Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Baseball Gets Goofy with Ginter


Each year Topps goes outside of the baseball realm with the Allen & Ginter product line. Yes, it’s still a baseball card set, but the product explores avenues off the diamond as well. Ranging from standard base cards to mini tobacco type offerings, there’s a little something for everyone here. Allen & Ginter has long had a unique following and give the consistent non-baseball inclusions that shouldn’t change any time soon.

From a collecting standpoint baseball cards are generally about the big-name stars. In Ginter it’s always interesting to see what random offering pops up as a chase card. A year ago, there was a cryptocurrency depiction that saw base cards jump well over the expected value point, and the market explosion didn’t take place until months after the product release. Movie stars, presidents, and plenty of other big names will be found in this product as well.

What’s great for Twins fans is that Minnesota is well represented this season. Let’s look at everything there is to go after.

Base

The Twins lands eight subjects on the base checklist. Continuing to emerge as a popular figure in the hobby this year Torii Hunter has a card here. Willians Astudillo lands another rookie card, and teammates Jose Berrios, Eddie Rosario, and Byron Buxton join him. The trio of retired stars include Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Harmon Killebrew. You can also find parallel versions of some base subjects among the mini, cloth, metal, and newly introduced stained glass checklists.

Inserts

Traditional inserts aren’t the highlight of Ginter as much as the obscure non-baseball offerings are. That said Carew is noted as both a “Baseball Star” and “Ginter Great.” Killebrew lumps in to the Ginter Greats checklist as well. Those three are the only traditional insert cards Minnesota places in the product.

Hits

Minis are the name of the game in Ginter. Whether it be relics, framed cards, or autographs the tobacco craze is high and mighty in this product. Eddie Rosario is the Twins lone signing among the framed mini checklist. Lending their signature to 20 total book cards, Berrios and Hunter are present. Berrios is the only relic subject, while the elusive Rip Cards feature the likeness of Carew and Killebrew (with a more limited dual offering as well).

Monday, July 15, 2019

Making a Move for MadBum

The Minnesota Twins are one of the most well positioned franchises in baseball to acquire serious assets this month. Needing help on the mound, the optimal plan would be in acquiring two relievers and a starter. Without knowing how it will shake out, we do know that Derek Falvey's club has been connected to the San Francisco Giants and Madison Bumgarner. Should a deal be struck, what may that look like?

Given the Giants current standing, and free agency looming for the pair, both Bumgarner and Will Smith have been the focus of numerous trade discussions. Any selling organization would almost certainly prefer packages for players that part out one asset at a time. While Minnesota could use both Smith and Bumgarner we can separate the two of them for the sake of this exercise.

In his latest piece for The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal noted that Giants GM Farhan Zaidi prefers to get prospects closer to the majors. Not wanting lottery tickets and looking for an expedited rebuild, that's certainly an understandable plan. Prior to making any move, Minnesota must be convinced of what they'd be acquiring.

Bumgarner's name is one inviting all of the stories. He's a former World Series hero and has been included in the ace discussion over the course of his career. Right now he's a pitcher with a 3.86 ERA backed by FIP and xFIP numbers that suggest the mark is true. His velocity is in a similar place to what it's always been and despite major injuries in recent years, consistency has been relatively reliable.

There's no reason to think that any big league organization is trading for a player solely based on name recognition or pedigree. Falvey won't be lulled into the belief that this is the same guy who picked up a World Series MVP nod in 2014. If the scouting process reveals the soon-to-be 30-year-old has enough ability to bolster the rotation then a merit based acquisition would make plenty of sense.

Now we get to the cost of a deal. This is a rental Minnesota would be taking on in hopes of a deeper Postseason performance yet this season. He's not going to slot in ahead of staff ace Jose Berrios and any belief that Bumgarner would cost the Twins one of their top three prospects seems absurd. Excluding Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff, and Brusdar Graterol from this deal gives us a clearer layout of what assets to look for.

Factoring in the Giants desire for players at the upper levels of the organization we can target players currently sitting at Double or Triple-A in the Minnesota system. Having such a deep and strong farm system the Twins can part out pieces and still be well set up for the future.

Minnesota Twins acquire SP Madison Bumgarner. San Francisco Giants acquire OF Brent Rooker, INF Nick Gordon, and RHP Sean Poppen.

With this return the Giants are getting a bit of everything. Rooker has a legit bat and would be in the big leagues for a significant amount of organizations right now. He plays on the corners, and there's questions about whether a move to first could happen with his current footwork. Swing and miss tendencies have slowed over the season with Triple-A Rochester and the power should play fine in any park. The Giants would be smart to ask for Trevor Larnach here, but he's further off and Minnesota should want to protect the upside there if they can.

Former first round pick Nick Gordon has regained some of his promise. No longer a top 100 name, he is posting a .788 OPS during his second trip through the International League. Gordon isn't likely ever going to hit for power, but he's got a .291 average across 55 games at Rochester this season and is doing that with a serviceable .335 OBP. Speed is one of his best assets, and while he's not brother Dee, Nick can turn it on around the bases. You'd like to see a more even K/BB ratio, and he's more 2B than SS at this point, but there's a 23-year-old regular here.

Poppen fits the mold of a solid trade candidate. He's 25 and at Triple-A for Minnesota, but there's more than a few arms slotted ahead of him for long term consideration. He had a mediocre start to the year at Double-A but has turned it on big time with Rochester. Posting a 10.1 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 in 49 innings at Triple-A this season, his 2.39 ERA is a career best. Sitting mid-90's with his fastball, this is a guy that can bolster the back end of a rotation and gets another boost pitching on the junior circuit.

Obviously the names and talent included in this deal shifts if Will Smith is indeed paired with Bumgarner, but this seems like a decent framework to begin the process with. Over the coming weeks we'll find out what comes to fruition, but the certainty of a move for Minnesota seems imminent.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Making the Stroman Deal for Minnesota

At this point the Minnesota Twins are undoubtedly amping up their efforts to acquire big league assets for the stretch run and Postseason. I've been on record multiple times suggesting I'd like to see at least to moves made, and a starter coming more as a luxury. Unless the starting pitcher is under team control, go big on expiring relief help and call it a day. The most realistic name I'm intrigued by in that vein is Marcus Stroman. So, how does Derek Falvey pry him away from the Toronto Blue Jays?

Although the idea of acquiring Stroman is significantly more enticing than grabbing a rental like Madison Bumgarner, the cost will also represent a more substantial amount. I'd hope that Minnesota could go into talks with the idea that Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff, and Brusdar Graterol are all off limits. Understanding that may not be completely realistic we'll progress with two different possibilities.

Option A: Minnesota Twins acquire SP Marcus Stroman and RP Ken Giles. Toronto Blue Jays acquire OF Brent Rooker, SS Wander Javier, RHP Jorge Alcala, and OF Akil Baddoo

Something like this is where Minnesota should want to be. I'm not certain that this will be enough for Toronto to pull the trigger, but there's two legitimate top 10 prospects from a very good system included here. Trevor Larnach could be swapped out for Rooker depending on preference, and any number of similar prospects could be had in the place of Baddoo. Hanging on to the top trio will cost more bodies, and there would likely be a larger premium placed on the secondary additions in this case.

Option B: Minnesota Twins acquire SP Marcus Stroman and RP Ken Giles. Toronto Blue Jays acquire RHP Brusdar Graterol, INF Travis Blankenhorn, and RHP Edwar Colina.

If Minnesota is willing to part with any bit of that top trio then it should be the only player in their top 10 necessary of inclusion. Graterol could draw skepticism from opposing teams as he's currently dealing with a shoulder injury, and there still remains a possibility he winds up in the bullpen. I'd hesitate a significant amount if the ask is to swap him out for Kirilloff, but that could be the cost of doing business.

Reality is that the Twins haven't had a perfect storm like this in quite some time. This club needs a big boost down for the stretch run, and they are well positioned to make serious Postseason noise. On top of that, they have legitimate openings going into next season and a controllable starter like Stroman isn't just a short term play.

Signing big ticket free agents hasn't always been the optimal path to roster construction, and it's one the Twins have avoided as recent as this season. There will be a 40 man roster crunch coming, and a 25 man shakedown beyond that. Hording prospects is a good thing, but realizing some are best utilized as moveable assets, and which ones specifically, is part of what makes a good front office.

Things are about to get very interesting in Twins Territory over the next few weeks. Whether on the field or in the back office, you won't want to look away.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Minnesota’s First Half MVP


As the door closes on the first half of the 2019 Major League Baseball season the Minnesota Twins sit in sole possession of first place in the AL Central Division. They have a 5.5 game lead over the favorited Cleveland Indians and find themselves with Postseason odds north of 96%. This drastic turnaround is because of the work both Rocco Baldelli and the front office has put in, but one player on the field has made an incredible impact as well.

After being cast aside by plenty of Twins fans due to failed expectations thus far in his career Byron Buxton has emerged as a national presence. Losing virtually all of 2018 due to injury, Buxton returned this year with plenty to prove. Still just 25 years-old it was undoubtedly weighing on him to make this the breakout campaign. The Athletic’s Dan Hayes provided some great insight into Buck’s offseason and it appeared those words had some serious weight behind them.

To this point Buxton has played in 73 of the Twins 89 games. He has missed some time needing an IL stint, but his 2.5 fWAR ranks third among hitters on the club. In over 235 at bats he has an .816 OPS, will hit double-digit homers, and is on pace to set career highs virtually across the board. Offensively Buxton has arrived. Likely never projecting as an average hitter, inching closer to .270 with sneaky power is where he’ll ultimately settle in. Combining that with his defensive profile makes him an irreplaceable asset.

It’s because of that combination that naming anyone else the Twins first half MVP seems like a misstep. Buxton has been worth 10 DRS this year (2nd in the American League) and trails only Victor Robles and Kevin Kiermaier in Outs Above Average (10). He’s made more five-star outs than anyone in baseball and it’s visually obvious how impactful he is patrolling centerfield.

Even if Baldelli had better options to run out while Buxton was shelved, the ripple effect was always going to be felt. Max Kepler is in the midst of a breakout season as well, and defensively he’s been an incredible asset. Moving him to centerfield worked out wonderfully during Byron’s absence but you cannot simply replace someone as valuable as the Georgia native is.

Right now, the Twins have multiple All Stars, a pitching staff among the best in baseball, and a lineup that’s providing thump at an otherwise unseen pace. Despite all of that, it’s the 9-hole hitter that makes his presence felt most with his glove, who’s consistently provided a level of value propelling the Twins to their current standing.

We’ve waited nearly five years for this to all come together and seeing Byron do it on a team that’s now so good has been enjoyable to say the least.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Come Up and Buy in for Odorizzi


Needing a starting pitcher, the Minnesota Twins front office send minor leaguer Jermaine Palacios to the Tampa Bay Rays for Jake Odorizzi. Palacios had some hype but was never a top prospect, while Odorizzi had been largely mediocre and was set to turn 28. It’s hard not to see more upside in a big-league starter under team control, but this leap forward has been immense for the former Tampa starter.

Odorizzi was often chided for his efforts by Twins fans last season. He posted a 4.49 ERA backed by a 4.20 FIP. The 8.9 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 were right in line with career norms. On a bad team he was hardly a large issue and generally pitched better than the surface level numbers suggested. In 2019 he’s gone gangbusters though, and he’s made his first All Star game to show for it.

Cooling off some over the last few weeks, Odorizzi still owns a 2.73 ERA and 9.9 K/9 across 85.2 IP. His FIP and xFIP suggest a bit more regression could be coming, but there’s a visible change that’s been made by the pitcher Minnesota trots out as their number two starter. Having been a low 90’s guy his whole big-league career, Odorizzi has added two mph of velocity under the tutelage of Wes Johnson and is now averaging 93.1 mph on the pitch this season. Not only is he throwing harder, but Odorizzi has shifted his repertoire to flip a career high number of sinkers, taking away from both his cutter and splitter.

This new version of Odorizzi is giving up a career high percentage of hard-hit balls, but he’s missing bats at record marks as well. The 12.4% whiff rate is a new high-water mark, while his contact rate is down to just 74.3% and the zone contact rate stands under 80% (78.5%) for the first time in his career. A slight jump in hard hit rate could be explainable through the increased velocity, but even still with that development, missing more barrels is the key component here.

Over the course of his career Odorizzi has averaged 1.2 HR/9 and has never been below the 1.0 mark. Through his first 16 starts he’s allowed just eight homers and is at 0.8 HR/9 on the season. Shedding hits and walks as well, the 1.074 WHIP stands out on its own. Having been integrated into the Twins system a year ago, and now working with a pitching thinktank that’s been overhauled, he’s reaping the rewards.

Next season Odorizzi will find himself on the open market for the first time in his career. The Twins have a couple of holes in their rotation that they’ll need to commit arms to. We don’t yet know how the club will navigate the trade market but extending a guy they already have in house may certainly make some sense.

Last season Jake Odorizzi was getting his feet wet with Minnesota and simply going through the motions he had always practiced to compete. This season he’s been given a few new tools that have taken his game to the next level and everyone involved has benefitted from it.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Topps Does Photography Greatness in Stadium Club


Each year the Stadium Club line is one to circle in the Topps Baseball release calendar. A product with strong affordability and not driven by extraordinary chase cards, the allure here is the stunning visuals. There’s short prints and photo variations across a plethora of Topps products but it’s Stadium Club that showcases images on the most beautiful level.

Stadium Club is not a massive product and boxes include 128 total cards. The base checklist is 301 cards and there’s only a handful of insert checklists in the product. Boxes will retail around $80 and include two autographs along with three guaranteed insets. Minnesota has a few noteworthy cards to check out as well.

Base

In that 301-card base checklist the Twins find themselves with nine different subjects. Stars include players like Jose Berrios and Eddie Rosario, while veterans Miguel Sano Jonathan Schoop and Nelson Cruz also make appearances. Willians Astudillo has a rookie offering and Harmon Killebrew is a legend representative on the checklist.

Hits

Despite not having a base card Jake Cave does have autographs in the product. He is joined by Astudillo who has certainly become a popular signer for Topps in recent products. Each of these cards have parallel versions as well.

Inserts

While not incredibly extensive, there’s more than a few insert checklists to collect in Stadium Club. Unfortunately for Twins fans, the only player included in any of them is Byron Buxton. He gets a single entry in the Warp Speed set. Even with the photography and base cards being the main draw of this product, it certainly feels like a missed opportunity not to include more Minnesota flavor in this section.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Lift Proving to be Final Key for Kepler


Max Kepler used to be relatively vocal about his decision to avoid an increased launch angle. He wasn’t looking solely to hit home runs, and while his goal was to enter the zone on a level swing path, he was just fine with ground balls. Former Twins beat writer Mike Berardino talked to the outfielder back in the spring of 2018 and Kepler said as much there. Now he’s become one of the best outfielders in baseball, and it’s because he’s changed his approach.

Baseball has transitioned to a sport where getting lift on the baseball provides the optimal route for success. As the game invokes shifts and the ball is now juicier than ever, lifting the pill over defenders is the most direct path to generating extra-base hits. Although this may not be a direct focus for Kepler, it’s a principle that James Rowson has impressed upon Twins hitters and it’s one Max is putting to use.

In 2019 Kepler owns an 18.5 degrees average launch angle. Last year that mark was 16.2 degree and in 2017 it sat at just 12.6 degrees of lift. Launch angle on its own isn’t conducive production, but Max has paired it with an enhanced exit velocity as well. The 90.9 mph mark this season improves upon an 89 mph mark last year and an 88 mph tally the season before. Summarizing it easily, harder and higher is producing the best results of his career.

The percentages reflect what we are seeing in the raw data as well. Kepler owns a career low 35.7% ground ball rate and a career best 18.3% HR/FB number. His 42.6% hard hit rate is nearly seven percent higher than his career average and over a five percent improvement from 2018. Despite chasing and whiffing a bit more often, the contact rate is right on par with career norms and contact within the zone is a career best 93.9%.

Through just 70 games played Kepler has the 7th best fWAR total among outfielders. He’s the second best in the American League trailing only a guy named Mike Trout. Minnesota saw the value in their German native this offseason and extended him for $35 million over five years. Fangraphs estimates his worth as already being over half of that mark ($21.8MM).

When you hear launch angle from a place of scrutiny it generally is assumptive of the idea that players are simply swinging up through the zone attempting to get lift. The practice is built around creating hard contact on the bottom portion of the baseball. A level swing can still be utilized with the point of contact being honed in. Combining lift with an enhanced exit velocity is where the power stroke comes from. As balls are being thrown harder than ever, they’re also being put in play at a similarly increasing velocity.

Minnesota’s instruction may not have transformed Kepler’s swing plane through the zone, but it’s certainly worked to adjust the contact point and process when putting the ball in play. Regardless of if the baseball leaves the yard, Kepler is hitting the ball harder and longer than ever before. It’s because of that fact he’s experiencing a jump in performance and the Twins look to be the benefactor of belief over the next five years.