Thursday, January 7, 2016

Projections Wanted, And Some Not So Much

As with every offseason, baseball writers and analysts are often observed filling the void by looking at numbers and what may be coming. We pour over prospect lists, and hope that each major league teams shining stars of tomorrow turn out to be just as good as expected. With all of those feelings though, comes that ugly and sometimes less than ideal word: projections.

For the Twins, projections do not often see the organization favorably. Obviously there's a handful of factors that contribute to that reality, but some of the most glaring are a seemingly consistent effort to repeat the same processes, whether they work or not. This year, as Fangraphs has introduced their yearly ZiPS projections, nothing is different. There's some good, some bad, and some downright distubring.

Looking from a place of positivity, let's start with the good. No one seems to have any sort of clue what to do with Jose Berrios. For me, he's an elite level talent, and has top of the rotation type stuff. I rated him my second best Twins prospect behind only Byron Buxton. He's made a professional career of silencing doubters, and there's no reason to believe that will stop now.

ZiPS sees Berrios getting a relatively early call to the bigs (as do I). In 146+ innings, he's projected to strike out 130 batters. That number is also projected to be the highest strikeout total among any Twins pitcher. Keith Law, who's been one of Berrios' biggest skeptics, routinely has questioned whether he'll keep the ball in the yard. He allowed a career high 12 long balls last season, and Fangraphs projections see him surrendering 17 in his first major league season.

Although the peripherals aren't projected to be overwhelming (just a 4.18 ERA and 3.82 FIP) it's the comparison that presents a standout point for Berrios. ZiPS notes St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright as Berrios' number one comp. If that ends up being anything near truth, the Twins would have a very legitimate ace at their disposal.

From there, things get somewhat less exciting. Looking at the starting lineup, only two players are projected to post an fWAR above 3.0. Last season, Brian Dozier was the only member in that category. With Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton being tabbed to eclipse that total this season, Dozier, Plouffe, and a host of other Twins are expected to regress.

Generally the case with most projections, Twins pitching isn't seen favorably either. The starting staff is more mediocre than anything. No one pitcher is expected to post a sub 4.00 ERA though the highest starting ERA is respectable at a 4.62 mark given to Tommy Milone. Essentially, the Twins will have to win games with their offense this year, something that is to be expected with a pitching staff composed of more quantity and depth than it is of quantity.

The bullpen isn't given great marks either, but as I have discussed multiple times, I don't believe it will remain in tact for long. Some of the Twins biggest assets are their relief prospects, and they could be some of the most important additions to the big league club in the year ahead. Getting Alex Meyer, Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, and J.T. Chargois up and contributing sooner rather than later should win Minnesota some games.

Rounding out the yearly ZiPS numbers is a handful of concerning comparisons. First, there's that of Brian Dozier. His comparison is none other than Dan Uggla. The guy that couldn't presently hit himself out of a paper bag, and has not hit above the Mendoza Line since 2012.

While I'd like to discredit the possibility of Dozier turning into Uggla, there's a lot of similarities. Like Uggla, Dozier was a late bloomer, making his debut at age 25 (one year ahead of Uggla). Uggla at his best was a better power hitter than Dozier (30+ HR 07-11), while both striking out and walking at a higher rate. The problem is that Uggla fell off in 2013 slashing .179/.309/.362 despite still hitting 22 homers. Dozier is a dead pull hitter, and can be exploited on the outside edge of the plate.

Should that decline happen this season for the Twins second basemen, it would shock me. He's still relatively young, and would be expected to produce for at least another year or two. As he gets into his thirties though, see Dozier's decline be fast and steep like Uggla's would not be a shock, and may be one of the best reasons for the Twins to keep Jorge Polanco around.

The other player that provides some cause for concern is top prospect Byron Buxton. ZiPS names Lastings Milledge as Buxton's number one comp. The 12th overall pick in the 2003 MLB Draft, Milledge went on to own just a .269/.328/.395 career slash line in six big league seasons. He never came close to what was projected of him, and has been out of baseball since 2011 (when he was still just 26 years-old).

Expecting Buxton to fizzle out is a fool's errand, but there's no doubt 2016 is vitally important for him. After a largely unimpressive debut season, Buxton needs to stay healthy, and flash the tools that have gotten him to this point. Hitting for average, some power, flashing speed, and playing great defense need to all become widely apparent for the Twins centerfielder. He'll enter the year as baseball's top prospect, and he should. The time for delays on breaking out though have passed.

Projections, no matter how numbers based, are far from the gold standard. The Twins outdid everything externally expected of them a season ago, but for that to continue, they will once again need to defy what is tabbed as the norm. They are going to need youth to step up in a big way, and they are going to need to promote aggressively getting internal contributions.

We're a ways off from meaningful baseball being played, but as was also the case in 2015, the Twins must hope there's more incorrect than not when it comes to the ZiPS numbers Fangraphs revealed.

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