Friday, January 29, 2016

The Extended Phil Hughes

For the Minnesota Twins, pitching was absolutely an area of contention in recent years. As the team skidded towards 90 loss seasons for four years in a row, finding quality arms to fill out the starting rotation was a must, and a struggle. After emerging back into contention a season ago, the Twins took steps forward across the board. One man who wasn't a part of that equation was 2014 free agent signee, Phil Hughes.

As a 28 year-old in 2014, the Minnesota Twins inked Hughes as a free agent from the New York Yankees. The belief was that in abandoning the Cracker Jack box that was Yankee Stadium would lead to improved numbers for the former first round pick. That narrative couldn't have been more true.

In his first season with the Twins, Hughes set a Major League Baseball all time record in strikeouts per walk with an 11.63 K/BB rate. He offered free passes at just a 0.7 BB/9 rate, and turned his 3.52 ERA into a 7th place finish among Cy Young candidates. Had the defense behind him stepped up even further. his 2.65 FIP could've played even further, and his 8.0 K/9 would have held even more weight. By all measurable numbers, Phil Hughes' first season with the Twins was a smashing success.

Over the offseason, Minnesota extended Hughes who is now playing on a five-year, $58 million deal. He is signed with the Twins through 2019 and will be 33 years-old at that time. Following his extension, Hughes regressed. In 2015, the ace of the staff owned just a 4.40 ERA along with a 4.70 FIP. His K/9 numbers dipped to 5.4 although his walk rate stayed impressive at 0.9 per nine innings.

A season ago, the biggest detractor for Phil Hughes was the long ball. After allowing just 16 homers in his first season with the Twins, he gave up an American League leading 29 a season ago. It was the second worst mark of his career, and the worst since allowing 35 in 2012. In 27 starts a season ago, Hughes allowed home runs in 20 of them, surrendering at least one a month throughout the season. The damage could have been worse had 19 of those 29 not been solo shots. It's more than fair to say that limiting the long ball could have changed the season for Phil Hughes.

There were a couple of factors that no doubt aided the increase in home runs surrendered. Posting the worst mark in his career, Hughes saw 13.5% of the fly balls he allowed leave the yard. He gave up line drives over 24% of the time for the first time since 2008, and he gave up hard contact at a 31.2% rate, or a 4% jump from a season ago.

Pushing some of the change in effectiveness could be explained in Hughes experimenting with his arsenal. With new pitching coach Neil Allen in the fold, Hughes did some things different in comparison to 2014. Hughes threw just 59.2% of his pitches as fastballs, tying a career low set in 2011. He also threw more curveballs (15.7%) than he had since 2012 and had gone back to a changeup (4.8%) after all but abandoning the pitch in 2014 (0.2%). While not extremely drastic, the changes could have contributed to the issues the former Yankee experience.

Now heading into a second season with pitching coach Neil Allen, and a third with the Twins, we have probably seen both ends of the spectrum when it comes to Hughes. If he can fall somewhere in between the two extremes, the Twins will have to feel more than justified with their extension, and happy with a guy that can operate at the top of their rotation.

Steamer projections have him pegged for a 4.20 ERA along with a 4.25 FIP. The 6.05 K/9 mark would be a boost, but the system sees a decrease in walk rate now offering free passes at a 1.38 BB/9 clip. The most concerning number is that projections have Hughes pegged for the same 29 home runs surrendered, albeit while pitching a significantly higher load at 198.0 innings.

Projections aside, Hughes knows exactly what he has to work on. Giving up too many homers at Yankee Stadium was a problem, and it's not one that can be replicated in a pitcher's park like Target Field. Broken down to it's simplest terms, Hughes keeping the ball in the yard would have him looking like an extremely effective pitcher. A few tweaks and making that happen, should only bolster the Twins rotation further.

Void of top tier arms, it's the minor tweaks made throughout the year by Hughes and Ervin Santana, as well as the continued emergence of Kyle Gibson, that will make all of the difference.

Twins Fest's Biggest Hidden Gem

For year Minnesota Twins fans have been embarking on the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, and now more recently, Target Field. While the event is an autograph seeker's dream, the purpose is more to bring community and baseball together during a cold period in the great white north. This season though, one of the best kept secrets of Twins Fest may be the most creative man in attendance. Enter Mike Chuhon, better known as S. Preston (or @PootPoot for those on Twitter).

S. Preston's story is one that has become intertwined with Minnesota Twins lore. The Star Tribune's own, Phil Miller was one of the first to highlight his work. Target Field's entrance to the Metropolitan Club was a canvas that S. Preston made his own. Minnesota welcomed him to their hosted All-Star game, and now he'll be a first time attendant at Twins Fest.

As a Major League Baseball licensed artist, S. Preston is in a league virtually of his own. What his minimalist ballparks have started, has only opened a door to so much more. From a new line of mascots, to ballpark princesses, his tie between art and love for the game of baseball is just beginning.
On the surface, it's very clear to see what S. Preston is working to depict. Taking well-known features from some of architectures greatest marvels, Major League Baseball stadiums, he brings the game to fans in a whole new way. Further though, the art is a depiction of how you as a fan involve yourself with the game. Whether a stadium or a Disney princess, the way in which we relate to the best sport on the planet is all our own. This notion is the driving force behind the work.

For those planning on getting down to Twins Fest this weekend, and you should be, a stop is not complete without a visit to S. Preston's booth. While the autograph on your newly acquired piece of artwork will no doubt be available there, it's the connection to the game, and the man that makes the art that much more memorable.

Should you be in attendance at Twins Fest, S. Preston's booth can be found in the Metropolitan Club on all three days of the event. If you will not be able to attend in person, all of S. Preston's art can be found and purchased at his website here.

Whether you fancy yourself an art collector or a baseball fan, the theme between the two avenues is one that can be merged. Experiencing a creativity that fully envelops what a sport means to you is something rarely accomplished. In it's purest form, it's exactly what S. Preston has done. Do yourself a favor and connect the game you love to artwork that is inspired by equally as much, you'll be glad you did.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Kyle Gibson And The Next Step Forward

In 2015, the Minnesota Twins had to know that their pitching staff was going to need some help. Considering that Ervin Santana was going to miss half of the season, and an expected contribution from Ricky Nolasco wasn't realistic, a different arm had to emerge. While Trevor May and Alex Meyer both served as prospect types that could fit the bill, it was another guy who stepped up; Kyle Gibson.

During his second full season at the big league level, the former first-round pick and Missouri Tiger took significant strides forward. He nearly touched 200 innings pitched (194.2), and for stretches, looked to be the ace of the staff. When the dust settled, Gibson's 3.84 ERA ranked 20th among AL starters, and was tops among the Twins staff.

Improvements came virtually across the board for Gibson. He saw new career best marks in strikeouts per nine (6.7), strikeouts as a whole (145), hits per nine (8.6), WHIP (1.289), ERA+ (108), and he tossed his first complete game. What may be even more exciting is that Gibson likely also has some untapped potential. His walk rate actually increased a season ago (3.0 BB/9) and his FIP nearly touched 4.00 (3.96).

Behind the decreases the Gibson experience in year two, a major culprit seems to be the long fly. Surrendering 18 homers in 2015, Gibson saw just about 11.5% of his allowed fly balls leave the park. Despite being a pitcher who relies on ground balls (53.4% in 2015) Gibson gave up more hard contact than in his 2014 campaign (27.3%).

An adjustment period could have also been happening for Gibson. As with all Twins pitchers a season ago, they were getting accustomed to new pitching coach Neil Allen. Allen noted for his changeup expertise, had Gibson make a significant tweak in his repertoire. After previously throwing just about 12% of his pitches as changeups, Kyle threw them nearly 20% of the time a season ago. With his fastball and slider percentages down, Gibson was able to focus more on keeping hitters off balance with his off speed pitch.

It is in that transition that we can attribute some of Gibson's upward trending success when it comes to attacking hitters. In 2015, Gibson posted a career best 35.7% outside-of-the-zone strike percentage. With hitters chasing, he was more able to find himself in pitcher's counts. Attacking early was a plus as well, throwing over 60% of his first pitches as strikes for the first time in his career. In total, the changes equated to hitters swinging and missing on a career best 9.8% of Gibson's pitches (up a full percent from his previous career high).

Although fWAR for pitchers is not the indicator it is for hitters, the number is still a useful qualification of overall effectiveness. Following a 2.5 fWAR a season ago, it's fair to believe that Gibson has a good deal more to offer the Twins. As a late peaking player due to injury, Gibson at 28 should now be entering the bulk of his prime.

Expecting him to make the eventual leap to something like a 3.0-3.5 fWAR pitcher is not out of the realm of possibility. In 2015, just 10 AL pitchers reached that mark. The list include: David Price, Chris Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Chris Archer, Jose Quintana, Carlos Carrasco, Collin McHugh, Sonny Gray, and Danny Salazar. Although Gibson may not have the name recognition as most of that group, seeing him break into it is something the Twins could witness, and no doubt it would be for the better.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Bullpen And The Belief

This offseason, few areas had more of an emphasis on them than that of the Minnesota Twins bullpen. While the situation as a whole needed addressing, it was the left handed contingent that no doubt left the most to be desired. Having significant deficiencies in late innings a season ago cost the Twins, and there appears to be two strategies at play when it comes to fixing things moving forward.

On the left-handed side of the relief picture, the Twins have moved on from roster staple Brian Duensing. Arguably sticking with him a year or so too long, Duensing was the epitome of the Twins shortcomings in relief a season ago. He owned a pedestrian 4.25 ERA, stuck no one out (4.4 K/9) and walked too many batters (3.9 BB/9). Heading into 2016 with Glen Perkins as the lone left handed option, the Twins needed to seek outside help.

In scouring the market, the deal the New York Mets handed to Antonio Bastardo (2 years, $12m) seemingly provides the most uproar when it comes to the Twins handling of their pen. An affordable deal in an otherwise ballooning relief market, Bastardo on his own could have made sense for Minnesota. With how Minnesota acted prior to him being signed however, their stance on the left all but makes sense.

Early on in the offseason, the Twins targeted left-handed reliever Fernando Abad, formerly of the Oakland Athletics. His K/9 rate (8.5) was a career high a season ago, but it was the ugly ERA (4.15) and FIP (5.50) numbers, along with decreased velocity (down nearly 2 mph on his fastball) that led to him earning just an MiLB deal. The Twins were noted to believe that Abad had been tipping his pitches per LaVelle Neal, and Parker Hageman of Twins Daily broke that down wonderfully. What the signing of Abad indicates is a stance in belief of an internal process, and the work of pitching coach Neil Allen.

Minnesota is almost assuredly going to roll with Abad come Opening Day. Brought in as a non-roster invitee to spring training, Abad has the potential to earn a couple million should he make the team. In using this approach, Terry Ryan put faith in his coaches, as well as the internal belief that Abad has more to offer. From the moment the deal was struck, it became illogical for the Twins to offer a multi-year deal with Bastardo or anyone else of similar situation.

Had the Twins decided to bring in a more certain left-handed reliever, and on a multi-year deal, the plan with Abad likely would have been moot prior to even getting off of the ground. Sticking to the belief that he will work had to be the plan all the way through. As an insurance policy should things go wrong, the Twins could look to double down on another MiLB type deal.

Internally, Minnesota would turn to the likes of Mike Strong, Pat Dean, or Taylor Rogers for left-handed relief. A more proven veteran option could include someone like Neal Cotts or Matt Thornton. Both have the likely possibility of landing an MLB deal, but Minnesota could ask nonetheless. With the Abad situation playing out as it has however, the Twins are best served to put no one in front of him for a roster spot at this point.

That leads us to the second strategy that Ryan, Paul Molitor, and the Twins seem to be leaning towards. Although one of the largest roster issues at the top is relief pitching, it's actually one of the organizations greatest strengths as well. On the farm, the likes of Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, J.T. Chargois, and Mason Melotakis are not far off. Obviously varying in expectations, each of them could be called upon to be key contributors in relief during the 2016 season.

On the right-handed side of the bullpen, Minnesota decided to make no moves. Although Brandon Kintzler was brought into the fold, he appears to be more minor league depth than anything. There was no move for Tyler Clippard, or anyone else of significant substance for that matter. By all estimations, that should signify an aggressive approach internally.

The Twins won't be moving on from Glen Perkins, Kevin Jepsen, or Trevor May any time soon, but that would appear to be where the sure things in the bullpen end. Should Casey Fien, Michael Tonkin or someone else falter, pulling performers that have been drafted in the organization is a noble idea. Burdi, Reed, Chargois, and even Alex Meyer all have the ability to bring a level of velocity and strikeout totals not witnessed in relief for Minnesota in quite some time. The biggest contingent to this strategy is Minnesota actually following through on it.

Having not made guaranteed moves at the major league level, Minnesota cannot be shy about aggressively asking its prospects to come up and contribute. I see the group of Burdi, Chargois, and Reed all making a big league debut by the end of July, and that would be a successful follow up to the way the offseason was handled. Slow playing those prospects while not making a more certain move at the top would remain contradictory.

As things stand now, the Twins are still likely listening in on what the market is dictating. The two worst moves that they could make at this point are simple however. Signing a left-handed reliever to a multi-year deal for guaranteed money, or signing any right-handed pitcher to anything but a multi-year deal. We've addressed the former and the implications it would have against any strategy employed with Fernando Abad. The latter, barring Tyler Clippard walking through the door, would negate a desire to reap the fruits of your system. A caveat to the second situation, is that Ryan and company must follow through by going internal for a relief boost.

On paper, it appears that the Twins have more strategy than they are being credited with when it comes to filling out the pen. It remains to be seen whether or not that ends up resulting in action.

Just How Good Is Max Kepler?

When you have a farm system as stacked as the Minnesota Twins boast, you're bound to have a handful of prospects vying for recognition. 2015 was Miguel Sano's time to shine, and 2016 will see the spotlight cast on names such as Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios. Not lost in the shuffle however, there's a German born prospect that's ready for the bright lights. Enter Max Kepler.

After making his debut in September for the Twins last season, Kepler is focused on getting to the next level for good. Name the Twins minor league hitter of the year, Kepler owned a .318/.410/.520 slash line across 118 minor league contests a season ago. He also launched nine home runs while tripling 13 times. Calling it a breakout campaign would no doubt be selling the situation short.

In the field, Kepler was plenty impressive as well. A natural outfielder with legit speed, he showed his versatility starting 36 games at first base. With a .994 fielding percentage in over 300 innings at first, Kepler played the position as smoothly as possible. Spending 63 games in the outfield, Kepler has the potential to play all three spots above average. Most comfortable in center, Kepler's arm strength and ability also bodes well in the corner spots.

For the Twins, how Kepler fits in will somewhat depend on what current big leaguers end up being able to stick. On Opening Day, Byron Buxton will be flanked by Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario. The former is venturing into new territory having never played outfield before, while the latter is going to face an uphill battle replicating his offensive success. No doubt the Twins will do everything they can to find Sano time in the field, so him making things work is of the utmost importance. For Rosario, a better approach at the plate will be key to him unlocking continued playing time. Behind the starters, neither Oswaldo Arcia nor Danny Santana appear in real contention to take playing time from a ready Kepler.

You could most likely make the argument that there is a true non-zero chance Kepler makes the Twins out of spring training. He's already on the 40 man roster, and was given his cup of coffee a season ago. A torrid spring will likely have the Twins taking a long look at the possibility, not unlike the situation with Eddie Rosario out of Fort Myers a season ago. At the end of the day though, the likeliest outcome is that Kepler heads back to the farm.

What is not to be lost in the situation, is what lies ahead for the German native. Expecting the Twins to rely on Kepler, likely to a heavy extent, at some point in the upcoming year is not far fetched. Steamer currently has Kepler projected to play just over 50 games for Minnesota and that number may actually be low. Whether a by-product of a 25 man fallout, or another strong season in the minor leagues, Kepler is going to force his way into the Twins plans in short order.

Minnesota has had significant conviction behind Kepler for quite some time. He was signed as a 17 year-old and has been a name brought up throughout the organization since the day he turned pro. Now just 22, the blossoming of ability is starting to take a more certain shape. Although not of the pedigree that Buxton possesses, it's more than fair to argue Kepler is not far off.

As the Twins transition to making Kepler a regular, he has all the makings of a possible All Star. Competing at that level year in and year out remains to be seen. Thus far in Kepler's career, his largest detractor has been staying healthy. Going off of his plus hit tool as well as speed and defense, a consistent on field presence could lend him to be a 3.0 fWAR player for the Twins or better. Should Buxton turn into the elite player he has been billed as, Minnesota could very possibly have their 1b to Buxton's 1a in Kepler.

For some time, plenty of national outlets have taken note of Kepler's ability, but 2015 gave things new steam. Expect a final promotion to come at some point in the upcoming year, and seeing Kepler take off and run with it should be the assumption. Two All Star types in the outfield is something that Minnesota has not had for quite some time, and the indication now is that it could be something experienced for years to come.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Minnesota's Offseason Report Card

At this point, January is essentially in the books and February brings the realization that spring training is just around the corner. Pitchers and catchers will begin to report, and meaningful baseball will soon be here. After competing at a higher level than expected in 2015, the Twins have heightened expectations for the season ahead. The question is, how did they position themselves to compete this offseason.

Going into the winter, the most notable area of need for the Twins was in the bullpen. Once again at the bottom of the big leagues in strikeouts out of the pen (392), Minnesota needed to get better. The Twins owned the 10th worst relief ERA (3.95) and surrendered the 8th worst batting average against in 2015 among bullpens (.254). No doubt the biggest area of necessary improvement came in the form of left-handed relief.

Minnesota had relied on Brian Duensing too long, and in 2015 it caught up to them with him having posted a 4.25 ERA along with just a 4.4 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9. Void of other options until the acquisition of Neal Cotts late in the season (which resulted in just a 3.95 ERA and 5.9 K/9), Minnesota was downstream without a paddle.

To date, the Twins most glaring weakness has yet to be formally addressed, and that could prove costly. After seeing the relief market be filled with high dollar deals (Antonio Bastardo just signed with the Mets for two years and $12m), Terry Ryan decided to go a different route. Bringing in the likes of Buddy Boshers and Fernando Abad on MiLB deals, the Twins hope to shore up their deficiency with a low risk, low reward type.

It's Abad who appears destined for the left-handed pen role (outside of closer Glen Perkins). Just a year removed from a sub 2.00 ERA and coming off a second straight season of increasing strikeout rates (8.5 K/9 in 2015), Abad could end up being a great get for the Twins. With Taylor Rogers as an internal option as well, Minnesota decided to play the pen in a less certain fashion.

Moving the needle the most was the signing of a right-handed power bat, Byung Ho Park, from the Korean Baseball organization. Terry Ryan and the Twins ponied up nearly $13 million in posting fees to then bring in their new DH on a four-year, $12 million deal. Having clobbered more than 100 home runs in his previous two season in Korea, the Twins are hoping at least a portion of that power will translate to the big league game.

When it comes to signings, the minor league pitching deals along with the contract handed out to Park sum up the Twins activity. While agreeing to arbitration deals with all six of their eligible candidates, most notably Trevor Plouffe, the Twins have plenty of familiar faces returning to the fold.

From a roster standpoint, Ryan also helped to address an organization deficiency in dealing Aaron Hicks (from a position of surplus) to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy. Now slated to backup and eventually supplant Kurt Suzuki, Murphy gives the Twins a legitimate option at the big league level. Minnesota no doubt hopes that Murphy will soon be joined by prospect Stuart Turner, and added depth with waiver claim John Hicks from the Mariners. While none of the catching options are sure things, the do provide potential answers going forward.

As a whole, the Twins offseason strategy appears to lean towards an aggressive movement of the young talent from within. Deciding not to make significant waves in the bullpen suggest that we could see the emergence of Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, or J.T. Chargois sometime soon in 2016. Should that be the route Ryan and Paul Molitor choose to go, it would be a commendable one, albeit needing to be seen to be believed.

Offensively, Minnesota will need to rely on a more consistent approach in the season ahead. Expecting to replicate success in "clutch" moments is a false hope, and the addition of Park should provide some added boost to an already blossoming lineup. The continued growth of top prospects like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton will also be key for Minnesota to take the next step forward.

Although the Twins didn't make the waves those in the AL Central did around them, they may also have been best positioned to trust some of their internal options. The lack of a few key moves could come back to haunt them, and especially so if the aggressive approach internally isn't followed through upon. As a whole, the organization stood pat, and while it may work, the risk is going to be needing a big push for a significant reward.

Grade: C

Monday, January 25, 2016

Minnesota's Most Intriguing Prospect

When you have arguably Major League Baseball's best farm system, your bound to have an abundance of exciting young prospects. The Twins saw one of the best rookie classes in recent history embark upon Target Field during 2015, and there's still some big names yet to come. While Jose Berrios, Max Kepler, and Alex Meyer could all get significant time in 2016, there's another name that carries a whole level of mystery all his own. Enter Adam Brett Walker.

Walker's name is one that has started to make its rounds into discussions involved with those not even completely involved with prospects. Having elevated himself into the conversation of top Twins farm talents, it's Walker's biggest strength that has him developing quite a following.

A third round pick back in the 2012 MLB Draft from Jacksonville University, the 24 year old has spent exactly one season at every level thus far in his professional career. Having reached Double-A Chattanooga for the 2015 season, a stint with Triple-A Rochester appears to be his next stop. While progressing a level each year through the farm system, Walker has done two things consistently on a yearly basis. He hits home runs, and he strikes out.

Thus far in his four year professional career, Walker's home run numbers by season have totaled 14, 27, 25, and 31. He's driven in more than 100 runs twice, and he's tallied 31 doubles that same amount of times. Just a career .254 hitter, he's bolstered his average by owning a .311 on-base percentage as well as compiling a .799 slugging percentage. By all of those measures, he looks to be cut of a similar cloth to slugging phenom Miguel Sano. Then there's the strikeouts.

In his first four professional seasons, Adam Brett Walker has whiffed a total of 76, 115, 156, 195 times on a yearly basis. At one point during last season's torrid home run pace through Double-A, Walker was striking out more than five times as often as he was drawing a walk. The stark reality is that Walker remains the Twins most polarizing prospect. Although the power is likely the best in the organization, the detractors are also very real.

To Walker's credit, he has continued to produce at each level he's been assigned. Although the strikeouts have increased incrementally, the power production, as well as extra base hits, have continued to remain present. Contrary to a solid contingent of strikeout prone hitters, Walker also keeps his on base percentage at a high enough level to be more than ok with.

What makes Walker's situation difficult to project, is trying to pinpoint what he becomes at the next level. Two players immediately come to mind when talking about large home run totals with a ton of strikeouts: Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds. The comparison isn't a fair one though when considering the production at even levels.

Through his first 327 minor league games, Walker had hit 69 homers while striking out an astronomical 372 times. In comparison, Adam Dunn launched 63 homers in 343 minor league games while striking out a significant amount less, just 270 times. Taking a look at plate discipline, Dunn also amassed 230 walks while whiffing 270 times in the minors. To date, Walker has struck out 542 times while drawing just a paltry 145 free bases.

A better comparison to what the hope of Walker may be could potentially be no further than Minnesota's own organization, Oswaldo Arcia. Maybe more correctly put, a comparison to what Arcia was or is hoped to be. Once again however, the biggest detractor between the comparison comes down to strikeout rate. At the major league level, Arcia has struck out an above average 33% of the time. Conversely, Adam Brett Walker struck out 41% of the time at Double-A.

Comparisons are a fickle thing, and Walker's case remains an interesting one. His defensive ability, namely his arm, leaves something to be desired and helps to only cast more light on his offensive prowess. With the ability to smash home runs into what seems to be another orbit, the Twins unlocking that ability at a usable clip remains the key. As Walker is transitioned to the next and final level of the farm in 2016, we will see how his journey continues.

It's probably a good bet that we see Walker in the big leagues at some point in the coming year, likely as a September call up option. Now on the 40 man roster, Minnesota will give the best power prospect in the organization every chance to prove himself. The difference between being a minor league storyline and a potential big leaguer is still somewhere in a gray area, but one thing is for sure, Walker's narrative is far from over.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Twins 25 Man Roster Projection

We are quickly coming to a close on the month of January, and that can only mean one thing, pitchers and catchers begin to report to spring training soon. For the Twins many of those players will funnel down to Fort Myers following the conclusion of Twins Fest. With a handful of exciting non-roster invitees this season, Minnesota should have plenty of competition for the active roster. The question is, who makes it come Opening Day?

We've taken a look at the lay of the land in the AL Central, and the Twins look poised to be right in the thick of things. How far they fluctuate up or down should have plenty to do with what contributions they get from new faces, and which cornerstones continue to produce. Much of the active roster appears to be a forgone conclusion, but there's a few cracks for players to force their way in.

Here's how I expect the Twins to kick things off April 4th at Camden Yards:

Rotation (5)
  • Ervin Santana
  • Phil Hughes
  • Kyle Gibson
  • Tyler Duffey
  • Tommy Milone
Santana and Hughes could no doubt flip-flop for the Opening Day starter role. Santana finished the year off on a hot streak, while Hughes is looking for a return to 2015 form in the year ahead. Regardless of who starts game one, the combination of those two will be looked upon to shoulder the load of holding down Minnesota's rotation. 

More than any other starter in 2016, I expect Kyle Gibson to take another big step forwards and expand upon what was a nice season a year ago. Tyler Duffey has shown he has the stuff to belong in the big leagues, and his sophomore season will be about continuing to make hitters miss despite a new level of familiarity.

Rounding out the group is the lone lefty of the bunch, Tommy Milone. More than capable as a back-end starter, Milone as a 5th highlights the Twins rotational depth (something we haven't seen in recent years). Both Duffey and Milone will be pushed for continued success by the likes of capable arms on the farm such as Jose Berrios.

Starting Lineup (9)
  • Kurt Suzuki C
  • Joe Mauer 1B
  • Brian Dozier 2B
  • Eduardo Escobar SS
  • Trevor Plouffe 3B
  • Miguel Sano RF
  • Byron Buxton CF
  • Eddie Rosario LF
  • Byung Ho Park DH
The infield remains unchanged from how it finished a season ago. Suzuki will rotate catching duties with John Ryan Murphy, but should get the first crack. Mauer remains at first while Brian Dozier looks to put together a complete season of All Star caliber play. With Trevor Plouffe remaining with the club, his bat and glove keep him at the hot corner.

Patience paid off sticking with the lottery ticket acquired in exchange for Francisco Liriano. Eduardo Escobar was one of the best shortstops in the big leagues after settling in down the stretch, and while regression is probably due, he's more than a capable starter. Newly acquired slugger Byung Ho Park gets DH duties, and then we get to the outfield.

Sano in left is going to be interesting considering the ground to cover. Oswaldo Arcia and Josh Willingham have both been a warm body in the role previously, and there's some reason to believe the Sano experiment could work. He should be aided by the speed of both Buxton and Rosario to his left out in the grass.

Bench (4)
  • Danny Santana Util
  • Oswaldo Arcia OF
  • John Ryan Murphy C
  • Eduardo Nunez Util

A four man bench is filled out by two players the Twins are likely going to be forced to bring north (for better or worse). Santana actually projects well as a super utility type that could play both the infield and outfield, even if it's at a less than ideal clip. He should spell players around the diamond, and if he can hit, could find himself in the lineup 2-3 times a week. Arcia, like Santana, is also out of options, and the Twins are best served to give him every chance to succeed. Whether getting starts in the corner outfield, or as a bench bat, it's 2016 or bust for the Venezuelan slugger.

Avoiding arbitration, the Twins agreed to a new one-year deal with Derek Jeter's former replacement, Nunez. He'll spell players on the left side of the infield, and we should also avoid seeing him in the outfield this season (thankfully). Monitor's bench candidates will be filled out by backup, and hopeful eventual starter, John Ryan Murphy. Looking to replace Suzuki in the near future, the Twins could flip flop the vet an Murphy relatively early on.

Bullpen (7)
  • Glen Perkins Cl
  • Kevin Jepsen SU
  • Trevor May SU
  • Casey Fien
  • Fernando Abad
  • Ricky Nolasco
  • Alex Meyer
Despite having relief questions, there aren't any at the back-end of the Twins pen. Glen Perkins is looking to stay healthy for a full year, but he's coming off a third straight All Star trip. When he's healthy, he's among the best in the game. Bridging to him will be the likes of the Twins two other sure things in the pen, Kevin Jepsen and Trevor May.

From there, things get more interesting. After avoiding arbitration with Casey Fien, Minnesota will reward the reliever for a strong finish to the 2015 season. He remains the only sure thing of this final group. Brought in on a minor league deal, Fernando Abad appears to have the inside track as the token lefty in relief. That leaves two spots, and one almost certainly to be claimed by the massive contract of Ricky Nolasco. Minnesota needs Nolasco to perform for anyone else to have interest in him, and doing so could prove value to the Twins as well.

That leaves one opening, and it may come as somewhat of a surprise. While Michael Tonkin could claim the spot, I'm giving it to former top pitching prospect Alex Meyer. In relief to end the year, Meyer pitched extremely well and was deserving of a September call up. An immensely higher ceiling than other options, Meyer could go one to be one of the Twins best in relief. He's going to need to earn it in the spring, but I'd have a hard time betting against him.

Just Missed
  • Max Kepler
  • Kennys Vargas
  • Ryan Pressly
  • Michael Tonkin
  • J.R. Graham
It would be fun to consider Jorge Polanco and Jose Berrios as just missed type players, but I think we'd be fooling ourselves. Whether Berrios deserves an Opening Day inclusion or not (he does), his exclusion isn't performance related whatsoever. For Polanco, missing 25 man shot comes down to being a man without a role. His bat is ready, but he can't field and he's stuck behind Dozier at this point.

For the guys that may have had a shot, there's just a little knock on each of them. Kepler gets to feel the roster crunch, and will likely have to wait for Minnesota to sour on either Santana or Arcia first. He shouldn't be a 4th, and will likely get regular outfield starts when called upon. Kenny's Vargas finds himself in an opposite scenario, controlling his own destiny. Likely destined for a bench bat role, he absolutely has to hit. Not doing so last year hurt his chances, and he'll have to make noise with his bat to get back up.

The trio of pitchers left off is a group of familiar names. Ryan Pressly has been very effective when healthy, but he's coming off an injury that saw him spend nearly all of the season on the DL. With a couple of other options, the Twins can afford to take it easy with him. For Tonkin, the decision to leave him off is a difficult one. He's out of options, and that very well could get him the job. He was sent up and down far too often last year, and it will depend on whether the Twins decide to stick with him for a fair amount of time or not. J.R. Graham rounds out the group after being a Rule 5 guy a season ago. he worked well when hidden, but was exposed far too often and could benefit from some more time on the farm.

As the Twins get set to embark on Fort Myers, there's really not a whole lot of unsettled business. While guys at the top may feel comfortable, it's in relief that there seems to be the most contention to make waves. Who does so will be worth monitoring, and as always, there's that spring training surprise.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The AL Central Shift

We're quickly gearing up for spring training and then eventually Opening Day of the 2016 Major League Baseball season. The AL Central is looking like it will be one of the most closely contested divisions in all of baseball. Home to the reigning World Series champs, and the Minnesota Twins, there's plenty of intrigue for Twins Territorians. What's interesting is the shift that the division is already watching take place.

Going into 2016, the Kansas City Royals have to be considered the favorite to win the division. I have them tabbed for 86 wins and another pennant. Much of the team has remained the same from a year ago, and Ned Yost's club seems like they may have another run in them. That said, much like the Detroit Tigers, the Royals also seem to be toying with fate.

After having some legitimate questions about the quality of their starting pitching, the Royals addressed the issue by signing Ian Kennedy to a five-year deal worth $70 million. Kennedy owned a 4.28 ERA and a 4.51 FIP. His 2015 was actually worse than unsigned free agent Yovani Gallardo, and essentially equal to former Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey (who signed with the Tigers for two years and $16 million). Kennedy was the 4th place finisher in Cy Young voting during the 2011 season, and has been mediocre to bad since. For a Royals rotation that projects to have Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez, and Kennedy as their top three, things could be much better.

Therein lies part of the problem that the Royals are likely facing. Coming off of a World Series victory, Kansas City is looking to continue to capitalize on a window it forced open last season. With Eric Hosmer looking like an MVP type talent, and Mike Moustakas finally putting things together, the Royals are no doubt doubling down on that production. The unfortunate side to it is that the farm system offers little to no value when it comes to top tier talent, and the pitching in the system is either far off or questionable at best.

Of course in a win now mode, the Royals are doing what they can to hide their deficiencies, but a move like Kennedy's seems more band aid than actual answer. Dayton Moore is trying to push a franchise used to losing into contention for a handful of years, and while the ultimate prize has been reached, the window shouldn't remain open too much longer.

Similar to the Royals in direction, but maybe not so much in application, is the current trend of the Detroit Tigers. After finishing in the cellar of the AL Central a season ago, the Tigers again have decided to spend this offseason. Despite having no youth or farm system to speak of, Mike Ilitch has paid for the big league club to be competitive.

Jordan Zimmerman was given a five-year, $110 million deal, and just recently Detroit followed that up by paying Justin Upton $132.75 million over the next six years. Both players are no doubt necessities for the Tigers, but they may not push them to the heights they had imagined.

For Zimmerman, leaving the National League could pose problems. Although a very nice rotational piece, he is probably just shy of being referred to among the realm of true aces. On a Tigers staff that features an old Justin Verlander, oft-injured Anibal Sanchez, and little else however, Zimmerman is a must. With Upton, Detroit fills an obvious corner outfield void and gives them some pop that was vacated by the departure of Yoenis Cespedes.

Looking at what Detroit is doing though, the fall could be an ugly and unfortunate one. While not a free agent, Miguel Cabrera's extension with the club kicks in during 2016. He now begins to make $240 million paid out over the next eight seasons. Albert Pujols was given that same number over ten years at the age of 30, and it was looked at somewhat hesitantly (and has ended up being less than ideal). Cabrera is entering his age 33 season, and has already started to succumb to injuries over the past year. While he remains one of the best hitters in the game when healthy, it will be his downfall that begins to spiral the Tigers out of control.

The state of the Royals and Tigers depict a change in powers soon coming for the AL Central. The 2000's saw the division owned by the Minnesota Twins, and once again that should be an era we are close to revisiting. Cleveland has put together a nice pitching staff, and the White Sox are somewhere treading water in the middle, but it is only the Twins that have built an incredible farm system, along with some solid major league talent.

Although the Twins are probably realistic candidates to take a step back during 2016, the next two to three years could see the AL Central flipped on its head once again. With the Royals taking over for a brief period of time, Minnesota actually looks like the team best positioned to compete at the top during the course of the foreseeable future. The waiting for prospects to develop, arrive, and contribute is starting to pay off, and Minnesota should continue to see that reality grow in the years to come.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Fort Myers Likeliest Star

We just a couple of months away from the Twins kicking off spring training action and even closer to pitchers and catchers reporting to sunny Fort Myers. For the Twins, much of the roster should already be decided, but there's a few cracks for someone to carve out playing time. It's down in Florida that we generally see those storylines play out.

A season ago, it was Eddie Rosario who slugged two homers in 17 spring games that drove the conversation regarding him coming north. In 2014, Aaron Hicks turned 18 spring games into a .327/.364/.462 slash line that had him looking ready to assume the full time centerfield gig for the Twins. Heading into 2016, there's no doubt going to be "that guy" again, but the question is who.

While you're beginning to put together some thoughts as to who that may be, let me offer some insight as to what the favorites may look like. Here's who has the best odds of being the talk of the Twins spring down in Fort Myers

Max Kepler 4/1:

There's little doubt that Kepler has one of the best shots to impress at Twins camp. At different points this offseason, I've considered his potential to break camp with the big league club and immediately head north. I've addressed him first here as he's the lone member of this list that is not a non-roster invitee. Kepler's .318/.410/.520 slash line from 2015 is already impressive, and his debut at the end of the year suggests the Twins aren't going to hold him back. I expect a strong spring from the German prospect, but still see him starting the season on the farm.

Nick Burdi 5/2:

Right on Kepler's heels is 2014 Minnesota Twins draft pick Nick Burdi. Expected to be somewhat accelerated through the system, Burdi hit a bit of a speed bump last year. Despite the demotion, it's how he rebounded that has me believing 2016 is going to be a big year for the former Lousiville Cardinal. Burdi owned the Arizona Fall League, posting a 0.00 ERA across 8.0 innings and compiling a 12.4 K/9 while walking just 1.1 BB/9 (command being his biggest downfall thus far). The Twins pen is in need of help, and going up against the likes of Fernando Abad, Buddy Boshers, Brandon Kintzler, and a couple of others for a final pen spot, Burdi could actually push himself to the top of the group.

Jake Reed 15/1:

Tied to Burdi being from the same draft class, much of Reed's reasoning is similar to the aforementioned Burdi. He's a budding reliever in an organization whose major league pen needs significant help. Reed is not quite the hard thrower Burdi is, and his strikeout rates are lower (8.5 K/9 across two MiLB seasons). That said, Reed also dominated in the Arizona Fall League (1.69 ERA in 10.2 IP) which was nice to see. Coming off less of an injury history than J.T. Chargois (who I expect to debut with the Twins this season as well), Reed has the opportunity to turn some heads this spring.

Jose Berrios 25/1:

While no doubt a longshot, the odds being stacked against Berrios to break camp with the Twins aren't really any indication of his performance. At this point, and even at the end of last season, Berrios has accomplished all he can on the farm. he owned a 2.87 ERA and a 9.5 K/9 a year ago while walking batters at just a 2.1 BB/9 clip. He was actually better at Triple-A than Double-A, and the Twins could use need him in their rotation. Spring will be about forcing the Twins hand as to how early they promote him, even if that won't be Opening Day. He'll be kept down past the Super 2 deadline, and I'd guess Minnesota will have him up around May. Dominating this spring would be nice, but it's not going to get him the immediate call.

Joe Benson 75/1:

A familiar face makes his way back onto the scene for the Twins, and it's actually not as crazy of a thought as would seem. Minnesota brought back former top prospect Benson following a stint playing Indy Ball. Now 27 and having not played i nthe big leagues since 2011, Benson is looking at a monumental task to crack the 25 man roster. He hit a mediocre .248/.351/.361 at Double and Triple-A for the Mets and Braves organizations respectively. His time with the Sugar Land Skeeters was brief, and the numbers weren't thrilling there either. Working in Benson's favor is a projected outfield of Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Miguel Sano. Benson is a plus defender, and Shane Robinson is no longer with the organization to provide a defensive replacement type. Should Buxton not start with the Twins (he will), the path becomes even more realistic. I wouldn't bet on it, but a torrid spring and toss up roster decision, Benson could end up being the Twins 25th man.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Starting Pitching Bodes Well For Twins

More often than any other area needing to be addressed by the Twins, it's starting pitching I have seen noted by national types. While Minnesota no doubt had a catching issue, and the bullpen remains largely unchanged from the ineffectiveness it showed a year ago, the belief is that the Twins need an ace. There's truth in the though, Minnesota is no doubt void of a frontline starter, but they probably don't need one either.

This offseason, a lot has been made about how the Twins will round out their starting rotation. I've talked about it plenty here at Off The Baggy, and it would appear the Twins rotation is all but set. A Santana, Hughes, Gibson, Duffey, Milone starting five doesn't have a headliner, but it also lacks glaring weaknesses as well. Looking around the AL Central, that actually may play to the benefit of the home nine.

Not long ago, I took my annual look into what the AL Central will look like when the dust settles come September. While the Twins are likely headed for a minor step back, the argument could easily be made that they are the most likely squad to have the highest potential to swing within the division. If everything breaks right, the Twins could find themselves hanging a pennant, and conversely, could end up at the bottom significantly out of it if only a few key things go wrong.

As things stand currently, the Twins look like a middle of the road AL Central team. Most realistically finishing third in the division, it's an interesting concept when comparing that to starting pitching. Of the AL Central opponents, there's only two starting rotations that would seem far and away better than Molitor's group.

First, it's easy to call the Indians rotation the cream of the crop in the Central. While I'm nowhere near as high on them as many are, the talent is more than evident. Corey Kluber remains an ace, and even in a down year a season ago, he was lights out far more often than not. Carlos Carrasco remains a very strong second option, and has plenty of ace ability on his own. Eventually, the Indians are still hoping that Danny Salazar can click, and should he, the division would be worse off for it. Regardless whether it's Zach McAllister, Trevor Bauer, or TJ House Rounding out the final spots, Cleveland has strong pieces one through five.

Then there's the Chicago White Sox, who are actually trending towards overtaking the Indians rotation in my opinion. Chris Sale is one of baseball's five or six best pitchers. Jose Quintana would be an ace for many other teams, and Carlos Rodon flashed plenty of excitement during his debut season. Robin Ventura's final two starters leave something to be desired, but there's little doubt the top three can go out and get you a win on any given day.

When taking a look at the Royals rotation, it's more than clean to see why the Twins are in a better place. Now without Johnny Cueto, who actually was a negative outside of the playoffs, Kansas City looks putrid as a whole. Headlined by Yordano Ventura, who should rebound in the year ahead, a number two starter is either Edinson Volquez or Ian Kennedy. Recently signed for $70 million over the next five years, Kennedy is a far cry from the Cy Young competitor he was back in 2011.

Likely worse than the likes of unsigned free agent Yovani Gallardo, and maybe more closely compared to former Twin Mike Pelfrey, Kennedy in the top three is quite the gamble. With the Royals rounding out the group relying upon the aging Chris Young and the likes of Jason Vargas or some other warm body, there's little reason to question why their bullpen has to be so good.

For the Tigers, it's more patchwork than anything. Of course Jordan Zimmerman provides a very nice piece, but he hides what's a bigger issue. Justin Verlander hasn't been good for quite some time, and Anibal Sanchez hasn't been healthy for even longer. Relying on youth for the back end will be an interesting strategy as well. Detroit hasn't had an in house piece work for a while, and although their exciting youngsters aren't home grown, development will be worth watching.

At the end of the day, if pitching is the most important aspect when it comes to winning, the Twins are in what can be considered far from a bad place. The Opening Day rotation won't bring fireworks, but having Jose Berrios waiting in the wings with some depth options at the top of the organization, Minnesota can feel comfortable going forward. For all the games Minnesota pitching may not win them, there should be plenty more often than not that the day's hurler gives the lineup a chance.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

2016 AL Central Division Preview

With the Twins coming off one of the most impressive seasons in the past four years, the AL Central division has been given a boost from top to bottom. The Kansas City Royals are the defending World Series champs, and the middle of the pack has taken steps forward as well. In 2016, the division once again projects to be tightly contested, and maybe even more so than in 2015.

A season ago, I released the AL Central Division Preview in March, this year we're doing it a bit earlier. Prior to spring training, injuries have yet to take their toll, and suspensions (ahem Ervin Santana) have not been handed out. What has happened however is the free agency dust has begun to settle. Many of the big names have found their new homes, and barring some unforeseen moves, teams are beginning to look forward.

While meaningful baseball is still a few months off, pitchers and catchers report to their respective spring training sites in short order. As position battles take place, and teams gear up for the season, here's how I see the AL Central finishing up this fall:

Kansas City Royals 86-76

After winning the World Series, the Royals will have the target on their backs in 2016 and get everyone's best shot. While they have some significant issues in the rotation, it's fair to argue they did for much of 2015 as well. I think the loss of Greg Holland is mitigated by the addition of Joakim Soria. That bullpen is for real, and even if Wade Davis isn't the 2015 version (he won't be) he still incredibly good.

I'm not worried about the regression of guys like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. I think they've entered their prime and 2015 is more a sign of things to come than what once was. Getting Alex Gordon back was huge, and the emergence of prospects makes for interesting supplements. I have a hard time believing Yordano Ventura won't rebound, and Kyle Zimmer is an intriguing option that shouldn't be too far away. Until further notice, the Central should remain the Royals division.

Cleveland Indians 84-78

A season ago, Cleveland finished a single game above .500 at 81-80. That record ended up being odd for a multitude of reasons. Despite being the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Corey Kluber was awful as April turned to May (posting a 7.43 ERA from Apr 22-May 7). He finished with good-not-great numbers on the season though, and was backed by the emerging Carlos Carrasco. The Indians got just 99 games of Francisco Lindor, who arguably became their best player. There's also the fact that they had a plus 29 run differential, despite winning just one more game than they lost.

Many picked the Indians as a darkhorse World Series candidate a season ago. I don't see them being that good in 2016 either, but they've definitely got the pieces to contend in the jumbled AL Central. I'm not as high on the staff as others, and I think they've got some outfield questions, but they're the team I feel least comfortable projecting.

Minnesota Twins 81-81

Last season, the Twins burst onto the scene and made a playoff push despite no one picking them to do anything but finish at the bottom of the division. With an 83 win season, Minnesota trailed only the Royals in the Central. Unfortunately for Minnesota, much of it was based upon situational excellence. With a minus four run differential and inflated numbers with runners in scoring position, the Twins generated a large amount of clutch runs.

This season, Molitor's squad will be looking for more consistency. The Twins aren't going to do anything at an exceptional level, but they have the opportunity to be good enough across the board. Pitching depth is there, even if top tier quality is not. For the club to challenge for the division and playoffs once again, Byron Buxton will need to emerge, Miguel Sano continue his growth, and Byung Ho Park be as good as billed. More than any other Central team in 2016, the Twins have the pieces to win the division just as much as they do to lose it miserably.

Chicago White Sox 79-83

Much like the Indians, the White Sox will go as their pitching does this season. They scored a division worst 3.84 runs per game a season ago, and the offense hasn't exactly been transformed. Chris Sale, Carlos Rodon, and Jose Quintana are legit starters. They have back end of the rotation and bullpen questions however. Offensively, the addition of Todd Frazier is nice, but I expect some of his numbers to decline. They still need another outfielder, and with Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes on the market, targeting one would be a good idea.

For the South Siders, spending hasn't often equated to wins. Now with a revamped infield bringing in both Frazier and Brett Lawrie, Robin Ventura's squad will once again have a new feel to it. If they can make one more big splash, pushing towards the top of the division isn't out of the question. Without that though, they look like a very middle-of-the-road type club.

Detroit Tigers 77-85

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the Tigers finished at the bottom of the AL Central a season ago. I expect them to be better in the year ahead, but their positioning shouldn't change. The roster is getting older, and the farm system really isn't any good. Signing Jordan Zimmerman was as much a necessary move as it was a nice deal, but asking him to be an ace could be a bit much. Justin Verlander isn't what he once was, Anibal Sanchez is a walking injury, and youth resides after that.

The bullpen has been the Achilles Heel of the Tigers for what it seems like years. Francisco Rodriguez should help, but he's not going to cure the issue completely. J.D. Martinez is a great success story, but he's also almost exclusively what is going right for Detroit in the outfield. An again Cameron Maybin, and young Steven Moya are likely going to be relied upon more than they should be. Detroit probably isn't going to be bad, but Brad Ausmus is going to squeeze what he can out of his squad wherever he can.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Best Trade Not Made

Going into the offseason, Terry Ryan and Paul Molitor made quick work of releasing the information that Miguel Sano was going to try and make a transition to the outfield. The exciting slugger needed to make room for Byung Ho Park, and playing right field was how the Twins were going to handle that. The notion was met with skepticism and an almost guaranteed thought that in the end, Trevor Plouffe would be dealt from the Twins.

In the end though, Plouffe has stayed put, and it creates a best possible scenario for the Twins.

Although Sano is entering uncharted territory in the outfield, there's reason to believe that it could work. What's more important though, is exactly how much Plouffe means to Minnesota. For Molitor's squad, there was no logical return that was going to bring back what Plouffe meant to the lineup. Most importantly is that the production Plouffe brings may be under appreciated.

A season ago, Trevor Plouffe was worth 2.5 fWAR for the Twins, down from a 3.6 fWAR in 2014. Unfortunately for those stuck on projections, Steamer sees just a 1.6 fWAR for the Twins third basemen in 2016. It really depends on what Plouffe is able to play throughout the entirety of the season however.

In a handful of categories, Plouffe set new records for himself a year ago. He played in a career high 152 games, scored 74 runs, picked up 140 hits, tripled four times, homered 22 times, drove in 86 runs, and looked every bit the part of one of the best third basemen in baseball. The problem is that Plouffe's season was a tale of two parts.

From Opening Day until the end of July, Plouffe slashed a respectable .257/.316/.456 as well as clubbing 14 of his homers and driving in 55 of his runs. Of his 35 doubles on the season, 24 of them came before August, then things changed. From August 1st through the end of the season, Plouffe slashed an ugly .223/.294/.398. He homered just eight more times, and he struck out 53 times in 56 starts. The momentum from the better part of the season had fallen off of a cliff.

So why does it matter that Plouffe is still in the middle of the Twins lineup? Because for a team that will rely on offense, the California product has shown he can be a catalyst for it. When called upon to handle the load as the cleanup hitter, Plouffe went through issue. In 68 starts from the four-hole, he slashed just .223/.284/.400, launching eight of his homers. At his best, hitting from the five-spot in the lineup, Plouffe slashed .274/.332/.489 with 11 of his homers.

Dropping in the lineup behind the likes of 2016 power hitters, Sano and Park, Plouffe is given an opportunity to see pitches in a more ideal situation. Allowing Plouffe to hit in a lesser lineup role in the year ahead could foster the same type of early season production the Twins saw from their third basemen, but allow them to benefit for an entire 162.

At the end of the day, Plouffe wasn't going to net the Twins much more than a relief arm. Considering the benefit to the lineup as one of their best hitters, keeping him and pairing his bat with the likes of Sano, Park, and Brian Dozier should help the Twins to create offensive opportunities in an abundant fashion.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Twins Next Hall Of Famer

With the winter months consuming the calendar at the present time, one of the highlights of the offseason has been the Hall of Fame voting. With Ken Griffey Jr. being a guaranteed lock heading into the reveal (even despite three clueless voters), it was a question of who would join him during enshrinement in Cooperstown this summer. After the dust settled, we now know that honor will go to none other than Mike Piazza.

For the Twins, the ballot was void of any Minnesota presence. In upcoming years, the most closely tied name will be that of Jim Thome's. While he won't go in as a member of the Twins, he provided plenty a bright spot in Twins Territory as he rounded out his career. It's not Thome though that is the next most likely Twins player to gain enshrinement.

For Minnesota, an opportunity may be presented when Torii Hunter is first eligible. It's almost guaranteed he will be inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame, but despite the potential to reach Cooperstown, he should fall short. Hunter has a better resume than that of Jim Edmonds, but it's not 70% better, which is more than what will be needed to reach enshrinement. Edmonds fell off the ballot after missing out on the needed 5% this year, Hunter will likely do better. Regardless, don't expect him to break the Twins drought.

No, instead that honor could most likely go to a player that is still a member of the Twins. 32 year-old Joe Mauer is the Minnesota Twins next most likely candidate for Hall of Fame consideration. Had he not been dealt the injury hand he was, and still was behind the plate, I'd feel good about forecasting him as a first-ballot type player. As things stand currently, he presents a very strong case with a few more years left to push the needle one way or another.

At this point of time, Hall of Fame voting principles don't seem to rely heavily on the golden numbers. While 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, and other milestones seemingly should guarantee induction, other factors such as character and performance enhancers have muddled the waters. For Mauer though, those numbers will be left out of consideration entirely.

Sitting currently at just under 1,700 hits for his career with just over 115 home runs, Mauer's case for the Hall will be built on some different principles. As a catcher, Mauer garnered four All Star appearances, and MVP award, three Gold Gloves, and four Silver Slugger titles. He was arguably the best in the game, at one of its most demanding positions for the first seven years of his big league career.

Following concussion issues, Mauer's game has transformed. He's become a relative shell of the hitter he once was, and had to adapt to playing an entirely new position. Despite the downturn in production, Mauer still owns a career .313/.394/.451 slash line and can claim three batting titles to his credit.

Most importantly for Mauer's prospects regarding the Hall of Fame, is how the story ends up being written. As the 2016 season kicks off, Mauer will be 33 years old. Under contract for the Twins until 2018, there's probably at least another 400 plus hits in his bat, and production that could be boosted by some lineup changes.

Should Mauer trend back towards what he once was at least as an average and contact hitter, he should be seen favorably in the eyes of voters. If the trend of a dipping average combined with mediocre peripheral numbers continues, Mauer's longevity could actually hurt him down the stretch. Hanging on and compiling stats while diluting and distancing from the catching days likely won't do him many favors.

At the end of his career, Joe Mauer is not going to be Mike Piazza. He could (and likely should) surpass the 2,127 hits of the Mets backstop. Mauer probably will lay claim to a better average and on-base percentage. He's going to have the MVP and batting titles to his credit, and his Gold Gloves should make a difference. He isn't the power hitter the position is expected to be though, and the tumultuous injuries that have changed the course of his career will be held against him

Sometime within the next ten to twelve years, Joe Mauer is going to get his turn on the Hall of Fame ballot. He's not a lock the first time around, but expecting him to come up with 75% of the vote through the first half of his voting eligibility is far from a fool's proposition.

Friday, January 8, 2016

What If Dozier Is Done?

Recently, Fangraphs released their yearly ZiPS projections for the Minnesota Twins. As with most years, the results weren't incredibly favorable. On the offensive side of things, the projections see Minnesota hitters in a relatively good light, it's the pitching where the most is left to be desired. There's one player though that provides a pretty big potential cause for concern.

Enter Brian Dozier.

On the surface, things aren't all that bad for Dozier. Projections have him as a repeat 3.0+ fWAR player with over 20 homers and 30 plus doubles. From a statistical standpoint, that would once again put the Twins second basemen among the best in the big leagues at the position. It's never really been about what Dozier has done though that is the concern. Instead, it's what may come, and when.

If there's something that stuck out to me more than anything in the ZiPS projections provided by Fangraphs, it goes well beyond any statistical numbers. Comparisons are a fickle science (and they really aren't a science at all), but the name next to Brian Dozier's made me pause. Dan Uggla.

Unfortunately, it isn't 2010. If it were, we'd be talking about the .287/.369/.508 slash line Uggla. The Florida Marlins (that's right not Miami) second basemen that launched 33 homers and drove in 105 runs. No, it's not 2010 though. Instead, this Dan Uggla is the guy who hasn't sniffed the Mendoza Line since 2013. He hasn't hit more than 10 doubles in a season since 2012, and a 16 home run output a season ago was about the only thing that's gone right for a guy who's bounced between three teams in two seasons.

So what does that have to do with Dozier? Fangraphs still sees the Twins second basemen contributing a .244/.318/.437 slash line. He's still projected to be one of the best players in the Twins lineup. Heck, Dozier is coming off of his first season an an All-Star. Again, it's probably not as much about what is, as what's potentially to come from the Mississippi product.

A season ago, Fangraphs wrote about the concerns for Brian Dozier as a hitter. He's consistently been a dead-pull guy at the plate, and barring adjustments, he's struggled for periods relying on fastballs. That may have not been any more prominent of a narrative than it was a season ago.

In 2015, Dozier pulled a ridiculous 60.2% of balls he put in play. using the opposite field 19.7% of the time during his career, his 15.6% in 2015 was a new low. What Dozier did do a season ago was strike the ball more effectively, generating "hard" contract 29% of the time. Regardless of what his efforts generated, Dozier experienced a different approach by opposing pitchers for the first time in his career.

After seeing less than 60% of pitches be fastballs for the first time in 2014, pitchers threw Dozier a career low 53.2% pitches of that variety. He was also dealt a career high 11.3% of pitches registering as changeups. A significant shift in philosophy when it comes to getting Dozier out, pitchers saw what could be the beginning of a concerning trend for the Twins All-Star second basemen.

Having made some adjustments, but undoubtedly going through growing pains, Dozier struggled. For the second season in a row, he faded down the stretch, but it's the final numbers that may be the most concerning. Being pitched differently, Dozier owned a 21.0% strikeout rate, the highest of his career, and a 4% jump from where he was during his debut season of 2012. As expected with the increased strikeout rate, Dozier whiffed a career high 148 times, and set a new Twins record (don't worry, Miguel Sano will likely break it in 2016). In and of itself, that's an issue. Combined with the fact that Dozier walked just 61 times, generating an 8.7% walk rate (a nearly 4% drop from 2014), it was a less than perfect storm.

Steamer projections actually see Dozier producing a better average and on-base percentage in the year ahead, albeit with decreased power totals, but he'll be entering his age 29 season. Five years in the big leagues under his belt, it's fair to assume there's one or two more worth of solid production in him. What's unfortunate is that leaves the Twins with a question in 2018.

A season ago, Minnesota inked Dozier to a four-year, $20 million extension. It's a low risk deal that bought out arbitration years from the Twins best player. Should things play out as they are trending however, Minnesota may be looking at needing to re-up with a player that has exhausted what capable production, and going forward is exactly as predicted.

For now, the toughest part of the equation is what to do with the prospect waiting in the wings, Jorge Polanco. No doubt not a shortstop (seriously look at those numbers), Polanco is a major league ready bat that could be counted on at second base. The Twins don't have room for him, and asking him to bide his time for two more years could stunt development. As a trade chip, there's no doubt positive there, but that also leaves the Twins exposed in regards to Dozier's situation.

In short, Brian Dozier is going to remain a productive member of the Twins (and arguably one of the team's best players) for at least the next year. What could happen beyond that point is a scary downturn that the Atlanta Braves know about all too well. Dozier has had the deck stacked against him before, but unless pitches continue to come in high and tight, adjust to the slow paced, corner dusting changeup is going to need to be his next feat.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Projections Wanted, And Some Not So Much

As with every offseason, baseball writers and analysts are often observed filling the void by looking at numbers and what may be coming. We pour over prospect lists, and hope that each major league teams shining stars of tomorrow turn out to be just as good as expected. With all of those feelings though, comes that ugly and sometimes less than ideal word: projections.

For the Twins, projections do not often see the organization favorably. Obviously there's a handful of factors that contribute to that reality, but some of the most glaring are a seemingly consistent effort to repeat the same processes, whether they work or not. This year, as Fangraphs has introduced their yearly ZiPS projections, nothing is different. There's some good, some bad, and some downright distubring.

Looking from a place of positivity, let's start with the good. No one seems to have any sort of clue what to do with Jose Berrios. For me, he's an elite level talent, and has top of the rotation type stuff. I rated him my second best Twins prospect behind only Byron Buxton. He's made a professional career of silencing doubters, and there's no reason to believe that will stop now.

ZiPS sees Berrios getting a relatively early call to the bigs (as do I). In 146+ innings, he's projected to strike out 130 batters. That number is also projected to be the highest strikeout total among any Twins pitcher. Keith Law, who's been one of Berrios' biggest skeptics, routinely has questioned whether he'll keep the ball in the yard. He allowed a career high 12 long balls last season, and Fangraphs projections see him surrendering 17 in his first major league season.

Although the peripherals aren't projected to be overwhelming (just a 4.18 ERA and 3.82 FIP) it's the comparison that presents a standout point for Berrios. ZiPS notes St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright as Berrios' number one comp. If that ends up being anything near truth, the Twins would have a very legitimate ace at their disposal.

From there, things get somewhat less exciting. Looking at the starting lineup, only two players are projected to post an fWAR above 3.0. Last season, Brian Dozier was the only member in that category. With Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton being tabbed to eclipse that total this season, Dozier, Plouffe, and a host of other Twins are expected to regress.

Generally the case with most projections, Twins pitching isn't seen favorably either. The starting staff is more mediocre than anything. No one pitcher is expected to post a sub 4.00 ERA though the highest starting ERA is respectable at a 4.62 mark given to Tommy Milone. Essentially, the Twins will have to win games with their offense this year, something that is to be expected with a pitching staff composed of more quantity and depth than it is of quantity.

The bullpen isn't given great marks either, but as I have discussed multiple times, I don't believe it will remain in tact for long. Some of the Twins biggest assets are their relief prospects, and they could be some of the most important additions to the big league club in the year ahead. Getting Alex Meyer, Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, and J.T. Chargois up and contributing sooner rather than later should win Minnesota some games.

Rounding out the yearly ZiPS numbers is a handful of concerning comparisons. First, there's that of Brian Dozier. His comparison is none other than Dan Uggla. The guy that couldn't presently hit himself out of a paper bag, and has not hit above the Mendoza Line since 2012.

While I'd like to discredit the possibility of Dozier turning into Uggla, there's a lot of similarities. Like Uggla, Dozier was a late bloomer, making his debut at age 25 (one year ahead of Uggla). Uggla at his best was a better power hitter than Dozier (30+ HR 07-11), while both striking out and walking at a higher rate. The problem is that Uggla fell off in 2013 slashing .179/.309/.362 despite still hitting 22 homers. Dozier is a dead pull hitter, and can be exploited on the outside edge of the plate.

Should that decline happen this season for the Twins second basemen, it would shock me. He's still relatively young, and would be expected to produce for at least another year or two. As he gets into his thirties though, see Dozier's decline be fast and steep like Uggla's would not be a shock, and may be one of the best reasons for the Twins to keep Jorge Polanco around.

The other player that provides some cause for concern is top prospect Byron Buxton. ZiPS names Lastings Milledge as Buxton's number one comp. The 12th overall pick in the 2003 MLB Draft, Milledge went on to own just a .269/.328/.395 career slash line in six big league seasons. He never came close to what was projected of him, and has been out of baseball since 2011 (when he was still just 26 years-old).

Expecting Buxton to fizzle out is a fool's errand, but there's no doubt 2016 is vitally important for him. After a largely unimpressive debut season, Buxton needs to stay healthy, and flash the tools that have gotten him to this point. Hitting for average, some power, flashing speed, and playing great defense need to all become widely apparent for the Twins centerfielder. He'll enter the year as baseball's top prospect, and he should. The time for delays on breaking out though have passed.

Projections, no matter how numbers based, are far from the gold standard. The Twins outdid everything externally expected of them a season ago, but for that to continue, they will once again need to defy what is tabbed as the norm. They are going to need youth to step up in a big way, and they are going to need to promote aggressively getting internal contributions.

We're a ways off from meaningful baseball being played, but as was also the case in 2015, the Twins must hope there's more incorrect than not when it comes to the ZiPS numbers Fangraphs revealed.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Relief For The Pen, Without The Cost

Thus far, the Minnesota Twins major moves this offseason came before free agency got underway. The club signed Byung Ho Park and traded for John Ryan Murphy. Despite having a rather ineffective bullpen a season ago, the club hasn't really addressed the situation to this point. With the way the market has shaped up however, that may be the best choice.

So far, the Twins have taken fliers on players like Fernando Abad and Brandon Kintzler. Signed to minor league deals with spring training implications, it's essentially Terry Ryan and crew asking veterans to prove it. Rather than doling out big money, they've taken the path of least resistance. If that was the only thing the Twins had going for them, I'd have much more concern. The reality is, they don't.

The Pittsburgh Pirates just inked former fireballing closer Neftali Feliz to a one-year deal just shy of $4 million. Last season Felix owned a 6.38 ERA split between the Rangers and Tigers. His strikeout rates dipped again, and he continued a career long path of less than ideal walk rates. In fact, Feliz hasn't been reliable (mostly for health reasons) since 2011, a year after he won the Rookie of the Year.

With deals like that of Feliz floating around the market, and many teams looking to replicate the dominant bullpen that the Kansas City Royals patented, money has gone over the top. Tony Sipp, who was just a short time removed from a DFA action, will play for a $6 million average annual value over the next three seasons. Thanks to the Royals, and the emergence of bullpen importance, the relief market has exploded. In Minnesota's case though, the best route may actually have been to stand pat.

There's a pretty logical argument to be made that it will be Abad who emerges from spring training with a big league roster spot. No doubt both sides could see the mutual benefit of one another, and Abad is just a year removed from a 1.57 ERA and 8.0 K/9 for the Athletics. As a low risk placeholder, Minnesota could have done significantly worse.

What makes the Twins best suited to take the plan of action they seem to have embarked on though is not the minor league signings they have inked, but instead their own internal option. Among my 2016 Top 15 Twins Prospects, ten players are pitchers. As of this moment, four of those ten are already relievers. As they saying goes, failed starters make some of the best relievers, so it's safe to assume a transition of at least a couple more will take place.

Thus far, the Twins have begun to roll the ball down the path of clearing the way for the fruits of their labor to be unleashed. In drafting players like Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, and J.T. Chargois, the Twins have compiled strong relief arms. Rather than go over the top on an inflated pitching market, Minnesota controls its own fate from within the internal talent pool.

Looking at what Feliz has been for the majority of his career, there's a solid argument to be made that at least one of Reed, Burdi, or Chargois outproduces him in 2015. Alex Meyer seems to factor into the Twins bullpen, and Tyler Jay could eventually return to that designation as well. As a whole, Minnesota has plenty of projectable contributors already within the organization.

Should the Twins decide to slow-play the aforementioned pitching prospects, or not use them at all, it would be quite the unfortunate step backwards. They've opened the door to reworking their relief corps into a strength through internal options, but the process has to continue. Both Terry Ryan and Paul Molitor must be aware and willing to call upon the young arms that truly can help at the next level. By not signing big deal relievers, there's no impending road blocks for the Twins to continue along the current path. The organization must continue to remember that as those prospects begin to force their hand.

In all situations, choosing a cheaper or less risky route isn't completely ideal. With the organizations current makeup however, and the handful of solid relief prospects, the Twins may have started down a road that makes a lot of sense in the year ahead. The biggest mistake at this point would be to turn around.