Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Twins Decline Isn't Coming

Yes, I'm more than aware that the title is a significant ringing endorsement of a team that has lost 90 games for each of the past four seasons. I'm also more than well aware that it's still May and the 2015 Major League Baseball season remains in its infancy. I'm probably more well aware than most that regression is staring the Twins right in the face. The good thing is that I'm here to tell you there's no proverbial cliff.

To start the season, the Twins kicked off a road trip that saw them go a combined 1-6, and all of those games were played against divisional foes. Since however, the team has rattled off victories at a 25-12 clip and amongst the hottest teams in all of baseball. Obviously in baseball things even out, and hot teams can't ride a streak forever, but that too doesn't mean a decline is coming.

Going into the season, if I tried to pitch that the Twins were going to win 82 games, I probably would have been considered a significant homer. While I noted that was probably somewhere near their ceiling, I had the Twins at 79 wins back in March. Following the Ervin Santana news, I suggested 74 wins might be a more logical mark. Now on pace to surpass 90 wins, it's fair to suggest that the projections may have been altered, but that a certain decline shouldn't be considered.

I have a hard time believing this Twins team will win 90 games, there's far too many players toying with regression. That being said, baseball cannot be broken into parts and then analyzed as a whole to prove a point. With the suggestion that .500 baseball would be a welcomed contribution for the Twins, reaching that point following game 162 wouldn't signify anything but a step in the right direction. For a team that has experienced so much losing, turning things around prior to the influx of young talent that is coming would be a very exciting situation.

There's no doubt that continuing to win seven out of every ten games throughout the rest of the season is going to be a difficult pace to uphold. On the flip side, this isn't the same Twins team of old. Not only was the roster constructed to be competitive from the get go, but Samuel Deduno, Kris Johnson, and Yohan Pino are no longer looming for spot starts. Minnesota has developed quality options in the minor leagues with some real upside, and they can be counted on to produce when called upon.

While it's been a great first couple of months for the Twins, it should be equally hard to suggest that they both continue this pace as well as see a decline from where expectations lie. Of course regression will set in at some point, but whether the Twins won 50 of their first 80, or put together an insane run to close out the year, taking significant steps forward was the goal for 2015. This team is well on its way, and the longer Paul Molitor can hold off the law of averages, the more excitement Twins Territory should continue to expect.

The Twins Rotation And Their Options

Entering the 2015 Major League Baseball season, I suggested that the Twins may finally be able to considering pitching a relative strength. While that may have been a bit of a reach, there's no doubt that the 2015 Twins can consider themselves owners of pitching depth. Now with the season heading into the summer, managing that depth will be the key to unlocking continued sustainability in the win column for Minnesota.

As of this writing, the Twins own the 10th best team ERA in the American League (4.00). Minnesota has saved 17 games as a team (with Major League Baseball being led in the category by Glen Perkins with 16). The team's four shutouts are tied for second best in the American League. On the flip side, the Twins .273 batting average against is dead last in the American League and with 253 strikeouts, they are also dead last (trailing Kansas City who is second to last by 32 K). So, with a mirage of sorts going in their favor, and detriment mounting, what happens next?

The short answer is, regression.

Let's take a look at the Twins rotation and their numbers as things currently stand:
  • Phil Hughes- 3-4 4.50 ERA 4.44 FIP 1.293 WHIP 0.9 BB/9 5.9 K/9
  • Ricky Nolasco- 5-1 5.12 ERA 2.89 FIP 1.611 WHIP 2.8 BB/9 7.7 K/9
  • Kyle Gibson- 4-3 2.72 ERA 4.23 FIP 1.207 WHIP 2.7 BB/9 4.3 K/9
  • Mike Pelfrey 3-1 3.00 ERA 4.50 FIP 1.311 WHIP 3.0 BB/9 4.4 K/9
  • Trevor May 3-3 4.95 ERA 3.01 FIP 1.374 WHIP 1.6 BB/9 7.4 K/9
Touching on each pitcher, there's plenty to dissect here. Most notable, the success of Gibson and Pelfrey should be cautioned. Both own FIP (fielding independent pitching) marks above 4.00. Being groundball pitchers, they have benefited from the outfield remaining out of the picture in most of their starts. Despite Aaron Hicks making a significant difference for the Twins outfield, it wasn't pretty in the early going. Both Pelfrey and Gibson could see more issues as the continue to draw significant contact with low strikeout rates as well.

Phil Hughes has taken a step backwards and moved more towards his career numbers. His strikeouts are down, but the most notable issue he has faced this season is the longball. Hughes has given up 10 home runs in just nine games after giving up 16 in 32 last season. There's little reason to suggest that Trevor May hasn't taken steps forward, and despite a lackluster WHIP, he may be trending in the best direction of the bunch.

Rounding out the group, Nolasco has actually been impressive since coming off of the DL. He's 5-0 in his last five starts, and owns a 3.77 ERA. The FIP number suggests he's been burned by lackluster defense to a certain extent, but he's also danced around danger giving up a career high 11.7 H/9 and allowing a .304 batting average against in his last five starts.

All of this adds up to a group that, as a whole, has exceeded expectations, but probably regresses over the course of the season. Now, each team goes through periods where statistics can't account for baseball simply playing in your favor, and regression isn't likely to come all at once. The Twins shouldn't be counting on all five guys to falter, but having backup plans for the ones that do would seem to be a good situation.

To that notion, Minnesota can smile and simply look at their organization as a whole. In Rochester, Taylor Rogers and Pat Dean have looked good over their first handful of starts (3.44 ERA and 2.47 ERA respectively) as both have spent the entirety of the season there. Tommy Milone has made four starts for the Red Wings since his demotion and has compiled a 0.28 ERA while allowing just one earned run in 31.2 IP while striking out 41 batters. Although probably not a candidate to join the Twins this season, Tyler Duffey was also recently promoted to Triple-A after opening the season as the Double-A Opening Day pitcher. On the season Duffey owns a 2.56 ERA, 1.8 BB/9, and 9.1 K/9 ratio.

Generally teams would like to see pitchers refine themselves at the Triple-A level prior to heading to the big leagues, but it's hard to overlook what Jose Berrios has done in Chattanooga. In nine starts, Berrios owns a 2.89 ERA, 10.1 K/9, and just a 2.7 BB/9 ratio. He's one of the organizations top prospects, and he's knocking on the door, hard.

All of the above options have been presented without even touching on the fact that de facto number two starter Ervin Santana will be back in July. On top of Santana, the Twins are still likely hoping that Alex Meyer shows semblance of starting ability. After a recent move to the bullpen in hopes of controlling command issues, he could be pushed into the rotation down the stretch as well.

Over the course of the summer, Terry Ryan and Paul Molitor are going to have plenty of decisions to make. There's no doubt they should ride the current rotation construction until the results deem otherwise, but for the first time in a while, they shouldn't be fearing the bottom falling out. A testament to patience, the Twins are built for a certain level of sustainability.

The Twins Depth Is Turning Into A Tightrope

Nearing the end of May, over a quarter of the 2015 Major League Baseball season is in the books. As it stands, the Minnesota Twins are in sole possession of second place in the American League Central Division, and they have one of the best records in the American League. With the Twins continuing to trend in an upwards direction, managing their depth and walking the tightrope through some difficult decisions will shape their summer.

At the major league level right now, the Twins have players such as Chris Herrmann, Tim Stauffer, and Eduardo Nunez contributing to games. The former two have been nothing short of disaster, while the latter has provided some surprising value in short bursts. Looking at the group however, none of those names represent irreplaceable players. With an organization chocked full of young talent, roster shuffling over the next few weeks will become an interesting point of observation.

Considering the depth throughout the Twins organization, it may be the lowest rungs that begin to dictate what happens at the top. However, the Twins closest pool of talent generally comes from Triple-A Rochester. Tommy Milone has pitched four games at Triple-A yielding just one run over 31.2 innings and has struck out batters at an 11.7 K/9 clip while walking just 0.6 batters per nine innings. Kennys Vargas was sent down just over a week ago, and is batting over .400 with three home runs. Josmil Pinto has looked like an upgrade as the second catcher for a while, even despite his recent cold stretch at the plate. What's even more impressive, those three players only represent a small sample size.

Rochester could be pushing arms such as A.J. Achter, Lester Oliveros, and Alex Meyer (who recently threw his first inning of relief) all to the big leagues as well. With Stauffer offering little to the Twins, and Brian Duensing struggling often as well, Minnesota could chose to upgrade from within. Although Rochester may be the immediate talent pool for the big leagues, it's in Double-A Chattanooga, High-A Fort Myers, and Low-A Cedar Rapids that the Twins tightrope gets more interesting.

The Lookouts no doubt have one of the best teams in all of minor league baseball. There's little reason to believe we don't see Miguel Sano and/or Byron Buxton in Minnesota before August. On top of those two however, Max Kepler (.345/.385/.555 2 HR 15 RBI) and Jorge Polanco (.311/.348/.431 4 HR 20 RBI) could likely both use a new challenge in short order as well. On the mound, Chattanooga will be ushering Jose Berrios (2.89 ERA 63 K) and Zack Jones (1.72 ERA 22 K) out in short order. D.J. Baxendale has put together a great start, and the Twins could still decide to move both Jake Redd and Nick Burdi on the fast track.

Fort Myers may not have the hitters that the higher levels of the organization tout, but pitchers like Chih-Wei Hu (1.03 ERA 36 K), Aaron Slegers (2.59 ERA 31 K), Brett Lee (2.14 ERA 19 K), Kohl Stewart (2.60 ERA 18 K), and J.T. Chargois (2.40 ERA 19 K) could all be looking at the next level at some point. Cedar Rapids is watching Trey Vavra (.342/.399/.529 6 HR 27 RBI) destroy baseballs, while Stephen Gonsalves (1.50 ERA 54 K), Felix Jorge (2.13 ERA 39 K), and Cameron Booser (0.84 34 K) all confuse opposing hitters. With plenty of candidates in the mix now, the Twins have decisions to make.

The 40 man roster no doubt has some fat that could be trimmed off of it. Even with adding players however, there's still only 25 roster spots at each level. With plenty of deserving candidates looking for promotions, the Twins will need to get creative. Terry Ryan recently noted that guys like Hu and Gonsalves may stick at their current levels longer than anticipated, and part of the reasoning has to be the log jams ahead of them.

With the big league club set to play 12 games in June (4 series) against teams with sub-.500 records, it's conceivable the high level of winning could continue. If that happens, the Twins will have to navigate their current tightrope with precision. The question will become, what assets do you deal, for whom, and when? Minnesota could be in a position to package a couple of minor league prospects to land a single player that could vault them into the postseason.

Heading into the season, it was not 2015 that was slated to mark the turnaround for Minnesota. There's no doubt this team was capable of turning heads, and a sneaky playoff run could have been argued, but being a major player at the trade deadline didn't seem reasonable. Minnesota won't mortgage the future that they have built, but there's no doubt that the opportunity to turn depth into an immediate asset could present itself. How Terry Ryan navigates it could be the defining moment in how the Twins finish 2015.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Projections Are Made To Be Adjusted

With the first quarter of the 2015 Major League Baseball season in the books, we are provided a great opportunity to take a look at how the season is shaping up. Considering the projections that were made coming into the year, it's a good time to see how things stand, and take note of some adjustments that may shake out as the season draws on.

Keeping the focus on the AL Central, namely the Twins, let's take a look at the division first. Going into the year I had a hard time believing that any team in the central would reach either the 90 loss or 90 win mark. As it stands currently, I still feel pretty good about no team losing 90 games, but it seems silly to believe that neither the Royals nor the Tigers would have a chance at totaling 90 wins.

2015 AL Central Season Preview

I didn't expect the Royals to be nearly as good as they have been, and while the Tigers have some definite holes in their pitching staff, that offense is producing at an impressive clip. In picking the White Sox to finish second in the division, I was a big believer of the moves they made this offseason. They are starting to find their stride and could be there soon enough. Minnesota finishing fourth or better in the division is off to a good start, but is going to take some consistent baseball down the stretch to stick.

Now, looking at the Twins, there's some definite adjustments that have to be made. I had the home town club clocking in at 79 wins prior to the Spring Training announcement that Ervin Santana would be out until July. Losing your number two starter is always going to take a toll, no matter how you make up for it. I believe my adjustment was to put Minnesota somewhere in the realm of 74 or 75 wins following the suspension (which by my projections, would have dropped them to last in the AL Central).

Nearing the end of May, the Twins have already totaled over 1/4 of the wins they would need to reach 80 on the season. As it stands right now, the club is on pace to win 93 games (a mark they likely won't touch). No matter the regression that is sure to be coming to the Twins, it's become more than time to adjust expectations. 79 wins for this club was doable with everything going right with the roster structure staying in an optimal position. That couldn't be further from what Paul Molitor has experienced, yet he still has him team on pace to exceed those expectations.

Considering the summer months are where a baseball team's season is shaped, expect the Twins to develop an even strong identity in the coming weeks. Looking at things as they stand and what is to come, suggesting 80 wins as a realistic mark seems to be something I am comfortable with. Should the combination of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano get hot and be called upon sooner rather than later, they could provide and even stronger boost to the big league club. While there are plenty of players contributing over their heads (Mike Pelfrey for one), there's guys who have stepped up and those that should still be expected to do so (Brian Dozier/Trevor Plouffe the former, Oswaldo Arcia/Kennys Vargas the latter).

Not only is this Twins team not going to come close to 90 losses, but it's time to stop wondering what if and when it may fall apart. Minnesota is back to playing competitive baseball on a nightly basis, and a .500 record is well within their grasp.

Friday, May 22, 2015

New Opportunities Await Twins In Chicago

The Minnesota Twins are set to kick off a three game series with the Southsiders over the weekend. With the White Sox welcoming the Twins into town, Minnesota is set to do battle with an AL Central opponent for the first time in just over a week. On the season, the Twins are 5-2 against Chicago, including a four game sweep. This time around however, a few key opportunities will present themselves.

As things stand currently, the Twins are 23-17 holding down the third spot in the AL Central. They are looking up at the Royals (3.0 games back) and the Tigers (2.0 games back). Both Chicago (4.0 games ahead) and Cleveland (6.0 games ahead) are trailing the Twins. Herein lies what may be the biggest opportunity the Twins have in the early going.

Often times over the course of the first few months of the season, the Twins record has quickly been followed by a statement questioning how long the success will last. Despite a relatively average pitching staff, and an offense getting a fair bit of luck to go their way, the Twins continue to get it done. Sustenance doesn't need to remain at the same clip all season, but taking advantage while momentum is there remains huge. This weekend in Chicago, the Twins need to do exactly that.

In the month of April, the Twins played to a .500 record while facing off against nearly all AL Central division opponents. Now with the White Sox looking to right the ship (6-4 in their last 10), Minnesota has a chance to stop the run. Ahead of the division rival by just four games, another sweep, or at worst a series win, would distance Minnesota further from the doldrums of the central. Putting games in between both themselves and the White Sox or Indians early, will prove beneficial as the season draws on and continues to take shape.

Despite wins remaining the ultimate goal, pitching will also take center stage over the weekend. With Phil Hughes taking the ball in game one, the Twins will be hoping he can get the roll going. After being below average in the beginning month during 2014, Hughes got hot as May rolled around. In 2015, he's struggled to get his dominance going, and doing so against Jeff Samardzija would be a great start.

Aside from Hughes however, it's the middle matchup that may provide the most intrigue. Trevor May has looked better in his second year in the big leagues. Despite the improvement, his recent run has seen some regression. Owning a 6.06 ERA across his past three starts, May will be looking to get back on track. It was on April 30 that May last faced the White Sox (also going against Chris Sale that day), and he led the Twins to victory. Minnesota got to Sale for eight earned runs, but May danced around 10 hits in 5.2 IP and gave up just two earned. Sale hasn't been the same pitcher in 2015 (4.36 ERA in seven starts), but the Twins will still have their work cut out for them.

Finally, the Twins can spoil one of their biggest rivals big days. Paul Konerko retired from Major League Baseball following the 2014 season, and is having his jersey retired on Saturday. If May can best Sale, and the Twins offense shows up again, Minnesota could claim the final blow against a player that so often tortured them.

There's no doubt that you can't win a pennant in May, but you're kidding yourself if you don't believe you can lose one. If the Twins want to further distance themselves from the questions as to how long the hot streak can last, it will be in handling series like this one against the White Sox that will provide the answers.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Joe Mauer Is Reiventing Meaningful Statistics

May 20, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Minnesota Twins first baseman Joe Mauer (7) hits a solo home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the thirteenth inning of an inter-league game at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
In the dead of the Pittsburgh night, late in the game (the top of the 13th inning to be exact), Joe Mauer did something that he has abandoned since August 17, 2014. With Antonio Bastardo on the mound, Mauer deposited a pitch over the right-centerfield wall at PNC Bank stadium. The Twins went on to win the game by a tally of 4-3. The home run was the shot that lifted Minnesota over the Pirates, but for Joe, it really doesn't matter.

The home run off of Bastardo ended a 286 at bat drought for Mauer. While a first basemen, power has generally not been his game (just 37 HR since 2010), but taking a deeper look at the 2015 version, that's something you should be ok with. Statistically speaking, the corner infield spots are held down by hulking home run hitters that drive the ball to all fields. Contrary to what may be popular belief, Mauer has reinvented himself in bringing value to the role.

Often regarded as an opposite field hitter (outside of the relative reliability to pull ground balls) Mauer has used all fields incredibly well in 2015. He is currently pulling 31.5% of his batted balls, while going up the middle with 35.4%, and hitting to the opposite field 33.1% of the time. A career 28.8% pull hitter, he has more evenly used all fields in 2015.

Although Mauer is more evenly distributing his hits, they are falling in equaling less total bases. Though this isn't ideal, it can likely be explained by his hard hit percentage. Owner of a career 33.6% hard hit percentage, Mauer is hitting just 23.6% of his batted balls hard this year. While his medium hits are at 59.1% (as opposed to a career 56.7%), his soft hits are also significantly up at 17.3% (career 9.7%).

The most visible place these numbers have shown up is in regards to Mauer's doubles this season. With eight total through the first quarter of the season, reaching 30+ will require a few more balls driven to the gaps. However, Mauer does have two triples already this season, matching his 2014 total.

Looking at the numbers as a whole, we can start to see where Joe Mauer has deficiencies, and where he should be expected to contribute. That being said, a glance at a few different key areas quickly points out that Mauer may in fact be on pace for one of his best offensive seasons in recent memory. Home runs aside, he is driving the Twins offense right now, quite literally.

Leading the club in runs batted in with 24, Mauer is blistering past his 2014 pace (which ended with 55 RBI). Mauer's previous career high in runs batted in came during the 2009 season, in which he drove in 96 runs for the Twins. As it stands now, he's on pace to even that mark. Mauer driving in runs is a by-product of his success in high leverage situations this season, and his success is astounding.

A large portion of being a talented hitter is situational hitting. While Mauer's .284/.341/.381 slash line may leave some room for improvement, it's tough to argue what he's done in high leverage situations. In 2015 with runners on base, Mauer is hitting .382/.463/.485 and with runners in scoring position he's even better, .419/.500/.512. Taking it one step further, Mauer is 4-5 with a triple and eight RBI with the bases loaded in 2015, equating to a 2.000 OPS. Driving runners around and putting the Twins on the board is no doubt the most important offensive feat, no matter how that is accomplished.

Now that we've established why Mauer's lack of home runs doesn't really matter, it's probably a good time to suggest things could continue to get even better. Hoping that Mauer's overall slash line returns back towards his career numbers still seems to be in the cards. Last season, Mauer didn't hit .300 in any single month until September. In 2015, Mauer's April line checked in at .318/.392/.412. He's struggled at the plate in May (outside of those high leverage situations), but it's pretty apparent that a healthy Mauer can still hit. As the summer wears on, it should be expected that Mauer hits at a better than average clip.

This Twins team is in a good place right now, and with key additions coming as the season goes on, they are in position to keep getting better. The 6th best offense in baseball is continuing to push runs across at a strong clip, and Joe Mauer is a big reason for it, even despite the home runs.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Twins Best Kept Secret

As of May 20, the Minnesota Twins have played 39 games and have compiled a 22-17 record. After being picked by many to finish last in the AL Central, and even lose 90 games for a 5th straight year by some, Minnesota has done nothing but surpass expectations. Sitting third in the AL Central, the Twins offense has once again been one of the best in the big leagues (currently 6th in runs scored). While starting pitching has been better than in recent years, it is one man in the bullpen that may be one of the team's best weapons.

Signed as a free agent after a decent year in San Diego, Blaine Boyer has come into the Twins pen and been nothing short of lights out. His story has been well documented, and his journey has taken him on the path less traveled. After being out of baseball for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, he resurfaced a year ago. Recommitted to the game, and with his family in tow, Boyer appeared poise to give the game what he had left.

Pitching in Petco Park a season ago to the tune of a 3.57 last season, it was somewhat uncertain what he would provide the Twins in the American League, despite the pitcher friendly Target Field. Terry Ryan decided to hand out low risk deals to both Boyer and former teammate Tim Stauffer. While neither looked good from the get go, it has been Boyer that has excelled as the season has worn on.

Casey Fien, the Twins setup man, hit the disabled list during April and the Twins needed someone to step up. First year manager put all of his chips behind Boyer, and neither has looked back. Since April 17, Boyer has pitched 17.2 scoreless innings. He's struck out just eight batters in the timeframe, but he's given up just nine hits and only three walks as well. Boyer has held opposing hitters to a .161/.200/.232 slash line and he's generated a 69% strike rate. On the season, Boyer's 2.18 ERA is amongst the Twins brightest relief marks, and he's become an incredible asset in the bullpen.

Earlier in the season, I kicked around the idea that Ryan brought in both Stauffer and Boyer with the idea of dealing them to a contender somewhere during the middle of the season. if he could get both players to reflect value, the Twins may benefit from the return of a mid-level prospect from a club looking for bullpen help. Obviously at this point, Stauffer is closer to being sent off of the roster, than he is being added to another team's. Boyer however, has proven to be an solid asset and the Twins have turned themselves into a legitimate contender.

Coming off of four straight 90 loss seasons, there's plenty of reason to be cautiously optimistic for the Twins prospectus going forward. After all, in 2014 Minnesota looked in good position in June, and even made a free agent signing in the form of Kendrys Morales. This team however seems to be cut from a different thread, and the trajectory appears to be stable and trending upward more than it isn't. As long as things continue their current trends, Boyer should expect to be pitching for a contender in 2015, but it will be the team that signed him in the offseason, not the one he is dealt to.

No doubt there has been some misses that Terry Ryan is responsible for when it comes to pitching, considering Blaine Boyer one of them is out of the question though. Boyer has been absolutely terrific for the Twins, and the man of faith with his family by his side, doesn't appear to be letting off the throttle any time soon.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Did Tommy Milone Unlock The Next Level?

Terry Ryan gets criticized for a lot of things, and while some are fair and others aren't, one of my favorite moves in recent history is the acquisition of Tommy Milone. Knowing his club needed more major league quality starters, Ryan flipped Sam Fuld (who was acquired on waivers from the Oakland Athletics after he was DFA'd in 2014) back to Oakland in the summer, for Milone. The Twins got a legitimate major league starter, and the Athletics got their castoff back. While his Twins career hasn't had many highlights, the tides may now be turning.

Still just 28 years old, Milone has plenty of major league playing time ahead of him. This season, he found himself competing for the 5th and final rotation spot, and eventually snagging as the team headed north from Fort Myers. Four starts into the season, Milone owned a 2-1 record with a 4.76 ERA, 5.2 K/9, and 4.4 BB/9. Not horrible numbers, but not also where you would want out of a starting pitcher, the Twins sent Milone to Triple-A Rochester in deciding to keep Trevor May in the starting rotation.

Following the demotion, the transportation happened. Despite owning a 4.02 career ERA at the major league level, Milone has sported a 3.00 ERA in the minors. Last season, he made one start at Triple-A Rochester and pitched to a 1.29 ERA. His first three starts down on the farm in 2015 have been incredibly impressive to say the least.

Over the course of 23.1 innings, Milone owns a 3-0 record, and 0.00 ERA while giving up just 14 hits. His 0.686 WHIP is impressive, but his 12.7 K/9 and 0.8 BB/9 is nearly flawless. As a whole, each of his numbers looks to be a big step forward even put up against his career minor league stats. Knowing that he wants to get back to the major leagues, the Twins may be expecting somewhat of a different pitcher this time around.

Looking at Milone as a whole however, the Twins have to place a relatively high amount of focus on his career totals. A back end of the rotation starter, it's hard to expect that a handful of lights out minor league starts are going to rewrite his career. That being said, for the first time in a Twins uniform, Milone may be showing glimpses of the quality and capable starter that they traded for.

There's no doubt that Mike Pelfrey has been an asset to the Twins this season. Pitching out of the rotation, he has kept hisERA at a 3.23 mark through seven starts. Considering his recent track record, this is nothing to scoff at, and likely suggests that he's healthy for the first time in a while. However, he still owns a 4.90 FIP (fielding independent pitching) mark, which means more regression is probably coming. If Pelfrey continues to open the door, the Twins have to feel good about having Milone ready to go.

As has been the case since the get go this year for the Twins, Minnesota has more quality options than they have at any point in recent memory. Tommy Milone is never going to be a Cy Young winner, but the more time he spends dominating Triple-A, should only allow him to ride that confidence when called upon in the big leagues. I'm not naive enough to believe the former Athletic has reinvented himself, but right now he's going great, and there's no reason not to be happy about it.

Twins Face Odd Challenges In Pittsburgh

For the first time in the 2015 Major League Baseball season, and also coincidentally the first time in Paul Molitor's managerial career, the Minnesota Twins will face off against a National League opponent. With that comes the challenges of managing around not having the designated hitter at your disposal. However silly I believe that to be (and I do think it's silly), Molitor may have the deck stacked against him.

Now full disclosure, we aren't talking about Dan Jennings, Jeffrey Loria, and the Miami Marlins type deck here (I mean, the deck is always stacked against you when you aren't playing with a full one am I right?), but the Twins have some interesting things to work through. Notably, this "series" with Pittsburgh is only of the two game variety. However, the Pirates are just 18-20 on the season, and rank 23 in the majors in runs scored. To put it simply, these are two games the Twins need to win.

The biggest hurdles for Paul Molitor to overcome though, they reside on his own team. Take a look:
  • Chris Herrmann
  • Doug Bernier
  • Eduardo Nunez
  • Shane Robinson
  • Eddie Rosario/Eduardo Escobar
That collection of players is about as plain as it gets and four of them have a batting average at or below .252. The highest averages in the group come from Robinson (.315) and an inflated (due to just 22 at bats) .409 average from Nunez. When managing through pinch hitting opportunities and pitching changes however, those are the players that Molitor must rely upon.

Considering that Kennys Vargas was recently demoted to Triple-A Rochester (after hitting .366/.395/.561 in the month of May), the Twins have no power options on their bench. A look through the Rochester lineup highlights Josmil Pinto as well, who is batting .284/.371/.431 on the season with four home runs and 17 RBI. It all adds up to a 25 man roster construction that would seem confusing in the American League, bit appears even more puzzling for a couple of games in the National League.

Of course, if the Twins get early offense and dominant pitching, all of the situational offensive questions become moot. Going into a series, I would argue that is probably not something that should be assumed however. With Ricky Nolasco going in game one, and Mike Pelfrey going in game two, it would stand to reason that the Twins should have options ready. Nolasco has looked better of late, but hasn't pitched deep into games, and Pelfrey looks to be regressing towards his FIP (fielding independent pitching) mean.

Knowing that pitchers such as Brian Duensing and a possibly exposed J.R. Graham loom in the bullpen, having bats ready to remove the pitcher would be an asset. The Twins aren't going to make any changes at this point, and Molitor's managing acumen will be tested. I've always argued that a manager's role is less important than head coaches in other sports, but in situations such as these, it could just be the situational savvy that snags the Twins a victory.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Trevor Plouffe Has Given The Twins A Great Problem

Ann Heisenfelt / Associated Press
The year was 2011, and the Minnesota Twins had two players competing for one spot at the hot corner. One was a 19th round draft pick and coming off of a season that had him in the running for Rookie of the Year honors. The other was a first round draft pick that had just experienced his first cup of coffee. At the end of the year though, and into the future, it was the first round draft pick that would take over. Trevor Plouffe grabbed the role from Danny Valencia, and he hasn't looked back.

Of course knowing Plouffe's track record, there's little reason to suggest there haven't been bumps in the road. The 2012 season saw Plouffe play his first games at third for the Twins. In 95 games at third, Plouffe committed 17 errors, was worth -8 defensive runs saved, and owned an ugly -10.8 UZR. While it's one thing to suggest that the only way to go from there was up, the heights Plouffe would find himself at didn't immediately seem apparent.

In 2013, the Twins new third basemen made 13 errors in 120 games and owned a -7.4 UZR rating. Bringing his DRS to an even 0 was a step in the right direction however. Then the turnaround happened, and in a big way. Last season, despite making 14 errors, Plouffe owned a 6.7 UZR and was worth 6 DRS. Not only did he play the best third base of his career, but he did so across 127 games, also a career high. Even better, Plouffe hadn't only made stride in the field, but at the plate as well.

Back in 2012, his first season at the hot corner, Plouffe used a scorching July to carry himself to a career high 24 home runs. While he has yet to match that output, 2013 and 2014 saw big advancements in other offensive areas. The California native carried a .254/.309/.392 slash line in 2013 with 14 HR and 52 RBI. He backed that up a year later in 2014 by slashing .258/.328/.423 and launching 14 HR with a career high 80 RBI. Plouffe also grew a greater patience and command at the dish by walking 53 times, nearly doubling his past career high.

Following along the same trend that he has laid out the past two seasons, Plouffe has started 2015 on a similar note. Currently owning a .254/.336/.423 slash line with 5 HR and 18 RBI, it looks like the production will continue. In 34 games at the hot corner, he's made just 3 errors while compiling an early 1.6 UZR.

Not too long ago, Trevor Plouffe was seen as a player holding down a position until someone else came along. As uber prospect Miguel Sano gained steam, it appeared that Plouffe was just keeping his eventual role warm. Since, it's not the Sano has cooled, but that Plouffe has transformed himself to be on of the best third baggers in Major League Baseball. A guy that owned -0.4 and -0.9 fWAR in his first two seasons, Plouffe was worth a 3.6 fWAR last season, and has already jumped out to a 1.1 fWAR mark in 2015.

At some point, the Twins will have to decide how to position players like Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer, and Miguel Sano to make everyone fit. While that time isn't yet hear, there's little reason to suggest that Plouffe hasn't given the Twins a great problem to have. Instead of just being a guy holding down a spot, he has become the guy on a team that looks poised to turn the corner. With a possible payday looming, Plouffe has no one but himself to thank for cashing in. The transformation has been fun to watch, and it may just be the beginning of it.

Roster Moves Should Continue To Shape Twins

Over the weekend, the Minnesota Twins took yet another series, this time knocking off the Tampa Bay Rays. In beating the AL East in their first opportunity on the season, the Twins start off on the right foot against a typically tough division. After dropping the finale however, the Twins made somewhat of a curious decision in sending Kennys Vargas back to Triple-A. As the season pushes forward, expecting the organization to continue to make big moves from within should come as no shock.

Looking first at Vargas, categorizing this move would be easiest to do so in saying it was an odd move, and maybe even a step backwards. Vargas was named the team's designated hitter from the get go, and despite making the jump from Double-A a season ago, was expected to run with it. He got off to an incredibly slow start batting just .172/.232/.234 in April. Spared a demotion through the first month, even with Josmil Pinto (another DH candidate) tearing up Triple-A, the move came at a weird time.

In 11 games in the month of May, Vargas has hit .375/.405/.575 with two home runs and six RBI. While he still has chased too many pitches (nine strikeouts with just two walks), the production was in a good place. With Minnesota heading to Pittsburgh for two National League games (without the much-needed DH), Vargas would have a tough time getting in the lineup. If the Twins were operating under the belief that Vargas will be back immediately following the two-game stint against the Pirates, I could get behind the move. It doesn't appear to be that way however, and a bench with players such as Chris Herrmann, Doug Bernier, and Eduardo Nunez leaves Minnesota with some ugly pinch hitting options. Vargas noted he needs to work on better at bats down on the farm, and while that may be true, it held more weight at the end of April.

Sticking with the big league club, there's no doubt a handful of moves that will become in focus within the next couple of weeks. Maybe most notably, Oswaldo Arcia is going to eventually be ready to resume his role in left field for the Twins. Despite the ugly defense, there's no reason to give up on a commitment to what could still be a promising young power hitter. Eddie Rosario has shown glimpses of excitement, but with the expectation he would be overmatched from the get go, his last five games (.143/.200/.214 9 K 1 BB) haven't done much to buck that notion. Rosario would benefit from more seasoning down in Triple-A and likely would be the corresponding move when Arcia is ready to return.

In 2015, the Twins have gotten much stronger pitching performances than in previous seasons. However, the bullpen has been somewhat touch and go in the early going. Most notably, Brian Duensing (the pitcher the Twins took to arbitration and paid $2.7 million) owns a 10.57 ERA through 7.2 IP and has struggled to show any signs of hope. Opposing hitters are batting .429 off of him and his 2.74 WHIP is hideous. In seeing Ryan Pressly receive the call from Triple-A and immediately become one of the Twins best relievers, there's no doubt there are better options down on the farm. It's probably time for the Twins to cut ties with Duensing and give the spot to someone like A.J. Achter, Logan Darnell, or even Caleb Thielbar.

Moving down the rungs of the organization, the next most obvious stop becomes Double-A Chattanooga. While not yet ready to make the jump to the big leagues, Jose Berrios is kicking down the door to Rochester. Through his first seven starts, he owns a 2.60 ERA, 10.6 K/9 ratio, and is walking batters at just a 3.0 BB/9 clip. Having pitched in one game at the Triple-A level to end his 2014, Berrios should surface at the next level sooner rather than later. If he can continue to pitch more than throw, and refine that at Triple-A, there's little reason to believe he couldn't be an option for the Twins at some point in 2015.

On the offensive side of Double-A, the talk is all about both Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. All things considered, neither of them are ready, and talk otherwise would seem shortsighted. Buxton went on a 16 game hot streak from April 25 through May 11 in which he hit .338/.395/.662 with five triples, three home runs, and 20 RBI. Since however, he's stuck in a seven game cold streak batting just .133/.161/.233 with just two extra base hits. Neither are indicative of the greater whole, but serve as a reminder that baseball's top prospect missed virtually a whole season, and needs to get back in a groove. If he can even out the performances, there's no doubt he could be with the Twins in August. Not being on the 40 man roster, his promotion would seemingly be to either compete now, or not until 2016.

Looking at Sano, the Twins power hitting third base prospect also has gotten off to a slow start. Despite batting just .228 on the season, Sano has enjoyed May hitting .300/.384/.583 with four home runs and 11 RBI. Again like Buxton, missing the 2014 season is going to have Sano knocking off some rust. Unlike Buxton, he is on the 40 man roster and could be considered for a September cup of coffee. With the Twins in a good place however, Sano has the opportunity to leap from Double-A to the big leagues around July if he can continue to trend in the right direction.

As the Twins look to close the chapter on the past four years of ugly baseball, it will be how they manage the talent from within that gets them there. I find it hard to agree with the demotion of Kennys Vargas, but with plenty of other roster moves looming, this club will push it's own ceiling from within. Although the past four years haven't been fun, the reward appears to be some exciting baseball in 2015.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Has Joe Mauer Reinvented Himself In 2015?

A season ago, Joe Mauer made the full time transition to first base. Having been dealt his final blow as a catcher, the best move for the Twins and Mauer was to get him out from behind the plate, and in a position to remain healthy. Unfortunately, 2014 didn't set that narrative off on the right foot as Mauer played in just 120 games and the Twins lost 90 games for a fourth straight year. Starting out 2015, Mauer looks like a different player, and the early returns have been encouraging.

Now a full time first basemen, it's often immediately noted that Mauer doesn't hit for the power that the position commands. While there's no doubt the general consensus is that a first basemen is a plodding athlete that displays impressive force at the plate, Mauer is reinventing the expectation. Still looking for his first home run on the year, power is not Mauer's game. While there's no doubt the Twins would like to see at least a glimmer of the longball at some point from the St. Paul product, he's become a significant asset in other ways.

Further distanced from his concussion, Mauer looks to be completely healthy for the first time since 2010. He's played in 33 of the Twins first 34 games, and he currently owns a .282/.345/.374 slash line. Quite possibly the most promising bit of excitement for Mauer is that he has yet to find his groove in 2015. Owning a career .399 OBP, Mauer still has plenty of room to continue to project upwards from his current .345 mark. Never seen significantly as a run producer, he has plated 19 runs already in 2015, a mark he didn't reach until June 22 a season ago.

After batting .318/.392/.412 in the month of April this year, May has provided some struggles (.217/.250/.304 11 K 2 BB). As Mauer continues to work towards his early season approach at the plate, the Twins can only expect to benefit further. With Brian Dozier currently hitting leadoff and being followed by Torii Hunter, Mauer has been placed in the 3 hole by Paul Molitor. Lacking the power typical of that spot in the lineup, he could stand to benefit being flip-flopped with one of those two players.

As the summer months roll around, expect Mauer to heat up and get things going even further. The more distance Mauer can put between his injury history, and his concussion issues, the better off the Twins first basemen will be.

For everything Mauer lacks in the power department at the plate, he may actually make up in athleticism at first. Again, not the prototypical body style of a first basemen, Mauer's quickness and agility is something he has over his competition. Already worth a defensive run saved on the season, he trails Gold Glove winning Eric Hosmer by just around 1.0 runs above average in UZR.

When looking at Joe Mauer and what he brings to the Minnesota Twins, it's probably a best practice to stop trying to fit him into what the traditional sense of the position he plays is. Looking at him as a player, and what his own output is, Mauer may be reinventing the role. There's no doubt the corner spot is always going to need to be a run producer, but if Mauer can continue on his path and return to a similar form in his triple slash line, there's no doubt that both he and the Twins will be just fine.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Kyle Gibson Now Looking The Part

Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports
If you asked a handful of different credible Twins sources who they were excited to see pitch coming into the 2015 Major League Baseball season, one of the most common answers would have been Kyle Gibson. The former first round pick is now 27 years old, and there were stretches that looked very promising over the course of the 2014 season. Hoping he was close to putting it together, the upcoming season provided plenty of intrigue. Now just over a month in, the former Missouri Tiger has not disappointed.

Gibson made his major league debut at the age of 25, and while that is relatively old for a top prospect coming out of college, his late start was not due to talent related issues. Undergoing Tommy John surgery while still in the Twins farm system, Gibson had to battle back and work his way back into the fold. Getting his first cup of coffee in the middle of the 2013 season, it was 2014 that Gibson finally broke into the rotation full time. His first full season at the big league level was filled with generally mixed results, and he owned a 4.47 ERA with a 3.80 FIP.

At nearly every level through the system, Gibson has been the same kind of pitcher. He's more reliable than overpowering, and despite strikeout numbers near 10.0 K/9 during the 2012 season, it was always somewhat expected that he may be more of a finesse pitcher at the major league level. Having owned a 5.4 K/9 mark in 2013, the Twins were no doubt hoping that the ratio would continue to climb as he settles into big league pitching.

Now with seven starts under his belt in 2015, Gibson has exploded out of the gate, and owns the 13th best ERA in the American League. At 2.70, Gibson trails only Mike Pelfrey (2.62) in the ERA department amongst starters. While generally there may be some concern for regression due to Gibson's high 4.52 FIP, the recipe currently in play could actually benefit him for the long haul.

As has been noted plenty this offseason and in the early portion of the year, the Twins have some significant defensive deficiencies. That being said, the largest liabilities in the field reside in the corner outfield positions. With outfield defense improving somewhat with the call up of Aaron Hicks, there still remains little doubt that fly ball pitchers will be hurt by the guys in the grass behind them. For Gibson however, this isn't exactly an issue for him.

For groundball pitchers such as Gibson, lifting a ball into the outfield because somewhat of a relative chore. In turn, the most taxed defensive players with Kyle on the mound become the infield, and they have played to his favor. Gibson has generated 50.3% ground balls this season, while giving up fly balls on just 27.3% of his batted balls. Better yet, of the fly balls he has given up, just 7.7% (a career best) have landed over the fence.

A sinkerball pitcher, there's always going to be an increased ability to keep the ball on the ground. As Pelfrey has noticed too however, the infield has done an exceptional job of taking care of the guy on the mound. Despite the major league leading nine errors, Danny Santana has proved invaluable in getting to 15 balls deemed out of his zone already on the season. Trevor Plouffe greatly expanding his defensive acumen has been a welcomed sight, and Brian Dozier continues to be a strong second basemen.

Statistically speaking, regression due to an out of whack FIP (fielding independent pitching) mark would make sense, but Gibson could continue to benefit from the greater whole as well. Generating ground balls on the mound, and his infield making plays behind him, Gibson is well on his way to his best season as a pro. No doubt his best start of the year, Gibson went 7 innings giving up just five hits, one run on a solo home run, and striking out six while walking none against the Tigers.

If the strikeout numbers can hold, and everything else stays the course, Kyle Gibson could continue to be one of the best stories for the Twins in 2015.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Twins Outfield Future Begins

Last night former first round draft pick, Aaron Hicks, got the call from the Minnesota Twins. While it isn't his first rodeo in the big leagues, there's no doubt this time signifies what might be the most important. After playing 27 games at the Triple-A level and batting .336/.415/.561, Minnesota saw fit to improve their outfield by bringing Hicks back into the fold. With more weighing on Hicks this time around, there's also plenty of reason to believe things click.

Although he was the 14th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Hicks took a more accelerated route to the big leagues than would have been expected. Despite playing five seasons in the minors, his best season at the plate saw him hit .318/.409/.491 in Rookie ball immediately after being drafted. A strong 2013 spring training, combined with the Twins dealing both Denard Span and Ben Revere, had Hicks being promoted directly from Double-A. After 150 games of struggle at the big league level, it was apparent a new approach was needed with Hicks.

Last season, the Twins demoted Hicks from the major leagues to Double-A. Playing in 43 games for Double-A New Britain in 2014, Hicks batted .297/.404/.466 and once again looked the part of an exciting prospect. Hicks was promoted to Triple-A Rochester, and for the first time in his career, played through Double and Triple-A in succession.

Expected to come into the 2015 season with the starting centerfield job his to lose once again, the Twins opted to go a different direction. With returns in spring training not being where the club wanted, Paul Molitor brought both Jordan Schafer and Shane Robinson north. A confusing decision at the time, there's no doubt that Hicks made the most of his time in Triple-A. Abusing opposing pitchers while being the offensive catalyst for the Red Wings in 2015, Hicks no doubt earned his most recent promotion back to the big leagues.

Now in line for the starting centerfield role for the forseeable future, the Twins are hopeful they can begin to watch their outfield unfold. Hicks will immediately bring not only an offensive boost, but also defensive help, to a lackluster outfield. He presents opportunity for a Twins team in a good spot, to reach even new heights. The Twins hope is that Hicks will play his way into their future plans.

There's little doubt that Byron Buxton is eventually going to take over the centerfield role for the Twins. He's the number one prospect in all of baseball, and he's looked the part at every level. Buxton and Hicks are mutually exclusive however, in that the success of each of them would be huge for the Twins. Casting aside Hicks' previous struggles (remember, he's in uncharted territory now having excelled at each level of the farm system in order), a solid start for Hicks makes him an ideal corner fit for the Twins. Hicks has a plus arm, and could profile nicely in right field down the line.

Minnesota is no doubt enjoying the success that the 2015 season has brought them in the early going, but this team is built to contend for years to come. The hope would no doubt be that an outfield of Oswaldo Arcia, Byron Buxton, and Aaron Hicks would be the configuration for many years to come. Adding in Eddie Rosario as a 4th option would only further the talent that the Twins could employ out of the gate next season.

The Minnesota Twins, Aaron Hicks, and most everyone sees this as a last shot for the former first round pick, but smart money may be on the player. Hicks has shown plenty of reason to believe in him, and for the sake of an improved outfield going forward, the hope would be that it all comes full circle.

Monday, May 11, 2015

How Do The Twins Manage The Current Success?

With the Minnesota Twins getting their first off day since April 23, the team is no doubt in a good spot. Owners of an 18-14 record, and finding themselves just 2.5 games back in the AL Central, the break provides a perfect opportunity to set things up going forward. With some key games upcoming, and the club looking to stay on the right side of the win column, there's a few key areas of focus for the team as the season goes on.

Coming off of a 2014 season in which the Twins offense produced a top 10 number in the runs scored category, there was little reason to worry about how this team would score. Although regression was bound to set in for players such as Kurt Suzuki and Danny Santana (and it has), there has been a handful of key contributors that have picked up the slack. However, going forward, there's no doubt the Twins will need to combat continued regression with timely additions.

In the outfield, it's become way past time for Minnesota to make the call for Aaron Hicks. Regardless of his previous major league track record, he's more than earned his way back. Slashing .330/.412/.553 at Triple-A Rochester, and bringing strong defense to the outfield, he's an asset the Twins currently don't have. Shane Robinson and Jordan Schafer currently own a combined .603 OPS for the Twins, while Hicks has a stout .965 number. Even in past struggles, Hicks has always gotten on base, and he could provide some added firepower to the back of the Twins lineup. With the off day prior to kicking off a series with the Tigers, there's no better time than now for the move to be made.

Much like Hicks, Josmil Pinto has all but proven himself at the Triple-A level as well. Assumed by many that he was left off of the Opening Day roster due to a late spring injury, the stay in Triple-A has been longer than expected. Now the owner of an impressive .303/.398/.438 line complete with three home runs and 14 runs batted in, Minnesota's lineup would only benefit from his inclusion. Despite his deficiencies behind the plate, Pinto would be a vast offensive upgrade over the Twins current options. Chris Herrmann owns a .179 average across 11 games, and Kurt Suzuki has started off the season batting just .233 in 26 contests. The Twins making an addition from within would no doubt be beneficial to them.

Looking past offensive upgrades, there's no doubt that the Twins need to continue to refine their pitching outlook. Over the course of their last 13 games, the Twins starters own just a 4.74 K/9 combined with a 2.31 BB/9. Considering the defensive liabilities, Twins pitchers are still making their defense work incredibly too hard. Although Phil Hughes has actually started 2015 off on a better foot than he did 2014, he's gone back to being home run prone. After giving up just 16 home runs in 32 starts a season ago, he has already surrendered 9 long balls in just seven starts this season. As would be expected, the Twins have struggled to win games in which their pitchers have given up home runs.

Knowing that the rotation will be afforded the opportunity to insert Ervin Santana in July, there's plenty of reason to hope the current construction can hold until then. Mike Pelfrey has been the clubs best starter despite owning a 4.64 FIP (fielding independent pitching) against a 2.62 ERA. Where it stands currently, Pelfrey finds himself owning the 10th best ERA in the American League. With his FIP suggesting regression is coming, the Twins need someone else to step up. Conversely, Ricky Nolasco owns a 3.69 FIP and a 9.00 ERA across his first three starts. The FIP mark checks in as the fourth lowest across his 10 year major league career. Assuming he continues to pitch as he has, better days should lie ahead for Nolasco, and he could become an asset in the current rotation.

Although Minnesota has started out hot, they have just one series win against a team with a record over .500 (Kansas City). Getting ready for a three game set against the Detroit Tigers in which they miss David Price, there's no doubt a series victory would be a big boost to the club's future prospectus. Following up the Tigers series with winnable contests against the Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates, Minnesota finds themselves in a position to continue the narrative of beating the teams that they should.

Looking ahead, there's little reason to suggest that this team should be viewed in the same context of those in recent memory. While losing 90 games last year, the Twins found themselves competitive early. The difference this time around is that the hammer shouldn't be expected to fall. With plenty of internal options at hand to supplement what is already an improved major league squad, this team should remain relevant and competitive going forward. Paul Molitor and Terry Ryan must continue to stack the deck in their favor, and key roster decisions and moves will pave the way for that to take place.

Friday, May 8, 2015

On A-Rod, The Longball, And Those Damn Yankees

Kim Klement/USA Today
Sure, I know this is a Minnesota Twins blog, but at times it's ok to deviate a little bit from the mean. After all, if we're going to focus solely on another team in baseball, it's probably worth talking about the New York Yankees. There's probably not another foe more hated in the state of Minnesota, and for good reason, but the recent history runs plenty deep. With Alex Rodriguez hitting home run number 661 last night, it would seem now is as good of a time as any for a little reflection.

First let's start with the hear and now. On the season, the former Yankee posterboy Rodriguez has seven home runs. That total equals the mark he recorded in 2013 (albeit he played in only 44 games). Having served a season long suspension a year ago, it looks like Rodriguez has his legs back under him, and he's looking straight up at Barry Bonds record. Had it not been for former Twin Delmon Young robbing a home run from A-Rod last night (surprisingly Delmon Young robbed a home-run, crazy things do happen), the Yankee slugger would be sitting exactly 100 longballs away from tying Bonds' mark. So how do we put it all into context?

On September 5, 2007 Barry Bonds hit his last home run, number 762. At the age of 42, he was winding down a season in which he launched 28 homers, while hitting .276 and leading the majors with a .480(!!!) on base percentage. I was in the stands at Great American Ballpark in the summer of 2003 when Bonds launched number 647 against the Cincinnati Reds, there's no doubt in my mind he was one of the greatest power hitters of all time. Now with Rodriguez quickly approaching that territory, it's time to contextualize the concept as well.

Both Bonds and Rodriguez used performance-enhancing drugs. I don't need a grand jury or either player to outright admit to that, it's more the validated. Each of them stacked the deck in their favor. While baseball was searching for an offensive revitalizing, commissioner Bud Selig turned a blind eye, and players like the two mentioned took advantage. Eventually Selig decided he'd had enough, it had gotten out of control on his watch, and now he'd go on a witch hunt to reign it back in. Fortunate or not, both Bonds and Rodriguez have become the gold standard for negativity in the steroid era of baseball. For me however, it's tough to chalk up their accomplishments as nonsensical due to that understanding.

In nearly every era over the course of the existence of baseball, circumstances have remained difficult to compare. Whether it be amphetamines, the exclusion of African-American players, the live ball era, or some combination of other events, baseball has consistently been inconsistent. Although not to condone cheating, I find slighting otherworldly performances in the greatest game on earth to be shortsighted. I can dismiss Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds the individuals, neither of them seem like great people, their accomplishments reside in a different category.

As Bonds launched number 762 on September 5, it could have been reasoned that an entire generation of baseball fans had just experienced something they would never see again. Fast forwarding to 2015, it stands to reason that same generation may just be lucky enough to see it happen twice. With each Rodriguez home run, he moves one step closer to breaking what seemed to be an insurmountable record. At 39, time is running out, but the baseball fan in me is hoping there's just enough.

Do I think Alex Rodriguez is the greatest power hitter to ever play the game, probably not. Would I love to witness Rodriguez being the second all-time home run record breaker in my lifetime, there's no doubt about it. While I still will always dismiss Alex Rodriguez the person, I love the longball as much as anyone else, and despite hating those damn Yankees, it's about so much more than that.

Early Returns Show New Era With Molitor

Manager Paul Molitor #4 outfield the Minnesota Twins watches as his team takes on the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on April 12, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/ Getty Images)
At the end of the 2014 Major League Baseball season, and consequently the Twins fourth consecutive with 90 losses, the organization decided to relieve skipper Ron Gardenhire of his duties. After being the head of the clubhouse in Minnesota for 13 seasons, it was decided that Terry Ryan would be going a new direction. After interviewing everyone from Chip Hale to Doug Mientkiewicz, the Twins found their heir apparent in Paul Molitor. Now with his first month under his belt, it appears a new era has been ushered in.

While it might be nice to immediately point to the fact that Molitor helped the Twins reached a record of three games over .500 for the first time since 2010, it's far to early to start suggesting what will be made of the 2015 season. Knowing that the club has played a handful of AL Central opponents and has remained competitive is a good start, but there's far more factors at play when looking at Molitor's influence. For the Twins, there's no doubt that the continuing trend this season will be that process should drive results.

In baseball, managers have a significantly lesser effect on the game than say a head coach in football, there's little denying that. However, knowing that the effect is seen only in short bursts, it is up to the manager to make the right decisions, at the right times, to put their respective ball club in the best position to succeed. With Gardy at the helm for 13 years, the Twins rarely reinvented themselves, and the style of the man in charge became widely apparent. Because of that, it is in Molitor's early actions that evidence of new thought processes have already grown prevalent.

Through the first month of the season, Molitor has shown little regard to keeping things certain. One of the most glaring areas of example may be the batting order. Having shuffled it on nearly a bi-nightly basis, Molitor has pushed his team from a -20 run differential through their first seven games, to a +13 mark as of May 8. Deciding to move on from the strikeout prone Danny Santana as the leadoff guy, pushing Trevor Plouffe into the cleanup hole, and jump-starting Kennys Vargas after a short benching have all been positive situations.

Turning attention to the pitching mound, Gardenhire and Rick Anderson became frustratingly stubborn late in their tenure with the Twins. For all the positives they had both given the organization over the years, they were seemingly set against better judgement the past few seasons. A struggling pitcher was left in too long, bullpen usage became questionable, and runs against totals went through the roof. With Molitor at the helm, the change has already been more than apparent.

Forget the fact that Glen Perkins has been used for four-out saves (which makes so much sense!), but there's also the examples of Molitor realizing his starters end. While the bullpen is a pieced together hodgepodge in its current state, there's no doubt Molitor has navigated it wonderfully. Making sure to go get starters before they do themselves in, and working to put relievers in consistently workable situations, the Twins have actually benefited from their own decision making far more often than not.

For Minnesota to fully feel the addition of Paul Molitor as their manager, a full season worth of information is going to need to be gathered. In the early going however, there's no doubt that Molitor has made strides with a team not currently at its peak, void of some superior options, and looking to squeeze out every advantage it can. Prior to his hiring, Molitor was described as an elite baseball mind, and it's hard to argue otherwise at this point.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Byron Buxton, And The Trip To The Show

Byron Buxton is not only the Minnesota Twins most exciting and number one prospect, but also is regarded as the best prospect in all of baseball. Having been drafted out of high school with the second overall pick in the 2012 draft, he's no knocking on the door of the major leagues. Before he gets the call though, what do the Twins want him to do to earn it?

After missing what amounted to the majority of the 2014 season due to a multitude of different injuries, Buxton entered spring training with no chance of making the big league club. Expecting some rust from the get go, the Twins sent Buxton to Double-A Chattanooga. In his first few games, Buxton showed definite signs of that rust, and his average rested right around the Mendoza Line. Now with a stellar few weeks under his belt, he's batting .274/.340/.505. Having blasted three home runs, driven in 15 runs, stolen seven bases, and ran out five triples, Buxton is showing off his offensive prowess. There's no doubt he could immediately be a Gold Glove caliber centerfielder, but the Twins want the complete package. Putting together a good couple of weeks is a good start, but there's no doubt Minnesota wants a little more.

While healthy, the Twins organization has been aggressive with their promotion of Buxton. He played just 68 games at Cedar Rapids before being promoted to Fort Myers in the 2013 season. Then in 2014, injuries slowed him out of the gate, but it took only 30 games before Minnesota moved their stud prospect to Double-A New Britain. Having been injured in his very first game, it's hard to project how 2014 could have ended, but there's no doubt he would have been pushing for his next challenge. Stringing together some strong performances in Chattanooga will have Buxton looking to move again, but the question will be where.

Looking at similarly aggressively accelerated prospects, Mike Trout and Kris Bryant, the Angels and Cubs saw plenty in their young stars. Trout played at Cedar Rapids just two years before Buxton and batted .362/.454/.526 (compared to Buxton's .341/.431/.559). It took just 91 games at Double-A (while hitting .326/.414/.544) before the Angels moved Trout to Triple-A Salt Lake. Trout batted over .400 for 20 games, and it was apparent his time in the minors was done.

Although more comparable to trout from a pure hitting perspective, Buxton can also be tied to the promotion of the Cubs Bryant. Promoted just a matter of weeks ago, Bryant dominated the minor leagues. Hitting .336/.390/.688 across three different levels in his first professional season, as well as .325/.438/.661 in Double and Triple-A in 2014, the Cubs knew what they had. It took 77 Triple-A games before the Cubs gave their third basemen of the future the call.

So looking at Buxton, what does it all mean? There's probably little reason to expect the power numbers to be the same as the two compared prospects. Both Bryant and Trout are much more consistent home run hitters, that said, expecting Buxton to contribute 15-20 at the next level is more than fair. The pop in his bat has shown just fine, the defense is there, and so is the speed. Right now, the biggest thing Buxton needs on his side is time.

After what was a wasted 2014 season, Minnesota wants to make sure Buxton is comfortable. He's played just 24 games in Chattanooga, and roughly half have been good ones at the plate. Unlike Trout and Bryant, there may not be reason that Buxton needs Triple-A exposure. No matter how the Twins decide to promote him however, the timeline is running short on his minors stay. With the recent tear, and the club winning at the top level, Buxton probably has less than 70 games left down on the farm. I'll leave it to the Twins to split that up how they choose.

Initially I thought we'd see Buxton sometime in late August at the earliest. If he can continue to trend upwards and stay healthy, there's no reason to believe he wouldn't be the best addition to the Twins in July. Right now he's not ready, and it isn't about the Twins slow-moving him or avoiding arbitration. His readiness can continue to change drastically though as long as things continue to progress positively. No matter what, Byron Buxton is going to be here sooner rather than later, and we are all in for some excitement.

Is It Time To Take The Twins Seriously?

Courtesy: Pioneer Press
Now into the second month of the 2015 Major League Baseball season, the Minnesota Twins have just under 30 games under their belt. Looking at the landscape of the season that is to come, they've completed roughly one-fifth of their slate, and played through the month of April against foes coming largely from the AL Central. At 15-13 as of May 6, and just 2.5 games out of first in the Central Division, things are in a good place. Now the question is, should we take this Twins team seriously?

After starting 1-6 through on the season, and seeing plenty of misguided "the sky is falling" type comments, the Twins have turned it around big time. Winners of 11 out of 16 games at home, they currently own the best home record in the America League. After being -20 early in the season in the run differential category, Minnesota is now +12 in that department (trailing only the Royals, Yankees, and Astros). With plenty of time left until the heat of the summer, Minnesota has plenty of time to continue to shape their 2015 narrative.

Taking a look at previous Opening Day Twins rosters (check them out here at Twinkie Town, Jesse does a great job with these), there's been a looming cloud for the past four seasons. With plenty of areas for concern, and few alternative options, the question was always when would the bottom fall out. Last season, the Twins hung around longer than expected, and even made a move to add Kendrys Morales into the lineup. The eventual result in recent seasons has always been a late summer slide that has turned into uninspired September baseball. With Paul Molitor in his first season, this club looks poised to turn the corner.

Arguably one of the worst lineups the Twins have put on the field during 2015, Molitor went with Eduardo Escobar, Chris Herrmann, and Shane Robinson as his 5-7 hitters against the Athletics last night. While Herrmann went hitless, Escobar paced the lineup, and the team hung a 13 spot on Oakland. Although that's obviously an isolated example, the fact of the matter is that this team has battled in the early going, and has found ways to get it done.

When the summer months roll around, and this team is looking for an added jolt, there doesn't seem to be a point where the bottom should drop out. Guys like Herrmann, Eduardo Nunez, Jordan Schafer, and Shane Robinson are all replaceable from within the organization, and their eventual removal should be a net positive. Getting a hot hitting Josmil Pinto, Aaron Hicks, or even Byron Buxton into the lineup should only give the Twins a better chance on a nightly basis.

With the lineup producing where it is, it might be best to remember that everything begins and ends with pitching. Sure, the Twins haven't lit the world on fire, by Trevor May, Mike Pelfrey, and Kyle Gibson have all been nice surprises in the early going. If this club can continue to pitch at a respectable level, they should expect to be in games on a night basis.

There's no doubt the AL Central will continue to be one of the toughest divisions throughout the remainder of the season. I find it hard to believe that the White Sox and Indians will continue to be as bad as they have been, as well as believing the Royals and Tigers won't be as good as they have started. If Minnesota can continue to stay even keel, there's no doubt they'll be in a position to make some waves come September.

It's early, but it's time to stop comparing this team to the futility that has come before it. This roster is cut from a different cloth, and the performance has warranted a new line of optimism. There's no doubt this Twins team is capable of continuing to make believers out of people.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Is Trevor May Paving Alex Meyer's Path?

Minnesota Twins pitcher Alex Meyer throws a fastball during spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., on Sunday, February 23, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin)
Before the 2013 Major League Baseball season, the Minnesota Twins dealt talented outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere to new organizations. In sending Revere to the Philadelphia Phillies, Ruben Amaro gave the Twins two pitchers in return. One was a former rookie phenom in TrevVance Worley, but the bigger chip was perceived to be prospect Trevor May. With Span being dealt for Alex Meyer from the Washington Nationals organization that same summer, the two prospects would forever be linked.

The book has already been written in regards to what the Twins would eventually get out of Worley. Having been a key piece of their immediate rotation, and then going on to be a complete bust, he has since resumed his career in Pittsburgh with the Pirates. The two prospects however were always thought to be the prize. Meyer was regarded as a front of the rotation arm that could really bring it, and May was seen as a solid middle of the rotation contributor. Now a few years later, it's May who has spent time in the big leagues with Meyer still on the farm. It might be fair to ask whether or not May is laying out the blueprint for the Twins and Meyer though.

May was a 4th round draft pick out of high school, and played in parts of seven minor league seasons. He made his major league debut with the Twins down the stretch in 2014 and he struggled mightily. Over the course of his minor league career however, he owned 4.4 BB/9 and 10.5 K/9 ratios. His 3.90 minor league ERA wasn't going to set the world on fire, and a 1.341 WHIP left something to be desired. After looking strong for the majority of the 2014 season however, the Twins gave him his chance.

In 2014, May started nine games for the Twins and owned a 7.88 ERA, far from where you'd like a pitcher to sit at. He competed in spring training before the 2015 season, and ultimately lost out on the 5th starter role. Injuries then vaulted him into the starting rotation in April, and since, he has been a completely different pitcher. A 4.15 ERA is a significant change, but the 3.05 ERA following his first start, has really gotten him in his groove. Owning a 2.65 FIP (fielding independent pitching) mark, as well as 6.9 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 ratios, seems to look like he's almost reinvented himself.

There's little reason to believe that Meyer is knocking on the door of the major leagues, he's been up and down in most of his starts for Triple-A Rochester in 2015. However, outside of a hot streak in 2014, May allowed the jury to be mostly out on him as well. Looking at how May has transformed and transitioned to the big league game, Meyer could potentially fit the same mold.

A first round draft pick out of Kentucky, Meyer is 25 and has pitched in four professional seasons. He's compiled a 3.32 ERA with a 1.285 WHIP and owns 10.4 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 ratios. While indicative of a better track record than May, it's Meyer's recent output that has burned him. In 2015, Meyer has thrown to a 5.61 ERA, 1.792 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, and 6.3 BB/9. Hard to categorize as anything less than a debacle, it might be time that Meyer is actually getting bored with his current level.

Sure, it's a brazen thing to suggest, but there's no doubt that at a point, development and advancement intersect. Meyer has struggled with his command over the course of his professional career, but has also shown periods of dominance. Having posted three seasons of ERA's under 3.52, it may be worth seeing if Meyer can make the same strides as May. While potentially unconventional, working through some struggles at the major league level may make some sense. After all, May owned what was considered far from pinpoint accuracy on the farm, and is now posting the best numbers of his career.

There's no doubt that Alex Meyer is waiting for his opportunity, and the Twins are hoping he claims it. For an organization that has made more than questionable roster decisions due to tenure or scholarship senses previously, they may have reached a territory where a 6'9" sized gamble makes sense.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Did The Twins Create Another Debacle?

Yesterday the Minnesota Twins found themselves in need of another body as they were set to put Oswaldo Arcia on the disabled list. While Arcia sounds hopeful that he will just miss two weeks, the Twins needed a replacement for the immediate future. Despite Arcia being an outfielder, Paul Molitor noted that the Twins considered names such as Aaron Hicks, Eddie Rosario, and Josmil Pinto. When the dust settled, it was Rosario called up to make his big league debut. Now we have to ask, are the Twins in a spot to do more harm than good?

Positionally, Arcia is a corner outfielder. He plays left field for the Twins, and occasionally is forced to deal with the overhang and difficult wall in right field. While Hicks is a centerfielder by trade, it's pretty obvious that Byron Buxton will force whomever to his corners at some point. Rosario has played all over the outfield, but typically calls left his home. Looking at that information, it would appear that Rosario is in fact the only one not making a change in positioning. In bringing Rosario up though, the Twins have a few questions to answer.

Playing at Triple-A for the first time in his career, Rosario has just 23 games under his belt above the Double-A level. The 23 year or has never been an uber-prospect, but did find himself ranked 60th by Baseball Prospectus on the 2014 prospect rankings. After a 50-game drug-related suspension last year, Rosario has worked to get his career back on track. That work however is what leads us to the biggest question marks in regards to the Twins latest roster decision.

Returning from his suspension in 2014, Rosario went on to hit just .243/.286/.387. As a career .291/.340/.480 hitter across six professional seasons, those numbers are down significantly. Adding in the fact that 2015 has seen him hit just .242/.280/.379, there has to be some reason for concern. Cold Omaha's Brandon Warne went as far as noting that those outside the organization fear Rosario's current approach won't handle big league pitching, and it's apparent he's scuffling at Triple-A.
So if Rosario with Rosario being called up, it has to mean that Hicks is in a similar boat correct? Well, Hicks has actually performed extremely well for Triple-A Rochester this season. He's currently slashing .289/.375/.494 and has hit well since his demotion in 2014. His defense would immediately slot in as the best of the Twins outfield options, and he has plus speed as well. Despite being a centerfielder, either Jordan Schafer or Shane Robinson could slide over to left field to fill Arcia's shoes.

With that much going for Hicks, what's the thinking here? At this point, I have to think the Twins see Arcia's injury as a very temporary issue. While that is somewhat of a gamble, it looks to be the operating thought process. If Minnesota does in fact believe that Arcia will just miss two weeks, that gives them time to see Rosario at the big league level and send him back down.

There's no doubt that Hicks has struggled at the major league level, and despite the indicators suggesting he should be a different player this time around, I doubt the Twins want to call him up without the intention of him staying for good. The troubling part in this equation is that while Rosario may get a fun two week audition in, what could it potentially do to him as a player?

As it stands, there's very few indicators suggesting that Rosario can handle the big leagues. Sure, he was good this past fall in the Arizona Fall League, but he's struggled at both Double and Triple-A since returning from suspension. He's not an on base guy, and his defense projects somewhere around Schafer's (so mediocre at best). If Rosario comes up for a two week stint, and the Twins plan on playing him (as they should if he's here), being overmatched could be a significant detriment to his confidence going forward.

It would appear he has plenty to work on down on the farm, and throwing him against even worse odds isn't going to do any wonders for his development. I'm not ready to suggest that the Twins have given up on Hicks, I would hope they haven't made that mistake. I'm also not so certain that even this small sampling of what could be an exciting player is the right move.

It's been apparent over the past few years that while slow playing certain levels, an immediate jump hurt Twins prospects to a certain extent (ask Hicks or the now struggling Kennys Vargas). Bringing Rosario up for a two week period to see what you have before he's ready could end up doing more damage than good. He's yet to enter the lineup, but that should change soon, and let's hope things don't go downhill.