Triple-A, hitting .322/.348/.500, but a 25/7 K/BB ratio in 35 games shows that he made little progress in controlling the strike zone after posting a ghastly 66/5 K/BB ratio in 74 games for the Twins. He has the potential to be a solid player and is still just 24 years old, but right now Santana lacks the plate discipline and defensive consistency to be a productive starting shortstop in the majors.

Michael Tonkin, 25-year-old right-hander

Michael Tonkin has spent most of the past three seasons in Rochester, consistently dominating Triple-A hitters with a 2.65 ERA and 128/25 K/BB ratio in 119 innings. During that time he's been called up by the Twins for a bunch of short stints--on several occasions 48 hours or less--and has held his own with a 4.07 ERA and 36/14 K/BB ratio in 42 innings while averaging 94 miles per hour with his fastball.

Tonkin is 25 years old with a strong minor-league track record, including three straight years of outstanding Triple-A performances. He stands 6-foot-7 and throws in the mid-90s with a sharp slider. He misses bats and throws strikes. Everything about Tonkin suggests he'd be a solid MLB reliever with late-inning upside, yet for whatever reason the Twins have refused to give him the same extended chance they've given plenty of shaky veterans during the past three seasons.

A.J. Achter, 26-year-old right-hander

A.J. Achter made his MLB debut as a September call-up last year and spent another two weeks with the Twins last month. He has a nice-looking 2.57 ERA in parts of three seasons at Triple-A, but it comes attached to a mediocre strikeout rate, sub par control, and a fastball that tops out in the low-90s. At age 26 he lacks upside, but if given an extended opportunity Achter is capable of finding some success as a middle reliever.

Eric Fryer, 29-year-old catcher

Eric Fryer spent six weeks as the Twins' backup catcher in July and August before they sent him back to Rochester in favor of Chris Herrmann. He returns now as a third catcher and had to be re-added to the 40-man roster to do so. Fryer has a good defensive reputation, but he's hit just .235/.316/.324 in 57 games as a big leaguer and .237/.328/.328 in 271 games at Triple-A. The bar for "decent backup catcher" is very low, but Fryer struggles to clear it.

(Players on the 40-man roster who have not received a September call-up yet: Max Kepler, Alex Meyer, Oswaldo Arcia, Josmil Pinto, Jorge Polanco, Aaron Thompson, Logan Darnell.)

Want a lot more about what September holds for the Twins and why they haven't called up Berrios, 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. 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 18, 2015

When should the Twins call up Buxton, Sano, and Berrios?

Sano and Buxton

Putting an early end to all the "will they make the Opening Day roster?" questions, the Twins sent top prospects Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jose Berrios to the minor-league side of camp. All three players are expected to begin the season at Double-A, where they'll likely be joined by fellow top-15 prospects Jorge Polanco, Nick Burdi, and Max Kepler, so Chattanooga Lookouts fans should enjoy their first season as a Twins affiliate.

After years of hearing about their upside it's understandable that many fans are clamoring to see Buxton, Sano, and Berrios at Target Field as soon as possible, but a little more patience is needed. For one thing, none of them look ready for the majors. Buxton was limited to just 31 games last season due to significant injuries and didn't play very well when in the lineup. Sano missed the entire season following elbow surgery. Berrios has pitched all of 43 innings above Single-A.

There have certainly been instances in which the Twins have kept prospects in the minors too long and in fact 25-year-old Alex Meyer may be a current example, but Buxton, Sano, and Berrios don't fit the description. Buxton and Sano are 21 years old, Berrios turns 21 in May, and all three are on track to reach the majors at some point this season. Opening Day jobs would short-change their development and short-change the Twins' team control of three building block talents.

By waiting as little as a few weeks to promote a prospect to the majors the Twins gain an entire additional year of pre-free agency team control over that player. In other words, if Buxton were in the majors for Opening Day and stayed there for good he would become a free agent following the 2020 season. However, if the Twins waited to call up Buxton until May he would become a free agent following the 2021 season. For better or worse, service time is an important consideration.

Even if you think Buxton, Sano, and Berrios are ready to thrive in the majors--and there's little evidence that's the case--why would a team prefer one month of them at age 21 over an entire season of them at age 28? If the Chattanooga Lookouts are destroying the Southern League in June and the Twins still haven't moved their stud prospects up the ladder there will be plenty of reason to complain, but for now their patience is better for everyone involved.

In the meantime the Twins need to evaluate whether Trevor Plouffe is part of their future plans, either at third base if Sano is forced to shift down the defensive spectrum or at another position. And if he's not, then his first-half performance will help determine if he's able to fetch something via trade or looks more like an offseason non-tender candidate. Similarly, the Twins need to figure out whether Aaron Hicks is a lost cause and could let him keep center field warm for Buxton.

Berrios is somewhat different in that the pitcher keeping his rotation spot warm is likely Tommy Milone or Mike Pelfrey, neither of whom have any real upside, but Meyer is still likely ahead of Berrios on the call-up list by virtue of being four years older with 160 more Double-A and Triple-A innings. Plus, it's a mere 14-hour drive from Minneapolis to Chattanooga and after watching the Twins' future on one field you can stop by the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame.

This week's blog content is sponsored by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, which is hosting a Twins season ticket giveaway contest on their website,

Older Posts »