Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Hey Joe, What's Next?

In listening to the latest episode of Aaron Gleemen and John Bonnes' Gleeman and the Geek, I found myself pondering a question the pair posed. in wondering what happens next for the Minnesota Twins first basemen Joe Mauer, it seemed they both felt as though a high likelihood that he play for another team in 2019 is present. My feelings have always been to the contrary, and it seems as though yours lie in a similar place.
Using the Twittersphere to conduct a quick impromptu poll, just over 100 responses rolled in to the question, "What do you think Joe Mauer does in 2019?" With the available responses being that he stays with the Twins, heads elsewhere, or retires, there was an overwhelming response regarding to of the three outcomes. Most of the respondents suggested that the hometown boy will stick with the Twins a year after his current contract is up. Roughly one-third of the poll reflected a belief he retires, and the small 9% minority believes that he will go elsewhere.

When judging what's next for Mauer, I think there's a few things in play. Obviously at this point in time, we have no idea how 2018 will play out for the Twins first basemen. He's coming off the first season since 2013 in which he hit above .300, and it's also the first time his OPS has been above .800 since that same season. He very nearly (and should've) won a Gold Glove, and the 2.3 fWAR again made him a very solid asset for Minnesota.

In trying to project what will happen a year from now, I believe we have two relatively straightforward paths. Should Mauer again be a productive player, he's probably looking at a one or two year deal from Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. If he happens to fall off a cliff in his age 35 season, I'd have to imagine he'll consider retirement on his own. What I don't foresee happening is the St. Paul native relocating to a new city in his 16th big league season, to hang on for a short amount of time.

First and foremost, Mauer's family is in Minnesota. As a dad of twin girls, uprooting them as well as his wife at this stage in his career seems like a relatively unnecessary burden. Considering the on field aspects of any change, the reality is that even with a great year, a long term commitment isn't going to be made for a player entering their age 36 season. A one or two year scenario that could see Mauer relegated to relief duty by the end of it, seems to suggest joining a new club would be a pretty difficult ask. At first base, high OPS and power hitting players are the ones generally welcomed as bench bats. On top of that, while Mauer isn't a nuisance, he's more of a lead by example type than he a traditional vocal clubhouse leader.

Acknowledging that the current front office isn't composed the same as it was in 2015, the Minnesota Twins handed Torii Hunter a one-year $10.5 million that season. He was coming off a .765 OPS with the Tigers, and had become a relative liability in the field. For Minnesota in 2015, he posted a .702 OPS (worst since 1999) and played in 139 games. His largest impact on the team was easily in the clubhouse, and he helped to push that team to an unexpected winning season.

Unable to be counted on for 15 plus home runs, or an energizing clubhouse presence like Torii, Mauer will need to prove his value in other ways. I can't see the current Twins front office dangling anything close to a $10 million deal, but something near 50% of that could make some sense. A team friendly deal that allows Mauer to contribute with his glove, while providing some value with his bat, would be something I think Falvey and Levine would sign up for.

At this point, it's far too early to speculate what a deal may look like, or how the playing options going forward could shake out. So much of that narrative will depend on the production put forth in the campaign that lies ahead. What I do believe to be certain however, is that Mauer will either remain a Twin or will walk away. I fail to see a scenario in which he's the best option for an opposing club, and similarly, they're the best option for him. When the dust settles, it will definitely be the end of an era. From there, we'll have five years to discuss what his journey to Cooperstown could be like.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Minnesota Making Room On The Mound

As spring training looms, Paul Molitor and the Minnesota Twins will soon have to make some tough decisions. While the 25 man roster as a whole must be settled upon, the Twins will need to decide how they'll round out the rotation. It's obvious another Jose Berrios or Ervin Santana type impact arm is needed, but on the back end, the group has plenty of suitors. For two players though, the future is all but certain.

First, there's 31 year-old Phil Hughes. Still owed $26.4 million through 2019, the premature extension Terry Ryan handed out continues to be the fit that keeps on giving. Hughes gave Minnesota just 53.2 IP a season ago, and that was in follow up to a 2016 that saw him turn in just 59.0 IP. Despite being a true Cy Young candidate in 2014, his first year with Minnesota, it's been a deep dive off a cliff since.

The past two seasons, Hughes has dealt with a myriad of injuries. From breaking a bone in his leg, to undergoing Thoracic Outlet Surgery, health has not been something he can lay claim to. It's the TOS procedure that remains relatively difficult to come back from, and the list of those who've successfully recovered is not a long one (Matt Harvey of the Mets finds himself on the wrong side of the discussion as well). After turning in a 5.87 ERA and allowing opposing hitters a .907 OPS off of him, Hughes was shut down and again went searching for answers.

On August 10, Hughes underwent Thoracic Outlet Syndrome revision surgery, in hopes it would help set him up for a cleaner bill of health in the year ahead. Now fully healed, the question turns to what he can give Minnesota. The past two seasons, he's allowed hard contact roughly 40% of the time. When he was going well in 2014, that number was 32%, and it's just 38.9% over the course of his career. Maybe most alarming however is the significant dip in velocity. After throwing his fastball at 93 mph from 2009-2014, he's lost at least 3 mph over the past two seasons. Such a significant decrease can obviously cause issues, and could end up contributing to a career ending decline.

If he's healthy, the Twins would be getting a command artist back in the fold. Hughes at his best is a plenty serviceable back end option, and would be more than capable of being entrusted to take the ball every 5th day. Although the upside isn't there, and he's probably past his prime, a staff could do much worse than a solid Phil Hughes. How long of a leash he has to prove that's where he's at, or if there is truly a clean bill of health all remain fair questions. With north of $20 million left on his deal, it's hard to see the Twins cutting bait, but I can't imagine the current structure allowing for ineffectiveness either.

On the opposite end of the return spectrum is one-time top prospect Trevor May. Making his return from Tommy John surgery, May likely won't be ready on Opening Day, but also shouldn't be far off. Prior to the injury, it appeared May was going to be given every opportunity to earn a spot in the starting rotation. Despite being used solely as a reliever in 2016, the desire to get more use out of him seemed apparent.

As a reliever, May posted an elite 12.7 K/9 and a manageable 3.6 BB/9. His 1.5 HR/9 led to an inflated ERA, but the 3.80 FIP suggests there was quality beyond the surface. While May in the bullpen could truly be an asset to Minnesota, there's also the question as to whether or not his back could put up with the workload. Never working solely as a reliever, injuries flared as he was called upon to pitch more often, and ready himself at a significantly quicker pace.

Prior to his injury, May appeared to be more than a soft tossing arm deployed out of the Twins stable. As a starter, he averaged right around 94 mph on his fastball, and bumped that up to 95 mph coming out of the pen. While not triple digits, sustained velocity in the mid 90's is something that Minnesota would no doubt welcome. It's fair to wonder whether or not the surgery will sap some of the electricity, but track records for Tommy John patients have greatly improved over time.

In both cases, Minnesota will have some difficult decisions to make. There's a much better case to be made for May being inserted into the rotation if healthy. His long term value remains of benefit to the club, and at 28, his prime still should be in front of him. Outside of monetary obligations it's hard to say the same for Hughes. Unless he's a lights out 2014 version of himself, there's plenty of reason for skepticism when it comes to future contributions.

At any rate, the Twins have two starters locked in, and a third (Kyle Gibson) pretty close to being written in ink as well. The necessary addition of a top level arm remains a must, but how the 5th and final spot shakes out is anyones guess. Both Hughes and May will be in the conversation, but how will the production from both speak?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Pen Provies Possible Upside In Minnesota

As things stand, the Minnesota Twins have made two moves regarding their bullpen this offseason. In signing both Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke to one-year deals, they bring in proven veterans with skills in all the right places for the Twins. It seems Derek Falvey and Thad Levine sent a message in their relief acquisitions, and looking back to 2017, it is one that should be well received.

While teams have long since began venturing down the path of super bullpens, some of them go about it differently. At their peak, the Kansas City Royals seemed to do it more organically, while the Cleveland Indians moved some pieces around, and the current Colorado Rockies just threw money at everyone with a pulse. The idea that a start can be shortened through a strong bullpen is a good one, but it isn't a band-aid that can be applied to every organization.

For Minnesota, the reality is that both the starting pitching and relief staff needed work. With the cost of acquiring a starter being what it is, spending top dollar on a minimal impact role like a reliever is a tough ask. Instead, the Twins got creative by targeting high strikeout guys with strong track records. On top of that, they did so without much potential for negative repercussions considering the length and terms of each deal.

Where this story starts though, is at the beginning. Looking back to 2017, it's hard not to see Paul Molitor and his staff in a much better place when having to deploy relief help. There's no arguing that the Twins don't have an elite pen (or maybe even an above average one), but much improved is something they should have in spades.

On Opening Day of 2017, the Twins trotted Tyler Duffey, Michael Tonkin, Justin Haley, Ryan Pressly, Matt Belisle, Brandon Kintzler, Craig Breslow, and Taylor Rogers out to the bullpen. Of that group, only three remain, and each of them should find a spot in the 2018 pen from the jump. Assuming Minnesota goes with seven relievers (after beginning with eight a year ago), I'd imagine the group consists of: Duffey, Rogers, Pressly, Trevor Hildenberger, Zach Duke, Alan Busenitz, and Fernando Rodney.

Looking at the holdovers, you have two guys that have the ability to pitch in high leverage. While Pressly is the velocity guy, Duffey worked as a closer in college. Both can put the ball past opposing hitters, and looking for K/9 rates above 8.0 should be a safe assumption. In Rogers, Molitor gets a guy that was tested in his second year, and showed he can get batters out on both sides of the plate. Moving more towards the middle innings, he can act more as the second lefty, and be somewhat of a specialist.

In categorizing the additions, the Twins have a lot of new weapons at their disposal. Despite his age, Rodney is still pumping fastballs in the upper 90's. Yes he walks batters, but over the course of a full season, it's hard not to see him being an asset. Duke returned from Tommy John in record time, and the biggest takeaway from 2017 for him was health. He's a year removed from a 10.0 K/9 with the bulk of the season spent in the AL Central. Hildenberger and Busenitz both stepped in huge down the stretch for Minnesota a season ago. The former looked the part of a potential closer, while the latter is another velocity arm (95.8mph) that should see the strikeouts rise.

Given that this group is relatively established, and there's a bit more depth behind them, the Twins can feel a bit more at ease about their current positioning. We've been waiting on top relief arms to surface for some time, but names like Hildenberger, Busenitz, and John Curtiss simply stepped up first. Should J.T. Chargois, Tyler Jay, and Jake Reed see their time come in 2018, the overall water level for the relief corps will only continue to rise.

At the end of the day, the Twins bullpen isn't going to wow anyone on paper. For fans who've followed the organization however, it looks like one of the better groups in quite some time, and one that speaks to a certain level of sustainability. It took some time to get away from the soft tossing aspect in relief, but that doesn't appear to be the plan of action for anyone (save for Duke) who will enter the field from behind the wall. It may all blow up when the action actually starts, but there's reason for optimism with the current collection to be sure.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Diving Into Twins 2018 ZiPS

Today, Dan Szymborski released the 2018 Minnesota Twins ZiPS projections via Fangraphs. If you aren't familiar with ZiPS, they are simply a projection system (similar to Steamer, KATOH, PECOTA, etc) that attempt to look at potential production for an upcoming season. Projection systems don't account for situations in real time, and are using statistical analysis to draw future conclusions.

After appearing in the Wild Card game seemingly out of nowhere, the 2018 Twins have some heightened expectations. With warts on the starting rotation and in the bullpen, Minnesota has to have each area be better in order to compete with other foes in the American League. With both the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels adding big time this winter, the Wild Card almost certainly isn't going to welcome a sub 90-win squad this Postseason.

Rather than dive deeply into the bulk of the projections themselves, I'd like to point out a few key areas of note, as well as adding some commentary. Again, you can find the full 2018 Twins ZiPS projections here. Anyways, let's get into it:

  • Two Twins hitters are projected for 30 or more homers, both Brian Dozier (31) and Miguel Sano (30). Eddie Rosario is slated to have 21, with Byron Buxton clubbing 18. Kennys Vargas is projected for 25 across 506 plate appearances (which is not a mark I see him getting anywhere near).
  • Sano is pegged for a 35.4% strikeout rate, which would be virtually identical to his last two seasons. His 116 wRC+ would lead the Twins, but come in lower than his 124 wRC+ from 2017.
  • Assuming he gets 400+ plate appearances at the big league level, Brent Rooker is given a projection of 17 HRs with a .226/.288/.396 slash line for the Twins.
  • Average still isn't something I'm certain Byron Buxton will ever call an asset, but a .246/.305/.426 slash line from the Minnesota center fielder would be more than welcomed. Adding in his defense, he'd likely get an MVP vote or two.
  • Returning to the land of the .300+ batting average a season ago, ZiPS pegs Mauer for a .286/.368/.394 slash line in 2018. That .286 mark is expected to be good enough to lead the Twins, and contribute to a 103 wRC+ total.
  • Here's some player comparisons ZiPS sees: Dozier (Ryne Sandberg), Buxton (Adam Jones), Mauer (Keith Hernandez), Grossman (Bobby Kielty).
  • Coming in JUST under 9.0 K/9, Berrios is projected for 174 strikeouts in 176 innings. Unfortunately, that innings total is also expected to be the largest total for Twins pitchers.
  • Regression is expected to bite Ervin Santana, as his ERA swells from 3.28 in 2017, to 4.10. Berrios checks in with a 3.92 ERA. The four best ERA marks are all attributed to relievers: Curtiss (3.46), Hildenberger (3.50), Duke (3.51), and Pressly (3.63).
  • Jose Berrios' number one comparison is Dave Stieb, and he carries a 3.3 zWAR projection. That's over double the 1.6 zWAR projection he was given prior to the 2017 season. Stephen Gonsalves' 1.1 zWAR checks in as the highest mark among rookie pitchers for Minnesota.
  • After having six players projected for 2.0+ zWAR in 2017, only three (Dozier/Buxton/Sano) surpass that total this season. Sano and Mauer are the only regulars with zWAR increases year-over-year.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Will The Real Kyle Gibson Please Stand Up

Entering the 2018 Major League Baseball season the Minnesota Twins greatest need is starting pitching. Obviously, that is a similar narrative for many teams across the sport, but there's little denying that things line up for the hometown team to make a big splash in the starting rotation. While Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana are locks among the five this year, Paul Molitor will have to quickly find out what Kyle Gibson he has in 2018.

The former 1st round (22nd overall) pick by Minnesota in 2009 has been the focus of many stories wondering if it will ever all come together. Making his big league debut at the age of 25 back in 2013, Gibson now embarks on his 6th MLB season, and will be doing so at the age of 30. He's yet to pitch more than 195 innings in a season, and his career 4.70 ERA speaks of mediocrity in the truest sense of the word. A pitch-to-contact type, Gibson's career 6.2 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 doesn't leave much to get hyped about, simply showing a level of predictability.

Rewind back to mid-2017 however, and Gibson appeared to buck his own narrative. Despite looking like a non-tender candidate for the early part of the year, the former Mizzou Tiger landed a 2018 arbitration deal that will come in somewhere around $5 million. Now the question is, how did he get there and will it continue?

A year ago, Gibson's first 17 starts for the Twins added up to a 6.29 ERA and a .920 OPS. He was sent down to Triple-A, and was dealt a hard dose of reality. After posting a 5.07 ERA in 2016, the 3.84 ERA from 2015 looked like a distant memory. Then, in a get-right opportunity, Gibson turned things around against the hapless Detroit Tigers on July 22nd. Twirling 7.1 IP of three-run ball, it was the first time since September 13, 2016 that he pitched at least seven innings. From that point on, a period of 12 starts, Gibson owned a 3.57 ERA and allowed opponents to tally just a .699 OPS. The change was drastic, and the sample size was indicative of it being sustainable. Going forward though, can he replicate what drove that success?

First and foremost, Gibson missed significantly more bats. In his first 17 starts from 2017, Gibson generated strikeouts just 14.1% of the time, while walking 10.4% of batters he faced. Those numbers are a far cry from the 22.1% strikeout rate, and 6.2% walk rate posted in the final 12 times on the mound. By getting more batters out on his own, he also increased his strand rate from 68.1% to 79.2%.

Virtually all of Gibson's balls put in play remained comparable by the percentages. He didn't have a drastic change in line drive, ground ball, or fly ball rates. He was able to shave just about 5% off of his HR/FB rate however. The dip in balls leaving the park could potentially be attributed to a slight swing (roughly 4%) of outcomes taken away from hard contact, and added to soft contact. What that also suggests however, is that we dive into the repertoire.

In looking at Gibson's offerings, I think there's a few takeaways to consider. First and foremost, there was a drastic change in regards to how Kyle attacked the strikezone. After predominantly working in the lower half of the zone through his bad stretch, Gibson attacked higher in the zone and on the corners down the stretch. Not being a high velocity pitcher (averaging 92.7 mph on his fastball) forcing the ball up in the zone can help to get it on hitters quicker. Obviously the swing plane changes based upon pitch location, and the added advantage of going up and in suggests Gibson felt more comfortable challenging opposing hitters.

Secondly, there was one pitch that jumped off the page during his success. After using his slider just 14% of the time through his first 1,495 pitches in 2017, the usage jumped over 20% through his final 1,115 pitches on the season. The numbers didn't equate to the career high 22.1% of sliders he threw a year ago (in fact he was at just 17.8% on the season), but it was clearly an offering he felt comfortable going back to. Notably, the slider also became somewhat of an out pitch. Looking at Gibson's pitch types by count courtesy of Baseball Savant, favorable counts saw a significant amount of the sweeping pitch. Despite being more of an afterthought early in the year, the slider generated 5% swinging strikes in the second half (compared to 3% in the first).
Finally, the slight changes allowed Gibson to see a difference in the results of batted balls against him. Launch angle for opposing hitters decreased, while barreled balls fell off a cliff. Gibson was generating slightly more weak contact, and the quality of balls being put into the field of play as a whole had sunk. Likely an indicator of the process as a whole, as opposed to any one single scenario, Gibson was seeing a payoff for his new tactics.

As a whole, it's hard to suggest that 2018 will see a full season of Gibson at his best. While the positive signs were shown down the stretch, none of the changes were revolutionary, and the differences were rather minor in the grand scheme of things. With a new pitching coach in Garvin Alston, maybe Gibson will find even more success with his slider than before. What we don't know, is whether the slight differences translate to sustainability for a 30 year old over the course of 30-plus starts. I do think that there's enough reason to believe Gibson can be more of his 2015 self than he's been each of the past two seasons however, and that would give Minnesota a quality back end option.

Even before adding another high-level arm into the fold, the Twins will have a stable of options to round out the rotation. With youth as a disadvantage, pitchers like Gibson and Phil Hughes will have to put their best foot forward on a nightly basis to set themselves apart. I'm not going to suggest Gibson will live up to his pre-debut hype, but serviceable seems to be a fair bet in 2018.