Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Twins Searching the Cupboard for Arms


Coming into the 2019 Major League Baseball season, relief pitching was a very serious question mark. For the most part, the guys Minnesota’s front office has told us to trust in have looked the part. Ryne Harper has been a great story, and Matt Magill has flashed solid stuff. The back end of Taylor Rogers, Blake Parker, and Trevor May work. Unfortunately, that’s where things end.

There’s been a revolving door at the bottom of Minnesota’s bullpen, and the options to call upon are dwindling. Fernando Romero has been up multiple times, without seeing any significant success. He’s been knocked around at Triple-A, and despite great stuff, the transition to relief hasn’t gone smoothly. We’ve seen Tyler Duffey a few times, and despite dominating Triple-A, the beautiful bender has yet to see solid run in the big leagues.

Rocco Baldelli has been given lefty Andrew Vasquez, and former starter Adalberto Mejia looks to have flamed out. Addison Reed was on a path back through a surprise rehab stint, but he’s been hit around the park for Rochester. The only other 40-man option is lefty Gabriel Moya, who has also been bad since returning to Triple-A and hasn’t ever shown a significant level of success at the big-league level.

Non-40-man options are also a difficult ask at this point. Jake Reed was going well for Rochester but has hit the skids. D.J. Baxendale and Ryan Eades have gaudy ERA numbers and are allowing far too much contact. Beyond that, you’d need to dip another level down and be relatively convinced that the big jump would be warranted.

The good news is that the Twins are 27-15 while looking in command of the AL Central. The bad news is that Trevor Hildenberger nearly surrendered a four-run lead, and Mike Morin was called upon to face both Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in massive spots today. If that development alone doesn’t call for some action, I don’t know what does.

Craig Kimbrel still is unsigned and can be acquired for nothing more than cash. Yes, at this point you’d need to part with a draft pick to sign him. Waiting until after the draft could be smart, but the number of teams willing to bring him in without pick compensation being thwarted likely rises in number as well. On the trade front, there’s more than a handful of bad teams that can part will relievers. Typically deals are consummated in late June at the earlier. Though the asset capital may be higher when looking to acquire talent earlier in the year, it’s worth weighing what the immediate and extra impact would be should they get into Wes Johnson’s hands sooner.

At the end of the day it boils down to the simple principle that the Minnesota Twins have opportunity in front of them. Given their trajectory and roster construction, this isn’t a team that should be playing for 2020. You don’t need to mortgage the farm for a one-year run but capitalizing in years where you can make noise is a must. Right now, the greatest deficiency this group has is its bullpen. Although the collective has held strong, it’s been on the back of a small inner group that is going to be burned through come summer.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Digital to Affordable, Topps Does Big League


While sports trading cards have been a long-standing cardboard commodity, Topps previously introduced the digital collecting craze. In football it’s known as Huddle and in baseball its coined Bunt. Although there’s a digital aspect to these products, Topps used to produce a physical counterpart. In recent years the baseball Bunt brand has died off physically, and it’s been replaced by Big League. A cheap rip focused on subjects and child-sized fun, Topps has executed something everyone can get behind.

As sports cards have seen resurgence in popularity there’s no denying the lucrative aspect of collecting. For products like Big League though, it isn’t about the almighty dollar and instead provides an affordable avenue for the avid fan or new collector to participate in the longstanding hobby. With the Minnesota Twins being well represented in 2019, this is a product you should definitely check out.

Base Set

There are a total of 403 cards in the 2019 Big League base set. That’s a whopper in and of itself, but Minnesota’s cards are more manageable with 13 entries. You’ll find plenty of familiar faces in this group, but the standouts include C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, and a Willians Astudillo rookie card. The Twins don’t have any players in the three base variation set checklists.

Inserts

As mentioned above, Big League is not about inserts or autographs. While both subsets are included, neither is the goal of buying into the product. For the Twins however, there is an entry in each of the three insert checklists. The Player’s Weekend Nickname, as well as the Star Caricatures set, includes Jose Berrios. Max Kepler represents Minnesota on the 10 card Wall Climbers group.

Hits

Just 52 autograph cards show up in total across the entire checklist, but Minnesota lands three participants. At the low price point, you can expect each of these to be of the sticker variety. Eddie Rosario and Jose Berrios find themselves on the Big League autograph set, with each offering producing parallel cards as well. Willians Astudillo lands his first Topps RC auto in the 17 card Rookie Republic portion of the product.

If you’re looking for something to rip in bulk, a cheap item to enjoy the imagery, or a card offering that will appeal to younger generations, then Topps Big League is certainly a good bet. Make sure to look for it at your local retailer or hobby store on May 15.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Holding Up the Bargain’s Other End


Over the offseason a consistent narrative from the Minnesota Twins front office was one of patience. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine consistently suggested that many of the near-future decisions would hinge on the production of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. Back in early February I wondered if that reality didn’t make Sano and Buxton out to be scapegoats. Fortunately for all parties involved, one half of the duo has forced the hand of the Front Office.

Through the first 39 games Minnesota has 25 wins, is leading the AL Central, and owns the best record in all of baseball. This team is hitting a ridiculous amount of home runs, the starting pitching has been exceptional, and the bullpen has been far better than expected. Looking at the two-headed monster discussed from the outset, Byron Buxton owns an .816 OPS while being arguably the best defender in the game, and Miguel Sano is yet to step on the field.

Following the publishing of that February piece one large move was made that both addressed some payroll concerns, as well as adding significant talent to the roster. Marwin Gonzalez was inked to a two-year pact for $21 million. As arguably the best super-utility player in baseball, he provided a level of insurance against slumps and injuries all over the field. Called upon to start at third base from the get-go with Sano’s injury, he’ll now slot back into a versatile role once Miguel is activated later this week.

In fact, it’s the return of Sano that brings up this talking point sooner than the July 31st trade deadline. All we know about the Dominican slugger at this point is that he showed up to Spring Training in a shape reflective of a commitment level not yet seen from him. Despite an injury delaying his debut, he put up solid numbers in a very small rehab sample size. He also has a profile that fits in nicely with what this team is attempting to accomplish when he is right.

Looking for a floor, Miguel Sano is the hitter who owned a .679 OPS a season ago. There’s a ton of power, way too many swings and misses, along with some questionable-at-best defense over at the hot corner. His ceiling looks something like the 2015 version where he posted a .916 OPS across 80 games and showed both plate discipline as well as prowess. A reality lying somewhere in the middle, lots of home runs, a good number of walks, and a handful of swings and misses, would be an optimal outcome for Rocco Baldelli to dispose.

For the Twins, Byron Buxton already is that. He hasn’t flashed his peak, but he’s also nowhere near his floor. Performing at the level he is now, serious consideration for some personal accolades could be given, and he’s doing it within the structure of a team capable of making a run. For Falvey and Levine, the two linchpins of the equation are now forcing them to re-evaluate.

There’s no denying that the window is just beginning to open in Twins Territory. The division should remain down for some time, the farm system is among the best in baseball, and the big-league club has talent capable of high production for the next three to five years. Supplementing this team, and the ones that come after it is now a must, and it’s this front office that I’d pick to have in charge.

With the focus being put on Buxton and Sano, Falvey and Levine effectively said when we win, we’ll go to work. Knowing that this team has holes but is capable of more, there’s reason to believe additions prior to the July 31st deadline make a ton of sense. A bigger price tag may come with the earlier acquisition cost, but for a team looking to add in 2019 and beyond, reinforcements should be of the long-term view as well. Whether under team control into 2020 and beyond, or free agent deals with multiple years, commitment and buy in is where moves need to lean.

It’s not time to push Falvey and Levine on execution just yet, we haven’t even hit mid-May. If we’re through min-June before this club is adding additional talent though, they’ll have suggested a wait and see approach only to close their eyes. I don’t foresee that result taking place, and if trade returns like that of Brian Dozier or Jermaine Palacios are any indication, the duo at the top for Minnesota should be trusted with full authority.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Knob Hunting in Tier One Twins


After a couple of weeks off from Topps pumping out product, a new offering is ready to hit the collecting market in 2019. Tier One has been a product with a longstanding hobby presence, and it’s most notable for chase cards including bat knobs and barrels. Including game used pieces of lumber from some of the biggest names in the sport, it’s generally been a set that the big cards are void of Minnesota Twins. In 2019 that isn’t the case.

Autographs
With a suggested retail price north of $120 for a three-card product, there’s no traditional base cards to be had here. The main set in the product is the “Tier One Autographs.” With single player images, and on card signatures, the design has a few different signing parallels.

Given his youth, Fernando Romero is an easy inclusion into the “Break Out Autographs” checklist. He has been a popular addition to Topps products over the past few years, but this will be his first Tier One offering. Torii Hunter finds himself in the “Clear Ones” checklist, and a host of Minnesota players make appearances on the “Prime Performers” list.

Many usual subjects can be found in this product for Twins fans, including Eddie Rosario, Jose Berrios, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler. Hunter has been signing more in 2019, and he’ll be joined by fellow retiree Bert Blyleven.

The single card only dual autograph of the product for Minnesota is a good one. Featuring both Byron Buxton and Torii Hunter, serial numbered to 25 or less, the Twins pipeline in centerfield gets recognition. Buxton and Rosario are both depicted on a Tier One Relic book card as dual signers.

Relics

Offering a lower end hit, there’s a 91 subject relic checklist in the product as well. It’s nice to see Joe Mauer continue to be included among 2019 Topps products, and he’ll have a game used swatch in this group. Rosario and Kepler help to round of the trio of Twins available here.

Chase Cards

Two of the biggest cut signature subjects in recent Minnesota memory have been both Kirby Puckett and Harmon Killebrew. Numbered as a 1/1, Puckett is a part of the 25 card Cut checklist in Tier One.

Over the entire lifecycle of Tier One, the grails come in the form of game used bats. For the first time in a while the Twins land an offering on the checklist. Limited to one copy each, both Byron Buxton and Joe Mauer make an appearance here. Buxton has both a bat knob and a “Limited Lumber” card, which is normally the nameplate of his barrel. Each of these offerings will be autographed. Mauer’s bat knob and barrel cards are also both 1/1 but will not be signed.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Taking the Twins Temperature


Coming off a week in which the Minnesota Twins faced a schedule akin to death itself, we can’t describe a 4-3 record as anything short of exceptional. The Houston Astros look the part of a World Series champion, and while the New York Yankees aren’t close to full strength, they’re holding serve in the AL East. For Rocco Baldelli’s club, there’s plenty of positive momentum, and rather than focus on one specific area, now seemed like a good time to highlight some standouts.

Byron Buxton is currently cruising. He has 14 doubles which is the amount of hits he tallied in total during 2018. Offensively he’s posted an .805 OPS which is well north of the average among big league centerfielders, and he’s pacing the defensive leaderboards. Buxton is first in outs above average, is the only player with two completed five star catches and has accumulated 3 DRS across just 247 innings. Without a significant dip taking place over the course of a full season, this is production that will have him earning MVP votes.

For some reason there was some concern about Nelson Cruz in the early going. With the layout of Minnesota’s schedule, and early interleague play, he missed plenty of at bats to get going. Now 28 games into his season, he owns a .972 OPS (best mark since 2008) and is on pace for 35 homers. Also sitting fourth in average exit velocity among big league hitters, the boomstick is just fine.

The roster continues to be paced by two players at some of the most important positions. Jorge Polanco leads the club in fWAR, while Jose Berrios is tops for pitchers. Polanco’s bat has played exceptionally well, which has always been expected. The .393 wOBA is just outside the top 20 in baseball, but the best part is the peripheral numbers suggest a level of sustainability. Add in that Polanco is now providing plus value at short, and you’ve got a strong asset. Berrios has turned from staff ace into a bonafide big deal. Command has been ramped up a notch halving his walk rate, and the WHIP is beyond fantastic. If Jose wants to push even higher, limiting the longball is maybe the last piece of the puzzle.

You may not find a bigger believer in the Twins blogosphere when it comes to Mitch Garver. His offensive profile has long looked the part of a big leaguer. As a receiver and defender behind the plate, there’s been concerns as to whether the position would be a long-term fit. Although not yet above average, he’s upped his strike rate over 4% this season. Mitch has also developed a much stronger presence at the bottom and edges of the zone, while addressing his blocking ability in a big way. Right now, it seems fair to wonder about his fit as the long-term solution.

I recently wrote about Martin Perez and the development of his cutter. He introduced a new offering into his repertoire and now looks like an entirely new pitcher. Minnesota targeted him based on the feeling that his stuff could be tweaked to unleash ability yet to be harnessed and there’s no denying that the front office looks spot on in that thinking.

There are still some question marks in the bullpen, but the trio of Taylor Rogers, Trevor Hildenberger, and Blake Parker looks to be a good one. Trevor May continues to settle into a higher leverage role and Ryne Harper appears to be a diamond in the rough. If acquisitions are yet to be made, it’s here that the most obvious avenue for an upgrade is. Give some credit to Baldelli in the way he’s managed this group as well. Despite more length from his starters, initial burnout could be attributed in some degree to his deployment of the arms. In backing off and being more strategic, there’s been no instances of taxed throwers during a consistent stretch of action.

Looking at the schedule, the Twins have played a lot of good teams early. With so much action within the division still ahead of them, and some less than ideal road destinations out of the way, the remaining action tilts in their favor. Leading the AL Central at the end of April won’t vault Minnesota to the Postseason, but it keeps that possibility centrally focused ahead of them. This team is good, and I felt like I was out on a limb suggesting92 wins. At this point, coming up shy of that would probably be a disappointment.


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Big Bert and the Hard Road Ahead


It’s long been a thing in baseball that struggling or failed starting pitchers could simply head out to the bullpen and find another path to success. From the short burst outings, to avoiding multiple lineup turns, and even decreasing the total pitch mitch, it’s a whole different recipe beyond the outfield wall. Adalberto Mejia was thrust into this role for 2019, but it doesn’t appear to be going as smoothly as Minnesota may have hoped.

Let me start out by saying that we’re still dealing with a small sample size. Only 27 games have been played, and with the Twins housed in the Midwest, weather has been the enemy more often than it hasn’t. There’s reason to believe that the Dominican native could settle in as the weather warms up, but the flip side of that argument is in the benefit provided to the hitter and batted baseball in those same circumstances. While not dismissing and of these realities, looking at the generated inputs is a must.

Prior to 2019 Mejia had operated solely as a starter for Minnesota. With a full rotation for Rocco Baldelli’s squad, the out of options lefty got moved to the bullpen. There was never any indication that this was a more logical path to success as it was a necessity to get all the pieces on the 25-man roster to coexist. Now that we have some actionable data to work with, we can start to make some comments regarding how the transition is working out.

Through 11.1 IP Mejia owns an ugly 8.74 ERA having given up earned runs in four of his 11 outings. On three of those occasions, the damage has been in the form of a crooked number. As expected, the velocity and strikeout rates have spiked a bit in short bursts, but the greatest problem has been a complete lack of command. He’s sporting a 7.1 BB/9 and an 11/9 K/BB ratio. Adding in the 8.7 H/9 and a HR/9 rate nearing 2.0 only helps to complete a recipe for disaster.

Typically, the thought process of moving a starter to relief would be in the hope that a smaller repertoire and enhanced velocity would provide a two-headed approach towards a more effective arm. Mejia has jumped his velocity, but only minimally. Averaging 93.8 mph he’s up one mph on his number from 2018, but there’s an argument to be made that more is in the tank once the weather warms up. Maximizing effectiveness in his offerings though, the pitch mix is far from specialized.

Utilizing the same repertoire as when he was starting, Mejia throws a four-seam fastball, sinker, changeup, slider, and has lightly mixed in a curveball. The four main offerings are all utilized at a relatively high clip, and the greatest change this season has been in muting the traditional fastball while turning to the changeup more often. The lack of specialization, however, is indicative of a guy without a true out pitch. There isn’t enough velocity on the fastball to make it a plus pitch, and just a 9% whiff rate doesn’t scream that any other offering is missing bats either.

If you could construct Mejia in the model that Minnesota would like to see, it’d be a lefty that is able to generate power from his size into his fastball. Pairing that one pitch with an off-speed slider or changeup would allow him to effectively keep opponents off balance. Just 2.8% of Adalberto’s fastballs have been whiffed on, with sliders generating a 3.7% whiff rate. That’s far too much contact allowed from a relief pitcher often tasked with keeping opportunities at bay. Add in that you’re giving out free passes at an alarming clip, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

At this point the Twins are getting closer to a point in which they’ll need to decide. It’s unfortunate to lose out on starting pitching talent, and there’s reason to believe that Mejia could bolster the back of a rotation. At almost 26 though, we’re getting to the point that there needs to be more of a plan than just reliance on stuff. He can’t go down without passing through waivers, so unless a flip-flop is being made with Martin Perez in the starting five now, continuing to employ him in the bullpen looks like a losing proposition.

As good as Taylor Rogers is, having him be your sole lefty in relief is probably not a path you’d choose to go down. Jake Reed deserves a shot in Minnesota but is of the wrong-handedness for this discussion. Right now, that leaves one of Andrew Vasquez or Gabriel Moya. Both of those guys could certainly take their lumps but investing in them as long-term relief solutions seems to be a better idea than fitting this square peg in a round hole.

We can wait another couple of weeks to see if warmth is able to correct any of Adalberto Mejia’s situation, but right now it looks to be larger than something the mercury can correct.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Down Under to the Show


Over the course of the past decade the Minnesota Twins have shown some scouting prowess in their findings down under. From the early stories of Peter Moylan and Liam Hendriks, to a recent hat tip pointed at James Beresford, Australia has produced big leagues in a Twins uniform. Although Todd Van Steensel displayed some nice minor league numbers, he got to Minnesota by way of the St. Paul Saints. The system still has more talent from down under, and one could be on his way north soon.

Lewis Thorpe has worked four times in 2019 for Triple-A Rochester. After two very bad outings against the same Lehigh Valley club to start the year, he’s settled in as the pitcher that previously appeared on top 100 prospect lists. Thorpe’s last two outings have seen him work 13.2 IP with a 1.98 ERA and .497 OPS against. He’s fanned 24 batters and walked just one. To call his work dominant would be putting it lightly.

As a lefty, Thorpe isn’t the traditional soft-tossing type. This is a guy who can blow the fastball by professional hitters, and his career 10.9 K/9 is plenty indicative of that reality. Since returning from both Tommy John surgery, and then mononucleosis, Lewis has picked up right where he left off. His walk rate hovers around 3.0 BB/9 which is probably a bit higher than you’d like but combatting that with solid hit and strikeout rates make for a strong profile.

To date Thorpe has just eight career starts at the Triple-A level. At just 23 years-old, that’s plenty impressive, but it’s also not a seasoned amount that reflects an immediate need for a promotion. Given the volatility at the back end of a starting rotation, we know that a need will arise in Minnesota sooner rather than later. Long term the Twins would like to see Thorpe come up and stick, but a spot start or something to get his feet wet could soon be on the horizon.

Over the past year we’ve seen Zack Littell, Kohl Stewart, and Stephen Gonsalves all make their debuts for the Twins. Thorpe trends more heavily towards the highly-touted prospect that Gonsalves resembles and could be handled in a similar fashion. That would mean he’d be destined for a later season role in which he’d stick long term. If the current level of production remains though, it’d be plenty logical for Rocco Baldelli to run him out on a day he simply needs a starter.

Back in February I opined that Thorpe was the guy to watch this season. He’s done very little to pump the brakes on that notion and making it a reality in the immediate future continues to become something to keep an eye on.