April 15, 2015

Don’t act surprised: Twins build bad bullpen, get bad relief pitching

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox

As part of the frustrating decision-making process that led to choosing the older, lower-upside option to fill nearly every up-for-grabs roster spot coming out of spring training the Twins now have a bullpen stocked with marginal big leaguers. To make matters worse their best setup man, Casey Fien, has been hurt and their lone standout reliever, Glen Perkins, continues to be in a role reserved for "save" situations that severely limit his overall usage.

All of which has added up to new manager Paul Molitor turning to an assortment of replacement level-caliber arms and repeatedly watching them fail, often in high-leverage spots. Twins relievers have combined to throw 21 innings with a 5.91 ERA and nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (10). Among all MLB teams the Twins' bullpen ranks either worst or second-worst in ERA, xFIP, strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and opponents' batting average.

Assuming that Fien's shoulder issues prove minor he'll soon be taking on a lot of the late-inning setup work that's been going to lesser options and in general the Twins' bullpen isn't as bad as it's looked so far because basically no bullpen is that bad. However, when you bypass better, younger, higher-upside options to give jobs to mediocre, low-upside veterans a bad bullpen is exactly what you get. No one, least of all the Twins, should be surprised by the early results.

This offseason 32-year-old left-hander Brian Duensing was a non-tender candidate because his inability to neutralize right-handers made him ill-suited for a setup role, but the Twins retained him for $2.7 million and kept him in a key role. They also spent $2.2 million on 33-year-old free agent right-hander Tim Stauffer, whose nice-looking raw numbers for the Padres came attached to a 90-mph fastball and included a 4.28 ERA away from MLB's most pitcher-friendly ballpark.

When the Twins signed Blaine Boyer to a minor-league deal in January it seemed like a move made mostly for organizational depth, because he's a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 ERA in the majors and a 5.31 ERA at Triple-A, but he ended up making the team largely on the basis of a half-dozen spring training innings. Another former minor-league signing, 28-year-old journeyman Aaron Thompson, was chosen as the third lefty despite an underwhelming track record.

If healthy Perkins is a good closer and Fien is a decent setup man, but the Twins chose to fill the other five bullpen spots with Duensing, Stauffer, Boyer, Thompson, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. And in creating that seven-man bullpen in which the only pitcher under 30 years old is there via the Rule 5 draft Molitor and the front office passed over several younger, cheaper, higher-upside relievers already in the organization.

Michael Tonkin is 25 years old and has pitched well in a few brief stints with the Twins, posting a 3.26 ERA and 26/9 K/BB ratio in 30 innings while averaging 94 miles per hour with his fastball. He was sent back to Rochester for his third straight season at Triple-A, where Tonkin has a 3.39 ERA and 85/21 K/BB ratio in 80 innings. He's young and cheap, he throws hard and misses bats, and he's fared well at Triple-A and in Minnesota.

Caleb Thielbar spent most of the past two seasons in the Twins' bullpen and pitched well as the third lefty, throwing 94 innings with a 2.59 ERA and 74/30 K/BB ratio. Ryan Pressly also spent much of the past two seasons in the Twins' bullpen, posting a 3.60 ERA in 105 innings. Pressly's secondary numbers were much less impressive, but he averaged 93 miles per hour with his fastball in the majors and has pitched well at Triple-A. They were both demoted to Rochester.

Lester Oliveros was acquired from the Tigers in the Delmon Young trade and missed most of 2013 recovering from elbow surgery. He returned last season to split the year between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 1.64 ERA with 88 strikeouts and zero homers allowed in 66 innings. At age 27 his upside is limited and Oliveros' control can be iffy, but he throws in the mid-90s and has averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his minor-league career.

Using the $5 million they spent on Duensing and Stauffer to acquire better relievers is something the Twins could have done this offseason, but even ignoring that possibility they had no shortage of intriguing, cheap, in-house bullpen options deserving of an opportunity and/or extended stay in the majors. They chose to give roster spots to none of them and the early results are what that flawed decision-making process deserves.


For a sadness- and anger-filled discussion of the Twins' rough opening week, check out the latest "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

April 3, 2015

Season preview: Are the Twins ready to stop losing?

Paul Molitor

Nearly everyone involved with the Twins, from players and new manager Paul Molitor to general manager Terry Ryan and owner Jim Pohlad, seems convinced the team is poised to take a big step forward. Nearly everyone not involved with the Twins, from national writers and Las Vegas oddsmakers to numbers-driven projection systems and cranky local bloggers, seems convinced the team is headed for another last-place finish and possibly a fifth straight 90-loss season.

Sports Illustrated picks the Twins for last place and 67 wins. ESPN.com picks the Twins for last place and 68 wins. Baseball Prospectus projects the Twins for last place and 71 wins. Bovada sets the Twins' over/under win total at 72.5. FanGraphs projects the Twins for last place and 74 wins. Grantland picks the Twins for last place and "under 75 wins." CBS Sports picks the Twins for last place. Yahoo Sports picks the Twins for last place. You get the idea.

Last year the Twins were 72-90. Then they fired Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager, handed out the largest free agent contract in team history to 32-year-old Ervin Santana at $55 million over four years, brought back Torii Hunter for a $10.5 million reunion at age 39, signed 33-year-old reliever Tim Stauffer for $2.2 million, and bypassed young talent in favor of veteran mediocrity for every roster spot up for grabs in spring training.

Those are all the moves of an organization that's sick of losing and also sick of their plummeting fan morale and season ticket sales. They spent big on veterans and further delayed the arrival of prospects, leading to an Opening Day roster with just four players who're 25 years old or younger in shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, designated hitter Kennys Vargas, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham.

This is a rebuilding team in the sense that the Twins have been very bad and are still attempting to get back on track, but it's anything but a young team. Kyle Gibson is the youngest member of the starting rotation at 27. Graham is the only member of the seven-reliever bullpen under 30. Six of the nine starting position players are at least 28. In terms of their collective average ages, the rotation is 30, the bullpen is 31, and the lineup is 29.

When the reality of the Twins' organizational collapse finally sunk in around mid-2012 or so the idea was that they'd be back to contending by now, but injuries ruined those plans. Joe Mauer's concussion derailed his career and turned him from a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher to a mediocre first baseman. Instead of making their MLB debuts Miguel Sano missed all of last year following elbow surgery and Byron Buxton missed all but 31 games with a wrist injury and a concussion.

Buxton and Sano will begin this season as teammates at Double-A, the Twins sent 25-year-old pitching prospects Alex Meyer, Trevor May, and Michael Tonkin back to Triple-A rather than trust them with roster spots that went to Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, and Blaine Boyer, and after back-to-back Opening Day starts in center field Aaron Hicks is back in Rochester too. Toss in Arcia's development stagnating a bit and it's easy to see where the rebuild sputtered.

The good news is Buxton and Sano remain superstar-caliber prospects, Meyer and May still have enough upside to project as impact pitchers in some role, and there's another wave of prospects coming soon led by Jose Berrios, Jorge Polanco, and Nick Burdi. The bad news is none of that figures to actually help the Twins win many games before the All-Star break. Sadly, being a Twins fan in 2015 is still more about waiting for help to arrive than watching it play at Target Field.

Brian Dozier; Danny Santana

There's a lot of optimism surrounding the Twins' offense after the lineup produced the fifth-most runs in the American League last season, but building on or even duplicating that performance is hardly a sure thing. For starters, Santana was the only hitter on the team to crack an .800 OPS last season, coming out of nowhere to hit .319/.353/.473 as a rookie after batting .273/.314/.388 in the minors while failing to top a .725 OPS at Single-A, Double-A, or Triple-A.

Santana is good enough, young enough, and skilled enough to buy into reevaluating his upside compared to what his minor-league track record suggested, but his rookie success was still driven by an unsustainable .405 batting average on balls in play and came despite an ugly 98/19 K/BB ratio. The combination of a so-so track record, poor plate discipline, and a high batting average on balls in play makes him a prime regression candidate.

Brian Dozier also needs to fight his track record to show his 2014 was for real, albeit to a lesser extent than Santana. He was the Twins' best all-around position player, hitting .245/.345/.416 with 23 homers, 21 steals, 89 walks, and solid defense to rank among the top half-dozen second basemen in MLB. Clearly the Twins buy into Dozier's age-27 breakout, but prior to 2014 he hit just .240/.297/.384 in the majors and .232/.286/.337 at Triple-A.

Kurt Suzuki was another source of unexpectedly strong offense, hitting .288/.345/.383 to make his first All-Star team at age 30. As with Dozier the Twins bought into his resurgence with a new contract, but Suzuki hit .253/.313/.362 in the second half to resemble his measly .237/.294/.357 line from 2010-2013. Jordan Schafer's track record strongly suggests he'll be unable to repeat his 41-game Twins showing and Hunter is fighting father time at age 39.

All of which isn't to say the lineup lacks the ability to improve in spots. Mauer getting back to his usual self would be huge and he hit .300 with a .400 on-base percentage in his final 55 games. Arcia should take a step forward at age 24 and is capable of breaking out with a better approach. But for the most part more hitters are likely to decline than improve, some by wide margins. Of course, Buxton and Sano showing up in May or June ready to thrive could change everything.

Then there's defense, which has played an overlooked part in the Twins' struggles as the focus tends to be on the "pitching" rather than the run prevention of pitching plus defense. Combined from 2011-2014 the Twins ranked 28th in Ultimate Zone Rating at 90 runs below average and 24th in Defensive Runs Saved at 115 runs below average. They've been horrendous, especially in the outfield, which is doubly bad combined with fly-ball, strikeout-phobic pitching staffs.

Infield defense may not be bad because Dozier is solid at second base, Santana has the skills to be a plus shortstop, Trevor Plouffe showed big improvement at third base, and Mauer is fine at first base. However, the outfield is guaranteed to be a major weakness again. Arcia and Hunter were two of MLB's worst defensive corner outfielders last year and it's asking a lot of Schafer (or Hicks) to cover up their mess when he's actually gotten below average marks in center field.

Phil Hughes Twins

Last offseason the Twins gave a four-year, $49 million deal to Ricky Nolasco and a three-year, $24 million contract to Phil Hughes, and this offseason they took the uncharacteristic pursuit of free agent pitching even further by signing Santana for $55 million. Hughes got three years and $42 million tacked on to his previous deal following a breakout 2014 season and the Twins have Pelfrey and Milone under contract for a combined $8.5 million in 2015.

That's a lot of resources devoted to veteran starters and there's also a hidden cost that comes with having pitchers with guaranteed salaries locked into rotation spots that might otherwise be handed over to prospects. Hughes is signed through 2019, Santana is signed through 2018, Nolasco is signed through 2017, and even though Pelfrey and Milone aren't signed beyond this season the Twins were still hesitant to push them aside.

Hughes was a tremendous find on what was a very reasonable free agent contract that the Twins turned into a much bigger commitment. He logged 210 innings and pitched even better than his solid 3.52 ERA, striking out 186 and walking 16 for the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. Asking for a repeat of that performance is wishful thinking, but Hughes seemed like a truly different pitcher last season and enters this year as a clear-cut No. 1 starter.

Santana was signed to take over the No. 2 spot and what he lacks in upside he makes up for in durability, although he's probably more of a No. 3 starter on a contending team. Nolasco looked like a No. 3 starter when the Twins gave him $49 million last offseason, but then pitched horribly for several months before revealing he was hurt and is now a question mark the Twins no doubt regret signing.

Gibson is the lone homegrown pitcher in the rotation and the former top prospect finally broke through last season to throw 179 innings in 31 starts. He was wildly inconsistent, but the end result was a 4.47 ERA in a league where the average starter was below 4.00. Inducing lots of ground balls helps Gibson make up for a lack of missed bats, but at age 27 and with just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings his upside looks limited to the back of the rotation.

Milone beat out Pelfrey and May for the fifth spot and the soft-tossing left-hander will try to show that his awful post-trade performance for the Twins was due to a benign tumor in his neck that required surgery. Milone was a solid back-of-the-rotation starter for the A's, but Oakland's pitcher-friendly ballpark overstated his effectiveness and helped compensate for a mid-80s fastball. He has a 4.80 career ERA in non-Oakland ballparks.

If the goal was to put together a rotation less likely to be a disaster than the 2011-2014 versions the Twins absolutely accomplished that, but the price tags indicate they have much higher hopes and that may be pushing things. This is the worst rotation in the AL Central even if it's assumed Hughes will avoid turning back into a pumpkin and there isn't much upside unless Meyer and/or May hit the ground running soon. And compared to the bullpen the rotation is a strength.

Glen Perkins was one of the elite relievers in baseball for 3.5 seasons before melting down late last year while pitching through an injury. The bullpen desperately needs him to be his pre-injury self or things could get very ugly. Casey Fien is the primary setup man. Brian Duensing, who was a non-tender candidate, is the only lefty. Stauffer and Boyer have prominent roles and the Twins are hoping Pelfrey's one-pitch arsenal fits better in relief. It's an underwhelming group.


This should be the least-awful Twins team since 2010, but that's not saying much and confidence in even that mild statement dropped when they stacked the roster with Pelfrey, Milone, Duensing, Boyer, Schafer, Stauffer, Shane Robinson, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez. That's a lot of self-imposed dreck for a team with better, younger options and there's a depressingly strong chance the same "are the Twins ready to stop losing?" question can be asked 365 days from now.

December 29, 2014

Twins sign Tim Stauffer to one-year, $2.2 million contract

Tim Stauffer Padres

When the Twins declined their $3.6 million option on Jared Burton for 2015 it seemed like the first step toward a possible bullpen overhaul designed to usher in some younger, harder-throwing arms to surround closer Glen Perkins. Instead they tendered arbitration eligible Brian Duensing a contract for a projected $2.5 million, keeping the low-upside lefty around for another year, and now they've signed 33-year-old right-hander Tim Stauffer to a one-year, $2.2 million contract.

Stauffer was the fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft that saw the Rays select Delmon Young in the top spot and was viewed as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter coming out of college. He moved quickly through the Padres' farm system, debuting in 2004 at high Single-A before moving up to Double-A after just six starts and then spending the second half at Triple-A as a 22-year-old. Overall he posted a 2.89 ERA in 28 starts, but it came with just 113 strikeouts in 168 innings.

Stauffer stayed at Triple-A to begin the 2005 season and was called up to San Diego for his MLB debut on May 11, tossing six innings of two-run ball to beat the Reds three weeks before his 23rd birthday. He stayed in the Padres' rotation until a pair of poor starts in late July led to a demotion back to Triple-A. Stauffer finished the season with a 5.33 ERA in 81 innings for the Padres and a 5.14 ERA in 75 innings at Triple-A.

He spent most of the next two seasons at Triple-A, making just three total appearances for the Padres, and then missed all of 2008 and part of 2009 following shoulder surgery. He worked his way back to the big leagues and pitched well for the next three seasons, establishing himself as a full-time member of the Padres' rotation ... and then he missed nearly all of 2012 following elbow surgery. This time when Stauffer returned from injury it was as a reliever.

Serving a low-leverage, multi-inning bullpen role similar to the one Anthony Swarzak filled for the Twins before being non-tendered this month, Stauffer made three mostly poor starts and 84 mostly good relief appearances for the Padres between 2013 and 2014. As a reliever during that two-season span Stauffer threw 126 innings with a 3.21 ERA and 121/39 K/BB ratio, holding opponents to a .242 batting average and 10 homers.

Nice-looking numbers, but less impressive when placed within the context of where he pitched. And that's really the story of Stauffer's whole career as a major leaguer. He's called MLB's most pitcher-friendly locale, Petco Park, home for his entire seven-season career and not surprisingly Stauffer has a lifetime 3.07 ERA at home compared to a 4.64 ERA on the road. His road ERA was 4.28 in 2013-2014, during which time the average NL reliever posted a 3.51 ERA.

If you look only at Stauffer's raw totals you may see a logical replacement for Burton as Perkins' primary setup man, but adjusting for context shows him as more of a mediocre middle reliever. Which is fine, of course. Signing a mediocre veteran middle reliever for $2.2 million is reasonable, but the Twins have plenty of young arms to potentially fill that role for a fraction of the cost and with much more upside than a 33-year-old with a lengthy injury history and a 91-mph fastball.

Stauffer joins Perkins, Duensing, and Casey Fien as locked into the bullpen, with Caleb Thielbar likely to have a spot as well. That leaves two spots up for grabs, one of which may go to the loser of the Tommy Milone vs. Mike Pelfrey fifth-starter battle. Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham has to stay in the majors all year or be offered back, Michael Tonkin, Ryan Pressly, and Lester Oliveros deserve chances, and Alex Meyer and Trevor May may need somewhere to get their feet wet.


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