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 19, 2014

Arbitration-eligible Twins: Tender or non-tender?

trevor plouffe twins

December 2 is the deadline for teams to tender 2015 contracts to arbitration-eligible players and the Twins have seven such decisions to make this offseason. There are some no-brainers to keep, some no-brainers to non-tender, and some calls that could go either way. Below you'll find MLB Trade Rumors' projected 2015 salaries for the Twins' arbitration-eligible players and my thoughts on what they should do and/or will do with them.

Trevor Plouffe ($4.3 million projected salary): This time last year the thought of the Twins non-tendering Plouffe rather than paying him around $4.3 million for 2015 via arbitration would not have surprised anyone, but he played well enough that keeping him around for another year seems like a no-brainer. Plouffe played a career-high 136 games and set personal best marks in batting average (.258), on-base percentage (.328), doubles (40), and walks (53).

He hit .258/.328/.431 for a .751 OPS that easily topped the .715 OPS produced by all MLB third basemen and perhaps more importantly Plouffe's defensive numbers improved dramatically. He was above average on both sides of the ball, ranking among the dozen best third basemen. His place in the Twins' plans beyond the first half of next year will be determined largely by Miguel Sano's recovery from elbow surgery, but in the meantime $4.3 million is an easy call.

Tommy Milone ($2.8 million projected salary): When the Twins acquired Milone from the A's in exchange for Sam Fuld on July 31 he seemed all but certain to be part of their 2015 rotation, but then he allowed 21 runs in 21 innings before being shut down with shoulder and neck problems. Prior to the trade Milone had a 3.84 ERA in 443 innings for the A's, but a pitcher-friendly ballpark and strong defenses masked a performance that was closer to a 4.25 ERA in quality.

Milone is 28 years old and under team control through at least 2018, so even if he's a 4.25 ERA guy keeping him around for $2.8 million makes sense, but with his post-trade struggles, injury issues, and lack of upside thanks to a mid-80s fastball and poor strikeout rates it's possible the Twins will decide to cut bait. Their overall starting pitching obviously needs work, but they aren't lacking in back-of-the-rotation options.

Brian Duensing ($2.5 million projected salary): On the surface a 3.31 ERA suggests Duensing had a good season, but in reality he managed just 33 strikeouts versus 20 walks in 54 innings and as usual got knocked around by right-handed hitters by allowing them to slug .494. Duensing has neither the velocity nor the bat-missing ability typically desired in a late-inning reliever and his career-long struggles against righties make him ill-suited for more than a lefty specialist role.

There's often a place for southpaw specialists, but Duensing doesn't dominate lefties enough to thrive in that role. Combined from 2012-2014 lefties hit .265/.307/.383 off him. This season all lefty vs. lefty matchups in MLB resulted in a .240/.302/.345 line. Righties hit .289/.351/.442 with 48 walks and 70 strikeouts off Duensing from 2012-2014, which is terrible for a reliever. He's had a solid, useful run with the Twins, but for $2.5 million Duensing is no longer really needed.

Jordan Schafer ($1.5 million projected salary): After claiming Fuld off the waiver wire and getting surprisingly good value for 53 games before trading him the Twins nearly repeated the process with Schafer. Claimed off waivers from the Braves following Fuld's departure, Schafer hit .285/.345/.362 with 15 steals in 41 games while shoring up the outfield defense. Rather than trading him the Twins' option with Schafer is whether to bring him back for $1.5 million.

Based strictly on his 41-game trial the answer would be yes, but even with that included Schafer is a career .229/.311/.310 hitter in 436 games and hit just .225/.278/.294 at Triple-A. An extra million dollars isn't going to make a dent in the Twins' payroll space, so the decision should come down to who they want pushing Aaron Hicks in center field and/or seeing action in left field on days when manager Paul Molitor focuses on outfield defense.

Anthony Swarzak ($1.4 million projected salary): Moved to the bullpen after flopping as a starter, Swarzak had a nice 2013 in long relief and resumed struggling in 2014. He posted a 4.60 ERA compared to the MLB average of 3.58 for relievers and struck out 4.9 per nine innings for the second-worst rate among all relievers with 60 or more innings. Just how little do the Twins trust Swarzak in games that aren't already lost causes? They are 36-111 when he pitches since 2012.

He's now 29 years old with a 5.87 ERA in 32 starts and a 3.66 ERA in 149 relief appearances, and the bullpen work comes with a lowly strikeout rate of 5.8 per nine innings. Swarzak is a standard low-leverage reliever with the ability to soak up some innings, but there's no upside to be had in keeping him in that role and the Twins would be better served letting a younger reliever or maybe even a starter prospect get his feet wet in the majors with those same innings.

Eduardo Nunez ($1.2 million projected salary): Acquired from the Yankees in early April, the Twins oddly talked up Nunez's offensive ability despite a track record full of poor production and overlooked his awful defensive numbers. Then they gave him 213 plate appearances, including 17 starts at shortstop, and he hit .250/.271/.382 with a 31/5 K/BB ratio. To make matters worse the prospect they traded for him, Miguel Sulburan, pitched well at high Single-A as a 20-year-old.

Nunez is 28 years old. He's hit .264/.305/.380 in 342 games in the majors and .272/.316/.366 in 722 games in the minors. Ultimate Zone Rating has him 31 runs below average per 150 games at shortstop and several other defensive metrics see him as even worse. The bar for "decent utility infielder" is extremely low, but Nunez can't field well enough to play shortstop and can't hit well enough to be an asset anywhere else.

Casey Fien ($1.1 million projected salary): Signed to a minor-league contract three offseasons ago, Fien initially emerged as a dependable middle reliever and then overtook Jared Burton's as Glen Perkins' primary setup man. As an extreme fly-ball pitcher he's always at risk for a home run-based blowup, but Fien has generally been good enough at everything else to make up for allowing 19 homers in 160 innings for the Twins.

He has a 3.54 ERA in three seasons with the Twins, including a 156/31 K/BB ratio in 160 innings and a .234 opponents' batting average, and Fien has actually been slightly more effective against lefties than righties. Ideally he's better suited for a middle relief role than eighth-inning duties and at age 31 he's not someone the Twins need to worry about retaining long term, but for now $1.1 million is a bargain.


For a lot more about the Twins' arbitration-eligible players and a discussion of their potential free agent targets, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

September 10, 2014

Twins Notes: Santana, Escobar, St. Peter, Thorpe, Mauer, and May

Danny Santana Twins

Danny Santana picked a bad season to be a .320-hitting rookie center fielder, because White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu is hitting .317/.378/.590 with 33 homers and will run away with the Rookie of the Year award. However, assuming that he doesn't go into a prolonged slump down the stretch Santana's performance would be enough to make him a deserving Rookie of the Year winner in quite a few previous seasons. Last season, for instance.

Last season's winner, Wil Myers of the Rays, hit .293/.354/.478 in 88 games as a right fielder. Santana has hit .320/.358/.475 in 84 games as a center fielder/shortstop. They've been nearly identical as hitters and Santana has large edges in base-running, defense, and positional value. Looking at Twins history, Marty Cordova won the award in 1995 while hitting .277/.352/.486 in 137 games as a left fielder in a much higher era for offense.

Here's where Santana currently ranks among Twins rookies in Wins Above Replacement during the Ron Gardenhire era of 2002-2014:

                    YEAR     WAR
Francisco Liriano   2006     4.5
Lew Ford            2004     4.5
Denard Span         2008     4.3
Bobby Kielty        2002     2.7
DANNNY SANTANA      2014     2.7

Longtime readers of this blog will probably remember that I thought Bobby Kielty was destined for stardom. He was not.

• Santana was thrust into center field without ever playing there regularly before and has done reasonably well, but assistant general manager Rob Antony recently said: "I think he's going to be our shortstop of the future. Any opportunity we get to play him at shortstop is a good thing." Which is fine, except with Aaron Hicks back in the majors the Twins are still going out of their way not to play Santana at shortstop, even using Eduardo Nunez there instead of him.

• On a related note: Since a strong start Eduardo Escobar has hit just .247/.292/.365 in his last 85 games. He's now a career .253/.299/.363 hitter in 761 plate appearances as a big leaguer.

• For most of the past four years the Twins' bullpen has been a strength amid the team's overall struggles, but now the relievers are struggling too. In the first half the bullpen had a 3.21 ERA with a 13-10 record. In the second half they have a 4.92 ERA with a 6-10 record, including a 5.81 ERA during the past month. Their season totals now include ranking 22nd in ERA, 29th in xFIP, and dead last in strikeout rate. Of course, the rotation has still been worse.

• Twins president Dave St. Peter apparently didn't mind Keith Olbermann ripping the team to shreds on ESPN, but he predictably did mind me saying their brand survey was "tone deaf." On a related note, we spent a large portion of this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode discussing the Twins' increasing assurances of "we get it" in the face of mounting evidence that they don't.

• Pitching prospect Lewis Thorpe, an 18-year-old left-hander from Australia with 144 strikeouts in 116 career innings and one of the highest-upside arms in the Twins' farm system, has been diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. For now the Twins are insisting he'll be fine, but UCL injuries are what lead to Tommy John surgery.

Jose Berrios had one of the 10 best starts by any pitching prospect this season, according to Baseball America.

Joe Mauer has a .405 on-base percentage with more walks than strikeouts in 28 games since returning from the disabled list. During that time he's got an .848 OPS. His career OPS is .861.

Kurt Suzuki has hit .235/.279/.337 in 27 games since his two-year, $12 million extension. He hit .237/.294/.357 in 477 games from 2010-2013.

Tommy Milone allowed 21 runs in 21 innings for the Twins after coming over from the A's in exchange for Sam Fuld and now he's hurt. (Fuld has hit just .218/.269/.307 in 35 games since the trade.)

• Since his disastrous MLB debut Trevor May has a 24/12 K/BB ratio and three homers allowed in 27 innings. It'll take a while for his ERA to not be hideous, but he'll be just fine.

• After nine seasons as the Twins' minor-league hitting coordinator and 14 total seasons in the organization Bill Springman has been let go.

• At one point this season the Twins were 23-21. Since then they are 39-61.


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."

August 13, 2014

Twins trade Josh Willingham and Kevin Correia

willingham and gardenhire

Any realistic potential for the Twins to make a major move at the trade deadline likely revolved around dealing away All-Star catcher Kurt Suzuki, but instead they signed the impending free agent to a two-year, $12 million contract extension and chose only to make a handful of minor deals to remove veterans from the margins of the roster. And it's possible they may still make another minor deal or two before the end of the August waiver trading period.

Prior to deadline day they sent massively disappointing 31-year-old midseason signing Kendrys Morales to the Mariners for 25-year-old rehabbing reliever Stephen Pryor. On deadline day they shipped 32-year-old outfielder Sam Fuld back to the A's team from which they recently claimed him off waivers for nothing in exchange for 27-year-old starter Tommy Milone. And after the deadline they parted ways with 35-year-old Josh Willingham and 33-year-old Kevin Correia.

Correia was traded to the Dodgers for a player to be named later or cash considerations, and how many innings he logs for them as a spot starter/long reliever will probably determine whether the Twins receive a non-prospect minor leaguer or the equivalent of a bucket of baseballs. Correia had $1.5 million remaining on a two-year, $10 million deal, so the Twins save some money and more importantly clear a rotation spot for a starter who might actually have a future in Minnesota.

Similarly, by trading Willingham to the Royals for right-hander Jason Adam the Twins shed the $1.8 million remaining on his three-year, $21 million deal and open up at-bats for younger corner outfielders. As an added bonus Adam isn't totally devoid of potential. Drafted in the fifth round out of high school in 2010, he struggled as a starter at Double-A last season and this season before being shifted to the bullpen at Triple-A recently.

Apparently the Twins plan to send Adam back to Double-A and make him a starter again despite his 5.18 ERA and poor secondary numbers in 45 career starts there. At age 22 he's certainly still young enough to develop further and perhaps they simply want to get a first-hand look at what he's capable of as a starter, but based on Baseball America's scouting report of decent velocity and iffy off-speed stuff if Adam makes it to the big leagues it'll likely be as a reliever.

Ultimately, though, Adams and whatever the Twins get in return for Correia are merely icing on the cake of removing two mediocre veterans from a non-contending roster that didn't need them. At this point Willingham's spot in left field and Correia's spot in the rotation carried more value to the team than they did, although to actually benefit from that value the Twins need to fill those spots with players who possess upside and help those players develop with the playing time.

Correia had a 4.50 ERA in 54 starts for the Twins compared to a 4.10 ERA for the average AL starter. Among the 138 starters with at least 150 innings since 2013 he ranked 131st in xFIP and dead last in strikeout rate with 4.7 per nine innings when no one else was below 5.0. His only real value came from being not-disastrous and not-injured, and if the Twins ever truly needed to pay $5 million per season for that at any point it certainly ceased being the case now.

Willingham looked like a spectacular investment one season into his three-year contract, having a career-year at age 33 by hitting .260/.366/.524 with 35 homers. Rather than trading him then the Twins hung onto Willingham and he's been injured and ineffective since, hitting .209 with a .380 slugging percentage dating back to last season while sitting out 35 percent of the team's games. Toss in terrible defense and he was among MLB's least valuable players.

Correia was an example of a signing that carried only downside, because he pitched as well as the Twins could realistically have hoped for based on his track record and was still barely better than a replacement-level starter while earning 10 times the minimum salary. Willingham was an example of why signing mid-30s players to multi-year deals carries so much risk, as well as an example of why selling high is sometimes the right decision even if it's also a tough decision.

Of the four 30-somethings traded away only Fuld had a chance to be part of a future team and that wouldn't have been as more than a backup outfielder for a season or two, so to shed about $8 million in salaries, clear playing time for younger players, and receive the potentially useful trio of Milone, Pryor, and Adam in return is a job well done for the front office even if the moves came about in part because the Willingham, Correia, and Morales signings were all less than successful.


For a lot more about the Twins' deadline and post-deadline deals, plus Trevor May's ugly debut, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.