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."

June 13, 2015

The future is now: Twins call up top prospect Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton Twins call-up

In the midst of an ugly 1-7 stretch the Twins have delivered some exciting news to their fans, calling up stud center field prospect Byron Buxton from Double-A. Buxton will make his MLB debut Sunday at 21 years and 178 days old, arriving three years and 10 days after the Twins selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of a Georgia high school. He's the best prospect to join the Twins since Joe Mauer in 2004.

Buxton missed nearly all of last year with a pair of serious injuries, including a concussion from a nasty outfield collision that ended his season in August and kept him from playing in the Arizona Fall League. Despite the health worries and missed development time he ranked as a consensus top-three prospect across baseball, along with Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Carlos Correa of the Astros. Bryant debuted on April 17. Correa debuted on June 8. Buxton will debut on June 14.

Buxton got off to a slow start at Double-A, hitting just .180 through his first dozen games. And then he turned things around in a huge way, hitting .310 with a .379 on-base percentage and .540 slugging percentage in the next 46 games culminating with his call-up. Over that 46-game stretch, which is a little less than one-third of a full season, Buxton drew 22 walks and smacked 22 extra-base hits, including an incredible 11 triples. He also stole 18 bases in 19 tries.

Initial expectations should be held in check, because not many 21-year-olds thrive in the big leagues immediately. However, his long-term upside is almost unlimited on both sides of the ball. Buxton is one of the fastest players in baseball, with the range to be a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, the base-stealing skills to swipe 50-plus bags at a high success rate, and the flat-out speed to turn routine ground balls into infield singles and gappers into stand-up triples.

He's still somewhat raw offensively and a high strikeout rate could keep his batting average from being great, but Buxton has drawn more walks than most toolsy high school draft picks playing against much older competition and has the power potential to develop into a middle-of-the-order bat if the Twins don't fall in love with him atop the lineup. He's a truly elite, A-plus prospect with franchise-lifting talent and if things go according to plan he'll be in the mix for MVP awards.

Giddy. Up.


If you want a lot more about Buxton's arrival, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode for what was essentially 90 consecutive minutes of Buxton talk.

June 9, 2015

Twins draft Illinois left-hander Tyler Jay with No. 6 pick

Tyler Jay Illinois

In selecting University of Illinois reliever Tyler Jay with the No. 6 pick the Twins made it clear they think he can develop into a starter and according to Baseball America that's an opinion shared by some, but not all, teams. Jay saved 14 games with a 0.60 ERA and 70/7 K/BB ratio in 60 innings for Illinois during the regular season and actually started a College World Series game against Vanderbilt hours before the draft, allowing a homer to No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson.

Jay is a left-hander with good control who throws in the mid-90s as a reliever, but the question is whether his secondary pitches and durability will hold up as a starter and how much of his electric raw stuff will be lost when trying to throw six or seven innings instead of one or two innings. Very few teams invest top-10 picks in college relievers and when they have done so the results are a mixed bag at best, suggesting the "sure thing" aspect is somewhat misleading.

Here's a list of every college reliever drafted with a top-10 pick in the past 20 years:

RELIEVER         PICK     YEAR
TYLER JAY          #6     2015
Drew Storen       #10     2009
Daniel Moskos      #4     2007
Casey Weathers     #8     2007
Matt Anderson      #1     1997
Braden Looper      #3     1997

Prior to Jay there had been just five college relievers drafted with top-10 picks since 1995 and of those five only Drew Storen, the 10th pick in 2009, panned out as hoped. Braden Looper, the third pick in 1997, had a solid career as a setup man and sometimes closer, but finished with a 4.15 ERA. And the other three were busts. That has little to do with Jay, specifically, but it does show that using a top-10 pick on a college reliever has been anything but a sure thing.

In recent years the Twins have used several high-round picks on college relievers with plans to turn them into pro starters and it hasn't worked out well at all, with a combination of injuries and poor performances derailing most of them long before the majors were in sight. Mediocre, injured, and/or failed starters become great relievers far more often than great relievers become even mediocre starters, which is why teams almost always go for more upside with top-10 picks.

Baseball America ranked Jay as the 13th-best prospect in the draft, noting that he "was trending toward the top half of the first round and could be the first player from the draft class to reach the majors if he stays in a relief role." However, their pre-draft scouting report also noted that "scouts were mixed on whether or not Jay could start" and despite a mid-90s fastball and "wipeout" slider. Terry Ryan indicated that Jay will continue to be used as a reliever for the rest of 2015.

MLB.com ranked Jay as the ninth-best prospect in the draft, noting that he's "not very physical at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds" but "generates that heat with athleticism and a quick arm rather than an excessive amount of effort in his delivery." Their pre-draft scouting report also noted that Jay "has a deeper repertoire than most relievers" and "has enough pitches and control to lead a pro team to consider trying him as a starter."

Jay is the Twins' fourth consecutive top-10 pick, following high school outfielder Byron Buxton at No. 2 in 2012, high school pitcher Kohl Stewart at No. 4 in 2013, and high school shortstop Nick Gordon at No. 5 in 2014. And he'll be the Twins' only draft pick in the top 70 this year, because they forfeited their second-round pick for the right to sign the since-suspended Ervin Santana to a four-year, $55 million contract this offseason.


For more draft talk, plus a discussion of the Twins demoting Danny Santana and promoting Kennys Vargas, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

June 3, 2015

Alex Meyer and the familiar path of starter prospects moving to the bullpen

Alex Meyer Twins

Alex Meyer was considered a potential top-of-the-rotation starter when the Twins acquired him from the Nationals in exchange for center fielder Denard Span in November of 2012. At the time he was a 22-year-old former first-round pick coming off a strong season at Single-A and rated as a consensus top-100 prospect. Meyer made his Twins debut at Double-A in 2013 and pitched well, but was limited to 13 starts by arm problems.

Meyer moved up to Triple-A last season and again pitched well, leading the International League in strikeouts, but shoulder problems caused him to miss a few starts and kept him from getting a September call-up to the Twins. This spring he was in the mix for an Opening Day rotation spot, but only technically, as the Twins clearly viewed Trevor May as the lone viable option among the prospects in camp and sent Meyer back to Triple-A well before final cuts.

His second go-around at Triple-A has been a mess. Meyer walked six batters in his first start of the season and walked five batters while failing to make it out of the fourth inning in his second start. He had a great third start, striking out 11 in six shutout innings, but then followed that up by allowing 25 runs in 25 innings in his next five starts. And those may prove to be his final five starts, because the Twins have shifted Meyer to Rochester's bullpen.

As a 6-foot-9 right-hander with a mid-90s fastball and shaky control Meyer being moved to the bullpen shouldn't shock anyone and in fact when the Twins traded for him there were already some prospect analysts who doubted he'd remain a starter long term. What makes the move so disappointing now is that Meyer overpowered Double-A and Triple-A hitters as a starter in 2013 and 2014, racking up 237 strikeouts in 200 innings, and was on the verge of the majors.

What also makes the move so disappointing is that Meyer represented the Twins' best chance to develop a young, top-of-the-rotation starter with powerful, bat-missing raw stuff in a depressingly long time. It was supposed to be a lineup built around Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano with a rotation built around Meyer. It's still possible that Meyer will wind up starting again, but for now his upside should be recalibrated from top-of-the-rotation starter to late-inning reliever.

And there's no shame in that. Part of the problem with pinning a team's hopes and dreams to the successful development of prospects is that half of them don't pan out at all and the half that do pan out often do so in different roles. Slick-fielding shortstop and center field prospects often turn into third basemen and left fielders. Power-hitting catcher prospects often turn into first basemen. And hard-throwing starting pitcher prospects often turn into relievers.

Across baseball the majority of the relievers in nearly any bullpen began their professional careers as starters and many of them have spent more of their careers as starters than as relievers. With any young pitcher the preference would be for them to thrive as a starter, but some combination of performance, durability, and temperament mean that many of those pitchers are more valuable succeeding in a 70-inning role rather than struggling or getting injured in a 200-inning role.

The greatest relief pitcher of all time, Mariano Rivera, spent five seasons starting in the minors and made his MLB debut starting for the Yankees as a 25-year-old. Rivera started 10 games with a 5.94 ERA, got moved to the bullpen, and turned out just fine. And if any team should know how well starters becoming relievers can go it's the Twins. There are six relievers in Twins history with 100 or more saves and all six of them--including their current All-Star closer--were starters.

Glen Perkins was a first-round draft pick after starring as a college starter at the University of Minnesota. He was exclusively a starter in the minors, twice cracking Baseball America's top-100 prospects list. Perkins got his feet wet in the majors as a reliever, but joined the rotation full time at age 25 and started 43 games between 2008 and 2009. He went 18-12 as a starter, but it came with an ugly 5.02 ERA and some injuries, leading to a permanent move to the bullpen in 2011.

Joe Nathan was a shortstop at Stony Brook University and became a pitcher in the minors before debuting with the Giants as a starter at age 24. He made 29 starts between 1999 and 2000 with a 4.60 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. Then he blew out his elbow, undergoing Tommy John surgery. Nathan returned in 2003 as a reliever, got traded to the Twins in 2004, and went on to save 377 games and make six All-Star teams while earning nearly $100 million.

Rick Aguilera was a starter at BYU, worked strictly as a starter in the minors, and spent his first three years in the majors starting for the Mets with a 31-17 record and a 3.59 ERA through age 25. Elbow problems in 1988 and a trade to Minnesota in 1989 led to him being moved to the bullpen and Aguilera had two successful stints as the Twins' closer separated by a trade to the Red Sox and a one-year experiment as a starter. He had MLB's second-most saves from 1990-2000.

Eddie Guardado made 73 appearances in the minors while coming up through the Twins' farm system and 72 of them were starts. He debuted at age 22 as a starter, but went 3-15 with a 6.95 ERA in 25 starts and was moved to the bullpen at age 24. In his first full season as a reliever he led the league in appearances with 83, earning the "Everyday Eddie" nickname, but it took him five years to progress from lefty specialist to setup man to closer at age 30.

Jeff Reardon was drafted out of high school by the Mets as a starter and spent his first two pro years starting, with decent results. He was shifted to the bullpen in his third pro season and after 30 relief appearances at Triple-A the Mets called him up at age 23. Reardon never started a game in the majors, making all 880 of his appearances out of the bullpen and saving 367 games to rank second in MLB history behind only Lee Smith at the time of his retirement.

Ron Davis was drafted by the Cubs as a starter and spent his first two-and-a-half pro seasons starting. He was traded to the Yankees while at Double-A and never started again, debuting later that season. He spent three years as a Yankees setup man, making the All-Star team at age 25, at which point the Twins traded Roy Smalley for Davis and made him their closer with painful results. Davis saved 108 games for the Twins, but it came with a 4.51 ERA and 19-40 record.

And if the above six closers with 100-plus saves in Minnesota aren't enough, the list of prominent Twins relievers who began their careers as starters also includes Matt Guerrier, Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero, Mike Trombley, Al Worthington, LaTroy Hawkins, and Brian Duensing. In fact, of the 14 pitchers in Twins history to make at least 250 appearances as relievers all but one of them started before they relieved, with Jesse Crain being the lone exception.

Whether they're making the right call at the right time with Meyer is uncertain, as is whether he'll thrive in that 70-inning role. As a 25-year-old with a history of arm issues and career-long control problems Meyer is no sure thing to stay healthy and thrive regardless of the role, but the Twins have been skeptical of his ability to develop into a valuable starter for a while now and there isn't much imagination required to envision him shutting down hitters out of the bullpen.


Check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode for talk about May's new approach, Oswaldo Arcia's role once he's healthy, and what happened to the Twins' pitching depth.

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.

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