March 31, 2016

Season preview: Are the Twins ready to be a playoff team?

Last year the Twins emerged from the wreckage of four consecutive 90-loss seasons sooner than anticipated, out-performing expectations by climbing above .500 in Paul Molitor's rookie season as manager. Miguel Sano immediately established himself as the big bat around which the lineup can be built, leading the way for a deep, upside-rich farm system that's ready to stock the Twins' roster with young talent for years to come. It's a fun time to be a Twins fan again.

However, rather than build on that momentum and their sooner-than-expected contender status by making a series of significant offseason moves to beef up the roster the Twins basically stood pat. They went outside the box to replace Torii Hunter in the lineup by spending $25 million on Korean slugger Byung Ho Park and addressed the organization-wide lack of catching depth by trading Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy. And that was it.

No significant additions were made to a pitching staff that was 10th among AL teams in ERA last season after ranking dead last from 2011-2014 and one of the team's best second-half pitchers, Tyler Duffey, was sent back to Triple-A in favor of contractual albatross Ricky Nolasco. Rumors that the Twins would trade Trevor Plouffe to open up third base never materialized and led to their shifting the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Sano to right field despite zero outfield experience.

Aside from some minor tinkering, the Twins' offseason consisted of two moves and was over by December 1. And while the perception is that the Twins are a young team on the rise thanks to Sano and an impressive farm system, the actual Opening Day roster is heavy on veterans. Kyle Gibson is the youngest member of the rotation at 28, the average age of the pitching staff is 30, and only three of the nine Opening Day hitters are younger than 27.

Their relative inactivity leaves plenty of room for criticism, particularly on the pitching side, and the front office's decades-long conservative streak always offers a viable explanation. With that said, the Twins' disinterest in adding even moderately priced veterans to an 83-win team is easy to explain: Terry Ryan and company are convinced the young talent they've stockpiled through all the losing is now ready to turn the Twins into winners. Just not right away, apparently.

Jose Berrios is an elite pitching prospect and many teams would have promoted him in the middle of last season, but he's back at Triple-A with Duffey for a second go-around because the Twins spent the past two offseasons handing out long-term deals to mediocre starters. Based on service time considerations the Twins should be planning for Berrios to debut in late April or early May, but that makes the shaky assumption that they'll be ready to ditch veterans by then.

Bypassing the many veteran relievers available via trades and free agency may hurt the Twins in the short term, but they clearly believe that by midseason at least one or two good bullpen arms will step forward from a group of hard-throwing prospects that includes Nick Burdi, Alex Meyer, Brandon Peterson, J.T. Chargois, Jake Reed, and Luke Bard. They had similar hopes heading into last year and the payoff was non-existent, but Burdi looks especially close to the majors now.

If by midseason Berrios and Duffey are leading the rotation turnaround and Burdi or Meyer have joined Trevor May and Kevin Jepsen setting up for Glen Perkins then the lack of offseason pitching moves will look prescient. If instead Rochester's pitching staff is thriving and Minnesota's pitching staff is again among the league's worst the fingers will point themselves. Right now the Twins' pitching looks mediocre at best, but the cavalry is coming. Or at least that's the plan.

Offensively most of the cavalry has already arrived and the young, crazy talented starting outfield of 22-year-old stud prospect Byron Buxton flanked by 23-year-old Sano and 24-year-old Eddie Rosario may tell the story of the 2016 season. That trio has the potential to be the Twins' three best players, but Buxton has yet to prove himself as a hitter, Rosario's lack of discipline threatens to stall his development, and Sano's right field sojourn threatens his health and the team ERA.

Here's the beauty of the Twins' farm system: They also have 23-year-old outfielder Max Kepler, a consensus top-100 prospect coming off an MVP-winning campaign at Double-A, waiting in the wings at Triple-A. Their outfield options are so young, so talented, and so plentiful that Oswaldo Arcia--a 25-year-old former top prospect with a .741 OPS in the majors--is an afterthought. If the Twins take a big step forward this season the young outfield figures to be a driving force.

Park is neither young nor inexperienced, winning a pair of MVP awards and four home run titles in Korea through age 28, but he's an MLB rookie for whom outlooks vary wildly. Based on his Hall of Fame numbers in Korea, the scouting reports from people who watched him there, and his spring training showing it's clear that Park will hit for big-time power, but that power will likely come with tons of strikeouts and a modest batting average.

For years the Twins' lineup was lefty dominated, but adding Sano and Park to Plouffe and Brian Dozier has swung the balance to the right side. In fact, this might be the most right-handed pop any Twins lineup has ever featured and Target Field is an ideal home for right-handed power. Six of the nine Opening Day hitters are right-handed, along with switch-hitter Eduardo Escobar and lefties Joe Mauer and Rosario.

Mauer simply hasn't been the same since suffering a concussion in August of 2013 and at age 33 the odds are heavily stacked against him being more than an above-average first baseman, but his on-base skills are desperately needed in a lineup long on power and short on OBP. Last year Sano and Mauer were the only Twins to crack a .330 on-base percentage and all the right-handed power bats need base-runners to drive in.

Escobar has quietly been one of the best shortstops in Twins history whenever they've actually given him a chance to play the position regularly, hitting .285/.331/.452 with solid defense in 203 career starts. For decades the Twins have repeatedly failed to find competent offensive shortstops, but Escobar is a switch-hitter with plus power for the position and has the ability to lengthen the lineup considerably. He's turned a lot of people--me included--from doubters to believers.

Nearly every hitter in the lineup comes attached to a question mark because of inexperience or injuries and that makes it tough to feel confident predicting how the offense will fare overall, but it's impossible to ignore how much young upside, right-handed power, and depth the Twins have assembled. If they get any sort of decent bottom-of-the-order production from the catcher spot and Buxton the Twins are going to score a bunch of runs.

And they'll need to, because the pitching staff with by far the fewest strikeouts in baseball since 2008 is again lacking the same type of upside and power that fills the lineup. There is some depth in that Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone, and Gibson are solid veteran starters and May, Jepsen, and Perkins are a strong bullpen trio, but at a time when MLB-wide strikeouts and velocity have never been higher the Twins simply lack firepower.

That could change if Berrios and Burdi receive quick call-ups and thrive right away, but counting on two prospects who've never thrown a pitch in the big leagues to drag an entire staff kicking and screaming into the power pitching era is probably wishful thinking. Molitor keeping the lesser starters on a short leash could be crucial, because turning games over to fresher, harder-throwing relievers often makes more sense than risking another trip through a lineup past 75 pitches.


Based on the Opening Day roster the Twins look mediocre, with an above-average offense and a below-average pitching staff. Based on the much younger, higher-upside roster they could begin transitioning to as soon as late April the Twins absolutely have a chance to build on last season's surprising success by making a run at the AL Central title. They just need to trust the youth and have it pay off. And here's the best part: This figures to be the worst Twins team for a long time.

August 6, 2015

Twins Notes: Duffey, May, O’Rourke, Hicks, Sano, Mauer, and Hendriks

Tyler Duffey Twins

Tyler Duffey allowed a grand total of one homer in 540 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A this season and then served up two homers in his Twins debut, including one to the second MLB hitter he faced. Based on the "game score" statistic Duffey had the seventh-worst debut start in Twins history. Who had the worst? LaTroy Hawkins in 1995. And then 21 years later Hawkins closed out the Blue Jays' win against the Twins in Duffey's debut.

Trevor May never deserved to be demoted from the rotation to the bullpen in the first place and hopefully the Twins remain committed to him as a long-term starter, but he's looked strong as a reliever. He's got a 3.18 ERA and 10/2 K/BB ratio in 11 innings along with increased velocity, which is probably enough to make him the Twins' best right-handed bullpen option over Blaine Boyer, Casey Fien, and trade deadline pickup Kevin Jepsen.

• Rookie reliever Ryan O'Rourke is living up to the hype of being death to left-handed hitters, who are 2-for-21 (.095) with 11 strikeouts against him since last month's call-up. Using him in a very limited role remains crucial, but the Twins may have found a long-term bullpen piece in the unheralded 27-year-old southpaw. With a strong finish he should be able to secure a spot in next year's Opening Day bullpen, which won't include Brian Duensing.

Aaron Hicks' improved overall performance is very encouraging from a one-time top prospect who's still just 25 years old, but not being able to hit right-handed pitching remains a big issue. This season he's hit .375/.429/.578 off lefties and .228/.291/.315 off righties. For his career he's hit .288/.374/.466 off lefties and .197/.277/.287 off righties. Hicks is a switch-hitter, but in both the minors and the majors he's shown little ability to be an asset from the left side of the plate.

Byron Buxton's long-awaited debut was cut short after 11 games by a thumb injury that he's still recovering from six weeks later, but fellow stud prospect Miguel Sano has immediately lived up to the hype. As expected he's struck out a ton and hit for a ton of power, but the 22-year-old has also shown incredible plate discipline with 21 walks in 27 games and an impressive ability to lay off borderline pitches. Twins fans should be thrilled with how he's looked so far.

• There have been occasional signs of life, but sadly Joe Mauer has continued to look like a shell of his former, pre-concussion self. He's hit just .275/.346/.398 in 47 games since I wrote a "What happened to Joe Mauer?" article that examined the numbers since his late-2012 concussion and expressed very little confidence in his getting back on track. Mauer is now in his second season of being a below-average first baseman after a decade of being a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher.

Danny Santana got a longer leash than most struggling Twins prospects, but he's finally back in the minors after hitting .218/.242/.298 with a ghastly 66/5 K/BB ratio in 74 games and playing mistake-filled defense at shortstop. His great rookie season screamed fluke, but no one could have expected Santana to be this awful as a sophomore. However, his career .272/.316/.392 line and poor strike zone control in the minors are reasons to be skeptical of a big turnaround.

Liam Hendriks was the Twins minor league pitcher of the year in 2011, but he went 2-13 with a 6.06 ERA in 156 innings as a starter and they lost him on waivers for nothing. Still just 26 years old, he's found a home in Toronto's bullpen with a 2.47 ERA and 50/6 K/BB ratio in 47 innings. As a starter Hendriks always had modest raw stuff, topping out in the low 90s, but this season he's averaging 94.4 miles per hour with his fastball and topping out 97.


For a lot more about Jepsen's arrival, Duffey's upside, and Hicks' improvement check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode with a special guest co-host.

July 31, 2015

Deadline deal: Twins acquire reliever Kevin Jepsen from Rays

Kevin Jepsen Rays

Faced with clear weaknesses at shortstop, catcher, and reliever heading into Friday afternoon's trade deadline the Twins addressed only the bullpen, acquiring right-hander Kevin Jepsen from the Rays in exchange for pitching prospects Chih-Wei Hu and Alexis Tapia. Their lack of activity should come as no surprise, in part because the Twins are typically fairly conservative and in part because meaningful midseason upgrades at shortstop and catcher are hard to find.

On the other hand contending teams adding veteran bullpen reinforcements at the trade deadline is an annual tradition and this year was no different, with nearly a dozen quality relievers on the move. That list includes Jepsen, who has a 3.80 ERA in eight seasons with the Rays and Angels, but beyond clearing the low bar of representing an upgrade over Casey Fien and Blaine Boyer he's an underwhelming pickup.

Jensen throws hard, averaging 95 miles per hour with his fastball, but his career strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine innings is merely average for an MLB reliever and has dipped to a career-low 7.3 per nine innings this year. Jepsen also has terrible control, walking 3.6 per nine innings for his career and 4.3 per nine innings this year. Jepsen's nice-looking 2.81 ERA in 46 appearances for the Rays this season comes attached to a poor 34/20 K/BB ratio in 42 innings.

He's essentially an average reliever. There are 152 different pitchers with at least 100 innings out of the bullpen since 2013 and among them Jepsen ranks 60th in strikeout rate, 111th in walk rate, and 64th in ground-ball rate, which adds up to an 80th-ranked 3.15 ERA and a 73rd-ranked 3.54 xFIP. By comparison Fien has logged more innings than Jepsen with an identical 3.54 xFIP since 2013, albeit with a higher ERA.

Jepsen throws hard, strikes out a decent number of batters, and does a good job limiting homers, but he also struggles to consistently throw strikes and has a lopsided platoon split that makes him a poor matchup against good left-handed hitters in the late innings. He's not especially good, he's not especially bad, and there's certainly a very realistic chance that he provides the Twins with 20 useful innings down the stretch.

In question is whether Jepsen was the correct veteran reliever for the Twins to target as their lone trade deadline addition when plenty of bullpen arms were on the move and, beyond that, whether an average 31-year-old middle reliever with declining secondary numbers was worth parting ways with a decent 21-year-old starting pitching prospect in Hu (along with a 19-year-old rookie-baller in Tapia) rather than simply giving a chance to an in-house option like Michael Tonkin.

Hu ranked 19th on my list of the Twins' top prospects coming into the season and has improved his stock since then, posting a 2.44 ERA and 73/19 K/BB ratio in 85 innings at high Single-A and tossing six innings of one-run ball in a spot start at Triple-A. Signed out of Taiwan for $220,000 in 2012, he lacks dominant raw stuff but is hardly a soft-tosser and has shown good control against older, more experienced hitters.

There's no chance of Hu turning into a top-of-the-rotation starter and non-elite Single-A pitching prospects have a very high attrition rate, but he's a young pitcher who currently ranked among the Twins' top 12-15 prospects and would probably crack the top 10 in a lot of farm systems. You can view Hu as a solid prospect or as a lottery ticket with good but not great payoff potential, but either way swapping him for a mediocre middle reliever is questionable.

Jepsen is under team control via arbitration for next season, which could be spun as a positive compared to the various impending free agents changing teams as two-month rentals. However, given his $3.03 million salary this season Jepsen would likely get $5 million or more through the arbitration process next season and if the ability to retain an average 31-year-old reliever for that salary carries value it isn't much.


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