December 10, 2014

Twins Notes: Arbitration, defensive numbers, coaches, and Colabello

Eduardo Nunez Twins

• Faced with seven arbitration-eligible players, the Twins tendered 2015 contracts to everyone but Anthony Swarzak. Cutting ties with Swarzak makes sense given his lack of upside and mediocre performance in a low-leverage role, but in previewing their arbitration-based decisions last month Tommy Milone, Brian Duensing, and Eduardo Nunez also struck me as potential non-tender candidates. Instead they kept all three at a projected combined salary of around $6.5 million.

Nunez in particular seems to serve little purpose given that he's 27 years old and hits like a utility infielder without actually being able to play defense like one. His projected $1.2 million salary is inconsequential, but it's hard to imagine the Twins not being able to find a better use of a roster spot. Trevor Plouffe and Casey Fien were no-brainers to keep and rightly or wrongly the Twins probably felt retaining Jordan Schafer for around $1.5 million was an easy call as well.

In keeping six of the seven arbitration-eligible players and signing Torii Hunter for $10.5 million the Twins have around $90 million committed for 2015 based on guaranteed contracts, projected arbitration salaries, and minimum salaries needed to fill out the roster. That's already more than they spent in 2013 or 2014 and there's been little indication that a large increase in spending is planned for 2015. And the roster also looks relatively set barring trades.

• In the wake of the Hunter signing Terry Ryan was asked again about defensive statistics and again downplayed their importance while reiterating that the Twins rely on their eyes to evaluate defense. Meanwhile, in losing 90-plus games each year from 2011-2014 the Twins' defense was 98 runs below average according to Ultimate Zone Rating, 107 runs below average according to Plus/Minus, and 115 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved.

Ryan repeatedly saying the Twins need to pitch better and repeatedly denying the Twins' defense has been awful is a weird, frustrating disconnect. Their outfield defense rated particularly poorly, yet when asked about that Ryan scoffs at the numbers and insists guys like Josh Willingham were perfectly adequate. He also scoffed at the numbers all rating Hunter as 15-25 runs below average during the past two seasons, saying:

I saw him, I think, maybe seven games or so [in 2014]. His defense for me was more than adequate. He's not the type of guy that you're going to say, "Oh, he can go over there and play center for a length of time," but I would guarantee you he could go out and play center field for a couple days and you wouldn't really miss too much. ...

You can use the metrics or you can use the eye, and you should use both. In this instance, I think we've seen him play probably 30-35 games as an evaluation process this year, and for the most part the lowest grade we had on him was average range. That's pretty good.

Twins scouts watched Hunter for 30-35 games and graded him average or better defensively, so that's what Ryan and the front office relied on rather than trusting the defensive numbers that all agree he was somewhere between bad and horrendous. By the way, Hunter had about two balls hit to him per game this year, so evaluating his defense based on watching 30-35 games is like evaluating a hitter based on watching 60-70 at-bats.

It's one thing to pay little attention to defensive numbers if your scouting department is doing an amazing job evaluating defense with their eyes, but in the Twins' case that seemingly hasn't been true for a while now. Ryan saying "I would guarantee you he could go out and play center field for a couple days and you wouldn't really miss too much" about a 39-year-old Hunter is crazy talk and the type of thing that makes me question a whole lot about the Twins behind the scenes.

• To round out Paul Molitor's coaching staff the Twins hired Butch Davis as first base coach. He spent 20 years coaching in the minors for the Orioles and joins pitching coach Neil Allen as the only coaches without previous Twins tiesTom Brunansky and Joe Vavra were with Molitor on Ron Gardenhire's staff, Gene Glynn was Rochester's manager, Rudy Hernandez coached 14 years in the organization, and Eddie Guardado pitched 12 years for the Twins.

• According to Darren Wolfson of 1500-ESPN the Twins reached out to fired Cubs manager Rick Renteria about becoming Molitor's bench coach, but "he rejected the overture immediately" and they eventually settled on Vavra. And according to Bob Nightingale of USA Today they wanted to hire Delino DeShields first base coach, but he chose instead to manage at Triple-A for the Reds and the job went to Davis.

Chris Colabello was dropped from the 40-man roster and claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays. He followed up a big April for the Twins by slumping horribly and getting demoted to Triple-A, and Colabello later admitted that he played most of the season with a significant thumb injury. At age 31 and with little defensive value it's hard to fault the Twins for giving up on Colabello after he hit .214/.284/.364 with a 124/34 K/BB ratio in 114 games.

Shane Robinson agreed to a minor-league deal with the Twins after spending the first nine years of his career in the Cardinals organization. Robinson has good speed and enough range to handle center field defensively, but he's hit just .231/.303/.308 in 452 plate appearances spread over parts of five seasons in the majors. He's shown a bit more offensive promise at Triple-A, but at age 30 he's strictly a backup option in what currently looks like a crowded outfield.

Danny Santana played mostly center field as a rookie despite never playing there regularly in the minors, but Molitor indicated that the Twins view him as an infielder for 2015. That seemingly makes them more likely to pursue center fielders in trades and free agency--Schafer, Robinson, and Aaron Hicks are the current in-house options--and could mean Eduardo Escobar is headed for a bench role after being an above-average starting shortstop in 2014.

• Willingham, whom the Twins traded to the Royals in August for minor leaguer Jason Adam, announced his retirement at age 35. Willingham had a great first year in Minnesota, but ended up hitting .232/.353/.446 and missing 116 of a possible 440 games for the Twins during a three-year, $21 million contract. Helluva career, though. Despite not getting his first extended chance in the majors until age 27 he posted an .823 OPS with 195 homers in 1,147 games.

Francisco Liriano, who posted a 3.20 ERA with 338 strikeouts in 323 innings for the Pirates during the past two years, re-signed for three years and $39 million. By comparison, the Twins have Ricky Nolasco signed for another three years and $37 million.

• Hunter debuted for the Twins on August 22, 1997 by pinch-running for Terry Steinbach in a loss to the Orioles. In that game Molitor was the Twins' designated hitter, batting third versus Baltimore starting pitcher Scott Erickson.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode was recorded at Sociable Cider Werks and we talked Hunter, Hunter, and more Hunter.


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."

November 26, 2014

Twins’ “new” coaching staff has a very familiar look

Paul Molitor and Joe Vavra

When the Twins fired Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager the idea of blowing up the coaching staff and rebuilding everything from scratch with outside hires sounded appealing given the organization's struggles, but choosing Paul Molitor over Torey Lovullo as the new manager squashed that notion. Molitor is the epitome of an in-house hire and in filling out his coaching staff the Twins have continued to lean heavily on current and former members of the organization.

Bench coach seemed to be a very important hire considering Molitor's complete lack of managing experience and the overall lack of big-league experience throughout his staff. Instead of stepping outside of the organization for a veteran with previous managing experience the job went to Joe Vavra, a longtime member of Gardenhire's staff who was reassigned from hitting coach to third base coach two years ago and has no professional managing experience above Single-A.

Tom Brunansky, who was on Gardenhire's staff with Molitor and Vavra, stays on as hitting coach after the Twins ranked fifth among AL teams in scoring. Brunansky replaced Vavra as hitting coach in 2013 after working his way up through the minors amid praise for his coaching of Double-A and Triple-A hitters. If any member of the coaching staff deserved to stay it was Brunansky, whose presence was one of the few major coaching changes made under Gardenhire in the first place.

Brunansky's assistant hitting coach is Rudy Hernandez, who was promoted from rookie-league manager after 14 years in the organization. Hernandez is the first assistant hitting coach in Twins history, as teams began adding the position a few years ago. He's coached many players on the current roster as well as many prospects soon to arrive in Minnesota and the 46-year-old's ability to speak Spanish is a welcomed addition that had been severely lacking with Twins coaches.

Gene Glynn joins the staff as third base coach after spending the past three seasons managing the team's Triple-A affiliate in Rochester. He interviewed to replace Gardenhire, but unlike fellow interviewee Doug Mientkiewicz the Twins felt the Minnesota native was worth adding to the staff after passing on him as manager. At age 58 he's definitely paid his dues, managing, coaching, and scouting in the minors and majors for numerous organizations.

Eddie Guardado, who has zero coaching experience since retiring in 2009, takes over as bullpen coach. He's certainly familiar with the Twins' bullpen, spending a dozen seasons there, including back-to-back 40-save seasons as the team's closer in 2002 and 2003. As a player Guardado was boisterous, jovial, quotable, and well-liked, which is probably a decent recipe for success in a role that generally doesn't receive much attention.

With first base coach the lone vacant position, Neil Allen is the only true outside hire, beating out former Twins reliever Carl Willis for the pitching coach job after filling the same role at Triple-A in the Rays organization from 2007-2014. Former pitching coach Rick Anderson was Gardenhire's right-hand man for the entirety of his 13-year tenure and became the target of heavy criticism when the pitching staff ranked 29th, 29th, 28th, and 29th in runs allowed from 2011-2014.

Allen preaches many of the same things Anderson did, chief among them limiting walks, but unlike Anderson he has a long history of helping to develop successful young pitchers that have been the lifeblood of the Rays' low-payroll success. He pitched 11 seasons in the majors as a reliever--and actually had poor control himself, walking 3.8 batters per nine innings--and at age 56 he's been praised for the same open-mindedness, intelligence, and innovation the Rays were built on.

In hiring Molitor the Twins made it clear that they don't view lack of experience as a negative and in filling out his coaching staff they made it equally clear that they continue to view staying in-house and promoting from within as positives despite four straight 90-loss seasons. I have no major issues with any of the individual hires, but I feel silly for believing they might actually go outside of the organization to find a new manager and new coaches. Should have known better.


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."

November 5, 2014

Twins hire Paul Molitor as manager

Paul Molitor and Ron Gardenhire

It took five weeks and interviews with at least a half-dozen candidates, but in the end the Twins' new manager is the guy everyone always assumed would get the job: Paul Molitor.

Molitor is a Minnesota native with a long history in the organization and spent this season on the coaching staff, so hiring him isn't exactly the massive change many people envisioned when the Twins fired Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager and 27 seasons in the organization. For a decade fans and media members clamored for Molitor to join Gardenhire's staff and as soon as Gardenhire's job security looked shaky Molitor became the presumed manager-in-waiting.

None of which means he's the wrong choice for the job now. He lacks managing experience at any level and went nearly a decade without being a full-time coach at any level, but during his Hall of Fame playing career and in retirement Molitor has established a reputation for being an incredibly smart baseball mind. He's also earned praise for working with young players, communicating well, and walking the thin line between being likeable and being respected.

Hall of Fame players rarely go into managing, presumably because they're satisfied enough with their legacy, financial standing, and post-career options to stave off whichever competitive juices continue to flow. And when Hall of Fame players have gone into managing the results have been underwhelming to say the least, with the most frequent criticism being that a great, immensely talented player has trouble managing and relating to lesser talents.

Molitor's legacy is a spectacular one, especially in Minnesota, and after earning more than $40 million in salary as a player he could have easily filled his time with various media opportunities and part-time coaching roles. And for years he did just that, filling in for fellow Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven occasionally on television broadcasts and spending spring training in Fort Myers as a roving instructor.

However, something within Molitor clearly kept pulling him back toward baseball in a major way. Outsiders like me could hear it in his voice whenever he talked passionately and expertly about something as potentially mundane as getting a great jump off a pitcher on stolen base attempts and insiders almost without exception raved about his passion, intelligence, and hard work. And they did so often.

For instance, while recording this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode Saturday, shortly after news of Molitor getting the job began making the rounds, we spotted someone a few bar stools down wearing a Yankees World Series ring. It turned out to be Tim McIntosh, who played for the Gophers, was the Brewers' third-round draft pick in 1986, and played parts of five seasons in the majors.

Not only did McIntosh play with Molitor in the big leagues, he also had experience with Molitor the mentor and Molitor the coach. And after being told the news of Molitor's impending hiring by two strangers in a bar McIntosh's eyes lit up. He talked to us for 30 minutes on the microphone and another 20 minutes off the microphone about how thrilled he was for Molitor and how he strongly believed Molitor is a fantastic choice uniquely qualified to thrive despite a lack of experience.

And that's essentially the argument in favor of choosing Molitor. He lacks experience, there are questions about how he'll handle the day-to-day grind of the job on and off the field, and as the favorite in-house candidate the decision seems like more of the same for the Twins in many ways. But you'll be hard-pressed to find people who've seen Molitor in action as a player, as a coach, or as a guy simply hanging out to talk baseball who doesn't rave about his expertise and intelligence.

Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo finished runner-up to Molitor, with speculation he may have gotten the job with more support from ownership, which is interesting given how different their resumes look. Lovullo was a journeyman player with 308 games in the majors and 1,433 games in the minors, plus a season in Japan. He managed nine seasons in the minors, winning division titles at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, and has coached in the majors in a variety of roles.

Lovullo is also known for being analytical, well versed in modern stats, and genuinely interested in sabermetrics, which along with his vast experience working his way up through the coaching and managing ranks is what intrigued me. Molitor doesn't have quite the stat-head reputation, but it's worth noting that he played a big role in getting Gardenhire's staff to finally dip their toes in the analytical pool this season and was credited with the team's dramatic increase in defensive shifts.

Molitor may not be a full-blown stat-head like Lovullo, but he's smart, intellectually curious about how new-school knowledge can help a team win, and at age 58 showed more of an open mind in one season than the 57-year-old Gardenhire showed in 13 seasons. He's now at the helm of a young team that will likely get younger and almost can't help but get better, so he'll be learning on the job just like many of his key players.

Managers with a decade-plus on the job can be extremely tough and perhaps even impossible to evaluate, with Gardenhire being a prime example of the wide ranges of opinion. Predicting how a first-time manager will fare ... well, that's somewhere between an educated guessing game and a coin flip. Molitor will need to choose his coaches wisely and get help from a front office that has done more harm than good of late, but he seems like a sound choice.


For a lot more about the Twins hiring Molitor, including an impromptu interview with his former teammate, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

October 29, 2014

Twins Notes: Molitor, Maddon, Lovullo, Colabello, Buxton, and chafing

Joe Maddon Rays

• After interviewing a surprising (to me, at least) number of outside candidates to replace Ron Gardenhire the Twins have settled on a final three of Paul Molitor, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Torey Lovullo. Molitor was on Gardenhire's coaching staff, Mientkiewicz managed the Twins' high Single-A team, and they're both longtime members of the organization. Lovullo has no real ties to the Twins and is portrayed as being very stat-head friendly, so I'll be shocked if gets the job.

Because the Twins' manager search is still unresolved Joe Maddon opting out of his contract with the Rays led to some speculation about their chances of hiring him. General manager Terry Ryan then fanned those flames by publicly commenting on Maddon, seemingly making it very clear that he thought highly of and had interest in Maddon. However, according to multiple reports the Twins never even contacted Maddon. Anyone shocked probably isn't much of a Twins fan.

• For a lot more about the Twins' managerial search and why Maddon was never going to happen, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

• Gardenhire has publicly been supportive of Molitor's candidacy to replace him, but this tidbit from Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press was interesting:

Molitor's addition to the staff caused Gardenhire to chafe at times behind the scenes, especially early on, considering their shared expertise when it comes to infield play.

For years fans and media members wondered why Molitor wasn't being added to coaching staff and there was speculation that Gardenhire was against the idea. Molitor was finally added to the staff in October of last year and less than 365 days later he's a finalist to replace Gardenhire, with the assumption that he's been the favorite the entire time.

• On a random note: While looking at his Hall of Fame playing career I thought this comparison of Molitor through age 31 and Joe Mauer through his current age of 31 might interest people:

THROUGH AGE 31          MOLITOR    MAUER
Batting Average          .299      .319
On-Base Percentage       .360      .401
Slugging Percentage      .435      .459
OPS                      .795      .860
Games                   1,282     1,298
Wins Above Replacement   40.8      46.3

Anything portraying Mauer in a positive light angers a lot of people these days, but whatever.

Chris Colabello joins the lengthy list of Twins to play through an injury and perform horribly, admitting that he suffered a thumb injury on April 23 and "still feels numbness and tingling" six months later. At the time of the injury Colabello was hitting .346. He continued to play for the next month, going 8-for-73 (.110) with 28 strikeouts before the Twins demoted him to Triple-A. He returned later and hit .222 in 19 games before being sent down again.

According to Colabello's hometown Worchester Telegram he "glued cotton to his batting gloves and tried a thumb protector" to alleviate the pain and "didn't tell the media in Minnesota" about the injury. Berardino also reports that "a Twins official rejected that notion" of Colabello being injured when asked in June and "suggested it was purely a matter of timing and confidence." As usual the tough-guy culture of playing through it helped neither the player nor the team.

Parker Hageman of Twins Daily notes that Twins pitchers combined to throw a grand total of one pitch 97 miles per hour or faster this season. It was by Lester Oliveros, in September. By comparison, every other team in baseball threw at least 75, all but four of the other teams threw at least 150, and half of the teams threw at least 500. Kansas City led MLB with 2,287 pitches of 97 mph or faster. Again, the Twins threw one.

• Last month I examined the 40-man roster and identified 19 players the Twins could potentially drop. So far they've dropped four of them by declining Jared Burton's option for 2015, cutting Doug Bernier and Yohan Pino, and selling Kris Johnson to a team in Japan. Johnson and Alex Presley were the Twins' haul from the Pirates in exchange for Justin Morneau. They combined to play 31 games for the Twins and were both sent packing for nothing in return.

Byron Buxton's injury wrecked season keeps getting worse. Playing in the Arizona Fall League after missing all but 31 games of the regular season with a wrist injury and a concussion, Buxton fractured the middle finger on his left hand while attempting to make a diving catch. In the grand scheme of things a busted finger isn't a big concern, but the missed development time for a 20-year-old is lost forever.

• Wins by American League Central teams from 2011-2014:

Detroit Tigers       366
Cleveland Indians    325
Kansas City Royals   318
Chicago White Sox    300
Minnesota Twins      265

And that's not even counting postseason wins.

• Outfield defense played a huge role in the Royals' success this season and according to Ultimate Zone Rating their outfielders were 60 runs above average. Meanwhile, the Twins' outfielders were 36 runs below average according to UZR. Improving the pitching staff is obviously very important, but don't discount the negative impact defense and specifically outfield defense has had on their runs allowed totals. Oswaldo Arcia's continued presence makes big improvements tough.

• In the 23 years since their last World Series title the Twins have a 1,777-1,908 record for a .482 winning percentage, including 6-21 in the playoffs.


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January 22, 2014

Twins Notes: Arbitration, Korea sales, Molitor shifting, and drugs of abuse

Philadelphia Phillies v Minnesota Twins

• As usual the Twins avoided arbitration with all of their eligible players, agreeing to pre-hearing 2014 deals with Trevor Plouffe for $2.35 million, Brian Duensing for $2 million, and Anthony Swarzak for $950,000. They previously non-tendered Josh Roenicke rather than paying him approximately $1.5 million via the same process. Following the Plouffe, Duensing, and Swarzak signings the Twins' payroll sits at $83 million, which is nearly identical to last season's spending.

Here are their payroll figures since moving to Target Field in 2010:

2010: $98 million
2011: $113 million
2012: $100 million
2013: $82 million
2014: $83 million

When the Twins signed Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes there was a lot of talk about how they were finally spending some money--and certainly within the context of free agency they opened their wallets like never before--but in the grand scheme of things nothing has really changed despite revenue across baseball rising rapidly. Barring a late acquisition their payroll will likely rank among the bottom third of MLB in 2014.

• It's not official yet, but Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that the Twins are finalizing an agreement to sell Andrew Albers to a Korean team. Albers reaching the majors at age 28 and tossing 17 scoreless innings in his first two starts was a helluva story, but a mid-80s fastball and lack of missed bats made it tough to envision a scenario in which he was anything more than a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Once the Twins re-signed Mike Pelfrey in addition to signing Nolasco and Hughes it became clear that Albers wouldn't be getting another extended opportunity this season unless a ton of injuries struck the rotation. Going to Korea allows him to pitch regularly somewhere other than Rochester, New York and gives Albers a chance to make big-league money as opposed to Triple-A wages. And for a guy who was in an independent league a few years ago, that ain't bad.

• As part of his new job on the Twins' coaching staff Paul Molitor will be in charge of positioning the infielders defensively during games and Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com has an interesting note about his approach to those duties:

Molitor has already got a head start on positioning, as he met last week with Sean Harlin, the club's major league video director, and Jack Goin, the club's manager of major league administration and baseball research, to learn more about the club's video system and the advanced defensive statistics available for infield shifts.

The Twins haven't been a club that leans heavily on shifting aggressively in the past, but Molitor believes that baseball is trending that way and that it can help the Twins, especially given that the club has several ground-ball pitchers.

"The game has changed so much; we're seeing more overshifts and people not afraid to give up space based on tendencies, so it's something I'm excited about learning about and applying to the way we play defense," Molitor said. "They showed me the capabilities of not only pregame information but how we can use whatever data we have, including our in-house cameras at Target Field, to try to line up the defenses based on the pitcher's capability of executing pitches and the hitter's tendency of where they might hit the ball."

Those are the type of open-minded, analysis-driven quotes that we've rarely seen from anyone involved with the Twins over the years, which is awfully encouraging.

• Twins prospect Eddie Rosario received a 50-game suspension after a second positive test for a "drug of abuse." On one hand that means it wasn't a performance-enhancing drug. On the other hand that means Rosario tested positive once already and couldn't stop himself from continuing to use the unnamed drug. As a 22-year-old trying to make a position switch to second base the lost development time could be costly, but he remains a very good prospect.

Yohan Pino, who the Twins traded to the Indians for Carl Pavano in mid-2009, is back in the organization on a minor-league deal. Pino posted great numbers in the low minors before a lack of velocity caught up to him and now he's 30 years old with a 4.27 ERA in more than 800 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.

Joe Benson, who was released by the Twins in the middle of what proved to be a lost season, is now with the Marlins on a minor-league contract. Benson is still just 26 years old, but injuries and the inability to make consistent contact at the plate have turned him into a non-prospect.

• Just as I feared at the time of the signing Terry Ryan has already dropped some hints that Kurt Suzuki could be the Opening Day catcher, with Josmil Pinto heading back to the minors.

• For a lot more about the arbitration process and how it works, plus a lengthy discussion about Molitor and embracing analytics, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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