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.

October 28, 2015

Trevor Plouffe, Miguel Sano, and the Twins’ future at third base

Trevor Plouffe and Miguel Sano Twins

Trevor Plouffe was a high school shortstop from California when the Twins drafted him with the 20th overall pick in 2004. At the time some teams preferred Plouffe's upside as a pitcher, but the Twins viewed him as a shortstop and that's where he played year after year in the minors. In all Plouffe logged 5,400 innings and played 680 games as a minor-league shortstop, including 250 at Triple-A. And then the Twins called him up and it looked like he'd never played the position.

Plouffe played 54 total games at shortstop for the Twins in 2010 and 2011--exactly one third of a full season--and committed 12 errors. Most of them were of the throwing variety, including several routine plays air-mailed into the seats behind first base. In those 54 games Ultimate Zone Rating said he was 10 runs below average and Defensive Runs Saved said he was 15 runs below average. Perhaps at some point he would've improved, but Plouffe simply wasn't a big-league shortstop.

And there's no shame in that. Playing shortstop in the big leagues is incredibly difficult and most shortstop prospects end up shifting to less demanding positions before even reaching the majors. Plouffe's situation stood out only because he'd played so much shortstop in the minors and at the time of his call-up the idea of him playing shortstop for the Twins wasn't viewed as far-fetched. It was, though, and by mid-2011 he was being tried at other positions.

First he got some action at second base, which is where shortstops who lack arm strength often wind up. Brian Dozier is an example of the shortstop-to-second base shift working out well, but Plouffe didn't lack arm strength and was too big/not quick enough to make the transition. Next he got some action in right field and left field, which is where shortstops who out-grow the position often wind up. Plouffe looked fine there, but his bat seemed light for a corner outfielder.

In fact, at the time his bat seemed light in general. In addition to playing shortstop in the minors Plouffe also hit like a shortstop in the minors, which is to say not well. Overall as a minor leaguer he batted .258 with a .405 slugging percentage, failing to crack a .750 OPS in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, or 2010. Everything changed for Plouffe offensively at Triple-A in 2011, as he broke out with a monster 51-game stretch in which he hit .313/.384/.635 with 15 homers.

Plouffe shedding his "light-hitting shortstop" label offensively right around the time he shed his "shortstop" label defensively was likely tied together as part of his physical maturation and was definitely good timing, as it allowed the Twins to give him a long look at third base in 2012. It wasn't a smooth transition, as he struggled to make routine plays and graded out poorly overall, but Plouffe's arm strength, vast shortstop experience, and hard work eventually paid off.

By mid-2013 he no longer looked like a fish out of water at third base and the sudden power he'd shown at Triple-A in 2012 stuck around for good. After a decade as a light-hitting shortstop with shaky defensive chops Plouffe was a strong-armed, power-hitting third baseman. He produced 21 homers per 150 games from 2012-2015 and his defensive stats improved from bad to mediocre to good, making him a solidly above average all-around third baseman.

And that's where Plouffe sits now, at age 30 and with his Twins future in question. To make the transition from light-hitting, poor-fielding shortstop to power-hitting, good-fielding third baseman is remarkable in itself, as evidenced by Plouffe being one of the Twins' best players for the past four seasons. However, his subsequent inability to take the next step offensively by adding other skills to his 20-homer power has caused Plouffe to stagnate.

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
2012     .235     .301     .455     .756
2013     .254     .309     .392     .701
2014     .258     .328     .423     .751
2015     .244     .307     .435     .742

He hit .244/.307/.435 this season, which is nearly identical to his combined .249/.314/.422 line from 2012-2014. His walk and strikeout rates have remained remarkably stable and the biggest change in his performance since 2012 was grounding into a league-high 28 double plays this year. Plouffe is established a .250 hitter with 20-homer power, sub par plate discipline, and poor speed, which adds up to a .725-.750 OPS at a position where the MLB average was a .755 OPS in 2015.

Stagnating as an above-average player is far from the worst thing, but there are other factors at play. For one thing, Plouffe's salary is rising. He made $4.8 million this season and is in line for $8 million or so in 2016 via arbitration. Beyond that, the Twins control him for just two more years. After making, say, $8 million in 2016 and $11 million in 2017, he'll be able to hit the open market as a free agent and potentially leave for nothing. And then there's Miguel Sano.

Sano was a shortstop when he signed with the Twins as a 16-year-old in 2009 and played a few hundred rookie-ball innings there around the time Plouffe was showing he couldn't play shortstop in the majors. Sano quickly shifted to third base, where his massive size led to constant doubts about his ability to remain there long term. Missing all of 2014 following elbow surgery cast even more doubt, but the Twins have consistently insisted that Sano can play third base.

Sano made his long-awaited MLB debut in July and was a revelation, hitting .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers, 17 doubles, and 53 walks in 80 games. He transformed the Twins lineup in one of the best rookie seasons in team history, but he also did so as a designated hitter because of Plouffe's presence at third base. Sano played nine games and logged 77 innings at third base and looked decent, but the sample size is far too small to be worth evaluating.

It seems safe to assume Sano will never be a standout defensive third baseman and based on his size and level of athleticism at age 22 it also seems safe to assume he won't be playing third base, period, by the time he's 30. However, what position he's playing at age 30 is a question for 2020 rather than 2016 and if Sano can play a reasonably competent third base in the short term trading Plouffe becomes a viable option for the Twins.

By trading Plouffe the Twins would accomplish several things. Trade interest is always difficult to gauge, but presumably several teams would pursue Plouffe as a multi-year answer at third base and would be willing to surrender something of short- and/or long-term value. Parting with him would also create $8 million in spending money for 2016 and another $10-12 million for 2017, which could certainly come in handy in the Twins' never-ending search for pitching help.

Going from Plouffe to Sano at third base would hurt defensively, but Plouffe isn't exactly Brooks Robinson and it could also lead to an upgrade offensively. Not only is Sano a better hitter than Plouffe, moving him to third base would open up the DH spot for another big bat. Plouffe's usual .725-750 OPS is solid for a third baseman, but for lineup purposes the Twins would essentially be replacing him with a DH and finding a DH capable of topping a .750 OPS shouldn't be difficult.

In fact, the Twins currently have a logjam of young first basemen, designated hitters, and corner outfielders. Sano falls into that category or perhaps more accurately that category has the honor of including Sano, which is why his being able to play third base could create opportunities that wouldn't otherwise exist for log-jammed hitters like Oswaldo Arcia, Kennys Vargas, Josmil Pinto, Max Kepler, and Adam Walker.

To frame a potential Plouffe trade as the Twins getting rid of him would be misleading, because if there are no appealing offers on the table they should absolutely keep him and feel just fine about doing so. But thanks to Plouffe's growing salary and nearing free agency, Sano's (large) presence, and the abundance of young bats in need of opportunities in Minnesota or elsewhere a trade is a very viable option. It's exactly the type of move a smart team should explore.

For more on the Twins' possible offseason plans, including a potential reunion with A.J. Pierzynski, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

October 14, 2015

My hypothetical Twins MVP ballot

Miguel Sano and Brian Dozier Twins

After four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins re-emerged as a competitive team, going 83-79 and remaining in the Wild Card hunt until the final weekend of the season. Here's my attempt to rank the most valuable individual performances behind the team-wide turnaround:

1. Miguel Sano

It's difficult to be the most valuable player on a team when playing only 80 of 162 games, but two things make Miguel Sano a special case. One is that he was great in those 80 games, ranking as one of the best hitters in baseball and repeatedly coming through with key hits in key spots. Two is that none of the Twins' full-time, season-long players had particularly outstanding years, leaving Sano's great half-season to compete against good but not great full seasons.

Called up from Double-A on July 2 after the Twins went 11-17 in June, he was immediately the best, most patient hitter in the lineup. Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers and 53 walks in 80 games, including a 1.055 OPS with runners on, a 1.028 OPS with runners in scoring position, and a 1.100 OPS in close-and-late situations. He easily led the team in the context-dependent stat Win Probability Added and ranked 17th in the entire league despite not playing in April, May, or June.

At age 22 he forced pitchers to throw strikes and punished them when they gave in. An incredible 28 percent of Sano's plate appearances went to a full count, compared to the MLB average of 12 percent, and he posted a 1.281 OPS on 3-2 pitches. He also batted a ridiculous .700 with a 1.650 slugging percentage when putting the first pitch in play, punishing get-me-over strikes too. Sano's rookie season wasn't just good or even great for a rookie, it was one of the best in Twins history.

Sano's adjusted OPS+ of 146 ranked seventh in the AL behind only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion. Sano tied with Chris Davis, who led the league in homers for the second time in three seasons. Within the context of team history, the only other Twins hitters to top an OPS+ of 145 during the past 20 seasons are Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jim Thome. None of them did it more than once. Sano is 1-for-1.

As a proponent of cumulative production, defense, and positional adjustments being big factors in player value the idea of a half-season designated hitter being team MVP is a tough sell, but Sano had a truly special half-season that was elevated even further in "clutch" situations and it seemed odd not to prefer 80 games of that compared to 150 games of slightly above-average. Sano was the Twins' best player for every moment he wore a Twins uniform and that gets my MVP.

2. Brian Dozier

Brian Dozier appeared to be having a breakout year when he followed up a very strong 2014 season with an even better first half, hitting .256/.328/.513 with 19 homers, 48 total extra-base hits, and 34 walks in 88 games to make his first All-Star team. Seemingly established as one of MLB's best second basemen, he then collapsed in the second half and hit just .210/.280/.359 to finish with worse overall numbers than he posted in 2014.

Starting strong only to fall apart in the second half in back-to-back years is worrisome and calls into question whether Dozier's durability is actually a strength, but the end result was still plenty valuable. He led all MLB second basemen in homers (28), extra-base hits (71), and runs scored (101), ranked second in RBIs (77), walks (61), and total bases (279), and posted a .751 OPS compared the MLB average of .711 for the position.

Toss in up-the-middle defense that rates slightly below average according to most metrics and Dozier was one of the top 10 second basemen in MLB this season. It may have been less jarring for Twins fans to watch if he'd simply been a .750 OPS hitter all year instead of being an All-Star in the first half and replacement-level in the second half, but in assessing all-around value for the season as a whole Dozier has a reasonable argument for being team MVP.

3. Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson took a step forward this year, staying healthy with a full-season workload again and upping his strikeout rate by 25 percent while maintaining nearly identical rates everywhere else. Last season he walked 2.9 per nine innings, induced 54 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play. This season he walked 3.0 per nine innings, induced 53 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play.

Those are remarkably similar numbers and Gibson was able to up his strikeouts from 5.4 to 6.7 per nine innings. He's unlikely to ever be a high-strikeout pitcher, but in both 2014 and 2015 his ground-ball rate ranked among MLB's top 10 and pairing that with even a decent strikeout rate can lead to big things. This year for Gibson that mix--along with better bullpen support and fewer blowup starts--led to slicing his ERA from 4.47 to 3.84 while leading the Twins with 195 innings.

4. Trevor Plouffe

Trevor Plouffe had a typical Trevor Plouffe season, hitting .244/.307/.435 with 22 homers, 35 doubles, and a 124/50 K/BB ratio in 152 games while playing above-average third base defense. His production was nearly identical to his combined 2012-2014 line of .249/.314/.422 and in four seasons as the Twins' starting third baseman his OPS has never been lower than .701 or higher than .756. He is what he is, except for one big difference this year: Double plays.

Plouffe grounded into 28 double plays, which led the league and tied for the most in Twins history. His previous career-high was just 12 double plays. Whether it was a one-year fluke or not, making two outs at a time so often--and in so many key, rally-crushing situations--took a big chunk out of Plouffe's value. Compared to all MLB third basemen he was almost exactly average--slightly below offensively and slightly above defensively.

5. Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario was called up from Triple-A to replace the injured Oswaldo Arcia on May 6 and never went back, hitting better than his recent minor-league track record suggested he would and impressing defensively with excellent range and a strong arm. Rosario's total lack of patience held him back, as he swung at everything on the way to a ghastly 118/15 K/BB ratio and .289 on-base percentage, but his other skills mostly made up for all the hacking.

Rosario hit .267 with 13 homers, 18 doubles, and a league-high 15 triples on the way to a sturdy .459 slugging percentage. He nearly led the league with 16 outfield assists and tracked down fly balls that many recent Twins left fielders wouldn't have even gone after. Long term Rosario risks failing to fulfill his potential if he doesn't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but this season his extra-base power, speed, and defense made him an above-average regular at age 23.

6. Trevor May

Demoted to Triple-A at the end of spring training, Trevor May moved into the rotation following Ervin Santana's suspension and posted the best secondary numbers of any Twins starter through early July. His reward was being moved to the bullpen, where May took the role change in stride despite wanting to remain a starter and logged 31.1 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 37/8 K/BB ratio while emerging as the team's primary setup man.

When the Twins needed a starter, May stepped in and did a good job for three months. When the Twins needed a reliever, May shifted to the bullpen without putting up a Mike Pelfrey-like fuss and did a good job for three months. There's added value in that versatility, not unlike a position player with the ability to handle multiple spots defensively, and May finished his first full season in the majors with a 4.00 ERA and 110/26 K/BB ratio in 115 innings overall.

7. Eduardo Escobar

Eduardo Escobar was as a square peg in a round hole when the Twins gave the shortstop job to Danny Santana and regularly used Escobar way out of position in left field. They finally came to their senses in July thanks to Santana's ineptitude and Escobar picked up where he left off as one of the AL's better shortstops. His overall value is tough to gauge because he struggled in left field and thrived at shortstop, but Escobar certainly isn't to blame for the team misusing him.

He ended up starting 71 games at shortstop compared to 34 in left field or at designated hitter, plus nine more at second and third base. Overall he hit .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits in 127 games. For some context his .754 OPS was 70 points higher than the average shortstop and slightly below average for corner outfielders, which is why Escobar's early usage was so silly and why his finally replacing Santana at shortstop made such a big impact.

8. Ervin Santana

Suspended for the first 80 games, Ervin Santana initially fared well upon joining the rotation in early July before having a brutal six-start stretch from late July through late August in which he allowed 33 runs in 30 innings. At that point he had a 6.05 ERA and the four-year, $52 million signing looked like a disaster, but then Santana fixed his mechanics and was one of the league's best starters down the stretch with a 1.62 ERA and 47/14 K/BB ratio in his final 50 innings.

There was nothing special about Santana's overall performance, which included a 4.00 ERA and 82/36 K/BB ratio with 12 homers allowed in 108 innings, but he was an above-average starting pitcher for 17 starts and that carries significant value just the same as it would if he'd been a prospect called up at midseason rather than a veteran banned from participating in the team's first 80 games.

9. Tommy Milone

An afterthought for most of the season--including a month-long demotion to Triple-A despite being 28 years old with 500 innings as a big leaguer--Tommy Milone started 23 games and logged 129 innings with a 3.92 ERA. It wasn't always pretty and it was never flashy, but Milone had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Gibson, Santana, and Pelfrey while ranking second among all Twins starters in Win Probability Added behind only Gibson.

10. Tyler Duffey

It was only 10 starts, but Tyler Duffey saved the Twins' rotation by throwing 58 innings with a 3.10 ERA and 53/20 K/BB ratio down the stretch as veteran starters were dropping like flies and May was working out of the bullpen. After getting knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut Duffey joined Santana as the only reliable starters for the final six weeks, completing at least six innings and allowing two or fewer runs in each of his last five starts.

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October 6, 2015

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

Miguel Sano Twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 25, 2015

The Monster: Miguel Sano after 44 games

Miguel Sano Twins

Monday's off day provides an opportunity to stop and marvel at Miguel Sano's start with the Twins. Called up on July 2, he's hit .288/.397/.582 with 11 homers, 12 doubles, and 29 walks in 44 games as a 22-year-old rookie. Sano being a great hitter isn't a surprise--it's exactly what the Twins had in mind when they signed him for $3.15 million at age 16--but for him to be this good this soon after missing all of 2014 following elbow surgery and skipping Triple-A is incredible.

Among all hitters to debut with the Twins through their first 44 career games Sano has the most home runs (11), most walks (29), second-most RBIs (34), and third-highest OPS (.979). Sano's current numbers prorated to a full 162-game season would include a .288 batting average, .397 on-base percentage, .582 slugging percentage, 41 homers, 44 doubles, 107 walks, and 125 RBIs. Those are numbers Twins fans simply haven't seen much.

Harmon Killebrew is the only hitter in Twins history with more than 35 homers in a season and no hitter in Twins history has totaled as many as 85 extra-base hits. Killebrew and Bob Allison are the only Twins hitters to draw 100 or more walks and Killebrew and Justin Morneau are the only Twins hitters with 125 or more RBIs. Prorated numbers after 44 games should be taken with large grains of salt, but you get the idea. Sano is a power-hitting, walk-drawing monster.

Sano has a hard-hit rate of 48.9 percent, which would lead the entire American League if he had enough playing time to qualify. He's swung at 24.5 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, which would rank as the seventh-lowest rate in the league. His isolated power of .294 and walk rate of 15.8 percent would both rank second in the league. He's waiting for good pitches and then crushing them.

Sano blows away the competition in terms of the best OPS by 22-year-old Twins hitters:

                    YEAR      OPS
MIGUEL SANO         2015     .979
Kent Hrbek          1982     .849
David Ortiz         1998     .817
Joe Mauer           2005     .783
Tom Brunansky       1983     .753

Even setting aside age, here are the best OPS totals by right-handed Twins hitters, period:

                    YEAR      OPS
Harmon Killebrew    1961    1.012
Harmon Killebrew    1969    1.011
MIGUEL SANO         2015     .979
Shane Mack          1994     .966
Harmon Killebrew    1967     .965

Of course, limiting things to Twins history short-changes what Sano is doing. Here are the top OPS totals by all 22-year-old right-handed hitters in MLB history:

                    YEAR      OPS
Joe DiMaggio        1937    1.085
Jimmie Foxx         1930    1.066
Frank Thomas        1990     .983
MIGUEL SANO         2015     .979
Giancarlo Stanton   2012     .969
Albert Pujols       2002     .955
Miguel Cabrera      2005     .947
Mike Trout          2014     .939

Sano has the fourth-best OPS by a 22-year-old right-handed hitter and that entire list is crazy.

Sano will almost surely come back down to earth at some point--pitchers will adjust to him, he'll have to adjust back, and in particular his sky-high strikeout rate will make maintaining a batting average above .280 difficult--but Twins fans should be beyond thrilled with what they've seen of him through 44 games. He's living up to the considerable hype and then some, and it's easy to envision the Twins' lineup revolving around him for the next decade.

For a lot more on Sano's greatness, plus plenty of talk about Byron Buxton's return to the Twins, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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