March 31, 2016

Season preview: Are the Twins ready to be a playoff team?

Last year the Twins emerged from the wreckage of four consecutive 90-loss seasons sooner than anticipated, out-performing expectations by climbing above .500 in Paul Molitor's rookie season as manager. Miguel Sano immediately established himself as the big bat around which the lineup can be built, leading the way for a deep, upside-rich farm system that's ready to stock the Twins' roster with young talent for years to come. It's a fun time to be a Twins fan again.

However, rather than build on that momentum and their sooner-than-expected contender status by making a series of significant offseason moves to beef up the roster the Twins basically stood pat. They went outside the box to replace Torii Hunter in the lineup by spending $25 million on Korean slugger Byung Ho Park and addressed the organization-wide lack of catching depth by trading Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy. And that was it.

No significant additions were made to a pitching staff that was 10th among AL teams in ERA last season after ranking dead last from 2011-2014 and one of the team's best second-half pitchers, Tyler Duffey, was sent back to Triple-A in favor of contractual albatross Ricky Nolasco. Rumors that the Twins would trade Trevor Plouffe to open up third base never materialized and led to their shifting the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Sano to right field despite zero outfield experience.

Aside from some minor tinkering, the Twins' offseason consisted of two moves and was over by December 1. And while the perception is that the Twins are a young team on the rise thanks to Sano and an impressive farm system, the actual Opening Day roster is heavy on veterans. Kyle Gibson is the youngest member of the rotation at 28, the average age of the pitching staff is 30, and only three of the nine Opening Day hitters are younger than 27.

Their relative inactivity leaves plenty of room for criticism, particularly on the pitching side, and the front office's decades-long conservative streak always offers a viable explanation. With that said, the Twins' disinterest in adding even moderately priced veterans to an 83-win team is easy to explain: Terry Ryan and company are convinced the young talent they've stockpiled through all the losing is now ready to turn the Twins into winners. Just not right away, apparently.

Jose Berrios is an elite pitching prospect and many teams would have promoted him in the middle of last season, but he's back at Triple-A with Duffey for a second go-around because the Twins spent the past two offseasons handing out long-term deals to mediocre starters. Based on service time considerations the Twins should be planning for Berrios to debut in late April or early May, but that makes the shaky assumption that they'll be ready to ditch veterans by then.

Bypassing the many veteran relievers available via trades and free agency may hurt the Twins in the short term, but they clearly believe that by midseason at least one or two good bullpen arms will step forward from a group of hard-throwing prospects that includes Nick Burdi, Alex Meyer, Brandon Peterson, J.T. Chargois, Jake Reed, and Luke Bard. They had similar hopes heading into last year and the payoff was non-existent, but Burdi looks especially close to the majors now.

If by midseason Berrios and Duffey are leading the rotation turnaround and Burdi or Meyer have joined Trevor May and Kevin Jepsen setting up for Glen Perkins then the lack of offseason pitching moves will look prescient. If instead Rochester's pitching staff is thriving and Minnesota's pitching staff is again among the league's worst the fingers will point themselves. Right now the Twins' pitching looks mediocre at best, but the cavalry is coming. Or at least that's the plan.

Offensively most of the cavalry has already arrived and the young, crazy talented starting outfield of 22-year-old stud prospect Byron Buxton flanked by 23-year-old Sano and 24-year-old Eddie Rosario may tell the story of the 2016 season. That trio has the potential to be the Twins' three best players, but Buxton has yet to prove himself as a hitter, Rosario's lack of discipline threatens to stall his development, and Sano's right field sojourn threatens his health and the team ERA.

Here's the beauty of the Twins' farm system: They also have 23-year-old outfielder Max Kepler, a consensus top-100 prospect coming off an MVP-winning campaign at Double-A, waiting in the wings at Triple-A. Their outfield options are so young, so talented, and so plentiful that Oswaldo Arcia--a 25-year-old former top prospect with a .741 OPS in the majors--is an afterthought. If the Twins take a big step forward this season the young outfield figures to be a driving force.

Park is neither young nor inexperienced, winning a pair of MVP awards and four home run titles in Korea through age 28, but he's an MLB rookie for whom outlooks vary wildly. Based on his Hall of Fame numbers in Korea, the scouting reports from people who watched him there, and his spring training showing it's clear that Park will hit for big-time power, but that power will likely come with tons of strikeouts and a modest batting average.

For years the Twins' lineup was lefty dominated, but adding Sano and Park to Plouffe and Brian Dozier has swung the balance to the right side. In fact, this might be the most right-handed pop any Twins lineup has ever featured and Target Field is an ideal home for right-handed power. Six of the nine Opening Day hitters are right-handed, along with switch-hitter Eduardo Escobar and lefties Joe Mauer and Rosario.

Mauer simply hasn't been the same since suffering a concussion in August of 2013 and at age 33 the odds are heavily stacked against him being more than an above-average first baseman, but his on-base skills are desperately needed in a lineup long on power and short on OBP. Last year Sano and Mauer were the only Twins to crack a .330 on-base percentage and all the right-handed power bats need base-runners to drive in.

Escobar has quietly been one of the best shortstops in Twins history whenever they've actually given him a chance to play the position regularly, hitting .285/.331/.452 with solid defense in 203 career starts. For decades the Twins have repeatedly failed to find competent offensive shortstops, but Escobar is a switch-hitter with plus power for the position and has the ability to lengthen the lineup considerably. He's turned a lot of people--me included--from doubters to believers.

Nearly every hitter in the lineup comes attached to a question mark because of inexperience or injuries and that makes it tough to feel confident predicting how the offense will fare overall, but it's impossible to ignore how much young upside, right-handed power, and depth the Twins have assembled. If they get any sort of decent bottom-of-the-order production from the catcher spot and Buxton the Twins are going to score a bunch of runs.

And they'll need to, because the pitching staff with by far the fewest strikeouts in baseball since 2008 is again lacking the same type of upside and power that fills the lineup. There is some depth in that Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone, and Gibson are solid veteran starters and May, Jepsen, and Perkins are a strong bullpen trio, but at a time when MLB-wide strikeouts and velocity have never been higher the Twins simply lack firepower.

That could change if Berrios and Burdi receive quick call-ups and thrive right away, but counting on two prospects who've never thrown a pitch in the big leagues to drag an entire staff kicking and screaming into the power pitching era is probably wishful thinking. Molitor keeping the lesser starters on a short leash could be crucial, because turning games over to fresher, harder-throwing relievers often makes more sense than risking another trip through a lineup past 75 pitches.

Based on the Opening Day roster the Twins look mediocre, with an above-average offense and a below-average pitching staff. Based on the much younger, higher-upside roster they could begin transitioning to as soon as late April the Twins absolutely have a chance to build on last season's surprising success by making a run at the AL Central title. They just need to trust the youth and have it pay off. And here's the best part: This figures to be the worst Twins team for a long time.

October 14, 2015

My hypothetical Twins MVP ballot

Miguel Sano and Brian Dozier Twins

After four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins re-emerged as a competitive team, going 83-79 and remaining in the Wild Card hunt until the final weekend of the season. Here's my attempt to rank the most valuable individual performances behind the team-wide turnaround:

1. Miguel Sano

It's difficult to be the most valuable player on a team when playing only 80 of 162 games, but two things make Miguel Sano a special case. One is that he was great in those 80 games, ranking as one of the best hitters in baseball and repeatedly coming through with key hits in key spots. Two is that none of the Twins' full-time, season-long players had particularly outstanding years, leaving Sano's great half-season to compete against good but not great full seasons.

Called up from Double-A on July 2 after the Twins went 11-17 in June, he was immediately the best, most patient hitter in the lineup. Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers and 53 walks in 80 games, including a 1.055 OPS with runners on, a 1.028 OPS with runners in scoring position, and a 1.100 OPS in close-and-late situations. He easily led the team in the context-dependent stat Win Probability Added and ranked 17th in the entire league despite not playing in April, May, or June.

At age 22 he forced pitchers to throw strikes and punished them when they gave in. An incredible 28 percent of Sano's plate appearances went to a full count, compared to the MLB average of 12 percent, and he posted a 1.281 OPS on 3-2 pitches. He also batted a ridiculous .700 with a 1.650 slugging percentage when putting the first pitch in play, punishing get-me-over strikes too. Sano's rookie season wasn't just good or even great for a rookie, it was one of the best in Twins history.

Sano's adjusted OPS+ of 146 ranked seventh in the AL behind only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion. Sano tied with Chris Davis, who led the league in homers for the second time in three seasons. Within the context of team history, the only other Twins hitters to top an OPS+ of 145 during the past 20 seasons are Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jim Thome. None of them did it more than once. Sano is 1-for-1.

As a proponent of cumulative production, defense, and positional adjustments being big factors in player value the idea of a half-season designated hitter being team MVP is a tough sell, but Sano had a truly special half-season that was elevated even further in "clutch" situations and it seemed odd not to prefer 80 games of that compared to 150 games of slightly above-average. Sano was the Twins' best player for every moment he wore a Twins uniform and that gets my MVP.

2. Brian Dozier

Brian Dozier appeared to be having a breakout year when he followed up a very strong 2014 season with an even better first half, hitting .256/.328/.513 with 19 homers, 48 total extra-base hits, and 34 walks in 88 games to make his first All-Star team. Seemingly established as one of MLB's best second basemen, he then collapsed in the second half and hit just .210/.280/.359 to finish with worse overall numbers than he posted in 2014.

Starting strong only to fall apart in the second half in back-to-back years is worrisome and calls into question whether Dozier's durability is actually a strength, but the end result was still plenty valuable. He led all MLB second basemen in homers (28), extra-base hits (71), and runs scored (101), ranked second in RBIs (77), walks (61), and total bases (279), and posted a .751 OPS compared the MLB average of .711 for the position.

Toss in up-the-middle defense that rates slightly below average according to most metrics and Dozier was one of the top 10 second basemen in MLB this season. It may have been less jarring for Twins fans to watch if he'd simply been a .750 OPS hitter all year instead of being an All-Star in the first half and replacement-level in the second half, but in assessing all-around value for the season as a whole Dozier has a reasonable argument for being team MVP.

3. Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson took a step forward this year, staying healthy with a full-season workload again and upping his strikeout rate by 25 percent while maintaining nearly identical rates everywhere else. Last season he walked 2.9 per nine innings, induced 54 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play. This season he walked 3.0 per nine innings, induced 53 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play.

Those are remarkably similar numbers and Gibson was able to up his strikeouts from 5.4 to 6.7 per nine innings. He's unlikely to ever be a high-strikeout pitcher, but in both 2014 and 2015 his ground-ball rate ranked among MLB's top 10 and pairing that with even a decent strikeout rate can lead to big things. This year for Gibson that mix--along with better bullpen support and fewer blowup starts--led to slicing his ERA from 4.47 to 3.84 while leading the Twins with 195 innings.

4. Trevor Plouffe

Trevor Plouffe had a typical Trevor Plouffe season, hitting .244/.307/.435 with 22 homers, 35 doubles, and a 124/50 K/BB ratio in 152 games while playing above-average third base defense. His production was nearly identical to his combined 2012-2014 line of .249/.314/.422 and in four seasons as the Twins' starting third baseman his OPS has never been lower than .701 or higher than .756. He is what he is, except for one big difference this year: Double plays.

Plouffe grounded into 28 double plays, which led the league and tied for the most in Twins history. His previous career-high was just 12 double plays. Whether it was a one-year fluke or not, making two outs at a time so often--and in so many key, rally-crushing situations--took a big chunk out of Plouffe's value. Compared to all MLB third basemen he was almost exactly average--slightly below offensively and slightly above defensively.

5. Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario was called up from Triple-A to replace the injured Oswaldo Arcia on May 6 and never went back, hitting better than his recent minor-league track record suggested he would and impressing defensively with excellent range and a strong arm. Rosario's total lack of patience held him back, as he swung at everything on the way to a ghastly 118/15 K/BB ratio and .289 on-base percentage, but his other skills mostly made up for all the hacking.

Rosario hit .267 with 13 homers, 18 doubles, and a league-high 15 triples on the way to a sturdy .459 slugging percentage. He nearly led the league with 16 outfield assists and tracked down fly balls that many recent Twins left fielders wouldn't have even gone after. Long term Rosario risks failing to fulfill his potential if he doesn't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but this season his extra-base power, speed, and defense made him an above-average regular at age 23.

6. Trevor May

Demoted to Triple-A at the end of spring training, Trevor May moved into the rotation following Ervin Santana's suspension and posted the best secondary numbers of any Twins starter through early July. His reward was being moved to the bullpen, where May took the role change in stride despite wanting to remain a starter and logged 31.1 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 37/8 K/BB ratio while emerging as the team's primary setup man.

When the Twins needed a starter, May stepped in and did a good job for three months. When the Twins needed a reliever, May shifted to the bullpen without putting up a Mike Pelfrey-like fuss and did a good job for three months. There's added value in that versatility, not unlike a position player with the ability to handle multiple spots defensively, and May finished his first full season in the majors with a 4.00 ERA and 110/26 K/BB ratio in 115 innings overall.

7. Eduardo Escobar

Eduardo Escobar was as a square peg in a round hole when the Twins gave the shortstop job to Danny Santana and regularly used Escobar way out of position in left field. They finally came to their senses in July thanks to Santana's ineptitude and Escobar picked up where he left off as one of the AL's better shortstops. His overall value is tough to gauge because he struggled in left field and thrived at shortstop, but Escobar certainly isn't to blame for the team misusing him.

He ended up starting 71 games at shortstop compared to 34 in left field or at designated hitter, plus nine more at second and third base. Overall he hit .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits in 127 games. For some context his .754 OPS was 70 points higher than the average shortstop and slightly below average for corner outfielders, which is why Escobar's early usage was so silly and why his finally replacing Santana at shortstop made such a big impact.

8. Ervin Santana

Suspended for the first 80 games, Ervin Santana initially fared well upon joining the rotation in early July before having a brutal six-start stretch from late July through late August in which he allowed 33 runs in 30 innings. At that point he had a 6.05 ERA and the four-year, $52 million signing looked like a disaster, but then Santana fixed his mechanics and was one of the league's best starters down the stretch with a 1.62 ERA and 47/14 K/BB ratio in his final 50 innings.

There was nothing special about Santana's overall performance, which included a 4.00 ERA and 82/36 K/BB ratio with 12 homers allowed in 108 innings, but he was an above-average starting pitcher for 17 starts and that carries significant value just the same as it would if he'd been a prospect called up at midseason rather than a veteran banned from participating in the team's first 80 games.

9. Tommy Milone

An afterthought for most of the season--including a month-long demotion to Triple-A despite being 28 years old with 500 innings as a big leaguer--Tommy Milone started 23 games and logged 129 innings with a 3.92 ERA. It wasn't always pretty and it was never flashy, but Milone had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Gibson, Santana, and Pelfrey while ranking second among all Twins starters in Win Probability Added behind only Gibson.

10. Tyler Duffey

It was only 10 starts, but Tyler Duffey saved the Twins' rotation by throwing 58 innings with a 3.10 ERA and 53/20 K/BB ratio down the stretch as veteran starters were dropping like flies and May was working out of the bullpen. After getting knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut Duffey joined Santana as the only reliable starters for the final six weeks, completing at least six innings and allowing two or fewer runs in each of his last five starts.

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October 6, 2015

Eight big positives to take from the Twins’ half-full, half-empty season

Miguel Sano Twins

There are half-full and half-empty ways to view the Twins' season. On the half-full side they won 83 games compared to a Las Vegas over/under of 72.5 and local optimism topping out around 78, emerging as a contender ahead of schedule. On the half-empty side they made plenty of decisions on playing time, player evaluation, and call-ups that seemed iffy at the time and now stand out as especially damaging within the context of missing out on a Wild Card spot by just three games.

Whichever side you lean toward from a team-wide perspective, there's no doubt that looking at the Twins' season from a player-by-player view leads to an abundance of half-full glasses and a few that are overflowing. I've identified eight players whose 2015 performance stood out in a very positive way, both for this season and for the Twins' long-term plans. There are more, of course, but these eight made me feel the best about what happened this season on the way to 83-79.

Miguel Sano: I've spent the past three months obsessively posting Sano statistical porn on Twitter, so I'll try to keep this #SanoPorn somewhat brief. Sano arrived from Double-A on July 2 as a fully formed middle-of-the-order monster and one of the most extreme Three True Outcomes bats of all time, hitting .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers, 17 doubles, 53 walks, and 119 strikeouts in 80 games at age 22. He was a revelation, shattering the typical Twins hitting mold.

He's not without flaws, including a strikeout rate that will make posting decent batting averages difficult, but Sano's power and patience are both 99th percentile skills and his debut was one of the best in Twins history. Actually, that's underselling it. Sano had the 12th-highest OPS (.915) in MLB history among 22-year-old right-handed hitters, taking his spot on the list directly after Hank Aaron (.923) and Alex Rodriguez (.919). His long-term potential is drool-inducing.

Eddie Rosario: Despite little in his 2013 or 2014 performance to suggest he was ready for the majors Rosario was the first outfielder called up when reinforcements were needed in early May and never went back to the minors. He swung at everything on the way to 118 strikeouts and 15 walks in 122 games to match the idea that he wasn't ready, but Rosario also batted .267 with 46 extra-base hits and plus defense to show Paul Molitor was right to believe in his raw talent.

There's no doubting Rosario's tools, which include an extremely quick bat, very good speed on the bases and in the outfield, and a strong arm that killed 16 runners when stubborn teams refused to stop testing him. None of that will mean much if Rosario can't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but in terms of debuts for 23-year-olds there was a ton to like and even with the undisciplined approach at the plate he was an above-average player as a rookie.

Trevor May: May was sent down to Triple-A at the end of spring training, but Ricky Nolasco immediately getting hurt opened up a rotation spot and he had the best strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, and xFIP among Twins starters through mid-July. And then the Twins moved May to the bullpen, where he took the unwanted and undeserved role change in stride and thrived as a reliever with a 2.87 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 31 innings.

Like most starters May's velocity and raw stuff went up a tick or two as a reliever, giving him the potential to be a late-inning setup man or closer. However, he's also shown enough as a starter to think he can help the Twins more logging 200 innings in the rotation instead of 70 innings in the bullpen and May has made it clear he wants to start. Whatever happens, May took a huge step forward this season at age 25 and gives the Twins' pitching staff a much-needed building block.

Eduardo Escobar: For whatever reason the Twins were very hesitant to trust Escobar as their starting shortstop despite a strong 2014 in that role, first handing the Opening Day job to Danny Santana and then waiting three months to give it back to Escobar when Santana flopped. Escobar ended up starting 71 games at shortstop--along with way too many games miscast as a left fielder and designated hitter--and batted .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits.

For his Twins career Escobar has started 187 games at shortstop and hit .281/.328/.480 in those games, which is the best shortstop production in team history and should be more than enough to make him the 2016 starter. Escobar is a free-swinger, but he's got rare power for the position and offers solid, sure-handed defense too. At age 26 he's under team control through 2018, so they may have stumbled into a shortstop solution after two decades of unsuccessful searching.

Tyler Duffey: Entering the year as a mid-level prospect with questions about his durability and bat-missing ability, Duffey finished it as arguably the Twins' best starter. Called up in early August as a short-term rotation patch, Duffey got knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut and then went 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA and 52/18 K/BB ratio in 56 innings over his final nine starts while giving up just two homers in 229 plate appearances.

Duffey was even stingier with the long ball in the minors this season, giving up just one homer in 138 innings and 559 plate appearances at Double-A and Triple-A before the call-up. Because he's not an extreme ground-ball pitcher those low homer totals figure to be somewhat of a fluke long term, but Duffey has good command of a low-90s fastball and his curveball is a swing-and-miss weapon. At age 25 he deserves a full-time shot in the Twins' rotation next season.

Aaron Hicks: All but left for dead as a prospect after back-to-back awful seasons in the majors, Hicks earned his way back to Minnesota by dominating Triple-A for six weeks and finally showed the skills that made him a first-round draft pick and four-time Baseball America top-100 prospect. With a revamped approach at the plate that dialed up aggression and converted passiveness into patience, he hit .256/.323/.398 with 11 homers in 97 games.

Hicks also looked much better defensively in center field, making his usual assortment of standout plays without mixing in as much shaky route-running, and went 13-for-16 stealing bases too. He slumped down the stretch and it remains to be seen if the switch-hitting Hicks can handle right-handers well enough to thrive as an everyday player, but he was an above-average all-around center fielder at age 25 and that's a remarkable turnaround given how far his stock had fallen.

Jose Berrios: Setting aside whether or not the Twins should have called up Berrios to the big leagues this season--in July or August would have been my preference--his performance while spending the entire year in the minors firmly established the 21-year-old right-hander as the organization's best pitching prospect since Matt Garza in 2006. Berrios began the season at Double-A, moved up to Triple-A in early July, and was one of the best pitchers in both leagues.

Overall he threw 166 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 175/38 K/BB ratio while limiting opponents to a .223 batting average and 12 homers. His handling may have been frustrating to Twins fans, but it was a fantastic season for an excellent prospect and one that would have gotten Berrios to the big leagues in most organizations. Pitching prospects fail at a remarkably high rate, but Berrios looks MLB-ready and projects as a potential front-line starter. His development in 2015 was impressive.

Max Kepler: Prior to this season Kepler's prospect status was based more on his physical tools and youth than actual production, which was mostly mediocre thanks in part to a bunch of injuries keeping him off the field. That all changed in a huge way this year, as Kepler stayed healthy and crushed Double-A, hitting .322/.416/.531 with 54 extra-base hits, more walks (67) than strikeouts (63), and 18 steals to be named MVP of the Southern League at age 22.

Kepler is 6-foot-4 and significantly stronger than when the Twins signed him out of Germany as a 16-year-old in 2009, but still has enough range to occasionally play center field and figures to be a plus defender in a corner spot. Much like with Berrios, in most organizations Kepler likely would have been called up to the big leagues for more than a September cup of coffee, but regardless of that his season was a true breakout and thrusts him into the Twins' long-term plans.

For a lengthy discussion of the highs and lows of the Twins' season and Paul Molitor's first year as manager, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

September 16, 2015

Will the Twins use Trevor May as a starter or reliever?

Turning failed starting pitchers into successful relief pitchers is common practice across baseball and the Twins have done it frequently for decades, finding most of the top closers and many of the top setup men in team history that way. Trevor May looks likely to be their latest starter turned reliever after thriving in the bullpen for the past two months when a midseason rotation logjam led to his supposedly temporary role change.

May has appeared in 27 games as a reliever after coming into the season as a career-long starter, throwing 27.2 innings with a 3.25 ERA and 31/7 K/BB ratio. No longer needing to pace himself for multiple trips through a lineup, May has upped his average fastball from 92 to 95 miles per hour and induced nearly 50 percent more swinging strikes while throwing more of his pitches in the strike zone. Everything points to May being a successful late-inning reliever.

I just wish the Twins had given him more of a chance to actually fail (or succeed) as a starting pitcher before making what now seems likely to tempt them into being a permanent switch for a 25-year-old. May was moved to the bullpen in July not because of poor performance but because the Twins had six starters for five rotation spots and predictably decided that the youngest, least experienced pitcher should be uprooted.

May had a mediocre 4.48 ERA in 16 starts this year, but his secondary numbers were far more impressive with 73 strikeouts and 18 walks in 86 innings and just eight homers allowed in 360 plate appearances. Among the six pitchers to start double-digit games for the Twins this season May has the best strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, and xFIP. Bad defense and luck made his numbers as a starter look so-so, but by several key measures May was the Twins' best starter.

Even in the most optimistic scenario May is unlikely to have top-of-the-rotation upside starting, but the combination of durability, bat-missing stuff, and improved control gives him the potential to be a solid No. 3 starter at the very least. To move that type of arm from a 200-inning role to a 65-inning role at age 25 seems impulsive, especially for an organization that has long struggled to develop starters beyond pitch-to-contact, back-of-the-rotation filler.

Building a quality bullpen is much easier than building a quality rotation for many reasons, one of which is that failed starters are regularly converted into successful relievers whereas the opposite rarely happens. Hopefully the Twins leave the door open for May to rejoin the rotation next year, but based on his strong performance as a reliever and their multi-year commitments to expensive veteran starters my guess is that we've seen him start his last game.

For a lot more discussion about May's long-term role, plus talk of Byron Buxton's struggles and Jose Berrios' absence, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

August 6, 2015

Twins Notes: Duffey, May, O’Rourke, Hicks, Sano, Mauer, and Hendriks

Tyler Duffey Twins

Tyler Duffey allowed a grand total of one homer in 540 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A this season and then served up two homers in his Twins debut, including one to the second MLB hitter he faced. Based on the "game score" statistic Duffey had the seventh-worst debut start in Twins history. Who had the worst? LaTroy Hawkins in 1995. And then 21 years later Hawkins closed out the Blue Jays' win against the Twins in Duffey's debut.

Trevor May never deserved to be demoted from the rotation to the bullpen in the first place and hopefully the Twins remain committed to him as a long-term starter, but he's looked strong as a reliever. He's got a 3.18 ERA and 10/2 K/BB ratio in 11 innings along with increased velocity, which is probably enough to make him the Twins' best right-handed bullpen option over Blaine Boyer, Casey Fien, and trade deadline pickup Kevin Jepsen.

• Rookie reliever Ryan O'Rourke is living up to the hype of being death to left-handed hitters, who are 2-for-21 (.095) with 11 strikeouts against him since last month's call-up. Using him in a very limited role remains crucial, but the Twins may have found a long-term bullpen piece in the unheralded 27-year-old southpaw. With a strong finish he should be able to secure a spot in next year's Opening Day bullpen, which won't include Brian Duensing.

Aaron Hicks' improved overall performance is very encouraging from a one-time top prospect who's still just 25 years old, but not being able to hit right-handed pitching remains a big issue. This season he's hit .375/.429/.578 off lefties and .228/.291/.315 off righties. For his career he's hit .288/.374/.466 off lefties and .197/.277/.287 off righties. Hicks is a switch-hitter, but in both the minors and the majors he's shown little ability to be an asset from the left side of the plate.

Byron Buxton's long-awaited debut was cut short after 11 games by a thumb injury that he's still recovering from six weeks later, but fellow stud prospect Miguel Sano has immediately lived up to the hype. As expected he's struck out a ton and hit for a ton of power, but the 22-year-old has also shown incredible plate discipline with 21 walks in 27 games and an impressive ability to lay off borderline pitches. Twins fans should be thrilled with how he's looked so far.

• There have been occasional signs of life, but sadly Joe Mauer has continued to look like a shell of his former, pre-concussion self. He's hit just .275/.346/.398 in 47 games since I wrote a "What happened to Joe Mauer?" article that examined the numbers since his late-2012 concussion and expressed very little confidence in his getting back on track. Mauer is now in his second season of being a below-average first baseman after a decade of being a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher.

Danny Santana got a longer leash than most struggling Twins prospects, but he's finally back in the minors after hitting .218/.242/.298 with a ghastly 66/5 K/BB ratio in 74 games and playing mistake-filled defense at shortstop. His great rookie season screamed fluke, but no one could have expected Santana to be this awful as a sophomore. However, his career .272/.316/.392 line and poor strike zone control in the minors are reasons to be skeptical of a big turnaround.

Liam Hendriks was the Twins minor league pitcher of the year in 2011, but he went 2-13 with a 6.06 ERA in 156 innings as a starter and they lost him on waivers for nothing. Still just 26 years old, he's found a home in Toronto's bullpen with a 2.47 ERA and 50/6 K/BB ratio in 47 innings. As a starter Hendriks always had modest raw stuff, topping out in the low 90s, but this season he's averaging 94.4 miles per hour with his fastball and topping out 97.

For a lot more about Jepsen's arrival, Duffey's upside, and Hicks' improvement check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode with a special guest co-host.

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