Friday, July 31, 2015

Does It Matter If Twins Hope Fades?

July comes to a close, the Major League Baseball trade deadline passes, and the dust settles. In the wake of it all, the Minnesota Twins are left with a slim lead in the Wild Card race, and a very small margin for error. Hope has to be waning right? But what if that hope is placed in the wrong things, and it doesn't really matter if the Twins fade?

Coming into the season the Twins weren't a realistic postseason contender, they weren't supposed to be here, and this wasn't supposed to be their time. Sure, it would be great to capitalize on a situation after four straight seasons with more than 90 losses, but at the end of the day, perspective must reign supreme. At what cost does competing now come, and does maximizing a current Wild Card spot sacrifice future years? Maybe hope is best placed elsewhere, after all, Paul Molitor's Twins have provided plenty of areas this season.

Maybe most visible of them all is the emergence and development all along. This was coming, and I've been suggesting it for well over the past year. He's put it all together this season though at a rate even I wasn't prepared for. Owning a .299/.364/.437 slash line, and hitting .365/.443/.608 in July and his five home runs are on pace for a new career high. He's been worth 2 DRS (defensive runs saved) and has a 6.1 UZR (ultimate zone rating) as the Twins centerfielder. Even when Byron Buxton shifts him to right field, the Twins have a solid asset at their disposal.

Another young guy has stepped up in a big way. Going into the season, I suggested Eddie Rosario would be the first Twins prospect called up, and that he could go on to have a Danny Santana (2014) like season. He's batting .294/.316/.462 and has caught fire of late batting .393/.393/.679 since July 10. In the field he's been worth 3 DRS and owns a 3.0 UZR as he looks poised to lock down left field for the Twins into the future.

As has been anticipated for many years, Miguel Sano made his big league debut in 2015. So far he's done everything expected of him and then some. Already with three home runs in his first 21 games, he's also hit for average batting .296/.427/.507. More impressively, he's batting .364/.500/.682 against righties, while hitting just .185/.290/.22 against lefties. In the minors this year Sano was better against lefties slashing .299/.405/.597. He's going to crush lefties at the MLB level, so the fact that he's also seeing righties well early is a great development.

Then there's a guy on the big league roster that has continued to prove it. After an impressive 2014, Brian Dozier has looked the part of an MVP candidate in 2105. The first time All Star is hitting .256/.330/.512 with 22 home runs (good for top 15 in the bigs). He's on pace for career highs in doubles, home runs, runs batted in, and runs scored. On pace to be a 5.0+ fWAR player, Dozier has emerged as the best second basemen in the league.

Outside of the 25 man roster, there has been plenty of great development as well. Jose Berrios looks the part of a big league starter right now at Triple-A Rochester. He owns a 1.35 ERA and an 8.1 K/9 across his last three starts. Stephen Gonsalves has followed in the footsteps of Berrios as a fast riser down in Fort Myers, and first round pick Nick Gordon is now getting it done with the bat. It'd be hard to overlook Max Kepler, who's .337 batting average at Double-A Chattanooga is plain silly. Throw in secondary prospects like Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers, and Mat Batts, and the Twins are in a better spot than ever.

So that's maybe where the hope is, or should be. Rather than clinging to what the Twins do or don't do at the deadline, or whether they make the playoffs, or whether they fade into September, it's finally a realistic situation to look ahead.

Minnesota should go into 2016 as the clear second best team in the AL Central, trailing only the Royals. Depending on what pieces are added, and who is promoted when, Terry Ryan's organization should see the future as filled with division championships and playoff appearances once again. 2015 has been a lot of fun so far, but if playoff baseball doesn't come to fruition, there's plenty of reason for hope and excitement to thrive where it should be in the first place.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Twins Prospect Demanding Your Attention

As the summer draws on and the fall draws near, lots of changes shape the Major League baseball landscape. There's the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and then the August waiver period. There's divisional races, and then there' s September call ups. Despite the Twins strong start, the most exciting period of 2015 may be that call up window, and in part, because of a Twins prospect demanding your attention.

Sure, Jose Berrios is having a good year, Nick Gordon is trending up, and Byron Buxton should be back in the fold. In September though, it should be all about a 22 year old from Germany. Signed as an international free agent, Max Kepler has been playing in the Twins organization since he was 17 years old. He's been talked up almost equally as long.

Maybe not the uber-prospect that fellow international signee Miguel Sano was, Kepler has held his own. After struggling with injury issues early on in his professional career, it's really been the last two seasons that Kepler has put it together.

Spending the entirety of 2014 with High-A Fort Myers, Kepler played in a career high 102 games. In that action, he slashed .264/.333/.393 with 20 doubles, six triples, five home runs and 59 RBI. Any way you cut it, the Twins had to be pleased. As respectable as 2014 was though, it's been 2015 where Kepler has really put his stamp on the organization.

Minnesota decided to allow Kepler to get his feet wet in a few games (six to be exact) near the spring training complex in Fort Myers. Since being shipped off to Double-A Chattanooga, he has been also systems go though. Owning a .331/.414/.529 slash line on the season, it's even more impressive to see how he's hit lately. Sine June 11, Kepler has batted .381/.493/.593 while playing in 33 games and being honored with a selection for the Major League Baseball Future's Game in Cincinnati.

On the year, Kepler has substantiated his success to the tune of  92 hits, 25 doubles, nine triples, four home runs, 44 runs batted in, and a near even 42/39 K/BB ratio. He's split time almost evenly playing 37 games at first base, while being positioned in the outfield 34 times (most often in right). Kepler has been sure with the glove making just two errors in 84 outfield chances as well as two errors in 317 chances at first base.

When looking through the farm system as a whole, and the Twins are well noted as having one of the best in the bigs, you'd be hard pressed to find a more intriguing offensive talent. As the production continues to toe the line of otherworldly, Kepler continues to go about his business and make it look routine.

Minnesota no doubt has it's eyes set on which prospects will be considered for a September cup of coffee, and it's hard to believe Kepler wouldn't be first in line. Already a 40 man roster inclusion, Kepler has all the makings of the ability to push for an opening day spot in 2016. If he continues the run he's currently on, holding him down is something the Twins will find themselves hard pressed to do.

As the wave of players like Sano, Buxton, and Berrios make their way to Target Field, don't make the foolish mistake of forgetting to include the German. Max Kepler appears to be the real deal and he should be getting a shot to prove it sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Centerfielder The Twins Hoped For

The Twins are in somewhat of a downward spiral of late having won just two out of their last 10 contests. Now the owners of just a slim lead in the wild card standings, Minnesota is looking for bright spots. Luckily enough, the one I've been suggesting for well over a year, is shining brighter than ever. Aaron Hicks has stepped up and he's looking every bit what I've been suggesting he will become.

Ok so I'm a bit thrilled my belief in and backing of Hicks gas come to fruition. I put some of my thoughts in a blog post back in May (read it), and it's been maybe more well documented throughout my Twitter feed. Although the self gratification is fun, the bigger point here is how big of a development this is for not only Hicks, but the Twins as a whole.

It was pretty easily visible that Aaron Hicks was one of the best defensive options for the twins at the major league level. Having had such poor outfield defense for so long, Hicks provided range, ability, and an arm that the organization had not seen for a while. Save his few mental lapses, and he would likely be routinely mentioned amongst the best fielders in the game. It's at the plate though where Hicks has been plagued the longest.

There was a point in his career where Hicks wasn't sure switch hitting was his best plan of action. Struggling mightily against right-handed pitching, he didn't do much better on his dominant right-handed hitting side either. Owning just a .203/.273/.441 slash line in 2013 (his first big league season) as a righty, his line of .340/.400/.540 in 2015 is significantly improved. Having never hit above .215 at the big league level, his current .288 mark is incredibly impressive.

On top of getting extra base hits (Hicks has four doubles, two triples, and four home runs on the year), the biggest boost comes from his approach at the plate. A big on-base guy in the minors, Hicks hadn't flash much of that ability for the Twins. In 2015 though, he's got a career high .345 OBP and owns a 25/16 K/BB ratio.

Due to a better command of the zone, Hicks has seen drastic improvements in some different peripherals as well. Following strikeout percentages of 26.8 and 24.9 in 2013 and 2014 respectively, Hicks is being struck out just 14.1% of the time this season. He's got the lowest soft hit percentage of his career (15.6%) and has seen the biggest jump in his medium contact percentage (60.7%).

Aggressiveness has also been something that Hicks has noted working on, and that has shown as well. Swinging at more pitches, and earlier in the count, Hicks has been able to work things in his favor. He's swung at a career high 45.3% of pitches while owning a career best 82.0% contact rate. The new found confidence has also played when he's behind in the count. After getting down 0-2, Hicks owns a .296/.345/.481 line.

At the plate, Aaron Hicks has absolutely substantiated the notion I suggested many months ago. A promotion from Double-A based on a hot spring training was premature, and following a respectable time in Triple-A to end 2014 (.278/.349/.389 through 23 games), Hicks had completed a healthier path to his success.

In the field, Hicks has turned it up in 2015 as well. Having been already regarded as a good outfielder, he now owns a 3 DRS (defensive runs saved) mark this season, along with a 6.6 UZR (ultimate zone rating) and a 28.6 UZR/150. Having been a -0.6 and 0.1 fWAR player this season, Hicks is now worth 1.5 fWAR. To the Twins, he's absolutely an asset.

With Byron Buxton still being the best prospect in baseball, Hicks' run in centerfield is no doubt going to come to an end. With his arm, he profiles wonderfully to be an exceptional right-fielder as well. Until that time comes though, the Twins have the centerfielder they were hoping for, and the one I believed was flashing signs of being ready for far too long.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Recognizing Identity Is Key For The Twins

Here we are on the week of the Major League Baseball trade deadline, and the Minnesota Twins control their own destiny. Three games in front of the Toronto Blue Jays for the second and final wild card spot, the AL East competition just made their splash. In acquiring Troy Tulowitzki from the Colorado Rockies (and now David Price from the Tigers), it's apparent the Blue Jays are going for it. Despite the big move, the Twins absolutely need to disregard their competition.

Coming into this season, the home nine was expected to have an outside chance at a .500 record, with somewhere around 75 wins being more than acceptable. After stumbling out of the gates, the Twins entered the All-Star Break as the second best team in the American League. As fun as it has been, Minnesota needs to continue to stay the course.

Right now, Paul Molitor has the Twins positioned to make summer baseball relevant at Target Field again. Despite everything pointing to a third place finish in the AL Central at best, Minnesota has defied the odds. Now, the organization needs to stack their chips and continue to ride out the hot streak conservatively.

The Blue Jays are clearly gunning for the Twins and are looking to overtake the second wild card spot. The last thing Minnesota should be looking to do is hold serve however. In making a big splash or a substantial move, the organization would be denying the reality at hand. This Twins team is competing when they should not be, and while they absolutely should capitalize on their good fortune, doing so within realistic boundaries still makes sense.

There's no doubt that the Twins have problem areas. Minnesota's bullpen owns a 3.91 ERA (24th in MLB), 196 strikeouts (30th), and a .259 BAA (25th). The starting catcher, Kurt Suzuki, is slashing .229/.289/.301 while playing below average defense (-3 DRS). At shortstop, Minnesota has ran Danny Santana out for 72 games while allowing him to bat .219/.243/.300, commit 16 errors, and be worth -14 DRS. Yes, the Twins have problems.

Of those issues, the most easily fixed remain the former two (to a certain extent). The Twins can (and likely will) go get relief help before the deadline. In doing so, less innings will be afforded to arms like Casey Fien, Brian Duensing, Ryan O'Rourke, and Blaine Boyer. At times they've been effective this year, but as a whole they have failed to get it done. A competent reliever will afford All-Star closer, Glen Perkins, more opportunities, and in turn more tallies in the win column. The acquisition cost of a reliable reliever should be manageable, and the Twins have plenty of options to pick from.

Looking behind the plate and at shortstop, they Twins have bigger fish to fry. Neither position offers much to call the future looking throughout the organization (even more so at catcher), and a rental would be nothing short of a Band-Aid. A.J. Pierzynski could be a fit, and he may help the Twins this season, but he too would be gone going forward.

For the Twins to truly solve their issues behind the plate and at shortstop, they will need longer term answers. Settling for a Jean Segura type or a quick fix doesn't do much for changing the Twins course, and addressing things with a bigger move coins Minnesota into more of a win now mode.

At the end of this week, and no matter what the Twins do, it's best served for the organization and their fans to remember what this team is. Right now, Molitor has his club playing playoff baseball and it's all the more exciting because of it. That's not to say there isn't some smoke and mirrors, and that the true identity of this team might be pointed a little bit lower.

Addressing a bullpen need to help fend off challengers and squeak into the playoffs would be a great move. Doing something drastic trying to solve future issues before the real window opens up a season from now, at the cost of something more damaging, is a situation that Minnesota should look to avoid. For now, it's just fine that the Twins operate in a "happy to be here" mode.

The Twins Shortstops, Or Lack Thereof

In the dead of the night, the Colorado Rockies sent their All Star shortstop, and their face of the franchise, Troy Tulowitzki to the Toronto Blue Jays. The deal involved another high profile shortstop, Jose Reyes, heading back to the Rockies. While the Twins were linked to Tulo at different points leading up to the trade, passing on him was always the best move. Reyes will likely become available now as well, and the Twins should once again look the other way. Despite neither of those names being fits, the Twins need to find something, and it may not come from within.

Right now, the Twins have allowed a grouping of Danny Santana, Eduardo Escobar, and Eduardo Nunez to hold down what is arguably the most important position in the infield. Santana was the Twins Opening Day starter and he had the uphill battle of substantiating a smoke and mirrors offensive 2014. The .405 BABIP had Santana stacked against regression, and it has hit hard. He's batted just .219/.243/.300 in 72 games, still doesn't take walks (66/5 K/BB) and has yet to hit a home run (after having seven last season).

On the defensive side, Santana hasn't been any good either. He's made 16 errors and is 6th in the majors in that category despite playing significantly less games. He's been worth -14 DRS (defensive runs saved) to this point and owns a -4.8 UZR (ultimate zone rating). To put it simply, it hasn't been pretty and a second demotion should come soon.

Probably most deserving of being the Twins current shortstop, comes in the form of a Band-Aid. Eduardo Escobar flashed promise a season ago, but remains best suited as a utility type. He owns a .246/.280/.389 slash line on the season, and that's right about what his career averages look like. He's started 19 games at short, made two errors, been worth -1 DRS, and owns a -1.6 UZR.

Rounding out the 25 man roster options is former Derek Jeter replacement, Edaurdo Nunez. His .277/.31`5/.445 slash line is buoyed by a lack of at bats, and a very strong start. He's played 14 games at shortstop for the Twins, making no errors, being worth 0 DRS, and owning a 1.2 UZR. As a replacement player, you could probably do worse. However, the 14 game sample size also hides a guy that was worth -28 DRS in just 75 games at short for the Yankees in 2013.

So if the answer isn't on the active roster, it has to be on the farm right? That answer is somewhat difficult to come up with. Most ready would appear to be Triple-A shortstop Jorge Polanco. His bat appears major league ready, but his fielding has some significant issues. Slashing .284/.309/.352 for Rochester, Polanco's bat has cooled since his initial promotion. His 26 extra base hits on the season are nice to see however. In the field Polanco faces the demons holding him back. He's made eight errors in 19 games at the Triple-A level, and he has another 16 in 64 Double-A games this season. He probably would hit right away for the Twins, but there's little doubt he'd be a defensive liability.

Down another level, and taking Polanco's place for the Lookouts, is Niko Goodrum. In 464 minor league games, Goodrum owns a .242/.336/.352 slash line, and he's below all of those marks this season. The Twins took Goodrum out of high school in the second round of the 2010 Major League Baseball draft. He's played all over the place in the Twins system, but the infield seems to be his best fit. He too has struggled with errors, and the upside has yet to rear it's head.

Fort Myers, the Twins High-A affiliate has rotated through the shortstop position as well. Goodrum spent time there prior to his promotion, and now Engelb Vielma and Ryan Walker have taken over. Vielma is a 21 year old who has gotten better as he's risen through the Twins farm (.266/.309/.308 in 2015), and Walker was an 18th round pick in 2013 by the Twins (.272/.310/.293 in 2015). Neither posses the peripherals of a major league quality shortstop at this point.

The next level down is where things get interesting. At Low-A Cedar Rapids, the Twins 1st round pick in 2014 resides. Gordon is looked at as a potential Gold Glove level defender and a lacking bat. He's hit just .267/.334/.334 this season, but he owned a 17 game hit streak and has been on fire since the end of June (.316/.358/.429). Just 19 years old, Gordon doesn't figure to factor into the Twins plans for at least the next three years. He has a slight frame (6'0" 160lbs) and needs to fill out yet, as well as needing the seasoning that comes with rising through the system.

Then there's Wander Javier, the 16-year-old dominican shortstop the Twins just signed to a $4 million bonus. Javier is also looked upon favorably, but won't be ready for the big leagues for at least six years. He's got plenty of projectability, but it's also on the twins to help him develop into the player they spent big money on.

Looking through the options, it's the combined $8 million the Twins spent (Gordon got a $4 million draft bonus) that seem to be future fits at shortstop. Unfortunately that money is invested in teenagers a long ways from helping at the highest level. Both Gordon and Javier could work out, and both could fail, right now though neither help the Twins.

For a team looking to compete in the upcoming season, addressing the hole at shortstop seems necessary. Escobar should probably have already taken over for Santana, and the Twins should be determining if Polanco can stick at the spot. After determining what they have in those two scenarios, Minnesota would find itself in position to make a move. Going out and getting a big fish before making those decisions would be short-sighted, but there's no denying that it's very likely the Twins don't have a shortstop that can help them in the immediate future within the organization.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Diamond In The Dugout: Molitor Gets It

On Saturday night, the Minnesota twins were throttling the New York Yankees. Thanks to a two run home run in the first inning from Aaron Hicks, the home team was cruising. The bases were loaded, and Hicks was up again. Then it happened, and Paul Molitor displayed exactly why he may be the front-runner for coach of the year.

In an era with reviews and replays, managerial ejections have become somewhat a thing of the past. Ron Gardenhire tallied over 70 of them in his career as the Twins skipper, and while Molitor doesn't follow in those same footsteps, he absolutely gets what it means to be on the bench.

As Aaron Hicks check-swung through a strike three with the bases loaded, Molitor absolutely lost it, and he should have. Hicks may or may not have gone (being at the game was hard to tell, but replays apparently indicated he broke the plane), but that wasn't the issue. Instead of checking with his crew chief and third base help (Hicks was batting left-handed), plate umpire Jeff Nelson made the call on his own and neglected to consult Laz Diaz.

In defending his player, and his team, Molitor made sure to have Nelson know exactly how and why he screwed up. there was no hat throwing or dirt kicking, but you can bet that Molitor conveyed his point prior to being given the heave-ho. In a season that so much has been made about the leadership and dugout presence of veterans like Torii Hunter, it is in Molitor that the biggest difference may lie.

Minnesota has no doubt exceeded expectations this season, and in large part, it's due to Molitor's influence. In a sport that is generally criticized for the influence (or lack thereof) that a manager has, Molitor has redefined the expectations of Twins fans. Whether it's being willing to try something new and bat his pitcher 8th, or shuffle the lineup, give Glen Perkins a four out save, or have a short leash with failed expectations, Molitor has been a breath of fresh air.

Going forward, there's no doubt that if the Twins are going to make the playoffs, it will be in large part due to the leadership and stability that Molitor has provided the home nine. He's been a calming force when needed, and as witnessed on Saturday night, not afraid to stand up for his team when the situation demands it.

Looking around the big leagues, it's a relatively easy argument to suggest that Molitor has gotten more out of less than any other skipper in the big leagues. He's gotten a team to buy in, and in doing so, has Minnesota in a position to make their first return trip to the playoffs since 2010. With an organization chocked full of youth and budding talent, there's probably no one more capable than the man at the helm.

Terry Ryan absolutely got the decision right this offseason, and Molitor has proven that every step of the way. Whether Aaron Hicks needs defending or chiding, you can bet Paul Molitor is the man to do so, and it will come at a moments notice.

The Twins Must Stay The Course

July is coming to an end, and that means that Major League Baseball is being sent into a frenzy with the non-waiver trade deadline fast approaching. For the Twins, this is extra special, because for the first time in four years, they are actually in a position to participate. However, in light of recent events around the AL Central, they absolutely must stay the course and exercise patience.

Over the weekend, the Kansas City Royals made the biggest move of the season. In sending a package highlighted by 2014 first round pick Brandon Finnegan, Kansas City added an ace to their staff in the form of Johnny Cueto. Having to watch struggles from the likes of Yordano Ventura, rely on Chris Young, and see Jason Vargas go down with a torn UCL, the Royals needed to make a move. In doing so, they went out and got the best pitcher available, while positioning themselves for a deep playoff run.

Despite being in the AL Central, and direct competition for the Twins, the Royals move to add Cueto couldn't be further removed from relevance in Minnesota. Prior to the weekend starting, Minnesota was still looking up at the boys in blue, trailing them in the division. Since the Twins relinquished the top of the AL Central early on in the summer, the Royals have held down the spot and separated from the competition.

There's little doubt that Cueto doesn't make the Royals a better team. He owns a 2.62 ERA and a career low 3.13 FIP. He is sitting down batters at an 8.3 K/9 clip while walking on average just 2 batters per nine innings. All of this was done with an outfield defense ranking 15th in the big leagues in DRS (defensive runs saved). Of course he makes the Royals better, but that also isn't the Twins concern.

Just as was the case before Kansas City dealt for the Reds case, the Twins weren't looking up. At this point in the season, if Minnesota is looking to capitalize on their impressive record, they will do so by fending off what's behind them. Currently with a hold on the second Wild Card spot, the Twins must stay the course.

Despite having dropped two of three to the Yankees this weekend, the AL East has given the Twins the least amount of problems this season. Leading the Blue Jays by 3 games, Baltimore by 3.5, and the Rays by 4, Minnesota is in a good place. the trade deadline should still be a place where the Twins need to buy, but their course of action should remain unchanged.

Whether or not Minnesota should go out and upgrade the catcher or shortstop position is something that can be debated, but relief arms are something the Twins still need to covet. Watching Steve Cishek go to the Cardinals for a price the Twins could have definitely paid, means they are more intrigued elsewhere. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which at least one arm doesn't come to Minnesota, but the big splashes aren't where the Twins need to focus.

This club has, and continues to, outperform expectations in 2015. Realizing the pieces to continue competing are they, and adding a couple more that help to solidify the Wild Card positioning should be the goal. Playoff baseball is a different beast, and it's anyone's guess as to what happens when it begins. Minnesota needs to add the pieces to stay in front of the race, and let what happens when they get there take place.

Terry Ryan has built a winner for years to come with the current organizational construction, and blowing that up to keep pace with those out of reach isn't going to do you any favors. Forget the Royals, light your own path, get some bullpen help, and grab the first playoff berth since 2010.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Twins Most Overlooked Cornerstone

In a season where the Minnesota Twins have outperformed expectations at a rather surprising rate, there's been plenty to get excited about. Outside of the results on the diamond, Minnesota has watched top prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano make their big league debuts. Brian Dozier continues to be the best second basemen in all of baseball, and Paul Molitor has the home nine looking like a contender again.

In the midst of all of that, the Twins have another cornerstone piece that has flown under the radar while on the verge of stardom.

Currently holding down the hot corner, Trevor Plouffe has entered into the next tier for Minnesota. Rather than being seen as just a guy on the 25 man roster, it's time to give Plouffe his due. Consistently producing now, and developing over the last three seasons, Minnesota has a legitimate star in the making at third.

After being a failed shortstop, Plouffe made the transition to his new position. With 2012 being his first full time season at third, Plouffe took his lumps owning a -8 DRS (defensive runs saved) mark. Year by year, the results have improved. In 2013, Plouffe pushed his DRS to 0, in 2014 it was 6, and this season he's on pace for 7 defensive runs saved. On top of making plays, his UZR (ultimate zone rating) has seen substantial improvement as well. Starting at -10.8 in 2012, it was pushed to -7.4 in 2013, 6.7 last season, and is on pace for a 7.9 mark this year.

It was always his fielding that was the more apparent as an issue, but Plouffe's stick has been impressive as he's aged as well. A torrid stretch in the 2012 summer allowed Plouffe to hit a career high 24 home runs, but his 55 RBI and .235/.301/.455 slash line left something to be desired. Since that point, he's made consistent improvements at the dish.

Staying steady in both 2013 and 2014 with 14 home runs, Plouffe pushed his RBI career high to 80 last season. An increase in walks (53 in 2014 as opposed to 34 in 2013) pushed his OBP to a career high .328 a season ago. As a whole however, it's in 2015 that Plouffe is putting it together. Thanks to a .312/.381/.570 stretch through the month May, Plouffe owns a .253/.315/.451 line on the season. He's on pace for 23 HR along with 94 RBI (a new career high) and 41 doubles (also would be a new career high).

After being worth just 0.5 fWAR in 2012, a season in which he was a home run or bust threat, and 0.3 fWAR in 2013, his arrow has trended straight up. Last season, Plouffe owned a 3.6 fWAR mark, which was good enough for fourth in the American league amongst third basemen. Trailing just Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, and Kyle Seager in 2015, Plouffe's 2.5 fWAR has him on pace for a final tally of 4.5 fWAR (a new career high).

Signed to a one-year $4.8 million arbitration deal this season, Plouffe is under team control until 2018. While I'm ok either way with how the Twins handle his contract situation, extending and paying Trevor Plouffe is something you'd be hard pressed not to get behind. As it stands, Plouffe is knocking on the door of stardom, and is one of the best third basemen in the big leagues.

At the end of the day, the Twins are going to need more than a piece here and there to return to the times of being perennial division champs. Having exciting young pieces is a great thing, but Trevor Plouffe should no longer be overlooked, he's the real deal.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tulo The Twin

The Minnesota Twins came into 2015 with expectations of a .500 season seeming doable, even despite the national types tabbing them for a last place finish in the AL Central. Now in the midst of a playoff race, the Twins find themselves shopping at the trade deadline. With Danny Santana playing anything but a capable shortstop, and internal options proving thing, Minnesota is kicking the tires on Troy Tulowitzki.

It really isn't at all like the Twins to make deadline deals, and even more so for them to go after such high profile players. With Tulo wanting out of Colorado though, and the Twins needing to fill the void that Cristian Guzman left at short so many years ago, the fit is at least sensible on the surface.

From there, things go downhill, and fast. I may be one of the biggest fans of Tulowitzki the player, but getting him to the Twins looks disastrous on multiple fronts. First and foremost, the acquisition cost. Colorado apparently is interested in Kyle Gibson.

A 27 year old with four years of team control left, and not arbitration eligible until 2017, Gibson has plenty to offer as a trade chip. He's been one of the Twins best starters (if not the best) and his 3.19 ERA and 6.4 K/9 are nice steps forward in his development. The Rockies see an ideal fit in Gibson as he's a sinkerballer that is inducing a career high 55% ground ball rate. Allowing just 27% of pitches to be hit hard, Gibson would see success in the otherwise difficult to handle Coors Field.

As good as Gibson has been and projects to continue to be, he alone wouldn't be enough for the Rockies either. For a talent like Tulowitzki, Colorado would be seeking multiple top tier prospects as well. With Minnesota surprisingly competing ahead of its window, fleecing the farm doesn't seem intelligent.

The next hurdle is what you can expect from Tulowitzki. He has played an average of 88 games the last three years and is now on the wrong side of 30. Despite being a perennial All-Star and consistent MVP candidate, expecting him to stay healthy is far from the norm. Dealing for a piece with the intention of fixing a problem area in the organization only to have that player sit on the DL isn't going to do anything for Minnesota.

Then there's the change of location. In his career, Tulo's home and away splits are telling. He's a .322/.395/.560 hitter at Coors Field, while slashing just .277/.349/.469 on the road. Factor in that Target Field is probably the furthest thing from the hitter friendly Coors Field, and the drop in production could be substantial. Balls simply don't fly out of downtown Minneapolis like they do in the Mile High City, and that isn't going to help a guy who hasn't gotten back to 30 home runs since 2011.

Rounding out the laundry list of negatives is the stack of cash the Rockies superstar still has coming to him. Colorado would almost assuredly need to throw in money in return for the prospects they covet in return. Tulowitzki is owed $20 million a year through 2019, before his salary drops to $14 million as a 35 year old in 2020. He also carries a $15 million team option for his 2021 season.

That kind of cash comes in under the $23 million the Twins currently pay Joe Mauer (who has actually been healthy more than Tulowitzki). Twins fans have consistently bashed Mauer's production relative to his compensation, and while Tulowitzki should no doubt outperform the transplanted catcher, it's anyone's guess as to how many games he contributes each year.

You'd probably be hard pressed to find someone that likes Troy Tulowitzki the baseball player than I do, but for the Twins, the answer has to be no. Going forward with the organization trending back towards winning and competition, adding what could end up being a very expensive corner outfielder long term (or worse), Minnesota would taking a significant (and potentially foolish) risk. Colorado is going to move Tulowitzki before that contract is up, but it doesn't need to be now, and it doesn't need to be the Twins.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Regression Causing Twins Problems

A season ago, the Minnesota Twins lost 90 games, finished dead last in the AL Central, and watched as longtime manager Ron Gardenhire got the heave-ho. In the middle of all of the negativity however, there were three players who contributed at a level that could not have been imagined. Fending off regression with every at bat, they helped to pace a bad Twins team. Now, as the expected regression has set in, they are at the root of many of the Twins problems.

The most unlikely breakthrough candidate last year was the shortstop turned outfielder that put himself in the midst of the Rookie of the Year race. Danny Santana slashed .308/.343/.492 in 101 games with the Twins. Adding seven home runs and 40 RBI, Santana was incredibly productive at the plate. With Aaron Hicks struggling at the plate, it was Santana that would take over the centerfield role. Things were going great, but many advanced stats suggested it wasn't meant to be.

Owning a .405 BABIP (Batting average on balls in play), Santana's success never seemed sustainable. On top of waiting for that hammer to fall, his outfield defense left plenty to be desired. Sure the speed was there, but playing out of position was relatively apparent. Santana owned a -2 DRS (defensive runs saved) and had a -5.4 UZR (ultimate zone rating). As a whole, it was smoke and mirrors at its finest.

Fast forward a year, and everything has blown up at once. After winning the Opening Day shortstop spot, Santana has been demoted once and has been deserving of it happening a second time for quite a while. He's been worth a horrible -12 DRS and -4.8 UZR at what is considered his natural position. Santana has also 15 errors (5th in MLB), despite playing significantly less games than the rest of the group. His .221/.241/.306 line at the plate is nothing short of ugly as well.

The perfect storm (or maybe imperfect) has hit for Santana, and left a gaping hole at shortstop. Not only can't Santana hit or field, but Minnesota is void of secondary options as well. While Eduardo Escobar is an upgrade, he's more backup material than anything. Jorge Polanco has the bat for big league action, but looks to be nearly as much of a defensive liability. Minnesota invested heavily in both Nick Gordon and Wander Javier, but neither are anywhere close to the big leagues. For now, Santana isn't the Twins shortstop of the future, and there isn't one in sight.

From the middle of the diamond to the position behind it, Kurt Suzuki is also becoming a problem for the Twins. After playing out of his mind in 2014 and securing All Star honors, baseball has reversed course for the former Athletics backstop.

Much like Santana, Suzuki was benefited by an out of whack BABIP. At .310 a year ago, Suzuki was enjoying the highest mark of his career. It help to push his slash line to an impressive .288/.345/.383 mark. His 61 RBI were his best total since 2010, and the Twins locked in the veteran with a two year extension.

Considering the market for capable veteran catchers, the new deal wasn't exactly the problem. Between the extensive regression, and the lack of development, Minnesota now finds themselves in a bad spot however. Suzuki was not going to keep his 2014 pace, but his .225/.283/.300 2015 slash line is ugly. He continues to be a bad defensive catcher and has been worth -3 DRS on the season. Throwing out just 19% of base runners on the year, he's one of the worst receivers in the big leagues.

Minnesota has watched as Stuart Turner has failed to develop at Double-A, batting just .206/.292/.291, and Josmil Pinto has been unable to stay healthy at Triple-A. With the farm being void of options, the combination of extending what is now a horrible catcher, and having nothing to pair him with, has become disastrous.

Rounding out the problematic group of regression is none other than another young phenom, Kennys Vargas. After bursting onto the scene during the Future's Game at Target Field, Vargas was inserted into the Twins lineup to provide some pop. The first basemen was promoted from Double-A and went on to hit .274/.316/.456 with nine home runs across just 53 big league games.

Unlike the first two candidates on this list, Vargas wasn't seen as such a significant cause for concern when it came to taking a step back this year. What he has done however has no doubt hurt the club that counted on him being a power bat as the DH in the middle of the lineup. Batting just .245/.277/.365 in 47 games, the Twins have demoted Vargas twice (with the most recent being all the way to Double-A).

The Twins made a pretty big mistake in demoting Vargas the first time in the midst of the young slugger figuring things out. However, he has since not been able to rebound and continues to be the power bat the Twins wished they would have been able to make work. In a lineup struggling to score runs, the power that was believed to be there with Vargas is haunting Minnesota more nights than it isn't.

As an organization, the Twins are still in a good place. They are competing a year before they should be, and they have some good pieces going forward. With the regression of three players holding down key roles however, Minnesota must address the problems before they can take what might end up being the vital next step. There doesn't appear to be answers for either of the first two from within, and salvaging the third should be a priority. As the Twins look to complete their turnaround, these storylines will remain worth monitoring.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Understanding The Twins Tradeable Assets

As the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline quickly approaches, the Twins are in position to be buyers for the first time since at least 2010. With 50 wins under their belt, the next handful of games will go help to determine just how aggressive the Twins should be, and where they need help the most. With three glaring holes, the Twins have a couple of options to consider.

I'd still make the argument that bullpen help is the Twins biggest need, and it should undoubtedly come with the lowest acquisition cost. However, if Minnesota wants to address the issues behind the plate or at shortstop, a higher profile solution is likely going to be the target. In those cases, the assets sent away will also be of the heightened ceiling variety.

Minnesota has one of the deepest farm systems in all of baseball, but how do we quantify what players fall where. Let's take a look.

The Untouchables

I think it probably goes without saying who's in this grouping. Led by Byron Buxton, the Twins also would consider Miguel Sano a lock for this title. Rounding out, and being right on the edge of this territory is Jose Berrios.

Buxton is currently shelved, but looked every bit the best prospect in baseball in his romp through the minor leagues. His bat was always going to take some time at the big league level, but it was pretty apparent to see his influence on the Twins outfield.

Sano has started his big league career with a bang. In his first 13 games he's slashed .326/.558/.992 with four doubles, two home runs, and 19 RBI. His power stroke is incredibly impressive, and he;s going to contribute at the plate for a very long time.

Berrios is the lone member of this club yet to make his big league debut. Worrying some projectors with his small 6'0" frame, Berrios has continued to impress in 2015. Recently earning a promotion to Triple-A, the Puerto Rican owns a 3.49 ERA and a 9.4 K/9 across two levels this season. Of the three players, only Berrios could be had for the perfect deal. Acquiring a shortstop like Troy Tulowitzki, or a catcher such as Jonathan Lucroy, it would seem to reason Berrios would be the starting point.

The Ceiling Types

After the big three, the Twins top prospects take on somewhat of a different look. Rather than presenting an already projectable cornerstone type of talent, the Twins have three first round picks that still have the promise of being an organizational influencing talent going forward.

Considering first those drafted by the Twins, we come across both Nick Gordon and Kohl Stewart. Gordon has scuffled at times for Low-A Cedar Rapids, but that was expected. He's seen as an All Star caliber shortstop with Gold Glove ability. His bat will take time, but he recently put together a nice 17 game hit streak in which he slashed .333/.360/.417.

Stewart has been a little bit more disappointing in 2015. After working through a throwing program to strengthen his arm in the offseason, the results haven't provided what would have been hoped. The Texan owns a respectable 3.26 ERA but has struck out batters at just a 4.6 K/9 clip while walking 3.3 per nine. Long term, there's still plenty to hope for here, as he's just 20.

Lastly in this group is a first round guy that the Twins traded for. Alex Meyer was at one time regarded as a top of the rotation starter. He's since been demoted to the bullpen and owns a 7.56 ERA since being sent back to Triple-A after 2.2 IP with the big club. He's 25 and needs to turn things around soon, but the Twins could be motivated to allow him to do so somewhere else.

Moving on from ceiling prospects generally is going to involve a significant return. Outside of Meyer being 25, these types have development and projectability often on their side. Knowing they could be an organizational calling card in a few years makes them incredibly valuable.

The Poker Chips

Creativity aside, this definition does justice for virtually all of these players. Depth of the Twins farm system aside, most of these types are going to be players the Twins hope to cash in on in one way or another. Most organizations around baseball have these types of players down on the farm, but the Twins simply have more of them at their disposal. Flaws here or there provide boom or bust material, but they are definitely not just a throw in to any deal either.

I mentioned the Twins have plenty of poker chips at their disposal, and the names span Stephen Gonsalves, Jorge Polanco, Adam Brett Walker, Max Kepler, Jake Reed, and Nick Burdi. With each of those mentioned having different strengths and weaknesses, the Twins can get creative in any deal they would be putting together.

Of the grouping, you'd be hard pressed not to suggest Polanco is the cream of the crop. A projectable bat who will hit at the next level, he's a second basemen forced to play out of position, and he's not very good at it. Polanco has already debuted with the Twins, but he was recently promoted to Triple-A. He's hit .300/.341/.397 across two minor league levels this season. The issue is that he's committed 23 errors in just 77 games, and it's only going to get tougher at the next stop. Big name deals will likely take a long look at Polanco as well.

Max Kepler and Stephen Gonsalves would probably be argued to have some of the higher values at this level as well. Both are players many organizations have similar types to, but the Twins have watched them succeed to great lengths in 2015. Kepler owns a .336/.415/.528 line at Double-A and has looked ready for a promotion for some time. Gonsalves was promoted to High-A earlier this season and owns a 2.50 ERA in seven starts since his callup. He's a lefty and he stikes people out (10.1 career K/9 in 185 minor league innings).

Both Reed and Burdi are types the Twins would likely rather not trade, but would have hoped to see more from. College relievers expected to help the big league club this year, Burdi has been demoted back to High-A while Reed has struggled since starting strong at Double-A. They could be targets in a deal, but no doubt that Minnesota would rather see them put it together for their own pen.

One of the most talked of names this year has been Adam Brett Walker. He defines poker chip in the greatest sense. Known for his impressive power stroke, Walker has mashed 25 longballs at Double-A this season. The problem is, he's striking out at an incredible rate down on the farm (138 K and just 26 walks). He's got an incredibly long way to go before he's Mark Reynolds or Chris Carter at the big league level, and at 23, he may never make it.

When trading these types of players, it's about adding to your own pocket. Every organization has their own poker chips, but the more you have, the better the odds you are able to cash in. They aren't going to be the lone trade piece, but they're much more than a throw in.

The Long Shots

This set of three players is somewhat interesting as it offers a little bit of everything. There's no doubt some high upside here, but as they ascend towards the big leagues, they could definitely end of being the exciting piece of a deal that went nowhere for their new team.

Starting with the guy having a great year, Chih-Wei Hu has impressed for High-A Fort Myers. Owning a 2.20 ERA across 13 starts, he strikes out a modest 7.9 per nine. In a spot start for Triple-A Rochester, Hu tossed six innings of two hit ball to grab the win. He's 21 and has an exciting ceiling, but there's plenty of development left there.

Jumping up to Double-A, and to a position the Twins need to upgrade, Stuart Turner has been anything but the catcher they believed he could be. A defensive stud who they hoped a bat would develop, Turner is slashing just .247/.317/.351 in 192 minor league games. He could be another organizations Drew Butera right now probably, but Minnesota will need more starting behind the dish.

Rounding out the group is a relative high ceiling type in Amaurys Minier. He's young, 19, and he's raw. Now playing at Elizabethton, Minier is working through some early struggles. He does however have two home runs and 13 RBI in his first 20 games, and he's a prospect many of the national types see as having real power potential.

This grouping could round out a trade either for a big name acquisition, or a lesser, but more immediate need. They have definite value both to the organization and in the form of a trade, but it's hard to say how or when that comes to fruition.

The Meaningful Majors

The Twins are likely going to be buyers at the trade deadline, but that doesn't mean their 25 man roster is off limits (or those who find themselves just squeezed off of it). You won't find Mike Pelfrey or Tommy Milone here (the former has no trade value anyways), but the team controlled types with more to offer definitely will bring a return.

Breaking out as expected this season, Kyle Gibson has been nothing short of spectacular in 2015. Owning a 2.85 ERA across 18 starts, Gibson has also improved his strikeout rate up to 6.2 per nine. His 4.00 FIP could cause teams reason for pause, but he could be equally as coveted as a Berrios type.

Sent to the bullpen, despite being one of the Twins best pitchers, Trevor May would have definite appeal to other clubs. In his last six starts before converting to relief, May owned a 3.23 ERA across 30.2 IP. He also led the Twins rotation in strikeouts. A former top prospect on his own and under team control until 2021, May has plenty going for him.

The white elephant in this pool is the castoff outfielder Oswaldo Arcia. Lacking drive at points this season, Arcia has lit Triple-A on fire. In his last 16 games, he owns a .322/.403/.780 slash line with eight home runs and 19 RBI. It's mind boggling as to why he isn't punching balls out of the park for the Twins, but there's little reason to believe another team wouldn't make use of his services.

Of those mentioned, only Gibson would likely be able to be a feature piece in any big trade. Arcia and may are both great options to pair with some other pieces, but you can bet any suitor will be looking for a bit more. What's important to remember is that while buying, the Twins have some expendable depth even at the highest level.

At the end of the day, the trade deadline is something to approach with a heightened sense of understanding. Nearly every team in the big leagues has the pieces to acquire the same players your favorite team does, knowing which pieces are worth what, and more importantly, which ones aren't worth what you think, is the defining line between fantasy and reality.

Minnesota is entering a critical stretch in deciding what they will do at the end of the month. Don't miss the next handful of games, because it should determine how the end of the Twins summer takes shape.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Trading Twins: Let Splashes Make Themselves

It's the middle of July and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline is fast approaching. Teams looking to upgrade for the final stretch of the summer are no doubt plugged in, and for the first time in a while the Twins can count themselves in that grouping. There's no question Minnesota has a few problem areas, but there's really only one that they should be focusing on.

Paul Molitor has done an exceptional job of taking a Twins team not expected to contend, and putting them in the thick of the playoff race. Chasing the Royals in the AL Central, and leading the Wild Card race, the first year manager has impressed in 2015. Lineup construction has been something Molitor has gotten creative with, and having issues at both shortstop and catcher, he's been forced to.

Minnesota has watched as Kurt Suzuki has looked like a backup at best. The regression was no doubt going to come for a guy that had no business playing in the All-Star Game a season ago. The fall has been hard however, and being backed up by even less, the Twins have become incredibly thin behind the dish.

At short, Danny Santana has taken massive steps backward as well. Although Santana was also a prime regression candidate, the Twins haven't watched anyone significantly step up. Right now, the Twins seem best positioned to allow Eduardo Escobar free reign at short for the foreseeable future. While he too leaves plenty to be desired at the plate, there's no denying his upgrade over the scuffling Santana.

Both catcher and short present problems for the Twins going forward. Minnesota has no organizational answers at backstop, and while they may at short, none are a sure thing. Jorge Polanco has been an errors machine and may not stick at the big league level, while Nick Gordon is years away. Both positions need fixing, but the splash doesn't need to be made now.

That brings us to the biggest issue, the Twins bullpen. While a reliever doesn't represent the glorious upgrade that a name like Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gomez, or Matt Wieters may, for Minnesota, it's probably the missing link. Following the break, Glen Perkins went on to blow his first save of the season. While he's been the gold standard for both the Twins and the big leagues in 2015, getting to him has been more than an issue.

Brian Duensing has been lights out of late, but went through bad stretches early. Blaine Boyer continues to dance around danger, and J.R. Graham has been exposed at times this season. Trevor May is still figuring out his new role, and Casey Fien has been anything but a sure thing this season. What's more unfortunate than the current situation of the Twins pen, is that upcoming options also are less than enthusing.

At Triple-A Rochester, Minnesota could go to retreads like Michael Tonkin or Logan Darnell. They could call up A.J. Achter, who was a minor league all star this year. They could also turn to Tyler Duffey or Taylor Rogers, both starters that have been solid thus far. Where Minnesota was hoping for relief help though isn't going to happen.

Kicking off the year, it was the Double-A Chattanooga bullpen that employed the Twins flamethrowers. Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, and Zack Jones were all viewed as potential second half options for the Twins. Burdi and Jones have since been demoted to High-A Fort Myers, while Reed has struggled after a strong start. In regards to other options, J.T. Chargois has hit a rough patch, and 2015 1st round draft pick and considered fast mover Tyler Jay has stumbled out of the gates.
It's safe to say at this point the Twins relief help isn't coming from within.

This leads us to the ripple that Minnesota is positioned to make. Rather than the big flashy offensive splash, the Twins need to add help protecting the leads they already have. A rental type isn't who they should be after either. Both Will Smith and Steve Cishek are real options, with team control, that can help the Twins now and in the future. They are back end types with experience and performance to their credit, and Minnesota's late inning ability would be all the better for it.

Acquiring someone like Smith or Cishek may have the Twins giving up a little bit more than a Tyler Clippard type, who's a free agent at year's end. However, no reliever should fleece the organization like that of a catching or shortstop upgrade. With Minnesota looking to compete for the next several years, having this be another season of evaluation for top prospects before making a move could prove vital.

With their current positioning, the Twins should no doubt be eyeing the playoffs. Making sure to get relief help is going to be a must if they want to get there. Allow the big splashes to come at a later date if they need to be made, but for now, go get your bridge arms and ride off into the summer.

Paul Molitor has the Twins within striking distance, now it's time to enjoy the outcome.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Second-half Storylines: What To Watch For

The Minnesota Twins can arguably be looked at as the most surprising team in baseball through the first half of the season. With most projections suggesting another 90 loss campaign as far more likely than a playoff run, the Twins have taken the majors by storm. Now at 49-40, with the second best record in the American League, does Minnesota sink or swim?

Having had a poor month (to put it lightly) under their belt already, the Twins have proven they can handle adversity. If they are going to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 however, the club needs a couple of scenarios to play out.

Brian Dozier Needs To Be For Real

We have seen this narrative before. Dozier started out great in 2014 for the Twins. in 92 games (playing in 91) before the All Star Break, the Twins second basemen slashed .242/.340/.436 with 18 home runs, 45 RBI, 16 doubles, and 69 runs scored. Through the rest of the season though, Dozier hit just .244/.352/.387 with five home runs 26 RBI, 17 doubles, and 43 runs scored. Production was still there, but the power numbers faded almost entirely.

The owner of a current .256/.328/.513 slash line along with 19 home runs, 50 RBI, 26 doubles, and 67 runs scored, Dozier has an opportunity to do something special. If he can have a second half worthy of matching his first, there's no doubt he'll be near the top of the MVP discussion, and the Twins will be staring into the playoff race.

The Right Joe Mauer Needs To Show Up

Currently hovering right around a .270 batting average, Joe Mauer has taken his lumps once again this season. After talking up a recommitted pull and power approach at the plate, the home runs were few and far between (just one in the first two months of the season). Since a slide to start the summer, Mauer appears to have turned somewhat of a corner.

In April, Mauer owned a .318/.392/.412 slash line. The power was gone, but he was driving in runners and getting on base. Then in May and June, Mauer slashed .240/.309/.353; abysmal. After scuffling over those two months, July saw Mauer return to form. Using the opposite field again, he has hit .319/.347/.489 with two home runs through the first two weeks.

The Twins know Mauer is never going to be at first what he was behind the plate. he's also not going to be a power hitting stereotypical first basemen. However, for the Twins to continue their playoff push, Mauer will need to produce at the top of the lineup, even if that's in his singles-doubles-on base capacity.

Bullpen Is Given Some Help

Everyone not named Glen Perkins has contributed to the Twins employing one of the most inefficient bullpens in the big leagues. Minnesota doesn't strike anyone out late in games, and innings are pieced together by pitchers rivaling a dart throw on a near nightly basis. Blaine Boyer and J.R. Graham have given the Twins more than they could have expected, but the stretch is going to require more.

Minnesota, Terry Ryan, and Paul Molitor need to commit to getting relief help. A trade for at least one arm capable of being more than a LOOGY needs to happen. A reliever shouldn't fleece the Twins farm, but the Twins should probably aim higher than a retread like Joaquin Benoit or LaTroy Hawkins. If the Twins don't find bullpen help prior to the July 31 trade deadline, it's hard to imagine them weathering the storm in the AL Central.

Phil Hughes Has To Control The Longball

On the season, Phil Hughes has allowed a major league worst 135 hits and 22 home runs. he's currently on pace to serve up 39 dingers and 240 hits (both career worsts). In his 18 starts, Hughes has allowed round-trippers in 15 of them. What's working in Hughes' favor is that of the 22 home runs allowed, 16 of them have been of the solo variety.

Looking at Hughes peripherals, there's some things to worry about. With a 4.32 ERA his 4.64 FIP (fielding independent pitching) indicates things could be even worse. While he's still not walking anyone (0.8 BB/9) he's also striking out a career low 5.4 batters per nine. Hitters are also having better at bats against Hughes at the plate. The Twins ace is giving up a near career high 24.6% line drive rate, as well as a 32.5% hard hit rate.

In the second half, Minnesota needs the former Yankees pitcher to keep the ball in the yard. He needs to keep hitters off balance to a higher extent, and he needs to handle more at bats himself. The solo shots are aided by his low walk rate, but eventually base hits being buoyed by home runs will put a damper on things.

Injuries Can't Mount In Minnesota

As witnessed by division rival Kansas City and Detroit, injuries can be crippling. Minnesota has dealt with their fair share over the past four years, but has remained relatively health this season. That absolutely needs to continue, and the Twins need to capitalize on the misfortune of the Royals and Tigers.

Byron Buxton is currently shelved but should be back within the next few weeks. Ricky Nolasco underwent ankle surgery and is likely going to miss the rest of the season. If Minnesota can stop the bleeding there, they are in a good place. More than in recent memory, depth is provided in both the outfield and the starting rotation. The Twins find more value in a product of their whole rather than any one player. However, depleting that depth for the stretch run won't bode well for a team void of superstars either.

With right around two and a half months left in the regular season, the Twins are in control of their own destiny. Pieces are in place to stay relevant, and adding a key one or two more immediately makes playoff contention a real situation. As the Twins head to Oakland to take on the lowly Athletics, the momentum from the first half needs to carry over.

It's been a fun ride to this point, but the story is only half written. Buckle up, here we go.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Best Trade The Twins Never Made

Generally, lights out relievers are hard to come by. While you can put together a makeshift bullpen in hopes of finding things that work, the really good ones often get hung onto. With the emergence of closer importance for teams, seeing the Craig Kimbrel's and Aroldis Chapman's of the big leagues dealt on a yearly basis often doesn't happen.

On July 18, 2014, it did happen though.

A guy with a 2.78 career ERA, 299 saves, and a 9.0 K/9 was sent packing. Not only are those great numbers for a bullpen guy, but they rank amongst some of the best when it comes to closers. That pitcher was the San Diego Padres Huston Street. In being sent to the Los Angeles Angels, the Padres expected a return, and that's exactly what they got.

The Padres welcomed the Angels number one, six, and eighth best prospects, as well as fourth top 20 inclusion (per FanGraphs). In retrospect, the Angels fleeced the bulk of their already mediocre farm system in return for elite level back end of the bullpen help.

So, why does this matter? Last season, the Twins dangled the idea of dealing their home grown closer. To be fair, I was even on board with the idea (sadly). Without a doubt, the lack of a move, may go down as one of the best decisions in Twins history.

For a losing team, and one in it's fourth year of significant losing, having a great closer seems like somewhat of a luxury. Even when 30 or more saves get racked up, does it really matter in the context of 90 losses. What about making the farm system even stronger for when the winning returns? Sure it would look like a bad move after just extending Perkins a contract extension, but who cares right?

The Twins put their foot down, they said no. No to dealing the local product. No to selling of a irreplaceable asset. No to all of it, and now, Perkins is making them feel great about the decision all over again.

Sure, Perkins was a very good closer last season. Late in the year injury problems inflated his ERA, but his 34 saves and 9.6 K/9 were some of the best marks of his career. He was coming off a 36 save season in 2013, a 2.30 ERA, an 11.1 K/9 mark, his first All Star Game appearance, and that shiny new four-year, $22.18 million contract. Nothing he did last season though could have prepared the Twins for what was to come.

There was a spring training injury scare, but Perkins insisted he was good to go this season. He wasn't going to miss time, and he was ready to compete. Glen Perkins was right.

In 2015, Perkins is 28-28 in save opportunities and leads the American League in that category. He's walking batters at a career best 1.2 BB/9 rate and his 0.830 WHIP is the best of his career. Not only is his season impressive, but Perkins recent run has been impressive as well. He's yet to give up a run since May 31 (a stretch of 14 games and 14.1 IP). In that timeframe, Perkins has struck out 15, walked just two, allowed only four hits, and picked up 10 saves.

Unlike other back end of the bullpen options, Perkins does it differently. Having thrown just four pitches 96 miles per hour or faster this season, it's his slider that has been devastating. Used a career high (as a closer) 26.7% of the time, Perkins has kept hitters off balance and outworked them at the plate.

Now fresh off his third straight trip to the midsummer classic, Glen Perkins looks every bit the part of one of the best in team history. Tying Eddie Guardado for third on the list right before the All Star break, he will set his sights on Rick Aguilera and Joe Nathan as the season draws on.

With his current pace set at 51 saves when the season comes to an end, Perkins is targeting what would be a tie for the 9th best single-season mark in Major League Baseball history. While an uphill battle, Perkins has overcome being a failed starter, a timeshared reliever, and an injured closer to boast the best season of his career.

It's pretty safe to say dealing Glen Perkins is the best trade the Twins never made. At 32, signed through 2017, and with no intention of playing anywhere else, Perkins should have Twins fans on their feet in the 9th for years to come.

Brian Dozier's Next Accolade

What a week, and what a night. Brian Dozier sent walkoff blasts into the stands for the Twins. He had hopes of winning the Final Vote. He was beat out by a Royal, and then, he was the only one that mattered. Following his 8th inning blast, the Twins Dozier was the only second basemen in the All Star Game to record a hit. As great as those events have all been, Dozier's next accolade is in a different category altogether.

As the second half kicks off, Dozier and the Twins have their eyes on another prize. In the thick of the AL Central race, and in position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, both Minnesota and Dozier have plenty to play for. Team accomplishments aside though, Dozier has the opportunity to push himself into the center of the MVP discussion.

For periods of time throughout the season, it's been fair to question whether Dozier could keep it up, or if what we were seeing was real. Now with 88 games under his belt, the question becomes whether he can finish what he's started.

As it stands, Brian Dozier has accumulated a 3.3 fWAR mark, good enough for 19th in Major League Baseball. In the American League, he is behind just Mike Trout, Jason Kipnis, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Lorenzo Cain, J.D. Martinez, and Miguel Cabrera. To put it lightly, that's some pretty elite company.

Current production has Dozier on pace for career highs in both batting average and slugging percentage. He's also looking at projections of 47 doubles, five triples, 35 home runs, 91 RBI, and 122 runs scored. Each of those totals would be career numbers for the Twins second basemen and it wouldn't be particularly close.

Now being the MVP requires extraordinary numbers. Brian Dozier has done great things for the Twins this season, but how does he stack up to 2014 AL MVP Mike Trout's production? Trout had 39 doubles, nine triples, 36 home runs, 111 RBI, and scored 115 runs. To put it into context, Dozier is right in the ballpark.

Of course Dozier isn't the only AL player having a great 2015, and there's still the uphill battle of continuing to produce. As mentioned above, Dozier trails seven players in fWAR at the halfway point. Of those, it's fair to argue that five players won't be on playoff teams (Indians, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Tigers). That gives the Twins and Dozier an opportunity to capitalize on.

A year ago, Dozier got off to a blistering start as well. His .242/.340/.436 slash line with 18 HR and 45 doubles was respectable in and of itself. The biggest difference in the 2015 first half is Dozier's slugging nearly .100 points higher, and while still hitting home runs, he's driving the ball for doubles as well. The slide Dozier went on last year may be related to the Home Run Derby, but regardless, it turned his season from elite to great.

Looking at some of his swing percentages, Dozier may actually be poised to continue his torrid pace. Sure, he's still pulling the ball a ton (a career high 62.4%) but he's also hitting line drives at a career best 24.6%. On top of that, Dozier's fly ball ratio while up, has contributed to a career best 14.7% HR/FB ratio (meaning just over 14% of his fly balls are deposited into the seats). The number helping Dozier the most though is his hard hit ratio. A career best 32.5%, the Twins second basemen is making great contact nearly one third of the time.

There's no doubt Dozier's MVP prospectus relies upon a perfect storm. First and foremost, he must continue the strong pace he has been on. That would appear doable as he has been steady rather than streaky all season. Secondly, the Twins absolutely need to make the playoffs (and overtaking the Royals would be a huge bonus). The MVP is an individual award, but should Dozier help bolster the lowly and unassuming Twins to the postseason, it would only boost his credentials. Finally, his feats would need to be acknowledged amongst those voting.

Should the first two scenarios play out, Dozier would likely be staring a Mike Trout sized showdown in the face. Trout is no doubt the best player in baseball, but is he the most valuable? Take him away from the Angels and they are still a playoff team. This season, Dozier has been the driving force behind the Twins, and may be exactly how to define MVP.

At the end of the day, er season, the scenarios will no doubt play themselves out. for now though, halfway in, Brian Dozier has positioned himself in a great spot to capitalize on an opportunity. While you sit there and wonder why his average isn't higher, make sure to kick back and realize it doesn't matter and you're watching one of the best in the game.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Revival Of The Longball

A year ago, on a rainy night in downtown Minneapolis, some of the biggest sluggers took center stage for the 2014 Home Run Derby. While the Minnesota twins and Target Field were no doubt excited to play host to All Star week, there's no doubt that the playing conditions were going to be adverse on this night. When the dust settled, Yoenis Cespedes reigned supreme, and massive shots were hit, but the event still felt stale.

Forget the fact that inclement weather pushed the action back, or that hometown selection Brian Dozier was lost amongst his slugging peers. As many other years before it, the Home Run Derby once again seemed to have worn out its welcome.

Fast forward on the calendar and Major League Baseball was reinventing the rules once again. After creating the bracket a season ago, the event now resembled something like the NBA's Three Point contest. As a timed event, players were no longer given the luxury of standing around to wait for that meatball pitch. In theory it sounded like a wonderful idea, and what was even better, that's exactly how it played out.

With a stacked field, there was already plenty of intrigue. Having youth rounded out by the old guard in the form of Albert Pujols made sure there was a competitor for everyone to get behind. My money (quite literally) wagon punishing phenom Joc Pederson. The combination of a lefty and long home runs seemed too good to pass up.

Quickly in the competition however, it was plain to see there were going to be more strategical tactics to consider. While the blasts over 420 feet (original set for 475) would give hitters bonus time, they also would take precious seconds off of a winding clock. Going second was going to provide obvious advantages in knowing your target mark, and even stamina would come into play for the sluggers.

Thanks to the way in which baseball had set this new contest up, intrigue was there from the get go. Hometown hero Todd Frazier knocked favorite, Prince Fielder out at the buzzer in the first round. Peterson blew by Manny Machado, and Pujols bested the kid in Kris Bryant. Just one round in, this was shaping up to be a lot of fun.

As both Frazier and Pederson continued on, the finals were set with the most interesting matchup of the night. Pederson was punishing baseballs with the heaviest bat (34/34) in the field, while Frazier was launching rockets out of the park. Thanks to his bonus time, it would be the Reds own Frazier that would hoist the trophy when all was said and done.

Thanks to the timed round, we all witnessed one of the greatest Home Run Derby performances ever, and likely didn't even notice. In 2008, Josh Hamilton hit 28 first round homers in Yankees Stadium. He went on to total 35 and lose to the Twins Justin Morneau. Being able to take breaks and take pitches, Hamilton still wore down over the course of a contest that was simply too long.

Last night, the Reds Frazier went 14-10-14 to a total of 38 home runs. In history, it is Fielder who owns the most derby homers with 81. Frazier nearly halved that amount in a night. With the pressure to keep swinging staying constant, the derby itself became evolving dram right before our eyes.

I expected this season's rendition of the event to be more fun, I didn't think I'd be counting down the days to next year's contest immediately following the end however. Major League Baseball got this one absolutely right, and we are all better for it. Now for ESPN to just take away "Back, back, back, back, back" and Chris Berman. One change at a time I suppose.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Twins Are Poised For The Playoffs

We have officially hit the All Star Break in Major League Baseball, and while the stretch run is where the pretenders and contenders are sorted out, the Twins are currently one of the best teams in baseball. It feels odd to say, given what expectations were, and what results have been, but it rings absolutely true. At the break, Minnesota owns the second best record in the American League, and their own best mark since 2008. It's no longer too early to suggest the playoffs are in sight.

44, 40, 36, and 41, those are the win totals for Minnesota at the break over the last four seasons. Each of those years, the Twins went on to lose 90 or more games. It's probably not fair to compare a winning team to those of futility, so take a look back to 2010 when Minnesota last won the AL Central with 94 wins. At the All Star Break, Ron Gardenhire's Twins checked in at 46-42, or behind their current pace for those playing along at home.

Coming into the season, the Twins had plenty of question marks. They were viewed as a year or two before making their turnaround, Paul Molitor was a first year manager, and the big free agent signing made to bolster the pitching staff was shelved before meaningful games even started. At the artificial halfway point, the Twins have answered more questions than they haven't, and it's now fair to start to wonder just how far they can climb.

Pitching was going to once again be something to monitor for Minnesota. finishing in the doldrums of Major League Baseball in virtually every pitching category in recent years, changes needed to be made. As things stand, Minnesota owns the 15th best ERA in the big leagues, and both Kyle Gibson and Tommy Milone rank amongst the top 15 ERA leaders in the American League. Twins starters have combined for 789.2 IP as well as 45 quality starts, again putting them right in the middle of the pack.

The results have been accomplished along the same lines as the Twins have become synonymous with however. Pitching to contact, Twins starters have allowed a .269 BAA (28th in MLB), and struck out just 537 batters (last in MLB). It's not smoke and mirrors, but rather pounding the strike zone and making opposing hitters beat them, a strategy that has thus far panned out.

At points this season, the Twins offense looked like it was in need of a boost. With Kennys Vargas and Oswaldo Arcia struggling, the pop has since come from a second basemen and a 40 year old. Brian Dozier is having an MVP caliber season, and his 18 home runs put him on pace to be the first Twins player to reach 30 home runs since Josh Willingham in 2012. Torii Hunter has been every bit the defensive liability he was imagined, but his bat (14 HR 49 RBI 15 2B) has produced at a vintage level.

While winning, the Twins have also been afforded the opportunity to usher in the future. Eddie Rosario has played an excellent outfield for Minnesota, and his .284 average is amongst the best on the ballclub. Byron Buxton was able to debut prior to the All Star Break (and should be back not too long after it), and Miguel Sano has set the world on fire.

In fact, instead of needing to deal for another Kendrys Morales type bat this season, the Twins traded with themselves in inserting Sano into the lineup. In his first 11 games, he's hit two home runs, driven in eight, doubled four times, and raced out to a .378/.489/.649 slash line. His power was expected to play, but Sano has been every bit the elite prospect he was billed to be.

Looking down the line at the rest of the season, the Twins future has become much more clear. With far fewer questions looming, they can focus on two keys principles. First, the organization must make a trade for some bullpen help. So far, Molitor has pieced the back end of his bullpen together, and it's starting to blow up big time.

Blaine Boyer has given the Twins more than they could have imagined, but he's on pace to be one of the most taxed relievers in all of baseball. Brian Duensing and Casey Fien have been up and down, and Minnesota has filled in the gaps with different pieces at a revolving door pace. In fact the only sure thing in the Twins pen is All Star closer Glen Perkins. Having saved 28 of 28 opportunities, he owns a sparkling 1.21 ERA in 37.1 IP. Perkins 8.68 K/9 is also amongst the best on the club for the Twins, but he no doubt needs help.

Minnesota has one of the best farm system in all of the big leagues, and dealing some depth for a quality pen arm is a must. Bringing in someone to act as a true setup man would bridge the gap from the starters to Perkins, and no doubt afford Molitor and Minnesota a few more late inning wins.

The second focus for the Twins is to view the postseason as their new reality. Every team sets that as a goal at the beginning of the year, or at least says so. Now for the first time in recent memory, the Twins are able to act on that. Key injuries to both the Royals and Tigers have opened a door that Minnesota must step through. Having played Kansas City and Detroit both to a 5-8 record, an evening out needs to occur.

At 49-40, Minnesota is just 4.5 back of the Royals while being 4.5 clear of the Tigers. In the wild card race, Minnesota owns the top spot, and is three games clear of the Tampa Bay Rays. Keeping pace in the division with the Royals should no doubt be the goal, and it's hard to imagine the Central not sending two teams to play October baseball.

.500 would have been a great place for this Twins team to be this season, thanks to the start however, that mark is now in the rear view mirror. Minnesota is poised for the postseason, Target Field is electric once again, and the Twins hold a lot of the cards in their own hands. Buckle up, it's going to be a fun ride.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Now We Wait...

Brian Dozier was snubbed from the All Star Game for the second year in a row. Last season, Dozier had a breakout year but the vote to get him into the All Star Game was not meant to be. This time around, he's been the best second basemen in all of baseball, and his exclusion should be viewed as a problem for Major League Baseball.

There's plenty of evidence for Dozier's claim to the title of the best second basemen in the game. I recently took a deeper look at what some of those claims look like. On a stage meant to promote the growth of the sport, Ned Yost and Major League Baseball strikes out big time leaving one of the game's brightest stars on the sideline.

With Twitter exploding with the "Vote Dozier" hashtag on Friday, MLB must now count and decided whether it's yet another Royals player in Mike Moustakas or if the Twins will send Brian Dozier to Cincinnati. In the meantime, here's some of the best of what Twitter had to offer in #VoteDozier:

The Open Door, And The Twins Stepping Through It

Injuries are never good, and cheering for an opposing player to go down is not something anyone would advocate for. However, they are an inevitability in the world of sports,and the Twins have a big opportunity thanks to two recent maladies.

Both the Tigers and the Royals were bit by the injury bug in a bad way recently. Detroit watched stay first basemen Miguel Cabrera head to the disabled list for the first time in his career. Early indications suggest he could be out into September. The hurt at the top of the AL Central doesn't stop there however. Twins killer Alex Gordon also has wound up on the DL and will be there for at least the next 8 weeks.

It's pretty hard to overstate how integral both of these players are for their respective teams. Cabrera and the Tigers are currently in 3rd in the AL Central race. They trail the Twins by just 1.5 games and are 8-2 against Minnesota on the season. Cabrera owns a .350/.456/.578 slash line and has hit 15 round trippers to go with 54 RBI. Just two years removed from winning the Triple Crown, he is every bit the same scary hitter he has been over the course of his career.

For the Royals, Alex Gordon offers value in a different form. Instead of being a beast with the bat, he gets it done with his glove. Gordon is hitting .279/.2394/.457 (one of the best lines of his career) and has added 11 home runs and 39 RBI. As mentioned though, it's in the field where Gordon will be missed. He's been worth 4 DRS (defensive runs saved) and owns a 7.9 UZR paired with a 15.7 UZR/150 rating. Watch enough Twins games against the Royals, and you've likely cursed Gordon taking away a sure base hit.

Now nearing the All Star Break, push must come to shove for the Twins. Minnesota has tread water for quite some time. After a blistering May, Minnesota ran into an ugly month of June. Thanks to losing streaks by Detroit and Kansas City though, the Twins held serve. With both of those teams missing key cogs, it's time to start taking advantage.

The twins split with the Royals to open the month despite the fact that they were in position to win all four games. In the first matchup of the month against the Tigers, a late inning meltdown led to yet another failed opportunity to capitalize. If the Twins want to climb the standings, and create some distance, it will start by reversing the fortunes of a 2-8 record against the Tigers.

With Minnesota not facing either division rival again until September, it will be on them to handle their own business. It's a pretty good bet that both Detroit and Kansas City will experience a downturn with their injuries. While Cabrera and Gordon are out, the Twins must set themselves up for a good September.

Minnesota will need to make some adjustments before the trade deadline if they are going to stay in the race, but the biggest positive for the Twins may have come at the expense of their divisional foes.