November 11, 2015

Twins secure Byung-ho Park negotiating rights with $12.85 million bid

Byung-ho Park

In one of the most unexpected, out-of-nowhere moves in team history the Twins out-bid 29 other MLB teams for exclusive negotiating rights to Korean first baseman Byung-ho Park. Their high bid was $12.85 million, which goes to his Korean Baseball Organization team for a 30-day window in which to negotiate a separate contract with Park. If the two sides fail to reach an agreement the $12.85 million would be refunded to the Twins in full and Park would remain in Korea.

Park has won multiple MVP awards and had a monster 2015 in which he hit .343/.436/.714 with 53 homers in 140 games, so MLB teams bidding for the 29-year-old's rights has been a fairly big story. Nearly every team was linked to Park and national reporters whittled down possible landing spots by identifying 26 of 30 teams as not the high bidders. Monday morning people started doing the Twins-related math and about an hour later news broke that they were the winners.

There are three key questions surrounding Park right now. One is the Twins' chances of actually signing him and how much he'll cost if they do, which is difficult to predict other than to say they intend to sign him and the price tag figures to be reasonable compared to MLB free agents. Last offseason the Pirates won the negotiating rights to Korean shortstop Jung Ho Kang for $5 million and signed him to a four-year, $11 million deal, but Kang's success raised the bar for Park.

Assuming he signs the next question is how he fits in the lineup. It's not a seamless fit given the existing logjam of first basemen, corner outfielders, and designated hitters, but there are simple solutions. Two weeks ago I wrote about the possibility of trading third baseman Trevor Plouffe and moving Miguel Sano to third base, which would open up the DH spot for Park or Joe Mauer. Recently the Twins have talked about giving Sano some outfield action, which might also work.

Whatever the case, getting Park's right-handed power bat into the lineup is certainly doable and the Twins clearly believe he has big-time upside. His jaw-dropping raw numbers during the past three seasons include hitting .322 with an 1.100 OPS while averaging 55 homers and 100 walks per 150 games, but beyond that the Twins have scouted Park extensively in Korea and feel his skill set will translate to middle-of-the-order power in America.

Their scouts may be proven wrong and the lack of data points for KBO-to-MLB transitions makes accurate statistical projections even more difficult than usual, but Kang's success with the Pirates this year is reason for optimism and if nothing else everyone seems to agree that Park has huge raw power. His ability to control the strike zone and make consistent contact are both potential red flags, but the same can be said of untested-in-MLB power hitters from any country.

Park is a gamble, but the money being invested isn't especially huge in an MLB-wide context and he can provide a sizable payoff without even approaching his absurd numbers in Korea. This year MLB first basemen and DHs combined to hit .260/.335/.445. Plouffe has hit .245/.308/.420 for his career. Oswaldo Arcia is at .243/.305/.437. Kennys Vargas is at .259/.299/.408. You get the idea. Those are the standards to which Park should be held.

Park wasn't just good in Korea, he was special. For three years he hit .320 with 50-homer power and 100-walk plate discipline, producing an OPS that led the KBO in 2013, ranked second behind Kang in 2014, and ranked second behind Eric Thames in 2015. Kang headed to America after leading the KBO in OPS two years ago and then hit .287/.355/.461 with 15 homers in 126 games for the Pirates as a 28-year-old rookie, including .310/.364/.548 in the second half.

Thames did the opposite, going to the KBO after struggling to establish himself in MLB as an American-born former Blue Jays prospect and because of that he provides a much less optimistic example. However, even Thames isn't necessarily cause for Park pessimism. For one thing he was hardly a disaster in MLB, hitting .250/.296/.431 with 21 homers in 181 games. Thames' career OPS in MLB is .727. By comparison, Plouffe's career OPS is .728.

Beyond that Thames received fewer than 700 plate appearances in the majors, last played in MLB at age 25, and hit .312/.389/.506 in 200 career games at Triple-A. Considering he posted a .727 OPS in limited playing time through age 25 after faring well at Triple-A it's not a stretch to think he eventually would have developed into a .750-.800 OPS hitter if given more opportunity. At the very least, Thames thriving in Korea isn't reason to brush off Park thriving in Korea.

Obviously the Twins are hoping Park hits .290 with 30 homers and lots of walks. Because of his high strikeout rate in Korea and the uncertainty surrounding his skill set attached to the elite raw power it's also possible he'll fit more into the category of low-average, high-power righty bats like Mike Napoli and Josh Willingham on the high end or Mark Reynolds and Chris Carter on the low end. And there are viable worst-case scenarios too, of course.

Ultimately this comes down to the Twins' international scouting department properly evaluating Park's potential. There's plenty of reason to be skeptical about that related to their track record and Park specifically, but the cost to find out is likely in the same middle range as contracts they gave to "proven" MLB veterans like Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana, and Ricky Nolasco. And if they're right about Park the Twins get a middle-of-the-order bat for a below-market price tag.

For a lot more about Park and the domino effect his arrival has on the Twins' lineup and offseason plans, 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.

July 14, 2015

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Hitters

Brian Dozier Twins

Last season the Twins ranked fifth among AL teams in both OPS and runs scored, but the lineup has taken a step backward. They've hit .254/.307/.399 to rank 11th out of 15 teams in OPS, but the offense has out-performed those overall numbers to rank seventh in runs scored thanks to hitting .283 with runners in scoring position and .241 without runners in scoring position. Before the second half gets underway here's a hitter-by-hitter look at the individual performances ...

Brian Dozier: .256/.328/.513 in 393 plate appearances

Two seasons ago Brian Dozier dramatically altered the trajectory of his career at age 26, going from light-hitting fringe shortstop prospect to starting-caliber second baseman. Last year he made another big jump, emerging as one of MLB's best all-around second basemen by combining power, patience, speed, and defense. This season he's again taken a huge leap, ranking among the best dozen players in the entire league during the first half.

Dozier is often overlooked, in part because his turning into a star came as such a surprise and in part because many people still misguidedly focus on batting average. But make no mistake: He had a spectacular first half. Dozier played 88 of 89 games, leading the league in extra-base hits (48) and ranking second in runs scored (67), third in doubles (26), seventh in homers (19), and 10th in slugging percentage (.513) while grading right around average defensively.

He's developed into one of the best power hitters in the league, which is amazing for a 5-foot-11 middle infielder who had a grand total of 16 homers in 365 games as a minor leaguer. In addition to crushing high fastballs Dozier draws walks, steals bases, and plays good defense at an up-the-middle position, which is why FanGraphs pegs him as the eighth-best all-around position player in the league at 3.3 Wins Above Replacement. He was, without question, the Twins' first-half MVP.

Joe Mauer: .271/.336/.387 in 366 plate appearances

Joe Mauer had a solid April, slumped badly from May 1 through mid-June, and finished the first half by hitting .320 with four homers in his final 25 games. The end result is an underwhelming .271/.336/.387 line that looks much like his underwhelming .277/.361/.371 line last year and has me wondering whether the .320-hitting on-base percentage vanished the moment he suffered a concussion in August of 2013.

His strong recent play puts those thoughts on hold for now and Mauer's actual impact out-paced his raw numbers thanks to hitting .380 with runners in scoring position and .400 in high-leverage spots. Mauer leads Twins hitters in Win Probability Added by a wide margin because he was great in game-changing situations even while being mediocre overall. Counting on that to continue is optimistic to say the least and Mauer was a below-average first baseman in the first half.

Trevor Plouffe: .259/.320/.449 in 354 plate appearances

Because he went from light-hitting shortstop prospect to good-hitting third baseman, whenever Trevor Plouffe puts together a good stretch offensively many people are quick to expect further development. Instead he's been remarkably consistent since becoming an everyday player and this season's production (.769 OPS) is very close to his numbers in 2012 (.751 OPS) and 2014 (.756 OPS). He's basically been a .250/.315/.440 hitter now for four years.

What has changed is that Plouffe went from being very rough defensively at third base to being solidly above average at the position, which is perhaps what should have been expected from a career-long shortstop making the transition in the majors. This season, like last season, Plouffe has been above average offensively and defensively to rank as one of the dozen best all-around third basemen in baseball. He was the Twins' second-best position player in the first half.

Torii Hunter: .257/.312/.444 in 333 plate appearances

Torii Hunter continues to hold off father time, putting together the same type of season for the Twins at age 39 that he had for the Tigers last year. He's been slightly above average offensively, making up for a 30-point drop in batting average with increased power and more walks (24) than he drew all of last season (23). Hunter has been extremely streaky, with a handful of huge games surrounded by mediocrity, but a .750 OPS at age 39 is as good as anyone should have expected.

Defensively he's rated somewhere between mediocre and poor, but either is a huge upgrade over the awful numbers he had as the Tigers' right fielder. Paul Molitor has also given Hunter plenty of time off from fielding with 11 starts at designated hitter. Slightly above average offensively and slightly below average defensively equals an average all-around player. That doesn't come close to matching the Hunter-as-savior hype train, but it certainly tops my modest expectations.

Kurt Suzuki: .235/.291/.313 in 271 plate appearances

Kurt Suzuki parlayed a good first half last season into his first career All-Star appearance and a two-year, $12 million contract extension from the Twins, at which point the magic wore off and he resumed not hitting. Suzuki has played 112 games since signing the deal, hitting .240/.291/.333 to basically match his .237/.294/.357 mark from 2010-2013, and this season his .604 OPS ranks 22nd among the 25 catchers with 200 or more plate appearances.

Suzuki's defensive reputation has always been excellent, but his defensive numbers have always been terrible and this season is no exception. He's thrown out 20 percent of stolen base attempts, his pitch-framing rates below average, and while he's been charged with few passed balls Twins pitchers have racked up tons of wild pitches with him behind the plate. Add it all up and Suzuki has been one of the league's worst regulars.

Danny Santana: .225/.245/.313 in 239 plate appearances

Danny Santana's great, out-of-nowhere rookie season carried with it several red flags, including a bad strikeout-to-walk ratio, unsustainably high batting average on balls in play, and iffy track record in the minors, but no one could have expected this type of collapse. His batting average is down 100 points, his power has been sliced in half, and his strike zone control has gone from bad to horrendous with 59 strikeouts and four walks. He's been one of the five worst hitters in MLB.

And he's been nearly as bad defensively despite moving back to his natural position of shortstop after being forced into action as a center fielder last year. Santana has committed 13 errors in 58 games at shortstop and Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, and Plus/Minus agree that he's been 5-10 runs below average. Santana made lots of errors and hit .274/.317/.397 with bad K/BB ratios in the minors and that's no longer masked by a shockingly good rookie campaign.

Eduardo Escobar: .254/.285/.403 in 216 plate appearances

Eduardo Escobar is a good-fielding shortstop with a decent bat for the position, but he's been asked to play mostly left field and designated hitter with predictably poor results. He's made 33 starts at left field/DH compared to 17 at shortstop, which has changed the perception of Escobar's value. Playing shortstop while hitting .254/.285/.403 would make Escobar an average regular, but a sub-.700 OPS looks totally different in left field and his outfield defense isn't pretty either.

Escobar is held back by terrible plate discipline, which includes a 48/8 K/BB ratio this season, but the bar for offense at shortstop is low enough that hitting .250 with gap power and non-existent strike zone control is perfectly reasonable when combined with solid defense. It makes no sense to play Escobar at a position where his bat and glove are both weaknesses, especially when Santana has been a mess at shortstop. Escobar is who he is. His team needs to utilize his skills better.

Eddie Rosario: .284/.310/.418 in 205 plate appearances

Molitor and the Twins were convinced that Eddie Rosario was more ready for the majors at age 23 than his mediocre numbers in the minors suggested and through 55 games his .284/.310/.418 line narrowly tops his .255/.300/.400 line at Double-A and Triple-A. His inability to control the strike zone in the minors has carried over with an ugly 47/8 K/BB ratio, but thanks to the smooth swing that Molitor and company rave about he's still been able to hit .284 with decent power.

Offensively he's been below average and more Triple-A time to work on plate discipline and trying to hit left-handed pitching might make sense, but Rosario has held his own enough to avoid being a weakness. And he's been very good defensively, showing plus range and a strong arm shifting between left field and right field. Rosario has plenty of rough edges to smooth out if he's going to become a great player, but he's already pretty close to being a good one.

Kennys Vargas: .245/.277/.365 in 166 plate appearances

Kennys Vargas was handed the Opening Day designated hitter job, lost it, reclaimed it, lost it again, and got demoted to Triple-A and then to Double-A, all within three months. In between he hit .245/.277/.365 with a hideous 48/7 K/BB ratio in 47 games to lose the Twins' faith. As a rookie his 63/12 K/BB ratio in 53 games wasn't much better, but no one seemed to care because he hit .274 with plus power. He has a lot to prove if he's going to re-enter the Twins' long-term plans.

Aaron Hicks: .266/.333/.387 in 138 plate appearances

After horrible rookie and sophomore seasons the Twins overhauled Aaron Hicks' approach at the plate and sent him to Triple-A. He thrived there to earn another chance and the results have been a mixed bag. Hicks looks like a different hitter--less patient, more aggressive--and his production is up recently, but he continues to be a switch-hitter with an extreme platoon split. His defense and baserunning have improved, but it's still unclear if he's a good part-time or a starter.

Shane Robinson: .243/.296/.304 in 126 plate appearances

Signed to a minor-league contract after a decade in the Cardinals organization, Shane Robinson made the team out of spring training and has played a bigger role than expected while starting 30 games. He hit .343 in April, but quickly turned back into a pumpkin and has hit .195 since May 1. Robinson's overall numbers match his underwhelming career marks and there's no reason for him to be starting games as a corner outfielder for a team struggling to score runs.

Eduardo Nunez: .290/.330/.477 in 116 plate appearances

Eduardo Nunez has hit and fielded better than ever, posting the second-best OPS on the team and even rating as a neutral shortstop after previously having some of the worst numbers at the position in baseball. His limited playing time means viewing all of that skeptically and the Twins still don't seem to trust him as an appealing shortstop option. Nunez may finally be taking a step forward at age 28, but more likely is that performances vary wildly in small samples.

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.

June 17, 2015

When will Miguel Sano join Byron Buxton in Minnesota?

Miguel Sano Twins

Within minutes of the Twins calling up No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton the ever-present "when will he be in Minnesota?" questions shifted to No. 2 prospect Miguel Sano, who's spent all season in Chattanooga batting behind Buxton in the Double-A lineup. Sano is six months older than Buxton and has more upper-minors experience, playing 67 games at Double-A in 2013 and 56 games at Double-A this year, but in between he missed all of 2014 following Tommy John elbow surgery.

Buxton's call-up filled an obvious need, because through their first 61 games the Twins gave a dozen or more starts to three different center fielders and the trio of Jordan Schafer, Shane Robinson, and Aaron Hicks combined for a sub-.600 OPS to rank among the least-productive positions in baseball. Buxton was also thriving at Double-A, hitting .310/.379/.540 with 18 steals in his last 46 games. Toss in Hicks' recent forearm injury and all the dots were connected.

Sano, on the other hand, plays a position at which the Twins are pretty well set. Trevor Plouffe has slumped of late, but he's hitting .248/.315/.442 to basically match his 2014 numbers while rating as an above-average defender at third base for the second straight year. Plouffe has been one of the Twins' best all-around players, both this season and last season, and the Twins have the fourth-highest OPS in the league at third base.

Plouffe has emerged as an above-average starting third baseman at age 29 and with two more seasons of team control remaining before free agency. Beyond that Plouffe's performance--low batting average, mediocre on-base percentage, good power--is exactly the type of performance the Twins would be hoping to get from Sano as a 22-year-old rookie. Calling up Buxton to replace Hicks/Schafer/Robinson was a clear upgrade. Calling up Sano to replace Plouffe is not.

However, that doesn't mean calling up Sano to take over at another position wouldn't make sense. Defense has never been his strong point anyway and many people were skeptical about his ability to remain at third base long term even before missing an entire season following elbow surgery. His range will always be limited at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, surgery may have lessened his arm strength, and Sano has committed 25 errors in 118 games as a Double-A third baseman.

He's also hit .302/.384/.561 in 38 games since May 1 following a rough April, basically picking up where he left off before missing all of last season. If the Twins still believe Sano can stick at third base they may be hesitant to halt his development there, but his bat has always been what makes Sano a top prospect and it looks just about ready now. It would be asking a lot for him to learn a new position on the fly and in the majors, but they could simply ask him to do nothing but hit.

Twins designated hitters rank 13th among AL teams in OPS, combining for a .250 batting average with three homers and a .339 slugging percentage in 60 games. Kennys Vargas has gotten 25 of those 60 starts, with another 18 going to Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer when they take days off from fielding. And the Twins' remaining 17 starts at DH have gone to light-hitting middle infielders Eduardo Escobar, Eduardo Nunez, and Danny Santana.

Vargas is capable of much more than he's given the Twins this season and if Oswaldo Arcia gets on track at Triple-A he's another quality DH option. But if the Twins again run out of patience with Vargas and continue to be less than enthused with Arcia, calling up Sano to take over at DH--with some action at third base and first base mixed in--would make only slightly less sense than calling up Buxton to take over in center field. It's an obvious hole and he's ready to fill it.

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."

May 20, 2015

Twins demote Kennys Vargas to Triple-A

Kennys Vargas Twins

Last season when the Twins dumped Kendrys Morales and his remaining salary on the Mariners in late July they called up Kennys Vargas to replace him as the starting designated hitter. It was an unexpected move because Vargas was a good but not great prospect putting up good but not great numbers at Double-A as a 23-year-old. Vargas arrived with a hot bat, hitting .330 with four homers, seven doubles, and an .875 OPS in his first 25 games despite an ugly 29/4 K/BB ratio.

Vargas then cooled off considerably by hitting .223/.276/.402 with 34 strikeouts in his final 28 games, but he finished the season with solid overall numbers and faced little competition for the Opening Day designated hitter job this spring. He got off to a brutal start this year, hitting .172 in April, but the Twins stuck with Vargas and he hit .366 with two homers, two doubles, and a .956 OPS through a dozen May games ... at which point they demoted him to Triple-A.

There was some writing on the wall, as manager Paul Molitor repeatedly benched Vargas during his hot streak, but demoting a player in the midst of a productive stretch following an extended slump is odd timing to say the least. Odder yet, Vargas' good stretch came immediately after the Twins worked with him to adjust his swing mechanics. It paid off, as Vargas notched 14 hits in 10 starts this month and also delivered a pinch-hit homer. And now he's in Rochester.

Vargas' strike zone control absolutely needs improvement after striking out 93 times compared to just 17 non-intentional walks in 82 games for the Twins and further developing that skill against minor-league competition could be a good idea. Which is why it was surprising when the Twins promoted Vargas from Double-A to majors last year and why the timing of this year's demotion, rather than the demotion itself, is what stands out now.

What also stands out now is the Twins' lack of other appealing designated hitter options. Several times Molitor benched Vargas in favor of Eduardo Nunez and Eduardo Escobar, a pair of utility infielders who each have a career OPS below .700 in the majors and the minors. Now that Vargas is out of the mix Nunez and Escobar figure to see even more action as left fielders and designated hitters, which is a weird thing to do intentionally.

Here's how Vargas, Nunez, and Escobar have hit in their respective Twins careers:

                    AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Kennys Vargas      .266     .309     .425     .734
Eduardo Nunez      .265     .291     .403     .694
Eduardo Escobar    .260     .300     .379     .679

In performing poorly enough to get demoted back to the minors Vargas still easily out-produced Nunez and Escobar. And unlike either Nunez or Escobar, there's actually evidence within Vargas' track record as a minor leaguer to suggest he's capable of producing more. Torii Hunter spending more time at DH is also likely in Molitor's plans, but that mostly just opens up an outfield spot for Eddie Rosario and there's little to indicate he's ready to out-produce Vargas either.

It'd be one thing if the Twins demoted Vargas and replaced him with another young hitter with DH-caliber potential like Josmil Pinto or if Oswaldo Arcia was due to return from the disabled list shortly and they wanted to work him back into the lineup at DH. But to demote Vargas now, when he was seemingly getting on track, and to give his at-bats to a pair of utility infielders and Rosario is a thought process begging to be questioned.

For a lengthy discussion of the Twins' decision to demote Vargas, plus talk about how long Aaron Hicks might stick around, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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