Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Twins Can Trade With Themselves

Minnesota Twins's Miguel Sano follows through on a two-run home run in the sixth inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Saturday, March 14, 2015, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
90 loss seasons are a thing of the past, and ugly Twins baseball is so 2014. As the 2015 Major League Baseball season kicks off in Detroit just under a week from today, the Twins have their sights set much higher. As I dissected earlier today, both the ceiling and the floor are in respectable places when it comes to the 2015 Twins. One of the biggest positives for this team however, is that reaching the ceiling comes with a certain level of control from within.

If you remember back to a season ago, the Twins made a relatively big splash at the beginning of June. Despite a losing record (29-31 on June 8th), Minnesota was just five games back in the AL Central, and two and a half games out of the wild card race. In an effort to bolster the offense, the Twins signed Kendrys Morales to a $12 million one year deal. Despite the struggles on the mound, the Twins believed scoring more would be the key to their eventual success. Unfortunately, the deal didn't work out, and the Twins later flipped Morales to the Seattle Mariners for relief pitcher Stephen Pryor.

The decision to sign Morales was not a quick thought, however it did seemingly come out of nowhere. The Twins didn't look like they were going to compete, despite hanging around, and Morales had sat out the first part of the season. Terry Ryan decided that his club was in position to make a run, and thought that Morales was the missing piece. At a press conference he said, "I read there were probably a handful of clubs that were chasing Kendrys. We were ahead of many of those clubs in the standings." While that may be true, the Twins missed on Morales, and he was hardly the key to their issues even if the deal had worked out.

In 2015 however, Minnesota's best trades and signings will likely come from within. Instead of having to go out and look for a Kendrys Morales type hitter on the open market, Minnesota could choose to call up power hitting prospect Miguel Sano. The similar June timeline would provide the Twins an immediate boost to their lineup, and could push them further into the playoff race. If the club finds themselves needing a pitcher, Alex Meyer, Trevor May, and potentially even Jose Berrios could all be looked at as options. Instead of dealing a prospect or handing out more money, Minnesota could go the route of an internal phone call to improve the roster. Quite possibly the biggest move the organization will make involves Byron Buxton. Baseball's best prospect could be called up to help the team push through the summer months and in turn lay the groundwork for what winning is to come in the future.

As Minnesota, and first year manager Paul Molitor progress through the upcoming season, plenty of decisions will be made. With the team in a good spot to be overlooked, and potentially surprise some of the competition, knowing they have a handful of aces in their back pocket is a great thing. Not having to worry about surrendering assets for immediate gain, Minnesota can begin to reap the fruits of a farm system that is loaded with talent.

It's more than fair to argue that the Twins have slow-played youth in the past. This season however will provide the organization with some interesting opportunities. Weighing current production for the minor leagues, as well as the positioning of the big league club, the organization actually holds a stacked deck when it comes to advancing itself from within.

The Ceiling And The Floor

Currently, the Minnesota Twins are less than a week away from kicking off their 2015 Major League Baseball season. Having hovered right around the .500 mark this spring, new manager Paul Molitor should have a good idea of the areas of strength, and where the team needs work. Heading north, the Twins will be looking to break away from the trend that is losing 90 games each of the last four seasons. More than any other recent season, the 2015 Twins have both a respectable ceiling and a relatively high floor. Maximizing on opportunities will determine which direction they trend in.

Last season, Minnesota vastly outproduced expectations on the offensive end. Getting key contributions from players like Danny Santana, Kurt Suzuki, and even Jordan Schafer, the Twins saw more runs score than they could have imagined. Unfortunately, even with unexpected batting averages being inflated, the Twins failed to capitalize in the wins category due to poor pitching. There's no doubt that once again the mound was an area of focus this offseason, and the Twins appear to be in a better place.

When looking at how high the Twins ceiling is for 2015, everything begins and ends with pitching. Although Ervin Santana was the club's only offseason addition, the staff looks retooled and competitive for the first time in years. Gone are the days of Cole De Vries and Samuel Deduno making the Opening Day rotation. Minnesota has a true ace in Phil Hughes, and he backed by arms such as Kyle Gibson, Santana, and Ricky Nolasco. Rounding out the rotation, Tommy Milone is more than capable of getting the job done as a 5th starter at the major league level. The improved pitching should only substantiate a lineup designed to score runs.

Looking at the offense, there's no doubt the Twins will see some regression. Of the players mentioned above as breakouts, next to none of them should be expected to replicate their 2014 level of success. Getting key contributions from players like Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, and Oswaldo Arcia in 2015 should make the regression less detrimental however. Minnesota's lineup boasts at least five guys capable of 20 home run seasons, and solid pitching performances should not be wasted this time around.

Trying to quantify the ceiling in the win/loss column is probably more assumption based than everything. As it stands currently, I have the Twins coming in at 79-83. Should they have things break in their favor and maximize on their opportunities, an 86 win campaign would not be out of the realm of possibility. That win total should be good enough to get them near the top of the AL Central and into the Wild Card round as well. The Central is competitive as a whole, but the top has gotten worse while the bottom has gotten better. Minnesota can no doubt play with, and beat, any team in the division.

So what if it all crashes and burns?

Before thinking doomsday, there's no doubt that this Twins roster is built for regression. Handling, and overcoming adversity is something that the 2015 Twins should be more than capable of doing. Once again, everything begins and ends with pitching however, and that could be where the Twins find their breakdown.

I have a hard time quantifying what the floor looks like for the Twins this season. They have a handful of options when and if guys go down, and each of them is capable in a limited capacity. However, if Nolasco fails to bounce back, Milone struggles, and Gibson doesn't develop, Minnesota could be in some trouble. A rotation highlighting only Hughes again would be extremely detrimental to this club. Although I think Santana is going to be fine with the Twins, he does have a couple of concerning factors that could come into play.

From a numerical standpoint, the floor isn't where it once was. If the Twins mid-point is the 79-83 record I referenced above, than the floor is somewhere around 73 games. I don't forsee the current roster construction, or state of the organization, producing a 90 loss team. The AL Central probably won't produce a 90 loss team this year, and if it does, I don't think it will be the Twins.

While not yet ready to make a deep playoff run in Paul Molitor's first season as skipper, the Twins have to be excited about the place they are in. There's more good than bad, and things are trending upwards.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Twins Unveil Season Plans A Week Early

Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press
The Minnesota Twins are set to play the Boston Red Sox in five of their last six spring training games. The first of those contests takes place tonight as the Twins travel down the road to Jet Blue Park. The biggest storyline of the day however is the lineup in which the Twins will take into the contest, exactly a week away from Opening Day.

Paul Molitor and Terry Ryan have been busy making decisions lately. Aaron Hicks was sent down, Shane Robinson was added to the 40 man roster, and Blaine Boyer appears to have made the club. Today however, the lineup that the Twins new skipper will go with looks exactly like what we should be expecting on Opening Day.

Here is how the Twins are set to line up:
  • Santana SS 
  • Dozier 2B
  • Mauer 1B
  • Hunter RF 
  • Vargas DH 
  • Plouffe 3B 
  • Arcia LF 
  • Suzuki C 
  • Schafer CF 
Kyle Gibson was initially slated to start the game for the Twins, but has been scratched due to an illness. In his place, new roster addition Boyer will get the start for the away team. Looking at the lineup tonight however, we can begin to dissect what the Twins will bring to the plate against the Tigers a week from now.

The top of the lineup appears as expected, but it does also provide reason for displeasure. If you remember a couple of weeks back, Molitor mentioned being open to batting Joe Mauer second. That lasted all of 24 hours and was immediately abandoned. Lacking power and being an on base machine, Molitor would have been best suited to stick to that plan. Brian Dozier hits far too many solo home runs, and keeping him in the two hole does nothing to fix that. Mauer makes sense as a leadoff man from an OBP (on base percentage) perspective, but if you want to overlook him for speed, he absolutely should hit second.

From there, the lineup takes a bit more sensible shape. Torii Hunter was billed as a mentor, but there's no doubt the man can still hit. He probably won't push 20 home runs in Target Field, but hitting for power and average is something he is still plenty capable of. Kennys Vargas rounds out the heart of the order, and that should dispel any silly talk about him not going north. He's got holes in his swing, and he's going to strike out, but that power is going to play just fine.

At the bottom half of the lineup, the Twins show some luxury. Trevor Plouffe took considerable strides forward on both sides of the ball in 2014. From a defensive perspective, he looked like a major league caliber third basemen, and it was more than enough to hold off Miguel Sano. His bat played well and could potentially flash even more power this season. Having Oswaldo Arcia hit 7th is indicative of the lineup strength as a whole. Tom Brunansky has pushed his ability in recent months, and he should be poised for a breakout 2015. I have him hitting over 30 home runs and think he leads the Twins in that category.

Both Kurt Suzuki and Jordan Schafer are essentially placeholders at the bottom. Suzuki experienced the best statistical season in recent memory last year, and is going to have a tough time replicating that. If Josmil Pinto rotates in and out with Suzuki in the eight hole, that power should be an asset that far down in the order. Schafer provides the speed of the prototypical second leadoff man. The Twins will have to hope he gets on base and hits to even a fraction of the amount he did a year ago (he likely won't if his career numbers have anything to say about it), but he's a serviceable nine hitter.

Minnesota largely outperformed offensively a year ago. Losing 90 games was more indicative of a poor pitching situation than anything. This time around, Minnesota has all but fixed the starting rotation and the offense looks primed to handle some regression. Expect this team to open some eyes, and this lineup to win plenty of ballgames.

40 Man Shuffle Comes With Conflicting Thoughts

Today kicks off the final week of spring training for the Minnesota Twins. They will play the Boston Red Sox in a night game tonight as they kick off their last six games (five of which come against these Red Sox). With the team continuing to whittle down the roster towards the 25 man inclusions for Opening Day, the 40 man roster has been tweaked as well. Over the weekend, the Twins outrighted Stephen Pryor, and also removed Lester Oliveros from the 40 man roster. There's no two open spots, and they both will carry a different train of thought.

Of the players left in camp for the Twins, the two that appear poised to claim the 39th and 40th spots on the roster are Shane Robinson and Blaine Boyer. Both players were brought in over the offseason as non-roster invites with spring training shots to prove they belonged. For one, it would appear that proving it is exactly what he did. The other, it looks to be an inclusion by happenstance.

As noted over the weekend, Aaron Hicks was sent down to Triple-A Rochester. With the move, both Shane Robinson and Jordan Schafer will start the season as the Twins centerfielders. Rather than getting into the confusing decision again, it's best summed up by saying Robinson's inclusion appears to be a by-product of Hicks failing to meet expectations. A mediocre level major league talent at best, Robinson provides nothing at the plate, and a minimal defensive upgrade at best. Although jettisoning Pryor and Oliveros shouldn't move the needle much, Robinson didn't exactly lay claim to the role this spring.

On the other hand, Blaine Boyer appears to have earned himself a spot with the Twins, and Minnesota should be proud of that conclusion. After a strong year with the Padres a season ago, Boyer has been nothing short of lights out this spring. While not being a lefty could have worked against him, it appears the Twins will bring him north over the likes of Caleb Thielbar. Paul Molitor noted earlier in spring that he would like to have two southpaws in the pen, but it now would seem only Brian Duensing will make the roster. Minnesota decided to go to arbitration with Duensing, a move that probably could have been avoided, and thus leaves the younger Thielbar the odd man out.

For everything odd about including Robinson on the 40 man and active roster, the Twins have made the right move with Boyer. I'd argue they could have allowed Duensing to walk, and the decision would have been even better, but things should be just fine in their current construction. The Twins bullpen isn't going to be great in 2015, and the better choice would likely be to go with lower salaries and higher upsides; something Duensing checks off neither category. Although one move makes more sense than the other, the roster shuffle is finally starting to wrap up.

Considering we aren't talking about the Twins bringing Jason Kubel or Jason Bartlett along for the ride this season, we can already consider 2015 off to a better start. Boyer probably sticks with the Twins longer than Robinson does in 2015, but here's to hoping the Twins continue to make roster moves that help them compete in the upcoming season.

Anger Could Serve Pelfrey Well

Mike Pelfrey was not at all happy to hear that he would not be a part of the Minnesota Twins Opening Day starting rotation. He was under the impression that there would be an open competition, and feeling as though he was not outpitched, it seemed like anything but that took place. Anger set in, a trade was even mentioned, but in the heat of the moment, that's exactly what we should have expected from Mike Pelfrey. Now with his first appearance as a reliever under his belt, the anger may actually suit him.

Over the course of his nine year major league career, Mike Pelfrey has started all but four games that he has pitched in. With 183 starts under his belt, a transition to a relief role was no doubt going to cause some pause. Without the glamour of being given the ball to start a game, Pelfrey instead will be relegated to being one of the guys in the pen. Although it's uncharted territory, this could actually be the way in which Pelfrey saves his career.

To be fair, Pelfrey is lucky to have had a guaranteed contract coming into spring training. Owning a 5.56 ERA over the course of the past two seasons (in which he started 34 games), the returns haven't been pretty. Pelfrey has allowed 10.9 hits per nine innings, while walking 3.6 batters per nine and striking out only 5.7. No doubt those are numbers that have contributed to a Twins team posting 90 losses in each of those seasons. On top of that, there are the injury issues. Pitching in just 37 games since 2012, staying on the field has been a problem in and of itself. With capable starters (both of whom possess higher ceilings), Tommy Milone and Trevor May, ahead of him, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Big Pelf.

When the news came, anger is the emotion that was displayed. From a competitor, it would be relatively shocking if there was no displeasure in being passed over. Suggesting a trade might have been out of line by Pelfrey, but no doubt it's an avenue the Twins could have explored. Teams like the New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays, and even Boston Red Sox may be looking for a starter. Someone with Pelfrey's recent track record isn't going to net much however, and the Twins made a different decision.

Now it's time for Pelfrey to meet the bullpen.

On Sunday, the former starter made his first appearance in a relief capacity. There were obvious differences as Pelfrey noted that he threw just 12 pitches to warm up rather than his typical 60 or so. He also was worried about making sure he looked the part running in from the outfield saying, "I tried to jog out there as athletically as I could and look kind of good doing it maybe." There's no doubt that the new role is going to take some adjustments, but Sunday was a good first step. In one inning of relief, Pelfrey was perfect getting all three outs.

Exactly what role he occupies out of the pen remains to be seen. The Twins would figure to use Tim Stauffer as their long reliever, but Pelfrey could profile into that role as well. He could also become a late inning guy asked to ramp up his pitch speed. Sitting around 94 miles per hour as a starter, it's conceivable Pelfrey could touch the upper 90s in a relief role.

At the end of the day, the Twins understand that Pelfrey becomes the biggest asset by pitching out of their bullpen. After all, the blueprint for success was laid in the division a season ago. Wade Davis, a former starter, became a full time reliever a season ago and pitched in 71 games compiling a 1.00 ERA and 13.6 K/9. No doubt that's the gold standard, but if Pelfrey can use his frustration for missing out on the starting rotation to push towards those marks, the Twins will be more than pleased.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Twins Reduce Clarity With Roster Cuts

This morning, first year manager Paul Molitor announced the next handful of roster cuts for the Minnesota Twins. As the team whittles down its roster to 25 players prior to Opening Day a week from Monday, the group of Fort Myers is going to get smaller. With 31 players now left in camp, Molitor has six more players he must send packing. The latest round however may have caused more confusion than clarity.

Amongst the roster moves this morning, the Minnesota Twins elected to send out position players Eddie Rosario and Aaron Hicks. Both outfielders will head to Triple-A Rochester to begin the 2015 season. Relief pitcher Mark Hamburger was also optioned as well as starter Trevor May. Both pitchers will head to the Red Wings as well. With the moves, it was also announced that Tommy Milone would open as the Twins fifth and final starter, with Mike Pelfrey transitioning to the bullpen.

No matter how you break it down, Saturday was by far the most integral day of roster shuffling the Twins have seen thus far. With the plethora of decisions made, the roster is taking shape. That being said, there's no doubt that a few of the moves made cause reason for confusion.

Starting with the outfield, namely centerfield, both Hicks and Rosario were sent packing. Thus far during the spring, we have heard that neither Hicks nor Rosario would stick with the club in a rotational capacity. They would either be named the starter, or would be sent packing. The curious part of the equation is that those sentiments seemed to be in unison with one another. Either Rosario or Hicks would start, as it never appeared likely that Jordan Schafer or Shane Robinson were viable candidates.

That brings us to where we are now. The Twins are heading into 2015 with some opportunity to outperform expectations. No one is banking on them being a playoff team, but if all things break right, they could squeak in. That being said, the upcoming season is about figuring out who you have to pair with the arrival of the talented youth on the way. Rosario still very much remains of that grouping, but the problem is Aaron Hicks.

Hicks, a former first round pick for the Twins, has struggled mightily at the major league level. After an impressive 2013 spring training, he was promoted to the starting role from Double-A, despite being more of a tools prospect than the refined category of a Byron Buxton. Last year, for the first time in his career, a demotion allowed him to successively progress through both the Double-A and Triple-A levels. He did so while hitting for average, getting on base, and playing solid centerfield defense. Today's move suggest the Twins aren't looking to substantiate that at the major league level and the big question is why? Figuring out what Hicks has to give you prior to turning Buxton and Rosario loose seems to be an integral thing to unlock. Doing so out of the gate with a strong end to the 2014 season made the most sense. Now it would appear the Twins have created more questions than answers.

In moving on from Hicks to start the season, Molitor is giving the centerfield job to Jordan Schafer and Shane Robinson. He has said he will "play matchups" but that it won't be a straight platoon situation. While that's great in theory, by and large, that is what's going to take place. The problem there is that a platoon is designed to allow a batter to exploit his talents against a certain type of pitcher.

Neither Robinson nor Schafer possess any real ability at the plate. Schafer owns a .229 career average, and was under the Mendoza line last season before coming over from the Braves. Sure he hit .285 for the Twins, but there's no way the production is sustainable. As an outfielder owning a UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of -8.4, he's not someone you ideally want starting in center either.

On the other side of the equation, Robinson fooled no one with a breakout season at the plate. He spent much of 2014 in Triple-A for the Cardinals. His career UZR of 7.8 is indicative of his billing as a defensive outfielder, but his career average suggests he's virtually a guaranteed out as well. At the end of the day, Molitor and the Twins appear to have looked past Aaron Hicks at the juncture that may result in them getting another opportunity to do so.

Looking at the mound, normalcy has likely been achieved. As Mike Palfrey heads to the pen with Milone rounding out the rotation, the Twins know how things will start. Palfrey voiced displeasure suggesting he was told he'd be given a chance to start, and that he didn't believe he'd be destined for the pen. This morning, he went as far as saying if there are clubs who believe in him as a starter, he would be open to moving on.

To be fair, the competition likely never included Palfrey from the get go. While he posted a sub 2.00 ERA this spring, 13.2 innings were never going to be enough to extrapolate any information that multiple years of bad starting pitching wouldn't overshadow. Trevor May pitched well, and despite his rough outing on Friday, he was always going to be in an uphill battle. Malone is a proven commodity and pitched well on a solid Oakland team. Minnesota should expect him to return to that form this season.

Despite being upset about his new role, Pelfrey actually could extend his career this way. With the ability to push the radar gun to around 97 in a less stamina related role, he could overpower hitters to a much larger extent. While Wade Davis is the golden example, if Palfrey can follow that path and become even close to that level, the Twins stand to gain a lot with this decision. Should Palfrey be focused on starting, the Twins could look to the Mets, Blue Jays, and maybe even the Red Sox as options. The problem is that a bad starting pitcher is probably going to net them less in a trade, even if that team needs an arm, than what they would find out by having him relieve first.

At the end of Saturday, we know a lot more about how the Twins will look when they head north. Some of it is easy to agree with (sorry Pelf, the pen is home now), and some doesn't make sense (Hicks now becomes a bigger question mark than he was before). As the Twins embark on their last week in Florida, look for the backup catcher role to be determined, and Eduardo Nunez to continue to be evaluated.

Let's hope we aren't having another frustrating discussion involving Kennys Vargas later this week. The Twins are at the mercy of injury when it comes to Josmil Pinto, and if they have to bring Chris Herrmann north because of it, so be it. That being said, lets shoot for a bit higher ceiling with the rest of the decisions alright brain trust?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Twins Spring Training Q&A

The Minnesota Twins have just over a week left down in Fort Myers for spring training prior to heading north for the 2015 Major League Baseball season. We have seen some position battles play out as well as watching who will grab the 5th and final spot in the starting rotation. No matter what though, this team has plenty of intrigue and has plenty of questions left to be answered.

Yesterday, I was asked a couple of questions on Twitter (find me @tlschwerz) in regards to the Twins upcoming season. In an effort to expand upon the answers to a further extent, this seems like the best avenue to go about answering them.

Let's get into it.
Right now, I have the Twins slated for a 79-83 record when the dust settles at the end of the 2015 season. That mark is not going to crack the playoffs, but that's not to say it isn't off. I really believe that no team in the AL Central will reach 90 wins this season (just like I don't see anyone losing 90 games). Detroit should be considered the division favorite, with Chicago and Cleveland falling somewhere after them. For the Twins, supplanting both teams is possible, but will take quite a few breaks.

The offense outperformed expectations last season, but should be poised to handle the regression. Danny Santana, Kurt Suzuki, and Eduardo Escobar probably aren't going to be as offensively capable as they were in 2014, but Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer, and Oswaldo Arcia should be key cogs in 2015. Pitching is going to be the major component for the Twins to grab a wild card spot. Both Hughes and Gibson should provide quality starts each time out, and if the Twins can get that from Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco, or the 5th guy, they'll be in a good spot.
Changing Mauer's position again probably depends on the people around him more than it does so on him. I addressed just how good I think he can be at first base this year, but no matter what he's an athlete. Kennys Vargas is never going to take time away from him, but Miguel Sano may need to move spots. Trevor Plouffe is another first base or left field option as well. I'd say the greatest likelihood on a position change is Plouffe, but that probably assume he continues his production.
It pains me a little to send you searching my old site, but it's funny you bring up Wally the Beerman. I actually wrote a piece a couple of months ago on how he may have actually cursed the Twins. The Cubs have their goat, and us Minnesotans love out beer. Check out the full piece here.
I addressed my timeline on Twins Tuesday last week on the Jeff Dubay show (make sure to check that out here). I think Rosario is the first positional callup, and quite possibly sees Target Field before Alex Meyer. Sure, his spring training performance may blow things out of proportion, but he's substantiated things with his minor league play. Had he not been suspended 50 games last year, and struggled to get going, he would have been in Target Field last September.

The Twins probably see Sano make his debut around August and Buxton will follow in September. Sano makes his case with his bat, and if Vargas struggles, the Twins could go to the power hitting third basemen in the designated hitter slot. I still believe Hicks has the ability to bring some of his 2014 minor league ability to the majors, and that allows the Twins to let Buxton get some seasoning. Rounding everything out, I think Jose Berrios gets a cup of coffee type call up in September as long as he shows well in Triple-A this season.
This is somewhat of a loaded question. Centerfield is only a weakness offensively at this point, as Hicks would be a plus defender. In left field, Arcia is definitely a liability. He's in the lineup for his bat and there's no question about that. Throwing Buxton into the equation is a bit premature however.

Buxton played in just 31 games in 2014 and batted .234 across two levels. What happens with baseball's top prospect this season is going to be a fluid discussion. If Hicks can prove that his production in Double and Triple-A last season was real, he will hold down center just fine. A fallback option for the Twins in both left and center would immediately be Rosario (see above, he's ready). If Buxton starts hot in Double-A Chattanooga, the Twins could give make him an option sooner rather than later.

Expecting Buxton to be called up from Double-A makes sense, but the timeline is somewhat foggy without games getting underway. He will be in the majors this season; at what time and under what circumstances remains the question. The Twins are best suited not to fix an immediate issue with a team not expected to win at the cost of a 15 year cornerstone however.

Out Of The Park Baseball 16 Hits A Home Run

Year after year, baseball fans gravitate towards one of two places to get their virtual fix of the diamond. On consoles, the PlayStation 4 is home to the MLB The Show series. Providing an unparalleled simulation experience on a gaming platform, The Show has become the gold standard. However, on the PC, Out of the Park Baseball has become synonymous with baseball beauty, and this year's version is no different.

Focusing more on the inning workings of the game than the excitement between the lines, Out of the Park Baseball 16 is a couch general manager's dream. With full Major League Baseball licensing for this season, the realism for the experience has only been cranked up a notch. From the immediate launch, the experience feels similar to veterans of the series, but you can also tell you're in for a treat.

As always, general managers are granted full control of the entire major league system. From the 25 man active roster all the way through the Dominican Rookie Leagues, Out of the Park Baseball 16 makes sure they have you covered. Rosters have been accurately refined to resemble their respective team's heading into the 2015 season. On top of making sure to include prospects from places both high and low, this years game also pushes the envelope with advanced development techniques.

Heading into a game, Out of the Park Baseball 16 has taken it up a notch as well. Using true to form ballparks, as well as different camera angles for play, the stadium feels more dimensional than ever before. From a strategical standpoint, the gameplay is advanced as well. With decisions ranging from how to handle an at bat, to where to employ a defensive shift, there's literally next to nothing that Out of the Park Baseball 16 didn't cover.

If you're in it for the long haul, and your goal as a general manager is to turn your respective team back into a perennial power, Out of the Park Baseball 16 has you covered as well. The new simulation feature allows you to pick a certain date to simulate to, and the long term sim feature allows you to focus on player development and team advancement. Taking someone from a division cellar to the World Series is now something that can be accomplished through a realistic time frame despite being substantial in game days.

At the end of the day, it's very obvious that Out of the Park Baseball 16 set out to create the greatest and most in depth baseball sim yet. Allowing the player to truly feel as though they are responsible for the failure or success of their franchise, the envelope has only been pushed this season. A word of warning however, there is no doubt that booting up this year's version will have you sinking hours upon hours into the action to accomplish your team goals. No matter how you look at it, Out of the Park Baseball 16 gets it done.

If you're looking for an on the go option, MLB Manager 2015 makes its debut on iOS and Android devices. A similar experience can be had while sacrificing some of the depth on a mobile platform. The experience is still backed by the Major League Baseball license, and for those who simply can't get enough of the in-depth simulation experience, this is a perfect avenue for you. Whether you are looking for a mobile baseball option, or want to play through the many historical seasons offered through MLB Manager 2015, at $4.99 it is a must own.

Make sure to check out Marketing Manager for OOTP Developments, Brad Cook, tonight on Twitch. He will be doing a live-stream demo of Out of the Park Baseball 16 with ESPN Producer Steve Katsoulis. The stream is set to kick off at 8pm central time and can be seen at http://www.twitch.tv/ootpbaseball

Out of the Park Baseball 16 is once again a can't miss experience for any diehard baseball fan, and the experience is sure to carry you throughout the season.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

For Twins, All Parties Win On The Mound

Update: Trevor May lasted just 4.2 innings today against the Pirates while giving up eight hits and four home runs. Both Tony Sanchez and Gregory Polanco tagged him for home runs, and extra base hits were sharp. May had a very strong spring training, but the writing is on the wall. Unfortunately May will get another chance after getting sent down to Triple-A.
As it stands, the Minnesota Twins find themselves at a critical juncture in the framework of spring training. Yesterday, Tommy Milone toes the rubber against the Boston Red Sox, and in doing so sets off the last go round for pitchers competing to win the final starting spot in the rotation. Following him, Trevor May will get his opportunity today against the Pirates. At this time, Mike Pelfrey isn’t slated to get another start. Breaking it all down though, does anyone really lose, or are the Twins just in a position to gain?

Looking at the above options, the Twins are in a markedly better spot than they have been in recent history. Having the opportunity to run a major league quality starter out five days in a row, without the inclusion of a Cole De Vries type, should only show up in the win column for Minnesota. Let’s operate under the belief that Milone ends up winning the spot however, and take a look at what the waterfall effect of that decision looks like.

Trevor May immediately becomes the most intriguing piece of the puzzle. As the youngest of the three, the Twins have the most to gain by keeping him a starter for the foreseeable future. While his returns last season weren’t good, he has looked sharp this spring, and still projects to be a quality starting piece at some point. If the Twins decide to put him in the bullpen out of the gate, it could spell the end of free agent Tim Stauffer’s short lived run with the club. The likeliest scenario would seem to be May returning to Triple-A Rochester until he is called upon again.

With Pelfrey being the least likely candidate to win the role from the get go, this scenario has been long in the works. Despite public comments by the team, Pelfrey has always seemed destined for the bullpen this season. Coming on to work in short bursts, the Wichita State product could be expected to push his velocity near the 97 mph range, and be a late game asset for the Twins. What Wade Davis did a season ago for the Kansas City Royals was truly remarkable, but if Pelfrey can follow along the same path, the returns may be promising as well.

Minnesota should have a very good idea of how this will all play out by the time Mag exits the game on Friday afternoon. Barring May being lights out, Milone didn't do anything to lose separation today. When the Twins head north, their rotation will be rounded out with quality options, and they have a handful of quantity waiting in the wings. For a team wanting to turn things around, that’s more than a good start.

Twins Cash Check Formerly Known As Francisco Liriano

Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar hits a single against Tampa Bay pitcher Brandon Gomes in the fifth inning. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
In 2006, the Minnesota Twins sported a rookie pitcher that ended up bursting onto the scene and making an All Star appearance. With a devastating slider and blistering fastball, Francisco Liriano flew under the radar for a very small period of time. Unfortunately, the excitement wouldn't last, as injury would take away his 2007 and part of his 2008 season. Fast forward to 2012 and the Twins had watched what once was an undoubted ace, turn into an up and down starter that was fueled only by his own doubt. Going nowhere fast, the Twins decided to flip Liriano to the Chicago White Sox midseason, and that's where this all begins.

An afterthought prospect, Eduardo Escobar, was all the Twins could get in return for their starter who owned a 5.31 ERA at the time of his departure. Signed as an amateur free agent in 2006, Escobar broke into the big leagues with the White Sox in 2011. Playing in just nine games, it wasn't until 2012 that Escobar got some regular playing time at the big league level. Over his first two seasons as a Twin, Escobar played in just 80 games for the club. Even while possessing a seemingly low ceiling, the returns didn't warrant opportunity even on a team losing 90 games.

Last season however, things changed for Escobar and the Twins. Over the course of 133 games, Minnesota employed Escobar as a utility man. He played all over the field, logging time at five different positions not including designated hitter. The bulk of his run came at shortstop, but Escobar had become the Twins every day utility man. On top of being versatile in the field, Escobar mocked his career .255/.300/.365 line by slashing .275/.315/.406. His six home runs and 37 RBI were important additions from a player not necessarily synonymous with those statistics. Looking around a room of baseball experts, you'd be hard pressed to find someone willing to bet on the Venezuelan infielder continuing his run.

Now through 11 spring training games, Escobar appears poised to pick up right where he left off in 2015. He has hit two home runs, driven in 13 runs, and is slashing .333/.333/.528. Looking through the leaders in the Grapefruit League, only the Miami Marlins Michael Morse has plated more runners. Although the strikeout to walk totals aren't where the Twins would necessarily like them to be, Escobar has also looked to have an improved focus at the plate.

As the Twins head north, Escobar will once again be in his standard role. Despite competing for the starting shortstop position, Minnesota stands much more to gain by employing him all over the diamond. It would seem that gone are the days of Twins subbing in defensive only utility men. Escobar has the ability to both hit and field, and he has shown that he can be an asset to the club in both categories.

With spring training statistics being what they are, it's unfair to draw too many conclusions from the early performance. Having no history to go off of, 2015 is Escobar's chance to prove that the offensive prowess wasn't a fluke. No matter what though, the Twins are ready to cash the check they received for Liriano, and Eduardo Escobar is putting it together at the best possible time.

Twins Need Ervin Santana To Elevate In 2015

Twins pitcher Ervin Santana walks to the bull pen after warming up during the Minnesota Twins spring training at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers on Sunday Mar. 1, 2015. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
This offseason, the Twins decided to lay low for most of the free agency period. While teams like the Dodgers, White Sox, and Padres went out and revamped their rosters, the Twins went for a more modest approach. Bringing in only one position player, Torii Hunter, the Twins then turned their focus to the mound. Signing Ervin Santana to a 4-year, $55 million contract, it immediately became apparent that fixing pitching was a priority. Now as 2015 rolls around, just how much can the Twins afford to lean on their new acquisition?

To be fair, it's virtually irrelevant to think about which starter profiles in which spot of the rotation. Outside of your staff ace, matchups are mixed throughout the season, and it's about going out on a daily basis and getting the job done. That being said, for the purpose of argument, let's try to dissect what level of production the Twins should get from their new pitcher. There's no doubt Phil Hughes is the staff ace, but after that things become foggier. Expectations from many are that Kyle Gibson will take big strides forward, and likely land himself into the number two starter role. That leaves Santana and 2014 free agent pickup Ricky Nolasco, to claim positions three and four.

A big league pitcher for 10 seasons now, Santana has spent all but one season in the American League. After spending the first eight seasons of his career with the Los Angeles Angels, he spent a season with the AL Central Kansas City Royals. Deciding to walk away from an interested Twins team a season ago, Santana signed another one year deal, this time with the Atlanta Braves. Now cashing in with the Twins, Minnesota will be looking to get the best of what the 32-year-old has left.

Looking at the last two seasons for Santana, a few numbers jump off the page. Going back to 2013 with the Royals, Santana threw to a career best 3.24 ERA. Unfortunately, that number was backed with a 3.93 FIP (fielding independent pitching). Conversely, in Atlanta last season, Santana owned a 3.95 ERA and a 3.39 FIP. If there's something the Twins should be concerned about, it's this set of data right here. Looking at the Royals numbers, they are indicative of a pitcher being bailed out by an outfield that ranked amongst the best in the majors. With Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, and Alex Gordon behind him, Santana was often helped out by his teammates. In the National League, he was able to overpower what is regarded as a weaker hitting league, despite being helped out less by an outfield that included only one plus fielder in Jason Heyward.

If we push those numbers forward to the Twins in 2015, Minnesota may have some cause for concern. The current outfield alignment appears to be Oswaldo Arcia in left, Aaron Hicks in center, and Torii Hunter in right. What that breaks down to is one of the toughest and largest ballparks in baseball having massive holes in both corner outfield spots. This season, Santana should see numbers reflective of a ratio much like the experience he had in Atlanta, except that the Twins play in the American League. Without the benefit of a lesser hitting league, and not facing the pitcher spot in the lineup, expecting Santana's FIP to rise is realistic as well. That change could cause an unfortunate rise in the ERA department as well.

Over the course of his career, Santana has only owned an FIP under 4.00 three times (two of them coming the last two seasons). In his time in Los Angeles, the Angels had players such as Vladimir Guerrero, Juan Rivera, and a perennial Gold Glove winning Torii Hunter behind him. Asking the Twins current outfield to hide an FIP above 4.00 in the same fashion seems somewhat far fetched.

Looking at Twins starters last season (Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, and Kevin Correia), Minnesota fielding allowed for an average of +0.80 FIP per pitcher. Raising ERA by nearly a whole run per nine is something that Santana could find detrimental. His career 4.17 ERA being elevated to 4.87 would put him somewhere near the realm of what Kevin Correia was to the Twins last season. To be fair, that's probably somewhat of a doomsday scenario, but the reasoning still stands.

Over the course of the last two seasons, both which should be considered in the good to respectable realm, Ervin Santana has been somewhat a by-product of his environment. If the Twins are going to get what they hope out of their most recent free-agent splash, they will need him to be significantly better than his surrounding parts. That remains something yet to be seen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Just How Good Will Joe Mauer Be?

Twins first baseman Joe Mauer works on his first base skills during the Minnesota Twins spring training at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
For the second season, and the first time not having to learn from scratch, Joe Mauer will be the Minnesota Twins every day first basemen. Having no doubt dealt with lingering concussion effects compounded by the rigors of learning a new spot, Mauer failed to meet expectations in his first season out from behind the plate. As an athlete that has succeeded in every sport he has played, and nearly every position, it's fair to wonder just how good Mauer will be in 2015, and going forward.

Offensively, Mauer took significant strides backwards last season. A slash line of .277/.361/.371 was well below his career marks (.319/.401/.459), and playing in only 120 games was not the goal either. Mauer remarked this offseason that enlarged strikezones and harder throwing pitchers were some of the reason for the decline, but I've always argued a lesser thought of point comes into play. Having moved out from behind the plate, Mauer no longer had the benefit of seeing and understanding the zone prior to stepping in the box. Although minor, it's still an adjustment that no doubt takes some getting used to.

Now at 32 years old in April, Mauer returning to form will be one of his toughest challenges yet. However, there is some reason to believe he can make the rebound. First, in 2014, Mauer posted his lowest BABIP (batting average on balls in play since 2011. In 2011, Mauer's BABIP checked in at .319 and contributed to a .287 average. Last season, a .342 BABIP led Mauer to a .277 average. After posting his most recent sub .300 season in 2011, Mauer rebounded by hitting .319 the next year. Then there's his 2014 splits. Prior to the All Star game, Mauer slashed .271/.342/.353. After returning from his oblique injury, Mauer hit .289/.397/.408, numbers much more indicative of his typical level of play.

At the end of the day, there should be little concern about Mauer's offensive prowess returning in 2015. He may not hit for the .315 average that he has made a career out of, but expecting him to be north of the .300 plateau is a realistic bet. Hitting for power is not something Mauer is ever going to do, but he could expand the field if manager Paul Molitor bats him second requiring more pitches being taken to right field. It's defensively that Mauer has the most to gain however.

Last season, Mauer posted a 1.5 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating). In 851 innings at first base, Mauer was worth 1.5 runs better than average at first base. The mark was the first positive number he has posted at the position since 2011 (albeit only logging 70 innings in 2013 and 260.1 in 2012). In 2011, Mauer played 141 innings at first base and logged a 3.5 UZR. With the Twins committed to Mauer at first base, the second season focused on the role only should see improvement from an extremely talented player. Bucking the stereotype of the plodding, powerful, first basemen, Mauer brings more athleticism and quickness to the role. The expectation that he should post a UZR that ranks as a career best in 2015 is realistic.

As a whole, it's the defensive prowess that Mauer could end up bringing his stock up in the tail end of his career. A three time Gold Glove winner behind the plate, I'd argue there's reason to believe he can reach that level at first. For comparisons sake, the Dodgers Adrian Gonzalez had a 5.5 UZR last season. That mark was good enough for him to capture National League Gold Glove recognition. That mark is something that would seem to be within Mauer's grasp. If he can elevate his defensive game year over year, Mauer will prove to be an asset once again to the Twins.

A 1.7 WAR (wins above replacement) player a season ago, Mauer fell off from the 5.2 and 4.5 marks he had posted the two prior seasons. Offensive production hurt those numbers the most, but a 2015 could see a dramatic shift. Even returning to pedestrian Mauer numbers would have him back in the realm of a 4.0 WAR. Just for the sake of mentioning it, Fangraphs quantifies a 4.0 WAR player being worth right around $20 million (Mauer's AAV is $23 mil).

What 2015 sets up as is a big opportunity for the Twins former backstop. While not the prototypical player people want to position him as at first base, he still remains well above average, and has the opportunity to return to elite company. Mauer's biggest challenge will continue to be staying on the field, but if he's out there, expect him to perform in 2015.

Two Twins Nearing A Crossroads

The Minnesota Twins have a week and a half of spring training action before they head north to face of with the Detroit Tigers to open the 2015 Major League Baseball season. For two players participating as non-roster invites, a decision time is certainly looming. Whether it's the Twins or each player choosing, the next steps in the careers of both Blaine Boyer and Shane Robinson are soon going to be figured out.

Both players were signed to minor league deals with spring training invites over the offseason. Robinson came to the Twins by way of the St. Louis Cardinals organization while Boyer moved on from the San Diego Padres. In the contracts of both players remains an opt-out date, which is set for March 30. As it stands, both are still in big league camp, but with Monday quickly approaching something has to give.

For Boyer, spring has been nothing short of impressive. Pitching in 9.2 innings for the Twins, he has accumulated just a 1.86 ERA giving up just five hits and two earned runs. More impressively, he has struck out five, while walking only one, and doing so allowing hitter to bat just .152 off of him. Boyer carries a salary under the seven-figure mark, and would be a high ceiling option. Pitching to the tune of a 3.57 ERA in 32 games with the Padres last season, Boyer could give the Twins an immediate boost in the bullpen.

At this point, the Twins likely have two undecided spots left in the bullpen. It would stand to reason that J.R. Graham appears poised to make the cut, leaving just one opening. If the Twins decide to send Trevor May back to Triple-A and keep Mike Pelfrey on the 25 man roster, it will undoubtedly be in the bullpen. The Twins would likely need to choose Boyer over Duensing (hint: they should), but that doesn't appear to be something that will take place. After going to arbitration with Duensing again this year, the Twins will likely ride out the connection they currently have with the lefty.

To say I have any idea what Boyer ends up doing couldn't be further from the truth. There is the potential that both the club and the former Padres pitcher will agree to push out the opt-out date a bit further. Right now though, I think Boyer should bank on his foundation of work, and that would be unfortunate for the Twins. He's proven his stuff is more than capable of getting major league hitters out, and he's coming off of a good year. He should be able to help someone out in the bullpen at the major league level this season.

Update: On Saturday morning, the Twins sent Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario to Triple-A Rochester. This puts both Jordan Schafer and Shane Robinson in motion for the centerfield job. As seen here, I'm not sure who missed more on the decision. Me for projecting wrong or the Twins for going through with it.

When the Twins went after Robinson, the train of though was outfield depth first and foremost. Knowing that Aaron Hicks remained a wildcard in centerfield, and Jordan Schafer isn't an enticing backup option, the Twins needed to bring in some competition. Hitting .276/.364/.379 across 29 at bats this spring, Robinson has been markedly better than his career numbers (.231/.303/.308). Last season for the Cardinals, Robinson played in just 47 games and failed to break the .150 mark at the plate. Needing to break the roster defensively, Robinson was always facing an uphill battle.

Looking at the way things stand now, there's no doubt that Robinson is the odd man out. I feel confident in saying there is next to zero shot he makes the Opening Day roster. The Twins aren't going to give up on Hicks without making him prove his 2014 minor league season wasn't a fluke. Behind him, Schafer makes more sense due to the speed he brings to the game. Ideally, the Twins would hope that Hicks could show enough ability to be the fourth outfielder, while stepping aside for Eddie Rosario to take over. No matter what way you cut it however, Robinson would be the fourth best option in centerfield, and that doesn't bode well for him.

Because the Twins have some outfield uncertainty, there's probably something to gain for Robinson if he sticks in the organization. Like Boyer, he could renegotiate his opt-out date and even decide to head to Triple-A Rochester. The Twins could use him as depth, even though there may not be much of a ceiling for him to expose here. Unlike Boyer, Robinson would likely struggle somewhat to find a new home, and may be needing to settle for time on the farm no matter where he goes. My guess is that he spends another week with the big league club before being sent to Triple-A and accepting the role.

When Monday roles around, things will become a lot more clear for both players as well as the Twins. Of the two, it's Boyer that belongs on the roster, but Minnesota may not be ready to find a place for him. At any rate, things should be sorted out soon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Twins Next Big Contract

Mar 13, 2015; Bradenton, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins right fielder Oswaldo Arcia (31) hits a rbi single during the third inning against the Minnesota Twins at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports 
This morning, the Minnesota Twins announced they had agreed to a contract extension with All Star second basemen Brian Dozier. In giving him $20 million guaranteed over the next four years, the club eats up his arbitration years and effectively saves themselves money in the long run given production remains at an equal or greater value. While Dozier is the player many believed was up next for a payday, the Twins may be looking at another player in the not so distant future.

A 23-year-old outfielder from Venezuela has not been the greatest defensive asset (to put it lightly) but the Twins are well aware that Oswaldo Arcia is quickly trending towards a payday. While he doesn't become arbitration eligible until 2017, the Twins may look to make the power hitting lefty part of their future, and once again, save some dollars in the long run.

Having debuted with the Twins in April of 2013, and being only 23, Arcia has plenty of growing yet to do. While struggling in the outfield may have to be something the Twins get used to, his payday is going to come in the form of his bat. Last season, Arcia slashed .231/.300/.452; less than ideal numbers for a prototypical middle of the lineup power hitter. However, once he began working extensively with hitting coach Tom Brunansky, Arcia's September produced a .263/.330/.513 slash line.

Heading into 2015, it's probably fair and safe to assume that Arcia's September numbers are more indicative of what he is capable of going forward. As he continues to hone in on the plate, and take a greater command of the zone, his power numbers should only increase. Hitting six home runs and driving in 14 over the final month of the season, the Twins could expect Arcia to be north of the 30 home run mark in 2015. Batting in the heart of the order and supplying that kind of production, there's no doubt that the Twins will want to make sure Arcia is around for the long run.

It's probably premature to be speculating to what extent the Twins want to extend Arcia, or for what cost, but there's no doubt it seems to be a decision that would make sense. In Major League Baseball, young power hitters are generally coveted pieces of competing teams. The Twins are developing one in Arcia, and the further his ceiling is pushed, the more expensive he will continue to get. Considering his age, the Twins will likely go down the path of a longer-term extension buying out potential arbitration years while also making sure to get team control during free agency as well.

Right now, the Twins don't need to throw all of their chips at Arcia, but it's conceivable that he forces their hand soon. If Target Field is turned into a home run hitting playground by the big lefty, and if Arcia continues his September trends, the discussion is going to take place sooner rather than later. At this point, it's probably more a matter of when, and not if. The key however, is when does Arcia unlock the door.

As Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and other top prospects make their way to Target Field over the next few months, it will be around that core that the future is built. With the Twins having a handful of strong contributors already at the major league level, there's no doubt that supplementing can be done from within. Starting with Oswaldo Arcia may be a good spot.

Twins Make Cents In Extending Dozier

Today, the Minnesota Twins announced the four-year, $20 million extension of their All Star second basemen Brian Dozier. The two sides have been discussing a deal for much of spring training, and the numbers finally came into fruition. With the announcement, the Twins have locked up their second basemen for the foreseeable future.
At the heart of the numbers, both sides stand a lot to gain here. With the four years included in the deal, the Twins have bought out Dozier's remaining arbitration years, but have left his free agent years untouched. As it stands, Dozier will be set to become a free agent entering the 2019 season at which he will be 31 years old. Due to the construction of the deal, the Twins decided to bank on Dozier's continued success more than anything.

After posting a .242/.345/.416 slash line and blasting 23 home runs a season ago, the Twins watched Dozier take his game to new heights. Should the numbers continue to trend in that direction, the Twins stand to gain a significant amount over the next four years. In 2014, Dozier gets a raise from the $550k he was slated to make and instead will earn $2 million. Over the course of the next three years, Dozier will earn $3 million, $6 million, and $9 million.

With this structure, the Twins have a lot of ground to save money in arbitration. As Twins Daily noted this morning, arbitration for a player similar to Dozier a season ago, had the Pirates handing out $8 million to Neil Walker. Minnesota stands to save a significant amount as long as Dozier's production continues on the same plane. By avoiding arbitration, even the $9 million fully guaranteed in 2018 would be a bargain deal for a 31 year old All Star caliber second basemen.

The biggest issue Minnesota faces with the extension is the unknown. Looking at possible regression trends, fangraphs pointed our a concerning trend for the Twins and Dozier going forward. Being such a dead pull hitter, it's conceivable that Dozier could be doing all he can to maximize his power stroke until it runs out. For opposing pitchers, attacking the outside of the plate could spell disaster, and see the value of a power hitting second basemen immediately disappear. Looking at his walk rates, Dozier should have a patient enough approach to continue refining his ability at the plate throughout the remainder of his career.

With the Twins forgoing the ability to buy out any free agent years, or even grab hold of a team option, they will be at the mercy of Dozier come 2019. Knowing that they are banking on continued production, this could be an expensive gamble. However, Dozier could see the extension as a bargaining point that keeps him in a Twins uniform for the remainder of his career as well. Although that's getting a bit ahead of ourselves, it's not as if the Twins don't have options. Jorge Polanco has been regarded by many as major league ready defensively at this point, and the Twins have four years to feel things out.
At the end of the day, if Brian Dozier continues to improve or even remains on the same trajectory he currently is on, both sides are winners at the end of the day. Minnesota avoids what could end up being costly arbitration proceedings, and Dozier lands a $20 million payday.

Oh, and because I'm sure you still need to hear it, there's really no difference whether or not Dozier ever hits for average.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Position Battles Are Decided For The Twins

This spring training we have heard plenty of news about the Twins and the positional battles the team would be focusing on. From the outfield, to shortstop, to backstop, Minnesota has plenty of options to explore. There's no doubt that having options is a great thing, but a few weeks away from Opening Day, it's time to decipher the fact that the positional battles are likely already decided.

Knowing that Paul Molitor and Terry Ryan are continually evaluating all of the competitions throughout the spring, nothing is yet set in stone. As long as things continue to progress and trend down the path that they currently are, we should have a good idea where everything is going to end up. Looking away from the rotation and bullpen, Minnesota will be making three key decisions in the coming weeks.

Mar 9, 2015; Bradenton, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks (32) pops a ball up to third during the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports 

Update: On Saturday morning, the Twins sent both Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario to Triple-A Rochester. Shane Robinson and Jordan Schafer will now take over centerfield for the immediate future. As seen here, I'm not sure who missed more on this decision. Me for suggesting the wrong guy, or the Twins for going through with it.

Starting the furthest from the plate, the Twins went into camp wondering who would be their Opening Day centerfielder. With Aaron Hicks looking like the odds on favorite, he would be given the first crack, and that should likely stick heading north as well. Is it fair to be down on the production that Hicks has shown at the major league level thus far, of course. That being said, 2015 represents a new opportunity for the former first round pick. Never before in his career has he been given the opportunity to progress from Double to Triple-A in succession, he did so last season and had solid results.

This spring, Hicks has had a few mental lapses while producing at a very mediocre level at the plate. The statistical results mean very little (remember he made the club from Double-A due in part to a massive spring training in 2013), but the mental mistakes need to cease. Out of the gate however, it should and will be Hicks starting in center. This is his last chance, and the Twins can't afford to ignore the production put up through normal succession a season ago.

Jordan Schafer is a prototypical fourth outfielder and isn't going to bring much more to the table. His speed is an asset, but probably more a luxury than anything. Eddie Rosario has played himself into the conversation this spring, but the Twins would be best to hold off. With the ability to play all three outfield positions, he is an ideal fit on the 25 man. However, he needs to be able to see significant playing time, and that can't take place until the Twins can make a decision on Aaron Hicks. Ideally, Hicks plays well out of the gate, and Rosario forces the Twins to make a decision on a much less talented Schafer.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Don't be fooled, Danny Santana is the Minnesota Twins starting shortstop when they take the field against the Detroit Tigers on Opening Day. That's not to say Eduardo Escobar has not had a great spring, but instead that the Twins are best utilizing all of their options.

Last season, Santana had the third highest batting average on balls in play since 1961. With that number, there's reason to believe that his average is not something he's going to replicate in 2015. Terry Ryan and Paul Molitor both seem realistic in understanding that fact. However, given his production, there's no reason to pull him from the lineup at this point. Although he played centerfield a season ago, putting him there this year amongst other more capable options, would be indicative of overvaluing his ability at the plate. Santana has earned the right to start at short, and will for the forseeable future.

That brings Escobar front and center. Over the course of spring training, next to no one has been more impressive than the Twins return for Francisco Liriano. Escobar has been an RBI machine, shown positional flexibility, and continues to get it done at the plate. Those reasons all add up to why the Twins can't force him into the starting shortstop role when they head north. As a utility player, Escobar gives the Twins the ability to put him all over the diamond, and see no dip in production no matter where he plays. Instead of having a defensive-minded utility guy, the Twins have someone who can get it done in the field and at the plate in Escobar, an asset they haven't seen in a while.

Over the course of the 2015 season, Escobar will be given plenty of starts at shortstop, but allowing Molitor to use him as a utility man makes the Twins better as a whole.

Mar 17, 2015; Sarasota, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins catcher Josmil Pinto (43) prepares to hit in the batting cage before the start of the spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports 

As fluid as the game of baseball is, the backup catcher took another interesting turn over the weekend as Josmil Pinto was shelved with concussion-like symptoms. After taking a backswing from Adam Jones to the head, the leader in the backup catcher race now finds himself recovering once again.

Having missed time out of the gate with a leg injury, and now dealing with the head injury, Pinto has to be considered somewhat of a longshot to break camp on the 25 man roster. He would likely need to be fully cleared with over a week's worth of games left to enter back into the conversation. While that isn't out of the realm of possibility, it would also appear to be an uphill battle at this point.

If Pinto isn't the guy behind Kurt Suzuki for the Twins, Molitor would be forced to turn to the likes of Eric Fryer or Chris Herrmann. Neither player is an ideal big league fit, but of the two, it's Herrmann that probably makes the most sense. Having flexibility to play other positions as well, Herrmann allows Molitor some options. Having caught seven games this spring, and hit .400 across 20 at bats, Herrmann could be said to have played himself into this position.

On the flip side, Fryer has struggled in Fort Myers for the Twins. Across nine games, he has hit just .190 and offers very little upside. While Herrmann isn't a major league mainstay either, Fryer hasn't done enough to warrant consideration as a placeholder for the Twins. Behind Suzuki, the backup catcher needs to bring as many tools to the table as possible, and Fryer simply doesn't have enough.

Minnesota should be expecting Suzuki to take steps backwards offensively on his own this season. He had a career year a season ago, and expecting that to continue is probably far-fetched. Not a defensive wizard, Suzuki is average on his own, and the Twins will need some production out of whoever they slot in behind him. The ideal scenario would have been the power hitting Pinto, but his recent injury may have to change their way of thinking.

What this all boils down to is that while the Twins are continuing to find themselves for the upcoming season, the positional battles seem all but determined. Expecting a major shift to take place with just a couple of weeks before Opening Day probably isn't going to happen. While the grips on the roles may not be lock tight, I feel confident in suggesting that they are as stated above. The Twins will be as good as their worst player, and this year they are in a better spot than any of the previous four. It would be beneficial if it would stay that way.

Twins Already With Bad Luck Mounting

Mar 17, 2015; Sarasota, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins catcher Josmil Pinto (43) prepares to hit in the batting cage before the start of the spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports 
In 2015, the Minnesota Twins have quite a fluid pendulum that can swing in terms of just how their season goes. While there's no doubt the roster is in a much better spot than it was a season ago, things can come crashing down very quickly if the club suffers the wrong breaks. With a ceiling near a wild card berth, the Twins need fortune on their side, and if spring training is any indication, it may not be.

Over the course of the weekend, the Twins held their breath as two integral players in the organization suffered setbacks. First, while playing in a spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles, Josmil Pinto was hit on the follow through by three Adam Jones swings. With the bat making contact with the Twins catcher, concussion tests were the next steps taken.

Although nothing has been conclusively decided, both Paul Molitor and GM Terry Ryan have noted that Pinto has "concussion-like" symptoms. Yesterday, Ryan went as far as saying that if this took place during the regular season, Pinto would be placed on the 7-day disabled list for a concussion. If there's a team that understands the seriousness of brain injuries, it's probably the Twins. After the considerable amount of time that players like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Sam Fuld missed in recent memory, Pinto's setback has to be a cause for concern.

The backup catcher role was a spot of competition for the Twins this spring. With Pinto working to hold off the likes of Chris Herrmann and Eric Fryer, the latest set back doesn't help his cause. Spending time on the shelf early in spring training, Pinto has gotten only 18 plate appearances in seven games for the Twins. On top of that, he has not been behind the plate for all seven of those games, the area where he needs to convince the Twins the most.

At this point, it's fair to start wondering what Molitor, Ryan, and the Twins are forced to do should Pinto miss extended time. Neither Herrmann nor Fryer are ideal major league options, but one of them could be forced into action. Herrmann offers more versatility to the Twins, and is probably the logical choice if Pinto is unable to compete. Should the Twins get Pinto back with a week or so left in spring training, the backup role is probably still his to lose. However, as brain injuries go, that remains a big if.

And then there's the first pitcher injury the Twins have dealt with.

After being shut down less than a year ago due to discomfort in his elbow, Twins prospect Lewis Thorpe is having issues again. The previous shutdown was in regards to a strained Ulnar Collateral Ligament, otherwise known as the unfortunate precursor for Tommy John surgery. While pitching in a spring training game over the weekend, Thorpe was removed from the action due to pain in his left arm once again. The Twins will be sending the Australian pitcher for an MRI, and the bullet that was previously dodged may now hit.

If an MRI deems that Thorpe does in fact have damage to his UCL, he will likely be headed for Tommy John surgery. It would effectively end his 2015 season, and more than likely, the beginning of his 2016 year. Although the surgery has come a long way and pitchers are able to rebound from the setback, the loss of developmental time for a young arm would be potentially damaging.

While it's still extremely early in the 2015 season, the Twins enter the year with a relatively clean bill of health. Having these two potentially serious issues arise could set forth an ugly waterfall effect. For a team that lost both top prospects in Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton a season ago, avoiding the injury bug would be a critical step for the upcoming season. Although the Twins are in a better place than they have been previously, the room for error is slim and injuries could grind positivity to a halt in short order.

As teams around the league have seen top contributors fall off left and right this spring, let's hope that the Twins can navigate both Pinto and Thorpe through a best case scenario. Here's to hoping Minnesota finds themselves staying healthy throughout the 2015 campaign.