Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Spring Training Highlights Process For Twins

Many have argued over the years that the amount of games played in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues could be drastically reduced. While teams need to gear up for their upcoming schedules, a month long exhibition fest may be too long. What's always worth remembering though, is that the process is more telling than the results.

It's pretty easy to understand that the record the Minnesota Twins, or any other team for that matter, put forth over the next month doesn't hold much weight. What's harder to wrap your head around is the production doesn't carry much weight either. Whether home runs are being sent over the wall on a consistent basis, or strikeouts are being piled up, the results are always going to be looked at through the microscope of the process.

Early on in spring training, we've been reminded of this thanks to Byungho Park. The Korean slugger has two homers to his credit already, and has been the Twins star through the first handful of games. He's also not on the 40 man roster, and is being forced to prove why he's more deserving of an Opening Day roster spot than Kennys Vargas. Whether or not he continues to provide #ParkBang highlights or not, the questions will be in regards to his strikeout rate, and how well Vargas is playing.

The reality is that spring production can far too often be an outlier. While I have continued to conduct the Park hype train, suggesting his 2016 was a mirage due in large part to injury, his uphill climb is a massive one. Trying to figure out how the narrative plays out when the dust settles simply from a production standpoint is a fool's errand. Should we get to the end of March with Park continuing to put together complete at bats, and Vargas finds himself struggling, we may have more to look at.

Also worth noting is that spring training isn't simply process oriented for just the players, but the manager as well. It is here that Paul Molitor needs to begin to put his best foot forward in a season in which he could be managing for his career. Far too often a year ago, his lineups lacked any evidence based backing, and he often times appeared in over his head during in-game situations.

Through just the first few games, Molitor has played Leonardo Reginatto in LF, despite being a career infielder (an outfield blunder ensued). He has used Daniel Palka in LF with Robbie Grossman in RF despite the natural spots for both being the opposite. He's even used top prospect Nick Gordon as a 2B, despite him playing just two professional games there, and Gordon ended up looking out of position communicating on a short blooper to right.

While it's fair to understand that spring training is about getting players repetitions in games, it's also integral that they happen in logical scenarios. Playing guys out of position simply to get them in, or worse, because you don't know any better, does no one any good. If there's something that Molitor needs to take drastic strides forward from 2016 in, it's understanding the strengths of his team, and relating better to the youth that should be the lifeblood of this organization.

Spring training is still in its infancy at this point, and with multiple weeks of action left, the club is going to move towards a more well oiled machine. Players, such as Byungho Park, will need to make their process match up consistently with the results. The manager will have to do the same.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Twins Throwing Burners Out Of The Gate

While Spring Training is just a few games old, the Minnesota Twins have thrown plenty of pitchers. Coming off one of the worst pitching seasons in franchise history, it's incredibly important that Paul Molitor's club puts its best foot forward early this season. The immediate indications suggest there could be some excitement on the bump.

After making his spring debut, Trevor May reiterated to Cory Provus on the Twins Radio Network, that his goal is to work as a starter in 2017. He wants to eat innings, totaling over 200, and he wants to take a burden off the bullpen. As a guy who's now seen what an overtaxed relief corps can look like, his goal is an admirable one. In his Grapefruit League debut, the most exciting thing may have been just how quickly his pitches were crossing the plate.

Having averaged right around 93 mph in relief a season ago, May didn't see the sizable uptick that normally greets pitchers in the pen. As a starter, May worked mainly at 95, topping out at 96, and working above 94 for the duration of his 31 pitch outing. While it's not quite upper 90's heat, it is an increase that may not have been predictable. Although he did deal with back injuries a season ago, May hasn't ever been highly touted as a flamethrower.

What's also exciting is that May isn't on his own. Both Fernando Romero and Jose Berrios drew plenty of praise from the Fort Myers radar gun in their Grapefruit League debuts. Romero has been named to many top Twins prospect lists, and some have him as the best player in the system. With true ace potential, Romero is the outlier that seems to have gotten stronger post Tommy John surgery.

In his initial showing against the Washington Nationals, Romero pumped a fastabll that topped out at 98 mph, and backed it up with a slider that registered at 89 on the gun. A lethal combination that helped to rack up just shy of 10.0 K/9 at Fort Myers last season, Romero has done nothing to suggest he isn't one to keep an eye on. He has real ability to overpower big league hitters, and his command was more than promising in just over 90 innings pitched during 2016.

Although Berrios didn't spot his pitches as fluidly as the Twins may have liked, his first two spring innings showed promise as well. With Romero, he was the only other pitcher to register two strikeouts in his debut action, and his fastball touched 96 while sitting 94-95. At the big league level last year, Berrios averaged just north of 93 mph. His fastball has always had solid movement, and for a guy short in stature with an unfortunate ball plane, generating extra velocity is a definite positive.

Maybe most intriguing from the early spring velocity numbers is that it would give the Twins a new found weapon to their pitching arsenal. For an organization that has so often been comfortable pitching to contact, there's real strikeout arms that can contribute in relative short order. I wouldn't expect Romero to debut in the big leagues this season, but both May and Berrios should provide Minnesota better strikeout numbers than the rest of their starting contingent.

There's nothing wrong with having sinkerballers, or guys that generate outs by getting batters to put the ball in play. Pairing them with a stable of similar individuals doesn't challenge opposing hitters however, and on a nightly basis, the difference should be a bit more significant.

Derek Falvey has gone on record multiple times throughout the offseason suggesting that the way in which the Twins develop pitching will be challenged. They are going to collaborate from multiple different avenues, and are going to work towards pushing the envelope when it comes to results. It's a great idea in theory, and given the brief beginning to Falvey's Head of Baseball Ops tenure with the Twins, seems to be a believable plan of action as well.

Paul Molitor is going to need his pitchers to give him more this season if Minnesota is going to avoid another disastrous record. The expectation should be that the water level will be raised, but if this trend keeps up, the club will only stand to reap significant benefits.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Topps Joins Off The Baggy's Twins Offerings


When it comes to baseball cards, Topps remains the gold standard. With the 2017 Series 1 collection already released, Topps is hard at work readying plenty of new offerings to baseball fans throughout the upcoming season. The Topps Now program was a great addition to the card collecting scene a season ago, and what's in store for the season ahead should continue to be plenty exciting.

Earlier this offseason, Topps sent out thank you cards to customers that purchased Topps Now product a season ago. While it was a nice touch in and of itself, maybe the most exciting bit was that they would be unveiling "Road to Opening Day" sets. Players will be revealed for each team throughout spring training, and the set itself comes with some added perks.

Direct from Topps' website, here's some information on the Minnesota Twins Road to Opening Day set:
New to this year’s edition of Topps Now MLB are Road To Opening Day Team Sets for all 30 teams! As a purchaser of this set, you will have the chance to win Topps Now bonus cards, which are directly dependent upon the success of the 2017 Twins! Below is a list of player/team milestones that will trigger your exclusive bonus card(s) over the course of the 2017 season…
  • Twins place first in division at MLB All-Star Break
  • Twins pitcher tosses no-hitter or perfect game at any point in regular or postseason
  • Twins hitter hits for cycle at any point in regular or postseason
The first Twins player revealed was Miguel Sano, and the set will be worth watching all the way up until April 4th, at which point the sale ends and the set is printed and shipped. The 15 card set will cost $49.99 and offer fans, as noted above, a chance at bonus exclusive cards throughout the 2017 campaign.

As a reader of Off The Baggy, you have the exciting opportunity to win one of these exclusive Topps Now Minnesota Twins Opening Day sets. Topps will be providing a giveaway that I'll announce rules and entry specifications for at a later date. Should you end up not winning, or want to guarantee your set, you can purchase them directly from Topps here.

Finally, throughout the season as Twins players generate Topps Now cards through spectacular moments, you can count on Off The Baggy to bring you the news first. Working directly with Topps, Off The Baggy will have information on the upcoming card and where you can make a purchase. For all your future baseball card needs, a direct link to the Topps website has been added to the right side of the Off The Baggy page.

There should be plenty of excitement for the Twins in a turnaround 2017 season, and Topps will be there to commemorate it all.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Twins Spring Narratives Worth Watching

With the offseason officially behind us, and the first pitches of Spring Training already having been thrown, the Twins will kick off their slate of games down in Fort Myers. As the club embarks on a turnaround in 2017, there's plenty of things to keep an eye on in the first year of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine being at the helm.

Although the front office isn't visible on the field of play, their decisions should be apparent to those that have become accustomed to how things used to run. For Molitor, he'll have some decisions that are put in front of him requiring better execution and results from the 103 losses suffered a season ago.

Over the course of the next month or so though, there's a handful of key situations worth monitoring.

The Battle To Hit

This offseason, Byungho Park was DFA'd and had to pass through waivers. He went unclaimed and was outrighted to Triple-A Rochester. Still invited to big league camp, he's battling with Kennys Vargas for the designated hitter role, and he's got a massive hill to climb. Vargas is going to be given every opportunity to head north, and Park is no longer on the 40 man roster.

I'd be shocked if Park doesn't get some run at the big league level this season, and I expect him to have a strong second season in the big leagues. Vargas has a lot of supporters, and given his numbers, it seems a bit over-zealous to me. Regardless, Minnesota needs to get production out of the DH spot, and the responsibility will fall on one of these two.

Rounding Out the Rotation

Four of the five starting pitchers seem to be locked in at this point. Ervin Santana is going to get the ball on Opening Day, while some order of Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, and Hector Santiago follow him. From there, it's a toss up between the likes of Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, Jose Berrios, Ryan Vogelsong, Nick Tepesch, Adalberto Mejia, and maybe even Justin Haley. While Minnesota was the worst pitching team last season, they have no shortage of options in 2017.

Going north, I'd expect May to get the nod. He's going to make the club, and given his injury issues due to bullpen usage, I can't see any reason not to give him another crack at starting. Berrios has nothing to prove at the Triple-A level, but giving an arbitration deal to Hector Santiago took up a rotation spot with a questionable ceiling. I'd love to see Duffey transition to the pen, and outside of Mejia, the only other name I'm really intrigued by is Haley.

Playing Out The Pen

With the bullpen needing a boost, the Twins also have a large contingent of relief options. Only Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Pressly should be considered locks at this point. Glen Perkins probably isn't a good bet to count on, and the other five arms could come from a group of about 10-12 players.

This season, the Twins need more strikeout pitchers and a better usage plan to utilize pitchers strengths. Creating a group with higher ceilings in general is a good look, and Minnesota should be well positioned to do that.

Learning The Ropes

The left side of the infield could be a disaster, or it may end up being overblown speculation. Either way, we know Jorge Polanco wasn't good at all a season ago when playing shortstop. There's always been concerns about him sticking there, and we need proof that he and Brian Dozier can coexist. Next to him, Miguel Sano will be attempting to prove he can handle the hot corner. A big boy that's already been bumped from two positions in his professional career, a full time DH role would be unfortunate.

There's glove first options for the Twins that can take over, but the reality is that Molitor's lineup is best when both of these two are in it. They need to provide defensive value along with bringing their bat to the park.

A Surprise On The 25

Down in Fort Myers this year, the Twins have a few bigger name non-roster guys. Both from within the organization, and joining it for the first time, will any of them make a surprise jump to the 25 man? Can Park work his way back? Does Vogelsong or Tepesch have value? Where does Drew Stubbs fit?

Over the course of the spring slate, the Twins will have to sort out who they want to protect, and who may have a future. Carlos Quentin was the lone ranger a season ago, and there's more than a few guys just looking for a chance. I'm not sure any of them can separate themselves far enough, but if there's one thing that's certain, it's that Minnesota could use to improve the bottom of their active roster.

For a team coming off 103 losses, there's no place for this group to go but up. They have significantly more talent than the 2016 record displayed, and there's plenty to keep an eye on over the next month. Buckle up and let's get going.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Closing Out The Twins

Early on in spring training, Thad Levine said that Brandon Kintzler would be "given every opportunity to start the year in the closer's role." That statement all but solidified the assumed reality that Glen Perkins will open 2017 on the disabled list for the Minnesota Twins. What's worth wondering is, who closes out the most games for the hometown nine when the dust settles?

For Minnesota, having an elite closer in a season that .500 looks to be a solid effort, there's no denying that being anything but a luxury. However, given the way the sport has trended, bullpens are anchored by the guy who can slam the door on a victory. Although Paul Molitor won't have Aroldis Chapman to call on out of his pen, he'll have some solid options even if it isn't Kintzler that racks up the biggest number.

So who are the candidates and where do they fall?

Brandon Kintzler

Coming in as the incumbent, Kintzler will likely get the longest leash of any pitcher entering in the 9th inning for Minnesota. He racked up 17 saves a year ago and did so to a respectable 3.15 ERA. The problem for Kintzler could come in the fact that he simply doesn't miss bats. He totalled just 5.8 K/9, and that's not far off from his 6.5 career mark. Throwing just 92 mph, he doesn't bring swing and miss stuff, and if there's a place that it falls apart, that could be it.

Glen Perkins

Perkins is a three time All-Star, and pushed his Twins career saves total to 120. He's held his own in the role since the 2012 season, and outside of injuries, he's been one of the best under-the-radar-pitchers in the game. That injury though, it's real, and it's scary. Perkins had to have his labrum reattached to the bone, and his shoulder may never be the same. He's going to open the year on the DL, and frankly, I'm not sure he should be relied upon in any great measure for the rest of his career.

J.T. Chargois

A college closer, Chargois has been among the touted fireballing relievers coming up through the Twins system. He beat the likes of Nick Burdi and Jake Reed to the show, and there's plenty of reason to be excited about him sticking. While his first 23 MLB innings were a mixed bag, that 96.6mph average on his fastball is legit. Chargois is going to need to settle into the highest level, but the Twins would gladly welcome his minor league career 10.6 K/9

Ryan Pressly

A former Rule 5 draft pick, Pressly has long been one of the most underappreciated arms in the Twins pen. Last season, his fourth in the big leagues, Pressly picked up his first save. He's generated a nice 7.8 K/9 over the past two seasons and his velocity sat at a career best 95.2 mph average in 2016. If inexperience is working against Pressly, it might be wise to be reminded that Glen Perkins had to start somewhere as well.

Tyler Duffey

Maybe thrown in somewhat for fun, but Duffey has a legitimate reason to be named in this space as well. He was college teammates with Chargois at Rice, and the operated as co-closers. Working as a starter for the Twins thus far, I think Duffey's best cast as a relief option. He has a three pitch mix that's focused mainly around a fastball and a curveball. His 90.4 mph velocity should see an uptick with lower usage rates though. I'd put him in a middle innings role first, but Duffey could work his way to the back of the bullpen.

The Best of the Rest

If one of these guys ends up leading the Twins in saves during the 2017 season, the injury bug has a wrath that really has no fear. Regardless, Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, and even Trevor Hildenberger could all be in line to call the closer space their home in the not-so-distant future. Burdi is the hardest throwing of the trio, while Hildenberger is the most advanced at this point. Each of them has some command issues to deal with, but expecting them to be quality big league pen options seems like a really good bet.

If you ask me to put money on it right now, I'd go with J.T. Chargois leading the Twins in saves this year when everything is said and done. I think Kintzler works better as a lower leverage type, and I just don't know what to expect out of Perkins. Pressly would be a fun option to run out there, but I'm not sure the Twins will move him out of his setup-type role.

No matter who closes games for the Twins this year, Paul Molitor will be hoping they have ample opportunity.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Can Polanco Hit His Way Out?

The Minnesota Twins are nearly certain they'll start Jorge Polanco at shortstop to open the 2017 season. He played over 400 innings there in 2016, and with Brian Dozier remaining within the organization, there isn't realistic room to shift Polanco to the other side of second base. The question is, can his bat elevate him high enough to overcome his defensive inefficiency?

Under Paul Molitor last season, Polanco started 45 games at shortstop. Prior to that, the last time he played shortstop was for a 19 game stint at Triple-A Rochester in 2015. Recently, Molitor was asked why a guy they relied upon so heavily, wasn't given a better opportunity to succeed. On Polanco not playing shortstop in the minors last season, the Twins skipper told Phil Miller of the Star Tribune, "I wish I had a better explanation, we didn't handle it the right way."

That's an answer that could be used all too often for some of Molitor's roster and lineup decisions a season ago, but it's one that needs to be phased out in the coming season. For a Twins club that should be looking at defense as the linchpin to growth, making sure guys are well positioned and prepared is a must. For Polanco though, it's worth wondering just how much can be done.

Prior to the 2016 season, Polanco showed up on both Baseball American and MLB.com's Top 100 prospect lists. He was primarily a second basemen, and has been widely regarded as a bat first guy. Across seven minor league seasons, the young Dominican owns a .757 OPS backed by a strong .286 average and .346 OBP. He's never going to hit for much power, but as a gap guy with speed, he'll stretch extra bases plenty. It's always seemed that second would be his home however, and that coexisting with Brian Dozier was unlikely.

A year ago, Polanco turned in 406 innings at short. He racked up a -8 DRS and committed 11 errors. It wasn't quite a Danny Santana level of futility (-15 DRS 16 E in 578.1 innings during 2015), but it was well down that path. Polanco's range was a serious detriment for the Twins (-10.9 UZR) as well, and it's probably fair to wonder if taking poor routes to compensate for a noted lack of arm strength wasn't part of the issue.

All things considered, expecting Polanco to win a Gold Glove playing shortstop is not a likely proposition. For Minnesota though, that really shouldn't be the goal. What they need to see happen is Polanco land somewhere in the average territory, and we can find a relative group of what that may look like.

In 2016, only five players (with 400+ innings) had worse DRS numbers at short than Polanco. Alexei Ramirez (-20), Brad Miller (-14), and Jordy Mercer (-9) all played for losing clubs. Both Xander Bogaerts (-10) and Didi Gregorious (-9) played on teams with winning records, and their bats spoke loudly for them. At the top of the shortstop DRS list resides the likes of Addison Russell (19) and Brandon Crawford (19). The middle ground is something in the -3 to 0 range.

Seven shortstops fall within -3 to 0 DRS having played over 400 innings. They include Carlos Correa, Chris Owings, Aledmys Diaz, Elvis Andrus, Ketel Marte, Orlando Arcia, and Corey Seager. Of that group, only Owings' Diamondbacks and Arcia's Brewers had losing seasons. There's also a decent contingent of solid hitters in that bunch, allowing them to contribute to their club's offensive production as well.

For Jorge Polanco, finding a way to get to the middle ground is a must. He can't continue to post the 6th worst DRS numbers in the big leagues, and he has to put up a better UZR than the 5th worst mark in baseball. By now we know that the position puts a strain on him with a lack of arm strength, and honestly, being miscast as a fit. Although he's not going to hit like Bogaerts, a Gregorious-esque (.276/.304/.447) slash line seems more than doable. With a few minor tweaks, rounding himself into a more complete player would help the Twins out substantially.

In 2017, the Twins are going to win more games simply because of minor tweaks. Jason Castro elevates the pitching staff, and a consistent outfield of Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler provide a massive defensive boost. Polanco needs to raise the water mark by elevating his play just a little, even if he's still somewhat of a liability. The bat has never been the concern, and it's time to make the glove less of one.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Elite Is Something Buxton Has Covered

For a couple of seasons, Byron Buxton was the top prospect in all of Major League Baseball. The Twins second overall pick in the 2012 draft was making scouts drool with a shed full of tools just begging to be put on display at the big league level. Fast forward to 2017, and we haven't seen it all come together yet, but the Minnesota centerfielder is an eyelash away from already becoming elite.

Offensively, Buxton has excelled at every stop he's made on his way to the big leagues. Batting average, on base percentage, and even some power, the speedy kid from Georgia has done it all. While the big leagues have presented more of a challenge, his .287/.357/.653 slash line in 29 games from September 1 through the end of 2016 should present plenty of reason for optimism. When trying to quantify Buxton's value though, you're backwards if you're starting with a bat in his hand.

In 2016, Buxton played just 92 games for the Minnesota Twins. He made 88 starts in centerfield, or roughly just over a third of the season. In that time frame, he posted a +3 DRS, and a 3.9 UZR. Although extrapolating those numbers to 162 games doesn't immediately put him in the elite territory of Kevin Pillar or Kevin Kiermaier defensively, the secondary information tells us to expect that as reality.

Per Daren Willman of MLB.com, just four center fielders made at least 10 catches in which they had to travel 100 feet. Buxton was among them, and only Leonys Martin had 11 of the group. Of the other three players (Martin, Jake Marisnick, and Adam Eaton), none played in less than 118 games for their big league club, affording them at least 26 more games of opportunity than the Twins speedy outfielder.

Looking at Fangraphs, and using Inside Edge technology, Byron Buxton had 10 opportunities to make plays with a "remote" chance of success last season. The definition given is that success falls within a 1-10% chance. Of those ten plays, Buxton made one. However, among players with at least ten opportunities (13 total), only Billy Hamilton (53.3%) made catches more often. The trend becoming apparent here is that Buxton's speed absolutely will play.

Broken down by this graph on BaseballSavant.com, Buxton also made 27 catches that were deemed "tough" or "highlight" worthy. Putting him up against the rest of the big leagues, that number stands out even despite his limited exposure.


The absolute hope for 2017 would be that James Rowson can help to unlock Buxton's big league bat in a way that Tom Brunansky couldn't. It's a pretty decent bet that the scenario plays out, but for the 23 year old, even if it doesn't things will be fine. On a bad day, Buxton is probably a .240 hitter that steals bases and stretches singles. Given the reality that his center field defense will put him in the discussion as being the best in the game, Minnesota has cemented a great player for quite some time.

If things break right offensively even a little bit, Buxton is going to vault himself into conversation as one of the most complete players in all of baseball. Elite defensively already, the Twins are just looking for that final piece of the puzzle.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

What To Make Of The Twins Utility Scenario

Going into the 2017 Major League Baseball season, it stands to reason that the Minnesota Twins will more than likely employ a similar 25 man roster construction. That means there'd be places for 12 pitchers and 13 position players. Given in are in the starting lineup, the four vying to fill out the bench provide some questions for Paul Molitor and his club.

Two of those bench spots are immediately claimed by the backup catcher (see Mitch Garver, John Ryan Murphy, or Chris Gimenez) and a fourth outfielder (Robbie Grossman or Eddie Rosario). With just two openings left, the Twins need to incorporate a defensive focus, some sort of base running threat, and realistically cannot ignore offensive production completely. Utility men would be great fits for either of those spots, but unfortunately for Minnesota, they have three players in the mix.

Danny Santana probably comes to mind first. He burst onto the scene thanks in large part to a mirage of a rookie season. His BABIP created unrealistic watermarks, and his career has spiraled since. Although he's played the most positions of the possible options, he occupies no ground on the field while being a positive defensive asset. I took a deeper dive into what Santana brings to the table in this piece, but right now he has to be the odd man out. Although Minnesota obviously appreciates his flexibility, it stands to reason his level of asset is simply the lowest.

That brings us to Eduardo Escobar. From 2014-2015, Escobar played in 260 games for the Twins owning a .737 OPS at the dish. While his OBP (.312) left something to be desired, he showed a little pop with his 18 homers, and was of value offensively. In the field, Escobar spent the majority of his time at shortstop, and went from -6 DRS in 2014 to +2 DRS in 2015. He's never completely sold us on the part that he's an every day player, but as a utility man that profiles at short and can play two other infield spots, it looked to make sense.

Last season however, Escobar through a wrench into his future with what was a significant step backwards. His OPS plummeted to a paltry .618, and he totaled -7 DRS in 579 innings at short. No longer a defensive or offensive asset, Escobar had simply become a below replacement level player. On a new arbitration contract with the Twins this season though, it appears the club is banking on that being an outlier, and it's probably a decent bet.

Rounding out the trio is the recently acquired Ehire Adrianza. Coming over from the San Francisco Giants (and briefly, the Milwaukee Brewers), Adrianza is virtually all glove. Despite the small sample size, he's regarded in the Andrelton Simmons level of leather at shortstop, and that's something that the Twins simply don't have anywhere on their roster. Given the likelihood that Jorge Polanco struggles defensively, Adrianza would stand to look otherworldly in the field.

With the bat, Adrianza owns just a .605 career OPS and is coming off his best season in which he totaled a .679 OPS in 40 games with the Giants. He has just 17 extra base hits in 154 big league games, and gap power is something that will likely always elude him. Down at Triple-A though, Adrianza has compiled an .822 OPS in just over 100 games being virtually the same singles hitter. He has speed, although he doesn't typically steal a ton of bases, and that can probably play on both sides of the ball.

For Molitor and the Twins, the decision likely comes down to whether or not they can handle a glove only bench player. Escobar, despite his poor 2016, should be a lock, and that leaves it a competition between Santana and Adrianza. The former can stand at multiple positions but play none, while the latter plays infield spectacularly but can't hit a lick.

As noted above, with question marks already surrounding Polanco's ability to cope at short, Adrianza seems like an ideal fit. Minnesota was beaten badly around the ballyard a season ago in large part due to poor defense. Having such an asset ready and waiting off the bench seems to make a lot of sense. Expect this to be sorted out as Spring Training draws on down in Fort Myers.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Why Do So Many Twins Fans Miss The Boat?

Let me preface with the reality that fandom comes in different shapes and sizes. I realize there are those that are more casual observers, and there are diehards. There are those who watch the game, and then there are those that know the game. Simply defining someone watching Minnesota Twins baseball as a fan doesn't do the categorization justice. When it comes to the 2017 home nine though, there seems to be a growing and unfortunate confusion.

Arguably the most frustrating notion is that this team is destined to be bad because, well, they lost 103 games last season. That's absolutely a fact regarding the loss total, outside of that, the statement couldn't be less confusing. Given the Twins emerged from nowhere in 2015 and won 83 games finishing 2nd in the AL Central, how can that be immediately dismissed?

In 2016, Paul Molitor had virtually the same starting infield as he did the year prior (save for Eduardo Escobar replacing Danny Santana at shortstop). He had a new outfield that consisted of Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Eddie Rosario as opposed to the 2015 contingent of Oswaldo Arcia, Jordan Schafer, and Torii Hunter. Picking up the extra at bats as the designated hitter was Byungho Park instead of the replaced Kennys Vargas from 2015. As a whole, the Opening Day lineup remained a virtual clone.

On the mound, Tyler Duffey replaced Mike Pelfrey in the big league rotation. The bullpen was thrown together with relatively similar pieces, and Molitor had a couple of new coaches at his disposal. What held true though was that nothing was truly groundbreaking.

Here's the thing though, in 2015 the Twins overachieved significantly. Virtually all metrics suggested regression was coming, and the fact of the matter was there were too many placeholders to simply fill all of the holes. If 2015 gave you as a fan hope for 2016, you were likely as misguided as suggesting 2016 is a precursor for the season to come.

So Jose Berrios, Byron Buxton, and Miguel Sano are prospects you've heard about forever and haven't produced to the level you perceived? Is it incredibly surprising that a 22 year-old and two 23 year-old's are taking a bit longer to adjust at the big league level? Of course it isn't. Sano already has 40 career homers under his belt, Berrios has made a handful of starts, and Buxton is already playing Gold Glove caliber defense. At 23 years old, Kirby Puckett was at Single-A and Johan Santana was a reliever with a career 5.90 ERA.

Exposure has given us a heightened level of insight into young prospects. There's lists, articles, Twitter, and countless other sources of information for the game's next stars. You may hear about a player earlier, but that doesn't change the adjustment period, or the reality that knowledge beyond those sources is key to understanding how quickly a kid may take to a man's game.

Rounding out the trio of complaints is the one that encompasses both the overlooking of past results, and well as current roster construction. Why didn't Derek Falvey and Thad Levine come in and do more this offseason? The long and short of it is that they didn't have to. Both astute baseball minds, they realize this club is going to need to be carried by the likes of the Sano's and Buxton's. Signing a big bat, or a major arm, prior to the young guys being ready to shoulder more of the load, is a wasted year.

Going into the offseason, I suggested multiple times that standing pat would be a good place for the Twins. I was interested in Wilson Ramos pre-injury. Jason Castro emerged, and then made immediate sense. He helps to address pitching and defense, is a low cost signing, and can hit at least to the level Kurt Suzuki was capable of. Outside of that, a throw in reliever until some of the young arms made sense. Minnesota has really strong relief prospects, and blocking them with significant retread veterans never would have been a good idea.

Right now, the Twins executed everything as they needed to, and really, it's on you to see that. There's no one suggesting this club is making the playoffs, and even a .500 record would be a nice bonus. They aren't close to a 59 win team though, and the reasoning is relatively simple. The youth will continue to develop, and banking on those names you've heard forever to be stars is still a good bet. Finally, when it comes time to supplement with outside talent (and Minnesota is close to that point), then Falvey and Levine will be aware of the fact they are building, and not rebuilding.

Don't miss the boat, and don't throw out baseless frustration. Whether comment sections, casual discussion, Twitter, or some other place is your stomping ground, have a little foundation to stand upon when considering what is being brought to the table. Baseball is a sport that allows you to consume it in multiple different ways. Understanding that opinions are also a reflection of that is a must.

On Starting Trevor May

Coming over for Ben Revere from the Philadelphia Phillies, Trevor May was the headliner of a trade made in the same offseason that the Minnesota Twins acquired former prospect Alex Meyer. May was projected to be a solid starter in the rotation, and was someone that should be counted on to contribute for quite some time. After splitting duties between starting and relieving, May seems the odds on favorite to round out Paul Molitor's starting rotation in 2017.

In 2016, May pitched exclusively as a reliever turning in 42.2 IP. He compiled a 5.27 ERA along with a 3.80 FIP. The production was backed by a strong 12.7 K/9 and a less than ideal 3.6 BB/9. As a reliever, May's velocity and strikeouts both predictably received a nice bump. What was the largest downside however, was a guy that was being asked to get ready much more quickly than he had ever experienced before. The unfortunate side effect was a nagging back issue that sidelined May for portions of the 2016 season.

If for no other reason than to get him healthy and productive, moving May out of the pen makes sense. Then there's the reality that there may actually be another reason. May could actually be a calming presence in the Twins rotation.

He made nine starts in his big league debut season in 2014, and followed that up with another 16 starts in 2015. While there was obviously a transition period out of the gate, May settled in somewhat during 2015. He tallied a 4.43 ERA that was backed by a better FIP and a 7.9 K/9. While not the dominating strikeout force starting as he is relieving, he still posts numbers that rank among the Twins best.

Ideally, the Twins would like to see May improve upon the .772 OPS he allowed opposing hitters while starting in 2015. That number can somewhat be explained by the 13 triples and home runs (5/8 respectively) that he surrendered in just 83.1 IP.

Working as a starter, May's fastball sits around 92 miles per hour, and his slider registers right around 10 mph slower. He is primarily a fastball thrower, but mixes in offspeed right around one-third of the time. If he can jump his swinging strike rate a bit higher than the 10% it sits at while he's starting, May could keep opposing batters off balance a bit more. Also, as a starter, he allowed contact right around 84% of the time. Turning a few more batted balls into soft or medium contact would go a long ways to help his cause as well.

Trying to project completely what May is as a starter for the Twins is a difficult task. He's bounced between roles too often, and really a total of 25 starts over the past three years is hardly being able to settle into anything. That being said, a clean bill of health, a bit more consistency, and a perceived level of stability add up to someone that should be a solid addition for Molitor's group.

I wouldn't expect Trevor May to push for a Cy Young any time soon, and he may not put up the flashiest numbers, but 2017 could well be his strongest season at the big league level.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Not A Drill, We Have Made It Twins Fans!

With the Minnesota Twins pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training, the offseason has officially come to a conclusion. Coming off the worst season in franchise history, rewriting the record books in the 2017 season can't come soon enough. Fortunately, with Spring Training baseball just around the corner, we'll be able to completely turn the page sooner rather than later.

The offseason has been relatively nondescript for the Twins, but that's absolutely the way the organization should have wanted it. The biggest move came when the front office shakeup changed the face of the franchise. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine should immediately breathe new, and needed life into the club, and bring a more open way of thinking when it comes to getting the most out of players.

The Brian Dozier dance with the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated headlines, but the deal never was consummated with the team residing at Chavez Ravine failing to ante up for the value of the Twins second basemen. That leaves Paul Molitor looking at an up the middle duo of Jorge Polanco and Dozier, which should be quite intriguing and worth keeping an eye on.

Outside of the big league deal offered to Matt Belisle, the home nine spent most of their acquisition time this winter handing out minor league deals. Guys like Ryan Vogelsong, Drew Stubbs, and Nick Tepesch all are being given an opportunity to earn their way on the team. Byungho Park finds himself needing to prove his value to the new regime, and Kennys Vargas is being given the keys to a starting role.

Most of the injury situations have sorted themselves out. Phil Hughes should be expected to be all systems go, with the only real concern still being Glen Perkins. Coming back from severe shoulder surgery, it's a near certainty Perkins misses Opening Day, and his effectiveness for the remainder of his career could be in doubt as well.

At the end of the day, the Twins stayed the course, and that's probably the best route for them to take right now. While prospect lists don't look at them glowingly, their under-25 talent is significantly present in the big league roster. A organizational turnaround is going to come on the backs of players like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jose Berrios. More than any other move on the market, Minnesota has to get those guys in a place where they are consistently producing at a high level.

From this point until sometime into the fall however, baseball has begun. We've survived the offseason, and the Minnesota Twins are nearly ready to take the field in 2017.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Little Island With Lots Of WBC Intrigue

The World Baseball Classic rosters have been officially unveiled now (check them out here), and as expected, the United States as well as the Dominican Republic teams are loaded. Vegas gives a slight edge to the American (2/1), but the reigning champion Dominican team is not far behind (2.5/1). That said, the most intriguing team for Twins fans may be the Puerto Ricans.

Coming off winning the Carribean Series, the Puerto Rican team is stocked with young talent flooding big league rosters. While it's traditionally been Cuba and the Dominican Republic seen as breeding grounds for exciting big league talent, Puerto Rico has really bolstered its presence in recent years. The Twins have a handful of talented Puerto Rican players both at the big league level, as well as throughout their farm system.

On the World Baseball Classic roster, Minnesota lends the likes of Jose Berrios, Dereck Rodriguez, Eddie Rosario, Hector Santiago, and Kennys Vargas. Joining them is former Twins Rene Rivera and J.C. Romero. The collection also includes studs such as Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Yadier Molina.

Forget the fact that a potential infield including Correa at third, Lindor at short, and Baez at second is must see, the Twins contingent is worth monitoring on its own. Berrios remains a high ceiling player for Minnesota and needs to settle into the top of the rotation starter he has always appeared to be. Rodriguez is coming off a strong 2016, and an offseason in which his dad was named a Hall of Famer. Rosario could be fighting for a roster spot after a poor campaign last year, and Santiago needs to put a better foot forward than how he started with Minnesota. Rounding out the group, Vargas has been given the reigns to the DH role, but needs to take it and run with it.

With the schedule for the World Baseball Classic, and the perceived reality that Puerto Rico makes a decent run in the tournament, the five competing Twins likely will miss a bulk of Spring Training. Not incredibly detrimental given that a higher level of baseball competition is being played, the group needs to get off to a good start, and stay healthy throughout the tourney as well.

It stands to reason that a strong showing in the Classic could help to springboard any one of the Twins participants into a quick start for 2017. Conversely, the hope would be that an ugly performance would simply be rust being knocked off as opposed to a sign of things to come in the early schedule. No matter which way the pendulum swings, Twins fans will want to be equally clued into the spring slate as well as the tourney happenings.

There's not much to gain casting your lots with the favorites like Team USA or the Dominicans. At the end of the 2017 World Baseball Classic though, I'd be far from shocked if the Puerto Ricans didn't find themselves as the last ones standing.

Other WBC notes:


  • Team Australia has 14 players with Twins connections, making the bulk of the roster significantly tied into the organization.
  • Team Canada has intrigue with Justin Morneau participating, but maybe the most eyebrow raising participant is 41 year old Eric Gagne. It's been 14 years since his 55 save season, and he hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2008 (Gagne did throw 9.1 innings the past two years in the Can-Am League).
  • Here's who I have for each of the Pool winners: Korea (A), Cuba (B), USA (C), Puerto Rico (D).

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Twins In The Business Of Sending Messages

Coming into this offseason, I made the contention that the Minnesota Twins didn't need to make a ton of moves. Despite losing 103 games a year ago, you'd be blind to look at the roster and see a makeup worthy of that result. In reality, the club fell flat, but has the pieces in place to begin to supplement for the future. This offseason, the new regime has made the narrative one of putting players on notice.

As I alluded to not too long ago, this Twins club is no longer in rebuilding mode. Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and Jose Berrios need to be the workhorses they have been touted as for the club to take the next step. Instead, the organization finds itself in a place of supplementation. That is, to push the envelope by adding from outside of the organization. In a piece over at Twins Daily, Nick Nelson did a great job highlighting the focus on defense, and the effect that should have in the wins column for Paul Molitor's club.

In bringing on defensive talent, and really other veteran options as a whole, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have signified they are done playing the waiting game. No longer is standing idly by and hoping that up and coming youth plays out looking like it's going to fly with this front office.

With some real question marks to round out the 25 man roster, veteran options such as J.B. Shuck, Drew Stubbs, Ryan Vogelsong, Nick Tepesch, and Chris Gimenez find themselves in big league camp pushing for a job. For those holdovers in the Twins organization, they can bet each of those guys is coming to Fort Myers with the intention of taking their job.

Most notably however, it appears that the Twins are sending pointed messages to players such as Danny Santana and Eddie Rosario. Santana is a guy that really has no position, and doesn't do much of anything with the bat. His lone perceived value is that he can occupy space all over the field, but that comes with the caveat that it's below average no matter where he stands. With the acquisition of Adrianza, it would certainly appear that Minnesota is willing to move on from that perception for the added value of a defensive wizard.

A guy like Adrianza isn't going to be pushing for MVP votes any time soon, but bringing in a glove first bench player suggests that Minnesota may be done allowing Santana to skate by. Having not made adjustments since an inflated rookie campaign, the former shortstop prospect has continued to stumble down the reliability meter. Although Santana would need to be DFA'd and clear waivers, I'm not certain the Twins care too much at this point.

Too a lesser extent, Rosario appears to be in the crosshairs as well. He too had a very strong rookie season and has taken significant steps backwards since. Bolstered by 15 triples, and held up by outfield assists, both offensively and defensively Rosario left plenty to be desired in his second season. He continues to have a lopsided strikeout to walk ratio, and effort concerns have always loomed close to the young Puerto Rican.

At this point, I'd guess Rosario remains safe with Robbie Grossman and a host of other vets vying for that filler outfield spot. That being said, a poor performance process wise, as well as on the field, this spring could spell his demise. Along the same vein as Santana, Minnesota appears to want to see each of their roster spots earned, and the competition isn't simply has-been reunion stories.

Minor league deals have virtually no downside given the lack of promise they uphold. For a team like the Twins trying to stretch extra wins out of anywhere possible, bringing win competition to either take over or motivate those that end up on their Opening Day roster is far from a bad move. If I were Danny Santana or Eddie Rosario, I'd be treating Fort Myers like it's October baseball from the get go.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Twins Projections Bring Interesting Expectations

As the winter draws to a close, storylines for the upcoming season don't quite write themselves yet. Sure, teams are solidifying their Spring Training invitee list, but the bulk of what is to come, has yet to get here. That puts us in the midst of Prospect List and Projection season. There's no shortage of pieces out there on either, but it's the projections that bring the most intrigue for the 2017 Minnesota Twins.

Coming off a season in which the club lost 103 games, a franchise worst, there's no team that needs to get back on the horse sooner than Paul Molitor's club. After an exciting first year at the helm, Molitor often looked lost and overmatched while his club's performance only sank him them further into the doldrums. The resounding sentiment around Twins Territory however, is that the club is nowhere near as bad as the results indicated a season ago.

What's interesting is that most projections would agree with that line of thinking. Fangraphs has Minnesota tabbed for 74 wins, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA numbers suggest the Twins win 79. I offered up a belief here at Off The Baggy that they'll win 80, and beat writer Brandon Warne suggested as much as well. Looking at all avenues, the belief appears to be that this club can win something in the range of 70-80 games in 2017.

Although a losing season would still take place if projections are accurate, the Twins would be looking at something like a 15 to 20 game win differential from the 2016 season. A significant boost to be sure, it's more reflective of a roster that severely underperformed a year ago. With the maturation of young bats like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, combined with even mediocre elevation in pitching performance, this club should see a significant turnaround.

Then there's the reality that opportunity exists among the competition. Most projections see the AL Central as a desolate wasteland outside of the World Series runner-up Cleveland Indians. It's really hard to contend that point. The Twins are a team that realistically seem like the largest wild card of the bunch. Detroit is aging but still has talent. The White Sox have committed to a full on rebuild, and the Royals are seemingly treading water but still staying afloat.

At the current juncture, and really at any given point, projection systems are far too often seen as a gold standard. Rather than simply operating with the understanding that the numbers are trying to tell a story, we look at the outcomes as a definition of what is to come. I think most importantly, and especially this season, the numbers are telling us the only thing we really know is that Cleveland once again will contend.

It's probably a fool's errand to look at the Minnesota Twins as they'll travel north from Fort Myers and hope for a Wild Card berth. If that were to happen however, the spectrum between 70 and 90 wins would be one that Paul Molitor's club absolutely capitalized on in the highest form. All indications are that the dumpster fire that presented itself a season ago has cooled, and interesting baseball should take place far more often than it shouldn't.

Given the unpredictability of the AL Central as a whole, and how the Twins fit into that picture, a sense of enjoyment should follow as we approach the upcoming year. If excitement and optimism reign as signs of Postseason fun, enjoyment should define a year that includes growth and once again sees the needle point upward for the home nine.

As I stated a while back, this organization is past the point of a rebuild. Top prospects have graduated from the farm and now must develop into difference makers and contributors. As that transition takes place, supplementing with outside talent is a way in which the organization can continue to build and contend. Although we likely won't see that in this calendar year, the projections tell us it's not as far off as previous results would make it seem.

So, while you're enjoying the smorgasbord of numerical offerings that this point of the offseason provides, remember not to get hung up on the numbers themselves, but try to understand the story they are telling you. We know little about how the AL Central is going to play out, the Minnesota Twins should be in the thick of it, and that may still end up not being ideal. What it is very likely to resemble however is progress, and that's something we should find enjoyment in all the way up until September.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Improving The Twins 25th Man

It's often said that you're only as good as your weakest link. In sports, this proves vital when a team makes a playoff run, and every outcome matters. For the 2017 Minnesota Twins, a playoff run seems a bit lofty, but the club could look to vault themselves forward by upping the production from the bottom of their roster.

Given that a big league baseball team is able to deploy 25 players at any given time, the roster remains in flux throughout the majority of the season. For the Minnesota Twins though, one player that could be improved upon prior to leaving Spring Training in Fort Myers is super utility man Danny Santana.

Describing Santana as a super utility player may be also highlighting his greatest asset to the club. The idea that he can play all over is really where the benefits stop, because in reality, his roster spot causes extreme pause. Since his inflated .405 BABIP rookie season, Santana has slashed .227/.259/.308 in 166 major league games the past two years. He's contributed just 29 extra base hits, and his 123/18 K/BB ratio is anything but ideal.

Then there's that idea that Santana is some sort of a utility player capable of playing all over the diamond. Defensive metrics are a fickle beast, but across the board, none of them are kind to Santana. In 2016 alone, Santana was worth -8 DRS combining six different positions. In 2015, the former shortstop was worth -15 DRS proving to be an extreme liability in the infield. Thus far defensively, Santana has shown he doesn't have the chops to play center or short, and he's miscast as a body virtually everywhere else.

Looking at what Santana provides at the plate, the Twins should see a lot to be desired as well. He owns nearly a 12% career swinging strike rate that has elevated the past two seasons. He chases pitches out of the zone 40% of the time, and he makes hard contact just over a quarter of the time. To summarize, Santana isn't a fit in the field, doesn't carry a big bat, and is really a theoretical asset.

So, what do the Twins do to address the issue?

What it comes down to for Minnesota and Paul Molitor, is whether or not they can get over the idea that Santana provides value where he doesn't. Is it beneficial to have a player on the bench that can simply step up to the plate and occupy a fielding position, or is there someone who can push the envelop a bit further? Minnesota may not have an immediate utility bench type outside of Eduardo Escobar, but they could push the overall roster talent upwards by having more of a sure thing.

It's interesting that the organization decided to DFA Byungho Park prior to considering Danny Santana. While it may have been a lot to ask for the Twins to carry Park, Kennys Vargas, and Joe Mauer all on the big league roster, exposing Byungho to waivers first doesn't seem like the best bet. There's not a ton of veteran options in Minnesota's camp, but using Fort Myers as a proving ground to find a Santana replacement really should be a must.

Zach Granite may only be able to play the outfield, and Engelb Vielma may not hit at all, but players like those have true assets in one category or another. If the Twins can find someone to bring any real value on either side of the ball, moving on from Danny Santana (out of options and all) may not be a bad thing.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Twins Must Fix Injury Issues In 2017

Over the course of a 162 game season, it's incredibly inevitable that injuries are going to take place. The depth of even the strongest 40 man rosters are often tested in the game of baseball. While the Minnesota Twins have experienced their fair share, they've also been behind the eight ball far too often.

Just this last season three key examples of reactivity as a detriment come to mind for Minnesota, and one came to a head as Byungho Park was DFA'd by the new front office. Each of Trevor Plouffe, Alex Meyer, and Park were grossly mishandled (or so it would seem) by the Twins training staff a season ago.

Park, who was recently jettisoned off the 40 man roster to make room for recently acquired Matt Belisle, ended his rookie season with season ending wrist surgery. That surgery didn't take place until September, after he had been optioned to Triple-A. Back in July, Park missed time due to the injury, he wasn't DL'd until landing on the shelf with Rochester in August, and there weren't corrective measures taken until the surgery in September.

In Park's last 30 games at the big league level for the Twins (May 17-June 28), he slashed just .123/.208/.236.  After starting .257/.339/.578 through his first 32 games, it was pretty clear regression had move in for some reason or another. Given that he was a prolific slugger coming over to a new test for the first time, it would stand to reason that Park was doing what he could to give his new club more than he currently had.

Then, other the opposite end of the spectrum is a veteran that may have been in the same boat. Last season, Trevor Plouffe dealt with plenty of side injuries that no doubt played into what was somewhat of a disappointing year. He suffered a groin injury early in the summer, then cracked a rib in July. The cracked rib was initially diagnosed as "sore ribs" by the Twins, and the third basemen attempted to play through it. As the season drew to a close, another DL stint was pushed off as a strained oblique became the latest thing to sap Plouffe's production.

In 2016, Plouffe's .723 OPS was his lowest since the 2013 season, and in part, indicative of a player that never was able to take the field with a clean bill of health. It's admirable when a vet wants to go out and battle, especially an arbitration case like Plouffe, but again the Twins training staff did him no favors. He was allowed to participate to his detriment on multiple occasions, and injuries went wrongly diagnosed for a period as well.

Rounding out the most noticeable trio from 2016, and arguably the most egregious, is former prospect Alex Meyer. To be fair, the Twins did a less than ideal job of developing Meyer into the frontline starter he was dubbed as, but their handling of his body may have been even worse.

On May 3, 2016 Alex Meyer pitched for the Twins and lasted just 2.2 IP. He was then optioned to Triple-A Rochester. Despite having shoulder issues, he was simply called day-to-day for 32 days. He wasn't DL'd until June 3rd. The Twins didn't have him throwing, they didn't have more information, the simply did nothing for what was once considered a top tier starting prospect.

When the Twins dealt Alex Meyer to the Los Angeles Angels on August 1st with Ricky Nolasco, he ended his time with Minnesota having not pitched since May 3. The Angels placed Meyer on the minor league 7 day DL immediately to work a roster spot, but had him back on the mound pitching on August 13. The organization invested time into getting him healthy, and had him contribute five starts in September for the big league club.

Ron Gardenhire was often chastised for how he handled roster movement with injured players. He'd carry a guy not available for too long, only to DL them and leave the club short for a longer period of time. In recent memory, the Twins process has been to slap a day-to-day designation on a player (Byron Buxton has also experienced this fate), despite seemingly having no real plan on how to get players healthy.

Given that I'm unfamiliar with the inner workings of the training department, and what Dave Pruemer and his staff have as goals, I can't point an exact finger. What is apparent though, is that the Minnesota Twins seem to be an incredibly reactive organization when it comes to injuries, and it often works to the detriment of their players. Guys like Park, Plouffe, and Meyer all were worse off for how the Twins handled their setbacks a season ago. For a team needing every advantage possible, poor injury management isn't something ideal to fall under.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

2017 AL Central Division Preview

A season ago, I had the Kansas City Royals taking the AL Central division with 86 wins. I contended that not team would win 90 games, while no team would lose 90 either. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Twins blew by the 90 loss mark en route to a franchise worst 103 losses. After a World Series run for the Cleveland Indians, there should be little doubt they enter the 2017 as the league favorite.

When looking at the state of the Central, it's a division with a handful of teams in transition. While the Indians built this offseason, the Royals and Tigers mainly stood still. The Twins look to be relying mostly on their internal development and the Chicago White Sox have gone into an all out rebuild. The group should remain competitive this season, if for no other reason than the separation among organizations at the present time is relatively small.

With the groundwork laid, here's how I see the AL Central shaking out in 2017:

1. Cleveland Indians (91-71)

After going to the World Series a season ago, the Indians shouldn't be expected to fall off significantly. Sure, they lost Mike Napoli, but the addition of Edwin Encarnacion is a big one. If they can keep pitching healthy all year, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco are about as strong of a 1-2 punch as it gets. A full season from Andrew Miller will pay dividends, and Terry Francona's club should be a shoe-in to again take the Central division crown.

2. Detroit Tigers (82-80)

The Tigers present an interesting case for 2017. The roster is aging, but the talent that comes with those players is significant. Justin Verlander very well could have won a Cy Young a season ago, and Miguel Cabrera doesn't appear to be falling off any time soon. If the club slumps through the first half though, a selloff could ensue as the farm system isn't one chock full of talent. At the highest level, Detroit has talent. They need it to age appropriately though for another year, or disaster could force the organizations hand.

3. Minnesota Twins (80-82)

If there's two teams that I can't peg for mirroring reasons in the Central it's the Twins, and the 4th entrant in the division. For Minnesota, everything went wrong a season ago, and the club ended with 103 losses. The talent is much less indicative of that number, and the emergence of young stars such as Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and hopefully Jose Berrios, should make an impact. If Paul Molitor can get anything close to mediocrity from his pitchers, the offense is capable of carrying this club. I could see them winning something like 75 games, just as likely as winning 85.

4. Kansas City Royals (79-83)

Unlike the Twins, the Royals are going to be relying on a few key veterans to hold serve in the division. It appears that their upswing might have come to an end however, and the offseason didn't provide them with many answers. Despite the tough season a year ago, replacing Yordano Ventura in an already mediocre rotation won't be easy. Brandon Moss is a solid enough pickup, but the loss of Jarrod Dyson likely will be felt. This club could be sellers at the deadline, or they could be right in the thick of things if everything breaks right.

5. Chicago White Sox (71-91)

Once again, the bottom team in the division may give the Central a chance to have no one win or lose 90 games. The White Sox already shipped out Chris Sale, and it seems to be just a matter of time before Jose Quintana goes. Todd Frazier is a piece the club could move, and David Robertson also should have value. The reality is that Chicago has committed to a full on rebuild, and they've restocked the farm with some incredible talent. It's going to pay off long term, but they should hold up the tail end of the division.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Mauer Power Up Front For Twins

When I tried to set the Twins lineup for 2017 back in December, I made the contention that Joe Mauer belonged in the leadoff spot. If he wasn't going to hit first, he should bat somewhere around sixth, but I believe he should absolutely hit first. The question is whether or not Paul Molitor has come around far enough on the idea.

A season ago, Molitor used over 130 different lineup combinations. On a daily basis, he seemed confused as to why he was batting players where he was, and his reasoning rarely would stand up against statistical agreement. Over the course of the season, Mauer was campaigned for as a leadoff hitter by a select few. Unfortunately, Molitor gave him an opportunity in just eight games. Those games came after a stretch in which he had played 31 straight without a day off, and the experiment was abandoned after the May 18th tilt against the Detroit Tigers.

While it's an incredibly small sample size, in the eight instances in which Joe Mauer lead off a game, he owned a very solid .375 on base percentage. Always a high on base guy, Mauer threatened to walk more often (79) than he struck out (93) a year ago. It was his lowest strikeout total since 2013, and his plate approach looked extremely impressive.

Generating contact 86.2% of the time, Mauer saw his best contact percentage since his 2012 year, and his 4.9% swinging strike rate was also the best it's been since that season. He chased pitches out of the zone just 23.2% of the time (another best since 2012), and his plan at the dish looked to be something cut of the cloth from the player we once knew. Given his approach and eye, he turned in a .363 OBP on the year, and that number rose to .383 when looking at production solely off of right handed pitchers. Although not quite the .400+ OBP mark Mauer used to patent, his numbers last season when it came to getting on base were better than any year since his 2013 All Star campaign.

If there's an argument against making Joe Mauer the Minnesota Twins leadoff hitter, it's the dated thought that the top guy in the lineup has to be fast. While there's no denying that Mauer doesn't have earth shattering speed, there is plenty of room to question how much speed should factor in.

Looking at the entirety of Major League Baseball lineups on Opening Day in 2016, only seven players stole 20 bases (just 23% of all leadoff hitters). Of those seven players, only two stole 20 or more bases while also having a higher on base percentage than Mauer's .363. Their names were Jose Altuve and Jean Segura.

If somehow the Twins were able to turn Byron Buxton into a Jose Altuve clone, I think we'd have a pretty clear idea who would bat leadoff. Given that doesn't seem incredibly likely, the speed and on base combination doesn't appear to be in the organization at present. Jean Segura checked in ahead of Mauer as well, but his .368 OBP was easily a career best, and well over his .319 career average. So if speed isn't something that's a commodity available to everyone, we once again find ourselves looking for a guy who gets on base.

Speaking of trying to get on base with a leadoff hitter, the Twins also stand to significantly benefit when it comes to run production. In 2016, Brian Dozier batted leadoff in 73 games. He lead off the game with a homer six different times, and of his 42 longballs, 30 of them came with no runners on base. Generating 99 RBI on the season, if just half of the 30 solo shots included a base runner, Dozier would've plated 114 RBI in 2016. Over the course of the year, Minnesota scored 722 runs, three under league average. Adding 15 to their total would've taken them from 16th to 13th in big league run total.

Being able to quantify the ability Joe Mauer possesses when it comes to getting on base is something that has been at the Twins disposal for years. It's now down to whether or not Paul Molitor wants to utilize it. Interestingly enough, his new boss is not foreign to the idea that using a strong on base guy at the top of the lineup makes a lot of sense. While the Indians batted Rajai Davis leadoff to start the season, Carlos Santana took that baton for 85 G in 2016. His .366 OBP was nearly a mirror image of Mauer's .363.

At the end of the day, the reality of the situation is that the Twins don't have a world beating speedster that totes a strong bat along the lines of Altuve or Mookie Betts. What they do have is one of the best players on the planet when it comes to getting on base, and it's even better if he's given extra rest or platooned to see mostly righties. Although some in the local scene such as 1500 ESPN's Patrick Reusse wanted to scoff at and write off the idea after an eight game sample size, Minnesota remains best positioned with Joe kicking things off.

I'm not sure what pull the front office has when it comes to setting lineups, but Molitor proved he could use some guidance a season ago. If Derek Falvey is going to give it to him, the card should start with Mauer.