Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Twins To Perk-O-Late The Pen

After suffering a severe shoulder injury that required his labrum be reattached over the offseason, Glen Perkins is nearing a return to the big leagues. I was skeptical this day would ever come, but the Twins former closer has worked his tail off to be where he is today. The question remains, can this version of Perkins be an asset in relief for Paul Molitor's squad?

Perkins last appeared on a big league mound on April 10, 2016. It marked two innings of ineffective pitching a year ago. You'd have to go back to July 11, 2015 to find the last instance in which Perkins was right on the mound. Fortunately for the Twins, when Perkins was right, he was among the best in the game. A three time All Star, Perkins totaled at least 32 saves each year from 2013-2015. He has been a steadying force at the back end of a bullpen for what amounted to pretty poor teams. As he returns though, it's fair to wonder what is left.

Having now pitched at three different levels on the farm in rehab stints, Perkins has posted a 6.14 ERA across 7.1 IP. His 10 strikeouts in that span are exciting, but they've been paired with an unfortunate five walks. Velocity returning has been a big question, and aside from a few low 90's reports, he's hovered somewhere in the high 80's. It's hard to imagine the life on his fastball being better than what it was, and he's dipped from 96 mph in 2013, to 92.1 mph a year ago.

Looking at the boost Perkins could provide however, is somewhat notable given the Twins current situation. While the bullpen has been better than it started out, there's still some easily replaceable parts. Maybe the easiest place to see the former closer slot in, is with a swap for lefty Buddy Boshers. Across 29.0 IP in 2017, Boshers has posted a 4.66 ERA that's due for even more regression with a 5.41 FIP. His strikeout rate has dipped to 7.4 K/9 and his walk rate has ballooned to a 3.1 BB/9 mark. Effective only against lefties, he's been exposed at the highest level of the game.

Asking Perkins to slot in and take over Boshers' spot in the pen is a pretty mediocre ask. Being better than a 4.50+ ERA while limiting walks shouldn't be a tall task for a big league arm. What we don't know is whether or not Perkins still has the stuff to play at the highest level of competition. It's an easy move to tag him in, and it could end up being just as easy to remove him.

The day appears to be coming that the Twins will need to make a decision. In terms of his rehab calendar, there's only a few days left in which the Twins can leave him on the farm. From everything Glen has stated publicly, he believes he's ready to go and wants to compete. For a guy that's given the organization so much, and has a team option left for next year, he's earned the opportunity for a swan song.

It'd be pretty unfortunate to see Perkins go out and be shelled, effectively ended his time as a big league. His rope is probably pretty close to the end regardless, but it would be a much better story to allow him success and the ability to go out on top. This book is probably in its final chapter, but the author has yet to write the last few pages.

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are going to have to give the Minnesota native an answer, and the result seems to be a harmless one no matter what takes place. Perkins replacing Boshers is of little note, and should he too need to be replaced, there's more than a few capable arms still in the prospect realms waiting to hear their names called.

Baseball is a tough game, and it generally dictates to everyone when they'll be done playing it. Rarely do athletes go out on their own terms, and some have harder exits than others. I'm pulling for Glen Perkins to ride off into the sunset, but I'm not certain how rocky the path will be.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

All Strikeouts Are Far From The Same

223. That's the number of strikeouts that Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Mark Reynolds put up in 2009. It's a major league record, and has stood for the past seven seasons. In 2017 however, it's almost certain to fall, and both Miguel Sano and Aaron Judge are chasing it. The question is, are all strikeouts the same?

There's an association with the strikeout that it is representative of negativity. In a certain context, that's a fair principle. At it's core, the strikeout is a non-productive at bat the results in an inning likely becoming less fruitful. For guys like Sano and Judge however, it seems a necessary evil, that most major league teams have given into.

Thus far in 2017, both Sano and Judge have launched their share of homers. The former has 26 to his credit, while the latter has 36. When striking out his big league record amount, Reynolds clubbed 44. There's some key differences among the trio however. As the strikeout ties them together, it's the underlying factors that separate them.

During his record setting season, Reynolds drew 76 walks and posted an on base percentage of .359. With a SLG percentage of .543, he totaled an .892 OPS. In comparison, it's Judge that has made his strikeouts less of a detriment than the Twins Sano. On the year, Judge owns a .420 OBP thanks to his league leading 87 walks. at a 1.028 OPS, he also leads the league. On the flip side, Sano has walked just 49 times, and owns only a .354 OBP. While his SLG is a solid .511, his .865 OPS checks in below the .916 mark he put up in his rookie season.

Looking at the group from a top down view, none of the three represent a black hole for their club. The production, despite the strikeouts, remains an asset. Chris Carter, virtually for his whole career, is where you get into the territory of the positives not being worth the strikeouts. While he launched a good deal of homers from 2013-2016, his OBP hovered around .300, while his OPS was north of .800 just once.

For the sake of this argument, Reynolds' 2009 is probably the baseline for where you'd like the combination to come in. The 44 longballs are a great offensive boon, and the .359 OBP is plenty efficient. Under those sentiments, Sano's 2017 is in jeopardy of leaving plenty to be desired. While he has just 26 homers to his credit, he hasn't picked up the pace significantly in the walks department. Finishing with an identical .269 average across 80 games in 2015, Sano has a .385 OBP. Right now, the Twins need Sano to trend more towards Judge, or even Reynolds.

Judge has drawn plenty of criticism for his second half slide. After batting well north of .300 for the first half, pitchers have beaten him consistently with the low and away pitch. Still though, he's drawn walks and has posted elite numbers despite the strikeouts. When the dust settles, his average is probably going to hover somewhere around the .270 mark. Even with that reality, he should have an OBP up in the .380 range, and his OPS will remain above the league leaders.

Strikeouts are something that plague most power hitters, and teams tend to put up with them to a certain extent. Chris Carter is jobless because his peripherals were of next to no value. Mark Reynolds has since reinvented himself and become a much more complete hitter. Aaron Judge is slipping some, but still owns extraordinary supporting stats. The Twins need Miguel Sano to tighten it up at the plate. In 2017, he's trended more towards Carter than Judge or Reynolds. The power will need to play for more longballs, and the in between times need to have more walks filtered in.

Right now, Sano has just over 1,100 big league at bats, and he's still just 24 years old. He can continue to mature as a hitter and shape his approach at the dish. As the Twins continue to work with him, they'll need to focus on the aspect of discipline and punishing mistakes. There's no cause for concern as it relates to the strikeout, but Minnesota needs more production when the ball isn't leaving the yard.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Twins Going Streaking

The 2017 Major League Baseball season has been one that's proven incredibly tough to read for the Minnesota Twins. After pacing the division for much of the first half, there's been multiple times in which the club looks to have lost all hope. As the summer draws to a close however, they've hung around, and it's been in large part to a handful of key pieces getting hot.

Coming off a franchise worst 103 losses, there should have been a massive expectation that this Twins would rebound. While they weren't a team destined for the Postseason, 2015 and 16 highlighted the volatility of young players. After surpassing expectations two years ago, virtually the same group failed them mightily last year. Once again on the upswing, this group is probably much closer to a settling in point.

The veterans in the lineup are doing their part to keep a good thing going. Chief among them, Brian Dozier, is once again experiencing his patented August surge. Recently written about at Twins Daily, Dozier has consistently turn in a strong month to round of the summer. Now through 12 games, he has six home runs and a .340/.375/.736 slash line. Dating back to July 14, the Twins second basemen has posted a .982 OPS, and is once again trending towards a strong finish.

On a much smaller scale, Joe Mauer has always experience a slump and a streak in August. After starting slow, he turned series against the Brewers and Tigers into a .321/.387/.464 slash line that has brought his batting average back up to .279. While he's no longer going to contend for batting titles, he's remained an asset against right-handed pitching, and is contributing at the best time possible.

Looking at youth, the continued emergence of Eddie Rosario has been a sight to behold. While you could consider him a bad ball hitter, the reality is more that he simply chases balls that he has no business swinging at. Arguably his greatest knock as a pro remains his plate discipline, and the amount of time he spends expanding the strike zone. As the months have gone on in 2017 however, he's continued to dial that reality back, and leads Minnesota in batting average because of it.

Now experiencing career best chase rates and swinging strike marks over the past two months, Eddie Rosario owns a .333/.376/.581 line since July 1st, and has put forth a 1.143 OPS in the month of August. In dialing back his approach, he's become arguably the Twins best hitter, and one that hits for both power and contact. Despite the defensive dip this season, he's been incredible at the plate.

On a lesser scale, Byron Buxton is again rounding into form. Since July 4th (and with a DL stint in between), Buxton owns a .371/.420/.500 line across 19 games. Dating way back to May 9, Buxton has played in 71 games for the Twins and has posted a .258/.322/.355 OPS, While that isn't going to do much offensively, combined with his Gold Glove ability in center, that makes him an incredible asset. Whether he continues to shape into a player reflective of the smaller or larger sample size remains to be seen, but the promise is still through the roof.

Unfortunately, players like Miguel Sano and Max Kepler haven't yet hopped on the streaking bandwagon. While each has seen their struggles down the stretch, the hope would be that each has a nice burst left to finish the year. It's absolutely promising however, to see such an offensive contribution from so many different parts of the lineup.

At the end of the day, the Twins probably still aren't a Postseason team in 2017. What the stretch run is showing us however, is that the expectation for 2018 should be a Postseason berth. Given the landscape of the division, and the emergence of this group, things are trending in the Twins favor. No matter what happens the rest of the way, Minnesota is on a better pace than the 2015 squad, and is going to play some really exciting baseball right up until the dust settles.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

2017 Highlights Twins Postseason Dreams Are Close

The 2017 Minnesota Twins have been among the luckiest teams in baseball. No matter how you define luck, arguably the most indicative stat in the game is run differential. Despite being incredibly lopsided in that category, Minnesota finds themselves sitting at .500 on August 10. While it creates somewhat of a mirage for the current season, it highlights the excitement that 2018 should bring with it.

Coming into 2017, Minnesota was looking to turn the page on a season that resulted in a franchise worst 103 losses. Despite not being indicative of their true talent level, the organization absolutely had to reverse course. As the development of young players has continued, they've achieved that result, and will begin 2018 with a whole new outlook. A year from now, we should be watching a team with a realistic Postseason opportunity, and there's a few reasons why.

Maturation Of Youth

It can't be overstated how volatile young players are at the highest level. Miguel Sano went from a rookie phenom, to a sophomore slump, to now settling in to a slugger that can play adequate defense. Max Kepler has struggled mightily against lefties, but has proven valuable, and Jorge Polanco has been forced to work through his first professional struggles. Throw in the emergence of Jose Berrios and the development of Byron Buxton, and the Twins have a nice set of building blocks.

Next season, Minnesota can afford to add in pieces like Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves, Mitch Garver and a host of bullpen arms with the notion that they'll be taken care of. The roster got younger and more talented at the same time, allowing the group to progress and grow together. There's little doubt that some of the next wave will take their lumps too, but the group as a whole will be better positioned for sustainability than in 2016.

The Depth Of The Division

We are starting to see this play out now, but to begin 2018, only the Twins and Indians will have a realistic shot at winning the AL Central. The Chicago White Sox have already gone into a full blown rebuild, and the Kansas City Royals are an offseason away from watching half of their roster walk out the door. In Detroit, the 25 man was held onto too long, has gotten old, and now will need to be pieced together.

Looking at where each organization is presently, only Cleveland and Minnesota appear to have the pieces for sustained winning in the near future. Even before making offseason moves, the Twins find themselves in an enviable spot within their own division. Consider the fact that they'll play those teams most often, and the Twins could wind up with among the easiest schedules in baseball during 2018.

The Front Office Makes Its Mark

It's been mostly a feeling out period for Derek Falvey and Thad Levine this year, that will change over the winter. Front office personnel have already been shown the door, and the expectation should be that it will continue in the coming months. I'd be shocked if Paul Molitor is back, and there will be other coaching staff changes that likely follow.

While a big league manager may not make an incredible amount of difference, over the course of 162 games, a better option can steal a few victories. Look for Falvey and Levine to bring in people ready to elevate the play of their young roster, and get the most out of them for years to come. Who is put in charge this offseason in key positions, has the potential to bear fruit well down the line.

We could take a look at the opportunities outside of the organization as well, but even before that, it's apparent Minnesota has things going for them. During the winter, Minnesota will be in a position to spend and supplement internal talent for the first time in a while. They can realistically elevate their Postseason positioning by making key and timely acquisitions. Knowing that those moves can be paired with a formula already trending in the right direction; the Twins have to be looking ahead with a smile.

Although the excitement of meaningful games late in the season is back during the 2017 season, it'll be a year from now that the Minnesota Twins should be discussing how their Postseason starting rotation looks. It will actually matter, because they'll have fall games to go and win.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Vargas Carousel Revolves Again

As the Minnesota Twins are faced with another roster shuffle, it appears Kennys Vargas is in fact on his way back to the big leagues. After Adalberto Mejia went down, Paul Molitor was faced with an open roster spot. Needing another starter in the coming days, the Twins could turn to already rostered Dillon Gee. With an opportunity to bring up another bat, it's Vargas who gets his seventh transaction, and fourth recall, of the year.

While there's plenty of reason to be excited about a player that looks like the shadow of David Ortiz, the reality is that the comparisons stop there. Now 27 years old, Vargas is hardly a prospect (and was never considered a top 100 entrant even when he had prospect status), and he's done little to separate himself at the highest level. Across parts of four big league seasons, Vargas owns a .738 OPS and a 228/55 K/BB ratio. With 32 homers to his credit, he hasn't exactly excelled at launching the long ball either.

In 2017, things have gotten even worse for what Minnesota may have hoped Vargas could provide. As a switch hitter, he's generally been more dangerous from the right side. Unfortunately this season, Vargas owns a .170/.231/.277 line against left handed pitchers, and just one of his eight long balls have come from that side of the dish. In 47 at bats versus lefties, he's compiled just three extra base hits, and the .507 OPS leaves an incredible amount to be desired.

Quite arguably a greater source of frustration is not necessarily Vargas' struggles, but how they could be avoided. In continuing to promote him, the Twins have passed by alternative options. Mitch Garver and ByungHo Park both represent a higher ceiling addition to the big league club, despite neither of them getting a chance. The Twins roster construction has begged for a right handed power bat virtually all season, and both of the aforementioned names also profiles better in the field.

Through 82 games for Triple-A Rochester, Garver owns a .909 OPS and has been an asset behind the plate. As a catcher, it could be argued that he should've replaced veteran backup Chris Gimenez some time ago. Knowing he can play first base and some outfield as well, his not being added to the big league roster is confusing at best. Garver almost certainly make the 25 man next spring, and not jump-starting his debut seems a bit foolish.

Although Park is not currently on the 40 man, that's hardly an issue for the Twins. Given the club has open spots, as well as an opportunity to trim if they need to, Park should've found his way back. After missing time to start the year, he's hit well at Rochester. Since June 17, Park owns a .309/.355/.495 slash line at Triple-A. The lack of power has been odd (he has just six homers), and the swing and miss tendencies have remained poor (63/11 K/BB). That said, he's 31 and coming up on the latter half of his current deal with the Twins.

Between Garver and Park, Minnesota has two avenues they could choose to push the envelope with. The former appears ready to jump in and contribute at a high level, while the latter represents more of an alternative to Vargas that has some crash and burn potential. What's somewhat frustrating however, is that Vargas represents a move that really doesn't move the needle at all. Despite realistically being a long shot for the playoffs, Minnesota is still playing meaningful games. By making the move they did, it seems Minnesota chose the lowest common denominator.

If everything breaks perfectly for Kennys Vargas, he's a serviceable bench bat. When a team has opportunity to aim higher and make a bigger impact, it would seem to reason that they should. Minnesota will probably welcome one or both of Garver and Park in September, but it'll represent at least a month of missed opportunity.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Closers By Creation, Twins Making It Work

Rewind back a few years and the Minnesota Twins knew who would be getting the ball in the 9th inning. For a long time, the answer was Eddie Guardado. The man nicknamed "Every Day" passed the torch to Joe Nathan, and it was then turned over to Minnesota native Glen Perkins. In recent years though, Minnesota has needed to get more creative. As they have done so though, it seems they've consistently created closers out of thin air.

In 2015, Kevin Jepsen was Minnesota's answer to Perkins breaking down. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays, he racked up 15 saves despite having just five across 315 appearances to that point. Then again, a year later, Brandon Kintzler emerged. The long time Brewers veteran picked up his first save since minor league ball, and he would go on to run off 44 more up until July 2017. Over the course of three years, Minnesota had consistently created closers out of thin air.

Should this tell us anything, it's likely that the narrative be closers are overvalued, and underutilized. The save is a statistic that places more importance on the 9th inning of a ball game, despite their being no evidence that it actually is. Sure, the game comes to a close when a team is winning after the 9th, but the game likely was decided long before that. In having a pitcher designated to get the final three outs, one of your best relievers may have missed the opportunity to get a much more important trio of outs earlier in the contest.

It really doesn't matter whether or not a big league team has a "Proven Closer," and holds even less importance for a team not destined for the Postseason. That being said, the Twins appear on a path to again create an asset and this time it's in the form of Matt Belisle. The question is, are the pieces there to make it work?

Unlike Kintzler before him, Belisle is not a groundball machine, and he tends to miss some bats. The former throws harder than the latter however, and they both leave something to be desired in a high leverage situation. For Belisle though, there's a few things working in his favor.

During 2017, Matt Belisle has racked up strikeouts at a 7.5 K/9 clip. That mark is his best total since 2013, and the third highest total of his career. While he does induce groundballs 43% of the time, Belisle uses a low 90's fastball to generate swings and misses over 10% of the time (for just the second season of his career). He's giving up contact at a career low 78% of the time, and balls are being hit hard a respectable 27% of the time.

The beginning of the season didn't go well for the 37 year-old veteran. Through his first 17.2 IP, he owned an ugly 8.66 ERA and was allowing opposing hitters to post an .833 OPS. His last 27.0 IP however have been a different story. He's posted a 1.67 ERA and opposing batters have posted just a .598 OPS. Suggesting it's been a tale of two seasons is more than fair.

Down the stretch, the Twins will be on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Having been sellers at the deadline, they realize the uphill battle doesn't seem in their favor. With such an ugly run differential, regression should be expected to hit hard. However, with 52 games remaining as of August 8, the club has exactly half of those contests against teams with sub .500 records.

As the summer turns into fall, Matt Belisle should be expected to get most of the Twins save opportunities. He's absolutely the veteran candidate that manager Paul Molitor falls in love with. In closing out games, Belisle is hardly a worse option than either of the previous two created closers. Whether or not anything more than a handful of saves comes out of his work in the 9th remains to be seen, but for now the Twins have again created from within.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Twins Will Work Harder And Smarter

On August 5 at Target Field, Baseball Prospectus embarked on the bowels of the stadium to have an in depth discussion with General Manager Thad Levine. Speaking on the course of the season as a whole, and the plans for what lies ahead, there were a few key indications as to what changes may be coming for the Minnesota franchise. Arguably chief among them is that the Twins will win as they fine tune their process.

During the course of the conversation, Levine discussed the fact that both he and Derek Falvey didn't immediately ask to skyrocket the Twins payroll. While they are aware funds are available to them, they'll be making a conscious effort to spend wisely on the guts of the organization, to make the on field product improve. This transition began to rear its head recently, as the departures of Jack Goin (head of what amounts to analytics) and a handful of area scouts were moved on from.

Levine noted that the Twins Analytics Department currently consisted of four full time employees, and that it could swell to nearly double in size a year from now. On the scouting front, he talked pregame Sunday that it was necessary to retain those let go through the draft and trade deadline, before transitioning to the future. It's in these internal areas that the Twins can carve out somewhat of a competitive advantage.

Over the offseason, Minnesota will find themselves in a position to spend for the first time in nearly a decade. A team with an opportunity at a realistic playoff run, supplementing from outside makes a ton of sense. While they're almost certain to be out on big name fish like Yu Darvish, they'll land more middle ground options to help the club take the next step. In making sure those brought in both fit, and elevate the club, Minnesota will lean on those internal departments to help dissect decision making.

Minnesota has already been able to employ different practices and strategies brought in by the new front office. It was noted that the Analytics Department played a very integral role in the recently completed MLB Draft. Figuring out the probability of players lasting past a certain round, to deciding what level of success a guy may have, baseball was being married from an eye test to what the numbers also suggested.

It's in this strategy that Minnesota can begin to shape its future. Given the perceived volatility for players hovering in the middle ground, a more forward thinking process will hopefully give the club a higher ceiling for success. Levine and Falvey will look to employ an organization full of forward thinkers looking to squeeze out every bit of advantage the team can find. Although the dollars may not be spent on the big splash free agent, the hope would be that a commitment to spending from all angles will produce more fruit from each acquisition the club makes.

Looking back at how the organization has been run for years, this is a pretty drastic deviation and something Twins fans will likely look upon with favor. There's no doubt the transition will come with some hiccups, but finding a competitive advantage for an organization that has made the middle ground home, is something you'd be hard pressed not to get behind.

We've already seen some of the internal transition begin. I fully expect a new manager and a handful of other positions to experience turnover in the coming months. What will be worth monitoring, is where each player brought in can squeeze out that extra bit of success that the process will have dictated they are capable. This new regime is beginning to put their stamp on things, and in the years ahead, that should prove favorably for fans across Twins Territory.