Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Next Twins Bat Is Ready

As the summer has drug on, the Minnesota Twins have been noted to need some right handed hitting help. Whether the roster is constructed with eight relievers, or the more efficient seven, a boost could be given to the 25 man with a strong hitter on the right side of the plate. For quite some time, Mitch Garver has made a case to be that guy, and it's time to take notice.

Thus far this season, Kennys Vargas has been shuttled between Triple-A Rochester and the big leagues six times. He's often been the guy sent down when a spot is needed, and he's been the easy choice with his production lacking. While the home run power is obvious, Vargas has posted a .723 OPS in 176 at bats, but owns just a .291 OBP in 2017. He has hit eight long balls, but his 54/10 K/BB ratio continues to drag him down. Add in the fact that he's been well below average defensively, and Minnesota simply can't find a reason to carry him.

If there's an opportunity for a new name the next time the big club decides to make a move, it's absolutely worth considering Garver. A 9th round pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, Mitch Garver has predominantly been a catcher in the Twins system. This season at Triple-A, he's branched out to playing first base and left field more often, only expanding his flexibility. Behind the dish, he's at worst an average receiver, and he's consistently thrown out one-third of would-be base stealers in his time as a pro.

Garver started to gain some real intrigue after a strong second season as a professional with Cedar Rapids. Postin an .880 OPS with 16 homers, there was excitement surrounding the New Mexico native heading into 2015. After scuffling for Fort Myers, he used a strong Arizona Fall League showing to bolster the last two years of his career. With a .764 OPS at Double and Triple-A a year ago, Garver's .915 OPS in 2017 takes his career up a notch. Consistent all season, Garver has already hit 13 homers, and ripped 20 doubles for the Red Wings in 2017.

When looking at his numbers as a whole, it may be easy to overlook just how good Garver has been of late as well. Over the course of his last 31 games, Garver owns a .328/.389/.630 slash line with 12 doubles and eight long balls. On the season, his .884 OPS against righties is solid, and his 1.005 OPS against lefties is downright incredible.

With the Twins currently opting to go the extra pitcher route, they've found themselves using the likes of Jorge Polanco and Eduardo Escobar as the designated hitter. Bench bats have included Chris Gimenez and Ehire Adrianza. When on the roster, Kennys Vargas has played first poorly. Robbie Grossman has shown significant limitations in the outfield, and the 25 man as a whole continues to clamor for a more versatile righty.

It would be foolish to expect Garver to come up and be some sort of a savior for the Twins club. A catcher first, any other position will see some drop off as a secondary position. Also, while hitting the snot out of the ball at Triple-A, he's a 26 year-old rookie that would likely need some time to adjust to the next level. What's also foolish to expect, is that Garver isn't up to the task.

Thanks to the lackluster play of the Cleveland Indians, the Minnesota Twins find themselves in the thick of the AL Central division race. Squeezing out extra wins by raising the water level on the roster with players from within seems like a solid strategy. Mitch Garver represents a clear upgrade for the hometown nine, and it's time he gets his shot.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Twins Hoping Rosario Can Make It All Work

Over the course of the past three seasons, no young player has been more polarizing for the Minnesota Twins than Eddie Rosario. Despite being an early adopter on his bandwagon, and ready for a breakout in 2015, I've been nothing short of a skeptic since 2016 and beyond. In 2017 however, he's having his best offensive year as a big leaguer, and small tweaks are the big story.

After a slow first two weeks to start the season (in which Rosario slashed just .186/.239/.209), he's been a necessary lineup fixture for Minnesota. Despite being consistently tied to a high likelihood of chasing pitches and flailing outside of the zone, he's seemingly been intent upon abandoning those descriptors and has turned over a new leaf. From April 18 until July 17, Rosario owns a .307/.341/.508 slash line. While he's still struck out significantly more than he's walked (51/13), the ratio has turned for the better on both sides.

Over the three years he's spent in the big leagues, the drastic strides at the plate this season are showing themselves numerically. Owning a 24.9% and 25.7% strikeout rate the past two seasons, he's cut the number to just 19.5% in 2017. He's struck out less because of having gone from a 14.5% swinging strike rate in 2015 (and 15.3% last year), to 12.6% this season. Swinging at less pitches out of the zone (38% in 2017 as opposed to 45.6% in 2015) is no doubt going to raise the water level as well.

During his debut season, only the Red Sox Pablo Sandoval (47.8%) and the Orioles Adam Jones (46.5%) chased pitches out of the zone more often than Rosario's 45.6%. Swinging through 14.5% of pitches he took a hack at, Rosario also fared 10th worst in baseball among hitters in 2015. Thanks to his increased discipline, he now ranks 17th lowest in baseball when it comes to chase rate (bad, but much improved), as well as 41st in SwStr% (which is a big leap). As witnessed by his swings and misses outside of the zone since 2015 as well, pitch recognition is something he's vastly improved upon.

While Rosario is far from an elite hitter at this point, it's no coincidence that his slight changes have helped to post his first big league OPS above .300. As things stand currently, he also paces the Twins with a .289 average. Still a work in progress, enough can't be made about the strides Rosario has made at the plate for Minnesota.

Unfortunately, the downside to the offensive growth is the defensive slide. After tallying a ridiculous 12 assists from left field to go along with 10 defensive runs saved, he's fallen off. In 2016, his big league efforts resulted in basically a league average fielder, and this season, he's been worth -7 DRS and -2.2 UZR. Although Twins fans have dealt with the likes of Robbie Grossman, Josh Willingham, and Delmon Young in left field, Rosario hasn't been any sort of steadying presence this campaign either.

There can't be enough noise made about how important Rosario's offensive changes have been. As the defense now holds him back, the wonder continues to be whether he can put it all together. Rosario at his best presents a dream outfield scenario for the Twins, but he'll need to present the reassurance that he's still capable of that. It's pretty crazy to think that we'd reach a point of Rosario being fine offensively while lacking in the outfield, but here we are. Minnesota needs him to come full circle, and doing so soon would be a nice boost.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Deadline Comes As Twins Time Begins

It's July, so there's nothing that will be asked more often over the next couple of weeks than whether or not competing teams should buy or sell. Maybe surprisingly to some, the Minnesota Twins find themselves in the thick of that discussion. What's important to take note of, is that the Twins time is now.

There's no way to get around 2016 being a complete disaster for the hometown nine. Minnesota lost 103 games en route to a franchise worst season. That club however, was coming off of an 83 win season in 2015, and highlighted the volatility of youth. In 2017, we're seeing that notion continue. As the club turns over to being one punctuated by the likes of Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios, and Byron Buxton, growing pains are to be expected. Whether or not the expectations were a winning team in 2017, the reality was that this club had pieces to begin to make waves.

As things stand while nearing the trade deadline, Minnesota has seen most of its top talent rise to the big league level. Miguel Sano is here, Jose Berrios has emerged, and Byron Buxton is playing every day. With other names like Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco on the big league club, the farm system has slogged as its best fruits have been picked. That's not to say there isn't talent still in the minors, but rather, the top tier names are bolstering the 25 man already.

For much of the past seven seasons, the talk has been that the Twins haven't spent money, operating cheaply since opening Target Field. While that may be true, it's also a sensible plan of action. Save for 2010, there wasn't a season in which a big splash or two was going to turn a 90 loss squad into one that makes the playoffs. The organization could've splurged to raise the water level, but the end result would still remain. That is, until now.

As Jerry Crasnick recently described the Atlanta Braves on Twitter, the Twins should be both short-term sellers and long-term buyers at this point. If there's value to be had in return for Ervin Santana or Brian Dozier, listen. If you can grab a piece like Sonny Gray or Marcus Stroman, explore it. While waiting on prospects is fun, the impact is two-fold. Some graduate to your big league roster and make an impact (Sano/Berrios/Buxton), others provide an impact by allowing you to improve your big league roster and have their day elsewhere (see Cubs/Red Sox).

I'm not sure what the asking price for impact pitchers, a bat, or relievers will be during this trade deadline, but Minnesota would be wise not to shy away. Nick Gordon is having a great year at Double-A, but if you can turn him and a few others into a player that has a great year for the Twins in 2017 and beyond, absolutely it's something to be considered.

2017 has opened a window for competition in Minnesota thanks to a handful of reasons. While the Twins may be exceeding expectations, they are also highlighting the weakness of the AL Central as a whole. The Indians aren't running away with anything, and every other club is either not competitive, or has its warts. That same scenario should remain in play for at least the next two years, at which point the White Sox system should begin to bear fruit.

In mentioning that White Sox system, it's of note that Chicago may threaten the Twins longevity the most. Through trades in the last year, the Southsiders have added the #2, 12, 14, 16, 45, and 77th best prospects in all of baseball (per pre-2017 rankings) as well as a 1st round draft pick and top International signing. They have gone full rebuild, and the level of prospects in their system should quickly become impact big leaguers.

During the deadline this summer, and in the upcoming offseason, the Twins would be operating entirely wrong if they aren't going for it. Thanks to the youth contributing at a high level, their window has opened, and will remain wide for at least the next couple of seasons. Spending money on a big name pitcher or shoring up the bullpen with a handful of different suitors should be the expectation not the hope. While they may come up short in 2017, or find an early playoff exit, bringing in an asset or two that helps now and down the road is hardly a bad decision.

Given the landscape of the division, and the state of the organization as a whole, the Twins time to wait on the next prospect has ceased, and it's time to supplement what they have. The nucleus is there, and the new front office will be tasked with adding to it taking the club over the top.

Big Leap For Next Twins Starter

After making just on Triple-A start at Rochester, the Minnesota Twins will call on Bartolo Colon to take a stab at shoring up their starting rotation. With the group of five being in flux virtually all season long, the hope is that Colon can be a steadying presence. The reality however, is Minnesota will more than likely be needing a new arm in the coming weeks, and this time, it could be another impact prospect making a big jump.

Stephen Gonsalves has been lighting Double-A Chattanooga on fire, and it appears his time is soon coming. While it was Felix Jorge who got the first crack at the jump, it never made much sense to put Gonsalves in a spot start scenario. Jorge can be a nice piece for Minnesota in the coming years, but he doesn't have the upside that Gonsalves possesses. As one of the organizations top arms, Minnesota will be promoting Gonsalves with the intention of him staying, and the numbers suggest he may be ready.

Getting off to a late start this season, Gonsalves has thrown just 63 innings over 11 starts. While that could be seen as a detriment, he's made 24 starts at Double-A in his career, and now has less miles during the 2017 season. This year, Gonsalves has also elevated his game to another level. After struggling with command in his Double-A debut tour (4.5 BB/9), he's been near perfect this season (1.7 BB/9). On top of lowering the free passes, he's held strong with a 10.6 K/9 mark, truly dominating the level of competition.

Often times, organizations are faced with the idea of whether or not to move a prospect from Double-A to Triple-A as opposed to the highest level. While that works for some, Gonsalves could be argued to be ready for more. He's pitched to a 2.86 ERA and has shown an ability to do more than simply throw the ball by opposing hitters. A lefty with solid velocity and better pitchability, the former fourth round pick appears more ready for the big leagues than ever before.

At the highest level, Minnesota will have some decisions to make. Colon is going to be added to the 40 man roster, while Hector Santiago seems destined to eventually come off the DL, and Phil Hughes looms in the bullpen. Despite that any number of them could make starts, the idea that you'd be counting on them seems a longshot at best. There's sunk cost in both Santiago and Hughes, meaning the Twins would need to be ok simply eating dollars and moving on. Arguably the smart decision, it's not the easiest one to swallow either. Regardless of how things are handled, Gonsalves has forced the issue.

Considering the landscape of the organization, it's really a discussion between Gonsalves and teammate Fernando Romero when it comes to the next man up. The latter is on an innings limit still not too far removed from surgery, and could be a candidate to pitch out of the pen or make a spot start. It's really only Gonsalves that profiles as an impact addition that can be inserted into the rotation and stay.

Right now, it's hard to look at when and where makes sense for Gonsalves. Things are going to remain up in the air throughout the month of July, and as the Twins scour the trade market. As the summer draws on though, I'd be nothing short of surprised if Gonsalves isn't the next man up to take the ball at the start of the game for Minnesota. Suggesting he's ready is a good bet, and things have more than begun to line up.

With youth already the backbone of the big club thanks to Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and Jose Berrios all playing key roles, Minnesota could be best served to continue the movement. Maybe not an ace, Gonsalves profiles as a rotation fixture for years to come, and a season from now, could be pitching the Twins into the Postseason.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Twins Searching Out A Bat?

Recently on, Jon Morosi wrote a trade deadline buyer's guide focused on hitters. I recently wrote a piece regarding the Twins and how they should attack the deadline when it comes to pitching and prospects. I hadn't considered them adding a bat, but there's a name Morosi mentions that could make some sense. Is this the time that Jose Bautista comes to Target Field wearing the home uniform?

There was some talk over the offseason that Minnesota may have interest in the long time Blue Jays slugger. He would join an outfield better suited defensively, but there's a clear path to regular playing time as the designated hitter. Over the winter, he ended up heading back to Toronto on a one-year deal worth $18.5 million. Now on the hook for just a prorated portion, Minnesota could attempt to entice the Canadian AL East club to send him south of the border.

On the season, Bautista has posted a .749 OPS, or his lowest mark since 2009. He owns a poor .234/.349/.400 slash line and has hit just 14 homers. Much of that is directly related to a very slow start to the year however. Since May 12, Bautista owns a .275/.379/.482 line with 11 of his 14 total homers. Having turned it on after a slow start, he's beginning to trend back up.

At 36 years old, and with over 1,000 MLB games under his belt, there was plenty of reason to worry about a downturn in 2017. Now with the season halfway over, the Blue Jays have eaten up most of that risk. Should the Twins, or some other team, trade for him at this point, they'd be getting a player with most of the risk assumed by another organization. Toronto would likely still want a decent return, but unless they are willing to eat most of what's still owed to him, any partner should have strong negotiating position.

Throughout his career, Bautista has enjoyed plenty of success at Target Field. Obviously that comes with the caveat of having faced a good amount of poor Twins pitching over the years. Nonetheless, in 21 games at Target Field, Bautista owns a 1.324 OPS with 14 homers. Obviously playing there full time, those numbers probably decrease some, but having past success to use as a springboard is hardly a bad thing.

Given the Twins current roster construction, Bautista seems to fit as well. While not a good defensive outfielder, he would immediately slot in as the every day DH. He hasn't consistently played first base for some time, but could spell Joe Mauer at the position every once in a while. He also allows Minnesota to upgrade from Robbie Grossman, who while despite being an OBP machine, has gotten exposed with increased playing time.

A lot regarding the landscape of how the Twins attack the remainder of the 2017 season will be determined in the next week or so. With tough series against good teams upcoming, Minnesota will have a much more clear picture as to how they will fair down the stretch. If everything follows along with the status quo however, Jose Bautista remains a name that makes a good deal of sense in Minnesota.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Spend Or Flip: Twins Path To Pitching

As the second half of the Major League Baseball season gets underway, the Minnesota Twins find themselves in an interesting position. Despite being in contention and owners of a winning record, they sport a -60 run differential and are void of pitching options. A crossroads is appearing, and Minnesota will need to decide how they are going to acquire some arms.

With the trade deadline quickly approaching, it's pretty easy to note that this club should not be in win now mode. That's to say, no acquisitions for rentals should be made, and the goal shouldn't be to contend in 2017. If transactions are coming, they should all be forward thinking and have future value.

So, if that's the plan of action, there's a handful of exciting names that could be on the table. Recently, Ken Rosenthal tweeted the Twins are checking in on controllable starters. This is absolutely the right avenue to pursue. Those names would include the likes of Jose Quintana, Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, Marcus Stroman, Dan Straily, Julio Teheran or even Gerrit Cole. Now, that group (and there's more possibilities that fall under the umbrella) are going to have varying degrees of asking prices. Regardless of what the Athletics try to argue, the likes of Archer or Stroman represents a superior option to Sonny Gray. Cole and Stroman are near the top end of the spectrum, while Quintana and Teheran hover around the middle. Given the differing acquisition cost of each, the Twins will need to tread lightly.

In flipping players, Minnesota will likely be asked for top prospects such as Nick Gordon, Stephen Gonsalves, and Fernando Romero. They could be pushed on Max Kepler, and while there's other names that could draw interest, that foursome probably commands the most attention. Given that level of talent, it will be on the front office of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to decide if surrendering those players are worthy of making a swap. It's a scenario that will weigh heavily, especially in baseball with another option looming so easily.

It's just money right? Well, that's true to a certain extent, and in an uncapped sport, Minnesota has plenty of it. While you may have disparaged the club previously for being cheap, spending whil the bulk of your roster is subpar doesn't make sense. Given where the organization is right now however, supplementing the roster with a big contract or two could be enough to put you over the top. Sure, the Twins don't have the TV revenue of other markets (meaning the dollars are stretched just a bit further), but they have the means to command the attention of any free agent they covet.

Aside from making a deal with another club, the organization could go with a cost that only requires dollars and cents. Someone like Yu Darvish, with whom Thad Levine is intimately familiar, is a pretty obvious option this offseason. Yes, he'll cost you significantly in terms of cash flow, but he represents the clear upgrade with all of the reasons the Twins as a landing spot just may work.

Given the current landscape of the organization, the window to win has begun to open. Inserting at least one top tier rotation arm will go a long ways to kick it to a gaping degree. If Minnesota can have prospects like Romero and Gonsalves to turn to, as well as a Darvish type, the dollar cost may end up seeming like a moot point as the dust settles.

Should the organization go the trade route, the hope would be that they aim high. Whatever Sonny Gray commands, an Archer, Stroman, or Cole should be more intriguing. If you're giving up prospects, don't stop short of getting the near-guaranteed boost. To deal from youth with a potential to end up looking at another middle of the rotation starter isn't a practice you want to follow.

In the coming weeks, we will soon have a more clear picture as to how the Twins will choose to navigate these waters. There's no denying they need pitching, and they're more than one arm away. The hope would be that they choose to acquire help in a way that not only sets them up to take a step forward, but also doesn't sacrifice any presumed longevity of their winning ways.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Minnesota Twins First Half In Review

Coming off a season in which the Minnesota Twins posted a record amount of losses, conventional wisdom would've told you to be down on this 2017 squad. However, a year prior in 2015, virtually the same group compiled an 83-79 mark. At the All Star Break this season, Paul Molitor's club looks more the group of two years ago as opposed to the one from last year. There's been good, bad, and ugly, but what do we make of it all?

First and foremost, the Twins were tabbed with an over/under of 74.5 wins going into 2017. At 45-42 at the break, they're on pace 83 wins, and need to go just 30-45 the rest of the way to surpass betting expectations. Through three full months, Minnesota has had two winning flips of the calendar, and a June that saw them miss a .500 month by one game. Back in 2015, a 20-7 May set the pace for the rest of the season, and that team finished with just two winning months total.

Against the rest of the AL Central, the Twins are +2 in the win column, with their best record coming against the Kansas City Royals. The home and road splits have been odd, but are merely an outcome of random variation. The expectation would be that the 20-28 home record sees improvement, while the 25-15 road record takes a step backwards. Given a -60 run differential however, the club will have to make sure whatever slide the do hit, isn't as drastic as that number says it should be.

Numbers aside, this club has a few things to investigate at the midway point. First and foremost, pitching has been virtually what it was expected to be. The rotation has been up and down, being saved from disaster in part thanks to Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios. In relief, the bullpen has been nothing short of atrocious save for Brandon Kintzler and Taylor Rogers. The rotation was going to be questionable at best, but has been supported by a strong defense and improved catching game. THe pen could've been upgraded, but with Matt Belisle and Craig Breslow the only offseason additions of note, the level of futility isn't hard to imagine.

On offense, Brian Dozier has (as expected) regressed towards career averages, while Miguel Sano has been just as good (if not better) than his rookie season. We haven't yet seen the big contributions at the plate from Byron Buxton, and players like Max Kepler and Robbie Grossman have waded somewhere in the middle ground. At times, Eddie Rosario has looked like a contributor, and Joe Mauer has trended in a positive direction. With much less reason to worry about the sticks going into the 2017 campaign, it's been about as expected.

Going forward, the Twins are going to need to fend off a form of regression that's almost certain to come. There's plenty of reason to suggest they'll hang around late into the season, the quality of the AL Central chief among them, but there's going to be tough tests ahead. Coming out of the All Star Break, Minnesota faces the Astros, Yankees, and Dodgers all in short order. Getting swept or beat in each of those series could put a quick damper on the last half of the season.

As July concludes, the Twins will likely find themselves in a similar position to where they are currently. They've exceeded expectations, but aren't truly a contender. There wasn't enough ammunition brought in over the winter to make this current roster construction viable, and nothing focused on winning in 2017 will change that.

To define the Twins positioning, they should be both buyers and sellers. If looking to acquire talent, it should be controllable options with high ceilings. That may have a significant price tag, but players like Chris Archer or Marcus Stroman aren't simply a 2017 answer, and that's a good thing. On the flip side, if there's teams willing to give you real talent back for someone like Brandon Kintzler, Ervin Santana, or even Brian Dozier, you'd absolutely be best suited to listen.

If you told the casual Twins fan that they'd be 45-43 at the All Star Break this season, I'd imagine the response would be one of disbelief. The position this club finds itself in is a good one, that presents itself as unsustainable, but also makes you wonder what could be if more was done. Going forward, Molitor and the front office will need to get more from less the rest of the way. They'll need to scratch out victories and claw to stay in contention. Missing the playoffs isn't a death sentence, but playing meaningful late season games is far from a guarantee as well.

Thus far, the 2017 Twins have had a successful season. It will be on those currently in the room to ensure it ends that way. To wrap up, here's a few first half awards of note:

Team MVP: Miguel Sano .276/.368/.538
Sano has looked the part of a middle of the order bat. Sure, he's striking out a ton, and I'd still like to see a few more walks, but everything else is there. The power is real, he hits everything hard, and he's been well above expectations at 3B.

Biggest Surprise: Brandon Kintzler 2.29 ERA 24 SV
Kintzler doesn't have any of the peripherals a traditional closer possesses, but he continues to make it work. Despite the low strikeout rates, he's a ground ball machine and doesn't walk anyone. It's not always pretty, but Kintzler has been a bright spot in an otherwise abysmal bullpen.

Biggest Disappointment: Jorge Polanco .224/.273/.323
I've been a Polanco fan for some time now, and it's always been his bat that suggested he was big league ready. This season, he's been above average through virtually the whole first half as a defensive shortstop, but hasn't hit at all. Completely opposite of his career norms, you have to hope the bat picks up soon.

Most Improved: Jason Castro .223/.317/.370
This is less about Castro as a player specifically than it is about the upgrade he represents. The Twins suffered through a terrible rotation of Kurt Suzuki and Juan Centeno a year ago. While Castro hasn't hit really at all, he's been great behind the dish, and without him, the marginal pitching staff would be incredibly worse off.

2nd Half Key: Jose Berrios 3.53 ERA 8.7 K/9 2.4 BB/9
Through his first few turns, Berrios looked the part of the incredible pitching prospect he's been touted to be. He did fade a bit down the stretch, and Minnesota will need that to cease. Given the revolving door that the rotation has been, the Twins can't afford Berrios not to be a high level asset. Whether they trade Santana or not, this team needs Berrios to continue to be an impact hurler virtually every time he steps on the mound.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Bartolo Colon, The Savior Minnesota Needs?

When the Minnesota Twins signed Bartolo Colon to a minor league deal, my initial reaction was one of disbelief. I'm not sure where the feeling came from. It could've been because Colon is a big name, maybe because he has a big ERA, or maybe because at 44 years old, he's a big guy still playing baseball at the highest level. I've now had time to mull it over, and I couldn't be more ecstatic.

Coming out of the All Star Break, the Minnesota Twins will go with a rotation consisting of (and, in order): Jose Berrios, Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson, and Adalberto Mejia. Of that group, Gibson has continued to struggle, and Mejia remains unproven. They'll need to address what to do with Hector Santiago at some point, and Phil Hughes appears to have been jettisoned to the pen despite being owed $26.4 million over the next two years. Where we sit today though, the home nine need another starter.

At this point, we've seen Quad-A type pitchers like Nik Turley and Adam Wilk get a shot. We've brought in veterans like Dillon Gee (who has now seemingly been passed over), and we've watched a Double-A hurler in Felix Jorge make the jump. None of the options Minnesota has cycled through have looked the part of someone that can immediately stick long term. Enter Colon, Bartolo.

Yes, Bartolo Colon has been an atrocity for the Atlanta Braves in 2017. He owns an 8.14 ERA and an equally bad 5.08 FIP. Over the course of 13 starts for Atlanta, he has just two quality starts, and has failed to make it to the 5th inning on six occasions. If you look at his last 10 starts, negative two gems to start the season, he owns an even worse 9.59 ERA. All that said, it's about as bad as it gets. There's rays of hope however.

Let's start with where he was a season ago. With the 2016 Mets, Colon was a mainstay in one of the best rotations baseball had to offer. Across 33 starts (34 games), Colon owned a 3.43 ERA and a solid 3.99 FIP. In fact, prior to 2017, the last time Colon posted an FIP higher than 4.00 was 2009 in a 12 start year for the Chicago White Sox.

As a right-handed pitcher, Colon has generally kept same-handedness hitters in check. During 2016, he allowed a .664 OPS to righties while giving up a .795 mark to lefties. The script has flipped in 2017, as he's surrendered a 1.011 OPS to righties and an .879 OPS to lefites. The surface numbers don't suggest all that much has changed either. His 6.0 K/9 is in line with career norms, while his 2.9 BB/9 is up from where he's been since 2011, it isn't an egregious total. If there's an number that pops off the page, it's the 13.1 H/9 and 1.6 HR/9. It's pretty obvious that extra baserunners, and balls leaving the yard, aren't a recipe for success. What's promising is what lies beneath.

Thus far, Colon has been victim to a .360 BABIP number in 2017. That's way up from a .296 career average, and well above the MLB average this season. Not in line with the rise, Colon is allowing a 32.6 Hard%, which is below his 2016 number, and essentially his average dating back to 2014. A 14.3% HR/FB rate explains the rise in longballs, but well hit baseballs aren't something that seems to be a large problem for Bartolo. On top of all of this, his velocities have held strong. He's averaging 90.7 mph on his fastball this year, up slightly over 2016, and at a normal rate of decline given his age and career arc.

So, what we see is that Colon's surface numbers are an outlier, and that the supporting numbers don't necessarily suggest such a drastic change should be taking place. Of course, we're dealing with a 44 year old who has more than 3,200 innings on his arm. It's very possible he could be cooked, and that everything would fall apart at once, it's also quite likely that isn't the case.

The way things stand for the Twins, Colon is as little of a risk as you can possibly get. They pay him a prorated portion of the league minimum, or just over $200k for the rest of the year. He's not a long term solution, but expecting him to provide valaue is a decent bet. Given the financial implications are next to moot, being a contributor in a rotation that so badly needs it would be a huge boost.

Maybe Colon needed a change of scenery. He'll get a much better defense in Minnesota (the Twins rank 7th in MLB in DRS, Braves are 24th), and he'll get a better team as a whole. The Twins aren't serious playoff contenders, but there's a shot, and that gives Colon something to play for as well. If none of it works out and things go up in flames, neither side is out much, and can move on. For Minnesota though, Colon could represent a boost the club desperately needs.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Santana Falls Victim To Useless Stat

Ervin Santana has been the talk of baseball in the first half of the 2017 Major League season. He has bucked his career trends and been among the games best starters. While there has been some slipping of late, against the Los Angeles Angels, Santana recorded his 4th complete game of the season. Unfortunately he ends up on the wrong side of the decision, only to highlight the uselessness of the pitcher win.

For the past few years, there's been any number of talking heads that have pointed out baseball's dated numbers. From statistics such as Wins to saves, and ERA to batting average, we're at a place in the game where we can more accurately understand it. In the tilt between the Twins and the Angels on July 5th, we saw more than a few of those useless statistics in play.

First and foremost, Santana's complete game comes into focus. It was his fourth of the 2017 season, meaning he's already thrown more as an individual, than any other team in baseball. Across the 9.0 innings he worked, Angels hitters tallied 7 hits and 2 runs while walking twice and striking out five times. Throwing 80 of his 117 pitches for strikes, Santana was economical, and largely sharp on the evening. When the dust settled though, the win went to Angels rookie Parker Bridwell. Bridwell was fantastic in his own right, but threw three less innings before handing the game over to his relievers.

Then there's the double whammy of how Santana lost his opportunity, and it hurt his line as well. With Cameron Maybin at 3rd base and Kole Calhoun at 1st, the Angels made Minnesota look like an aloof bunch of high schoolers. Calhoun broke for second, and Minnesota Catcher Jason Castro fired all the way through to second. Neither Brian Dozier nor Eduardo Escobar acted as if there was a steal play on to cut the ball off and throw home. Maybin has plenty of speed, and he made it home easily as the Twins essentially gave him the run. All of this took place while Santana stood on the mound and watched, being credited with an earned run.

Looking back at that series of events as a whole, it couldn't be more clear why surface stats have been now aided by a further dive into what takes place on the diamond. ERA is hardly the be-all-end-all for a pitcher. Given the discretion of an official scorer, a pitcher is at the mercy of interpretation. In this instance, that run was much more Castro, Dozier, and probably even Paul Molitor's fault than it was the pitcher's. In allowing that runner to cross the plate Minnesota's run in the bottom of the 7th just drew Santana closer, but didn't lead to him having an opportunity to get the win.

Baseball Prospectus' Aaron Gleeman tweeted out after last night's game that Bert Blyleven owns the most complete game losses in Twins history with 45. While that seems like a staggering number (and it is), what's worse is how good he was in those games. he went on to highlight that while Bert went 0-45 in those games, he posted an ERA of 2.99. So, Blyleven was exactly as good as Santana has been all of 2017 as a whole (his ERA currently sits at 2.99) and gave his Minnesota teams 9 innings, just to be tagged with a loss each time.

I can understand why needing to pin the win or loss on a pitcher is a necessary practice. With that being said, there should absolutely be the caveat that the weight it carries is minimal at best, and rarely indicative of the game's actual flow.

When pitchers are being decided upon for awards at the end of the season, the win stat is one often pointed to. Last year's AL Cy Young winner was 22-game winner Rick Porcello. Given the landscape of options in 2016, he was far from an egregious choice, but it was likely that win total that tipped the scales for him over the equally (or maybe more) deserving Justin Verlander.

At the end of the day, Ervin Santana twirled a gem for no less than the fourth time in 2017. He wasn't credited with a statistic saying as much and his overall numbers suffered due to a gaffe he had nothing to do with. All baseball statistics aren't created equal, and the more we challenge the validity of each, the better understanding we will have.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Mauer Presenting Twins An Opportunity

34 years old and in the second to last season of his eight-year deal with the Minnesota Twins, Joe Mauer has given the organization a brand new opportunity. Despite being sapped from the sure-fire Hall of Fame trajectory he was on as a catcher, Mauer has mostly scuffled at first base. In 2017 though, there's a different narrative beginning to emerge. In his current form, Mauer presents some intriguing value to the Twins.

The knock on Mauer at first base has always been that he doesn't hit for enough power to play the corner spot. While that's a fair assessment, he's turned into a premier defender. He's absolutely worthy of a Gold Glove in 2017, and should've been more in the conversation a season ago had he played in enough games to qualify. While the defensive metrics may be fickle, the vast majority tip the scales in his favor. All of that is for another time however, this new opportunity is about Joe Mauer the hitter.

Owning a career .308/.390/.444 slash line, Mauer likely won't be putting up the slugging percentage of his career average any time soon. However, he's shown that when healthy and given regular rest, he's still not someone opposing pitchers should want to face in 2017. On the season, his .287/.360/.404 slash line is the best mark he's posted since the last time he was an All-Star, in 2013. More impressively yet, Mauer's numbers under the hood are relatively gaudy.

It's been a talking point for some time that the lefty has declined greatly against similarly-handed pitchers. In 2017, Mauer has 67 plate appearances against lefties, and he owns a paltry .542 OPS. Against righties however, he's slashed .305/.381/.448 with all five of his home runs, 15 of his 17 doubles, and driven in 26 of his 33 RBI. There's really no other way to put it, Mauer remains a menace against right-handed pitching.

At 34, Mauer isn't the same hitter that used to draw walks more often than he struck out. That streak all but ended in 2012. However his 14.6 K% ranks 35th in MLB, and only Dustin Pedroia has a lower (3.8%) SwStr% than the Twins first basemen (4.0%). After topping out at 112 strikeouts during 2015, Mauer is at just 45 through the club's first 83 games, putting him on pace for an acceptable 88 (lowest since 2012).

Diving a bit further into the output, Mauer's 34.6 Hard% is the best mark he's posted since 2012, and while he's going the opposite way more often than any season since 2014, he's putting the ball in the air more often (27.6%) than any season dating back to 2009 (29%). At this point, we know groundballs aren't the way to sustainable success in the big leagues, and Mauer has created a perfect storm for himself.

While highlighting the good side of things may seem self serving, the reality, at least to a certain extent, is that's exactly the point. The Twins have an opportunity going forward to be self serving with Mauer. I'd love it if he could pick up the hardware this season and win a Gold Glove. A year from now however, putting him into a full time platoon with a right handed first basemen (with a bit bigger power bat), makes all the sense in the world. Rather than having an above average answer to part of the equation, they'd immediately have a true threat at first base.

We have seen (and probably should've known) that Kennys Vargas is nothing more than a bench bat in a best case scenario. ByungHo Park is starting to turn things around at Triple-A, but there hasn't been much power there, and a handful of question marks still remain. One of the most often called for things off of the Twins bench is a right handed power bat; killing two birds with one stone by asking that player to be a first basemen seems like an ideal scenario.

If there's a necessary caveat to mention in all of this, it's that there's not a ton of options when it comes to lefty-mashing first basemen. Of the impending free agents, you're left with a list of Mike Napoli and Mark Reynolds. The former was a Twins target that's been awful in 2017, and the latter has reverse splits, hitting righties far better (and also has to beat the skepticism of hitting outside of Coors Field).

Regardless of how this narrative plays out, what is certain is that Joe Mauer has given the Twins an opportunity. They can upgrade first base production by pairing him with a partner. He isn't going to sign another long term deal following this contract, but being kept around on short deals after it, he's an asset as opposed to a former aging vet like Torii Hunter may have been.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Longball Ready To Shine Once Again

For years I tuned into the Home Run Derby during All Star Week of the Major League Baseball season. In the days prior, I planned to make it a must see TV event, and always made sure the schedule was blocked out. When the festivities came to Target Field, I was there in person to take in the slugging spectacle. Each year though, I walked away feeling a bit empty. Then 2015 happened.

After years of wondering how to spice up the event, I became convinced Major League Baseball hit gold. In putting a timer on each participant, the goal was to hit bombs quickly. You could still launch them, as it would give you bonus points, but liners served a purpose as well. An event that had become stale due to batters watching for the perfect pitch, was once again rejuvenated with some extra flair.

In 2016, the field featured somewhat of a darkhorse in hometown team product Wil Myers. Then there were boppers like Giancarlo Stanton and Mark Trumbo. Past participant Todd Frazier was back, and he looked to knock off Stanton in the final round. When the dust settled though, it was the Marlins slugger who powered his way, with some moonshots sprinkled in, to a total of 61 dingers through the three rounds. No one watching could have walked away from the event with anything but excitement for what had just taken place.

Fast forwarding to this season, it's hard not to get excited about what we may see on Monday July 10. Stanton has already announced he'll defend his crown, and it's been reported that the Twins Miguel Sano will also take place. Throw in the possibility of Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, and you have an amazing combination of strength, as well as youth, to put on display.

The derby itself caters to those with endurance. It's no doubt a workout having to swing the bat that hard, that often, in that short of a time span. Returning hitters like Stanton find an upper hand in knowing what to expect, but you'd be hard pressed to find people willing to be against other names in that type of a star studded field. It's what they've all done to this point in the season however, that may make everything that much more exciting.

For the majority of 2017, Miguel Sano has paced Major League Baseball in average exit velocity. Recently relinquishing that lead, he now trails only Aaron Judge. The Yankees rookie right fielder leads baseball in longballs with 27, and the Dodgers young star Bellinger check in right behind him with 24. Although Stanton (20) and Sano (18) don't have quite the numbers of the top two, there's no denying their ability to put some distance between a ball and home plate.

Digging a bit deeper into the statistics, there's even more numbers to suggest that this foursome could put on a show. Per Fangraphs, Sano ranks first in MLB among hard hit % (50%). Bellinger is second at 49% and Judge is tied for 5th at 48.3%. Then there's the HR/FB ratio, where each of the four players ranks in the top 15. Judge paces baseball (41.5%), Bellinger checks in 3rd (32.4%), Sano finds himself 11th (26.9%), and Stanton is 13th (25.6%). That all of these guys are hitting the ball out of the yard on one of four fly balls during a game, only raises expectations of what they can do in a derby scenario.

While we have to wait and see in regards to a full participant list, there's no doubt baseball fans should be clamoring for each of these guys to show up. The Future's Game and All Star Game itself will be fun this season, but it's this Derby that could end up topping them all. The groundwork was laid back in 2015 with the event itself returning to relevancy, now the sport has a cast list it can select that would be nothing short of A-listers.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Leach Looks To Blossom With Twins

With their second round pick in the 2017 Major League Baseball draft, the Minnesota Twins selected a right handed pitcher out of high school in Canada. Landon Leach may not yet be a household name on the mound, and it's a position he's still growing into, but the Twins see him as a rotation fixture for the future.

Having just transitioned from behind the plate to the mound in the past two years, Leach remains raw on the bump. Shoving a 95+ mph fastball however, there's plenty of reason to be excited about the Twins prep star from Toronto. Now having signed his contract, he's just days away from beginning his pro career down in Fort Myers with the Gulf Coast League Twins.

Before he kicks off the next phase of his baseball life, I caught up with him to ask a few questions.

Off The Baggy: Let's start with the organization, what is your knowledge of the Twins and Minnesota at this point?

Landon Leach: During my first showcase as a pitcher (at 15), Walt Burrows (Twins Canadian Scout) came up to me and was saying positive things about my body type and that they'd keep in touch in the future. That ended up being true as he's the one who signed me. That was really the first contact I had with the Twins. My visit to Minneapolis and Target Field was just a great experience. It's a very nice city; very quiet compared to Toronto I found. I have much more knowledge now about the organization than before the draft.

OTB: Describe your pitching presence to me. What pitches do you throw? What do you rely on? How do you attack hitters?

LL: This is actually just my second year pitching, after moving from catcher. My pitches are fastball (4 and 2 seam), changeup, and slider. I can reach 96 with my fastball, so I can rely on that. My out pitch is my slider, which is above average. My changeup is still in the making, just need to perfect it for strikes. Having been used to coming out of the pen, I'll soon get used to starting. I'm going to need to attack hitters with my fastball, and as the lineup turns over, I'll need to change looks and use offspeed stuff.

OTB: Being from Canada, are you a Justin Morneau fan, or who are some of your big league influences?

LL: Actually, Morneau was one of my coaches for my team Canada trip. I know him fairly well, definitely a great player for the Twins. I feel like my game right now, my body and my arm angle, I'm more of a Corey Kluber kind of guy. I like how he pitches and what he does for his team.

OTB: In making the leap to pro ball, what's the area of your game you think is going to set you a part? What requires the most work yet?

LL: Most amount of work, like I said, I haven't pitched many innings. Getting more innings under my belt is going to be the early focus. I feel like a strength is that I've played against many professional players having been with team Canada. We've gone to extended spring training and instructional leagues to against guys from the Dominican and Cuba, so I have a good idea what the level of competition looks like. I feel comfortable playing against those types of players.

OTB: What's the one thing you want Twins fans to know about you as a person, and also as a pitcher?

LL: I love when people interact with me face to face. I've had a lot of support in my classroom and school, and seeing Twins fans continue that support would be great. As a baseball player, I'd do anything to get to the major leagues. The work ethic is there, and I'll do anything for my teammates.

Ready to get going down in Fort Myers, Leach is going to be a player that's absolutely worth keeping an eye on in the coming years. As he continues to grow into a pitcher as a professional, it will be exciting to watch the Twins organization help him come into his own. He should be making starts in short order for the GCL squad, and seeing him rise the ranks is something Twins Territorians can get behind.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Enlow Makes Twins His Choice

As the Minnesota Twins closed out the first day of their 2017 Major League Baseball, some heads were left scratching. There was talk of below slot deals and pool money being saved. It came full circle at pick 76 however, when the organization was able to grab (and ultimately sign) high school hurler Blayne Enlow.

Committed to LSU, Enlow decided the over-slot deal (reportedly $2 million) would be enticing enough to take his talents to the pro ranks. Highly regarded as a prep pitcher, Enlow was said to have the best curveball in the entirety of the 2017 draft. Minnesota gets a kid that could end up being a rotation stalwart a few years from now, and the Louisiana native begins his journey to the ultimate dream.

I caught up with Enlow to talk the draft, and his game. Here's what he had to say:

Off The Baggy: Going into the draft, you were among the top prep arms in the nation. What was your draft day experience like? Did you have any idea where you may go?

Blayne Enlow: I had no idea where I would go. I was waiting for the best offer I could get and the first day nobody got to my number so I turned down a few offers, and then the second day the Twins came up to two million and I knew that's what I wanted to do so I took it!!
OTB: The Twins ended up taking you 76th overall knowing they got a first round talent. When did you start hearing from them and thinking that may actually be where you land?

BE: I was on a golf course with a couple of my buddies and then I got a call from my agent saying the Twins are putting 2 ($2 million) on the table and I agreed.

OTB: Velocity is what gets noted first, but called your curveball the best in the draft. What does your repertoire consist of, and how do you like to attack hitters?

BE: I like to pound the strike zone and get batters out quick and my finisher is my curveball. I can throw it first pitch for strike too, and I would say it's my best pitch.

Making the jump to pro ball from high school, what do you feel like may be the biggest challenge? What sets you apart?

BE: The biggest challenge will probably be being away from home and meeting the new players, but what sets me apart is that I will work harder then anyone on the field and I always give it my all.

OTB: When looking at your pitching style, is there a big leaguer, past or present, that you emulate or look to build yourself off of?

BE: I would say Jacob deGrom would be who I feed off the most. I see a lot of the same mechanics and same pitch work.

OTB: Prior to the draft, what did you know of the Twins organization? Have you been to MN or Target Field previously?

BE: I've actually never been, and to be honest, I never knew much being Louisiana grown.

OTB: What's the one thing you want Twins fans to make sure they know about Blayne Enlow?

BE: That when I make it I will give it my all for the city and I will continue to work harder than everyone to try to be the best Blayne Enlow I can be!
For an organization that is always looking for pitching help, Enlow sure seems like he can give the Twins that lift. He'll be a name to watch for years to come, and one that Twins fans will hope to cheer on at Target Field in the future.

Royce Lewis Ready For Life As A Pro

When the Major League Baseball draft commenced in early June, the only certainty was that the Minnesota Twins would make the first selection. There were a handful of names being thrown around as possibilities for the first overall pick, but only those inside the Twins war room knew for certainty whose name would be called. As the dust settled and prep phenom Royce Lewis was the pick, Minnesota immediately had a new name atop their prospect rankings.

Lewis, a star shortstop and outfielder, is regarded as being the most polished high school position prospect in the draft. Noted equally for his maturity as his athleticism, he should immediately step into the Twins system and find success. I had the privilege of catching up with him following the draft, and touched on a few different subjects to get to know him a bit better.

Here's what he had to say:

Off The Baggy: What was your draft day experience like? 

Royce Lewis: I was in Studio City, CA at my grandparents house with my family. We went into the day without expectations, just excited about the potential opportunity.

OTB: Did you have an inclination early in the day the Twins might be looking to take you at 1/1? 

RL: I absolutely did not have any idea that the Twins would select me. I had many conversations with them, however I had conversations with all of the teams. I never doubted my abilities and what I could bring to an organization, but you just never know what will happen, what a team is looking for, or what their needs are.

OTB: Playing both shortstop and the outfield, your athleticism shines on the diamond. What do you feel your strengths are at both positions? Do you prefer one?

RL: I am very athletic with great speed and reactions. Having baseball instincts and the ability to read the ball off the bat well, I have an edge to make plays that others may not at both positions. I have never had much formal training at either position, basically I have relied on my athleticism to do things take over, so with daily training at either or both I am excited to see where it takes me. I love being up the middle because I feel I can help the team at both, however I prefer shortstop because I feel that I am a natural leader and at shortstop I am able to be involved more in the game. The position is naturally a position which is a leader on the field, so I would be able to help the team to get wins and championships.

OTB: Tell us about your hitting approach? Are you a gap power guy, or is speed on the basepaths your thing?

RL: My approach to hitting is that I look for a pitch to drive. I believe I can offer all 3: power, gap to gap, and speed. I just turned 18 on June 5th and have not reached my full potential or growth. Again I look forward to the daily training and facing the best pitching teams have to offer. I feel I am at my best when being challenged. One of my strengths as a hitter is that I am very good with 2 strikes. 

OTB: Making the jump from high school to the professional ranks, what do you see being your biggest challenge? What will help to set you apart?

RL: My biggest challenge will be playing with the best of the best everyday, but this is my dream and I look forward to working hard to challenge myself to always try to be better than the day before. Everything only happens with determination and hard work and I am determined and will work hard everyday, this is what will set me apart. The fact that I am always a student of the game, whether I am in the game or watching others play, there is always an opportunity to learn something which will help better my game.

OTB: Being from California, what is your knowledge of Minnesota and the Twins organization? Have you been to Target Field previously?

RL: I had never been to Minnesota before the Twins organization flew my family and I out for the weekend. It is such a beautiful and clean city. I love that the fan base is so big with Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding areas. It is great that the Twin Cities have 6 professional teams in one area (Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey, Soccer, and Women's Basketball), so many cool things to be apart of and support. My family and I love the state motto "Minnesota Nice." I feel that I will fit in perfect with that as I am a nice guy who will give everything I have to be successful in all that I do while helping others along the way. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing organization. Target Field was incredible, it is one of the best stadiums I have been in and I love that you can maneuver through the downtown area in the skyways without going outside. That is really cool, we do NOT have stuff like that in California!

OTB: Who's a pro player, past or present, that you may have modeled your game after or look up to?

RL: I have always looked up to Derek Jeter because he played the game the right way both on and off the field. I also look to Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor because they are really really good and always seem to be enjoying the game and making it fun! When you love what you do, you will be more successful at what you are doing no matter what it is and for me it is the game of baseball. However, I really hope to just be me, to be "Royce Lewis" and hopefully one day people will look to be like me because I am a great person and player who makes the game fun in all the right ways. It is good to look to others for advice and tips to better yourself but in the end you have to be you and make you.... "the best you can be"!!!

With a long journey ahead, Royce appears to have a great head on his shoulders, and be well positioned to climb through the organization. As the GCL season gets underway, Twins fans will have a chance to see it begin to come together.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Berrios Making A Mirage Of 2016

Another Jose Berrios start, another dazzling performance. The former top pitching prospect for the Minnesota Twins has looked every bit the top tier starter he was billed to be. After an ugly start to his big league career a year ago, 2017 couldn't be more of a drastic turnaround for the Puerto Rican native. No matter where you look, the numbers jump off the board.

Surface numbers weren't kind to Berrios in his MLB debut during 2016. He made 14 starts and compiled an 8.02 ERA. He won just three of his starts and totaled a 6.20 FIP. A strikeout guy on the farm, he posted just a 7.6 K/9 and walked a ridiculous 5.4 per nine a season ago. He was allowing hard contact one-third of the time, and 16.2% of fly balls were leaving the yard. Batters were making contact with his pitches just under 81% and he generated swinging strikes just 8.2% of the time. You'd have to look lone and hard for anything that suggested promise.

Maybe most importantly, Berrios was just 22 years old, and a whole lot of maturity seems to have latched on over the course of the past year. In 2017, Berrios has made eight starts for the Twins, totaling out to a 7-1 record. He owns a 2.67 ERA backed by a solid 3.30 FIP. Strikeouts are there at an 8.8 K/9 clip, while walks are in control at a 2.5 per nine pace. The Twins hurler has kept hitters off balance allowing just 22.8% hard contact, and only 6.9% of his fly balls are leaving the yard. Contact rates have dipped to 77.2% and he's generating swinging strikes 10.4% of the time. In 2017, you'd be equally hard pressed to find a problematic area.

Despite making half the starts (Baseball Savant hasn't yet been updated to include his latest outing), Berrios has compiled 84 swinging strikes as opposed to 100 in 14 outings a year ago. He's getting batters to miss, and his breaking pitches have become the draw of many a GIF around the internet. Velocity remains the same across the board, and really, the only change to his repertoire is a higher amount of benders being thrown. Halving his changeup usage from 14.4% to 7.7%, Berrios has upped his curveball rate to 28.3% this season.

The knock on the Twins young star has always been his stature. Given his height, the lacking plane on his arm angle could be seen as problematic when getting pitches to appear as anything but straight. Recently, Baseball Prospectus' Matthew Trueblood penned a piece on a few tweaks he's made. In lowering his arm slot (as Parker Hageman diagrams in a tweet), and switching to the third base side of the rubber, Berrios has experimented with controllable options to make him more effective. While they may not be the golden ticket, it's hard to argue against the effectiveness in 2017.
As the season draws on, each start continues to give us more insight into what the Twins may have in Berrios. There's been more than a handful of times he's worked himself into danger this season. What has been different, is that he's avoided the big inning, and in general, not allowed the game to get away from him. Pitchability is something that seems to have taken an uptick, as Berrios is dictating at bats and getting the results he needs to escape a jam.

During the 2016 season, the game seemed to control how Berrios was going to react on the mound. As the flow progressed, Berrios reacted and the results followed. In 2017, the opposite seems to take place. Berrios is dictating the game flow, and allowing a heightened sense of maturity to keep him in charge regardless of the scenario. Pairing that with the minor physical tweaks seems to have unlocked the potential that was expected all along.

Right now it's not worth putting a numerical starter value on him, or discussing what his ceiling for the Twins may be. It's pretty apparent that Jose Berrios is a difference maker, and while it's still early, that much appears to be here for good.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Ervin Servin Up An Uncatchable Problem

Way back in 2015, I wrote about Ervin Santana and what he was bringing to the Twins after signing as a free agent. The crux of the piece was that he needed to show an ability to be more than his surrounding parts. He's been a great pitcher when paired with great defenses. That has been the case in 2017 for the Twins, but in June, his defense hasn't been able to be a factor.

As doom and gloom sets in of late, it's first worthwhile to offer some perspective. Santana has made 15 starts for the Twins, and pitched exactly 100 innings. He owns a career best 2.97 ERA and his 1.020 WHIP also registers as a high water mark. Throw in three dazzling complete game shutouts, and the sum of all parts still equals a very fun-to-watch 2017. In June though, the wheels have fallen off, and it's worth finding out why.

Having now made four starts in the month of June, Santana owns a 7.04 ERA while opposing hitters are enjoying a .972 OPS against him. He's labored to get through outings, going more than five innings just once. In fact, had he not thrown a complete game shutout against the Giants as one of the four starts, the already gaudy numbers could look even worse. In taking a deep dive to find a deficiency, it seems that Santana has become susceptible to the ball that can't be caught. He's given up seven homers in four June starts, after allowing just eight in his other 11 combined.

On the year, Santana has danced around danger by avoiding hard contact. He's given up low line drive rates, and the ball simply hasn't been difficult to track down. Some of that has continued in June, but as the ball has elevated, so too have the numbers.

Santana has actually dropped his line drive rate from 15.5% (4/3-5/29) to 11.4 % (6/3-6/20) as the months have gone on, but the hard hit rate has spiked ever so briefly from 24.5% (4/3-5/29) to 28.8% (6/3-60/20). As the ball has been hit harder, the Twins aced has seen a BABIP go from .143 through the first two months, to .315 in the last one. Giving his fielders less of a chance to help him out, he's also watched his FIP balloon from 4.19 through May to 6.82 in June. The icing on the cake is pretty simply though; the amount of fly balls turning into home runs is incredible. At just 9.2% through May, that number has spiked to 25% in June.

Among qualified starters, only six pitchers have allowed over 20% of fly balls to leave the yard. Of those, only the Yankees Masahiro Tanaka has given up a 25.0% HR/FB rate, and his ERA rests at 6.34. Pretty obviously, allowing one out of every four fly balls to leave the stadium is not a path to success.

Santana is a guy that has seen his fair share of homers allowed, but it's never been an egregious problem for him outside of 2012 with the Angels when he led the league with 39. After giving up 1.0 and 0.9 HR/9 with the Twins each of the past two years, Santana has seen the total swell to 1.4 in 2017, ow the worst mark since that 2012 season. Before June hit, that total was at just 1.0 on the year.

In trying to figure out what has changed, Santana doesn't offer a whole lot of clues. He's allowing less line drives of the past month, and while the hard contact is slightly up, he's actually decreased the flu ball rate by just over 8%. If there is something that jumps off the page however, it's the usage of his pitches.

Through May 29, or his 11th start, Santana was throwing his changeup 14.7% of the time. In the month of June, he's cut that number down to 8.2%. As we can see in comparing his pitch types by count in April/May up against June, the changeup is a pitch he's all but abandoned in multiple scenarios. Not only has he turned away from it in pitcher's counts (namely 2-2 and 1-1), but he's not using it to keep hitters off balance either (3-0, 3-1, 2-1). It's not a pitch he's thrown at 14% over the course of his career, but it is something pitching coach Neil Allen is known for, and an offering that the Twins ace appeared to be having success with.

We could absolutely look back on the month of June late in the season and see it as a blip on the radar. Santana could simply have a confidence issue he's working through, and this could easily be put behind him. It could also end up being a turning point that spoils what began as a very exciting start.

There's no denying that Ervin Santana has always been a pitcher held up by a strong defense. He's capable on his own, and elevates his game by using the guys behind him. When allowing the ball to leave the yard as much as he has however, no one is able to come to the rescue, and things snowball as they have. Whether turning back to the changeup, or finding some other way to right the ship, Minnesota needs Santana to give himself and his fielders a chance.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

2017 Mid-Season Twins Top 15 Prospects

Way back in October 2016, I ranked the Twins Top 15 prospects (found here). While there wasn't a number one prospect in all of baseball like Byron Buxton, there's still a lot to like in the organization from top to bottom. Now with the 2017 Major League Baseball draft behind us, and the minor league slate half over, it's time to reassess the group as a whole.

Going from 15 to 1, the group has seen some movement, and there's been some really strong performances thus far in 2017. We could see a few of these names graduate from the group yet this year, and the Twins could find help internally from the farm. With that said, here we go:

15. Mitch Garver C

Garver just missed out on this list prior to 2017, but has continued to command attention. I opined there was some steam to him making the club out of spring training, and he's probably next in line behind John Ryan Murphy. Garver owns an .808 OPS at Triple-A Rochester in 40 G this season, and has some positional flexibility being able to play 1B as well. He has strong caught stealing numbers, and can defend behind the plate at an above average level. There's reason to believe that Garver should finish the season in Minnesota.

14. Daniel Palka OF

For a time Palka looked like he could push for an early promotion to the big leagues in 2017. His production dipped a bit, and now he's on the DL with a .768 OPS. Power is always going to be his calling card, and he was off to a nice start with eight homers through his first 41 games. The strikeout numbers are only going to rise at the big league level, so he'll have to do more work to draw a consistent amount of walks.

13. Lewis Thorpe SP

Getting back on the mound after missing the past two seasons, Thorpe has picked up where he left off. Through his first four starts at Fort Myers, he owns a 2.12 ERA and a 12.7 K/9 to go with a 2.6 BB/9. He looked good at Cedar Rapids prior to his Tommy John surgery, and it seems he's rebounded well. The Twins will no doubt have the 21 year old on an innings limit (and he's never thrown more than 71.2 IP in a season), so he'll likely end 2017 at High-A.

12. Jake Reed RP

Had he stayed healthy out of the gate, Reed would probably be with the Twins already. He suffered an injury on the final day of spring training, and lost a few months of work. Now back healthy, he made quick work of a brief return to Double-A and is back at Triple-A Rochester. Reed has an electric fastball, and solid movement on his pitches. He's a big league reliever with the ability to move towards the back end of the bullpen.

11. Wander Javier SS

Yet to play in 2017, Javier is likely destined for the GCL. He missed a good amount of time in the Dominican Summer League last year, but remains an incredible physical specimen. Watching him in Fort Myers this spring, I have doubts as to whether he can stick at short simply because of his growth. He's bulked up a good amount, and the power potential already flashes big time. The Twins have no shortage of shortstop prospects, but Javier is among the best of them.

10. Tyler Jay RP

Unfortunately for the former 6th overall pick, health hasn't been something easy to come by. Jay was slated to work solely as a reliever this year, and should be at Triple-A by now at worst. He's on the DL again however, and pitched just two innings at Double-A prior to being shelved. If he can stay on the field, the velocity and stuff play out of the pen, but he needs to get a clean bill of health first.

9. Blayne Enlow SP

Taken with the Twins pick at 76th overall in the 2017 MLB draft, Enlow is a prep pitcher with an arrow pointing straight up. He's got a strong fastball that can sit mid-90's, and a host of different outlets called his curveball among the best in the draft. Enlow should have top of the rotation starter potential for the Twins, and ends up being a great value pick for them.

8. Travis Blankenhorn 3B

Since being selected in the 3rd round of the 2015 draft, all Blankenhorn has done is rise in the Twins prospect ranks. He owns an .804 OPS in 66 games with Cedar Rapids this year, and the power has started to play. With 12 doubles and eight homers already, he's a corner infielder that can drive the ball out of the park. Blankenhorn could push for a late season promotion to the Miracle, and at just 20 years old, he's got plenty of developing left to do.

7. Felix Jorge SP

At the time of this writing, we've already had at least one opportunity where the Twins could've called upon Jorge. Realistically, he probably could use a stop at Triple-A, but making the jump from Chattanooga isn't out of the question. He owns a 3.35 ERA across 13 starts this season, and has compiled a 6.2 K/9 with a 2.5 BB/9. Jorge doesn't have much in the form of strikeout stuff, and he's not going to blow big league hitters away, but he can pitch, and doesn't miss his spots. Expecting him to get a few turns with Minnesota this year is a good bet.

6. Brent Rooker OF/1B

With their first comp pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, the Twins took the SEC Triple Crown winner from Mississippi State. Rooker can hit, and whether or not he can hit at the professional level will determine his fate. 23 already, Minnesota will move him aggressively. He'll be at Fort Myers for the bulk of 2017, and could push for time with the Twins as early as 2018. Finding him a position, either in the corner outfield or at first, remains a question but the bat should be expected to play. The Twins will likely go with a sink or swim approach to Rooker and have a good idea of what they've got quickly, but I believe there's something special here.

5. Alex Kirilloff OF

The 2016 first round pick is missing the season due to Tommy John surgery. After suffering the injury late in the 2016 season and being shut down, it's not ideal how long it took for Minnesota to address the root of the problem. Regardless, Kirilloff has time on his side, and he'll have the success of a strong pro debut in his back pocket. Look for him to make an impact in the lower levels of the farm a year from now.

4. Fernando Romero SP

Quite possibly the Twins lone ace prospect, Romero is one of the most intriguing pitchers in all of minor league baseball. He can push his fastball near triple digits, and the command is something he's beginning to hone in on. With a 3.27 ERA through his first 13 starts for Double-A Chattanooga, he's another guy that the Twins could be looking to bump up a level sooner rather than later.

3. Stephen Gonsalves SP

After getting a late start to the year due to injury, Gonsalves has come out of the gate firing. In six starts, he's posted a solid 3.18 ERA, but more impressive is his 11.1 K/9 and the 2.1 BB/9. Gonsalves had a few bouts of command issues during his initial call to Double-A in 2016, but those appear to be all but behind him. While he may not have the upper 90's fastball, his repertoire puts him in the conversation for a very nice rotation piece in the years to come.

2. Royce Lewis SS

If I was to include Lewis on this list prior to 2017, he'd likely have been number one. He just misses out on the top spot now, but the top pick in the 2017 MLB Draft should make Twins fans salivate. He can hit, hit for power, and field well above average at shortstop. The tools are all there for a star in the making, and while he's no less than four years away from the Twins, he'll be one of the top prospects in baseball for the majority of that time.

1. Nick Gordon SS

There's no Twins prospect that has been more impressive than Gordon in 2017. In his first 64 games at the Double-A Level, he owns an .880 OPS and is batting .315. Gordon has clubbed six homers, doubling his previous career season high, and he's already just two doubles away (21) from tying that career high as well. For someone that was noted as a glove first prospect when he was drafted, he's bounced between second and short, now settling back in at shortstop, and all he has done is rake. I'd still like to see him cut down on the errors, but Gordon is continuing to look more and more like a potential All Star.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Leap To Prevent A Dive: The Twins Looming Decision

The Cleveland Indians came into Target Field and punched the Minnesota Twins right in the mouth. Not only were the Twins swept, but their lead in the AL Central is all but gone. What's worse is that what took place over the weekend (especially Saturday) may happen more often than not. The unfortunate reality is that the Twins just don't have starting options.

For game one of a double-header against arguably the division's best team, the Twins sent out a sacrificial lamb in the form of Adam Wilk. The journeyman lefty has never been given more than 14 innings in an MLB season, and he owns a 7.36 ERA at the big league level. Simply put, he's not qualified to be attempting to retire major league hitters. All of this information was known going into the tilt with the Indians, and there wasn't much Minnesota could do about it.

Sure, Wilk isn't who the Twins would prefer to run out to the mound (he was DFA'd immediately following his outing), but they are sparse on options as well. Already nine starters deep this season, both Phil Hughes and Hector Santiago is currently shelved. There's been talk of both returning as relievers, but that is likely only to mask the sunk cost and unfortunate truth that effectiveness eludes them both.

That leads us to where the Twins currently find themselves. The 2017 season has 95 games left for the Twins, and they're 2.0 games back in a pretty poor division. Realistically though, the playoffs weren't something seen as a possibility coming into the campaign, and the slate thus far has provided quite a bit of surprise. With the window being fully opened (with a few pieces added) in 2018, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have to decide what to do with what's left of 2017.

On the farm, there's a few answers, but development will likely need to come into the question. The largest area of deficiency for the Twins still stands on the mound. Both starting and relief options have been lackluster at best, and the system itself has a few options for the big club to consider.

Adding to the starting options, Double-A includes the trio of Fernando Romero, Felix Jorge, and Stephen Gonsalves. Both Romero and Gonsalves have an injury history, and are likely being monitored for health going forward. They represent no less than middle-of-the-rotation upside, and both (at their best) can be impact arms for Minnesota. Making the leap from Double-A is a steep one however, and a promotion may not be in the cards under more normal circumstances. Jorge can be a back-end big league starter, and while a quick promotion may stunt a little development, he could be argued to be the most ready.

If the Twins weren't in a place where they were having to draw straws for a starter every other night, there's probably no talk of any Double-A arms going anywhere but Triple-A Rochester. Given the circumstances though, the front office must at least consider if it's beneficial to provide a boost to the big league rotation with one of the top arms on the farm. There will be innings limits to monitor, and rough patches to be expected, but the alternatives haven't provided much more upside.

Out of the bullpen, similar scenarios reside for the Twins. Alan Busenitz was finally given a shot, but the farm still holds guys like Trevor Hildenberger, Mason Melotakis, Jake Reed, and John Curtiss. Hildenberger has paid his due at Triple-A and would be a worthy call at this point. Melotakis was recently promoted to Rochester, and probably could've skipped the level. Reed has pitched in Triple-A before, and Curtiss looks the part of a guy that can get big league hitters out.

Each of the aforementioned names have their warts, but the present more upside than a handful of the current relief contingent. The Twins would have less to lose throwing a reliever into a big league scenario than the starters they'd be considering, but the jump is still not one to be taken lightly. The pen is an area that needs vast improvement, and having not signed multiple vet replacements this offseason, it would appear that an influx of youth makes the most sense.

For a team that has a terribly negative run differential, and has been playing above water due in large part to offensive performance, real questions need to be addressed. At this point, I think we can safely rule out any reason for this team to be "buyers" in another month, but they maybe should consider supplementing from within. Although they'd likely have to disregard normal timelines, jump-starting a prospect's career at the big league level could provide benefits for all. If a young arm flops right now, they have knowledge necessary to compete a year from now. If things break right, Minnesota ends up with the needed influx of talent.

What is easily apparent however, is that this club can't continue to shuffle bodies on the mound. They won't play competitive baseball that way, and they aren't building for anything in that scenario either.