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 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.


This week's content is sponsored by Harry's Razors. Go to Harrys.com and enter in the promo code "Gleeman" to receive $5 off your first order.

October 15, 2014

How much payroll space do the Twins have and will they actually spend it?

pohlad ryan st.peter

In the Twins' second season at Target Field their payroll rose to a franchise-record $113 million, but that dropped to $100 million the next year and then dipped below $90 million in each of the past two seasons as general manager Terry Ryan declined to spend a significant portion of the ownership-approved budget. Here's what Ryan said recently when asked about the team's lack of spending and self-imposed payroll decline:

Payroll will not be an issue. Our payroll is sufficient to [field] a winning team. There are playoff teams with lower payrolls than ours. We can't use that as an excuse. ... I spent plenty. Our payroll was pretty stiff, very respectable.

The payroll Ryan calls "pretty stiff" ranked 24th among 30 teams and, based on comments from Ryan and Twins president Dave St. Peter, will almost surely rank even lower in 2015. He's right that the Twins' payroll was enough to field a winning team, but suggesting their payroll should be low because "there are playoff teams with lower payrolls than ours" is like suggesting they should hit fewer home runs because "there are playoff teams with fewer home runs than us."

This season MLB teams that spent more than $100 million made the playoffs 47 percent of the time, while teams that spent less than $100 million made the playoffs 20 percent of the time. All six division-winning teams spent at least $105 million and the average payroll of the six division winners was $147 million. When asked about next year's payroll, St. Peter told Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

We haven't finalized a 2015 budget, [but] I can assure you, we don't see it going down significantly.

So this is where the Twins are at heading into the sixth season of a publicly funded ballpark that was supposed to boost their spending relative to the other 29 teams: "Assuring" their fans who're frustrated and disillusioned following a fourth consecutive 90-loss season that the team's already below-average payroll won't be "going down significantly" at a time when television and internet revenue is skyrocketing across baseball.

More than half of MLB teams exceeded $100 million in payroll this year, including 10 teams above $125 million and two teams above $200 million. After dumping various high-salaried veterans in trades, the Twins ended up spending around $86 million on payroll. St. Peter's comments certainly make it seem likely that their 2015 payroll will once again be below $90 million, which won't leave much room for offseason spending thanks to the following players being under contract:

Joe Mauer          $23.0 million
Ricky Nolasco      $12.0 million
Phil Hughes         $8.0 million
Kurt Suzuki         $6.0 million
Mike Pelfrey        $5.5 million
Glen Perkins        $4.7 million

TOTAL              $59.2 million

Beyond those guaranteed salaries, the Twins also have these players eligible for arbitration:

Trevor Plouffe      $4.3 million
Tommy Milone        $2.8 million
Brian Duensing      $2.5 million
Jordan Schafer      $1.5 million
Anthony Swarzak     $1.4 million
Eduardo Nunez       $1.2 million
Casey Fien          $1.1 million

TOTAL              $14.8 million

Those salaries listed above are MLB Trade Rumors' arbitration projections. At least a few of those arbitration-eligible players should be non-tender candidates, so the Twins could cut them loose at no cost. But if they were to retain all seven arbitration-eligible players their payroll commitments would approach $74 million. Toss in the $7 million or so required to fill out the rest of the roster with minimum-salaried players and the Twins would already be over $80 million.

Front office mistakes led to losing teams, which led to attendance declining, which led to revenue decreasing, which led to payroll dropping. In their final season at the Metrodome they spent $65 million. Six years and one new ballpark later their payroll has settled around $85 million. Whether or not you think spending drives winning, unspent money isn't set aside for future payroll and it's hard to see how that money simply staying with the Twins' owners benefits the team or its fans.


For a lengthy discussion of how preseason expectations translated to regular season success this year, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

September 30, 2014

Twins fire Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager

Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan

Ron Gardenhire will not join Connie Mack and Tom Kelly as just the third manager in baseball history to keep his job following four consecutive 90-loss seasons, as the Twins fired him Monday after 13 seasons on the job and nearly three decades in the organization. In a rarity for a fired manager Gardenhire attended the press conference announcing his dismissal and was in relatively good spirits while answering questions, even cracking a few smiles.

Gardenhire and general manager Terry Ryan seemed to be in agreement that it was time for a change, although last month Ryan said publicly that Gardenhire would return. Yesterday the GM hinted that ownership pushed him to make the move, which apparently may or may not include firing Gardenhire's entire coaching staff depending on whether the new manager wants to keep anyone around.

Gardenhire took over for Kelly in 2002 and had immediate success, winning 94 games and taking the Twins to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. They went on to win six division titles in his first nine seasons at the helm, but the competition in the AL Central was more often than not underwhelming during that time and the Twins went just 6-21 in the playoffs with five straight first-round exits.

His early teams were good but not great in a window of time when that was enough to capture a weak division, but then that window closed and later the team fell apart. They have a grand total of one 90-win season since 2007 and combined over the seven-year span of 2007-2014 the Twins went 613-685 for a .472 winning percentage that ranks 23rd in baseball. Only the Astros have a worse record than the Twins since 2011.

I started writing about the Twins in August of Gardenhire's rookie season as manager in 2002 and to say I've never been a fan would be an understatement, so I certainly don't think he's performed well in recent years. However, for better or worse his impact was hardly enough to be responsible for four straight 90-loss seasons just as it wasn't enough to be responsible for six division titles in nine years.

Because they're the day-to-day face of the team managers receive too much praise when things go well and too much criticism when things go poorly. Collective front office decision-making is far more important to the overall well-being of an organization. Ultimately talent trumps all and while a good manager can certainly help develop that talent and utilize that talent properly, squeezing a few more wins out of a team pales in comparison to building the team in the first place.

To believe differently is to think managers have more value to a team than the very best players even while they're consistently paid less than mediocre middle relievers. Gardenhire's firing was justified, but it has little to do with whether another manager could have avoided four consecutive 90-loss seasons with sub par talent and a lot to do with whether Gardenhire is the manager the Twins want leading them for the next 5-10 years when the talent improves.

And it will improve. This team will be better in 2015 than it was in 2014 and better in 2016 than it was in 2015. They have too much high-end talent in the minor leagues--and some high-end talent already faring well in the major leagues--for that not to happen, so even though the next manager may have to deal with low payrolls and shaky front office decision-making the combination of an impending influx of young talent and minimal expectations should make it an appealing gig.

Basically, there's nowhere to go but up. And after 13 seasons of a .507 winning percentage with almost zero postseason success and historic ineptitude for the past four years it would be hard for even his biggest supporters to argue Gardenhire is the best manager to maximize that ascent. He wasn't the biggest problem, but he was too often part of the problem and is not the best possible option for the solution. Of course, the Twins' ability to identify that best option is another issue.

Ryan has been the Twins' general manager for two stints and 17 total seasons, during which time their combined record is 1,278-1,406 for a .476 winning percentage and one playoff series win. With a GM originally hired in 1994 and numerous long-tenured assistants still at his side--including Bill Smith filling a different role after flopping as GM--the front office responsible for getting the Twins into this mess remains largely intact.

Like the difference between a fresh coat of paint on a car versus overhauling the engine, the front office's performance always outweighs anything a manager does. Now their duties include finding a better manager in addition to putting all the roster pieces together well enough to re-emerge as contenders. Gardenhire's firing was about the future, but there's every bit as much reason to be skeptical that Ryan and his assistants are the best option to lead the Twins there.


For a lengthy discussion and debate about everything related to the Gardenhire firing, check out our emergency "Gleeman and The Geek" episode recorded after the news broke.

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