Wednesday, September 30, 2015

In 2015, He's The Most Valuable Twin

While there's a few games left in the Minnesota Twins 2015 campaign, we are now at a point in which we can look back and dissect how we arrived here. To be clear, here is a point that hasn't been reached in four years. It's 81+ wins, a .500+ record, a winning team, and an expectation of positive seasons ahead. Although Paul Molitor has been at the helm, it's been these players that have paved the way.

To quantify a team MVP for the Twins season is a much more difficult task than would be imagined. Considering there has been two lone winning months, and a handful of first or second half type performers, and players that have step up at the most important times, it is far from cut and dry. In an effort to recognize those deemed worthy, a top five seems the most effective route to take. Don't worry though, number one will get his due.

5. Kevin Jepsen

Somewhat of an interesting inclusion no doubt, but knowing where the Twins are now, they would not be there without the deadline acquisition of the former Rays reliever. Since joining the Twins, Jepsen has pitched in 27 games, owns a 1.73 ERA and a 2.68 FIP. He's struck out 8.0 batters per nine innings, and he's saved nine games for the Twins.

Glen Perkins had an amazing first half for the Twins, but he's been non-existent down the stretch. Jepsen came over in hopes of bridging to Perkins, but has instead shouldered the entire load on his own. Taking on the closer role, it has been Jepsen that has helped to save the bullpen from the train wreck it had become.

4. Eduardo Escobar

Before the season began, it looked as though Danny Santana was the deserving recipient of the starting shortstop gig. Forget the fact that regression was going to set in, Escobar seemed best suited to a utility role. 122 games of production later, Escobar owns a .759 OPS, has launched a career high 12 home runs, and has compiled a 1.3 fWAR making any notions of a Troy Tulowitzki trade seem silly.

With the Twins having more questions than answers at shortstop during points throughout 2015, Escobar has inserted himself into the heart of the discussion. He looks capable of holding down the gig going forward, and his late season surge has helped to keep the Twins on track in the midst of a Wild Card chase.

3. Miguel Sano

Given just under half a season to make a big league impact, Sano has done just that. In his time with the Twins, he has hit 17 home runs, the same amount of doubles, 51 runs batted in, batted .275, and compiled a .935 OPS. Forget the fact that he strikes out at an astronomical rate, his 45.6 hard hit rate is among the best in baseball, and he has tormented big league pitchers to the tune of a 2.1 fWAR earned solely at the plate.

Sano's full season numbers would likely have him in the league MVP discussion as much as they would have him running away with it for the Twins. Just 22 years old, he has entrenched himself as a cornerstone of the future, and 2015 was able to provide just a small glimpse of what is to come.

2. Trevor Plouffe

The Twins third basemen has followed up a breakout 2014 campaign with more of the same. After looking like a solid third base option a year ago, Plouffe has continued to do it on both sides of the game once again. His 22 homers are just two away from a career best, and his 84 runs batted in are a new career high. He also has set career bests in games played, runs, hits, and triples this season. On the defensive side, he's played as a league average fielder, and remains vastly improved over the shell of a hot corner defender that he was just a few years ago.

As I've continued to suggest all season, Plouffe should (and likely will) remain in the Twins plans going forward. An extension seems better served than a trade, and enjoying his late-blooming prime in a Twins uniform is something Paul Molitor could likely get used to.

1. Brian Dozier

In the first half of 2015, Brian Dozier looked every bit the frontrunner for the American League MVP. After his first All Star Game appearance, that narrative has changed, but his importance to the Twins has not. Pacing the club with a 3.8 fWAR, Dozier has produced across the board. The 28 year-old has set new career highs in hits, doubles, home runs, runs batted in, slugging percentage, and OPS. In year one of the new deal, he's given Minnesota every bit of value out of his 4 year, $20 million extension.

No doubt, Dozier's second half struggles have once again been a disappointment to what otherwise was trending towards a remarkable season. However, in 2015, the power numbers have kept up, and while it's been the strikeouts that have spiked, the greater whole has been something Twins Territory has not seen for far too long. With the addition of youth coming, and Brian Dozier pacing the pack, the Twins are in a good place as they look towards the future.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Thank You For 2015 Mike Pelfrey

Now owners of the first winning season for the Twins franchise since 2010, Paul Molitor and the guys have had a very successful 2015 campaign. There's been rookies introduced, milestones reached, and even a 40 year old man competing at a very high level over the last month of the season. What there has also been, is a pitcher that is generally the butt of all jokes, giving Minnesota exactly what they've needed.

For that, thank you Mike Pelfrey.

Before the season began, Twins fans no doubt would be thanking Mike Pelfrey that the Pohlad's were only shelling out $5.5 million for his services this season (a very modest amount for a major league starting pitcher). They would be thanking him for this being the end of his three year run with the organization. Thankfulness would be shed on the fact that his departure would open the door for someone else to come take over. However, now with the season coming to an end, Pelfrey should be thanked for all of unexpected contributions he provided this winning ballclub.

Full disclosure, calling any contributions at the big league level probably isn't fair. You're being paid millions to go out and compete, your team expects that to happen at a level that puts them in position to win. However, with Pelfrey having ERA's of 5.19 and 7.99 in his past two season respectively, the expectations were no doubt going to be lowered.

Initially asked to pitch out of the bullpen prior to Ervin Santana's PED suspension, Pelfrey warmly accepted his assignment the Scott Boras climate was quick to voice his unhappiness. After all, he wasn't going to welcome the chance to leave money on the table heading into free agency (even if I am of the belief he has very good to elite relief potential). Regardless of how it took place however, Pelfrey was going to start, and that is exactly what he has done.

Making 29 starts for the Twins (with one remaining as of this writing), Pelfrey compiled a 4.09 ERA, the second best mark of his career. His 3.99 FIP (fielding independent pitching) tally is the third best total over his 10 seasons, and his 0.6 HR/9 leads the big leagues. He gave the Twins 163.0 IP (second on the club behind Kyle Gibson), while walking a career low 2.4 batters per nine innings. He will set a new career best walk total (currently 43) and likely will give up less than 200 hits for just the second time over the course of a full season. In short, Mike Pelfrey has been everything the Twins have needed at the back end of their rotation.

Although sometimes seen as a dangerous starter, and notably someone who hasn't gone as deep as would be hoped in games, the narrative goes the other way as well. He has given up two earned runs or less in 17 of his 29 starts, while pitching into the 7th inning or later in 10 starts. Compiling a 2.0 fWAR for Minnesota, he'll post the third best mark of his career.

One of the biggest obstacles for Pelfrey as a Twin has been his health. In 2015, he has thrown more than 100 pitches in 10 starts, staying healthy for the first time. The health boost has been noticeable in his ability as well. With an average fastball velocity of 93mph (2nd highest of career and best since 2007), as well as a sinker averaging 93.3 mph (3rd highest of career, best since 2012, Pelfrey's effectiveness has been no doubt boosted.

Following the final week of the season, Pelfrey will ride off into the sunset. Most Twins fans will still struggle with the undeniable tie Pelfrey has to injuries and ineffectiveness during his tenure here. However, in a season where the Twins came out of nowhere, it was Pelfrey that held things down every 5th day.

Knowing there's prospects on the way to take his place helps to ease the transition. The Jose Berrios and Alex Meyer's of the world are going to raise the floor of what the Twins expect a 5th starter to be. For 2015 though, it was Mike Pelfrey that did the job, and did so at a very respectable level.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Buxton's September More Important Than Good

The Minnesota Twins are playing meaningful baseball. It isn't only September first, but rather the end of the month, with only a handful of games left, and each carrying the utmost importance. Things are great for Paul Molitor's squad right now, and while the success benefits the team, the benefit for Byron Buxton has been huge as well.

Baseball's top prospect has played in 41 games at the big league level for the Twins this year. He's got 129 plate appearances and is slashing .207/.244/.306 in that time. So far, Buxton has seven doubles, one triple, and his first big league home run to his name. On the surface none of those numbers jumps off the page.

If you'd like to dig a little deeper, things have been better of late. Spared starts down the stretch with the playoffs on the line, Buxton hasn't gotten regular action. When he has gotten them though, he's made them count. In his last three starts dating back to September 15, Buxton is 4-9 (.444) with three runs, two RBI, two doubles, and his first big league home run. Sure, it's a tiny sample size, but it's also a nice boost.

That brings us to where Buxton is in his development, and just how important September has been to the Twins future centerfielder.

With Minnesota in the midst of a playoff race, and Buxton in the dugout every day, even when he isn't being asked to produce, he's growing. Although the Twins would have no doubt liked to see Buxton with a slash line more reflective of fellow rookies Eddie Rosario or Miguel Sano, September will go down to be an important part of the future stars development.

Knowing that centerfield will be his for years to come, Minnesota, Terry Ryan, and Molitor have afforded Buxton a huge opportunity to end this season. With big games on the line, Buxton has prepared every day to compete and contribute. Knowing that 2016 is going to be the point in which he's asked to carry a heavier load, and be playing in meaningful September games, it's now that the 21 year old finds his launching point.

The "important" numbers say that Buxton has hit a paltry .200/.238/.350 with just four extra base hits during the month of September. Really though, the more important numbers for the young phenom include 20 games played, 12 starts, 43 plate appearances, and 115 innings. Racking up vital time on the diamond during the season's most important moments will only help to push the ceiling during the early weeks of the 2016 season.

Not all prospects get the added value that comes with the timeline Buxton has been afforded. Aaron Hicks was the latest to be thrown into the fire, and it took him a while to catch up. Because of where the Twins are, Buxton's September has been incredibly important, even if the numbers say it hasn't been all that good.

Natitude Is What's Wrong With Papelbon, Washington

Updated: The Nationals have suspended Jonathan Papelbon for the remainder of the season. LaTroy Hawkins likely has an issue with this.
I realize this is a Twins blog, and venturing into the National League is far off course, but what transpired on Sunday in the Nationals clubhouse begs for attention. For a team that was all but given the keys to a World Series title when the 2015 season kicked off, the departure into the abyss couldn't be more depressing. That being said, Jonathan Papelbon seemingly put a cherry on top of what was already a colossal disaster with his actions on Sunday.

In the bottom of the 8th inning, tied at 4, against a hapless Phillies team, Bryce Harper hit a pop up. The expected National League MVP sent a can of corn to left field, the ball was caught and that was that. Harper slowly trotted to first base, as would be customary on that type of hit. Disguted with the outcome of his at bat, he watched it a bit out of the box, got to the base as the ball was caught, and headed to the dugout. That's where he was greeted by his team's closer.

Papelbon, a major league veteran of 11 years took issue with Harper's hustle. After jawing back and forth, the veteran escalated the situation by choking Harper and slamming him into the dugout. Harper was removed from the game, while Papelbon came back out to allow five runs and blow the game. A non-issue, had become a spectacle and put a fitting end to an underwhelming collapse.

Opinions have come in from all over the place. Those defending Papelbon on the basis of Harper not hustling, and those wondering how you can excuse choking a teammate for any reason. Each opinion seems to evaluate the situation from one side or the other however, rather than with the context as a whole.

Bryce Harper is a guy that has played in 148 games of his 155 (or 96%). He was generally criticized early in his career (early being relatively in that he's just 22) for sprinting out ground balls. Harper has also amassed a ridiculous .336/.467/.658 slash line with 41 home runs and 37 doubles this season. His production is hardly that of a player looking to dog it or cut corners.

If Papelbon is going to take issue with how Harper hustled (or didn't) on one play, he almost assuredly has some ground to stand on. What is it though? Is it that he's been called upon to work in just 59 games (38%)? Or maybe, it's that he ran to first base once during batting practice (Papelbon has played in 652 G and never had a plate appearance)? Maybe he's relying on the 11 years of time he's put into the game, and that gives him his right. Regardless, does that excuse going after, and choking your best teammate?

For some, it would seem so. As mentioned, opinions ranged from all over the place, and other big leagues weighed in. LaTroy Hawkins was extremely supportive of Papelbon, and let national writer C.J. Nitkowski know that it's entitlement that makes choking someone ok.
In taking issue with Hawkins stance, I questioned how a guy who's asked to perform so little, has place to question a position player's effort.
Then Hawkins takes it a step further, making even more of a ridiculous point. Looking at his total games played, 1,040 over 21 seasons (31%), the Blue Jays closer suggests that as reason enough for the action to take place.
So, after a terribly unnecessary situation in the Nationals dugout thanks to a hot-headed closer, we have another closer arguing because he's played in over 1,000 games, he has right to choke a teammate if he gets upset at him. The Nationals season was coming to a disastrous end well before yesterday's game. Papelbon put a bow on that, and coming to the defense of the action is even more mind boggling.

For Harper, he's concerned on the next six games and putting a bow on his MVP winning season. While his team may have nothing to play for, he absolutely does. However, Harper best watch out, because he's always at the mercy of being choked out by a big league vet who works a third of the time if they deem he's not doing it the right way.

Twins Stars Shine Brightest On The Mound

For the first time since 2010, the Minnesota Twins are going to finish with a winning record. With just a handful of games left, they find themselves in the thick of a playoff race, and first year manager Paul Molitor has breathed life into a club so desperately needing it. Maybe most importantly though, the Twins have turned pitching woes into a strength at a critical juncture.

Needing to keep pace with clubs such as the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, and Los Angeles Angels, the Twins were going to need to win in all facets of the game. Defense has been significantly improved in 2015, and the offense has been carried the final month by players like Miguel Sano and Torii Hunter. On the mound though, the starting pitching has been a tale of two totally different players.

On one hand, Minnesota has seen an ace form out of the very place it was expected. Signing him to a four-year, $55 million deal this offseason, the Twins have been powered by the arm of Ervin Santana. Despite missing the first half due to a PED suspension, it's been the final stretch in which Santana has looked every bit the part of a lights out staff ace. Backing him up is a guy on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Rookie pitcher Tyler Duffey has taken an opportunity afforded after a second recall, and completely run with it.

At this point, both pitchers have thrown their last outings in the month of September. Santana went seven complete innings in four out of his five outings, going eight in the other. He compiled a 4-0 record to the tune of a 1.75 ERA, .211/.279/.297 slash line against, and an 8.5 K/9. Duffey went 3-0 in five starts, owning a 2.35 ERA, .237/.287/.316 slash line against, and an 8.0 K/9. By all respective measures, both pitchers have been near flawless for the Twins at the most important time.

With things where they are currently, the Twins path to the postseason is still very much an uphill climb. Should they get there, only one of the two stars is eligible to pitch (with Santana being ineligible for the postseason). However, the production over the season's final month highlights something vastly more important for Molitor, Terry Ryan, and the Twins.

Despite what has taken place in 2015, this wasn't the Twins opening of their next window. The winning at a high level was expected to begin in 2016. It could be argued however, that the most unknown commodity going forward was what Minnesota had on the mound. Right now, it looks like both Santana and Duffey have answered those questions.

The Twins will no doubt have Santana, Phil Hughes, and Kyle Gibson locked into starting roles for the upcoming season. Duffey's impressive rookie run, and his even more impressive curveball, have forced him into the discussion as well. For a team that should be in an even better place a year from now, having too much talent to juggle is something anyone can get behind.

September baseball has been fun in Twins Territory again this year, and while there's plenty of production to highlight, it's been Santana and Duffey that have paved the way. One expected, one out of nowhere, Minnesota has enjoyed watching two players look like shutdown aces for well over the past month, and it's been a very welcomed change.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

How Has The 2015 Draft Panned Out

The Minnesota Twins found themselves drafting with the top 10 once again this season, after a fourth straight 90 loss season in 2014. With an already stacked minor league talent pool, another strong draft was only going to add to it. Having watched 2015 be the success it has been, draft position will change dramatically next season. That said, it's time to take a look back on what has been accomplished.

Now that all of the minor league seasons are completed, let's take a look at the Twins top ten picks of the 2015 Major League Baseball draft, and see how their professional career started.

Sean Miller Rd 10 (290th overall)

Miller was drafted as a college shortstop and assigned initially to the Appy league by the Twins. He lasted all of 11 games there. While he didn't light the league on fire by any means, a promotion was deemed necessary. Miller finished the season playing in 26 games for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, acting as Nick Gordon's double play partner at second base. He slashed .284/.311/.324 across 102 at bats, and helped power Cedar Rapids to a runner up finish in the Midwest League. Look for him to join Gordon at Fort Myers sometime in 2016.

LaMonte Wade Rd 9 (260th overall)

Like Miller, Wade was a college prospect and was sent to the Appy league. Unlike Miller though, Wade stayed for 64 games. He made a mockery of the level also. Slashing .312/.428/.506 in his first professional experience, Wade was on fire. His nine home runs and five triples suggest that he has the ability to flash both speed and power. Wade was promoted to Cedar Rapids for their playoff run, and started in the outfield under Jake Mauer. He should begin 2016 with the Kernels.

Kolton Kendrick Rd 8 (230th overall)

One of the Twins "lottery" type picks, Kendrick is a bopper. Known for his big swing and power, he's been heralded as the type you hope puts it together. Coming out of high-school though, he was going to be a long ways away. Kendrick played 24 games at the Rookie level with the Gulf Coast Twins in 2015. He slashed .200/.371/.271. Surprisingly, he went homerless in his first professional season. Kendrick could repeat the GCL or head to E-Town next year.

Jovani Moran Rd 7 (200th overall)

Just 18, Moran was extremely raw when the Twins took him from Puerto Rico. The lefty was sent to the GCL and started six games. He owned a 4.12 ERA across 19.2 professional innings. His 17 strikeouts to nine walks was a decent ratio, and he held opposing hitters to a .219 average.

Chris Paul Rd 6 (170th overall)

A college selection from UC Berkeley, Paul grabbed himself his first promotion in his first professional season. Pounding Appalachian League pitching for E-Town, Paul slashed .302/.375/.488 with three homers and 16 runs batted in. He was also given 12 games of work at Cedar Rapids, mainly at DH. Although Paul only slashed .244/.277/.356 for the Kernels, he helped them down the stretch and in the playoffs. He'll probably begin 2016 in Iowa.

Alex Robinson Rd 5 (140th overall)

Robinson was also selected out of Maryland, a teammate of LaMonte Wade's. He pitched in 10 games, all in the Appalachian League for E-Town. In 12.0 innings, he gave up 13 runs (12 earned) while walking 16 and striking out 15. It was a rough professional debut, but the 21 year old should be expected to progress moving things forward. We could see him in Cedar Rapids in early 2016.

Trey Cabbage Rd 4 (110th overall)

Another high school selection, Cabbage will still be 18 when the 2016 season starts. He debuted with the Gulf Coast Twins and got in 33 games before back issues sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Cabbage had an up and down debut, with a final slash line resting at .252/.302/.269. Just two extra base hits in 33 games, Minnesota no doubt would have liked to see more, but it's uncertain what can be attributed to the injury. Cabbage will probably be slow-played to start 2016.

Travis Blankenhorn Rd 3 (80th overall)

Already being ranked on some of Baseball America's watch lists, Blankenhorn earned a 2015 promotion as well. He played in 14 GCL games as well as 39 games for E-Town. As a whole, the 19 year-old slashed .244/.321/.347 in his first professional season. He picked up three homers (all at E-Town) along with seven doubles and two triples. Blankenhorn will be a name to watch over the next couple of seasons.

Kyle Cody Rd 2 (competitive balance)

The Twins whiffed in selecting Kyle Cody with their competitive balance picked. The Kentucky Wildcat pitcher decided not to sign and instead will return to college. In the upcoming draft, the Twins have been awarded the 74th overall pick by not signing Cody.

Tyler Jay Rd 1 (6th overall)

Drafted as a reliever, with the idea he could start, the Twins wanted to rush Jay to the big leagues. That plan was halted when he gave up six earned in his first 6.2 professional innings. From there though, the former Fighting Illini pitcher was lights out. Jay ended the season for the Fort Myers Miracle with 11.2 innings of 2 run ball with 14 strikeouts and a .171/.261/.244 slash line against. He also did not give up an earned run over his last seven outings. With the idea he should be stretched out to start, Jay will probably begin 2016 back at High-A Fort Myers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Dougie Baseball: The One That Got Away?

Doug Mientkiewicz was more of a fan favorite than he ever was a prolific Twins player. Just under a .280 hitter over the course of seven seasons, Dougie baseball clubbed 43 home runs and 266 runs batted in. He was a Gold Glove winner once, and an integral part of some good Twins teams. Now back in the fold as a minor league manager, he could be the one that got away.

When Mientkiewicz left the Twins as a player, he turned into somewhat of a journeyman. Playing six more season in the big leagues, and never for the same team, his career was never again what it was under Ron Gardenhire. As a manager though, the expectation should be that Dougie Baseball finds himself as more of a staple.

After Minnesota fired Gardenhire following the 2014 season, consideration was given to Mientkiewicz for the big league managerial job. Ultimately we know that Paul Molitor ended up with the post, and Mientkiewicz was assigned to the super team on the farm, the Chattanooga Lookouts.

A year removed from an 82-57 record and a Florida State League title with the Fort Myers Miracle, Mientkiewicz was tasked to follow up the performance. Given players like Jose Berrios, Byron Buxton, and Miguel Sano, it seemed like the Lookouts team was all but destined to do just that. Inevitably however, promotions happened, and Mientkiewicz was forced to get creative in Tennessee. Doing just that, the end result wound up being the same, with the Lookouts boasting a 76-61 record and winning the Southern League Title.

That brings us to where we are today. Doug Mientkiewicz now owns a 237-174 record as a manager, and has won a league title in both of the past two seasons. His .577 winning percentage is impressive on it's own, and the titles simply add more weight to his list of accomplishments. While the track record is great to admire, it's quite possibly ready to become a detriment to the Twins.

Going into 2016, Minnesota will have some roster decisions to make, but getting Mientkiewicz to the big leagues is going to be a must. In a recent radio interview in the Twin Cities, Mientkiewicz said, "That's the goal at the end of this thing for me, obviously I wanted it to be with us." Managing at the highest level still remains his goal, but the Twins will need to delay that the best way they can.

For Terry Ryan and Paul Molitor, the delay may come in the form of adding Mientkiewicz to the big league staff in a prominent role. Whether it be a bench coach, or one of the base coaches, Doug is looking for more. As soon as teams are able, other major league franchises will be knocking at his door.

Whether or not Mientkiewicz is ready to leave the Twins again is only known by him. It would be best served by Minnesota to delay that process as long as possible. He has all the makings of a great coach, and seeing him leave this early would be unfortunate.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Terry's Trades A Bright Spot For Big Offseason

The Minnesota Twins weren't supposed to be much of anything this season. Paul Molitor was expected to inherit a team finishing closer to 90 losses than 90 wins. September would be another month highlighted by call-ups and talks of the future. Then the season happened, and none of that took place. Looking at the offseason, it's Terry Ryan's recent decisions that provide the biggest bright spot for what will be an extremely important 2016.

In 2014, the Minnesota Twins were taking on water and going nowhere fast. A fourth straight 90 loss season had very few highlights, but one of the greatest was a trade that got very little respect. Twins GM Terry Ryan grabbed Sam Fuld off of the Oakland Athletics scrap heap. Entering the season with little outfield depth, Fuld was a need for Minnesota. Then as the roster shifted later in the season, Fuld became an even bigger asset.

With the Athletics poised for a postseason run, Oakland wanted its speedster and defensive asset back in the fold. In return, they sent major league caliber starting pitcher Tommy Milone to the Twins. Milone owns a 4.08 ERA across 21 starts for the Twins in 2015. At times, he's looked like their best starter. His 6.3 K/9 is amongst the best of his career, and being under team control until 2019 makes him a valuable depth piece. For virtually nothing, Ryan had worked a great deal for his club.

Then, with the Twins in position to make a playoff run this season, Ryan did it again. This time, Minnesota would be on the market for relief pitching. A bad bullpen needed help down the stretch, but shying away from sacrificing the future needed to remain the goal.

Ryan plucked Chih-Wei Hu from High-A Fort Myers and sent him to Tampa Bay for Kevin Jepsen. Hu was having a great season (2.38 ERA across 16 starts in the organization), but he was never regarded as a top prospect. As little more than a lottery ticket, and with pitching depth abundant for the Twins, Ryan cashed in for a strong major league asset.

Jepsen joined the Twins with a 2.81 ERA in 46 games for the Rays. Since getting to Minnesota, his 1.96 ERA, 2.88 FIP, and 7.8 K/9 marks have all been even better than what he left. He's also filled in as closer (7 saves) for an injured Glen Perkins. On top of that, Ryan once again got a controllable asset in that Jepsen doesn't hit free agency until 2017.

Two seasons, two great trades. Now what's next?

As Minnesota embarks on the offseason and begins to prepare for the 2016 season, there should be plenty of roster shuffling. In looking at the landscape of the organization, I was able to come up with just 14 players who should be considered roster locks. That group would include: Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, Kevin Jepsen, Trevor May, Glen Perkins, Ervin Santana, Kurt Suzuki, Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Trevor Plouffe, Miguel Sano, Eduardo Escobar, Aaron Hicks, and Eddie Rosario. That gives us a starting point.

Based on the above grouping, the Twins should have three of their five starters accounted for (Gibson/Hughes/Santana), two relievers (Jepsen/Perkins), second basemen (Dozier), first basemen (Mauer), and third basemen (Plouffe). What that means, is that there's plenty of roster uncertainty left. In a season the Twins should begin to start a chain of consecutive playoff seasons, it will be on Ryan to improve and remove that uncertainty.

Thankfully, the Twins have some expendable assets down on the farm. There's maybe not room for Jorge Polanco, Oswaldo Arcia could be on the outs; what happens to Vargas or Santana? How does Max Kepler fit, and are all of the promising relief arms going to make their debuts with the Twins? Each of those questions need answers, but in packaging some of the questions as assets, Ryan could boost the Twins from outside.

It's fun knowing that the Twins organization has one of the best farm systems in the league, and it's tough feeling an excitement to seeing those players realize their potential. The fact of the matter though is that not all will, at least here. Minnesota should find themselves relatively active in the trade market over the winter, Ryan absolutely has the pieces to move. Pushing the floor higher by executing more Jepsen type trades (proven/quality major league talent) should be part of the blueprint.

It's far too early to speculate who Ryan and the Twins may target, or who they may deal. What isn't too early to tell however, is that when looking at recent trade history, Terry Ryan absolutely knows what he's doing.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Indians Hold Twins Key To Postseason

The Minnesota Twins have 13 games left in the 2015 Major League Baseball season. As things stand currently, they have 76 wins, and will likely need to get at least 84 to make the playoffs. 2.5 games back in the Wild Card race, the Twins path to the postseason will go through the AL Central.

Earlier this morning, I dissected the Twins final slate. The rest of the way, they have a three game home series with the Indians, travel to Detroit for three, then to Cleveland for four, before finishing with three against the Royals at home. Looking at what I believe it will take to play in October, here's where I see Minnesota needing wins:
  • vs Indians win 2
  • @ Tigers win 3
  • @ Indians win 2
  • vs Royals win 2
In total, that would put Paul Molitor's squad at 85 wins and 77 losses. Detroit is all but cooked, at 69-79 17.5 games back in the AL Central. The Royals likely will be resting players in a meaningless series to end the regular season. That has the Twins postseason chances hanging in the balance with the Indians in their way.

Picked by Sports Illustrated to win the World Series, the Indians are not going to make that a reality. What they could do though, playing Minnesota in over half of the Twins final games, is end the cinderella run to the playoffs for their divisional foe. Coincidentally, it was the Indians pitching staff that was routinely noted as why Cleveland would be in the postseason hunt. Now that is the same group that could end the Twins chances.

With the probables set for the home series, Minnesota will face Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, and Cody Anderson. That means the Twins should see Kluber, Anderson, Carlos Carrasco, and Josh Tomlin when the teams face of next week at Progressive Field. If Minnesota is going to go on a ridiculous 9-4 run to close out the season, they are absolutely going to have to earn it.

On the year, Salazar has dominated the Twins. He's struck out 21 batters in 13 innings, and he's ceded just three runs across his two performances. Kluber got off to a rocky start in 2015, but has been lights out since. Despite coming off of the DL and likely having a pitch limit, he's always a threat to hold a team down. Both Carrasco and Tomlin have given the Indians quality production this season, and with the Twins all but knowing their fate during the four gamer in Ohio, both outings will be magnified.

Minnesota and Cleveland have played 12 times this season. So far, the Twins have won seven of the matchups, and are 4-3 at home, while being 3-3 on the road. If Paul Molitor's club is going to follow the earlier proposed win schedule, they'll need to finish 11-8 against Terry Francona's club.

Working in the Twins favor is the current offensive production from formerly slumping players. Torii Hunter, who slashed just .130/218/.246 in the month of August, has been on fire in September. The 40 year-old has hit .356/.377/.559 with 3 HR and 11 RBI thus far this month. He's been joined by Trevor Plouffe, who just ended an 11 game hit streak in which he slashed .378/.439/.676 with 3 HR and 8 RBI. Add in the noted production of Miguel Sano, and the fact that Eduardo Escobar has hit .321/.353/.616 since Aug 18, and the Twins offense has pieces.

For Minnesota, it will come down to the pitching matchups keeping them in the game. The three game home series will feature Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, and Kyle Gibson. The first and last have been great of late, while Hughes has scuffled since coming off of the DL. Knowing the importance of the road series as well, I'd hope Molitor is looking to get some order of Tyler Duffey, Santana, Gibson, and Hughes to square off during the road series.

At this point, it's a definite uphill battle for the Twins to squeak their way into the postseason. If they can hold down their own win column, watching the Astros, Rangers, and Angels beat each other up could be a lot of fun. Taking one game at a time, Minnesota has familiar foes ahead, and the Indians most often.

If Molitor's club has a few more dance parties left in the tank, it'd be best served to bring them all out now.

It's Officially Awards Season

Just about a year ago now, I became a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. In an effort to bring writers and bloggers from the interwebs together in a common group, the IBWAA was formed on July 4, 2009. Separate and different from the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America), the IBWAA does things similarly, but on its own accord.

As the Major League Baseball season comes to a close, the IBWAA and its members participate in the first voting process of the season (with Hall of Fame voting taking place in December). Looking to tab the MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year, and Reliever of the Year for both leagues, the IBWAA ballots have been sent out.

After putting in some significant amount of time sorting through possible candidates, my ballot has been cast, and selections have been accounted for. In an effort to create transparency, here's my votes and reasons why.

American League

MVP- Mike Trout .291/.394/.580 94 R 26 2B 5 3B 39 HR 85 RBI 173 OPS+ 7.7fWAR

If you've watched the American League landscape at all this season, you're more than well aware that the MVP race has been a two man conversation. While Josh Donaldson has been unbelievable for the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Canadian team will make the playoffs, it's Trout who's the most valuable.

Without the contributions of Trout, the Angels aren't in the position they find themselves with a handful of games to play. Arguably the sports best athlete, Trout has been an offensive juggernaut, while also getting it done with his glove. His 3 DRS (defensive runs saved) are his best total since 2012, and he's put up better numbers than his 2014 MVP winning totals. Back-to-back, Mike Trout is my AL MVP.

Cy Young- David Price 2.42 ERA 16 W 212 K 2.80 FIP 9.2 K/9 6.0 fWAR

After winning the AL Cy Young with the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2012, Price again gets my vote in 2015. Following a strong start to the year with the Detroit Tigers (2.53 ERA 3.07 FIP in 21 starts), he's been even better since being dealt to Toronto.

The Blue Jays surge has catapulted them from the outside looking in, to the head of the pack in the American League. Price has been unbelievable on the mound, positing a 2.17 ERA, 2.17 FIP, 10.7 K/9, and a 7-1 record in nine starts with his new team. I gave pitchers like Dallas Kuechel, Chris Archer, and even Carlos Carrasco a look, but Price runs away with this one.

Rookie of the Year- Miguel Sano .280/.396/.569 40 R 16 2B 17 HR 49 RBI 159 OPS+ 2.4 fWAR

Outside of the Trout vote, this is probably the most shocking on my ballot thus far. With players like Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor both having stellar rookie campaigns, Sano could be argued to be on the outside looking in. However, it's what Sano has done despite his limitations that make him the recipient of my vote.

Playing in exactly 20 less games than Correa (and virtually never playing the field), he trails the Astros shortstop by just 0.4 fWAR (2.8 fWAR for Correa). Sano has launched on less homer, and has driven in more runs. Boiled down to the basic principle, in every way, Sano has been the best rookie hitter in the American League. Correa and Lindor provide defensive value, but for me, it's not enough to trump the impressive reality of what the Twins star has done at the plate.

Manager- Jeff Banister (80-69 first in AL West)

After the departure of Ron Washington, the Rangers seemed thrown into somewhat of a frenzy. With an odd roster construction, and a division already given to the Mariners or Angels, Texas had no business winning. In 2015 though, that's exactly what has happened.

Banister kept the Rangers in it through the midst of the summer. Cole Hamels came over, and while he hasn't been great, has signified Texas intended to win. Behind the stand out season from Prince Fielder, the Rangers have done just that. After a sweep of the then first place Houston Astros, Texas has taken over and hasn't looked back. It's been an impressive 2015 for Banister and his club.

Reliever- Zach Britton 2.04 ERA 34 SV 1.99 FIP 11.1 K/9

Although the Orioles are going to miss the playoffs, it won't be because of the man at the back end of their pen. Zach Britton, who was converted to a closer just a season ago, has been lights out in 2015. After a strong first season as the man in the ninth, Britton has been even better this time around.

While Britton did rack up 37 saves a season ago, along with a 1.65 ERA, it's the peripherals that jump off the page. A 3.13 FIP in 2014 suggested that Britton was pitching over his head. There's also the 11.1 K/9 in 2015, a mark almost four strikoeuts per nine higher than any other point in his career. The first time All Star has had an outstanding season, and Britton is my AL Reliever of the Year.

National League

MVP- Bryce Harper .343/470/.674 116 R 35 2B 41 HR 95 RBI 206 OPS+ 9.6 fWAR

I almost feel as if there's no need to explain this, and there really isn't. Bryce Harper is having a season that will likely not be replicated for years to come. It doesn't matter that his team isn't going to make the playoffs, or that his manager is clueless. Bryce Harper walks away with the NL MVP this year, and even crazier, he put up these numbers at the age of 22.

Cy Young- Zack Greinke 1.65 ERA 18 W 185 K 2.77 FIP 8.0 K/9 5.5 fWAR

It's probably unfair looking at what the Dodgers have as a one-two punch in their starting rotation. Following Greinke, is 2015 Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. While Kershaw is my runner up in 2015, he just misses out on winning his 4th award and third straight.

Not only is Greinke's ERA dazzling this season, but he has been the catalyst that has been consistently accountable to get it done for the Dodgers. Los Angeles has some issues in the bullpen, and they may not win a World Series despite the massive payroll, but it won't have anything to do with Greinke.

Rookie of the Year- Kris Bryant .273/.369/.496 82 R 29 2B 25 HR 95 RBI 134 OPS+ 5.8 fWAR

Prior to the season, Bryant was billed by many as the best prospect in baseball and a generational talent. Thus far, he's held his own living up to the hype. On a Cubs team that has turned the corner in a big way, it's been Bryant (along with Anthony Rizzo) at the center of it.

His 25 home runs leads all rookie hitters. He's nearly plated 100 runs in just 139 games, and he was voted to the All Star game. Whatever way you cut it, Bryant has been as good as expected. Matt Duffy and Jung-ho Kang had great 2015's, but unfortunately they were chasing an unreachable goal.

Manager- Terry Collins (84-65 first in NL East)

Sometimes off things happen, because that's baseball. Terry Collins has seen his managerial exploits be chastised more often than not, but there's no pouring water on what the Mets have accomplished this season. Collins was given a massive boost named Yoenis Cespedes, but getting it done in 2015 ultimately reflects back to him.

Coming into the season with the Washington Nationals being crowned World Series winners from the get go, the Mets were an afterthought. Collins had his bunch hang around late enough into the season, and then he led them to deliver the haymaker effectively ending the Nats season a few weeks ago. The Mets are a World Series contender, and Terry Collins is in the middle of all of it.

Reliever- Mark Melancon 1.91 ERA 48 SV 2.91 FIP 6.6 K/9

Unlike Zach Britton in the American League, Melancon doesn't boast great peripheral numbers. He's taken steps back in FIP as well as his strikeout numbers. His ERA, though still sparkling, isn't where it's been either of the last two seasons either. What he has done is close out games, and a lot of them.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the best teams in the National League, and Melancon locking down games has been a key reason as to why. His 48 saves lead the big leagues, and outside of Trevor Rosenthal's 46, no one is particularly close.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Gordon Getting It Done For Kernels

After stumbling to a 90 loss season in 2013, the Minnesota Twins found themselves awarded the 5th overall pick in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft. With a couple of different options at their disposal, Terry Ryan and company went with high school shortstop Nick Gordon. With a lineage of great baseball surrounding him, and big league defensive skills showing already, Gordon was going to be a worthwhile project. In 2015 though, he's been the catalyst for what could be a Championship winning Cedar Rapids Kernels team.

Gordon spent his first professional season in the Appalachian Rookie League with the Elizabethton Twins. Despite a bat that would need time, he slashed .294/.333/.366 with 11 extra base hits in 57 games. The test though would come in his first full season of pro ball at the Low-A level. Sent to Cedar Rapids to begin 2015 at age 19, Gordon would be pushed early.

Through May 31, or the first 45 games of the season, the brother of Miami Marlins Dee Gordon found himself slashing just .230/.305/.281. With a brother pacing the NL in average, the other Gordon was doing anything but. Just five doubles and two triples under his belt, Gordon's speed was kept in check on the bases as well. Then, as spring turned to summer in Iowa, Gordon got going.

From June 1 until the end of the Cedar Rapids season, a period of 75 games, Nick Gordon paced the lineup with a .304/.355/.406 slash line. He roped 18 doubles, legged out five triples, and clubbed his first home run of the year. Gordon also scored 48 runs, drove in another 35, and stole 13 bases. The shortstop had now embarked into "offensive threat" territory.

Helping to push the Kernels to a 77-63 record on the season, Gordon fueled a playoff destined offense. With Cedar Rapids looking to grab a Midwest League title, it's been Gordon once again in the middle of it all. Prior to a 4-1 loss on Thursday to the West Michigan Whitecaps, Cedar Rapids was a perfect 5-0 in the playoffs. For Gordon, he's slashed .400/.407/.480 with two doubles and three runs across six games.

Now just two games away from lifting the end of the season hardware, it will likely be Gordon again that helps to push the Kernels to the finish line. Turning five double plays and making just one error in 55.0 innings, Gordon continues to get it done on both sides of the field. Still just 19, but eyeing the next level, it's season's like 2015 that the Twins envisioned out of Gordon when they took him.

For the immediate future, shortstop will be manned by Eduardo Escobar or whatever free agent the Twins choose to bring in over the offseason. Down the line though, Nick Gordon continues to trend in the right direction, and 2015 has been a nice launching pad for the Kernels star.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Twins Other Rookie

Thus far, I've been pretty vocal in my belief that it's Miguel Sano who (and not Carlos Correa), that deserves the AL Rookie of the Year award. In a crop of youth that is one of the strongest in recent memory, Sano, Correa, and Francisco Lindor have highlighted the field. The Twins have another rookie though that has been equally as important in 2015, and it isn't Byron Buxton.

Way back in March, I suggested that Eddie Rosario would be the first Twins prospect promoted to the big leagues, and that he would have a Danny Santana-like breakout this season. While he hasn't hit out of his mind like Santana did, he has substantiated his performance significantly more than the converted shortstop, and Rosario has been a catalyst for the Twins winning.

Drafted out of Puerto Rico in the 4th round of the Major League Baseball draft back in 2010, Rosario debuted for the Twins on May 6. His first game saw him go 1-4 with a run in a 13-0 Twins rout of the Athletics. Fast forward just over 100 games, and the numbers Rosario has put up have been nothing short of remarkable.

Handling his own at the big league level, Rosario has slashed .270/.291/.450 for the Twins. A free swinger that strikes out a bit too much while walking a bit too little, the production has showed up in other places. With 17 doubles, 12 triples, ten home runs, and 11 stolen bases, Rosario has been the king of extra bases for the Twins. He's also scored 50 runs and driven in another 42. Offensively, his game will need to evolve towards a better command of the zone, but in his first go round, he's fared extremely well.

Defensively, Rosario has been at the center of an outfield that has improved by leaps and bounds over a season ago. He has 15 outfield assists and has compiled 10 DRS (defensive runs saved). His 5.4 UZR (ultimate zone rating) and 7.2 UZR/150 (15.25 UZR/150 when not playing RF) marks are also plenty impressive. Playing in the grass with the likes of Buxton and Aaron Hicks, Rosario has helped to give the Twins what may be the fastest outfield in the big leagues.

Considering the depth of the Twins farm system, and the talent loaded at the top of it, Rosario has somewhat flown under the radar this season. He's generally thought of third among the likes of Sano and Buxton, and his prospect status never reached higher than being rated 60th overall prior to 2014 by Baseball Prospectus.

For a guy who has been linked to attitude problems, and suffered the setback of a drug suspension, 2015 has been a revelation for Rosario. A successful Arizona Fall League campaign in 2014 (.330/.345/.410 6 XBH 18 RBI in 24 G) seemed to be indicative of what was to come, and that's been exactly the case with how 2015 has played out for Eddie.

Going forward, Rosario will need to perfect his game and continue to work at the plate more significantly than that of more toolsy prospects Sano and Buxton. Rosario doesn't seem to have the proverbial cliff that Santana fell off of coming, but it is going to be on him to cut down on ways opponents can exploit his negative tendencies. This season has been much of what should have been expected from the former 4th rounder, but then there's also been much more than what was expected as well.

Rosario isn't given the due Sano has been, and he probably doesn't have the fanfare that Buxton carries. A lunch pail guy that has just gone to work, Rosario has quietly got it done, and he's been very good.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Who Toes The Playoff Rubber For The Twins?

Let me start this off by saying that I'm incredibly hopefully I'm not putting the cart in front of the horse here. As things stand, Minnesota is on the outside looking in, and trails both the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers. With the Los Angeles Angels not far behind, things will get interesting before they get sorted out. For argument's sake though, let's assume that the Twins are your second AL Wild Card team.

Rather than simply breaking down who starts a one game Wild Card contest for the Twins, I want to take things a step further. Should the Twins need a win and in situation (a game 163), or maybe they advance to the ALDS, here's how I would urge manager Paul Molitor to handle things on the bump.

Game 163

If the Twins keep going at the rate they are, separation isn't something that appears to be on the horizon. Minnesota has been jockeying with the AL West for most of the second half, and that's where they'd find a game 163 opponent. Minnesota owns a 1-2 record against the Angels, 3-3 versus the Astros, and 3-3 against the Rangers. Whoever the competitor is, there's only one man for the mound.

With a game 163 falling into the regular season category, PED-user Ervin Santana would be eligible to pitch in the game. The argument for who gets the ball should begin and end with Santana. Not eligible for the postseason, Minnesota utilizing their 2015 free agent signee in his final capacity is a must. There have been some rocky outings, but in his last 3 starts, Santana has been lights out. His 1.23 ERA and 27/4 K/BB ratio should play healthily towards helping the Twins advance. Allowing just a .228/.282/.304 slash line, Santana has continued to have the upper hand on opposing batters.

If Minnesota needs to get just one more win, the $55 million man in Santana is my choice.

AL Wild Card

Major League Baseball introduced the second wild card team recently, and in doing so have created a one game first round. With a full rotation not yet needed to be considered, the wild card game is another must win situation. The Yankees seem to be the likely team awaiting its opposition, but the Blue Jays could find themselves in the contest as well.

Despite ugly starts for Kyle Gibson against the Yankees (10.72 ERA across 5 starts), he's absolutely who I go with either way. Gibson has been one of Minnesota's best starters (if not the best) this season, and he's rolling off late (2.45 ERA since Aug 22). On the year, Gibson has added nearly a full strikeout to his career best 6.3 K/9, and he's walking batters at a career low 2.9 BB/9. On pace to push towards 200 innings, Gibson has been a horse for the Twins.

Not just a by-product of Santana's ineligibility and rotation uncertainty, Gibson is who I trust to start the playoffs.

Playoff Rotation

Under the assumption that the Twins and Molitor would look to utilize a traditional three-man rotation, we have two spots yet to decide. Gibson getting the ball for game one, the discussion would be between Mike Pelfrey, Tyler Duffey, Phil Hughes and Tommy Milone.

Of the three candidates, Milone is a lock for me. He's had a strong year pitching to the tune of a respectable 3.73 ERA. Owning a 3.67 ERA since his recall (Aug 16), and owning a 3.06 ERA in September, Milone is peaking at the right time. His low walk rate should spare him trouble, and giving the Twins a chance to win remains the ultimate goal.

Selecting a third starter, and a guy that I might start in front of Milone, would be Phil Hughes. Last season's ace, Hughes has been a different animal this time around. The home run problem has plagued him in 2015, and September is the only month in which he's yet to surrender a long ball (having made just one start). Hughes is still settling back in after a DL stint, and while he's capable of being a go to, the big run innings provide a level of uncertainty in the playoffs. Under different circumstances, I'd feel more confident about Hughes. Nonetheless, he's another lock for inclusion in the rotation.

Going with Gibson, Milone, and Hughes leaves both Pelfrey on the outside looking in. I think both pitchers can be very effective out of the bullpen (a role I think Duffey finds himself in during 2016). Pelfrey is going to pitch in long relief in the playoffs almost assuredly, but Duffey may not find himself on the 25. I'd keep Duffey over a bench bat, but that's another discussion.

At the end of the day (er September), we'll have a better idea if this discussion even matters. Should the Twins find themselves in one of these three positions though, these are the pitching situations I think the best playoff opportunity evolves from.

Byron Buxton And The Future

On June 14, 2015, the Minnesota Twins embarked on what they hoped would be a monumental day in the history of the franchise. Drafted 2nd overall in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft, Bryon Buxton was finally a member of the Twins active roster. Billed as baseball's best prospect, the expectations were through the roof. Now three months into his career, things haven't gone as expected.

Or maybe they have.

As of this writing, Buxton has played in 34 games, and slashed a paltry .202/.242/.272. He has one triple, six doubles, and just 23 hits in 114 at bats. He's struck out 39 times while drawing only five free bases. To put it lightly, the offensive output has been less than stellar. What is hasn't been though is unexpected.

Buxton tore up the farm system. He's a career .301/.383/.489 hitter across four seasons, and he batted .400/.441/.545 in 13 games at the Triple-A level this season. That's indicative more of what he's capable of than it is what should have been expected. Coming to the big leagues, Buxton was a Gold Glove caliber defender from the onset, but the bat was going to take some time.

At this point, Buxton's offensive repertoire is a direct reflection of his speed. He is putting the ball on the ground at a 47.8% rate as well as owning a 21.2 infield hit percentage. On top of needing to adjust to big league pitching, Buxton is doing himself few favors in regards to the strike zone. Swinging at 32.3% of pitches outside of the zone, he's chasing far too often. Reflected in his 69.3% contact rate, Buxton has room to improve when it comes to putting his pitch in play.

Aside from the numbers, Buxton has always been expected to hit, in time. Given a 70 grade by scouts, he's regarded as close to a sure thing at the plate. In time, the tools should absolutely become reality, and allow the former number one prospect to provide plus value at the plate. For now, that value is evidenced in other aspects.

Not going well at the plate, it's integral that Buxton find himself playing (and contributing) in the field often. Thus far, he's done exactly that. Playing 283 defensive innings in centerfield for the Twins, Buxton has already been worth 4 DRS (defensive runs saved). As things stand, Buxton would be on pace for 21 DRS over the course of 162 games. That mark would trail only Kevin Kiermaier's 38 this season for centerfielders in all of baseball.

In his first taste with the Twins, Buxton has not only gained extremely valuable experience, but he's given insight of what is, and what will be. Right now, a raw hitter and an incredibly good defender, Buxton is only half of the puzzle. What he should be expected to do, is draw his hitting ability more closer to that he has displayed with his glove.

Looking forward, Buxton's floor might be something like a better version of Mike Cameron. A guy that was a career .249/.338/.444 hitter and compiled a 50.7 fWAR across 16 seasons. Both offensively and defensively, Buxton should be superior at his worst. Looking at a doomsday scenario though, the Twins could do much worse. Speculating about the ceiling probably isn't fair. Buxton remains an incredible athlete and should be expected to take significant strides forward in 2016. Reaching his potential, he could find himself being a perennial All Star.

Keeping things in perspective, it's best to remember that what Buxton is providing the Twins in 2015 is far less important than what the Twins are providing him. Allowing the floor to be raised, Buxton's future is only a glimmer at this point, but it still remains plenty bright.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Twins Silent Star

This season, the Minnesota Twins have risen well above expectations. More likely to lose 90 games than be a playoff team, Paul Molitor has his squad in a very unexpected position. Getting key contributions from big names like Brian Dozier and Miguel Sano, the Twins offense has been rolling of late. There's another star that has not gotten near the publicity deserved however.

Trevor Plouffe.

Thought of as a placeholder at third base until Sano forced a position changed for either himself or Plouffe, it has been Trevor who has evolved into a lunch-pail type player. After a breakout season in 2014, Plouffe has followed it up by coming to the field every day and simply getting it done. Putting substantial credibility into his impressive 2014 campaign, Plouffe is on pace for plenty of career highs this season.

Through 135 games (which is just one shy of his career high) Plouffe owns a .250/.313/.445 slash line. To this point, the Twins third-basemen has 127 hits, 31 doubles, four triples, 20 home runs, 79 runs batted in, and 44 walks. Per FanGraphs, Plouffe owns a 2.6 fWAR the second highest mark of his career.

Looking at detractors, the biggest slide has been Plouffe's defensive prowess. A year after posting a career best 6 DRS (defensive runs saved) at the hot corner, he owns a -2 mark this season. Plouffe's UZR (ultimate zone rating) has also taken a hit falling from 6.7 a year ago to just 2.7 this season. Effectively however, that's where the negatives end.

On pace to accumulate new career highs in games played, runs, hits, triples (already accomplished), runs batted in, and potentially walks and home runs, 2015 has been a smashing success. The 29 year-old former first round pick has begun to enter his prime, and the Twins are better for it. With Dozier and Sano slotting in close to him in the lineup, it has been Plouffe that has provided the stability.

Going forward, much has been made about the eventual position change that either Plouffe or Sano will need to make. Despite Plouffe having played everything but catcher, pitcher, and centerfield at the major league level, that decision doesn't need to be made yet. Plouffe can spell Joe Mauer when he needs to, and Sano can operate as the team's primary designated hitter. No matter how Molitor chooses to utilize Sano, Plouffe, and Mauer, there's room for each in the foreseeable future.

Knowing what Plouffe brings to the Twins, it's probably best for Minnesota to be looking to pay him, rather than to trade him. Currently signed on a one-year $4.8 million deal, arbitration will become expensive in 2016. Not a free agent until 2018, Minnesota could do right by Plouffe and save themselves some money by buying out the next two years of arbitration while grabbing a year of free agency in the process.

At 32 years-old in 2018, Plouffe should still be expected to be roughly the same player he currently is. Minnesota has been the beneficiary of a California kid who has gotten it done in a big way the last two seasons. It's now time to make sure he's part of the future as well.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Twins Second Ortiz

Recently, David Ortiz launched his 500th HR for the Boston Red Sox. In doing so, he has entered into one of baseball's sacred number territories. Joining a group that is supposed to all but guarantee Hall of Fame admittance, Ortiz's story began in Minnesota. With the career coming to an end, another Twins prospect may be following in similar footsteps.

At 21 years-old, Ortiz made his major league debut for the Twins. A power hitting prospect, Ortiz was expected to hold down the heart of the lineup for years to come. In his first 15 games, he slashed .327/.353/.449 with one home run, and six runs batted in. Still needing to grow into his frame, it was a promising start for what was always expected to be more.

Fast forward six seasons, and Ortiz had compiled a .266/.348/.461 slash line for Minnesota. His 58 home runs and 238 RBI averaged out to just 9.6 and 39.6 per year respectively. For a guy who left plenty to be desired in the field, the paltry numbers weren't going to help a Twins team looking to turn the corner. Terry Ryan made the decision to hand Ortiz his walking papers.

In the 13 seasons since, Ortiz has gone on to become "Big Papi" for the Boston Red Sox. He's compiled a .289/.385/.566 slash line and has launched 442 homers with 1,390 runs batted in. Ortiz launched 30 or more home runs nine times in that span, and has been at the heart of three World Series titles.

Forget the fact that Ortiz likely won't be getting his due in Cooperstown any time soon (he can thank PEDs for that), or that he's tortured the Twins throughout his career. Minnesota may be in a position to watch it unfold all over again.

At the age of 22, back in 2013, Minnesota saw the debut of Venezuelan outfielder Oswaldo Arcia. Like Ortiz, Arcia was an expected power threat that couldn't be much more than a defensive liability. In his first 219 games for Minnesota, Arcia has slashed .243/.305/.437. The Twins have seen 36 home runs from Arcia, and he's driven in 108 runs, those are numbers Minnesota would have liked to see in a single year.

Outside of the defensive issues, Arcia has a couple of other pretty large detractors working against him. Inside of the batter's box, Arcia owns a career 259/58 K/BB ratio. That equates to roughly 4.5 strikeouts per walks, and striking out in about one-third of his at bats. Then there's the attitude problems. A guy who rarely seems to show max effort, and often reacts emotionally, Minnesota has failed to draw his full potential.

Now with 2015 coming to a close, and 2016 being a pivotal point, Terry Ryan will have to decide his plan of action.

Arcia enters 2016 out of options. Should he start the season with the Twins, Minnesota would have to expose him to waivers in sending him to the farm. On a team that already is going to have Byron Buxton, Aaron Hicks, and Eddie Rosario in the outfield, Arcia is going to struggle to find time. Should he play in a reserve role, Arcia will then have his maturity and resolve tested.

As things stand, the path Arcia has traveled has somewhat resembled Ortiz's career for the Twins. While I'm not ready to say Arcia figures it out for someone else, I'm also not sure I'd be ok with Terry Ryan finding out. The last player the Twins let get away should be someday preparing a Hall of Fame speech, the next one they may let get away has a crossroads approaching very soon.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Torii's Sunset Ride Has Begun

In the middle of the cold Minnesota winter, Terry Ryan made his first splash during the hot stove period in inking fan-favorite Torii Hunter to a one-year $10.5 million contract. At the time of the signing, I hated the move. While the personnel that influenced parts of that opinion has changed drastically since, bringing Torii back for 2016 should be met with the same amount of distaste.

At 40 years old coming into 2015, expectations needed to be admittedly muted for the former Gold Glove award winner. No better a defender than the supplanted Oswaldo Arcia at this point in his career, Minnesota was paying a hefty chunk of change for a "leadership" characteristic. Whether that leadership has paid off or not is unquantifiable. In his first press conference, Torii got heated with local media. He then redeemed himself by rejuvenating a clubhouse with post-victory dance celebrations. There's been a bit of both, but it's been arguably more bad than good.

What Torii has given the Twins on the field is a whole different story however.

To date in 2015, Hunter has played 118 games, the lowest total since his age 33 season (119 for the Angels). He's slashed just .234/.290/.399 with 18 home runs (the most since 2011) and 64 RBI. Prior to the All Star Break, Hunter's .257/.312/.444 line with 14 HR and 49 RBI looked the part of a middle-aged, producer in the outfield. Then there came the decline. Since August 1st, Hunter has been given 25 starts, slashing just .165/.238/.275 and given the Twins just six extra base hits.

Offensively, it has been easy to see the stark contrast in Hunter's first and second half of his 2015 season. On the defensive side, things haven't been pretty either, but the performance (or lack thereof) has been a consistent negative. In 2015, Hunter has been worth -11 DRS (defensive runs saved) as well as a -1.7 UZ (ultimate zone rating), and -2.6 UZR/150. His four errors are the second highest total of his career, despite playing in the third lowest amount of games. To sum it up, the perceived defensive liability has been every bit as was imagined.

Coming into the 2015 season, Minnesota and Terry Ryan had a pass in the debatable move of Hunter's acquisition. Veteran leadership was no doubt a needed commodity, and the outfield had plenty of question marks on it's own. In 2016, Minnesota will still remain somewhat light on the veteran aspect of things, but the outfield is now a position of strength, sans Hunter.

There's no logical way for Hunter to expect the same kind of payday he received this season, but even at a massive discount, there's a bigger issue at play. Fangraphs quantifies Hunter's worth in 2015 at $700k (he's been worth just 0.1fWAR). While $700k is nothing in terms of a contract, the roster spot is worth so much more to the Twins. On a big league team with options, Hunter occupying one of them doesn't seem like a good decision.

A year from now, Byron Buxton, Aaron Hicks, Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano, and some combination of Max Kepler, Oswaldo Arcia, and Kennys Vargas will make up the outfield and designated hitter contingent for the Twins. With six of the 25 roster spots being spoken for with that grouping, adding Hunter to that equation seems like a tough ask. It's a tough decision for a team paying homage to a former great, but moving forward, it's an easy ask.

Hunter's 2015 struggles as the season comes to a close help to usher in the change. It doesn't need to be a solid boot out the door, but Hunter's sunset ride can continue to take place. 2015 has been a season of exceeded expectations, and while the veteran leadership portion has been of benefit, things begin and end there.

Someday Torii Hunter be inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame, and maybe have his number retired. The post playing days beginning in 2016 will help to usher in that next phase. Hunter's performance has started the process, and the Twins must follow suit.

Gardy The Great Flipping Sides

It was inevitable right? I mean after all, how long could the 57 year-old Gardenhire sit down in Florida puffing on stogies? Eventually, the former Minnesota Twins manager was going to find a new job, and it would be much to the chagrin of Twins Territory. What might have been unexpected is that said new job would come within the AL Central and have Gardy staring into the Twins dugout from the other side.

That scenario looks very much like it will come to fruition at this point.

It was reported by the Detroit Free Press this morning that Detroit Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus was managing his final few games. Compiling a 143-127 record across just under two seasons, Ausmus has drawn the ire of Tigers owner Mike Illitch. The Little Caesar's entrepreneurial mogul has decided that former team President Dave Dombrowski isn't the only one needing to go in 2015. Ausmus is set to be relieved of his duties following the season.

With the managerial opening for the Tigers being announced this morning, information has been relatively fluid. One of the first names brought up as a potential successor was Gardenhire's. Then reports began to surface that the former Twins skipper was not only the front-runner, but likely the already decided upon choice.

Gardenhire took the 2015 season off after being replaced by Paul Molitor following the end of a fourth straight 90 loss season in 2014. Despite showing up at Twins spring training this season, Gardenhire has laid low and flown under the radar. Linked to the Miami Marlins job following the firing of Mike Redmond, Gardenhire stayed put. Now with the American League opening presented to him, and in the Central division nonetheless, it may be time to return to the dugout.

There was never any doubt that Gardenhire would once again manage, but a National League team always seemed to be an odd connection. The Marlins job was never one coveted by many (the franchise is notably poorly run), and Gardenhire may be in over his head. Managing for 13 years in the American League, a guy not known as an innovator would have to adjust to a completely different game in the NL.

Should he become the Tigers eventual choice, the fit would seem to make a lot of sense. Gardenhire has compiled a 1068-1039 record across 13 years in the AL Central. Of the major league franchises, the Tigers would be one of the few Gardenhire would find himself relatively familiar with. Detroit also is not far from his roots established in Minnesota and would provide another layer of comfort when getting back into the business.

The biggest question may be in regards to what Illitch and the Tigers believe they are getting in the longtime Twins manager. Ausmus is no doubt being fired for failed expectations. Given premium pieces to make World Series runs, he is 0-3 in his lone postseason appearance, and will miss them in 2015. While given a less than impressive bullpen a season ago, Ausmus no doubt did less with more. What's curious, is that the same could be said about Ron Gardenhire.

Despite a 2010 Manager of the Year award, and six AL Central Division titles (compared to just four for the Tigers in his tenure), Gardenhire's playoff ability has plenty of unanswered questions. The Twins advanced to the ALCS just once under Gardenhire (losing 4-1 to the Angels), and were swept three times in the ALDS (twice by the Yankees, and once by the Athletics). As a whole, Gardenhire's playoff record stands at just 6-21 (good enough for a .222 win percentage). Added up, it would appear the Tigers may be fixing a question with somewhat of another one.

Manager's are somewhat of a fickle beast, and we've seen that this season more than ever. Matt Williams, the Washington Nationals manager with just 2014 as his previous experience, has fallen flat on his face. Williams took a star-studded team and effectively ended their playoff hopes with his own inability. Then there's Dan Jennings (who took over in Miami for Redmond), coming in having never managed or played at any level, who's compiled a 39-57 record (or virtually the same as his predecessor in Redmond). What we have learned over the course of 2015 is that often, major league franchises perception of managers becomes reality.

If Illitch and the Tigers do intend on hiring Ron Gardenhire to take over in 2016, it will be because their perception trumps documented reality. Gardenhire is a very good manager, but he's had many of the same shortcomings (albeit in a larger dose) than Ausmus. Detroit has changed their culture to be deep playoff runs or bust, and Gardenhire could get them there, but he also couldn't. If the Tigers don't address their lackluster farm, poor relief help, and spending habits, it won't matter who's in the dugout.

Ron Gardenhire deserves another chance at managing. It's going to be odd for Twins fans to see it come in Detroit. He could succeed there, but it may not have much to do with his own accord.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Twins Gem In The Pen

In recent seasons, the Minnesota Twins have not been in the best position to make moves at the trade deadline. A winning club for the first time since 2010, Terry Ryan was awarded a new opportunity this season. With a handful of different upgrade possibilities at his disposal, it was the bullpen piece that he acquired making it two straight slam dunk deals for the Twins.

A season after snagging major league quality starter Tommy Milone from the Athletics, Ryan turned his attention to a pitching starved pen. The Twins bullpen had been one of the worst in the big leagues through the first half of 2015, and if the club was even going to sniff a playoff opportunity, finishing games needed to be less stressful.

As the deadline drew to a close, Ryan sent lottery ticket prospect Chih-Wei Hu to the the Tampa Bay Rays for veteran Kevin Jepsen. Despite Hu owning a sub 3.00 ERA for the Fort Myers Miracle, he was a fringe prospect that Minnesota turned into a major league commodity. Jepsen came to the Twins under a one-year, $3.03 million deal and a year of team control in 2016.

Despite a potentially concerning 4.20 FIP for the Rays, and an ugly first outing for the Twins, Jepsen has been everything Minnesota has needed. Since that first blow-up outing, Jepsen has allowed just a single earned run across 18.1 IP. He's given up just nine hits, and five walks, while striking out 17 in that span. Allowing just a .141/.203/.188 slash line against, his 0.49 ERA is dazzling. To say Jepsen has revitalized the Twins bullpen would be an understatement.

Jepsen has also taken aim at some of his own peripherals. The once inflated FIP has settled in at 3.04 with the Twins. He's also hitting the strike zone 64% of the time, compared to 61% while with the Rays. Then there's the added responsibility that the newest Twins reliever has taken on.

Despite Glen Perkins being baseball's best closer through the first half of the season, the second half has been a different story. Marred by injury, Minnesota's 9th inning role was up in the air, until Jepsen stepped in. He's picked up seven saves for the Twins (blowing none). Just one run has crossed in those seven innings, and he's fanned nine while giving up just four hits. Not traditionally a closer (just 12 saves in 7 seasons prior to his time with the Twins), Jepsen has looked every bit the part.

Maybe somewhat poetically, a closer is absolutely what Minnesota and Terry Ryan were hoping for in Jepsen. With a renewed sense of purpose in 2015, a bullpen unable to hold onto leads and close out games wasn't going to get it done. Targeting a low cost option, with future benefit, Jepsen has proved to be an acquisition that Minnesota can look back and smile upon.

Over the course of the season, prolonged strength in relief hasn't been something the Twins could much point to. Aside from Perkins, Trevor May, and times of Blaine Boyer, things have been bleak. When Minnesota needed it most though, they got Kevin Jepsen, and became better for it.

Whether the Twins make the playoffs or not, Jepsen has been a diamond in the rough for Molitor and Neil Allen. He's been at the center of Minnesota's September pursuits, and should be expected to continue that trend into 2016 as well.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Who Is This Kyle Gibson?

So here we are, the 2015 Major League Baseball season is quickly rumbling to a finish, and the Minnesota Twins have made it a relevant year. In the playoff hunt, and playing meaningful September baseball, the Twins are in a good place. With the performance though, there are no doubt players that have taken steps forward. The question is, does Kyle Gibson qualify among them?

Coming into the season, Gibson was a pitcher I expected a lot out of. A former first round pick and top Twins pitching prospect, Gibson needed to push the envelope. Now 27 years old, his experience was teetering into veteran territory, and there's no doubt that Minnesota was hoping the results would follow. With new pitching coach Neil Allen getting to work with him for the first time, Gibson had plenty of opportunity in front of him.

The lone full season in his career at the big league level, 2014, Gibson owned a 4.47 ERA in 31 starts for a bad Twins team. He pitched 179.1 innings, struck out 107, walked 57, gave up 12 home runs, and owned a 1.310 WHIP. For all intents and purposes, the numbers were mediocre across the board. On a team with bad starters, Gibson was an ok-at-best back-end option. With a retooled 2015 rotation, the Twins were hoping Gibson could push towards possessing the middle-to-top type stuff he once was billed as.

In 2015 (as of this writing), Gibson owns a 3.87 ERA. He's started 28 games and has pitched 172.0 innings. The former Missouri Tiger has struck out 119 batters and walked 57, while allowing a career high 16 home runs. All told, he's compiled a 1.291 WHIP in 2015. On the surface, it's somewhat difficult to suggest what context that gives the year-by-year improvement Gibson has seen. Taking a closer look starts to open things up however.

First, the start Gibson has was simply brilliant. From April 15 through May 30, Gibson was one of the best in the big leagues. A span of nine starts saw him throw to the tune of a 1.85 ERA and just a .237/.302/.363 slash line against. An rough stretch in the middle of the year inflated things, but then has once again been evened out by a strong finish. In four starts since August 22, Gibson owns a 3.20 ERA and has allowed opposing hitters to slash just .228/.291/.315 off of him.

Continuing with a beginning and end trend, Gibson actually has fared the opposite over the course of games themselves. In 2015, the first inning has been one of his worst. Allowing 17 first inning runs and 34 hits, Gibson has been hit around to a 5.46 ERA in getting the first three outs of a game. As contests go on as well, his finish has been difficult. Reaching the sixth inning in 24 of his 28 starts (and advancing beyond just 11 times), the righty owns a 6.52 ERA.

What he has done well though is bounce back. In the second inning, and high leverage situations, Gibson has been at his best. In the second, Gibson owns a 2.25 ERA, and has allowed just eight runs. After pitching to less than advantageous situations, he's allowed opposing hitters to bat just .219/.319/.281 (his lowest slash line allowed across three possible situations).

Quite possibly the biggest improvement Gibson has seen in 2015 is being great when good, and well, less bad when bad. To be fair, every pitcher has better numbers when generating a win than a loss, but Gibson has bee drastically more impressive. In 2014, the Twins starter owned a 1.42 ERA, 1.045 WHIP, and 5.7 K/9 in wins. He was hit around to the tune of an 11.04 ERA, 1.962 WHIP, and just a 4.6 K/9 in losses. 2015 has been a different story. This season, it's a dazzling 0.87 ERA, 0.952 WHIP, and 6.2 K/9 in wins, with a better 7.38 ERA, 1.752 WHIP, and 6.0 K/9 in losses. Capitalizing on success, and limiting the damage, it's been a complete improvement for the former top prospect.

Having taken a deeper diver into the good, it seems that Gibson is, if nothing else, targeted in his excellence. Needing to settle in and focus, he's at his best. Being stretched out and coming into a game, he can be taken advantage of. It's not all positive however.

Arguably the most concerning numbers Kyle Gibson has produced in 2015 fall into the peripheral statistics category. Looking at FIP (fielding independent pitching) and BB/9, there's some cause for concern. Gibson owns a 4.07 FIP last year (compared to a 3.80 FIP in 2014) and a 3.0 BB/9 (up just 0.1 over 2014). There's some explanation for the former, but maybe not for the latter.

A season ago, the Twins were historically bad defensively, especially in the outfield. For a guy who utilizes the ground ball, pitches shouldn't get to the outfield. Owning a 54.4% ground ball rate in 2014, the 52.7% mark this season is a step backwards. His increased line drive percentage (19.0% in 2014, 20.2% in 2015) also doesn't help things. While the outfield defense is markedly better now, Gibson is also making it work harder behind him.

Although Gibson isn't walking a a much higher rate of batters, the fact that it hasn't decreased is less than ideal. Improvement in the strikeout category is a nice plus, but for a guy fanning only six per nine on average, three walks per nine is hefty. Gibson has utilized his changeup the most in his career in 2015 (19.5%), likely in large part to Allen's instruction. The increased pitch usage could be helping the strikeouts, while making the zone a bit more difficult to maintain. Right now, Gibson's walk rate isn't a problem, but toeing right in the middle of the line, you'd rather not see it become one either.

So, here we are, some ups and some downs, but that's probably what you're going to get with Gibson. I'm not sure he ever looked the part of a one or two pitcher, but at this point it's fair to pencil him in as a solid number three. If the Twins make the playoffs, he can be trusted on the mound to keep you in the game, and really, that's about all you should be asking for. He's taken steps forward this season, and in an improved rotation, he's a big part of it.

Kyle Gibson probably isn't ever going to be the guy, but he's proven he's far more than just a guy too.