July 14, 2015

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Hitters

Brian Dozier Twins

Last season the Twins ranked fifth among AL teams in both OPS and runs scored, but the lineup has taken a step backward. They've hit .254/.307/.399 to rank 11th out of 15 teams in OPS, but the offense has out-performed those overall numbers to rank seventh in runs scored thanks to hitting .283 with runners in scoring position and .241 without runners in scoring position. Before the second half gets underway here's a hitter-by-hitter look at the individual performances ...

Brian Dozier: .256/.328/.513 in 393 plate appearances

Two seasons ago Brian Dozier dramatically altered the trajectory of his career at age 26, going from light-hitting fringe shortstop prospect to starting-caliber second baseman. Last year he made another big jump, emerging as one of MLB's best all-around second basemen by combining power, patience, speed, and defense. This season he's again taken a huge leap, ranking among the best dozen players in the entire league during the first half.

Dozier is often overlooked, in part because his turning into a star came as such a surprise and in part because many people still misguidedly focus on batting average. But make no mistake: He had a spectacular first half. Dozier played 88 of 89 games, leading the league in extra-base hits (48) and ranking second in runs scored (67), third in doubles (26), seventh in homers (19), and 10th in slugging percentage (.513) while grading right around average defensively.

He's developed into one of the best power hitters in the league, which is amazing for a 5-foot-11 middle infielder who had a grand total of 16 homers in 365 games as a minor leaguer. In addition to crushing high fastballs Dozier draws walks, steals bases, and plays good defense at an up-the-middle position, which is why FanGraphs pegs him as the eighth-best all-around position player in the league at 3.3 Wins Above Replacement. He was, without question, the Twins' first-half MVP.

Joe Mauer: .271/.336/.387 in 366 plate appearances

Joe Mauer had a solid April, slumped badly from May 1 through mid-June, and finished the first half by hitting .320 with four homers in his final 25 games. The end result is an underwhelming .271/.336/.387 line that looks much like his underwhelming .277/.361/.371 line last year and has me wondering whether the .320-hitting on-base percentage vanished the moment he suffered a concussion in August of 2013.

His strong recent play puts those thoughts on hold for now and Mauer's actual impact out-paced his raw numbers thanks to hitting .380 with runners in scoring position and .400 in high-leverage spots. Mauer leads Twins hitters in Win Probability Added by a wide margin because he was great in game-changing situations even while being mediocre overall. Counting on that to continue is optimistic to say the least and Mauer was a below-average first baseman in the first half.

Trevor Plouffe: .259/.320/.449 in 354 plate appearances

Because he went from light-hitting shortstop prospect to good-hitting third baseman, whenever Trevor Plouffe puts together a good stretch offensively many people are quick to expect further development. Instead he's been remarkably consistent since becoming an everyday player and this season's production (.769 OPS) is very close to his numbers in 2012 (.751 OPS) and 2014 (.756 OPS). He's basically been a .250/.315/.440 hitter now for four years.

What has changed is that Plouffe went from being very rough defensively at third base to being solidly above average at the position, which is perhaps what should have been expected from a career-long shortstop making the transition in the majors. This season, like last season, Plouffe has been above average offensively and defensively to rank as one of the dozen best all-around third basemen in baseball. He was the Twins' second-best position player in the first half.

Torii Hunter: .257/.312/.444 in 333 plate appearances

Torii Hunter continues to hold off father time, putting together the same type of season for the Twins at age 39 that he had for the Tigers last year. He's been slightly above average offensively, making up for a 30-point drop in batting average with increased power and more walks (24) than he drew all of last season (23). Hunter has been extremely streaky, with a handful of huge games surrounded by mediocrity, but a .750 OPS at age 39 is as good as anyone should have expected.

Defensively he's rated somewhere between mediocre and poor, but either is a huge upgrade over the awful numbers he had as the Tigers' right fielder. Paul Molitor has also given Hunter plenty of time off from fielding with 11 starts at designated hitter. Slightly above average offensively and slightly below average defensively equals an average all-around player. That doesn't come close to matching the Hunter-as-savior hype train, but it certainly tops my modest expectations.

Kurt Suzuki: .235/.291/.313 in 271 plate appearances

Kurt Suzuki parlayed a good first half last season into his first career All-Star appearance and a two-year, $12 million contract extension from the Twins, at which point the magic wore off and he resumed not hitting. Suzuki has played 112 games since signing the deal, hitting .240/.291/.333 to basically match his .237/.294/.357 mark from 2010-2013, and this season his .604 OPS ranks 22nd among the 25 catchers with 200 or more plate appearances.

Suzuki's defensive reputation has always been excellent, but his defensive numbers have always been terrible and this season is no exception. He's thrown out 20 percent of stolen base attempts, his pitch-framing rates below average, and while he's been charged with few passed balls Twins pitchers have racked up tons of wild pitches with him behind the plate. Add it all up and Suzuki has been one of the league's worst regulars.

Danny Santana: .225/.245/.313 in 239 plate appearances

Danny Santana's great, out-of-nowhere rookie season carried with it several red flags, including a bad strikeout-to-walk ratio, unsustainably high batting average on balls in play, and iffy track record in the minors, but no one could have expected this type of collapse. His batting average is down 100 points, his power has been sliced in half, and his strike zone control has gone from bad to horrendous with 59 strikeouts and four walks. He's been one of the five worst hitters in MLB.

And he's been nearly as bad defensively despite moving back to his natural position of shortstop after being forced into action as a center fielder last year. Santana has committed 13 errors in 58 games at shortstop and Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, and Plus/Minus agree that he's been 5-10 runs below average. Santana made lots of errors and hit .274/.317/.397 with bad K/BB ratios in the minors and that's no longer masked by a shockingly good rookie campaign.

Eduardo Escobar: .254/.285/.403 in 216 plate appearances

Eduardo Escobar is a good-fielding shortstop with a decent bat for the position, but he's been asked to play mostly left field and designated hitter with predictably poor results. He's made 33 starts at left field/DH compared to 17 at shortstop, which has changed the perception of Escobar's value. Playing shortstop while hitting .254/.285/.403 would make Escobar an average regular, but a sub-.700 OPS looks totally different in left field and his outfield defense isn't pretty either.

Escobar is held back by terrible plate discipline, which includes a 48/8 K/BB ratio this season, but the bar for offense at shortstop is low enough that hitting .250 with gap power and non-existent strike zone control is perfectly reasonable when combined with solid defense. It makes no sense to play Escobar at a position where his bat and glove are both weaknesses, especially when Santana has been a mess at shortstop. Escobar is who he is. His team needs to utilize his skills better.

Eddie Rosario: .284/.310/.418 in 205 plate appearances

Molitor and the Twins were convinced that Eddie Rosario was more ready for the majors at age 23 than his mediocre numbers in the minors suggested and through 55 games his .284/.310/.418 line narrowly tops his .255/.300/.400 line at Double-A and Triple-A. His inability to control the strike zone in the minors has carried over with an ugly 47/8 K/BB ratio, but thanks to the smooth swing that Molitor and company rave about he's still been able to hit .284 with decent power.

Offensively he's been below average and more Triple-A time to work on plate discipline and trying to hit left-handed pitching might make sense, but Rosario has held his own enough to avoid being a weakness. And he's been very good defensively, showing plus range and a strong arm shifting between left field and right field. Rosario has plenty of rough edges to smooth out if he's going to become a great player, but he's already pretty close to being a good one.

Kennys Vargas: .245/.277/.365 in 166 plate appearances

Kennys Vargas was handed the Opening Day designated hitter job, lost it, reclaimed it, lost it again, and got demoted to Triple-A and then to Double-A, all within three months. In between he hit .245/.277/.365 with a hideous 48/7 K/BB ratio in 47 games to lose the Twins' faith. As a rookie his 63/12 K/BB ratio in 53 games wasn't much better, but no one seemed to care because he hit .274 with plus power. He has a lot to prove if he's going to re-enter the Twins' long-term plans.

Aaron Hicks: .266/.333/.387 in 138 plate appearances

After horrible rookie and sophomore seasons the Twins overhauled Aaron Hicks' approach at the plate and sent him to Triple-A. He thrived there to earn another chance and the results have been a mixed bag. Hicks looks like a different hitter--less patient, more aggressive--and his production is up recently, but he continues to be a switch-hitter with an extreme platoon split. His defense and baserunning have improved, but it's still unclear if he's a good part-time or a starter.

Shane Robinson: .243/.296/.304 in 126 plate appearances

Signed to a minor-league contract after a decade in the Cardinals organization, Shane Robinson made the team out of spring training and has played a bigger role than expected while starting 30 games. He hit .343 in April, but quickly turned back into a pumpkin and has hit .195 since May 1. Robinson's overall numbers match his underwhelming career marks and there's no reason for him to be starting games as a corner outfielder for a team struggling to score runs.

Eduardo Nunez: .290/.330/.477 in 116 plate appearances

Eduardo Nunez has hit and fielded better than ever, posting the second-best OPS on the team and even rating as a neutral shortstop after previously having some of the worst numbers at the position in baseball. His limited playing time means viewing all of that skeptically and the Twins still don't seem to trust him as an appealing shortstop option. Nunez may finally be taking a step forward at age 28, but more likely is that performances vary wildly in small samples.

For a lot more talk about the Twins' first half, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode featuring our MVP ballots and player-by-player breakdowns.

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.

January 26, 2015

Arbitration settlements and taking a guess at the Opening Day roster

brian duensing twins

Last time the Twins actually completed an arbitration hearing with a player was Kyle Lohse in 2005 and 2006, so not surprisingly they reached pre-hearing settlements with six of their seven arbitration-eligible players and released the seventh, Anthony Swarzak. They'll pay a total of $14.225 million to Trevor Plouffe, Tommy Milone, Brian Duensing, Jordan Schafer, Casey Fien, and Eduardo Nunez, bringing their projected 2015 payroll to around $106 million.

That slots in between their franchise-record $113 million payroll in 2011 and $100 million payroll in 2012, representing a sizable increase from the sub-$90 million payrolls of 2013 and 2014. After back-to-back seasons in which general manager Terry Ryan declined to spend big chunks of the allotted payroll space approved by ownership it's a positive step, although there's room to quibble with the value of dropping about $17 million on Torii Hunter, Duensing, Milone, and Nunez.

With revenues across MLB skyrocketing past $9 billion in 2014 and the Twins trying to avoid a fifth straight 90-loss season amid plummeting fan interest it's at least nice to see ownership spending a reasonable amount of their revenue instead of simply pocketing it while giving the "we don't want to spend money just to spend money" excuse. And thanks largely to long-term contracts handed out to veteran starting pitchers they already have $70 million committed to six players for 2016.

In addition to pushing the payroll past $100 million the six arbitration settlements also put into focus the likely Opening Day roster, although there are definitely a few places where the Twins could surprise. Below is my best current guess at the 25-man roster, with the caveat that they're able to release any of the arbitration-eligible players during spring training while being on the hook for only 30 percent of their salary. First, the position players:

C  Kurt Suzuki
1B Joe Mauer
2B Brian Dozier
SS Danny Santana
3B Trevor Plouffe
LF Oswaldo Arcia
CF Aaron Hicks
RF Torii Hunter
DH Kennys Vargas

C  Josmil Pinto
IF Eduardo Escobar
IF Eduardo Nunez
OF Jordan Schafer

New manager Paul Molitor has made it clear that he views Danny Santana as a shortstop and not as a center fielder, and since it's hard to imagine the Twins benching Santana or demoting him back to the minors after he hit .319 as a rookie that means he's the favorite to supplant Eduardo Escobar at shortstop. Based on his 2014 performance alone Escobar certainly doesn't deserve to lose the job, but his track record suggests a part-time role might be a better fit anyway.

Escobar slotting into a utility man role makes retaining Nunez look even iffier, but they seem to think all the evidence showing him as a poor hitter and poor fielder are wrong. Schafer played his way into the 2015 plans with a good 41-game stint after being claimed him off waivers and using him in center field is possible if they pull the plug on Aaron Hicks. Josmil Pinto is the presumed backup catcher, but they bailed on him in that role quickly in 2014. Now the pitchers:

SP Phil Hughes
SP Ervin Santana
SP Ricky Nolasco
SP Kyle Gibson
SP Tommy Milone

CL Glen Perkins
RH Casey Fien
RH Tim Stauffer
RH Ryan Pressly
RH Mike Pelfrey
LH Brian Duensing
LH Caleb Thielbar

Milone is signed for $2.775 million when the Twins had the option to non-tender him and Mike Pelfrey is under contract for $6 million, so my assumption is they'll fight for the final rotation spot and the loser will wind up in the bullpen. Trevor May and Alex Meyer are higher-upside options for the rotation or bullpen, and in general there are no shortage of alternative bullpen options including Michael Tonkin, Blaine Boyer, Lester Oliveros, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham.

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."

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.

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