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.

September 14, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #215: September Contenders

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode included going back to podcast-only, bar-hopping mode, hitting the over on 72.5 wins, beating up the White Sox, Eddie Rosario's odds of turning back into a pumpkin, Eduardo Escobar's hot streak, Torii Hunter showing signs of life, Trevor May's future role, not calling up Max Kepler or Jose Berrios, what to make of Byron Buxton so far, and Oktoberfest at 612 Brew.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 215

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.

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."

September 7, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #214: Three Men And The Geek

For the first time in four years of the show I had a planned absence for a "Gleeman and The Geek" episode, so John Bonnes brought in three different co-hosts to replace me and talk about ... I dunno, I wasn't there. Listen and find out.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 214

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.

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."

September 3, 2015

Eduardo Escobar can be the Twins’ shortstop solution … if they let him

Eduardo Escobar Twins

Shortstop has been a weakness for the Twins since ... well, forever, basically. Roy Smalley is the best shortstop in team history, Zoillo Versalles won the AL MVP award in 1965, and Greg Gagne was a solid all-around starter for two World Series winners, but for the most part Twins shortstops have been an underwhelming collection of light-hitting, utility man-caliber players. Here are the all-time team leaders in games started at shortstop:

Zoillo Versalles     1043
Greg Gagne           1021
Cristian Guzman       812
Roy Smalley           783
Pat Meares            702
Leo Cardenas          469
Danny Thompson        436
Jason Bartlett        301
Nick Punto            235
Ron Washington        232
Denny Hocking         208
Pedro Florimon        195

Not a pretty group. Of those 12 players to start at least 175 games only Smalley, Leo Cardenas, and Jason Bartlett had an OPS above .700 at shortstop and none of them cracked a .750 OPS. Things have been particularly bad post-Gagne, as the Twins lived with Pat Meares for too long, got an All-Star half-season followed by a bunch of disappointment from Cristian Guzman, and misguidedly chose Juan Castro over Bartlett and Tsuyoshi Nishioka over J.J. Hardy.

During the 14-season period from 2000 to 2013 the Twins' shortstops posted an OPS that was above the American League average twice--in 2001, when Guzman had his All-Star first half, and in 2010, which was Hardy's lone season in Minnesota. In those 14 seasons their shortstop OPS ranked among the league's top five zero times, ranked 10th or worse eight times, and ranked 12th or worse six times. Here's the year-by-year horror show:

YEAR      OPS     RANK
2013     .614     13th
2012     .580     13th
2011     .612     13th
2010     .692      6th
2009     .683      9th
2008     .648     12th
2007     .657     10th
2006     .713      8th
2005     .608     14th
2004     .688     11th
2003     .714      8th
2002     .679     12th
2001     .747      7th
2000     .692      9th

What always struck me as especially disappointing about the Twins' inability to develop or acquire quality shortstops is that they've long been an organization built around player development and scouting that also places a huge emphasis on speed and athleticism. All of which would seemingly lead to an abundance of quality shortstops, much like the Twins have typically had an abundance of quality center fielders, but instead the opposite has been true.

There may finally be some light at the end of the shortstop tunnel, although the Twins have done everything they can to avoid seeing it. Two years ago they made light-hitting waiver-wire pickup Pedro Florimon the Opening Day shortstop, only to cut bait after he hit .092 through 33 games. This year they handed the Opening Day job to Danny Santana and stuck with him through three months of historic ineptitude hoping his fluke rookie performance would return.

In both years they eventually turned the position over to Eduardo Escobar and in both years he did a good job. Acquired from the White Sox in mid-2012 as part of the Francisco Liriano trade, Escobar has started 160 total games at shortstop for the Twins and has hit .285/.331/.452 with 11 homers and 50 doubles in those games. For some context, that .783 OPS is the highest in Twins history for any shortstop with 100-plus starts and only Smalley (.744) is within 50 points.

Escobar's production is particularly impressive at a time when shortstop offense is down across MLB. During the past three seasons shortstops have hit .256/.308/.372 for the lowest production of any position. In the games he's started at shortstop during that time Escobar has out-produced the average shortstop by 100 points of OPS or 15 percent. His overall 2013-2015 production is lower at .263/.306/.407, but still tops the average shortstop by 35 points of OPS.

Escobar also rates well defensively, passing the eye test with sure hands, solid range, and plenty of arm strength while grading out above average according to advanced metrics Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, and Plus/Minus. Escobar is certainly not without his flaws--chief among them bad and occasionally terrible plate discipline--but when given an opportunity to play shortstop he's been above average offensively and defensively.

So why have the Twins been so hesitant to hand the starting job to a 26-year-old switch-hitting asset on both sides of the ball? Figuring out their motivation for choosing shortstops has always been confusing, but in this case it's possible that they simply never expected Escobar to be this good and perhaps remain skeptical. I'll definitely admit to being guilty of both. He was a utility man-caliber prospect with poor numbers in the minors when they acquired him from Chicago.

Given his underwhelming pre-2014 track record and poor strike zone control there's still reason enough to not fully buy into Escobar as one of the league's top shortstops, but at the very least he's earned the right to finally be handed a clear path to the starting job. In back-to-back years he's shown the ability to hit .260 with double-digit homers, tons of doubles, and solid defense, which is saying a lot compared to the Twins' weak history and current alternatives at shortstop.

Eduardo Escobar is an above-average starting shortstop. It's time the Twins treated him like one.

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."

September 1, 2015

Meet the Twins’ September call-ups

Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas Twins

September 1 roster expansion means an assortment of new and sort-of-new players added to the Twins' roster for the final month of the season. Top pitching prospect Jose Berrios remains in the minors, where he's started 26 games and thrown 161 innings this season while the Twins compete for a Wild Card spot with a shaky rotation. It's possible Berrios and others will be added later, but for now here's a look at the first wave of September call-ups:

Kennys Vargas, 24-year-old first baseman

Kennys Vargas was the Opening Day designated hitter on the strength of his 54-game rookie showing, but when he struggled the Twins demoted him to the minors. Twice, actually. First they dropped him to Triple-A and then to Double-A. He fared well at both levels, hitting .283/.414/.496 with 13 homers in 73 total games. That's actually better production than Vargas had at Double-A in 2014 when the Twins called him up the first time, but things have changed.

Miguel Sano is now the starting designated hitter and even if Sano shifts to third base in the future to open up the DH spot it's not clear the Twins view Vargas as the best candidate for the job. In the minors he's combined big-time power with good plate discipline, but Vargas swung at everything in the majors while compiling an ugly 111/19 K/BB ratio in 100 games. By comparison he drew 26 walks in just 38 games at Triple-A. Vargas can hit, but so can lots of DHs.

Danny Santana, 24-year-old shortstop

Danny Santana burst onto the scene with one of the best rookie seasons in Twins history, hitting .319/.353/.472 in 101 games while being thrust into center field as a career-long shortstop. Both his mediocre minor-league track record and underlying MLB numbers suggested it was largely a fluke performance, but Santana's regression was even steeper than expected. He was a disaster offensively and defensively, and the Twins finally demoted him to the minors for good on July 31.

Santana played well at Triple-A, hitting .322/.348/.500, but a 25/7 K/BB ratio in 35 games shows that he made little progress in controlling the strike zone after posting a ghastly 66/5 K/BB ratio in 74 games for the Twins. He has the potential to be a solid player and is still just 24 years old, but right now Santana lacks the plate discipline and defensive consistency to be a productive starting shortstop in the majors.

Michael Tonkin, 25-year-old right-hander

Michael Tonkin has spent most of the past three seasons in Rochester, consistently dominating Triple-A hitters with a 2.65 ERA and 128/25 K/BB ratio in 119 innings. During that time he's been called up by the Twins for a bunch of short stints--on several occasions 48 hours or less--and has held his own with a 4.07 ERA and 36/14 K/BB ratio in 42 innings while averaging 94 miles per hour with his fastball.

Tonkin is 25 years old with a strong minor-league track record, including three straight years of outstanding Triple-A performances. He stands 6-foot-7 and throws in the mid-90s with a sharp slider. He misses bats and throws strikes. Everything about Tonkin suggests he'd be a solid MLB reliever with late-inning upside, yet for whatever reason the Twins have refused to give him the same extended chance they've given plenty of shaky veterans during the past three seasons.

A.J. Achter, 26-year-old right-hander

A.J. Achter made his MLB debut as a September call-up last year and spent another two weeks with the Twins last month. He has a nice-looking 2.57 ERA in parts of three seasons at Triple-A, but it comes attached to a mediocre strikeout rate, sub par control, and a fastball that tops out in the low-90s. At age 26 he lacks upside, but if given an extended opportunity Achter is capable of finding some success as a middle reliever.

Eric Fryer, 29-year-old catcher

Eric Fryer spent six weeks as the Twins' backup catcher in July and August before they sent him back to Rochester in favor of Chris Herrmann. He returns now as a third catcher and had to be re-added to the 40-man roster to do so. Fryer has a good defensive reputation, but he's hit just .235/.316/.324 in 57 games as a big leaguer and .237/.328/.328 in 271 games at Triple-A. The bar for "decent backup catcher" is very low, but Fryer struggles to clear it.

(Players on the 40-man roster who have not received a September call-up yet: Max Kepler, Alex Meyer, Oswaldo Arcia, Josmil Pinto, Jorge Polanco, Aaron Thompson, Logan Darnell.)

Want a lot more about what September holds for the Twins and why they haven't called up Berrios, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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