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:

   LINEUP
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

   BENCH
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:

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

   BULLPEN
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.

October 9, 2014

My hypothetical Twins MVP ballot

Brian Dozier and Danny Santana

Most Valuable Player of a 70-92 team isn't the most prestigious award, but within their struggles the Twins had plenty of good individual performances. Here's my attempt to rank them:

1. Phil Hughes

I've always found arguments against pitchers being MVPs lacking, because while they don't pitch every day their influence on the games they do pitch is huge. For instance, Phil Hughes started 32 games, threw 210 innings, and faced 855 batters. By comparison, Brian Dozier led the Twins with 707 plate appearances. Add in defensive plays and position players re-take the lead, but the point is that saying "pitchers only play once every five days" short-changes their influence.

All of which is a long way of saying that Hughes is an easy choice for team MVP. He had a great year by traditional standards, going 16-10 with a 3.52 ERA in 32 starts while the rest of the Twins' rotation was 32-60 with a 5.53 ERA in 130 starts. Oh, and he had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball with an incredible 186 strikeouts versus 16 walks, standing atop of this star-studded list:

                    YEAR     SO/BB
PHIL HUGHES         2014     11.63
Bret Saberhagen     1994     11.00
Cliff Lee           2010     10.28
Curt Schilling      2002      9.58
Pedro Martinez      2000      8.88
Greg Maddux         1997      8.85
Pedro Martinez      1999      8.46

Hughes was hurt by the Twins' terrible defense, which allowed a .324 batting average on his balls in play for the second-highest rate of any pitcher in the league and a much worse rate than his career average of .296. That and some mediocre bullpen support caused his ERA to rise to 3.52 compared to an xFIP of 3.18 that ranked eighth among AL starters. Here's a list of the best xFIPs by a Twins starter in the Ron Gardenhire era of 2002-2014:

                     YEAR     xFIP
Francisco Liriano    2006     2.54
Francisco Liriano    2010     2.95
Johan Santana        2004     3.01
Johan Santana        2005     3.12
Johan Santana        2006     3.16
PHIL HUGHES          2014     3.18

Hughes had the most strikeouts (186) and highest strikeout rate (8.0) by any Twins starter in the Gardenhire era except for Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano. Hughes walked zero batters in an MLB-leading 19 of 32 starts and walked one or fewer batters in an MLB-leading 30 of 32 starts, with a season-high of three walks in his second outing of the season on April 9. He led MLB in walk rate with 0.69 per nine innings, which is the second-best rate in Twins history.

Wins Above Replacement for pitchers is calculated in two manners. One, by Fan Graphs, focuses on secondary numbers and has Hughes tied with Jon Lester and David Price for third-best in the league behind Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez. The other, by Baseball-Reference, focuses on raw totals and has Hughes ninth-best in the league. That large disagreement stems from treating defensive support and luck differently, but either way Hughes had a fantastic year.

2. Brian Dozier

If you're vehemently against pitchers being MVP candidates then Dozier is the obvious choice. His power vanished in the second half, but he still broke his own team record for homers by a second baseman with 23. He also added in 33 doubles, stole 21 bases at a decent clip, and drew 89 walks for the second-most by any Twins player during the Gardenhire era behind Joe Mauer with 90 in 2012. His poor .242 batting average doesn't even begin to show Dozier's offensive production.

And he did all of that at an up-the-middle position where the MLB average was a .313 on-base percentage and .372 slugging percentage, beating the average OPS by 77 points. Dozier led all MLB second basemen in homers, walks, and runs. He also ranked second in extra-base hits and Isolated Power, third in times on base and Runs Created, fourth in on-base percentage, total bases, OPS, and steals, sixth in slugging percentage and RBIs, and seventh in doubles.

Defensively he always looks good and makes plenty of highlight plays, particularly when going to his left, but Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved show him as slightly below average. He played 156 games, logged 1,400 innings at second base, and joined Denard Span in 2010 and Justin Morneau in 2008 as the only Twins to top 700 plate appearances under Gardenhire. Add it all up and here's where his 5.2 WAR ranks among hitters in the Gardenhire era:

                    YEAR     WAR
Joe Mauer           2009     7.8
Joe Mauer           2010     5.9
Joe Mauer           2006     5.8
Joe Mauer           2008     5.6
Jacque Jones        2002     5.4
Joe Mauer           2013     5.3
BRIAN DOZIER        2014     5.2

Helluva season.

3. Danny Santana

After posting a .719 OPS in 131 games at Double-A last season and a .692 OPS in 24 games at Triple-A to begin this season Danny Santana was called up by the Twins on May 5 and batted .319/.353/.472 with 41 extra-base hits and 20 steals in 101 games as a 23-year-old playing a new position. In a lot of seasons that would have gotten Santana serious consideration for Rookie of the Year, but White Sox slugger Jose Abreu figures to win the award unanimously.

Defensive metrics pegged Santana as below average in center field and he certainly looked raw there after spending nearly his entire career at shortstop, but he still had the fourth-highest WAR by a Twins rookie in the Gardenhire era behind Liriano in 2005, Lew Ford in 2004, and Span in 2008. If you prorate his WAR to, say, 155 games, Santana would rank 10th among AL position players and top Dozier for the team lead.

There are strong reasons to be skeptical of Santana's rookie showing being for real, including his mediocre minor-league numbers and ghastly 98/19 K/BB ratio in the majors, but on a per-game basis he was arguably the Twins' best player this season. He places third on this ballot because he was not in the lineup for 38 percent of the Twins' games while Hughes never missed a start and Dozier sat out just six games.

4. Trevor Plouffe

Coming into spring training it seemed like Trevor Plouffe would be keeping third base warm for however long it took Miguel Sano to convince the Twins he was ready, but instead Sano missed the entire season following elbow surgery and Plouffe had a career-year. He struck out a little less, walked a little more, and traded four-baggers for two-baggers on the way to 40 doubles. The end result was an adjusted OPS+ of 110, compared to his OPS+ of 97 from 2011-2013.

His offense improved, but Plouffe's biggest gains came defensively. After three years of rating him horribly at third base both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved showed him as solidly above average. Who knows if the better glove is for real--it's not so much different than Santana hitting .319--but Plouffe was one of the 10 best all-around third basemen in baseball after just barely being better than replacement level in his first three seasons.

5. Kurt Suzuki

Defensively his poor numbers are basically the opposite of his sterling reputation and predictably he came back down to earth late, but Kurt Suzuki started 115 games and hit .288/.345/.383 compared to MLB catchers as a whole batting .249/.309/.380. Not trading Suzuki and giving him a two-year extension is questionable, but he was a great pickup on a one-year, $3 million deal and kept the Twins above average at the position post-Mauer.

6. Glen Perkins

If not for his late-season collapse while trying to pitch injured Glen Perkins would have ranked a spot or two higher. As of August 25 he had a 2.44 ERA and 64/9 K/BB ratio in 55 innings, but then he gave up five homers in eight games after giving up a total of seven homers in his previous 116 games. It's a self-inflicted shame, because Perkins was having a fourth straight dominant season while converting saves at the same rate as Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan.

7. Eduardo Escobar

Little in Eduardo Escobar's track record suggested he was more than a utility man-caliber hitter, but when Pedro Florimon flopped he stepped in at shortstop and batted .275 with 43 extra-base hits in 133 games for a .721 OPS that's 43 points above average for the position. Defensive stats failed to reach a consensus, but he looked decent and if you think his glove was actually a plus Escobar had the best all-around season by a Twins shortstop since Jason Bartlett in 2006.

8. Kyle Gibson

After a putrid rookie showing Kyle Gibson bounced back to throw 179 innings. He managed just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings and the awful defense turned all those balls in play into too many undeserved hits, leaving Gibson with a 4.47 ERA compared to the AL average of 3.92 for starters. However, his ground-ball rate of 54.4 percent ranked fifth among AL starters and he allowed just 12 homers in 31 starts. If given average defensive support xFIP pegs his ERA at 3.99.

9. Joe Mauer

After missing the end of last year with a concussion Mauer got off to a terrible start and then, just when he was starting to get rolling, an oblique strain sidelined him for a month. There's no way to spin his season as anything but a major disappointment, but Mauer hit .300 in his final 63 games and overall his .361 on-base percentage was 30 points above average for first basemen. Even with his extreme lack of power Mauer was basically an average all-around player at his new position.

10. Kennys Vargas

Promoted from Double-A on August 1 after the Kendrys Morales salary dump, Kennys Vargas hit .337 with a .906 OPS in his first 23 games and .225 with a .665 OPS in his last 30 games. He was good but not great overall, with a .274 average and .456 slugging percentage versus a 63/12 K/BB ratio and .316 OBP. He also played only 53 games, compared to 101 for Santana and 120 for Mauer. He was very fun to watch and dropped a lot of jaws with his smooth, easy power.


For a lengthy discussion of the Twins' ongoing manager search, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode with special guest Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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