Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Fixing Free Agency, MLB’s Dark Cloud

We are now halfway through January and are in the middle of a free agency cycle that is highlighted by two premiere talents. In a sport that suppresses player earnings for nearly a decade, opportunities to sign youthful megastars at the height of their potential is largely uncharted territory. Even with that reality currently sitting before us, players are watching as organizations hand out moderate deals and scrutinize anything that truly would move the needle.

At the current juncture, there’s no less than 50 major league caliber players still awaiting a home for the 2019 season. Multiple teams have yet to sign a player to a big-league deal, and even more are looking at spending thresholds that fall significantly short of anything reflecting actual revenues. We’re still talking about athletes becoming millionaires in this entire scenario, but owners are sitting on wads of cash that have them all starting at sums best described with a “B.”

There’s little reason to deny significant flaws in the current CBA structure. Owners took the MLB Players Association to the woodshed, and that has never been more apparent than the past two winters. You can bet stronger negotiation tactics will be employed during the next round of discussions but coming up with ideas in order to spark improvement is the first step. While we won’t see anything implemented right now today, there seems to be one avenue to create buzz and heighten fan interest.

Looking across the landscape of the three major sports, fans hang onto the opportunity to watch transactions occur at a breakneck pace. Whether it be the MLB trade deadline, NFL free agency, or either of those instances in the NBA, players moving at a fast pace gives fans something to gravitate towards. The success that Major League Baseball sees mid-season could potentially be harnessed over the winter as well.

We can talk a certain threshold of dollars needing to be handed out, and there could even be a mandate put on percentage of revenues being spent. What if the league decided to create a free agency window?  By forcing teams to conduct negotiations between a certain time period, you’d allow agents, players, and organizations to all have their cards on the table together. Inciting some sort of bidding war for talent could be a nice by-product of this exercise, and a sense of urgency would have fans involved in the progress their perspective team is making.

In this proposed scenario, one of the largest hurdles would seem to be what to do beyond a presented window of opportunity. Inevitably not every player would find a deal and you can’t simply ask them all to accept MiLB pacts or something of that ilk. Finding an incentive for teams to sign players during the free agency period, while also working in the best interests of players, would seemingly marry all attempted goals together.

At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s any way some drastic changes won’t be taking place. We’ll see multiple propositions as to what they may look like, and eventually different options will come to fruition. For now, we’ll have to continue this waiting game while a significant number of talented players wonder where spring training will take place.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Payroll Problems Biting Baseball

With just over a month until the Minnesota Twins embark upon sunny Fort Myers, the projected Opening Day payroll is just under $97 million. To call that a joke is putting it lightly. That number is $30 million under the 2018 mark, and about $45 million under a realistic expectation given market factors. What’s worth noting however, is that spending doesn’t appear to be as cut and dry as it may seem.

To date, it’s fair to call Minnesota’s offseason a mild success. They’ve gotten better from the point in which they ended the 2018 season, and talent with solid upside has been acquired. There’s no denying this club could use another move or two however, and that reality is what holds them back from any sort of commendations yet this winter. It’s in buying more talent that helps Rocco Baldelli be better positioned for a next step in 2019, but the dollar threshold doesn’t look anything close to doable.

Thinking about what the front office could still choose to do, there’s a couple of names that make plenty of sense. Cody Allen screams probability in the bullpen, and a Gio Gonzalez addition would be great for the rotation. That duo likely comes in around $20 million per season though, and still puts the Twins $10 million under where they were previously. Short of signing Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, or Craig Kimbrel the big fish is not still on the market to raise the overall water level. Dallas Keuchel could command enough to make a seismic shift in the payroll structure, but that may be a move that is more based upon name than performance.

What we’re really seeing here is that short of acquiring the top one to three names on the open market, and avenue to a fair payroll expectation looks murky at best. Minnesota has acquired for free agents this offseason. The club would’ve needed to bring in at least three top tier talents, or something like seven mid-range options to account for the opened cash flow. Allocating dollars to more talent is always a sensible ask, but what seems more problematic is that the market correction on valuations of players simply hasn’t taken shape.

At this stage in the game, we shouldn’t be hearing that one or two teams are debating the validity of Machado or Harper being worth $300 million. Guys are on the market in their early 30’s and are finding one-year pacts below and eight-figure sum. The reality is that baseball gets the most out of talent prior to this portion of a career, and by this time, the market isn’t willing to correct that exploitation.

You can certainly expect a piece from this writer chastising the hometown nine if the payroll is in March where it is now. That number is unacceptable, and opportunity has been left on the table. Even if there’s more potential room for growth executed upon however, it’s hard not to see how organizations would be stretching terms to get towards more realistic compensation numbers.

Across baseball, multiple franchises are worth billions of dollars. At the bottom end of the totem pole (according to this Forbes piece) the Tampa Bay Rays are valued at $900 million. No team has a revenue below $200 million, and only two organizations turned a loss in 2018. What that suggests is those off the field are doing just fine with their investment, while the players responsible for the output are severely underpaid.

We aren’t at a point where the CBA can be rectified, but we also aren’t far off. There’s a storm brewing for the owners, and the MLBPA needs to be vastly more prepared the next time around. For now, it’d be great if the Twins would allocate some of the cash that is currently set to be pocketed, but even from the get-go this winter, their realistic additions would’ve left more to be desired in the hands of those who play the game.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Closing Time for the Twins

As of this writing the Minnesota Twins have made just one move to solidify their bullpen for 2019. Snagging non-tendered reliever Blake Parker on a one-year deal, Rocco Baldelli’s relief corps hasn’t been overhauled by any means. Knowing the innings will need to be allocated across the group in the season ahead, there’s plenty of uncertainty when attempting to determine roles. From a traditional sense, that’s a fine determination. For those concerned with such things however, we’re left wondering who closes things out?

On January 14 the Parker deal was made official. It is a $3.2 million pact, but the oddity is that only $1.8 million is guaranteed. The former Angel receives a $1.4 million sum if he is on Minnesota’s active roster for 160 days. It’s a weird stipulation that needed to be agreed to for a guy who’s put up solid numbers over the past two years. Being non-tendered is one thing, but this almost makes it look like Parker didn’t have great prospects elsewhere either. Regardless, I believe he can help Minnesota’s pen.

Pitching for Los Angeles each of the past two years Parker earned 22 saves. Never tabbed the closer from the get-go, he’s filled in during times of need and done so admirably. A high strikeout and strong command pitcher, Parker has the makings of a guy able to succeed in the 9th or a setup role. From there, things get less certain.

If there’s a “proven closer” among the current bunch it’s Addison Reed. Signed to a two-year last winter, Reed was expected to be a difference maker for the Twins. He flopped and battled injury in Minnesota but has always shown so much more. He was far too hittable last season but remained relatively strong in terms of limiting walks. With 125 saves to his credit, operating as a closer is something he’s familiar with. In talking with Reed last spring, he told me he could care less about the save aside from grabbing some prior to arbitration. Should Minnesota be able to right the 30-year-old on a path that he had previously been on, they’ll have a strong late inning reliever no matter where he’s used.

From an internally developed standpoint Minnesota has only two options. Trevor May and Trevor Hildenberger look like the most logical fits. The former is a converted starter that seems to be able to amp it up in relief, why the latter is a crafty reliever who’s used deception and stuff to fuel a level of dominance out of the pen. I’d suggest May as profiling more towards your prototypical closer, but it’s clear that Hildenberger has found success in that arena as well.

The Twins watched a further breakout from Taylor Rogers in 2018, and while his numbers are spectacular, I think he continues to slot in best during optimal high leverage. Being called upon situationally late in games allows for him to dictate matchups and utilize his best stuff for getting opponents out. Fernando Romero looks like he could be headed to the pen this year, and the blazing fastball would certainly play up in relief. Over time I’d be far from shocked if he doesn’t force himself into high leverage. Initially, Minnesota may be cautious to keep him stretched out, and even if not, asking him to immediately work the most important innings could be a tough ask.

From here Baldelli won’t have much to turn to. J.T. Chargois is gone, John Curtiss was just DFA’d, Jake Reed has yet to be promoted, and Tyler Jay is still on the farm. If there’s someone outside of the previously mentioned big league names ready to reign in the closer role for this club, they aren’t currently on the roster. Cody Allen continues to be a name that makes so much sense, and I’ve heard rumblings that the interest is mutual. Until that deal comes to fruition however, it’s a wait and see sort of scenario.

Even with an Allen marriage in Minnesota, this collection is setting up like a group that will rotate the hot hand rather often. Allen has recorded at least 24 saves in each of his five seasons operating as the Indians closer, but the Twins could see something like five different players record marks in that category. From both a developmental exercise to a best fit scenario, the Twins relievers possess a wide spectrum of potential outcomes for the 2019 season. The best-case scenario looks to be a collection that succeeds by being quality over the sum of its parts. There probably isn’t going to be a runaway fireman called on at every opportunity but being able to adequately operate together gives this group promise.

Right now, today, it’s hard to envision the Twins front office feeling good about where the relief corps is at. The bulk of the work has been done, but another signing seems almost necessary. We’ll know more about who takes what role, when, as spring training gets underway. There’s going to be uncertainty for this group regardless, but I think it’s less damaging than immediately may be assumed.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Twins Continue to Go Big on Joe

If there’s one thing that the Minnesota Twins have been big on since June of 2001 is Joseph Patrick Mauer. The organization was behind him as the first overall pick, as a three-time batting champion, and MVP, and the recipient of a massive contract extension. At no point since that mid-summer day has the Minnesota Twins not been big on Joe Mauer. In 2019, that trend will continue.

It didn’t take long for the organization to announce that the number 7 would be retired. 35 players donned that digit, with Denny Hocking to be the last wearing it prior to Mauer. Going forward, it will be enshrined among the Twins other untouchable uniforms and the honor will deservedly be placed upon the former catcher.

After announcing his retirement in November 2018, the ball was expected to get rolling on a handful of different glorifying initiatives. The retirement of “7” was a logical first step but has proven to be just one of the first things considered. Today the organization announced that a ceremony will be held to appropriately convey the honor on June 15. To make sure he’s celebrated through the season, a series of five bobbleheads depicting different moments of Joe’s career will be handed out to fans as well.

Through a reorganization of the Target Plaza just outside of Gate 34, the Twins will be adding new entrance points into the stadium. While nothing has been solidified, it’s beyond logical to assume that one of the new gates will be used to commemorate Joe. For a quiet and limelight avoiding superstar like Mauer, a bronze statue is probably a bit much. Given that statues have become a customary addition to the grounds outside the field, it only seems necessary that the latest organization altering retiree find himself among those depicted.

Nothing has been announced in terms of a celebratory patch for Minnesota’s 2019 uniforms, and the on-field product has all but moved on from a player no longer contributing to it. However, if the Twins were to find a way to incorporate a symbol on their uniforms, or in the field of play itself, there’d be no reason for backlash.

In trying to quantify his impact and compare it to the adoration being shown since his decision, the Twins have taken every step in a most perfect direction. The reality is that Mauer had a Puckett or Killebrew-like impact on this ballclub and making sure the sendoff is more than just a simple something in passing was always the right decision.

At the end of the day Mauer will always deal with detractors that can’t wrap their head around him having been underpaid in relation to his value. His impact wasn’t flashy enough to draw the full-throat support of others. Regardless of the irrelevant minority, this long, big, and well-earned sendoff has been everything a Mauer fan could have hoped for.

Around five years from now, a second publicity tour would provide another fun opportunity for Twins fans to adore the Mauer that was.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Rolling the Dice on Relief

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic is reporting that the Minnesota Twins are expected to reach a deal with Blake Parker in short order. The 33-year-old will turn 34 during the 2019 season and is looking to improve upon a 3.26 ERA posted during 2018. The former Angels reliver is Minnesota’s first pitching acquisition of the offseason, and for a bullpen needing some help, is hardly aiming to high. Given the internal options however, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine could certainly be rolling the dice on how some holdover names bounce back for 2019.

Relief pitching is one of the most unpredictable assets in baseball year over year. Unless you’ve got an arm among the elite upper echelon of the sport, expecting consistency on an annual basis is a crapshoot highlighting the desire for teams to acquire arms on one-year deals. For Parker, there’s reasons to believe he’ll be as effective out of the bullpen as the likes of Zach Britton, Cody Allen, or any other player cut from a similar cloth. He’s not going to require much of a commitment from the squad, and he’ll help to raise the water level over the Matt Magill and Tyler Duffey types.

It’s become apparent that Minnesota isn’t going to be a player on one of those elite talents at this point. Craig Kimbrel is really the only name left in that group, and even Adam Ottavino is a 33-year-old with a less than ideal track record. I wholeheartedly support the notion that Minnesota should be allocating funds to bring in another arm for the sake of talent, but the difference making presence certainly could come from within.

While not remembering if I’ve discussed it in this space, I’ve tweeted often about the prospects of Fernando Romero as a reliever. It’s more than fair to dream about him as a top of the rotation starter, but right now he may not be there. Utilized in short bursts out of the pen, his electric fastball could be paired with one other offering allowing him to be relied upon by Rocco Baldelli. Starting out in somewhat of a middle relief scenario and eventually transitioning to high leverage, expecting the ceiling to be anything but through the roof for Romero seems shortsighted.

There’s another guy that certainly could end up being the cream of the crop for the Twins in 2019 however, and he was worthy of a two-year pact just last offseason. Addison Reed is just 30 years old and signed a contract for $16.75 million over two years. He was coming off a two year stretch with a 2.40 ERA 9.8 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9. Not tabbed to be the closer with Fernando Rodney in the fold, Reed brought high leverage and back-end experience to the pen. We know how his 2018 went and calling it suboptimal would be putting it nicely. He gave up far too much contract, lost velocity, and was batted around the park. Can 2019 be different though?

Dealing with triceps tightness Reed hit the disabled list for the first time in his career last season. The move took place in early July and was a precursor for a season that simply wouldn’t get back on track. Owning an average 93 mph fastball in 2017 the juice had dipped to just 91.3 mph last season. After generating swinging strikes a career high 13.7% of the time in 2017, Reed got them just 10.7% of the time last season. Batters weren’t chasing, and the 78% contract rating was among the highest of his tenure in the big leagues.

Going into the upcoming year there may be no more important player to the Twins eventual success than Reed. There’s no denying that having some stability around Trevor Hildenberger and Taylor Rogers is a must. Romero represents a nice upside play, and Parker will certainly help to support the group. As a new manager with a pen in flex Baldelli needs the best version of Reed for what lies ahead. Another opportunity at a payday is also in store for the California native, and slotting back into the late innings would do wonders for his future value. It remains to be seen if Reed is both health and effective, but a perfect mix would’ve made him among the most coveted arms on the open market in this circuit as well.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Making the Most of Max

Expecting somewhat of a breakout campaign for Max Kepler in 2018 was a relatively accepted possibility going into last season. When the dust settled, his .727 OPS was the lowest of his career and there was no denying his performance left plenty to be desired. Rectifying the ability to hit left-handed pitchers, he fell off against righties and the offense tanked. 2019 represents new opportunity, and according to at least one project system, there’s some reason to get excited.

Steamer projections have the Twins outfielder pegged for 2.6 fWAR in 2019, a mark that would replicate his 2018 season. Although the result is similar, the path to get there is a new one. A .779 OPS with a .336 OBP is suggested for the German native and those would both be massive boosts to career .730 and .313 marks respectively. So, in other words, the bat arrives.

Last season Kepler’s value was heavily tied to his defensive presence. With Byron Buxton shelved due to ineffectiveness and injury, Max was called to take on a more demanding presence in the outfield. He tallied 390 innings in center after having played 90 total in the two years prior. His 10 DRS and 10.8 UZR both blew previous tallies out of the water, and even the eye test suggested that the mainstay in the Minnesota outfield was a great glove.

I’ve previously discussed some of the reasons that Kepler appeared to be hampered in 2018. He has consistently vocalized a desire to put the ball on the ground, and while his hit profile suggested he was accomplishing lifting the ball more last season, it wasn’t at an optimal level. His launch angle increased, and the hard-hit rate was a career high, but a lack of line drives held him back given the ground ball outputs and failed HR/FB ratio.

On top of how he was putting the ball in play, Kepler shifted his platoon splits drastically year over year. After struggling mightily with lefties in 2017, his .745 OPS was a drastic improvement. Posting an .828 OPS against righties in 2017 kept his head above water, but that mark dipped all the way down to .720 last season. Settling in more of a middle ground would give Rocco Baldelli a greater assurance that Kepler is capable of being deployed daily and expecting a high level of value no matter who is on the bump.

Looking ahead to what Steamer sees of Kepler in the season ahead, it’s hard not to draw loose comparisons to some of the realities Byron Buxton faces. Kepler has elevated his defensive profile to be a real asset on its own and pushing his OPS anywhere near the .800 mark would genuinely elevate him to a star player level. I’ve found myself bullish on Max believing him to be better than the likes of Eddie Rosario going forward, and it’s this all-encompassing ability that would drive that notion. Max doesn’t have to be a world beater at the plate to take the next step, but if a couple of tweaks are made, this is a guy we’re talking about for years to come.

There’s long been a notion that defense doesn’t slump, so maybe the Steamer projections shouldn’t come as a surprise. If Kepler is in fact the second-most valuable Twins player in 2019, I’m not sure that’s anything but positive. Needing a handful of former top prospects to hit on all cylinders this season, Minnesota will be successful as a sum of its greater parts. With the calendar now turned over, Kepler has an opportunity to be the guy everything indicates he’s capable of. Now we wait and see what happens.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Dangers in Waiting for Minnesota

We’re quickly approaching the close of the 2018 calendar year. While there’s still multiple months before Spring Training commences in sunny Fort Myers, the Minnesota Twins talent acquisition has come in the form of two moves. Both players found themselves on the free agent market by way of non-tender decisions from their previous ballclubs. We saw a patient strategy in 2017 but employing it again could be to the team’s detriment.

Despite how the Lance Lynn and Logan Morrison signings worked out for Falvey and Co. last offseason, there’s no denying that both moves made a ton of sense. Morrison represented a power bat the lineup could certainly use, and Lynn allowed the starting rotation an ability to be bolstered by one of the premiere names on the market. Both players were inked to team-friendly dollars, and there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal.

It appears that the Twins are content employing a similar level of patience this time around. The problem, however, is that the circumstances had them in a position ripe to jump the market. We’ve heard that a $100 million payroll could be the bar to clear, and much has been made about the uncertainty of both Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton’s development. The former is a number that should represent an embarrassing effort towards competitiveness, while the latter strikes this blogger as a backwards way of thinking.

Right now, we’ve yet to see Sano and Buxton put it all together over a consistent period. Minnesota obviously has reservations about whether it will happen for the two former top prospects but planning for anything other than full speed ahead comes with quite a few issues.

First, Sano and Buxton will never be cheaper than they are right now. Whether they explode or not, arbitration raises will continue to increase their rate of pay. Should things go according to plan, the dollars will mount considerably in the next few seasons. Waiting for the next wave of prospects would signify something like a ten year rebuild and comes with the same caveats as to whether the prospect status matures at the highest level. Pairing the current duo with external talent is also just a drop in the bucket in terms of dollars at this point, and nothing hamstrings an organization with zero dollars committed to 2020 and beyond.

You can certainly look at the free agent landscape as it stands today and wonder where those extra dollars would be spent. Craig Kimbrel isn’t the most appealing reliever at his ask, and Bryce Harper probably wants little to do with Minnesota. However, we’ve heard about plenty of relievers that the Twins were in on to this point and they simply didn’t want to extend a second year. These are the avenues that strike me as poor planning. Outpacing the competition by showing a willingness for an extra season, or a few extra millions, is something this team is in the perfect position to do. The Twins shed a ton of salary prior to 2019 and have literally nothing on the books for the season after. By being aggressive on some second-tier names, there’s no denying the impact could have been felt in the wins column. At this juncture, there’s a dwindling list of those types left, and the suitors remain a vast and competitive field.

As referenced from the get-go, there’s still time left to sort this all out. If Nelson Cruz, Cody Allen, and Zach Britton all end up in Twins Territory the panic button can be put away. When C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop are joined by the like of a Zach Duke or Matt Belisle type however, we’ll be vindicated in wondering what was taking place at 1 Twins Way.

Regardless of any team’s payroll flexibility, it’s always fair to view deals through a sensible market value meter. That said, there’s nothing wrong with being the aggressor in acquiring talent when you have resources on your side. For years the Twins have been in a situation that extra spending didn’t make sense because a level of competitiveness wasn’t going to be impacted by anything but a total overhaul. Now is not that time, and each additional acquisition can play a key part in a result greater than expected.

Waiting for something to fall into your lap has its purpose, but dictating your future often bears greater fruits.