April 15, 2015

Don’t act surprised: Twins build bad bullpen, get bad relief pitching

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox

As part of the frustrating decision-making process that led to choosing the older, lower-upside option to fill nearly every up-for-grabs roster spot coming out of spring training the Twins now have a bullpen stocked with marginal big leaguers. To make matters worse their best setup man, Casey Fien, has been hurt and their lone standout reliever, Glen Perkins, continues to be in a role reserved for "save" situations that severely limit his overall usage.

All of which has added up to new manager Paul Molitor turning to an assortment of replacement level-caliber arms and repeatedly watching them fail, often in high-leverage spots. Twins relievers have combined to throw 21 innings with a 5.91 ERA and nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (10). Among all MLB teams the Twins' bullpen ranks either worst or second-worst in ERA, xFIP, strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and opponents' batting average.

Assuming that Fien's shoulder issues prove minor he'll soon be taking on a lot of the late-inning setup work that's been going to lesser options and in general the Twins' bullpen isn't as bad as it's looked so far because basically no bullpen is that bad. However, when you bypass better, younger, higher-upside options to give jobs to mediocre, low-upside veterans a bad bullpen is exactly what you get. No one, least of all the Twins, should be surprised by the early results.

This offseason 32-year-old left-hander Brian Duensing was a non-tender candidate because his inability to neutralize right-handers made him ill-suited for a setup role, but the Twins retained him for $2.7 million and kept him in a key role. They also spent $2.2 million on 33-year-old free agent right-hander Tim Stauffer, whose nice-looking raw numbers for the Padres came attached to a 90-mph fastball and included a 4.28 ERA away from MLB's most pitcher-friendly ballpark.

When the Twins signed Blaine Boyer to a minor-league deal in January it seemed like a move made mostly for organizational depth, because he's a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 ERA in the majors and a 5.31 ERA at Triple-A, but he ended up making the team largely on the basis of a half-dozen spring training innings. Another former minor-league signing, 28-year-old journeyman Aaron Thompson, was chosen as the third lefty despite an underwhelming track record.

If healthy Perkins is a good closer and Fien is a decent setup man, but the Twins chose to fill the other five bullpen spots with Duensing, Stauffer, Boyer, Thompson, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. And in creating that seven-man bullpen in which the only pitcher under 30 years old is there via the Rule 5 draft Molitor and the front office passed over several younger, cheaper, higher-upside relievers already in the organization.

Michael Tonkin is 25 years old and has pitched well in a few brief stints with the Twins, posting a 3.26 ERA and 26/9 K/BB ratio in 30 innings while averaging 94 miles per hour with his fastball. He was sent back to Rochester for his third straight season at Triple-A, where Tonkin has a 3.39 ERA and 85/21 K/BB ratio in 80 innings. He's young and cheap, he throws hard and misses bats, and he's fared well at Triple-A and in Minnesota.

Caleb Thielbar spent most of the past two seasons in the Twins' bullpen and pitched well as the third lefty, throwing 94 innings with a 2.59 ERA and 74/30 K/BB ratio. Ryan Pressly also spent much of the past two seasons in the Twins' bullpen, posting a 3.60 ERA in 105 innings. Pressly's secondary numbers were much less impressive, but he averaged 93 miles per hour with his fastball in the majors and has pitched well at Triple-A. They were both demoted to Rochester.

Lester Oliveros was acquired from the Tigers in the Delmon Young trade and missed most of 2013 recovering from elbow surgery. He returned last season to split the year between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 1.64 ERA with 88 strikeouts and zero homers allowed in 66 innings. At age 27 his upside is limited and Oliveros' control can be iffy, but he throws in the mid-90s and has averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his minor-league career.

Using the $5 million they spent on Duensing and Stauffer to acquire better relievers is something the Twins could have done this offseason, but even ignoring that possibility they had no shortage of intriguing, cheap, in-house bullpen options deserving of an opportunity and/or extended stay in the majors. They chose to give roster spots to none of them and the early results are what that flawed decision-making process deserves.


For a sadness- and anger-filled discussion of the Twins' rough opening week, check out the latest "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

April 13, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #189: The Opening Week Blues

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included the Twins' rough opening week, Torii Hunter struggling in the cleanup spot, Trevor May joining the rotation after all, Blaine Boyer going as badly as expected, Harry's Razors giving listeners a nice discount, John Bonnes' trip to Las Vegas, Paul Molitor's willingness to platoon, where the Twins' top 40 prospects can be found in the minors, and hanging out at Mason's Barre.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 189

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."

April 10, 2015

To catch a prospect: Where to find the Twins’ top minor leaguers

Carmen Sandiego

One of the ways Twins fans can attempt to avoid losing their minds during what looks likely to be a fifth straight forgettable season at Target Field is to keep tabs on what's happening down on the farm. Thanks to high draft picks and veteran-for-prospect trades the Twins have amassed one of MLB's two or three best farm systems and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham is the lone player from my annual top-40 prospects list to crack the Twins' frustratingly veteran-filled Opening Day roster.

All of which means the Twins' minor-league rosters are jam-packed with quality prospects, so in an effort to help the daily perusal of boxscores here's a breakdown of which top-40 prospects can be found on the season-opening rosters for Triple-A Rochester, Double-A Chattanooga, Single-A Fort Myers, and Single-A Cedar Rapids. Two top-40 prospects, 19-year-old Amaurys Minier and 18-year-old Lewin Diaz, have not been assigned to full-season teams. Here's everyone else.

Rochester Red Wings, Triple-A:

 #4 Alex Meyer
#10 Eddie Rosario
#11 Trevor May
#16 Michael Tonkin
#18 Taylor Rogers
#30 Jason Wheeler
#36 Lester Oliveros
#37 Stephen Pryor
#39 Logan Darnell
#40 A.J. Achter
MLB Aaron Hicks
MLB Josmil Pinto
MLB Caleb Thielbar
MLB Ryan Pressly

Rochester's rotation features four top-40 prospects in Alex Meyer, Trevor May, Taylor Rogers, and Jason Wheeler, plus a fifth starter in Mark Hamburger who's intriguing despite being too old for prospect status at 28. Rochester's bullpen has five top-40 prospects in Michael Tonkin, Lester Oliveros, Stephen Pryor, Logan Darnell, and A.J. Achter, plus two experienced big leaguers who had strong cases to make the Twins' roster in Caleb Thielbar and Ryan Pressly.

In all 11 of the 13 pitchers on Rochester's roster are either current top-40 prospects or former top-40 prospects who've spent too much time in the majors to be considered prospects, with the lone exceptions being Hamburger and 2010 third-round draft pick Pat Dean. If you set aside Phil Hughes and Glen Perkins it's not that tough to make a case for Rochester's pitching staff--or at minimum the bullpen--having more upside than their counterparts with the Twins.

Offensively the Red Wings aren't quite as stocked with prospects, placing only Eddie Rosario in this year's top 40. However, he'll share an outfield with former top-40 regular Aaron Hicks and Rochester will use Josmil Pinto as a catcher/designated hitter. Eric Fryer, Argenis Diaz, Eric Farris, Brock Peterson, and Doug Bernier are also on the roster after all previously getting cups of coffee in the majors. Rochester is managed by former Cubs manager Mike Quade.

Chattanooga Lookouts, Double-A:

 #1 Byron Buxton
 #2 Miguel Sano
 #3 Jose Berrios
 #7 Jorge Polanco
 #9 Nick Burdi
#15 Max Kepler
#17 Adam Walker
#21 Jake Reed
#22 Travis Harrison
#23 Zack Jones
#28 Stuart Turner
#31 Tyler Duffey
#38 Levi Michael

In their first year with Chattanooga as the Double-A affiliate the Twins sent the Lookouts perhaps the most stacked collection of prospects in team history. No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton and No. 2 prospect Miguel Sano alone would be enough to make Chattanooga a prospect haven and they're joined in the lineup by six other top-40 prospects in Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Adam Walker, Travis Harrison, Stuart Turner, and Levi Michael.

It can't compare to that incredibly stacked lineup, but in any other circumstance the Lookouts' pitching staff would be considered loaded with prospects. No. 3 prospect Jose Berrios headlines the rotation and No. 9 prospect Nick Burdi leads the bullpen. And there are three other pitchers from the top 40 in Jake Reed, Zack Jones, and Tyler Duffey, plus former top-40 regulars Alex Wimmers and Adrian Salcedo trying to resurrect their prospect status.

Chattanooga is home to the Twins' top three prospects and five of the system's top 10 prospects, including an MLB-wide top-three prospect in Buxton, a second consensus top-20 prospect in Sano, and a third consensus top-50 prospect in Berrios. In all the Lookouts have 13 prospects in the top 40, including 10 of the top 25. Oh, and if that wasn't enough to make keeping tabs on their games interesting Chattanooga is managed by Doug Mientkiewicz.

Fort Myers Miracle, Single-A:

 #5 Kohl Stewart
#19 Chin-Wei Hu
#24 Mitch Garver
#25 Aaron Slegers
#27 Brandon Peterson
#34 Ryan Eades

Fort Myers' roster is a barren prospect wasteland compared to Rochester and Chattanooga, but it will be home to the No. 4 pick in last year's draft, right-hander Kohl Stewart, who ranks as the Twins' fifth-best prospect and would be the top prospect in several organizations. Fellow top-40 prospects Chih-Wei Hu, Aaron Slegers, and Ryan Eades join him in the rotation and will throw to a top-40 prospect in catcher Mitch Garver. For a typical Single-A team this is lots of talent.

Cedar Rapids Kernels, Single-A:

 #6 Nick Gordon
 #8 Lewis Thorpe
#12 Stephen Gonsalves
#14 Michael Cederoth
#26 Max Murphy
#32 Sam Clay
#33 Tanner English

Cedar Rapids has another well-stocked collection of prospects, although instead of beginning his season in the Kernels' rotation No. 8 prospect Lewis Thorpe will miss the entire season following Tommy John elbow surgery. Even without Thorpe the rotation includes a pair of top-15 prospects in Stephen Gonsalves and Michael Cederoth, plus last year's fourth-round draft pick Sam Clay in the bullpen and several top-40 near misses in assorted roles.

The headliner at Cedar Rapids is the No. 5 pick in last year's draft, shortstop Nick Gordon, and Cedar Rapids' outfield has a pair of intriguing top-40 prospects who're coming off excellent 2014 pro debuts in Max Murphy and Tanner English. If the rosters weren't so stacked at Double-A and Triple-A the collection of talent playing for manager Jake Mauer at low Single-A would be getting more attention.


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."

April 8, 2015

Ervin Santana suspended 80 games, Twins turn back to Mike Pelfrey

Ervin Santana Twins

Well, at least Mike Pelfrey is happy again.

This offseason the Twins signed Ervin Santana to a four-year, $55 million deal that stands as the largest free agent contract in team history and now, before he could even throw a pitch in a game that counts, he's been suspended for half the season. Santana tested positive for a substance on MLB's banned performance-enhancing drug list called Stanozolol, which he claimed in a statement entered his system without his knowledge:

I am frustrated that I can't pinpoint how the substance in question entered my body. What I can guarantee is I never knowingly took anything illegal to enhance my performance. That's just not me, never has been and never will.

I serve as a role model for many kids in my home country who dream of playing at the highest level. I would never put baseball, my family, or my country in a position where its integrity is jeopardized. I preach hard work and don't believe in short cuts. Moving forward, I need to be more careful on what I consume in my home country. I will be more vigilant of medications I take so that I don't commit another mistake.

Whatever. I'm not someone who cares about the moral implications of performance enhancement, so Santana using the common excuse of not knowing how a banned substance got into his body just means he's claiming ignorance and bad luck rather than malice. He either took a banned substance in an effort to improve his performance and got caught or took a banned substance unintentionally with no ties to performance and got caught. Either way he's suspended until July.

Santana's suspension is without pay and the Twins will receive a $6.7 million refund on his $13.5 million salary for this season. Instead of owing him $55 million for four years they owe him $48.3 million for three-and-a-half years, which is arguably an even worse deal because teams typically are willing to overpay free agents at the end of their contracts in order to get strong performances at the beginning. Oh, and the Twins still forfeit a second-round draft pick for signing Santana.

Rather than use Santana's suspension as an opportunity for the rotation to get younger the Twins stuck with their frustrating spring training approach of giving every open roster spot to the older, more expensive, lower-upside option. Pelfrey, who lost the fifth-starter battle to Tommy Milone and supposedly also finished behind Trevor May, moves back into the rotation after voicing his displeasure with a bullpen role. May remains at Triple-A, with Alex Meyer.

There's a tendency to overstate the impact of a suspension like Santana's for the same reason many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion that MVP-caliber players are worth "only" six or eight wins above a replacement-level player. However, if you dig into the numbers even a little bit it's pretty clear that being without Santana for three months isn't going to wreck the team unless the team was already a wreck.

Santana is 33 years old and has a 4.17 career ERA, including 3.95 last season (in the NL) and 4.06 from 2012-2014. Most projections for 2015 pegged Santana between 4.00 and 4.75. Even assuming he'd have stayed healthy and thrown 90-100 innings during the 80-game suspension the difference between Santana with, say, a 4.25 ERA and his replacements with, say, a 5.50 ERA is 10-15 runs. Typically every 10 runs is worth about one win.

Or instead think of it this way: Last season the Twins went 70-92 (.432), including 50-80 (.385) in games not started by Phil Hughes. Based on that to go .500 in Santana's starts would seemingly be a positive outcome. That means 8-8 during an 80-game suspension. If his replacements are two full games worse the team would be 6-10 (.375) in those same starts. To be four full games worse would mean a 4-12 (.250) record, which is really, really bad. Even for Pelfrey.

Anything can happen, of course, but that "anything" also means the replacements could perform better than Santana. Whether in terms of runs allowed or in terms of the team's record in his starts, it seems realistic to say Santana's suspension is most likely to cost one or two wins. That certainly hurts, but for the Twins the embarrassment and frustration probably hurts more than the actual lost games and they're choosing to inflict even more pain by turning back to Pelfrey.


For a lengthy discussion about the Santana suspension, plus the Twins' rotation plans in the short and long term, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

April 6, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #188: Santana’s Suspension and AL Central Over/Unders

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included Ervin Santana being suspended for 80 games, over/under win totals for the Twins and other AL Central teams, laughing at a funeral, Josmil Pinto losing the backup catcher job, Mike Pelfrey getting his wish, Kyle Gibson needing to step up, and basically everyone outside of Minnesota predicting the Twins will stink again.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 188

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."

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