June 11, 2014

Twins sign Kendrys Morales

Kendrys Morales Twins

In one of the more out-of-nowhere moves in franchise history the Twins signed Kendrys Morales to a one-year, $7.6 million contract after he turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Mariners in November and sat out the first two months of the season waiting for a multi-year deal that never materialized. Draft pick compensation attached to signing Morales vanished Thursday and Saturday he chose the Twins over several other interested teams.

Morales was an unexpected addition in part because sub-.500 teams coming off three consecutive 95-loss seasons typically don't make midseason acquisitions for veteran players on one-year deals and in part because the Twins weren't lacking in designated hitters (and first basemen/outfielders who should be designated hitters). Why sign a 31-year-old for the final four months of another sub-.500 season and why not just give the DH playing time to 25-year-old rookie Josmil Pinto?

Morales will certainly help the Twins in their quest to avoid another losing season and even if they can't escape finishing below .500 again simply improving the team from, say, 73 wins to 75 wins would be welcomed by the fan base after all this losing. Beyond that, the money spent on Morales is essentially a non-factor because both last year and this year the Twins reportedly had around $20 million in unspent payroll room. Spending it on Morales beats not spending it at all.

Which is why the only obvious downside to this move is what it means for Pinto's playing time and development. Morales is going to be the everyday designated hitter, so Pinto won't play unless he starts at catcher over Kurt Suzuki and it's hard to envision Ron Gardenhire doing that more than 2-3 times per week. Pinto has a chance to be a big part of the Twins' long-term plans and even in the short term he's pretty damn good, so limiting his playing time is misguided.

Sending him back to Triple-A is a possibility and would equal more consistent playing time, but Pinto is 25 years old with a career .265/.349/.464 line as a big leaguer, so development-wise a lengthy stint in Rochester crushing International League pitching is also far from ideal. Morales improves the 2014 team and does so at basically zero cost because the money was just sitting around anyway, but for 2015 and beyond Pinto's development is significantly more important.

As for how much Morales improves the 2014 team, that's an interesting question. He was on the way to elite hitter status in 2009/2010, batting .302/.353/.548 with 45 homers in 203 games, but breaking his ankle celebrating a walk-off grand slam ended his 2010 season and complications in the recovery process sidelined him for all of 2011. He returned in 2012 and hit well for the Angels before duplicating that performance in 2012 for the Mariners, but Morales wasn't quite the same.

He remains a good hitter, batting .275/.329/.457 with 45 homers in 290 games between 2012 and 2013, but both his raw numbers and context-adjusted stats are a step below his 2009/2010 work. Of course, the fact that Morales isn't as dangerous as his pre-injury self doesn't mean he won't be a sizable upgrade for the Twins. He's posted an adjusted OPS+ of 121 since coming back in 2012. Here's how that compares to various current Twins hitters since 2012:

Joe Mauer            132
Josh Willingham      127
Josmil Pinto         124
Oswaldo Arcia        104
Trevor Plouffe       100
Jason Kubel           98
Brian Dozier          96
Kurt Suzuki           80
Chris Parmelee        79

Based on those numbers and Joe Mauer's current struggles it's possible that Morales would be the Twins' best hitter, except after sitting out the first two months of the season it's also possible that the hitter the Twins are getting for the next four months won't be quite the same as the 2012/2013 version shown above. Or at least Morales may not be that hitter right away, depending on how much rust he needs to shake off and how long that takes.

Pinto's career on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and adjusted OPS+ are all higher than Morales' marks since returning in 2012 and it's reasonable to wonder if Morales will struggle to match his own 2012/2013 numbers after the layoff. It's also reasonable to question if Pinto is as good as he's shown thus far considering his track record in the majors is just 64 total games and he's slumped recently.

Betting on Morales being more productive than Pinto for four months makes sense, but how much more productive? Enough of a difference that stalling Pinto's development is worthwhile when no matter how well Morales performs the Twins aren't likely to contend for anything beyond a .500 record? It's also worth noting that Gardenhire stubbornly refused to give Pinto regular starts at DH anyway due to his maddening backup catcher-related phobias, so perhaps it's a moot point.

Morales' arrival also means the Twins no longer have the DH spot to use for giving players quasi days off and for temporarily changing defensive alignments. Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia are locked into the outfield corners and Trevor Plouffe is locked into third base no matter how poor they look defensively and, for example, Arcia can't spend a few games as the DH after tweaking his ankle recently.

To make room for Morales the Twins designated Jason Kubel for assignment. His comeback was a nice story after a strong first two weeks, but Kubel hit .177 with zero homers and 52 strikeouts in his last 38 games to look washed up at age 32. Kubel stopped hitting and was barely getting off the bench, leaving the Twins with a 24.5-man roster. That roster is now better with Morales, but how much better is in question and there's a Pinto-related cost beyond the $7.6 million.

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  1. I like this signing a lot more if they can trade him to a contender. It’d be cool if he goes crazy and then someone like the Brewers gives up a decent prospect for him. Hell, maybe the Twins could try and leverage both the Brewers and Pirates against each other? Is any of this even a possibility?

    Comment by RandyMoist — June 11, 2014 @ 2:31 am

  2. Like where you’re going Mr. moist – great point. AG any exotic baseball rules blocking RM’s suggestion? Also man I gotta say…I love how the ball FLYS off Morales’ bat so far. The ball is in the outfield in a blink. Brought back memories of a guy named D.Ortiz

    Comment by alpha — June 11, 2014 @ 9:36 am

  3. This is a nice idea, but I don’t think Terry Ryan typically likes to “sell high” on his assets. It seems to me that if a guy is playing well, and Gardy and Ryan like him, the Twins will try to hang onto him until he’s no longer useful to the club or becomes just too expensive. The Twins probably should aggressively shop around Willingham, Suzuki, and Morales next month, but I could see Ryan extending Suzuki and Morales, and making a qualifying offer to Willingham after the season, instead.

    Also if those guys and a few others are playing so well that it keeps the team bobbing along “within striking distance” of the top of the Central or a wild card berth, would Ryan dare trade away any of his hot bats for prospects at the deadline?

    Comment by frightwig — June 11, 2014 @ 5:09 pm

  4. Why can’t Pinto play more catcher? Suzuki doesn’t seem to be the defensive gem we were looking for and his hitting is leveling off into more “Suzuki-like” numbers. The Twins need need more than one consistent power bat. Arcia may be that. Willingham may be that. But paying not much for a guy like Morales seems like a smart move to give the team and the fans something to cheer.

    Comment by Ken Iosso — June 11, 2014 @ 8:53 am

  5. I totally agree that Pinto should be getting more playing time. That said I don’t think Suzuki’s numbers have tailed off yet this year:

    Month wRC+
    Mar/Apr 128
    May 108
    June 148

    He’s never finished a season above 100, so I’m waiting for him to regress like anyone else, but it hasn’t happened yet. Its tough to bench a guy that’s hitting 20 percent better than league average at a premium position (thats good for 7th in MLB for catchers with at least 150 PA). Pinto shouldn’t be wasting away warming a bench, so maybe let him crush AAA until Suzuki turns into a pumpkin, then let Pinto take over starting duties and have Suzuki catch a couple times a week?

    Comment by Kavan — June 11, 2014 @ 10:11 am

  6. I love Pino and his potential but he is brutal behind the plate. Matt LeCroy-like back there.

    Comment by McGivey87 — June 11, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

  7. Pinto needs to work on defense if he ever wants to be a full-time catcher and it’s probably best he does that at 3A where he gets the most playing time. So far this year he is yet to throw out a base runner, lags in pitch framing, and has been worth negative runs blocking as well. Offensively Pinto has posted a 106 WRC+ this season, which is likely more indicative of his current true talent level than the 169 WRC+ from 2013 that was lumped into this analysis. He only recorded 75 PA in 3A, so it is fairly safe to say that he could benefit from a everyday playing time in the minors on both side of the ball.

    As far as Pinto being 25 years old, sure it would be nice if he were ready right now, but that probably isn’t the case going off metrics and watching him play. Examples of catchers who took longer to develop include Evan Gattis (rookie age 26) and John Jason (26), and everything worked out alright for them. Too early to tell if this will be the case for Pinto, but to say there is nothing to be gained by sending Pinto down for development seems a bit misguided.

    Comment by leeroy — June 11, 2014 @ 9:50 am

  8. I’ll add he should have been playing a lot more the past 2 months, because his name is not Jason Kubel. But he’s a large defensive liability at this point, which more or less relegates him to DH. As of Sunday the Twins have one of those, so development in 3A might not be the worst thing from a defensive and long-term standpoint.

    Comment by leeroy — June 11, 2014 @ 11:04 am

  9. You make many very, very good points, leeroy.

    I agree with Aaron that if he was on the big league team, why wasn’t he DH’ing more?

    But to say he has nothing to gain in AAA goes too far, as he clearly needs to improve defensively, and his offense has been going downhill since last fall.

    I did not realize he’d only had 75 PA in AAA, so I’m glad he’s getting some work in at AAA instead of rotting on the bench. As long as Suzuki is getting the bulk of the starts at catcher, he’d be wasted even at DH, where he wasn’t doing that much offensively lately anyway. Blending in his hot streak last fall masks his actual usefulness. May as well see if they can teach him to throw people out.

    Comment by by jiminy — June 12, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

  10. I like this move if for no other reason than sending a message to the players that the team is serious about winning. And based on the player quotes I saw, the move did just that.

    Comment by Ryan Glanzer — June 11, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

  11. The discussion of Pinto really would benefit from some context from the perspective of the Twins’ scouting and player development people. It’s always hazardous to extrapolate from a small slice of a player’s numbers, but since numbers are the focus of Aaron’s analysis of Pinto’s situation it seems fair to point out that his hitting has nosedived since the beginning of May. Pinto’s triple slash line in May was an ugly .208/.241/.358, and it got worse in June (although it was only 15 PAs). In addition, it seems to be the consensus view that Pinto’s catching skills need work. A little time to work on defense and regain confidence at the plate might be just what he needs — and with Suzuki still holding down the fort, why not give Pinto that time at AAA?

    I think Aaron’s analyses are always great as far as they go, but often I wish they were supplemented with some information from scout or management interviews. As it is, the article raises the question of why Pinto was demoted but never answers it. An answer is suggested — he shouldn’t be demoted — but he has been, and presumably Twins management have reasons for dealing with him the way they do. I’d love to come to this site and see those reasons engaged, in addition to seeing Pinto’s numbers compared with Morales’s.

    Comment by GagneWithASpoon — June 11, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

  12. Why not trade Pinto for a proven closer, a la Matt Capps?

    Comment by Erik Sven Berquist — June 11, 2014 @ 3:32 pm

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