Monday, February 8, 2016

Dangers In Depth For Twins?

Looking at the state of the Minnesota Twins heading into the 2016 Major League Baseball season, the word depth has come up often. Whether it be the surplus of young talent rising to the top of the system, the pitching staff and multiple arms competing to complete it, or the 25 man as a whole. For the first time in a while, the Twins have some depth working to their advantage. Quite possibly however, it could work to their disadvantage.

Some of the focus this offseason has been in regards to the starting rotation and the perception of depth among that group. Minnesota has three pitchers locked into starting roles including: Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, and Kyle Gibson. Behind them, a combination of Tyler Duffey, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios, Ricky Nolasco, Alex Meyer, and Trevor may will slot into the final two spots. As it pertains to pitching, the fear is their is more quantity than their is quality options.

It's pretty easy to suggest some of those starting pitching concerns are overblown. The Twins starting staff is going to be better than it was a season ago, and even significantly isn't much of a stretch. No matter who fills out those final two spots (though it likely will be Duffey and Milone), there's plenty of insurance options directly behind them.

Looking at the 25 man roster however, the Twins have another area where their depth may come into question. Looking at what the projected bench may be, Minnesota could find itself in some interesting spots. The goal for playoff and World Series team's alike is to have a better 25th player than that of your opponent. Some nights, it's going to be an uphill battle for the Twins to accomplish that feat.

Paul Molitor should have Eduardo Nunez, John Ryan Murphy, Oswaldo Arcia, and Danny Santana at his disposal on a nightly basis. Of them, you'd be hard pressed to argue any one of them is a complete player and offers immense upside for a 2016 Twins squad needing to squeeze out a few extra wins. Nunez is with the Twins on a one-year, arbitration deal, while Santana and Arcia are out of options, and Murphy is looking to carve into the starting lineup.

 A season ago, Nunez hit .282/.327/.431 in 72 games for Minnesota. That was easily the best slash line of his career, and a great deal better than the .267/.308/.388 career mark he's posted thus far. His 1.1 fWAR was nearly a full win above his previous career best, and considering his -0.6 fWAR career mark, a significant jump for a single season. Nunez also batted above .300 (.314 to be exact) on balls in play for just the second time of his career (the other time was in a 38 game sduring 2012 for the Yankees).

Nunez's hard hit rates didn't change much last season, and his contact rate actually dipped a little. He's still going to provide the Twins positional flexibility, but the offensive production is likely more mirage than it is indicative of what's to come.

Then there's Danny Santana. If there's a guy that knows about BABIP it's Santana. After hitting .319/.353/.472 in 2014, Santana's inflated .405 BABIP brought him back down to earth. Minnesota gave him an incredibly long leash a season ago, and in 91 games he slashed a terrible .215/.241/.291. His -15 DRS (defensive runs saved), and 16 errors at SS in just 66 games were beyond bad, and he's since been moved back to the outfield.

Santana is out of options in 2016, and that forces the Twins hand. He should be deployed as a super utility player that doesn't defend anywhere exceptionally well. His infield defense has been covered, and he's just a bit below average in center (a position in which he should only spell Byron Buxton). For Santana though, it comes down to whether he can hit at all, and a season ago, the Twins didn't see it.

That brings us to Arcia, who like Santana, absolutely needs to hit. Of the group thus far, Arcia no doubt presents the most offensive upside. He's just a year removed from a 20 homer output, and the hulking Venezuelan has real power when he connects. The issue is that doesn't happen often enough.

Despite posting a nice .276/.338/.379 slash line in 19 games with the Twins, the power didn't show itself enough to get him extended run. He reeled off a nice home run stretch at Triple-A in 2015, but he finished with an awful .199/.257/.372 slash line in 79 games for Rochester. He's never posted below a 15.0% swinging strike rate, and last season, he nearly swung and missed 20% of the time. With the Twins a year ago, he also chased pitches out of the zone nearly 50% of the time.

A bad outfielder (-27 DRS in 204 games played), Arcia has to hit to give the Twins any real benefit. Molitor can't afford to play him and Miguel Sano in the outfield at the same time, and coming off of the bench cold may not help his bat. Arcia, like Santana, is out of options, and without his bat catching fire, could do more harm for Minnesota than good.

Finally, the club will have a capable big league catcher to swap with Kurt Suzuki for the first time in a while. Gone are the days of calling up Four-A type players like Eric Fryer and Chris Herrmann. Murphy is far from a set-the-world-on-fire type, but he's got promise to develop into a nice big league starter. With Minnesota looking to avoid activating Suzuki's player option for 2017, the starting role should become Murphy's role sooner than later.

In his career, Murphy has never played more than 67 games at the big league level in a season. Over the last two years for the Yankees however (99 games) he's slashed .280/.324/.394. There's probably more doubles power than home run reliability there, but he looks the part of a capable big league hitter. Most importantly for the Twins is that Murphy possesses capable receiving skills as well as the ability to throw would be base-stealers out (did so at a 28% clip in 2015).

Paul Molitor is going to ease Murphy into the starting lineup, but he's more than a throw in secondary catcher. While not an offensive juggernaut, his role on the Twins bench is much more in line with future promise than his counterparts.

At the end of the day, planning to fill out your bench with starting caliber players isn't a realistic strategy. What the Twins have though may be more a by-product of their situation, and not exactly the depth on the 25 man roster you'd like to see. It's tough to envision top prospects like Jorge Polanco or Max Kepler coming up to the big league level in a reserve role, but the Twins could probably advance their overall ability be considering it at some point.

Should the Twins move towards a second playoff push in 2016, it will likely be some combination of their bench out producing expectations, and that bench transforming. No doubt making waves in October is about getting production from your best players, but the Twins will also be looking to push the envelope when it comes to the guys that round out the club as well.

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