Monday, November 20, 2017

The Twins 2017: Diamond Treasure

Now in it's third installment, the week of Thanksgiving prompts the revealing of the Minnesota Twins Diamond Treasure. Crafted after being moved by the 2015 Turkey of the Year piece penned by Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune, this article has been carried on at Off The Baggy. The Diamond Treasure is designed to be able to highlight a player or area of the organization showing excitement for the future, while having roots established in the past.

Now in the third year, the inaugural winner was Miguel Sano. Last season, the new front office tandem of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine too home the Diamond Treasure. For 2017, I think the designation was all to glaring to overlook. Minnesota centerfielder Byron Buxton is your diamond treasure.

The soon-to-be 24 year-old is coming off his best season as a big leaguer, and we've only begun to scratch the surface. Debuting with the Twins at 21 years-old, things are just now beginning to bear fruit. Picking up enough votes to finish 18th in MVP balloting and tally his first (of many) Gold Gloves, Buxton show plenty of promise to get excited about his future.

As things stand currently, the former first round draft pick may be the best defensive outfielder in all of baseball. He essentially redefined the Statcast-era of defensive metrics this season, owning the top spot in Outs Above Average and Catch Probability. His sprint speed numbers dubbed him as the fastest man in the game, and his Gold Glove was actually a proper reflection of his defensive acumen in terms of sabermetrics. What's most impressive though, is that he's just scratching the surface as a player.

In garnering the MVP votes, Buxton was able to do so despite hitting below the Mendoza Line as late as July 3. His defense didn't slump, and the speed never will, but that early season struggle at the plate hung over his head for most of the season. Broken down however, James Rowson was able to reconstruct the centerfielder's swing at the highest level. After finding a better footing, Buxton slashed .285/.339/.492 from June 11 onwards (85 G). Over the course of a full season, that level of production no doubt vaults Buxton into a top five MVP conversation.

Thus far through his big league career, Byron Buxton has experienced a roller coaster of emotions. With so much promise and hype, the former top draft pick was never going to escape the immense expectations set out for him. The reality however, is that he remains a kid by big league standards, and is just now coming into his more adult frame. With 278 games at the highest level under his belt already, Buxton far surpasses what Kirby Puckett (0 games) and Torii Hunter (142 games) had for MLB experience prior to their 24th birthdays. That should only enhance the belief in what's yet to come.

Sometimes players race out to an immediate showing of exceptional ability, and whether it fades or sticks, remains a mystery. For Buxton, it appears a level of growth was a slower process, but he's been made all the better for it. There's a good amount of time yet before he'll be considered in his prime, and the amount of high level production to be expected should be sustained for well over a decade. Developed from within, and bearing fruits internally, the Twins find themselves in as great of a spot as Buxton himself.

We haven't even begun to see the best of the Twins star centerfielder, but at this time of thanks, I think it's fair to be thankful that the hometown team has a legitimate superstar on their hands. 2018 should be a ton of fun for the organization, and it could be the one where Byron becomes the poster boy.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Are Yu Ready?

The Minnesota Twins enter the offseason prior to 2018 with immense expectations. Following a season in which they arrived in the postseason a year early, this club looks ready to take the next step, and the AL Central is begging them to do so. Knowing pitching remains a focus, a free agent starter seems to be a sensible acquisition. The question always revolved around how high the Twins may aim though.
According to a report from Fanrag's Jon Heyman, Minnesota is coming out guns blazing. While the arms on the market are hardly plentiful at the top, Derek Falvey an Thad Levine appear to be keyed in on premier starter Yu Darvish. Levine was a part of the front office that signed him in Texas, and the fit is one I've liked for quite a while. Yes, he'll likely command the greatest contract of the available starting pitcher's, but that's not something that should deter Minnesota's efforts.

Darvish will be pitching 2018 at 31 years old. He has just over 830 innings on his arm in the big leagues, but that number jumps to 2,100-plus dating back to his time with Nippon Ham in the Japanese Pacific League. Potentially no worse for the wear however, Darvish has actually added to his velocity post Tommy John surgery, and he's been healthy each of the past two seasons.

For both Texas and Los Angeles in 2017, Darvish owned a 3.86 ERA across 31 starts. Rejoining the All Star team for the first time since 2014, Darvish posted a 10.1 K/9 with a paltry 2.8 BB/9. His 3.83 FIP was a career worst, but was better (3.38) with the Dodgers down the stretch. On the biggest stage in the game, Yu was knocked around by the Houston Astros, but I hardly find his World Series performance concerning. Given the talk of tipped pitches, I tend to believe Darvish is more the guy that went 11.1 IP with a 1.59 ERA against the Dbacks and Cubs, than he is the 21.60 ERA guy in 3.1 IP vs the Astros.

It's likely the last chance for Darvish to cash in on a long term deal, and he'll probably want to expand upon the $11m he received a season ago. A free agent for the first time since coming to the big leagues, Darvish is going to have plenty of suitors. Even as the price tag climbs towards an expected $200m though, Minnesota should continue to fight for real estate in the Japanese pitcher's mind.

At the end of the day, a perfect storm is brewing in Twins Territory. The 25 man roster has gotten younger and cheaper, while money should dive off the books in the next few years. On top of that, the division has three teams that should be virtually nonexistent in the foreseeable future, and Paul Molitor's club already began to exceed expectations. If there's a time to go and make the biggest free agent signing in franchise history, now seems as good of one as ever.

With the goal being to develop internally for the sake of sustainability, there comes a point where supplementing with high-end talent from the outside seems the best answer. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are arguably now at that crossroads, and how they handle the offseason will likely lay the groundwork for how at least the next few seasons go for Minnesota.

Right now, with things in such infancy, it's hard to get giddy about the potential to land a big fish. That being said, when I wanted Darvish for the Twins rotation back in May, it was for the same reasons that I feel the same way now. He's a difference maker, a solidifying presence, and a true ace. Those things don't grow on trees, and you never know when the next opportunity will present itself.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Twins Closing In On A Closer?

Over the weekend, news broke that the Twins checked in on the availability of Cincinnati Reds closer Raisel Iglesias. While he's undoubtedly not the only player Minnesota has looked at on the trade market, his name has filtered into the media cycle at this point. No matter how much substance there is to the situation moving forward, it's worth looking at Iglesias as a player, and whether or not he fits for the Twins.

First and foremost, Minnesota needs to shore up the bullpen heading into 2018. While Brandon Kintzler and Matt Belisle did an admirable job in the closer role for Paul Molitor a season ago, it's hard to imagine either in that scenario during game seven of the ALCS. As the Twins look to follow up a postseason berth this year, they'll no doubt have sights set on a deeper venture towards the World Series. While relief pitching has become the sexy topic in the playoffs, the reality is a complete team still trumps everything. The Astros won a World Series with a bullpen that was virtually on par with Minnesota in 2017, and that's worth keeping in mind.

Getting to Iglesias in a vacuum, the Reds current closer is a soon-to-be 28 year old from Cuba. He is not a free agent until 2022, and is currently signed on a team friendly contract through 2020. Across 76.0 IP in 2017, Iglesias picked up 28 saves and posted a career best 2.49 ERA. His 2.70 FIP was also a career best and he cracked 10.0 K/9 for the first time in his big league career. As a starter during the 2015 season, Iglesias sat around 93 mph with his fastball. In relief last season, he was pushing 96 mph on average and dropped down to 85 mph on his slider.

Despite being a bit of an older player, Iglesias quickly ascended to the big leagues. After signing out of Cuba, he pitched just 29 innings at Triple-A prior to his 2015 debut. Raisel only threw three seasons in Cuba before taking his age 23 year off to go through the process of getting stateside. Even at 28, you'd like to believe his body is a bit better for the wear.

Should Minnesota choose to pursue him, the asking price would probably be substantial. Wade Davis was just a one year rental at 31 years old for the Chicago Cubs, and he required the Royals receiving Jorge Soler in return. Still under team control, and with age on his side, I'd imagine the Reds would ask the Twins for at least one top six prospect. If I'm Minnesota, it's a hesitant place to start, but something I'd be interested in hearing out.

As a general philosophy, I believe it makes sense for teams close to winning to parlay either picks or prospects into immediately usable assets. Obviously this isn't a practice you can repeatedly employ or you run the risk of depleting your long term viability. Tracking guys with qualifying offers or dealing top prospects will eventually leave you in a barren place on the farm. That being said, Minnesota finds themselves in unique territory given the current organizational landscape.

Following a strong season, most of the club's top prospects from the past few seasons have reached the big leagues. They won't hold an enviable draft pick having finished as one of the final teams playing as well. If the Twins can entice Cincinnati with someone like Nick Gordon or Alex Kirilloff, they could get a solid return for someone that may be an expendable piece.

Closers are a fickle beast, and I'd hate to see the Twins acquire Iglesias only to use him in the 9th inning of games they lead. Ideally, bringing him in would involve him being relied upon to get high leverage outs regardless of where in the game that is. Also, if Gordon or Kirilloff generate that much interest, I'd probably see what other starting pitching they may be able to net as an alternative. If this is the only level of return that seems viable though, it's tough to pass up.

The reality is that the Minnesota Twins aren't too far away, and raising the water level of the big league roster is a must. There's some really strong impact prospects in the farm system, but some of them are representative of the next wave. While you'd love to see everyone you draft come through your system, sometimes the best tradeoff is matching them elsewhere and turning a prospect into an immediately usable player.

With the GM meetings ready to kick off, and the Hot Stove warming up, we'll get plenty more exciting nuggets in the weeks and months ahead. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine seem to know they have something exciting on their hands, and I feel comfortable with the direction the seem to be running in.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Buxton With the First Of (How) Many

As the Rawlings Gold Glove Award winners were announced of the night of November 7th, Byron Buxton was a lock. Yes, there were surprises among the finalists, but it was a certainty that the Twins centerfielder would win his first. There wasn't going to be a Mauer-esque snub, or a Dozier-like surprise, Byron Buxton is the best centerfielder baseball currently has to offer. With the Gold Glove solidifying that belief as reality, the question now becomes, how many more follow it?

To recap a bit, Buxton was nothing short of exceptional in the outfield for the Twins this season; you don't need sabermetrics to inform you of that. Looking at the numbers, he posted 24 DRS, a 9.9 UZR, 12.6 RngR, and a 13.1 UZR/150. In short, it was both his speed and his routes that made him the most impressive centerfielder in the game. Statcast (via Baseball Savant) came out with a new metric, Outs Above Average, for 2017 as well. Buxton's 25 OAA led all of baseball, and was also better than the total any other team (Rays 2nd with 23) could muster. For his efforts, Buxton's ability added 6 percent to expected catch percentages on balls hit his way.

It seems that each time Statcast puts forth a new defensive metric, it's Buxton that finds himself at the top. The 26 four-star outs he recorded in 2017 were an MLB best, and the 92.9% conversion rate on those outs (26-28) were also tops in the major leagues. With a 30.2 ft/s sprint speed on the basepaths, Buxton has also taken the crown as the fastest player in The Show. You'll likely be looking for a while to find something he doesn't excel at in the field.

Whether just watching him from afar, or taking a deeper dive into the advanced analytics, it's apparent that the kid from Baxley, GA is special.

So, with one Gold Glove now is his trophy case, the question becomes how many join it? Knowing what we do at this moment about his career, and what we can project going forward, I think there's a couple places we can point to in making an educated guess.

First and foremost, there's going to need to be a level of offense that follows Buxton's path. While the Gold Glove is a defensive award, Joe Mauer was left out for bigger offensive names, and Brian Dozier was included (and won) for his prowess with the bat. A guy like Buxton, so far beyond normal realms in the field, is going to be given more of a pass with his bat. For both the Twins and Buxton going forward though, the dish can't simply be a place where he punts. The good news is that a rebuilt swing under James Rowson has made it seem like that won't be the case.

Buxton ended 2017 with a career best .728 OPS despite hitting below the Mendoza Line for the first two months of the year. Across his final 82 games of 2017, Buxton owned an .801 OPS with a .278 AVG and a .332 OBP. In a full season, those numbers elevate Buxton to All-Star status, with at least a couple of MVP votes along the way. For a guy that's hit at every level of his career, I think we've only begun to see the offensive production begin to blossom, and that's quite the comforting development.

Outside of what Buxton can do in the field or at the plate, it will be integral for him to stay healthy as well. While there are times that routes are less than crisp, or closing speed allows for miraculous catches, the Twins centerfielder often finds himself acquainted with immobile objects. Finding a way to balance the ability to save games, but also not miss them will be a must as his career goes on. Outfield walls are far from forgiving, and missing stretches of play from crashing into them is hardly an ideal tradeoff. Some of Buxton's biggest highlights have included physical altercations with field dimensions, but he'll need to take care of himself from a longevity point of view.

Finally, how much can Buxton unlock from his arm. With advanced metrics measuring all aspects of defensive output, Byron has an opportunity to push the envelope with his throwing ability. A strong arm that can touch the mid-90s, accuracy seemed to leave him at points during 2017. Whether throws sail up the line, or miss cutoffs in certain scenarios, cutting down runners with more pinpoint accuracy is only going to enhance his defensive offerings as a whole.

Looking across the landscape of centerfielders, and specifically those that played for the Minnesota Twins, I'm comfortable putting Buxton Gold Glove over/under at nine. It's the same number that Torii Hunter won, and three more than Kirby Puckett tallied.

As a betting man myself, I'll take the under, but only slightly. My fear is that Buxton's reckless abandon costs him time at some points during his career, and that will hold him back from putting up the counting stats. If healthy however, Buxton is easily the best centerfielder I've ever seen, and watching him reach double-digits in the Gold Glove department would be an absolute treat.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Judge Rules The Show

Expected to be announced later this evening officially, it appears that Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge will grace the cover of MLB The Show 18. The New York phenom, who a shoe-in for the Rookie of the Year award, will give a polarizing presence to the cover of the upcoming iteration from Sony's San Diego Studios.

This season, Aaron Judge went from a 27 game sample size with a .608 OPS, to a major league record in home runs for a rookie. His 52 longballs led all of the American League, and there's a legitimate argument for him to be made the American League rookie of the year. While strikeouts were also a part of his game, a good command of the zone also led to a league-leading 127 walks.

Over the course of the season, Judge attribute changes than anyone in The Show 17. Starting on March 28, Judge was a lowly common player in the Diamond Dynasty mode of the game. At 68 overall, his power numbers were just 60 vs righties and 68 vs lefties. A early season surge was met with incremental boosts across the board, and it wasn't until June 23rd that he reached the gold tier (85 OVR) with an 87 OVR. After seeing a slight dip in August, Judge was given a one point boost back up to 88 OVR in the final roster update of the season. Thanks to Daddy Leagues (@DaddyLeagues) for providing the portal to look back at Judge's 2017 The Show changes.

Thanks to a 22 game April that resulted in a 1.161 OPS with 10 homers, Judge received one of the first flashback Player of the Month cards in The Show 17. That card was hit with an 88 OVR rating, his eventual Live Series OVR, and quickly became one of the most sought after cards in the game. Proving his ability to keep a consistent level of production over the entirety of the season, it only makes sense that both his Live Series and flashback card would virtually mirror each other statistically.

After another early season stumble out of the gates due to server issues, and more than a few gameplay complaints over the game's life cycle, San Diego Studios needs a near flawless release for The Show 18. While there's plenty of anti-Yankees fans out there, there's no denying the polarizing nature of Judge. He's got an incredible ability to destroy the baseball, won the Home Run Derby, and plays the game with an infectious smile.

Look for Sony San Diego to make the announcement official later this evening, and thanks to Twitter user @AquaX107 for his sleuthing capabilities. It should also be pointed out that T.J. Lauerman (@ThatSportsGamer) has given us a glimpse of the three different editions of the title. MLB The Show 18 is set to release on March 27th, 2018.
Details from the game's editions (via Reddit) are as follows:

Pre-order now and get:
• Three days’ early access
• 10 Standard Packs
• One Legend Starter
• Exclusive Aaron Judge Rookie Flashback in The Show 17™
• 5,000 Stubs
The MVP Edition includes:
• MLB® The Show™ 18
• 5,000 Stubs
• Gold Mission Starter
• One Sponsor Pack
• 10 Standard Packs
• 30 PS4™ themes
• One Classic Stadium
The Digital Deluxe Edition includes:
• MLB® The Show™ 18
• 11,000 Stubs
• One Gold Season Starter Mission
• One Diamond Season Starter Mission
• Digital Deluxe Lead Off Pack
• One Sponsor Pack
• 20 Standard Packs
• 30 PS4™ themes
• One Classic Stadium

The Case For Carlos

With Major League Baseball free agency ready to get underway, general managers and organizations will begin pitching to players why they should sign with their respective teams. For the Twins, pitching will once again remain a focus, but for a team looking to take the next step, a nice offensive additional may not be a bad play. There's multiple options out there, but a former divisional foe should be the place they turn first. That guy is Carlos Santana.

The former Cleveland Indians slugger is out on the open market, and while he'll almost certainly have a qualifying offer attached to him, it makes sense for a competitive organization to part with a draft pick for his services. The soon-to-be 32 year-old is coming off a season in which he posted an .818 OPS and launched 23 long balls for the Indians. Even if Derek Falvey didn't have previous Cleveland ties, a match here seems to make a lot of sense.

Judging the Twins needs on offense, the most glaring area last year was a right-handed power bat. If that player could offer something on defense, that would only further the notion of it being a well-found pairing. Santana is a switch hitter, and while he hit righties better in 2017, he's been a tick better (.815 OPS vs .809 OPS) from the right side over the course of his career.

Defensively, he's long since moved out from behind the plate, having not caught a game since 2014. Outside of a seven game stint in right-field during 2017, Santana has honed his craft at first base and designated hitter. While he can be a hitter only, serving as the Indians DH in 92 games during 2016, his first base abilities have generally led him to play the game with a glove at his disposal as well. Over the course of 140 games at first base this season, Santana was among the premium defenders at the position. He posted 10 DRS, a 4.8 UZR, and 1.4 RngR. While Eric Hosmer is a laughable inclusion among the Gold Glove finalists, Santana should be considered a real candidate to win the award along with Mitch Moreland.

For Minnesota, the acquisition of Santana would likely make Robbie Grossman expendable. Whether or not the Twins tender a contract to the switch hitting outfielder, Grossman served as a capable bat in the DH role. For the club to take a step forward next season however, pushing for more than just an on-base machine would be a good practice. Grossman's .741 OPS wasn't the .828 mark he produced in 2016, but the .361 OBP was again respectable. However, he combined to hit just 20 homers over the past two seasons, and put up a total of just 41 doubles.

In Santana, the Twins would be adding to a lineup that has already proven capable of winning games, and doing so without hurting their defense. Santana would be able to spell Joe Mauer at first base, giving the Twins two very good defensive options. Grossman's production would be expanded upon, and a guy like Kennys Vargas would no longer need to surface in the starting lineup. Santana has clubbed 57 homers over the past two seasons, while averaging over 20 in each full season of his career. Add to that the consistent doubles production of around 30 a season, and Minnesota would find themselves with some additional thump to the middle of the order.

Along the lines of priority, I've suggested that the Twins add a starting pitcher and two relievers prior to adding a bat. In reality though, I think a productive offseason consists of each of those four acquisitions becoming a reality. Whether or not Santana is the first domino to fall or the last, it doesn't preclude the club from making the other necessary decisions to put their best foot forward for the 2018 season.

At this point, the door for competitive baseball has begun to open for Minnesota, and as young players like Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios, and Byron Buxton continue to blossom, supplementing them with other proven threats is a must. The Indians are going to remain the team to beat in the AL Central, but counting the Twins out for the division and beyond is probably a foolish decision. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine can make this club even more of a contender by being aggressive as the time appears right.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Do The Twins Need Relief?

In 2017, one of the greatest deficiencies for the Minnesota Twins was the lack of quality relief pitching. While the starting rotation left plenty to be desired on its own, it was the bullpen that generally provided little in the way of resistance when tasked to come in and back up a start. Minnesota needs to address that this offseason, but what if they don't look anywhere but within?

Over the course of the early offseason, I've considered plenty of different ways the Twins could spend their dollars and roster openings. I'd argue that a starting pitcher is a must (with a second having a decent amount of potential). A right handed bat, with some positional flexibility could be a nice add as well. Initially, my thought was that the Twins would be best served to bring in two relief options, but what if they shifted to add no one at all.

Currently, the 40 man roster has 17 relievers on it. Those players will be shifted in the coming weeks as some will be reinstated, others will become free agents, some will be DFA'd, and one may even retire. Looking at that group, and what isn't on the 40 man however, the Twins glaring need may be less significant than one would imagine.

Starting with one of the most missed pieces from 2016, Trevor May re-enters the fold for the 2018 season. He'll have missed a year due to Tommy John surgery, and he'll need to work back towards what he was. However, out of the bullpen, his 12.7 K/9 was elite, and while the 3.6 BB/9 wasn't ideal, it was the longball that bit him. I'm not sure if May's back issues will allow him to be a full time reliever, but if he can get right in the pen, he could definitely be a weapon for Paul Molitor.

Joining May on the reinstatement train from the 60-day DL is J.T. Chargois. Had he been healthy in 2017, it's all but guaranteed he would've recorded a few save opportunities. He's got the stuff that should play as a big league closer, and there's real velocity there. Chargois is among the many touted relief options from the Twins prospect lists over the past few years, and seeing him bear fruit would be a welcomed addition.

Rounding out the trio of guys on the 60-day DL is Ryan O'Rourke. Unlike Chargois, velocity is hardly O'Rourke's game, but he's lethal against lefties. The southpaw held opposing lefties to a .359 OPS in 2016, and was definitely missed by the Minnesota bullpen this year. There's other guys that have stepped in during his absence, but if used correctly in relief, O'Rourke could put up some really flashy numbers.

Outside of those returning from injuries, options like Gabriel Moya and Randy Rosario were given a taste of the highest level this season. Moya has had significant success on the farm, and Rosario has flashed plus stuff in relief as well. Whether they are given a shot, and stick like Alan Busenitz and Trevor Hildenberger remains to be seen however.

Venturing from the 40 man roster, the Twins have a couple of high ceiling options that have yet to reach their projections. First and foremost, Tyler Jay enters the picture. Having been drafted as a reliever, converted to a starter, and now working in relief again, the former first round pick could turn out to be a weapon. Velocity rises in short bursts, and he's put up solid performances throughout his Arizona Fall League action this year. Minnesota may not be ready to give up on him as a starter yet, but if he's healthy, getting him to help the big league club in whatever way possible is a must.

The duo of Jake Reed and Nick Burdi were once the next best thing coming to the Twins pen, and their steam has somewhat cooled. While Burdi missed all year due to Tommy John surgery, Reed started late and never was able to get his footing. Both throw gas and have a keen ability to miss bats. There's nothing the Twins need more than the ideal version of these two pitching in the late innings for them. Should Reed and Burdi breakthrough this season, it could arguably the greatest offseason pickup for the big league club.

By my count, there's at least eight internal options vying for a spot, and each of them have significant upside. With something like three or four relief spots likely claimed already, that provides plenty of competition to fight things out. That being said, each of the aforementioned names come with serious question marks. The Twins will have to decide if they are willing to commit to a player potentially blocking an internal option, or if they believe in some of the names above to break through.

During free agency, the best relief names aren't going to be actively seeking out one year deals. The hope would be that the organization would aim higher than a Matt Belisle type if they're going to bring someone in, but there's lots of caveats that come with such a move. It's certain that the hometown nine needs some bullpen help, but navigating how to go about getting it is anyone's guess.