Monday, July 16, 2018

The Future Twins and What's Ahead

Over the past week or so, the Minnesota Twins have certainly brought a higher level of intrigue to their 2018 season. Despite getting so little out of their offense for so long, they've at least made the idea of being sellers, one worth questioning. Ultimately I'm not sure 2018 is salvageable, but expecting them to again be competitive in 2019 is a very real proposition. For those wondering about what's even further out, this one is for you.

I have been sitting on this question from "twins dude" on Twitter for over a month now. Wondering what the Twins lineup might look like in five years, I was waiting for a good opportunity to take a look. Immediately following the Futures Game and during this lull of Twins baseball, it seemed as good of a time as any.

So, with all of that out of the way, who takes the field where in 2023? This is my stab at that answer:

C- Ryan Jeffers

The 2018 2nd round pick has gotten off to a hot start over his first 20+ professional games. While there were questions about whether he could stick behind the plate, Minnesota believes the answer is yes. The bat will play, and he's got a decent shot to race ahead of Ben Rortvedt in getting to the big leagues.

1B- Miguel Sano

For this to be accurate, a few factors would come into play. First and foremost, Sano would need to truly dedicate himself to his craft. Even in sliding over to first from third, staying in better shape and being committed to giving the Twins more than just a shell of himself is a must. He'll be eligible for free agency in 2022, so staying with Minnesota behind that point would be reflective of a renewed belief in his ability and work ethic.

2B- Nick Gordon

We should see Gordon as soon as 2018, and immediately taking over for Brian Dozier makes a ton of sense. He's probably not quite ready to step in as an above-average big leaguer, but he's still developing. Nick has a completely different skillset than that of Brian, but it's one that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine could safely deploy at the top or bottom of the lineup.

SS- Royce Lewis

Superstar, that's really the only word I'm coming up with when trying to describe Lewis. He's an incredible athlete, top tier baseball player, and an even better person. I'd be far from shocked if we don't see him in the big leagues by 2020. He could slide to the outfield, but Minnesota would obviously be better suited if he stays at short. He's not going to be the best fielder, but from an all around standpoint, he could be the next Carlos Correa.

3B- Jorge Polanco

I think Polanco remains in the Twins long term plans. He's been fine as a shortstop, and has really worked at improving himself defensively. That said, it's probably more likely he moves off than position than Lewis. Not the typical slugging corner infielder, Polanco has plenty of pop to be an asset offensively as well.

LF- Eddie Rosario

Having gone from a free winging question mark to one of the best outfielders in the game, Eddie Rosario has absolutely broken out in 2018. This isn't some flash in the pan, as we've seen it substantiated for nearly a full year now. The Twins should be looking to extend him through arbitration and into free agency.

CF- Byron Buxton

At 24, it's still way too early to give up on one of the best defenders baseball has ever seen. Buxton is incredible in center field, and I believe the bat is legit too. We've had to practice a significant amount of patience with him, but in the not-so-distant future I think we see it pay off. He needs to do a better job of staying healthy, but there's a big time breakout waiting to happen here.

RF- Alex Kirilloff

Shooting up prospect lists this season, you'd hardly remember that Kirilloff missed a full year due to Tommy John surgery. Seen as a bat only prospect coming out of high school, the offensive upside has been through the roof. He crushed Low-A, and has started off well at High-A Fort Myers. I'd imagine we could see him in the big leagues by 2020, and that thump from the left side of the plate would be incredibly welcomed. Max Kepler is going to be in the mix here, but he'll need to flash more consistency than we've seen thus far.

DH- Brent Rooker/Trevor Larnach

Larnach is probably the better outfielder of this duo, but Rooker can slot in at first base in the big leagues. Rotating through some of those defensive positions while being focused on hitting first, both of these bats have an opportunity to do some serious damage at the highest level. Rooker needs to cut down on the strikeouts, and work more walks, but the power is absolutely real. We've yet to see what Larnach can do professionally, but his collegiate approach was a very good one, and there's plenty of thump off his bat as well. These two would be among the better athletes cast as DH's in the majors.

If I were to construct a lineup out of this group, it might look something like this:

Buxton CF
Lewis SS
Kirilloff RF
Sano 1B
Rosario LF
Rooker DH
Polanco 3B
Jeffers C
Gordon 2B

Five years is a long time out, and there's so much that can happen prior to any of this actually taking place. It's fun to look at what's ahead, but given the immediate future of this club and the opportunity within the division, it's also best to not miss what is right around the corner.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Rodney Defying Odds for Twins

A season ago, the Minnesota Twins welcomed Bartolo Colon to the 25 man roster. Big Sexy was 44 years old, and he was determined to pitch at least until he was 45. Paul Molitor got good results from the journeyman a year ago, and the front office went back to the fountain of youth this winter. Fernando Rodney was signed as the club's closer, and at the age of 41 he's been nothing short of a revelation.

Long gone are the days that the Twins could immediately pencil in a holdover in the 9th inning. Glen Perkins was an All Star closer that was a well known commodity. Taking the torch from Joe Nathan, the Twins had gone from one 9th inning stalwart to another. As age and ineffectiveness caught up with Perkins however, the cupboard seemed to be bare. Without a "proven closer" waiting in the wings, Minnesota needed to get creative.

After Perkins began to find himself on the disabled list, the Twins turned to former scrap heap pickup Brandon Kintzler. It took just a year, and the 32 year old found himself in the All Star Game for the first time in his career. Recording 28 saves along with a 2.78 ERA for Minnesota a year ago, Kintzler was nothing short of a revelation.

Having turned to a more established 9th inning presence, Rodney was guaranteed the 9th inning gig from the get go. Following along with a trend, April was a tough month for the 41 year old. Rodney posted a 5.87 ERA and had as many blown saves (3) as he did successful ones (3). At the end of that first month, I found myself as the voice of reason preaching caution. This narrative has played out before, and it's one that bears significant fruit going forward.

Since May 1, Rodney owns a 2.19 ERA for the Twins and has allowed opposing batters to compile just a .514 OPS against him. He's 17/19 in save opportunities, and has been the lockdown presence any team would hope for in the late innings. What's maybe most impressive, is that Rodney is putting up numbers that rival some of his best season, despite his advanced age. The 3.3 BB/9 is the second lowest tally of his career, and over a full free pass better than his career average. He's still setting down batters at a 10.0 K/9 rate, and he's kept hitters in check.

Across the board, there's really nothing exceptional about the totals that the Twins closer is putting up. What's more important however, is that there's no areas for concern either. Rodney is 41 years old, and still competing at a level that many of his contemporaries would strive for. His velocity still averages out above 95 mph, and he remains virtually the same pitcher he's always been. For the gamble that Minnesota placed in acquiring his services, this is definitely a success story for all parties involved.

Time will tell, but the expectation should be that Rodney is moved before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Having worked almost entirely in the closer role, it would stand to reason that a team needing a 9th inning arm would make the most sense. No matter where he goes however, the 41 year old will probably end up being superior to many of the younger arms surrounding him. Whether it be his workout regimen or dedication to the game, continuing to be this good for this long is nothing short of exceptional.

This narrative has played out in Twins Territory before. From Jim Thome, to Colon, and now Rodney, seeing guys well past their prime competing at such a high level is something of a marvel. There's no reason for Rodney to be considering calling it quits any time soon, and at this stage in his career, that's something to hang his hat on.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Flip Side of Selling

Right now, the Minnesota Twins own a 1.7% probability when it comes to making the postseason per Fangraphs. I recently wrote about how Minnesota can utilize their remaining schedule if and when they decide to sell off. Should the losing continue, things become very clear for this squad. What makes things interesting however, is the slate that lies ahead.

So far, the Twins have found themselves playing a significant amount of games outside of the AL Central. While divisional matchups are all bound to get in eventually, it's of note for Minnesota given the poor quality of competition. Obviously the Cleveland Indians have the same opportunity to beat bad teams, but the Twins schedule sets up favorably. In September, 17 of the 28 games come against the White Sox, Royals and Tigers. In August, the club plays more than their fair share of games against Cleveland, as well as Kansas City.

What that means for Paul Molitor's squad is somewhat of an unknown at this point. Having recently faced both the White Sox and Royals, Minnesota is enjoying a nice five game winning streak. On the year, the Twins are just 12-10 against the three "poor" teams in the division, while owning a 6-3 record against Cleveland.

Beating bad teams, or the ones that you should beat, is what good teams make a habit of. Sitting eight games below .500 at the moment, Minnesota can't say they've capitalized on opportunities thus far. What makes things somewhat interesting, is that there's plenty of opportunity ahead.

I don't know that I believe this club can turn it around. On paper coming into the year, this should've been a very good team. The pitching has been there, but seeing very little from players like Dozier, Morrison, Sano, Buxton, and Kepler has crippled the offense. Should they all turn it around, we're talking about a much different outlook down the stretch. The Indians have their warts, and a clicking Twins team is more than capable of holding serve.

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are stuck in the position of deciding whether or not they're willing to bet on their expected producers to turn things around. They've got roughly two more weeks to evaluate the progress, and while they could end up being sellers, don't really have a big trade chip of note.

Given what we've seen thus far, it's hard to bet on a group of five or six guys all turning things around and competing at a high level. If half of those players become assets however, we could be in for a bit of interesting baseball slightly longer than anticipated. The unfortunate flip side to this however, is that the middle ground seems to be where this is all trending, and that's hardly an enviable place to be. Not bad enough to grab a top third draft pick, but not good enough to make the playoffs, the success would then need to be measured on what you learned or the evaluation that took place.

While not dead, the Twins are on life support. They have a few key contributors that could help them to pull through, and if that takes place in even the slightest fashion, the opponents that wait down the road may be of assistance as well.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Twins Can Capitalize on Remaining Schedule

Entering play on July 9, the Minnesota Twins playoff odds sit at just 1.1%. With the sweep of the Baltimore Orioles, the numbers have jumped up from the 0.4% entering the series. At this point of the season however, the writing is on the wall. Paul Molitor's squad is going nowhere, and the focus should turn to process more significantly than results. While the win total may be meaningless at the end, using the slate of games ahead for good is a must.

Going into 2018, there was plenty of optimism surrounding this Twins team. They were coming off a Wild Card game, added more talent, and had another year of development for their young stars. What was also apparent, is that the amount of one-year deals and expiring contracts would allow the club to retool again in 2019. This version won't have a postseason berth to jump off of next year, but the window for opportunity remains open. For the Twins to capitalize on it, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine need to do a much better job utilizing the 25 man roster than they have thus far.

For starters, the lineup should begin to reflect players with a future being prioritized. It took far too long for a superior player in Jake Cave to get real run over a retread like Ryan LaMarre. Mitch Garver clearly has a capable bat, but he's still sitting far too often behind the inept Bobby Wilson. Cave is a 25 year old fringe prospect that could be a nice 4th outfielder and take over Robbie Grossman's role. Garver has concerns behind the plate, but if the feeling is that he can't catch, opportunities should be found at first base. Going into 2019 without a clear idea of what sort of contributions these two are capable of would be a mistake.

Despite the Twins pitching staff having been a significant area of improvement this season, there's going to be a good deal of turnover next year. Zach Duke and Fernando Rodney are on one year deals, while Lance Lynn is an expiring contract as well. Those guys are all trade candidates, but even if they aren't moved, it's a decent assumption they won't be back. Instead of letting someone like Matt Belisle eat innings, relievers such as John Curtiss, Alan Busenitz, Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, and Jake Reed should all make major league appearances.

In the rotation, the Twins will return Jose Berrios and Fernando Romero for certain. Ervin Santana has a year left on his deal, but at this point, can't be counted on. Minnesota can offer Jake Odorizzi arbitration, and Kyle Gibson falls in that group as well. The depth in the rotation remains strong, but finding out who else can rise to the top should be a goal. Zack Littell should return for some consecutive starts that allow him to be comfortable rather than nervous, and Stephen Gonsalves should make his debut for an extended period as well. Getting the jitters out and accomplishing the acclimation process now would be a good idea.

At some point, the Twins should promote Nick Gordon. The 22 year old put up a .906 OPS this season for Double-A Chattanooga. Since moving up to Triple-A Rochester, he's posted just a .609 mark in 45 games. The next level has seen pretty poor results, and that should provide plenty of reason for caution. That said, the Twins are almost certainly going to let Brian Dozier walk this offseason, and Gordon would be expected to then take over. He may not win the job out of spring training, but I'd assume the goal is to have him in the big leagues by June 2019. Using a month of games that don't matter could be a very good way for him to get his feet wet.

Really what it all boils down to is that the front office learn something from what's left. While trying to stay in it, many of the roster moves have trended towards lower ability players that bring an off the field aspect to the clubhouse. With poor performance and injuries having mounted, it's hard to suggest that a different story could have been told even with the most optimal roster decisions. At this point however, the Twins are presented with a desirable situation for future performance.

No one should be expecting a rebuild in Minnesota any time soon, and the division sets up nicely to go for it again next year. Bringing in new parts from the free agent market, and pairing them with internal talent could very likely produce optimal results. As we've seen this season however, there's no guarantees from players within your organization, and even less so with fresh faces. Figuring out who you may be able to promote and count on now, could save a lot of face down the road.

It's common sense that Minnesota will win plenty more games in 2018. It's also a fair suggestion that when the dust settles they won't matter at all. What level of development, process, and groundwork is laid for the future will be the takeaway from this year. It's time to shift the focus to that level of thinking, and hopefully we see the decisions from the top to mimic that sentiment.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Twins Can Groom Cave for More

Once again, the Minnesota Twins have recalled Jake Cave to the Major League roster. After optioning Ryan LaMarre back to Triple-A Rochester, the former Yankees prospect is back in The Show. A he heads back to the Twins active roster, Derek Falvey, Thad Levine, and Paul Molitor should all be on board with this being an extended stay for the Minnesota outfielder.

Here's something that seems to be lost on Twins fans at times; not all prospects are created equal. Cave was acquired from the Yankees this offseason, and was someone the front office targeted back during the Jaime Garcia flip. While he isn't the pride of the organization, he is included among MLB Pipeline's Top 30 for the Twins, and makes a similar appearance on Seth Stohs' list (from Twins Daily). At 25 years old, he's cut from a similar cloth to a player like Mitch Garver.

For the Twins, Cave presents an opportunity that should be capitalized upon. With a three man outfield all but set in stone, finding the regular fourth that can contribute in all phases should be something of importance. Robbie Grossman filled the role admirably in his first season with the Twins. His .828 OPS was a career high by a longshot, and he proved to be an on base machine. Since then, he's came back down to earth, and in 2018, he's no longer a replacement level player.

When targeting a fourth outfielder, Minnesota should want someone with a little pop, that can provide value as a bat off the bench. Ideally, the player can field in all three spots, and assets including speed and arm strength would be ideal. Cave checks off the boxes, and has gotten just 19 big league at bats to show anything.

Looking back at their respective abilities, Grossman is definitely a stronger player when it comes to commanding the strike zone. He's long been an on base guy and that's heavily bolstered by his ability to draw walks. While Cave lags a bit in that category, he's not some sort of massive black hole either. Showing a bit more pop over the course of his minor league career, there's a bit of give and take at play here.

Last season, Cave posted a .921 OPS at Triple-A across 72 games. The downside is that it came with an 82/18 K/BB ratio. This season in the Twins organization, he has just a .735 OPS across 58 Triple-A games, but the K/BB ratio has improved to a respectable 55/26. Those strides are both significant and important.

Right now, Grossman is a 28 year old with 470 major league games under his belt. He's turned the opportunities into 1.2 fWAR, or essentially just scratching the surface above replacement level. If that doesn't suggest an opportunity to improve upon that spot on the roster, I'm not sure what does.

Down in Florida for spring training, I heard rumblings of Grossman being saved by manager Paul Molitor. It was the front office who acquired Cave, and despite being arguably the better player and one with more upside, the skipper had stuck his neck out to keep Robbie around. Again, what he did for the Twins in 2016 was nothing short of exceptional but that performance is also long gone.

With the Twins season trending in the direction it has, and regardless of how it goes from here, I'd much prefer to see Cave get consistent opportunities. At some point, Byron Buxton is going to return to the 25 man roster. From that point forward, Cave could have the opportunities that Grossman has been given. Losing an asset is never ideal, but at that point, DFA'ing Grossman makes a lot of sense.

Being a betting man, I'd lean towards the Twins not going about it this way. That said, I'd hope it's the point in which the rubber meets the road. Falvey and Levine should exert their will on this roster, and one way of doing so would be choosing Jake over Robbie.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Off The Rails: Mauer Raked by Souhan

I don't typically find myself sitting down to write on a Sunday evening, but with my foot in a cast, and a level of frustration in tow, here we are. The first part of that formula is thanks to my achilles deciding to part ways with my foot, the second half is the fault of none other than the Star Tribune's Jim Souhan. On Sunday night, the Tribune Twitter account sent out Souhan's latest with this attached to the piece, "Affordable contract would keep Mauer in good standing with #MNTwins."

Prior to getting full blown defensive, I needed to dive in further. So, I hopped into an incognito window and got to reading.

There were some quotes from Twins President Dave St. Peter defending the $184 million deal that any team would've jumped at the opportunity to ink. There was some talk with Molitor about wanting him back, and then there was what Souhan added on his own.

The journalist quipped "Mauer’s desire to play probably will be based on his health. He has recovered from concussion-like symptoms to return to the everyday lineup, but is batting just .222 with a .556 OPS since his return. Before his injury, his on-base percentage was .404, ranking among the league leaders. His on-base percentage since is an uncharacteristically low .300."

From Mauer, Souhan went on to talk about Dozier. A late-bloomer that has an impending pay day ahead. The Twins don't look like they'll pony up, and there's baseball reasons for that (even aside from his typical slow start). He could end the piece without returning to Mauer however, in which he offer "the best thing Mauer could do for his image is to sign an affordable contract, to give the hometown team a break, and finish his career as a bargain instead of a financial burden."

Now that you've read as much as you need to, I'm sorry.

Over recent seasons, Souhan has been raked himself by plenty a fan of his poorly written pieces. Whether suggesting Phil Hughes as soft for not pitching through injury requiring surgery, or calling Miguel Sano out prior to him having an All Star caliber season. In both of those occasions however, you could argue the pieces had a level of journalistic integrity. Here however, Souhan comes out looking like more of a clown than he ever has.

In noting Mauer's production, Jim points to Joe's return from the disabled list. While noting his numbers, he fails to mention that's literally an eight game sample size (including Sunday). The .759 OPS and .404 OBP come in a 38 G span to open up the year. Had he been leading off during that stretch, the Twins offense may have benefitted even more (but that's another story). In a game that decides realities over the course of 162 games, cherry picking eight of them (and failing to mention it), is poor at best.

Should the idea that noting statistical production in an lackluster manner not bother you, Souhan then doubled down with his final remarks. Noting that Mauer should give the Twins a break, and not be a financial burden. If the brigade wielding pitchforks at the notion of Mauer's previous contract didn't already have enough poorly derived information, they've just been handed a bit more fuel for the fire.

The horse is so far dead, there's not even reason to beat it at this point. That being said, Mauer's $184 million deal was already a hometown discount. There isn't an organization in baseball that wouldn't have signed on that dotted line in a heartbeat. He was the best catcher in the game, and on pace to be among the best to ever play the position. He took less to stay home, and has been unappreciated by a fanbase that saw a living legend because a brain injury drastically altered his career.

With baseball being an uncapped sport, and the Twins rarely being in a position to land big fish over the course of his deal, spending to supplement Mauer hardly seemed to be the right move. In 2018, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine executed a near flawless offseason to bring in talent while pushing the payroll to an organizational record. The reality is that even the most sensible dollars don't always come together at the right time in terms of the on field product.

Given the current climate of free agents, and the new front office, I'd guess that Falvey and Levine would chuckle at the notion of giving Torii Hunter $10 million for a 2015 season at 39 years old. Veteran leadership is a great thing, but I'll be damned if suggesting it trumps performance on a good team makes any semblance of sense. Hunter was a defensive liability and on his last legs at the plate. It was a fine last hurrah, but the dollars didn't make sense. The beautiful part of it however, was that it didn't make a difference on the bottom line either.

A season ago, Joe Mauer was robbed of a Gold Glove that would've made him the third player to ever win one at multiple positions (and first catcher). At the present time, he's the best defensive first basemen in baseball, and it doesn't really matter if opposing managers are blind to that because of his lack of power numbers. Should Mauer want to return next year, Minnesota should jump at the opportunity. He can help Miguel Sano make that defensive transition, and earning something like $10 million is peanuts for the benefit he'd bring on the diamond.

When the dust settles on his career, Joe Mauer will go down as the best player to ever play in the Minnesota Twins organization not named Harmon Killebrew. Whether you can't come to grips with his contract, or the fact that a season of inflated home runs in the Metrodome didn't transform who he was doesn't really matter. Tonight Jim Souhan tried to summarize what Mauer has been, and can be going forward, while failing to do even a shred of journalistic justice.

It's a sad look for the Star Tribune, it's an expected offering from Souhan, and it's a reminder that Mauer has deserved so much better than what Minnesota has given him for far too long.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Brian Dozier Where Art Thou?

The Minnesota Twins find themselves scratching and clawing through games in order to get back to the .500 mark. This season opened with so much promise, and has taken turns that virtually no one expected. While Eddie Rosario and Eduardo Escobar pace the offense, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton have been non existent commodities. Somewhat of an afterthought at this point, Brian Dozier has given Paul Molitor nothing of substance in 2018.

After garnering MVP votes for the third straight season last year, and winning a Gold Glove on the basis of his offensive performance, Dozier has been a black hole in the Twins lineup. In 2016 and 2017, the Minnesota second basemen posted .886 and .856 OPS totals respectively. As of June 20 this season, he's got a .682 mark. Slow starts aren't uncommon for the Mississippi native, but this level seems a bit unprecedented.

On June 7, 2017 Dozier owned a .748 OPS along with 19 extra base hits (9 longballs). Going back to 2016, he posted just a .694 OPS across 62 games up until June 17. That year he once again had 19 extra base hits, but only seven were homers. Through 68 games in 2018, Dozier has tallied 24 extra base hits and 10 homers. Putting it into that sort of perspective, things feel a bit less bleak.

If there's reason to be optimistic, it's that we've seen Brian make a habit of this. He's traditionally been a slow starter that goes on a tear at some point in the early summer. Right now, he owns a career best hard hit rate, and is spraying the ball consistent with career norms. His fly ball rate is where it has been and he's actually both chasing and whiffing less. If there's an area to point towards in relation to the slide, it's hit 6% dip in line drives, as well as the 6% falloff in HR/FB ratio.

For the Twins, Dozier has been the same player for each of the past handful of seasons. He uses a dead pull approach that allows him to yank homers over the left field fence. There's solid bat speed and whip through the zone, but he's not the hulking power hitter one would stereotype. Despite seasons of 42 and 34 longballs the past two seasons, a projection in the upper 20's seems like a safe bet on an annual basis. You're also going to get that production in lopsided amounts over the course of the season.

In short, I'm not certain Brian Dozier has gone anywhere. In fact, he probably is who he's always been.

To generate a higher level of production, Dozier will absolutely need to get the ball off the ground a bit more. The drop in line drive rate is significant, and putting the baseball on the ground is never going to be his game. As the line drives increase, so too should the HR/FB ratio.

The problem with streaky hitters is that you have to take your lumps through the down times, and unfortunately Dozier's is an annual occurrence. Despite the average being abnormally low, we aren't far off from what would be considered on par with previous outputs. If the Twins offense as a whole hadn't been such an abomination to this point, the second basemen would also have an easier time blending in.

At some point, guys like Dozier fizzle out in extreme fashion. The dead pull power approach decreases in effectiveness as careers get long. I don't think we're there yet (although it's part of the reason I believe Minnesota is right to let him walk this winter), and that's a good thing for the outlook of this lineup going forward. I'd be relatively shocked to see Brian put up 30 homers the rest of the way, but a turnaround shouldn't be anything but expected at this point.

Right now, the Twins need Dozier to start his surge. For the sake of his payday following the conclusion of the season, Brian could use that as well.