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.

October 9, 2014

My hypothetical Twins MVP ballot

Brian Dozier and Danny Santana

Most Valuable Player of a 70-92 team isn't the most prestigious award, but within their struggles the Twins had plenty of good individual performances. Here's my attempt to rank them:

1. Phil Hughes

I've always found arguments against pitchers being MVPs lacking, because while they don't pitch every day their influence on the games they do pitch is huge. For instance, Phil Hughes started 32 games, threw 210 innings, and faced 855 batters. By comparison, Brian Dozier led the Twins with 707 plate appearances. Add in defensive plays and position players re-take the lead, but the point is that saying "pitchers only play once every five days" short-changes their influence.

All of which is a long way of saying that Hughes is an easy choice for team MVP. He had a great year by traditional standards, going 16-10 with a 3.52 ERA in 32 starts while the rest of the Twins' rotation was 32-60 with a 5.53 ERA in 130 starts. Oh, and he had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball with an incredible 186 strikeouts versus 16 walks, standing atop of this star-studded list:

                    YEAR     SO/BB
PHIL HUGHES         2014     11.63
Bret Saberhagen     1994     11.00
Cliff Lee           2010     10.28
Curt Schilling      2002      9.58
Pedro Martinez      2000      8.88
Greg Maddux         1997      8.85
Pedro Martinez      1999      8.46

Hughes was hurt by the Twins' terrible defense, which allowed a .324 batting average on his balls in play for the second-highest rate of any pitcher in the league and a much worse rate than his career average of .296. That and some mediocre bullpen support caused his ERA to rise to 3.52 compared to an xFIP of 3.18 that ranked eighth among AL starters. Here's a list of the best xFIPs by a Twins starter in the Ron Gardenhire era of 2002-2014:

                     YEAR     xFIP
Francisco Liriano    2006     2.54
Francisco Liriano    2010     2.95
Johan Santana        2004     3.01
Johan Santana        2005     3.12
Johan Santana        2006     3.16
PHIL HUGHES          2014     3.18

Hughes had the most strikeouts (186) and highest strikeout rate (8.0) by any Twins starter in the Gardenhire era except for Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano. Hughes walked zero batters in an MLB-leading 19 of 32 starts and walked one or fewer batters in an MLB-leading 30 of 32 starts, with a season-high of three walks in his second outing of the season on April 9. He led MLB in walk rate with 0.69 per nine innings, which is the second-best rate in Twins history.

Wins Above Replacement for pitchers is calculated in two manners. One, by Fan Graphs, focuses on secondary numbers and has Hughes tied with Jon Lester and David Price for third-best in the league behind Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez. The other, by Baseball-Reference, focuses on raw totals and has Hughes ninth-best in the league. That large disagreement stems from treating defensive support and luck differently, but either way Hughes had a fantastic year.

2. Brian Dozier

If you're vehemently against pitchers being MVP candidates then Dozier is the obvious choice. His power vanished in the second half, but he still broke his own team record for homers by a second baseman with 23. He also added in 33 doubles, stole 21 bases at a decent clip, and drew 89 walks for the second-most by any Twins player during the Gardenhire era behind Joe Mauer with 90 in 2012. His poor .242 batting average doesn't even begin to show Dozier's offensive production.

And he did all of that at an up-the-middle position where the MLB average was a .313 on-base percentage and .372 slugging percentage, beating the average OPS by 77 points. Dozier led all MLB second basemen in homers, walks, and runs. He also ranked second in extra-base hits and Isolated Power, third in times on base and Runs Created, fourth in on-base percentage, total bases, OPS, and steals, sixth in slugging percentage and RBIs, and seventh in doubles.

Defensively he always looks good and makes plenty of highlight plays, particularly when going to his left, but Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved show him as slightly below average. He played 156 games, logged 1,400 innings at second base, and joined Denard Span in 2010 and Justin Morneau in 2008 as the only Twins to top 700 plate appearances under Gardenhire. Add it all up and here's where his 5.2 WAR ranks among hitters in the Gardenhire era:

                    YEAR     WAR
Joe Mauer           2009     7.8
Joe Mauer           2010     5.9
Joe Mauer           2006     5.8
Joe Mauer           2008     5.6
Jacque Jones        2002     5.4
Joe Mauer           2013     5.3
BRIAN DOZIER        2014     5.2

Helluva season.

3. Danny Santana

After posting a .719 OPS in 131 games at Double-A last season and a .692 OPS in 24 games at Triple-A to begin this season Danny Santana was called up by the Twins on May 5 and batted .319/.353/.472 with 41 extra-base hits and 20 steals in 101 games as a 23-year-old playing a new position. In a lot of seasons that would have gotten Santana serious consideration for Rookie of the Year, but White Sox slugger Jose Abreu figures to win the award unanimously.

Defensive metrics pegged Santana as below average in center field and he certainly looked raw there after spending nearly his entire career at shortstop, but he still had the fourth-highest WAR by a Twins rookie in the Gardenhire era behind Liriano in 2005, Lew Ford in 2004, and Span in 2008. If you prorate his WAR to, say, 155 games, Santana would rank 10th among AL position players and top Dozier for the team lead.

There are strong reasons to be skeptical of Santana's rookie showing being for real, including his mediocre minor-league numbers and ghastly 98/19 K/BB ratio in the majors, but on a per-game basis he was arguably the Twins' best player this season. He places third on this ballot because he was not in the lineup for 38 percent of the Twins' games while Hughes never missed a start and Dozier sat out just six games.

4. Trevor Plouffe

Coming into spring training it seemed like Trevor Plouffe would be keeping third base warm for however long it took Miguel Sano to convince the Twins he was ready, but instead Sano missed the entire season following elbow surgery and Plouffe had a career-year. He struck out a little less, walked a little more, and traded four-baggers for two-baggers on the way to 40 doubles. The end result was an adjusted OPS+ of 110, compared to his OPS+ of 97 from 2011-2013.

His offense improved, but Plouffe's biggest gains came defensively. After three years of rating him horribly at third base both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved showed him as solidly above average. Who knows if the better glove is for real--it's not so much different than Santana hitting .319--but Plouffe was one of the 10 best all-around third basemen in baseball after just barely being better than replacement level in his first three seasons.

5. Kurt Suzuki

Defensively his poor numbers are basically the opposite of his sterling reputation and predictably he came back down to earth late, but Kurt Suzuki started 115 games and hit .288/.345/.383 compared to MLB catchers as a whole batting .249/.309/.380. Not trading Suzuki and giving him a two-year extension is questionable, but he was a great pickup on a one-year, $3 million deal and kept the Twins above average at the position post-Mauer.

6. Glen Perkins

If not for his late-season collapse while trying to pitch injured Glen Perkins would have ranked a spot or two higher. As of August 25 he had a 2.44 ERA and 64/9 K/BB ratio in 55 innings, but then he gave up five homers in eight games after giving up a total of seven homers in his previous 116 games. It's a self-inflicted shame, because Perkins was having a fourth straight dominant season while converting saves at the same rate as Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan.

7. Eduardo Escobar

Little in Eduardo Escobar's track record suggested he was more than a utility man-caliber hitter, but when Pedro Florimon flopped he stepped in at shortstop and batted .275 with 43 extra-base hits in 133 games for a .721 OPS that's 43 points above average for the position. Defensive stats failed to reach a consensus, but he looked decent and if you think his glove was actually a plus Escobar had the best all-around season by a Twins shortstop since Jason Bartlett in 2006.

8. Kyle Gibson

After a putrid rookie showing Kyle Gibson bounced back to throw 179 innings. He managed just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings and the awful defense turned all those balls in play into too many undeserved hits, leaving Gibson with a 4.47 ERA compared to the AL average of 3.92 for starters. However, his ground-ball rate of 54.4 percent ranked fifth among AL starters and he allowed just 12 homers in 31 starts. If given average defensive support xFIP pegs his ERA at 3.99.

9. Joe Mauer

After missing the end of last year with a concussion Mauer got off to a terrible start and then, just when he was starting to get rolling, an oblique strain sidelined him for a month. There's no way to spin his season as anything but a major disappointment, but Mauer hit .300 in his final 63 games and overall his .361 on-base percentage was 30 points above average for first basemen. Even with his extreme lack of power Mauer was basically an average all-around player at his new position.

10. Kennys Vargas

Promoted from Double-A on August 1 after the Kendrys Morales salary dump, Kennys Vargas hit .337 with a .906 OPS in his first 23 games and .225 with a .665 OPS in his last 30 games. He was good but not great overall, with a .274 average and .456 slugging percentage versus a 63/12 K/BB ratio and .316 OBP. He also played only 53 games, compared to 101 for Santana and 120 for Mauer. He was very fun to watch and dropped a lot of jaws with his smooth, easy power.


For a lengthy discussion of the Twins' ongoing manager search, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode with special guest Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

July 18, 2014

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Pitchers

perkins and suzuki

For all the talk about and money spent on improving their starting pitching the Twins' rotation ranks 28th in ERA among the 30 teams. Last year they ranked 30th. Two years ago they ranked 29th. Three years ago they ranked 26th. And even with some pretty good relief work included the Twins' pitching staff has the fewest strikeouts in baseball for the fourth consecutive season. Before the second half gets underway here's a pitcher-by-pitcher look at the individual performances ...

Phil Hughes: .283/.297/.410 in 501 plate appearances

When the Twins signed Phil Hughes to a three-year, $24 million contract this offseason the idea was that getting him away from homer-inflating Yankee Stadium would fix his biggest problem of serving up long balls. That's played out exactly as hoped, with Hughes allowing just nine homers in 122 first-half innings after averaging 19 homers per 122 innings from 2010-2013. Beyond that there was also another big but unexpected change: He stopped walking anyone.

Hughes has always had mediocre control, averaging nearly 3.0 walks per nine innings for his Yankees career, but this season under Rick Anderson's coaching his walk rate is a miniscule 0.8 per nine innings. Not only is that the second-lowest rate in all of baseball--sandwiched between Hisashi Iwakuma and Clayton Kershaw--it's the second-lowest walk rate in Twins history behind only Carlos Silva's ridiculous 0.4 per nine innings in 2004.

Hughes' velocity and strikeout rate remain nearly identical to his Yankees days and he's still one of MLB's most extreme fly-ball pitchers, but switching home ballparks has made those fly balls less of a weakness and refusing to walk anyone has turned him into a different pitcher. He walked zero or one batter in 17 of 19 first-half starts (89 percent) after doing so in 61 of 132 starts (46 percent) for the Yankees. He's been a souped-up version of the Twins' long-preferred pitching mold.

Kevin Correia: .292/.335/.439 in 478 plate appearances

Kevin Correia got off to a horrendous start, put together a nice stretch heading into the All-Star break, and just like last year finished the first half as one of baseball's worst starters. Offensive levels dropping across MLB have kept his numbers from being as gag-inducing as bad pitchers from 5-10 years ago, but among the 93 qualified starters this season Correia ranks dead last in strikeout rate, second-to-last in xFIP, and 84th in ERA. He also leads MLB with 11 losses.

Last year when Correia tossed 185 innings with the league's second-worst strikeout rate and seventh-worst ERA the Twins portrayed it as successful, but that was spin and now with several good prospects knocking on the door to the majors there's little value to be had in letting Correia finish out his two-year, $10 million contract. Since the beginning of last season the only two MLB pitchers with more innings and a higher ERA than Correia are Kyle Kendrick and ...

Ricky Nolasco: .330/.368/.538 in 459 plate appearances

Signed to a four-year, $49 million deal this offseason to front the Twins' rotation, Ricky Nolasco was the worst starter in the league for three months and then revealed that he'd been pitching through an elbow injury since spring training. Within his terrible performance was some poor luck on balls in play, even by Nolasco's often "unlucky" standards, but his velocity, strikeout rate, and walk rate were also all worse than the 31-year-old's career norms.

Based on secondary numbers Nolasco performed more like a 4.50 ERA pitcher than a 5.90 ERA pitcher, but that's still awful in a year when the average starter has a 4.05 ERA. Justin Morneau hit .321/.375/.559 in his MVP-winning 2006 season. This year opponents have hit .330/.368/.538 off Nolasco. Thankfully for the Twins adding Hughes to the rotation has worked out well, because the decisions to sign Nolasco and re-sign Mike Pelfrey have gone about as poorly as possible.

Kyle Gibson: .251/.303/.356 in 423 plate appearances

Kyle Gibson returned from Tommy John elbow surgery without bat-missing raw stuff, generating just 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings since going under the knife. That limits his upside and means he'll always be in danger of a rapid collapse, but his ability to induce grounders has remained with the rebuilt elbow and his ground-ball rate of 54.6 percent ranks seventh among all MLB starters. And after some early control problems he issued just nine walks in his final 10 first-half starts.

Throwing strikes and keeping the ball on the ground is a recipe for success, but without strikeouts that success likely tops out in the middle of the rotation. Which is fine, of course. The last Twins starter to log 150 innings with a higher ground-ball rate than Gibson's current mark was ... no one, at least not since 2002 when the data begins. Still, fewer than 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings is Silva, Nick Blackburn, and Scott Diamond territory, which is a dangerous place to be.

Sam Deduno: .260/.344/.370 in 305 plate appearances

Once presumed to be a member of the rotation, Sam Deduno began the season in the bullpen before shifting into starter mode to replace the injured Pelfrey in May. After an ugly June 14 start he moved back to the bullpen, where he finished the first half by throwing 13 scoreless innings. His sample size of relief work is too small to draw any conclusions, but with a 4.51 ERA and 4.5 walks per nine innings in 41 career starts there's no need to see more of Deduno in the rotation.

Anthony Swarzak: .265/.323/.359 in 198 plate appearances

Nearly all of the gains Anthony Swarzak made last season have vanished this year, as his strikeout and walk rates have regressed to the pre-2013 levels that made him look like a marginal big leaguer. His durability has value in a bullpen-saving role, but Swarzak is now 28 years old with a 3.69 ERA and just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 132 career relief appearances. He doesn't miss enough bats or throw enough strikes.

Glen Perkins: .230/.264/.375 in 163 plate appearances

I'm not sure people fully appreciate just how good Glen Perkins has been since moving to the bullpen full time in 2011. During that four-year span he's posted a 2.54 ERA in 235 appearances, compiling 269 strikeouts compared to 49 non-intentional walks in 234 innings. And since taking over for Matt Capps as closer in mid-2012 he's converted 74 saves at an 89 percent success rate. By comparison, Mariano Rivera converted 89 percent of his career save chances.

Among all MLB relievers with at least 200 innings since 2011 he ranks seventh in strikeout-to-walk ratio, eighth in average fastball velocity, and ninth in Win Probability Added and xFIP. He's been one of the 10 best relievers in baseball since becoming a reliever and Perkins is actually getting better, as this year's 49/7 K/BB ratio in 39 innings represents the best strikeout and walk rates of his career. He's the third-best reliever in Twins history behind Joe Nathan and Rick Aguilera.

Jared Burton: .236/.306/.396 in 160 plate appearances

It'd be easy to point to his 3.34 ERA in 35 appearances since back-to-back ugly April outings as proof that Jared Burton has been his old self of late, but the truth is that a 3.34 ERA isn't even much better than this season's MLB average of 3.60 for relievers and his 24/10 K/BB ratio in 32 innings during that span is hardly vintage Burton. His velocity and strikeouts are down, his walks and fly-ball rate are up, and after a helluva run for the Twins he's in decline mode at age 33.

Casey Fien: .215/.242/.347 in 155 plate appearances

Extreme fly-ball pitchers always make for tricky late-inning relievers and Casey Fien has had a few home run-based blowups, but he's also got a 2.95 ERA and fantastic 137/27 K/BB ratio in 137 innings since the Twins signed him as a minor-league free agent in 2012 and then called him up with zero expectations that July. During that three-year span Fien has been superior to Burton in strikeout rate, walk rate, opponents' average, ERA, and xFIP. He's the Twins' best setup man.

Brian Duensing: .260/.327/.382 in 148 plate appearances

Compared to last season his ERA looks much better, but Brian Duensing's secondary numbers are actually much worse and in particular he's managed a poor 21/13 K/BB ratio in 36 innings. Duensing continues to be decent versus left-handed hitters, but he's walked more righties (10) than he's struck out (9). For his career righties have hit .297/.356/.462 off Duensing and he's not nearly dominant enough against lefties to make up for it.

Mike Pelfrey: .305/.419/.505 in 119 plate appearances

Pelfrey was terrible in 2013, going 5-13 with a 5.19 ERA in 29 starts, but for some reason the Twins felt compelled to give him a two-year, $11 million contract. He went 0-3 with a 7.99 ERA in five starts, got shut down with a dubious groin injury, and later underwent elbow surgery. He's probably done for the season, but Pelfrey will be back in the mix for a rotation spot next season because he's still owed another $5.5 million.

Caleb Thielbar: .231/.271/.413 in 118 plate appearances

Last season Caleb Thielbar came out of nowhere to emerge as the Twins' secondary left-handed setup man and he's filled the same role relatively well this year. At age 27 the former independent leaguer lacks long-term upside, but through 76 innings as a big leaguer he's got a 2.23 ERA and 60/22 K/BB ratio without extreme platoon splits. He's been used in low-leverage situations, but that could change in the second half if the Twins start auditioning him for Duensing's gig.

Matt Guerrier: .245/.295/.324 in 113 plate appearances

Signed to a minor-league deal and then promoted to Minnesota one day before the mid-May opt-out clause in his contract, Matt Guerrier has posted a nice-looking 2.67 ERA with just one homer allowed in 20 appearances. He hasn't quite been his old self, however, with just 12 strikeouts in 27 innings and an average fastball velocity of 89 miles per hour. At age 35 he's a low-leverage reliever, which is exactly how the Twins have used the former setup man.


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September 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Mauer shut down, rotation spending, and no platooning

joe mauer catching mask

Joe Mauer continues to have post-concussion symptoms more than a month after suffering a brain injury, so Monday the Twins shut him down for the final week of the season. Mauer hasn't played since taking a foul ball off the mask on August 19 and experienced setbacks when he tried to ramp up workouts during the past few weeks, with Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writing that he "still feels sensitivity to light and noises, and has trouble outside confined spaces."

Shutting him down is absolutely the correct decision and by the time spring training rolls around Mauer will be six months removed from the concussion, but sadly as the Twins and so many other teams have learned in recent years there are no guarantees with brain injuries. And now, much like with Justin Morneau and Denard Span, the only thing the Twins can really do is wait and hold their breath hoping that time and rest do the trick.

In making Monday's announcement both Mauer and general manager Terry Ryan stressed that they expect him to remain at catcher next season, but whereas that seemed like a questionable stance at the time of the concussion last month it now seems borderline crazy to me. I've spent a decade writing about how much of Mauer's value comes from catching and have always argued against a position switch, but the question has changed and the old answers cease to apply.

There's no way to stop a catcher from taking foul balls off the mask on a regular basis, along with all the other physical dangers that come with the position, and if he were to suffer another brain injury it might be too late to avoid major long-term consequences on and off the field. As a first baseman Mauer's odds of remaining an elite player into his mid-30s are much lower, but he'd still provide plenty of value there and Josmil Pinto is a potential replacement with upside.

(Note: I went into a lot more depth analyzing the Mauer position switch decision last month.)

• There seems to be considerable disagreement within the organization about how much focus to put on acquiring pitching via free agency. Nick Nelson of Twins Daily wrote a breakdown of the situation, with the short version being that Ron Gardenhire is basically begging for rotation help and owner Jim Pohlad says he's willing to spend big for reinforcements, all while Ryan downplays free agency much like he did last winter before settling for Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey.

Every team would love to build a rotation full of young, cheap pitchers and for many years the Twins did that well enough to avoid having to swim into the deep end of the free agency pool. And generally speaking free agent pitching is typically overpriced and requires making risky long-term commitments to players on the wrong side of 30. However, their current lack of MLB-ready arms with more than back-of-the-rotation upside makes Ryan's usual approach a tough one to pull off.

Despite his rookie struggles Kyle Gibson still has a chance to develop into more than a fourth or fifth starter and Alex Meyer remains a potential top-of-the-rotation starter if he can stay healthy, but neither can be counted on to make a huge 2014 impact and even if they do surrounding them with the likes of Correia, Scott Diamond, Vance Worley, and Samuel Deduno is going to leave the rotation well short of decent.

Last season Twins starters had the second-worst ERA in baseball at 5.40 and this season Twins starters have the worst ERA in baseball at 5.26. Based on those numbers and the in-house options who can realistically be rotation members in 2014 there's little chance of building even an average rotation without bringing in outside help. Ryan would surely prefer trades to free agency, but my fear is that his real plan involves a third straight season with a terrible rotation on the cheap.

• One of my frequent complaints about Gardenhire is his unwillingness to platoon hitters, which he's basically never done. Most prominently Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel played no matter the pitcher, but versus lefties Jones hit .231/.286/.355 and Kubel hit .239/.313/.365. For a more recent example on the other side of the plate, Trevor Plouffe plays no matter the pitcher despite hitting .223/.280/.381 off righties. And there are no shortage of maddening day-to-day examples.

Many of the best managers in baseball history regularly employed platoons and current examples in Gardenhire's own league include former Manager of the Year winners Joe Maddon of the Rays, Bob Melvin of the A's, and Buck Showalter of the Orioles. It's hardly a new-school approach and it's hardly a complicated thing to make sense of, yet Gardenhire has never budged and said the following when asked about it by Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

I don't recall ever having a platoon. I'm not against it. I'll tell you that. I wouldn't have a problem having a platoon if it fits. If it makes sense numbers-wise and it works, then you go with it.

"I don't recall ever having a platoon" and "I'm not against it" are statements that don't fit together coming from a manager in his 12th season on the job. Gardenhire may not be against it in theory, but his actions over nearly 2,000 games have certainly shown that he's very much against it in practice despite having plenty of opportunities to improve the lineup via platooning. And for his part, Ryan told Berardino that he's fine with the manager's lack of platooning:

I don't think he likes to platoon players at all. I don't either. Put guys out there that are everyday players, then you don't have to platoon. You're always looking for players that can play 162 games, right? That's what I'm looking for. I don't go out looking for platoon players.

Obviously every team would love to find nine everyday players and trot them out there 162 times, but that's an impossible goal and instead leads to so-called "everyday players" like Jones, Kubel, and Plouffe flailing away against same-sided pitchers they have no business facing. Over the past three seasons the Twins have scored the fewest runs in the league, making "I don't go out looking for platoon players" sound awfully tone deaf coming from the GM. It's nothing new, though.

• Mauer hasn't played since August 19, but according to Win Above Replacement and Fan Graphs' valuation system he's still been worth more than his salary this season.

• This year the Twins have been out-scored by 158 runs, which is the second-worst run differential in baseball. The worst run differential in Twins history belongs to the 1995 team at -186.

• Since taking over for Matt Capps as Twins closer Glen Perkins has converted 90 percent of his save chances (52-for-58) with a 2.31 ERA.

LaTroy Hawkins left the Twins for a two-year, $8 million deal with the Cubs as a 31-year-old free agent and a decade later he's still rolling along.

Francisco Liriano is lined up to start the Wild Card playoff game for the Pirates.

• For a lot more about Mauer's future and the Twins' roster options for next season check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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August 21, 2013

Twins Notes: Gibson, Morneau, Butera, Carroll, Mientkiewicz, and Liriano

kyle gibson final start of 2013

Kyle Gibson's first taste of the majors likely came to an end Monday, as the Twins demoted him back to Triple-A immediately following his poor outing against the Mets. Gibson pitched well in his Twins debut on June 29, but was mostly a mess after that and returns to Rochester sporting an ugly 6.53 ERA in 10 starts. His secondary numbers are only slightly more encouraging, including just 29 strikeouts in 51 innings and a .327 opponents' batting average with seven homers allowed.

Gibson got knocked around by big-league hitters and looked worn out at times, so considering the expected workload limit in his first full season since elbow surgery shutting him down soon made sense. He's thrown 144 total innings between the majors and minors and by shutting Gibson down after optioning him to Triple-A the Twins keep him from accumulating MLB service time while not pitching, although certainly the demotion could be purely based on performance.

There are some positives to be taken from Gibson's first 10 starts, including an average fastball of 92.2 miles per hour and a ground-ball rate around 50 percent, but the questions about his ability to generate strikeouts remain and overall he looked like anything but a top prospect. Hopefully he can come back strong next season, because Gibson will be 26 years old in a couple months and the Twins desperately need someone to emerge as more than a back-of-the-rotation starter.

• When the Twins traded Drew Butera to the Dodgers on July 31 for a player to be named later or cash considerations my assumption was that their return would be cash and the considerations would be approximately the cost of a bucket of baseballs. Instead they ended up getting Miguel Sulbaran, a diminutive 19-year-old left-hander with a solid track record in the low minors since signing out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old.

As one of the youngest pitchers in the Midwest League this season Sulbaran has a 3.26 ERA and 86-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 97 innings. For comparison, J.O. Berrios has a 3.45 ERA and 92-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 94 innings facing the same low Single-A hitters at the same age. Last year the Twins drafted Berrios with the 32nd pick and he has much better raw stuff, so they're hardly prospect equals, but to get any sort of useful player for Butera is shocking.

Sulbaran hasn't cracked any Baseball America or ESPN rankings, but Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com recently rated him as the No. 14 prospect in the Dodgers' farm system. Mayo wrote that Sulbaran "has a good feel for his low-90s fastball" and "his curveball is his best offspeed pitch and both his slider and changeup show promise." Butera is arguably the worst hitter of the past three decades, so any deal would get the "great trade ... who'd we get?" treatment, but this is a nice haul.

• Parting with Butera is the only move the Twins made before the July 31 deadline, but trades can also happen in August via the waiver wire system and they swung another deal by sending Jamey Carroll to the Royals for the familiar player to be named later or cash considerations. If the Twins get anything decent in return for Carroll that would be even more shocking than the Butera deal, because as a 39-year-old impending free agent he had zero value to them beyond this season.

Carroll didn't work out quite as well as the Twins hoped when they signed him as a free agent in November of 2011, but the reasoning behind the two-year, $6.5 million contract made sense. As usual the Twins' infield options were severely lacking and Carroll was a good, versatile defender with strong on-base skills. He did what he was supposed to do in 2012, drawing the third-most walks on the team to get on base at a .343 clip and starting 30-plus games at three positions.

When signing a 37-year-old to a multi-year deal rapid decline is always a risk and unfortunately this season Carroll's usually outstanding strike-zone control vanished and the Twins no longer trusted him to play shortstop at age 39. He was a worthwhile pickup who couldn't hold off father time long enough to provide a great return on a fairly modest investment. And yet among all the middle infielders in Twins history to appear in 150 games only 10 had a better OBP than Carroll.

• As expected, Justin Morneau passed through waivers unclaimed because he's a 32-year-old impending free agent first baseman with a $14 million salary and a .430 slugging percentage. At this point it's unclear if any contending teams are interested in Morneau, but at the very least no teams were interested in Morneau and the possibility of being stuck with the remaining $4 million on his contract.

Clearing waivers means Morneau can be traded to any team, with August 31 as the deadline for postseason eligibility. However, don't expect much if he's moved. Despite a confusing number of fans and media members continuing to act as if Morneau is an impact player he's been a below-average first baseman since the 2010 concussion, batting .257/.317/.409 in 320 games. This year there are 216 major leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances and he ranks 115th in OPS.

Josh Willingham returning from knee surgery followed by Ryan Doumit coming back from a concussion left the Twins with a roster crunch and they decided to make room by demoting Chris Colabello back to the minors. It's a shame, because Colabello's monstrous Triple-A production warranted an extended opportunity at age 29 and he was just starting to show some promise by hitting .286/.397/.551 with four homers and nine walks in his last 16 games.

Most of the talk surrounding a possible Morneau trade centers on what the Twins might get in return and whether they should try to keep him past this season, but one side effect is that not trading him takes at-bats away from guys like Colabello who could prove useful on a minimum salary for 2014 and beyond if given a chance. Instead, after hitting .354/.432/.652 at Triple-A he got a grand total of 96 plate appearances in the majors.

UPDATE: Well, the good news is that Colabello has already been called back up. Unfortunately it's because Joe Mauer was placed on the concussion disabled list after taking multiple foul tips to the mask Monday. Mauer was dizzy during batting practice Tuesday, which is an awfully scary thing to write following several paragraphs about Morneau being a shell of his former self since a concussion. Brain injuries are impossible to predict, so it's breath-holding time.

• Fort Myers manager Doug Mientkiewicz got into a brawl with the opposing manager Saturday, video of which you can see below courtesy of the Fort Myers News Press:

Because the beginning of the brawl wasn't captured on video it's tough to tell exactly what went on, but by all accounts Mientkiewicz escalated the situation in a huge way by running out of the dugout to tackle the other manager. Twins minor league director Brad Steil issued a statement saying "that's not the example we want him to set for our players" and "he realizes that's not how we want him to represent the Minnesota Twins."

However, general manager Terry Ryan explained that the Twins left any discipline to the Florida State League, saying: "Doug was apologetic. I think it's taken care of." And the FSL merely fined him, providing quite a contrast to the Twins allowing Double-A manager Jeff Smith to bench Miguel Sano four games for showboating on a homer and reacting poorly to being scolded. It's obviously apples and oranges, but imagine Sano tackling another player and only being fined.

Francisco Liriano is 14-5 with a 2.53 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 121 innings for the first place Pirates, allowing two or fewer runs in 15 of 19 starts while throwing fastballs far less often than he ever did with the Twins. Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote a lengthy, quote-filled article about Liriano's post-Twins turnaround, including this comment from Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage:

Because that's Frankie. If I try to make Frankie pitch like [someone else], we wouldn't have what we got. That's force-feeding him to do something that he's not comfortable doing. Frankie does pitch the way he pitches. So just let him be him. That's what we did.

Maybe he simply needed a fresh start somewhere else, but "just let him be him" certainly isn't something Twins coaches said often about Liriano and his improvement can be linked to a clear change in approach that runs counter to what the Twins preached regarding fastball usage. He's averaged 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings for the Pirates, whereas the Twins have used 10 different starters this year and none have averaged more than 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

• Whatever slim chance Nick Blackburn had of pitching for the Twins again is over following season-ending knee surgery. Blackburn's contract still includes an $8 million team option for next season, but that will obviously be declined. In signing Blackburn to a misguided long-term deal in March of 2010 the Twins ended up paying $14 million for 408 innings of a 5.56 ERA from a guy who would have been under team control through 2013 even without the guaranteed contract.

Darin Mastroianni wound up spending four months on the disabled list with an ankle injury that was initially deemed so minor that the Twins let him play through the pain for several weeks. He eventually underwent surgery, but now that Mastroianni is healthy again the Twins activated him from the disabled list and optioned him to Triple-A. In other words, Mastroianni lost his job because of the injury. And his 40-man roster spot might be in danger this offseason.

• For a lot more about Morneau going unclaimed on waivers and a look at the Twins' options for improving the rotation in 2014, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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