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.

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.

June 17, 2015

When will Miguel Sano join Byron Buxton in Minnesota?

Miguel Sano Twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

May 5, 2015

Twins bypass Aaron Hicks for Eddie Rosario to replace Oswaldo Arcia

Eddie Rosario Twins

It's common for the Twins to cite a prospect's lack of "consistency" in the minors as an excuse for why they haven't been called up. Most recently they did so with Triple-A reliever Lester Oliveros, who has a 1.65 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 76 innings since last season. Sustained dominance like that makes the notion of Oliveros lacking "consistency" seem absurd, particularly compared to the low standards for "consistency" the Twins so often seem to have for mediocre veterans.

Another problem with the Twins citing a lack of "consistency" whenever it suits them is that when it doesn't suit them they're quick to ignore the concept. Right now, for instance. Needing outfield help with Oswaldo Arcia headed to the disabled list with a hip injury, the Twins called up Eddie Rosario from Triple-A to make his MLB debut at age 23. Rosario was hitting .242/.280/.379 with a 17/5 K/BB ratio in 23 games for Rochester, which is terrible.

And that's nearly identical to his terrible performance last year, when Rosario was suspended for the first 50 games following a positive drug test and returned to hit .237/.277/.396 with a 68/17 K/BB ratio in 79 games at Double-A. In between he was talked up by the Twins throughout spring training only to hit .233 with zero walks in 17 games. In retrospect the spring disconnect between the praise he received and his performance was foreshadowing.

Rosario was suspended 50 games for drug use and hit terribly at two levels of the minors and in spring training since returning, but "consistency" apparently isn't always a must for a call-up. For whatever reason the Twins and especially manager Paul Molitor are infatuated with Rosario and it's also clear they've totally soured on Aaron Hicks, himself a former top prospect who struggled in the majors after being handed an Opening Day job too soon and is still just 25 years old.

Hicks is hitting .289/.375/.494 with a 15/12 K/BB ratio in the same Rochester lineup as Rosario, topping him in every way except being on the Twins' good side. Hicks also hit .291/.387/.441 with a 40/37 K/BB ratio in 67 games between AA/AAA last season, easily out-performing Rosario again. And while Hicks has struggled for the Twins, he posted a .341 on-base percentage over 69 games in the majors last year while Rosario has failed to crack a .300 OBP in the minors since last year.

For the sake of simplicity, here's how their career Double-A and Triple-A numbers compare:

TRIPLE-A      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     K/BB
Hicks        .264     .349     .410     .759     1.58
Rosario      .242     .280     .379     .659     3.40

DOUBLE-A      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     K/BB
Hicks        .289     .389     .461     .850     1.31
Rosario      .260     .302     .403     .705     3.55

Hicks is also considered as good or better defensively than Rosario, who attempted to transition from center field to second base before going back to the outfield full time this season and has always been projected more as a corner outfielder due to limited range. It's hard to blame the Twins too much if they've indeed given up on Hicks, but there's no indication Rosario is ready for the majors and this move makes any "consistency" talk look even sillier than usual.

As for Arcia, this is another setback on his quest to gain the Twins' trust and establish himself as an everyday, middle-of-the-order bat. Molitor's willingness to platoon has put Arcia on the bench frequently versus lefties and both his plate discipline and defense remain huge weaknesses. He's hitting reasonably well at .276/.338/.379 in 19 games, but all four of Arcia's walks have been intentional and he's swung at the second-most pitches outside the strike zone in the league.


For a lot more about the Twins' recent roster moves and call-up timetables, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

April 22, 2015

The art of platooning: Molitor vs. Gardenhire and Arcia vs. lefties

oswaldo arcia twins

Paul Molitor barely has his feet wet as Twins manager, but one noticeable change from Ron Gardenhire is the willingness to platoon. In his 13 seasons as manager Gardenhire essentially never platooned based on handedness, instead treating left-handed bats like Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel as everyday players despite their inability to handle left-handers and ignoring the potential value mediocre right-handed bats like Danny Valencia had as lefty mashers.

Molitor platooned more in his first couple weeks than Gardenhire did in some seasons, regularly benching Oswaldo Arcia and Jordan Schafer against lefties. That's a positive sign in the sense that platooning is a very straightforward, commonplace method of squeezing the most value out of non-stars and putting players in a position to succeed, but in this case the Twins constructed such a weak bench that their platoon options are pretty unappealing.

Not playing Schafer against lefties is a good idea, but Shane Robinson is such a weak overall hitter that his right-handedness barely makes a difference. Not playing Arcia against lefties is also a good idea, at least in the short term, but if the Twins still hold out any hope of him developing into an everyday player he'll need playing time versus lefties eventually and Eduardo Escobar, while better than Robinson, isn't exactly an ideal platoon-mate for a corner outfielder.

Mostly, though, it's just nice to see a manager willing to embrace a common, effective tactic after more than a decade of watching lefties flail away against left-handed pitching, potentially useful righties cast aside because they struggled in everyday roles, and batting orders remain unchanged regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitcher. And if the Twins' bench ever contains better options Molitor could do some interesting things with the lineup.

It'd be great to have nine everyday players and just trot them out in the same lineup spots no matter who was on the mound, but it's hard to find teams that wouldn't benefit from at least some platooning. Nearly every left-handed hitter in baseball history with a sizable track record has fared better against righties than lefties, often to an extreme degree. Because of that, with a lefty on the mound even good left-handed hitters are often worse than mediocre right-handed hitters.

For instance, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are MVP-winning left-handed bats and two of the best hitters in Twins history. However, looking strictly at production against left-handed pitching they both have a lower career OPS than mediocre right-handed hitters like J.J. Hardy, Delmon Young, and Trevor Plouffe. Having the platoon advantage makes a huge difference. Here are the career splits for the Twins' most-used left-handed hitters of the Gardenhire era:

CAREER OPS           vsR      vsL
Joe Mauer           .915     .749
Justin Morneau      .894     .705
Jason Kubel         .813     .676
Denard Span         .751     .726
Jacque Jones        .816     .628
Corey Koskie        .870     .707

On average those six left-handed hitters have an .843 OPS versus righties and a .699 OPS versus lefties for a collective decrease of 17 percent and everyone but Denard Span sees their OPS drop more than 125 points. Those decreases are larger than typical across MLB, but in general lefties tend to be 10-15 percent worse versus lefties. Of course, some lefty bats are good enough overall that they warrant keeping in the lineup against lefties even with the decreased production.

Put another way: Mauer's production against lefties drops 18 percent, but he's still decent with a .749 OPS. However, not many lefties are as good as Mauer overall and so most warrant benching at least semi-regularly. Gardenhire obviously didn't agree. Jones hit .230/.278/.350 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him leading off. Kubel hit .233/.305/.375 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him in the middle of the lineup. You get the idea.

It's possible that Arcia will improve versus lefties and/or become productive enough overall that he's worth playing every day and because he's still just 24 years old it's certainly worth investing some more time into finding out. More likely is that he's ultimately a platoon or quasi-platoon player, which is less a knock on Arcia specifically and more just the way things tend to go with good but not great left-handed hitters.

Considering his poor defense Arcia needs to put up big numbers to be worth having in the lineup at an offense-heavy position. So far he's hit .221/.262/.340 off lefties, which is 25 percent worse than his .249/.322/.489 line off righties. Even if Arcia gets better versus righties and turns that 25-percent drop versus lefties into, say, a 15-percent drop it shouldn't be all that hard for the Twins to find a random right-handed hitter capable of better against lefties.

Aaron Hicks, while hugely disappointing overall, has posted a .758 OPS off lefties in the majors and has always hit lefties much better than righties in the minors. Hicks may never develop into a quality regular, but he's already a quality platoon option. With a lefty on the mound he's a viable center fielder and/or better than Arcia offensively and defensively in left field. And that's the magic of platooning, which turns useless into useful by separating strengths from weaknesses.

Molitor has shown the mindset required to improve a lineup via platooning, but the Twins need to actually give him the pieces to make those moves worthwhile and a four-man bench of Robinson, Escobar, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez doesn't qualify. Still, after 13 years of learning to view hitters strictly through Gardenhire's binary "everyday player or not" lenses it's refreshing to consider how open-minded managing might take better advantage of useful but flawed options.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

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