Monday, June 7, 2021

Alex Kirilloff Is Headed Towards an Unfortunate Conclusion

 


May 3rd was the last game Alex Kirilloff played for the Minnesota Twins prior to hitting the injured list with a wrist issue. He’s now been back for 16 games, but it’s clear this isn’t the same player. Something of an inevitable outcome seems to be looming.

 

Following his placement on the shelf, Minnesota sent Kirilloff to see a hand specialist and he was given a cortisone shot. He has been able to play through the injury without and notation of pain publicly. That said, it’s fair to take a look at the results and see that this simply isn’t the same player.

 

When the Twins were scuffling through injuries and looking to crawl back towards contention in 2021, it made sense for them to push their top hitting prospect to be back on the field. These at bats are vital for his development, and as a player that will be relied upon heavily in 2022, big strides this year are monumental. At some point though, the sagging results become detrimental in terms of confidence and expected outcomes.

 

Let’s look at the numbers. On May 3 Kirilloff was slashing .214/.227/.571 with a 56.7% hard hit rate and a 26.7% barrel rate. His average exit velocity on batted ball events was a strong 96.5 mph. Fast forward to today and he’s got 68 plate appearances since returning to the lineup. The slash line includes a better average and OBP at .254/.309, but the .302 slugging is the real problem. Kirilloff has just three extra-base hits, all doubles, and his hard hit rate has fallen to 26.1%. The barrel rate is way down to just 6.5% and his average exit velocity has dropped to 90.1 mph.

 

As is the case with wrist injuries, and as we’ve heard Justin Morneau talk about on recent Twins broadcasts, there’s just no way to generate power without that hand strength. Nelson Cruz dealt with a tendon issue in 2019. It eventually ruptured and that outcome was a positive in terms of future ability. While Kirilloff’s situation is not the same, the current results lag because of the present condition.

 

I am not a doctor and have no idea what the timetable for healing from surgery looks like. Maybe Minnesota is having him play because the offseason is going to give enough runway for a healthy 2022 regardless. At some point though, you have to question whether the outcomes aren’t providing a more damaging view of the current process. The Twins aren’t going anywhere in 2021, and it’s evident that this version of Alex Kirilloff isn’t the one that anyone involved wants to see either.

 

Only the player knows what the actual pain threshold looks and feels like at this point, but you don’t need to dive to deep beyond the box score to see that this isn’t what anybody signed up for.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

A Turd of a Third for Minnesota

 


After last night’s loss to the Baltimore Orioles, Rocco Baldelli’s Minnesota Twins had capped off their first third of the 2021 Major League Baseball season. To define it, a lump of excrement fits, a turd.

 

Sitting at 22-32, the two-time defending Al Central champions find themselves 10.5 games back of the Chicago White Sox. While the Pythagorean results have them at 25-29 due to a -24 run differential, the reality is that positive regression has yet to take shape. This club has scored nearly 75 less runs than the prolific Bomba Squad to the same point, and offense seems non-existent most nights. Combine that with lackluster pitching performances, and you have the result we’re faced with.

 

It’s still hard to place much blame on the skipper. Baldelli has been very good over the course of his short career in Minnesota, and it’s fair to suggest he’s been on the wrong side of many coin flips this season. The deck he’s been working with isn’t full though, and the front office took some gambles that certainly haven’t paid off. There was no real bullpen addition of note, and the depth there amounted to a handful of waiver claims with the intention of one being able to stick.

 

Health has also been a problem for Minnesota. On their 54th game of the season, Baldelli was forced to start an outfield that consisted of Alex Kirilloff, Kyle Garlick, and Willians Astudillo. That might be the worst defensive trio any team in baseball has ran out this season, and it’s not surprising that Cedric Mullins ripped a leadoff triple that Astudillo was entirely overmatched on. Everywhere you look on the roster includes positional groupings with guys on the Injured List, and as has been customary this season, players have dropped right as they’ve begun to hit their stride.

 

Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint, but it’s also designed that way for expectations and assumptions to normalize themselves. Coming into the season there was a perception that Minnesota was again a Postseason team with the ability to win a division title. The problem is that was under the assumption that health and production would remain relatively predictable. The former has not, and the latter may be even worse. To call the Twins a good team is overselling the reality of what we’re being shown.

 

Over the next two-thirds of the season, Minnesota will only go as far as they are available. Right now, there’s too much talent on the shelf to be any sort of competition most nights. If a return to a relatively healthy roster happens in short order, a plethora of players finding even the baseline of their expectation all at once could give this team a shot. The division isn’t good and chasing down a Wild Card spot is easier than it’s ever been.

 

No matter what happens from here on out, flushing this first third is a must, and putting together something of promise the rest of the way should be the goal. Until that happens, we’ve got nothing but Rob Refsnyder running into stationary objects to define this thing.


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Is Nelson Cruz Cooked?

 


Over the winter the Minnesota Twins and Nelson Cruz looked at each fondly while they also had discussions from a distance. Although it seemed destined that a reunion would happen, the pieces had to fall into place. Now, through 47 games in 2021, maybe the victor of all the spoils is finally going to be Father Time.

 

Coming off a season in which Cruz played in 53 games for the Twins, Minnesota watched him follow up a 1.031 OPS in 2019 with a .992 mark. Although Rocco Baldelli’s club wasn’t a complete reincarnation of the Bomba Squad, Cruz continued to send the ball over the fence with routine frequency. That is still happening in 2021 as he’s on pace to smash 30 homers, but that would also be his lowest total since 2013.

 

Then there’s what happened in May. Sure, Cruz’s .839 OPS is still fine, especially for a man doing this at 40 years old. That said, he posted a lackluster .663 OPS in the month of May, launched just three dingers, and owned a 23/9 K/BB. His 33.9% hard hit rate on the year is the lowest it’s been since 2011, and his 18.9% HR/FB rate is something he’s virtually never messed with.

 

When Cruz started in the big leagues way back in 2007, the average fastball velocity he faced was 91.5 mph. Now, that’s been ratcheted up to 94 mph and combined with an aging human body. He’s also made things harder on himself by posting a career worst 34.8% chase rate.

 

At some point this was all bound to happen. 2020 caused concern for me down the stretch as well. Over the final month Cruz owned just an .844 OPS, which wouldn’t be as negative if he weren’t dropping off from a 1.068 mark to that point. He then completely hit the skids over the final 11 games of the season, owning just a .523 OPS with two extra-base hits. It is true that Cruz was one of the only Twins to contribute during the Postseason, but that was a three-game sample that amounted to just six total at bats.

 

Maybe the month of May was a grind for Cruz, and maybe he’s still coming out of some lingering effects following the hit by pitch. What would certainly not be a good development for a bad Twins team is that their slugger is falling off a cliff, and it’s a reality that would hurt twice as much when it comes to the deadline and any opportunity to flip him for assets becomes more of a chore than a choice.

 

We’ve seen Cruz stave of the aging process for quite some time. If the Twins are going to come back in 2021, or get anything back for their designated hitter, we’ll need one last encore.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Tide Turning for Twins Pair

 


It always had to be this way. This was the only plausible outcome. As the Twins look towards a resurgence, the talent had to rise to the occasion. For a pair of Minnesota mashers, it’s starting to happen.

 

Coming into the 2021 season Rocco Baldelli’s club had won two straight AL Central division titles while also having heightened expectations for the year ahead. There wasn’t supposed to be a slide, and the roster as constructed should’ve been among the best in baseball. The results haven’t followed that narrative, but there’s never been a doubt when it comes to what this team is capable of.

 

The reality for Minnesota is that regression struck for so many at roughly the same time. April was not a good month, and to be frank, May hasn’t been that great either. Combined with injuries and a slight covid scare, suggesting nothing has gone right would be putting it kindly. Now faced with a stretch of winnable games and opportunity for a turnaround, having a resurgence from a few guys at once would be nice.

 

Enter Miguel Sano and Mitch Garver.

 

Sano has long been a lightning rod of criticism for Twins fans. He’s a prolific power hitter that, at his best, remains an on-base and slugging machine. If he’s not hitting the fastball though, he’s a check swinging mess and the value tanks. After discussion surrounding a demotion cropped up, an eventual benching took place following the May 8 contest. We’ve seen this before with the Dominican, and he’s responded by righting the ship. Once again, that’s playing out before our eyes.

 

In 13 games since being put on the pine, Sano has reinvigorated his season. Across 51 plate appearances he has a .261/.333/.717 slash line to go with nine extra base hits, six of which have left the yard. The 16 strikeouts are still high, and you’d like to see more than four walks, but it’s apparent his process is back to a better place. Earlier this season Sano was leading the league in free passes, and it was a timing issue that had him failing to produce the bigger results. Now the timing is there, and while the discipline may have slid a bit, dreaming on a more perfect combination gives the Twins their middle of the order threat back.

 

Funny enough, a teammate of Sano’s also finds himself in a similar situation. Although Mitch Garver was never benched this season, he’s dealt with plenty of maladies along with an inability to crush the fastball as has become his calling card. With just a .644 OPS through April, a flipped script was necessary come May. Across 56 plate appearances this month Garver owns a .261/.393/.500 slash line with five extra base hits including three dingers. I think it’s a bit far-fetched to assume Mitch is the backstop with a near 1.000 OPS that he was in 2019, but anything north of .850 in that regard makes him among the best hitting catchers in baseball.

 

When Garver is right, he’s barreling the ball, but more importantly he’s working counts and taking walks. Garver has always excelled as a hitter due to his ability to be patient and find his pitch. The 43/13 K/BB is still out of whack, but in May it’s been an exceptional 16/10 K/BB and that will play all year long.

 

It’s hard to fathom a complete turnaround for Minnesota. The hole they dug themselves out of the gate has been immense. That said, if the expectation was for this team to be great coming into the year, all of those pieces are still in place. Getting guys back to a median level of expectations will bear fruit, and given the quality of competition within the division, a run is hardly unfathomable.

 

Mitch Garver and Miguel Sano have begun to turn their tide, now the Twins need others to continue following suit.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Has A Twins Team Flopped This Hard?

 


Back at the end of April I questioned whether or not the Twins were good. This team was expected to compete for the AL Central division, and there were real World Series aspirations. Now, owners of the worst record in baseball, it’s worth contemplating if any Twins team has flopped this badly.

 

We’re past the point of it being early, and there’s plenty of blame to go around, but much of it lands on the players in the dugout. Sure, Minnesota could go on a run and make it a relevant summer by playing some compelling baseball and battling back towards .500. The reality though, is that process will take months and there’s been nothing to suggest that development is coming.

 

Rocco Baldelli has pulled strings that haven’t worked, but he’s also watched a plethora of injuries dog his roster, and an overall ineffectiveness of talent be put on full display. The front office failed to put their best foot forward across the board, but even the alternatives are somewhat of a reason. This clubhouse was built on holdover and internal talent. Simply put, they haven’t been good enough.

 

The 2016 Twins were nothing short of a dumpster fire. That group lost 103 games and the house was cleaned. After a 2nd place finish in the division the year prior, a level of ineptitude that low probably wasn’t expected. They weren’t expected to be juggernauts however, and much of the groundwork was laid early on when the Paul Molitor club started the season 0-9. That Twins team recorded their 13th victory while already owning 34 losses. This group sits at 13-25, but it’s not hard to imagine a further slide with a difficult week ahead.

 

Since beginning the year 5-2, Minnesota has gone on a stretch culminating in an 8-23 record. They have hit poorly, pitched badly, and played defense embarrassingly. There have been very few bright spots to this group as a whole, and even where there have been, they likely have a blemish or two to their credit as well.

 

It’s May, so looking at who becomes trade bait and which assets you might ship off still seems a bit premature. If nothing else, the level of practicality in terms of other teams desire probably won’t get sorted out until there’s at least another month worth of a sample size. That said, it’s beyond high time that the guys in this clubhouse take this personally. I have no indication that there’s a character or clubhouse problem, but the nightly meltdowns have gotten to a point where the embarrassment is bordering on apathy. No one should feel bad for a group of underachievers, and neither should those currently going through it. Adversity has offered the opportunity to respond, and there’s more than enough talent for a relative turnaround.

 

No one saw this coming for the Twins, and the only ones able to course correct are those that are on the field. Take it personal. Make a stand. Do something to stop this incredibly poor level of play we’ve now seen for over a month.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Do the Twins Have Any Arms to Trust?

 


Once again, the 2021 Minnesota Twins game script played out in Chicago on Tuesday night. Despite a three-run blast by Yasmani Grandal, Kenta Maeda had settled in. Rocco Baldelli pulled him after the 5th inning, only for the bullpen to immediately cough up the lead. Starters, relievers, anyone? Is there anyone the Twins can trust?

 

Rocco Baldelli’s bullpen is hot garbage. The front office brought in Hansel Robles and Alex Colome this offseason. Both are decent signings, but there wasn’t much in the form of additional firepower. Robles had question marks as to whether he could regain previous form, and Colome was certainly a candidate for regression (although not this far). With holdovers like Tyler Duffey and Cody Stashak taking steps backwards, it’s become Taylor Rogers or bust.

 

We’re now over 30 games into the season and the same trends are continuing on a nightly basis. No bullpen in baseball, save for the Tigers, is on par with the Twins futility. Their strand rate is dead last, they’ve accounted for an MLB worst 12 losses, and their ERA is the fourth worst in the sport. Why then does the skipper continue turning to them more often than he has to?

 

Yes, numbers absolutely suggest that the more times a lineup sees a starter, the more likely you’re going to run into trouble. The problem for the Twins is that they’ve been so risk averse with their starters, that the onus of each additional out placed on the relief corps only heightens the likelihood of problems.

 

Going back through the 33 games played to this point, I highlighted 11 different starts that seemed questionable scenarios to lift the pitcher. Not once did the starter have more than 88 pitches thrown, multiple times they were under 80, and in none of those instances had they allowed more than three runs. Six of those situations included the bullpen being activated in the 6th inning, with another four of them being 7th inning activations. That means the worst unit in the league is being asked to get something between 9-12 outs or at least 33% of a total game, despite the starter being in a good spot.

 

It’s also understandable that Rocco Baldelli would be hesitant to run a starter out for another inning and face the problem of bringing in relief help with runners on. Remember, this group allows inherited runners to score at an alarming pace, so bringing someone in without a clean inning only ratchets the difficulty of their task. At some point though, there has to be a shift in philosophy when it comes to finding a way that works.

 

Minnesota has an awful bullpen and we’ve seen that reflected by in game results on a near nightly basis to this point. The starters aren’t world beaters by any means but letting a guy with 85 pitches in the 5th or 6th inning start the next half has to become more commonplace. You know the devil that is the relievers right now. We don’t really know the devil that is the starters quickly running into a wall. Allow that to also be broke before you try fixing something that hasn’t been there. It’s not April anymore, pitch counts reaching or exceeding 100 shouldn’t be a fear.

 

The season might not be salvageable for the Twins at this point but trying a different strategy would certainly be a welcomed sign as opposed to practicing the definition of insanity.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Twins Need to See Pillars Produce

 


Over the course of 2021 the Minnesota Twins have found more ways to lose in 32 games than most teams can accomplish over the course of a full season. If going into the year it was assumed this club would be good, a complete 180 this early doesn’t seem fair. The problem? Are these players actually good?

 

Here’s the deal, Rocco Baldelli’s bullpen has been bad. It’s among the worst in baseball across more than a handful of categories. He’s dealing with a group that the front office banked more on development than production, and regression has hit everyone not named Taylor Rogers. Despite a winning record in nine-inning games, this team gets crushed the minute relief help comes in.

 

Although the lineup has shown signs of life at times, the length of it is immediately called into question when looking at assumed producers. I think it was a fair assessment to assume 2020 Mitch Garver wasn’t right. Jorge Polanco dealt with an ankle injury, and Max Kepler clearly left something to be desired. Fast forward a year however, and that trio is as confusing as ever.

 

The backstop that broke out in 2019 probably was never going to resurface for the Twins. What Garver did that year was truly unreal, and for a late-blooming catcher, probably unrepeatable. It should’ve been assumed that Minnesota’s catching tandem could be among the best in baseball this season with how Ryan Jeffers looked in his 2020 debut. Garver hasn’t caught up to the fastball again though, and despite a .748 OPS, has just not really put it together yet.

 

Moving from shortstop to second base was going to be huge for Polanco defensively. A surgically repaired ankle also gave the Twins middle infielder a clean bill of health. He seems to be staying in on swings more than he did a year ago, but the results still leave plenty to be desired. Polanco’s .679 OPS is just north of his 2020 mark, and while he does have a 97 OPS+ on the season, a .236/.306 average and on-base percentage is not where the Twins can afford him to be. Extended in 2019, he really hasn’t been a good player since.

 

In the outfield there’s been more uncertainty than ever this season. Alex Kirilloff was left off the roster to start 2021, and Byron Buxton is now again on the shelf. Kepler has always been the mainstay from a health perspective, but his production has gone missing for the better part of the past two years. Just recently getting on the longball board this season, Kepler owns a disappointing .664 OPS through his first 22 games. The average is hovering near the Mendoza Line, and the .855 OPS from 2019 looks to be from an alternate universe.

 

The reality for Rocco is that the players he was counting on have by and large been there this season. In mass quantities however, they’ve fallen flat. It’s great that Byron Buxton looks like an MVP candidate, Josh Donaldson is a monster, and Nelson Cruz is ageless. Behind that though, it’s really hard to see anything that suggests this team is good anywhere but on paper. Assume producers need to start coming through, and it’s this trio that may be chief among them.

 

There’s still time for the 2021 Minnesota Twins to turn things around, but it’s getting late early, and it only gets darker if the light switch doesn’t flip for some guys very soon.