Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Twins Didn't Ignore Regression, They Welcomed It

It's been a tale of two season thus far for the Twins. After racing out to a 49-40 record prior to the All Star Break, Minnesota had positioned itself in the heart of the AL Wild Card race. Since then however, the club has gone 10-20, or completely in the tank. It's not at all fair to suggest it wasn't seen coming, and honestly, it may have even been welcomed.

Going into the break, Kyle Gibson owned one of the best 15 ERA's in all of Major League Baseball. Forget that his FIP (fielding independent pitching) mark was north of 4.00, the Twins were happy with their former first rounder. Gibson though wasn't the only one, FIP suggested multiple Twins starters were in for some unpleasant surprises. That same fate seemed to be coming to a few bullpen pitchers as well, despite the output in relief already being lackluster.

Timely hitting had been the name of the game for the offense. Joe Mauer was hanging his hat on a ridiculous batting average in high leverage situations. Torii Hunter had staved off the fact that he's 40 years old, and Brian Dozier was pushing past the best second basemen discussion and into the big league's best player. Then, as it has a way of doing, baseball normalized.

The Twins own a -29 run differential (the only second place team in any division to be negative), and an ugly 21-36 record. Since the break, it hasn't been regression for one or two players, but rather an implosion across the board.

Hunter has slashed just .162/.207/.308 since July 1, and he's been as much of a defensive liability as Oswaldo Arcia. Glen Perkins went from saving 28 straight games, to owning an 8.10 ERA in 11 games after the break. Mauer looked to be turning a corner with a respectable May, but has slashed just .243/.314/.346 since the break. Finally, the stud Dozier, he's become a home run or bust type in every sense of the term. Following his All Star Game blast off of Mark Melancon, Dozier has slashed .212/.276/.416 with six home runs. He's struck out 37 times while walking just 10 times in that span.

At the trade deadline, the Twins began to see the writing on the wall. Rather than chasing after a team like the Blue Jay who had added David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, Terry Ryan held his cards and decided to play a truer window. Rather than deal assets for 2015 fixes, he made a move for a controllable reliever in Kevin Jepsen. Unfortunately, the bullpen has gone only further downhill.

Next through the revolving door for the Twins was lefty specialist Ryan O'Rourke. After debuting relatively strong, his last 7 outings have been to the tune of an 18.90 ERA. A.J. Achter owns a 9.00 ERA, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham is being hidden in a stretch in which he owns an 11.57 ERA over his last six games. In fact, the last time Graham didn't give up a run in relief was on July 26. Add Perkins struggles in, and Neil Allen's relievers are nothing short of a debacle.

Of course, with regression looming and so many indicators suggesting it, the obvious answer is that the Twins would be proactive in dealing with the situation. No, they didn't need to make any trades, but almost assuredly the organization would experiment from within. No, Terry Ryan and the Twins have instead welcomed the dumpster fire.

In the outfield, Torii Hunter has ceded way to Shane Robinson. Robinson, a capable fourth outfielder (and nothing more) has started three of the Twins last six games. The career .239 hitter is currently deemed more deserving of innings than the number one prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton (who happens to be slashing .412/.444/.549 at Triple-A Rochester.)

There's no point in showing distaste about Joe Mauer getting playing time. He's remained healthy and in the lineup this season, if not ultimately unproductive. What he been afforded though is a top of the lineup spot. Instead of batting 6th or lower, manager Paul Molitor continues to run Mauer out in the three hole on a nightly basis (despite his .260 average).

For the Twins, the offense has been less of a problem in terms of regression than the pitching has been. With Phil Hughes now on the DL, Ervin Santana looking like he might as well go there, and Glen Perkins quite possibly needing a trip, there should be plenty of options chomping at the bit.

Instead, Jose Berrios is continually looked over at Triple-A, Taylor Rogers isn't considered for the bullpen, and hurlers like Nick Burdi, Zack Jones, and J.T. Chargois aren't given the clearance to give it a try.

Understandably, the Twins could make cases to hold each of those young players back if the circumstances were different. The reality is that while regression has set in heavily, Minnesota has chose to welcome it, rather than to address it and further the future avoidance of the problem.

While Burdi and Jones have gone through tough stretches, Rogers hasn't been as sharp, and Berrios may have an innings limit, they will all be counted on at some point in 2016 (a few relatively early). The problem is that the Twins are opting to throw those prospects into the fire, rather than to integrate them in what amounts to a developmental period. Much like the handling of Aaron Hicks, the Twins forego an opportunity to use September, and instead bank on a strong spring training translating to immediate big league success.

At it's core, 2015 should still be considered a resounding success for Minnesota no matter how it ends (the Twins would need to lose 33 of their final 40 to reach 90 losses, that isn't happening). What is problematic is the way internal operations are carried out. As 2016 rolls around and the Twins are in a position to win, will they know how to carry that out? Welcoming regression, continuing to bungle DL stints, and lacking the push to cure issues from within, some key matters remain a mystery.

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