October 30, 2013

Offseason Outlook: Brian Dozier

brian dozier twins

Over-hyped as a prospect locally after putting up good numbers at Single-A and Double-A in 2011 as a 24-year-old, Brian Dozier reached the majors in early 2012 and flopped both offensively and defensively. He hit just .234/.271/.332 in 84 games with an ugly 58-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, showing none of the strong strike-zone control he displayed in the minors, and possessed neither the range nor arm strength required to be a big-league shortstop.

Dozier was so bad that the Twins demoted him back to Triple-A in mid-August and then opted not to recall him from Rochester when rosters expanded on September 1, putting his future in doubt. Still in the Twins' plans in part because they lacked other infield options, he shifted from shortstop to second base this season and was handed the Opening Day job, but hit just .214/.259/.299 with a similarly ugly 35-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 games through the end of May.

And then something clicked. Dozier got hot in early June and spent the rest of the season looking nothing like his former self, hitting .255/.331/.458 with 16 homers, 30 doubles, and 42 walks in 106 games over the final four months. During that four-month stretch he had a .789 OPS, which would have ranked sixth among all MLB second basemen overall this season. Or, to put Dozier's improvement another way, look at how his first 125 games compare to his last 106 games:

DOZIER         PA     AVG     OBP     SLG     HR    XBH    BB    SO
First 125     508    .228    .267    .321      8     25    25    93
Last 106      455    .255    .333    .458     16     48    42    85

Dozier more than doubled his Isolated Power from .093 to .203 and nearly doubled his walk rate from 4.9 to 9.2 percent. He continued to strike out a lot and posted a poor batting average, but the gains in power and plate discipline were very encouraging. For the season as a whole he hit .244/.312/.414, which was exactly average for an MLB hitter. That may not seem like a big deal, but no Twins second baseman has been an average or better hitter since Todd Walker in 1998.

Whereas it took two months to get going offensively, Dozier looked like a natural at second base right away. Highlight plays and the huge improvement compared to his time at shortstop may have led to fans and media members slightly overstating how good Dozier was defensively, but the eyes and the numbers definitely agree that he was solid. Ultimate Zone Rating viewed him as an average second baseman and Defensive Runs Saved pegged him nine runs above average.

Dozier hitting a grand total of 16 homers in 1,613 plate appearances as a minor leaguer makes me skeptical that he can maintain the type of power he showed during the final four months, but middle infielders don't need to be 20-homer threats to be assets offensively. MLB second basemen combined to hit .260/.320/.385 over the past two years, which is certainly within reach for Dozier even if he comes back to earth a bit. Add in good defense and that's a nice all-around player.

Given his track record, age, and skill set there probably isn't a ton of upside left in Dozier, but he was the Twins' second-best position player in 2013 and obviously has the starting job locked up for 2014. He could face competition soon from prospect Eddie Rosario, but for now it's not really an issue because Rosario just turned 22 years old, has played only a half-season above Single-A, and may not even wind up sticking at second base defensively. Still, next year is big for Dozier.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Twins Daily's new "2014 Offseason Handbook" featuring everything you need to prepare for the Twins' winter moves for just $6.95. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

October 23, 2013

Offseason Outlook: Trevor Plouffe

trevor plouffe twins

Trevor Plouffe spent seven years in the minors as a light-hitting shortstop, never cracking a .750 OPS in a season, but then in 2011 during his first extended big-league opportunity it turned out he couldn't actually handle shortstop defensively. He shifted to third base in 2012 and got everyone's attention with a midseason power surge, which along with two months of power hitting at Triple-A in 2011 had people questioning if "light-hitting" was just as inaccurate as "shortstop."

Plouffe was handed the third base job with little in the way of potential competition and stayed in the starting lineup all year except for a disabled list stint for a strained calf. He started 126 of 140 games when not on the DL, logging 522 plate appearances and 1,036 innings defensively. And he was terrible. For all the power potential Plouffe showed in 2011 he managed just 14 homers and 22 doubles and his plate discipline remained ugly with 112 strikeouts versus 34 walks.

He also continued to look awful defensively and the numbers backed up that view for the second straight year, as Ultimate Zone Rating pegged Plouffe as 8.6 runs below average per 150 games. In a season when MLB third basemen as a whole hit .260/.324/.412, he hit .254/.309/.392 with poor defense to essentially rate as a replacement-level player. And at age 27, with 1,351 plate appearances in the majors, there's little reason to think Plouffe is likely to improve.

As a former first-round draft pick who took six years to reach the big leagues, almost immediately proved incapable of handling the position he'd played nearly that entire time, and showed flashes of turning into a completely different hitter Plouffe's journey to the majors was certainly an odd one. Ultimately, though, his .240/.300/.411 line in 351 games for the Twins is nearly identical to his .258/.320/.405 line in 839 games as a minor leaguer.

Plouffe simply isn't a starting-caliber player, offensively or defensively. That doesn't make him useless, but unfortunately the Twins' longstanding unwillingness to give flawed hitters a better chance to succeed by platooning them really hurts Plouffe. He's a career .278/.346/.495 hitter versus left-handers, which is enough production to have a place on most rosters. But he's also a career .227/.284/.382 hitter versus right-handers, which should be nowhere near the lineup.

If a team limited Plouffe's weakness offensively by playing him almost exclusively against lefties and limited his weakness defensively by using him strictly as a corner outfielder, first baseman, and designated hitter he could carve out a solid role as a part-timer. However, when asked to hit every day regardless of pitcher handedness and field a position he can't handle Plouffe becomes a liability. Given his track record, if that continues don't blame Plouffe, blame the Twins.

So where does that leave him for 2014? There are several left-handed hitters with whom Plouffe could platoon, but expecting that from Ron Gardenhire is wishful thinking. It's possible that the Twins could look to trade Plouffe or even non-tender him rather than hand out a small raise via arbitration, but more likely is that he'll remain atop the third base depth chart until stud prospect Miguel Sano is deemed ready to take over, which might be as soon as Opening Day.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Twins Daily's new "2014 Offseason Handbook" featuring everything you need to prepare for the Twins' winter moves for just $6.95. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

January 17, 2013

Offseason outlook: Alex Burnett

At first glance it looks like Alex Burnett took a big step forward in 2012, tossing 72 innings with a 3.52 ERA at age 24 after posting a 5.40 ERA in his first two seasons. Unfortunately a deeper look shows that his improvement was fueled almost entirely by an unsustainably low batting average on balls in play that masked a declining strikeout rate and poor control. Burnett didn't pitch well in 2012, he merely had a nice-looking ERA.

Burnett struck out 17.5 percent of the batters he faced as a rookie, but that dropped to 14.7 percent in 2011 and fell even further to 11.7 percent in 2012. To put his 2012 strikeout rate in some context, 166 different relievers threw at least 40 innings and Burnett tied for dead last with 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings. And he was tied for last with Jeff Gray, who spent most of the season alongside Burnett in the Twins' bullpen before being designated for assignment.

Burnett gets a solid number of ground balls and has made strides with his control, improving his yearly walks per nine innings from 4.3 to 3.7 to 3.3, but that's nowhere near enough to make up for such a pathetic strikeout rate. You'd think a young pitcher with a fastball that averaged 92.7 miles per hour, a mid-80s slider, and a changeup left over from his days as a starter couldn't help but miss some bats, but Burnett ranked 156th out of 166 relievers in swinging strikes.

It's worth noting that Burnett didn't move to the bullpen until 2009 and initially thrived at high Single-A and Double-A, but he was rushed to the majors in early 2010 to replace the injured Clay Condrey and never really got a chance to put together an impressive stretch at Triple-A. That less than ideal development and the fact that he's still just 25 years old makes it tough to totally write off Burnett, but nothing about his performance so far inspires much optimism.

Presumably his age, nice-looking ERA in 2012, and nearly three full seasons worth of experience in the majors will be enough to get Burnett an Opening Day bullpen spot, but he could easily pitch exactly as well as he did last season and see his ERA balloon back above 5.00. Without missing significantly more bats or vastly improving his control it's tough to see how Burnett can have long-term success as more than a middle reliever.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, Brian Duensing, Jamey Carroll

This week's blog content is sponsored by Seth Stohs' fifth annual "Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook," which features 191 pages of content devoted to every key prospect, draft pick, and minor leaguer in the organization. Please support him for supporting AG.com.

January 16, 2013

Offseason outlook: Jamey Carroll

Signed to a two-year, $6.5 million contract last offseason to provide some much-needed middle infield stability, Jamey Carroll was more or less as advertised at age 38. He played sure-handed defense with decent range, worked deep counts and drew walks without striking out much, and moved all around the infield while starting 56 times at second base, 33 times at shortstop, and 28 times at third base.

Carroll got off to a slow start thanks largely to a low batting average on balls in play, but his luck evened out in the second half as he hit .315/.378/.371 in 58 games. Overall he batted .268 after hitting .285 during the previous four seasons, but thanks to 52 walks in 537 plate appearances Carroll still managed a .343 on-base percentage that topped Denard Span and Justin Morneau to rank third on the team behind Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham.

He joined Mauer and Willingham as three of the 22 hitters in the American League to see more than 4.0 pitches per plate appearance and joined Span and Ben Revere as three of the league's seven hitters to make contact on more than 90 percent of their swings. Carroll's ability to grind out long plate appearances and draw walks is particularly impressive considering his power was non-existent and pitchers threw him the third-most strikes in the league.

Carroll's complete lack of power was to be expected, as his lone homer of the season came on September 2 and snapped a streak of 1,540 plate appearances without a homer dating back to 2009. His modest RBI total of 40 actually set a new career-high and matched his combined RBI total in 924 plate appearances during the previous two seasons. His offensive value comes from getting on base and he did that remarkably well for a 38-year-old.

Defensively he began the year as the starting shortstop and looked perfectly capable there, but shifted to second base in May. That move was seemingly driven less by anything Carroll did and more by the Twins believing (wrongly, it turns out) that Brian Dozier was ready to thrive. Dozier was so unimpressive defensively that the Twins have apparently soured on him as a shortstop and he posted a .271 on-base percentage that was barely higher than Carroll's batting average.

Carroll is under contract for $3.75 million in 2013 and if the Twins decide against acquiring more infield help he figures to battle Dozier for the second base job during spring training. If he wins that battle or perhaps beats out Pedro Florimon for the shortstop job it'll be interesting to see how the Twins handle Carroll's playing time. Not only do 39-year-olds need regular days off, Carroll topping 401 plate appearances would trigger a $2 million player option for 2014.

In the history of baseball only 13 middle infielders have topped 400 plate appearances at age 39, but then again Carroll just became one of only 19 middle infielders to top 500 plate appearances at age 38. All of which means he's already aged significantly better than nearly every player like him for the past 100 years, but no one should be surprised if Carroll declines suddenly at some point. Until then he'll be a solid role player who can plug whichever infield hole is leaking most.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, Brian Duensing

This week's blog content is sponsored by Seth Stohs' fifth annual "Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook," which features 191 pages of content devoted to every key prospect, draft pick, and minor leaguer in the organization. Please support him for supporting AG.com.

January 10, 2013

Offseason outlook: Brian Duensing

Brian Duensing flopped as a full-time starter in 2011, posting a 5.23 ERA and .300 opponents' batting average in 28 starts, so the Twins moved him back to the bullpen and as usual he fared well. However, when injuries decimated the rotation Duensing was called on to start again and the results were worse than ever with a 6.92 ERA and .336 opponents' batting average in 11 outings. At this point it seems pretty safe to conclude that Duensing shouldn't be a starter.

He had some initial success starting in 2009 and 2010, but even those nice-looking ERAs weren't supported by strong secondary numbers and for his career Duensing now has a 4.57 ERA in 61 starts. As a starter he's averaged 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings while allowing opponents to hit .290 with a .455 slugging percentage. He simply doesn't have the raw stuff to miss bats or avoid big damage going multiple times through a lineup stacked with right-handed hitters.

As a reliever Duensing doesn't have to worry about facing the same hitter again and can also be spotted mostly versus lefties or at least to avoid righty sluggers. His strikeout rate as a reliever isn't any better than as a starter, but opponents have hit 55 points lower with 57 percent fewer homers. Even last year, as he was getting clobbered as a starter, Duensing allowed just one homer in 57 innings as a reliever and held opponents to a .236 batting average.

And there's no shame in that. Most successful relievers were failed or at least mediocre starters and in recent Twins history that includes Joe Nathan, Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, Juan Rincon, Matt Guerrier, and J.C. Romero. Glen Perkins, whose emergence as the Twins' closer opens the door for Duensing to replace him as the primary left-handed setup man, was himself a struggling starter as recently as three years ago.

I'm not sold yet on Duensing as a late-inning setup man, in part because his raw stuff seems unlikely to make the sort of jump in velocity/sharpness that Perkins discovered, but he's proven capable of getting outs as a reliever and just as importantly has proven incapable of being more than a mediocre fifth starter. Given the Twins' obvious and oft-stated focus of overhauling the rotation, if Duensing starts games in 2013 something went very wrong.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit

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