Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Miguel Sano Could Really Make This Work

Through their first 41 games, Miguel Sano has been nothing short of a monster for the Minnesota Twins. He's been every bit the offensive stalwart he was expected to be, and he's taken it to a whole new level. Right now, he's been the most impressive player on the club, and in terms of WAR, Fangraphs quantifies him as the best player in baseball not named Mike Trout. The question is, how much of it is a mirage?

There's a couple of different scenarios at play with it comes to Sano. He's easily defined as a three true outcomes player (Strikeout, Walk, or Home Run). Sano also is flirting with sustainability when it comes to BABIP (Batting average on balls in play...note: HRs are excluded). So, when looking at those two scenarios, the question becomes how much should we believe in his current .319/.439/.638 slash line?

In answering that question, we can present the notion that it's both a mirage and sustainable at the same time. When the dust settles in 2017, I think it'd be foolish to expect Miguel Sano to hit above .300, he simply strikes out far too often for that to happen. However, he's not a tradition three true outcomes batter in that he absolutely crushes the baseball.

Let's look at what the numbers tell us. 34.5% of the time in 2017, Miguel Sano is striking out. That is the 5th worst percentage in the big leagues, and behind a group that includes Keon Broxton, Joey Gallo, Chris Davis, and Byron Buxton. On the flip side, Sano walks a ridiculous 17.5% of the time, good enough for third best in the big leagues. In generating free passes, he is able to even out, and sustain his on base percentage, even before looking at what happens when he makes contact.

It's in that contact that things get interesting as well. As of May 23, Sano has generated 82 batted ball events, or balls in play. 43 of those have been hit at 98 mph or more. His 98.2 mph average exit velocity leads the big leagues, and is nearly 4 mph above the Yankees Aaron Judge. Breaking down the 43 balls put in play above 98 mph, Sano has generated 32 hits and barreled 20 balls (5th most in MLB). To summarize, and as I wrote on May 1, Miguel Sano is crushing the ball.

So, is it a problem that Sano strikes out in nearly one third of his plate appearances? Sure, it's not ideal. Is it likely that the Twins 3rd basemen is going to sustain a .439 BABIP and continue to bat above .300? No, probably not. What is with noting however, is that the results are a by-product of an approach that has Sano swinging with all he has in virtually every plate appearance.

Production for Sano is a result of consistent hard contact. He has generated hard contact 52.4% of the time (1st in MLB) while making soft contact just 3.7% of the time (lowest in MLB by nearly 5%). Those numbers suggest that while his BABIP will flatten out (and his average will follow suit) the decline will not nearly be as stark as it would be in a different scenario. Realistically, the decline for Sano will come more from a lack of swing power on his own accord, as opposed to the numbers normalizing from an inflated level.

Just two months into the season, it's hard to suggest that Miguel Sano is going to be consistently able to swing as hard in September as he is right now. His legs, torso, and upper body will undoubtedly go through wear and tear as the season goes on and it'll be worth monitoring to see if his swing loses oomph because of it. Should things stay consistent though, Miguel Sano is going to consistently experience inflated BABIP numbers, and will remain a non-traditional three true outcomes player because of the quality of the balls being put in play.

Until Sano is consistently fooled on pitches, or can no longer catch up to heat, he's going to get the upper hand on opposing pitchers every time the ball hits his bat. The results are there to prove that, and while they'll level off some, we aren't watching Adam Dunn even in his prime here.

Twins Starting Depth To Be Tested

After being recalled following a two-start stint at Triple-A, Kyle Gibson was back in the Twins rotation. Against the Orioles on May 22, Gibson surrendered six earned runs on seven hits while walking four and striking out five. He got the win (pitcher wins are stupid), but there was a clear picture of a pitcher in over his head. For now, he'll remain in the rotation, but during the game, it was worth wondering what would happen next for Minnesota?

In an ideal world, Stephen Gonsalves, Fernando Romero, and Felix Jorge are all ready to compete at a significant level. That reality isn't one we're living in though. All three are at Double-A, and none are ready to make the jump to Triple-A or the big leagues any time soon. There's still a long term gameplan there, but expecting them to help Minnesota before late summer at the earliest is a fool's errand.

That leads us to upstate New York, and deciding what is available in Rochester. We have seen Nick Tepesch once this season. He lasted just 1.2 IP and while six of the seven runs he surrendered were unearned, it was an uninspiring performance unlikely to challenge big league hitters. If Kyle Gibson isn't the guy, and it's beginning to look like he may need more time figuring it out on the farm, then who is?

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine would likely be tasked with deciding between Aaron Slegers, David Hurlbut, and Jason Wheeler at Rochester. None of them are 40 man players, and of the trio, Slegers is arguably pitching the best this season. While Wheeler has been in big spots previously, and pitched well in 2016, he hasn't gotten off to a great start this season.

Slegers was a 5th round pick back in 2013 out of the University of Indiana. He's now 24 years old, and a relative non-prospect. What he's done however, is put forth a consistent track record at every stop through the Minnesota farm system. His professional ERA stands at 3.57 across 494.2 IP. In 2017, he's totaled a 4.25 ERA over 42.1 IP and rarely issues walks (1.9 BB/9). He's never going to be a high velocity guy, and his career 6.5 K/9 is probably lofty at the next level. While the peripherals aren't flashy, there's reason to believe he's capable.

Thus far, the Twins have used seven starters, and there's a strong likelihood that number trends towards 10 by the time the dust settles. There's nothing more coveted in the game of baseball than starting pitcher, and even moreso, that of the quality variety. It's not fair to assume that every arm called up to the big league rotation is going to be an impact prospect, but if there's a place the Twins organization is starved, it's there.

At multiple points this season, the question as to whether or not Minnesota should deal Ervin Santana has come up. If there's something that highlights the necessity, it could be this. Should the Twins be presented with an offer that returns a solid pitching prospect or two, close to big league ready, there's a lot of appeal there. Right now, this team is much more exciting than many would have imagined, but there's no staying power in the starting pitching.

Over the winter, it makes a lot of sense for the Twins to supplement their offensive youth with an impact starter. There's a few names out there that make sense, and the club has money to spend. If the organization can roll out a rotation that includes a big name or two, along with Jose Berrios and Adalberto Mejia being internal options, they'll be well positioned a year from now.

It may have to be Aaron Slegers in the short term, and if Kyle Gibson continues to struggle, there's no reason not to give him a shot. Pinning your hopes to that level of prospect for the future though, doesn't make a lot of sense. The Twins have some top prospect arms in the system, but they'll need a safety net regardless, and having more impact arms is never going to be a bad thing.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Sam Carlson Ready For The National Stage

Right now, Sam Carlson is a senior at Burnsville High School. In a matter of a couple weeks, he'll very likely be able to call himself a professional baseball player. On top of being tabbed as a first round pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft, Carlson is expected to be the first prep pitcher ever taken that high from the state of Minnesota. That level of hype comes with big shoes to fill, but Carlson appears ready.

I had the privilege of speaking with Carlson as his final high school season winds down. He's done pitching in the regular season for Burnsville, but obviously has postseason aspirations. With a busy next few weeks ahead, he'll have plenty on his plate, but if there's someone that can take it all in stride, it appears to be him. Covering a handful of different baseball related topics, here's how our discussion went.

Off The Baggy: Starting off with your senior season at Burnsville, how much has felt like a whirlwind? You've had a great season, managed school, and have had a large audience each time you've taken the mound.

Sam Carlson: My senior season has been one to remember. Our playoffs begin soon and we are looking to make a run. It is my last time playing with some of my friends who I have played with since I was 10 years old. Between balancing school, baseball and my personal life, it hasn't been too bad. I have really enjoyed it and wouldn't change it for anything.

OTB: Looking ahead to college, I know you've committed to Florida. What drew you to the SEC and ultimately landed you with the Gators?

SC: I wanted to play for the Florida Gators since I was a kid. For one reason or another, it was my dream school. After seeing Logan Shore go there, who played for the same club team I did growing up, gave me hope that I could do the same one day. After going through the recruiting process and taking my visits I felt like it was the best fit for me, with an outstanding baseball program, great academics and intriguing weather for a Minnesotan. Everything seemed to fall in place for me and I knew I made the right decision committing to Florida.

OTB: Obviously the MLB Draft has to come up. Have you thought at all about being the first ever 1st round prep pitcher from Minnesota? What would that mean to you?

SC: It has been pretty cool to see stuff like that. Whatever happens I want to represent Minnesota the best I can and prove to people around the country that we have talent up here, it is just sometimes overlooked. I want to make people from our state proud with whatever the next step I take is.

OTB: When looking at the next level, college or pro, what separates you? What do you think puts you in the best position to compete and excel?

SC: What I think separates me at the next level is my ability to pitch. I am able to use my change-up in a way that a lot of players don't figure out for a long time. I also think that my maturity and self control on the mound gives me an advantage at the next level.

OTB: A lot is always going to be made about velocity on the mound, but tell me about your pitch offerings and your style in attacking opposing hitters?

SC: I have a three pitch mix with my fastball, slider and change-up. I am able to throw all three pitches for strikes especially when I am down in the count. My style is not to blow it by hitters, but rather to learn from them throughout the game and pitch to them in an effective way. I think my secondary offerings are pitches that are above average which leads to my unique style of pitching.

OTB: How has the draft process been for you? Have you enjoyed the extra attention, or has it been something you've used to motivate yourself and just continue to go about your game?

SC: The draft process has been fun for me. When I am between the lines I don't worry about anything going on in the stands. It is very motivating seeing all of my hard work pay off, but in the end it just motivates me even more. Hopefully this is just the beginning. 

It indeed feels like this is just the beginning for Sam. Whatever path he chooses, there's sure to be plenty of success ahead. Likely with the Twins out of the picture, Carlson will create fans for a new organization from all over the state. He has the chops to pitch in the big leagues one day, and he's well on his way there.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Berrios Flashes Something Special

In his second start of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, Jose Berrios looked like some sort of well tested veteran for the Minnesota Twins. Not only was he taking on one of baseball's best teams in the Colorado Rockies, but he thoroughly and completely dominated them.

Sure, there was the 11 strikeouts. Yeah, he lasted into the 8th inning, working 7.2 IP. And economical, definitely, as he needed just 106 pitches to get that work in. More than the surface numbers though, Berrios' results were punctuated by some truly exceptional moments.

Over the course of his outing, he got 20 swinging strikes. To put that into context, he threw 72 strikes in total. That means 28% of the pitches he threw for strikes had Rockies batters swinging right through. Truly an incredible amount, it's not all that surprising given the movement on his pitches. There was the frisbee of a curveball that he tossed to Ian Desmond. The Rockies first basemen was quoted postgame suggesting that Berrios reminded him of the late Jose Fernandez on the mound.
It wasn't just the curveball that Berrios had working though, his fastball has some seriously incredible move. In this pitch to Raimel Tapia, that turned into a strike em' out, throw em' out double play, Berrios' fastball gets more movement than anything I've seen since Ubaldo Jimenez's magical season with Colorado. The ball starts on the edge of the plate, and Tapia literally has no chance as the ball casually darts away from his bat.

When looking at what it was that cause Rockies hitters to swing and miss, Berrios didn't discriminate. He was generating whiffs on three of his four pitches (excluding his changeup) and the curveball consistently was getting batters to chase way out of the zone.

That bender is something Berrios is obviously confident in as well. He threw it in a handful of different counts, and the 36 curveballs he tossed accounted for 34% of his total on the night. In fact, Berrios virtually operated with a two pitch mix. His fastball (which he does throw both a four and two seam) was used right around 50% of the time. That curve was really his only other offering, as he used his changeup on just six different occasions.

It's been a pretty incredible two start sample size, especially considering how his first 14 career starts went. While it's unfair to assume this level of dominance as the norm going forward, we've now seen why Berrios has had such a long hype train following him through the minor leagues. He should safely settle in as a third starter for the Twins, and he has the ability and drive to push the envelope.

As he continues to take the ball every 5th day, the keys to focus in on will remain pitch economy as well as just how impressive the movement he gets on his pitches is. Short in stature, it is in that movement that hitters are deceived, and that will help to allow Berrios opportunity to stay ahead of opposing batters. The pitch plane isn't ever going to work in his favor, but when his ball darts the distance of the zone, even the best big leaguers are going to struggle.

May 18, 2017 was among the best starting pitching efforts ever recorded in a Twins uniform. For an organization void of strikeouts for so long, it appears Berrios will pile them up in bunches. If he's going to continue bringing a frisbee to the ballpark, this should be a lot of fun.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Gordon Commanding The Spotlight Among Twins Prospects

Selected 5th overall by the Minnesota Twins in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft, Nick Gordon was immediately among the organizations best prospects. With a strong family pedigree, and plenty of talent on his own, the expectations were sky high for the high school shortstop. Now, fast forward four seasons, and he's proving himself at Double-A with the Chattanooga Lookouts.

In 2016, Gordon got his first taste of High-A ball. Spending the whole season in Fort Myers, after making a compelling case to end 2015 there, Gordon slashed a solid .291/.335/.386. Power wasn't ever really expected to be a big part of his game, but his average hovered around .300 for the bulk of the summer, and his on base skills were solid. If there was a knock on him a year ago, it was the poor defensive showing, and a less than ideal baserunning ability.

While Gordon doesn't possess the straight-line speed of his brother Dee, he's a burner in his own right. However, he was caught stealing 13 times for the Miracle, swiping just 19 successful bases. Reading pitchers, getting jumps, and picking his spots was something he'd definitely need to hone in on.

Then, touted as a glove first prospect when drafted, Gordon took a pretty big step back in the field. Errors are far from the be-all-end-all when evaluating defensive prowess, but Gordon racked them up in bunches. After 18 in Cedar Rapids the year prior (all at SS), he tallied 26 in 2016 (24 at SS). They were split between throwing and fielding, but for a guy that was seen as so fluid at the position, it wasn't a welcomed addition to his game.

Coming into the 2017 season, Gordon had fans across the national landscape. He was ranked among the top 50 prospects in the country by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball Prospectus. A handful of publications tabbed him as the Twins top prospect, and now at 21, it was somewhat expected that the youngster was beginning to grow into his body.

Through the first 36 games at the Double-A level, Gordon has done nothing but impress. He's slashing a robust .322/.383/.507. While power likely won't ever show up in a considerable amount, the's tallied 16 extra base hits, three of which have left the yard. Gordon hasn't used much of his speed in the running game, as he's stolen just one base while being caught twice, but it's played to his favor in the form of doubles (8) and triples (5).

As a non-roster invitee to spring training, Gordon saw time with the Twins in a handful of big league games. Paul Molitor played him in both spots up the middle, giving him more time at second base than I would have preferred to see. Thus far in 2017, Gordon has started 20 games at short, and 14 at second for the lookouts. Right now, it seems the organization isn't sure where he'll stick, and they also have some decisions to make at the upper levels. He's fared ok defensively, chalking up eight errors across those 34 games (3 at 2B, 5 at SS).

Looking at a realistic timeline on Gordon, who again is just 21 years old, 2018 seems to be the year to circle. He's over three years younger than the competition at the current level, and while he could push for a late season promotion to Triple-A, the Twins could decide to keep the same path and have him spend the year in Tennessee. If that's the way they go, a mid-summer or early-fall callup could be in the cards a year from now.

Knowing where the Twins stand roster wise, that leaves some questions to be answered on the 25 man roster. Brian Dozier is signed through the 2018 season, at which point he will hit free agency (Minnesota only bought out his arbitration years). If he isn't traded, and that probably hinges on the direction of the team, the middle of the infield would appear occupied. Gordon isn't the sure-thing shortstop he was once touted as, but he's probably a better bet there than Jorge Polanco.

No matter how you cut it, Nick Gordon could force the Twins into a situation where they have three mouths to feed, and only two positions to hand out. As a rotational guy ending the 2018 season on the big league roster, Gordon could help to ease the transition for Minnesota if Brian Dozier is cast off prior to 2019. Figuring out how the pieces fit is getting ahead of ourselves for the most part at this point anyways however.

What's worth taking note of in the here and now, is that Nick Gordon is absolutely emerging as a strong two way talent for the Twins. His bat has become a weapon, and he's displaying offensive prowess beyond his years. As he continues to compete through the Double-A season this year, and sets his sights on whatever is next, the Twins seem to have a very solid player on the way.

Having gone from big name, to uncertain top 100 guy, to a prospect that could find himself in the top 25 a year from now, Gordon continues to battle. For all the picks that haven't worked out in recent years, it appears the son of Flash is absolutely cut from a different cloth.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Twins Pen Ready For A Jolt

Coming into the 2017 Major League Baseball season, the Minnesota Twins biggest question mark was exactly how their pitching staff would respond. After being at the bottom of the big leagues a year prior, Minnesota needed a turnaround to return to competitiveness. They've seen a good enough start through the first 30 games or so, but staving of regression will be best accomplished by continuing to raise the water level.

As things stand on May 16, the Twins own the 9th best starting ERA in MLB. Ervin Santana has been great, Hector Santiago has been surprising, and Phil Hughes has been serviceable. Jose Berrios is here now, and the 5th starter will remain in flux until someone separates themselves from the pack. The bullpen has been a bit of a different story however.

Through their first 120 innings pitches, Minnesota checks in with the 23rd best relief ERA in MLB (4.73). The 7.43 K/9 ranks 28th out of 30 big league teams and the 3.75 BB/9 checks out in the middle of the pack. Largely unaddressed this offseason (Matt Belisle being the only signing of note), the pen remained a major question mark. While it hasn't yet gone off the rails, the goal would be to address things before it gets to that point.

Looking at what's out there, you can see some definite pieces. Brandon Kintzler is a solid reliever, even if he toes the questionable line when it comes to working as a closer. Taylor Rogers fits, and Tyler Duffey looks like a real weapon. I still believe Ryan Pressly is more than his funk suggests, and Justin Haley being carried makes sense. While that leaves both Matt Belisle and Craig Breslow, you have to wonder if Minnesota isn't in a position to push for more on their own.

Triple-A Rochester has some intriguing arms worthy of a shot. Adding Drew Rucinski to the 40 man roster for a brief call up comes as confusing, if only because there's other options. Trevor Hildenberger, D.J. Baxendale, Aaron Slegers, and even Jason Wheeler could all use a look. If we're really trying to push the envelop though, it's at Double-A where the Twins greatest assets lie.

Both Mason Melotakis and Nick Burdi have been lights out to start 2017. Melotakis owns a 1.17 ERA across 15.1 IP. He has compiled a 7.0 K/9 while offering free passes at a rate of 2.3 BB/9. The former 2nd round pick has been at Double-A since 2014, albeit missing the 2015 season. He's compiled just under 50.0 IP across the last two years and he's shown an ability to strike batters out, while reducing the walks in 2017.

Another 2nd round pick, Burdi has come out guns blazing this season as well. He can push his fastball into triple digits, and seeing him healthy after throwing just three innings last year is a major plus. Across 13.2 IP this season, he's struck out 11.9 per nine innings, and he's walking batters at a very strong 2.6 BB/9. While command has always been Burdi's shortcoming, it's something he seems to have honed in this campaign.

I have no idea whether or not the Twins would promote either arm from Double-A, but I would lean towards them not doing so. Both have velocity, and wanting to see them pitch, more than just throw, at the next level might be worthwhile for a stop in Triple-A. Neither guy is going to be able to rely solely on speed at the big league level, and making sure they can get big league hitters out is a must.

Regardless of how they get to the Target Field bullpen, both Melotakis and Burdi have an argument to be there by early summer at the latest. I'd expect at least a brief stop for both in Triple-A, but guys like Breslow or even Adam Wilk, shouldn't stand in their way for a big league opportunity. Unlike a starting prospect, I'd argue that relievers don't necessarily need the long stay at the highest level of the farm. Give them a taste and move them on. J.T. Chargois put forth just 12.1 IP in AAA after 11.2 IP at AA prior to his promotion last year. A similar path could be had for both of these guys.

When they arrive, there's little reason to suggest it wouldn't be an immediate boost to the bullpen. Throw in a healthy J.T. Chargois or Jake Reed, and maybe a flier on one of those other names, and Minnesota will have reworked their relief corps from within.

Right now, there's some question marks as to how it will come together, and what guys can get healthy, but what Minnesota doesn't have in starting options, they have in relief. Both Burdi and Melotakis can lead the charge, and the dice will fall from there as they may.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Twins Can Make Wright Choice In Draft

The Minnesota Twins hold the number one overall pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball amateur draft. That much has been true since the conclusion of the 2016 season. What remains up in the air, is exactly who will hear their name called first on June 12. While we've heard about high school phenom Hunter Greene, and Louisville star Brendan McKay, it could be Vandy pitcher Kyle Wright that was the correct choice all along.

Much has been made about both Hunter Greene and Brendan McKay in the months leading up to the draft. Greene has a fastball that has topped out at triple digits, and he can play a solid shortstop as well. McKay may be the best college pitcher, as well as hitter, and a team has to decide what way to develop him. Both have some serious concerns though.

The flame out rate for high school arms is incredible, and while Greene has the velocity, the development arc for his body, let alone his repertoire, is an immense uphill battle. For McKay, the dominance on the mound comes more in the form of pitchability, as he doesn't have lightning stuff. He's also great at the plate, but suggesting either player with the notion that they have two-way abilities is a fool's errand. Reality says that both will be selected as pitchers, and banking on what they can do at that plate is a fall back option you shouldn't even be considering with a pick that high.

If Greene has a ceiling that's at the top of this class, he has a floor that is somewhere below the basement. McKay is a nice choice and could be a very solid pro, but he's probably never going to justify being tabbed at one overall. If you want to grab someone that splits things down the middle, Vanderbilt's Kyle Wright may absolutely be the Twins best bet.

Wright, a Junior at Vanderbilt from Huntsville, Alabama, had a tough start to his 2017 season. He's since been on a tear, giving up just 12 hits, five earned runs, and a 51/7 K/BB ratio over his last five starts (39.2 IP). On the season, Wright owns a 3.06 ERA across 13 starts (82.1 IP) and owns a 93/26 K/BB ratio. Opposing hitters are batting just .206 off of him, and he's been the premier arm for one of the best baseball programs in the country.

Where McKay throws low 90s on the mound, Wright can sit 95-97 mph with good secondary pitches as well. He has a strong breaking ball and does compliment his fastball with a serviceable changeup. At this point, scouts seem to agree that Wright would have no less than three capable pitches at the next level, a must if he's going to continue as a starter.

Regardless of what decision any team makes during the MLB draft, a lot of expectations are based upon projections becoming reality. If you have to live with that notion, finding a good mix of ceiling, floor, and belief is a must. Whereas Hunter Greene has a very high probability of flaming out, and Brendan McKay has a low probability of being something extraordinary, Wright could give the Twins the option they would most covet.

Never in baseball do teams draft for need. The developmental arc for amateur players is too significant to make decisions looking for immediate impact. There's never going to be a time that pitching isn't at a premium though, and Minnesota adding a potential top tier arm to the organization is hardly a bad step. The decision will remain fluid right up until the day of the draft (which is now less than a month away), but if I'm the Twins, Kyle Wright is who I want.